Pope Benedict XVI met with the Roman Catholic hierarchy of Uganda at the Vatican last Friday and delivered a speech summing up what he saw as the main tasks of the church in the East African nation -- but made no mention of the draconian anti-homosexuality bill that has prompted an international outcry.
The legislation pending in the Ugandan parliament provides for life imprisonment for homosexuals and even execution in some cases -- hence its nickname, the "kill the gays" bill -- and for jail terms for those who do not out those they believe to be homosexuals.
The bill has not only sparked international protests, but also finger-pointing at conservative American Christians who have been seen as giving aid and comfort to Ugandan Christians and politicians who want to toughen Uganda's law criminalizing homosexuality.
As we wrote here
, the protests and media coverage have prompted a number of American Christians, mainly evangelicals and a few Catholics with longstanding ties to Uganda, to renounce any support for the legislation. There have also been mounting calls for the pope and the archbishop of Canterbury -- head of the Anglican Communion, which has a high profile in Uganda -- to throw their weight against the bill.
But in his address
to the bishops of Uganda last Friday, Benedict XVI made no reference to the anti-gay bill or the international outcry surrounding it.
Instead he called on the bishops to "encourage the Catholics of Uganda to appreciate fully the sacrament of marriage in its unity and indissolubility, and the sacred right to life" -- the latter a reference to abortion. He also urged them "to resist the seduction of a materialistic culture of individualism which has taken root in so many countries" -- a reference to concerns about an encroaching cultural influence from Europe and North America.
The closest he came to mentioning homosexuals seemed to be in his call for the church in Uganda to support those who "care for people afflicted by poverty, AIDS and other diseases, teaching them to see in those whom they serve the suffering face of Jesus." AIDS is a plague in Uganda and afflicts straights and gays, men and women and children alike.
The papal address was wide-ranging and covered a number of topics of concern to the church's internal development; such is typically the case when the pope meets the entire hierarchy of a country in Rome, as he does for each nation every five years. But the pope will typically touch on hot-button social and political issues as well. In speaking to bishops from the United States, for example, the pope would always comment on abortion and immigration.
There are several reasons why Benedict may not have mentioned the anti-gay bill -- or rather the broader issue of human rights and protections for homosexuals and love of the sinner, since for diplomatic reasons the pope would not target a specific piece of legislation. One is that he may not be aware of the legislation or the controversy. Another is that his aides know that if he raised the issue it would become the lead of every story. There is also concern that having religious leaders outside Uganda speak out against the popular bill would backfire and ensure its passage.
Moreover, the bishops themselves may have asked the Vatican to refrain from addressing the issue (though that has not always stopped the pope from speaking his mind) since they are in the tricky position of trying to maintain the church's position in Uganda in the face of serious challenges from conservative evangelicals and Pentecostals, as well as Muslims, who are far more severe in their approach to homosexuals than the Catholic Church is.
Just before Christmas, Archbishop Cyprian Lwanga of Kampala, the Ugandan capital, released a statement
reiterating church teaching that homosexuality is immoral but saying the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, as it is known, "does not pass a test of a Christian caring approach to this issue."
"The targeting of the sinner, not the sin, is the core flaw of the proposed Bill," he wrote. "The introduction of the death penalty and imprisonment for homosexual acts targets people rather than seeking to counsel and to reach out in compassion to those who need conversion, repentance, support and hope."