A few years ago, when Uganda was making moves to criminalize homosexual activity, the late Chuck Colson, Robert P. George, and Timothy George wrote a letter to Christians there urging that the “harshness of these proposals is, we believe, inconsistent with a Christian spirit of love and mercy.”
Colson, and the Professors George (no relation) — all founders of the Manhattan Declaration, an ecumenical statement on life, liberty and matters of conscience — pointed to the Gospel:
follow the example of Jesus when he was presented with the woman caught in the very act of adultery. He did not hesitate to call the woman’s offense what it was, namely, a sin; but by his powerful words our Lord prevented her life from being taken by the men who were preparing to stone her to death. “Go,” he said to her “and sin no more.”
In a spirit of Christ-like love, let us recall that many men and women who experience same-sex attraction struggle to live chaste and holy lives. Many succeed; yet many sometimes falter. Is the same not true of all of us? We are all tempted by the lure of sin, be it in the domain of sexuality or in other areas of our lives. And none of us is perfect in resisting temptation. All of us from time to time fall short of fulfilling God’s intention for us, and we therefore stand in need of the Lord’s mercy and forgiveness. Surely, no one guilty of a single act of homosexual conduct (or fornication, adultery, or other sexual offense) should spend the remainder of his life in prison as a consequence of his sin. Such harshness, such lack of mercy, is manifestly contrary to the example of our Lord and cannot be given the support of those who seek to follow Christ. In response to a proposal to punish consensual sexual crimes with such extreme penalties the Christian must surely echo the words of Jesus: “Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone.”
We recognize that the scourge of AIDS has been devastating to the people of Uganda. Measures must be taken to encourage faithful marital love and to discourage sexual immorality of every type. It is critical, however, that these measures be shaped in a just and Christian manner, and not in a punitive spirit. Harshness and excess must be avoided. Those who experience homosexual desire and yield to it should not be singled out for extreme measures or for revulsion. Homosexual persons, whether they struggle to live chastely or, alas, do not, are human beings. They are children of God made in His very image and likeness. They are our brothers and sisters. Christ loves them as he loves all of us. We must love them, too, even as we encourage them and all men and women—precisely because of our love for them and concern for their well-being—to avoid sexual sins and lead lives of virtue and dignity.
Brothers and sisters, we do not reproach you or hold ourselves out as your teachers. In so many ways today, you are our teachers. We recognize that in view of the moral crisis of the West, we are scarcely in a position to lecture to people in Africa and other parts of the world. We are ashamed of the pornography, promiscuity, and other manifestations of licentiousness that you (and we) find shocking and appalling. We applaud your desire to prevent such unrighteousness from gaining a foothold in your culture. You are right to care about the protection of public morals. You are right to call sin by its name, just as Jesus did. Our message is simply that the Lord’s example of gentleness and love, of mercy and forgiveness, must be followed, too. Let all of us, as his disciples strive to be Christ-like in all things.
In Nigeria, President Goodluck Jonathan, has just passed a law which imposes harsh measures on people in same-sex relationships. Gay marriage carries a prison term of 14 years and anyone caught belonging to, or encouraging membership of, a gay club, society or organisation faces a 10 year sentence.
Under these laws, even men who belong to a Christian group which seeks to support and encourage them in living a chaste lifestyle could find themselves under arrest. I was one of those who passionately argued against the redefinition of marriage imposed upon us by this Government, online, in print and on TV and radio. I see this measure as harmful to society in that it weakens the concept of marriage and negates the rights of children to be brought up by their biological parents, but that is not the same thing as wishing to punish or outlaw those with same-sex attraction, which, as the Catechism makes clear, is not freely chosen.
There is a distinct difference between not redefining marriage and seeking to impose tough penalties on those with same-sex attraction. Catholic doctrine is clear on this issue, specifically stating that ‘gay people must be treated with respect, compassion and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard must be avoided’. What could be more unjust than applying criminal sanctions because you choose to associate with others of a similar sexual orientation to yourself?
Ironically, laws such as this will only serve to entrench and consolidate gay movements and the sticking together of like-minded people. As the new law has come into effect in Nigeria, dozens of gay men have reportedly been arrested. In one shocking case a 20-year-old reportedly received 20 lashes for an act of sodomy committed seven years previously, when he was 13 and incapable of informed adult consent.
In Uganda a proposed bill could see life imprisonment for gay adults as well as making it a crime punishable by prison sentence not to report gay people. Holidaymakers and visiting foreigners will not be immune from prosecution either. The Ugandan Archbishop of Kampala has repeatedly publicly condemned the bill, stating that it does not pass the test of a Christian caring approach. A leaked American diplomatic cable on the Wikileaks site outlines how Cardinal Ennio, President of the Pontifical Council for the Family, reaffirmed the Church’s position against legal curbs on homosexuality, stating “the Church condemns homosexual acts, but upholds the freedom of individuals to make their own moral choices about their sexuality”.
There’s so much chaos and confusion in the world today. Much of it is based on misunderstandings and pain and sorrow and abuse and crime. So many lack compelling examples and cultural witness to family life and love and the bold use of freedom to uplift lives and souls, seeking the good and the beautiful for oneself and others through hard work, sacrifice, and the lived life of faith in civil society and any leadership role in the world. It’s the responsibility of people of faith to never make things worse.