Yesterday, and for the next two days, various high offices of the Roman Catholic church (the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and co-sponsored by the Pontifical Council for the Family, the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, and the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity, if you must know) are holding a conference that they call The Complementarity of Man and Woman: An International Colloquium. The meeting, which is using the term and hashtag #Humanum as a sort of shorthand, is, as you might expect, very much designed to reinforce an exclusionary church position in contrast to a world that is quickly coming to know, love, accept, and bestow legal rights upon its LGBT humans. But it's kind of like the recent Southern Baptist soiree on homosexuality, in that the whole thing, while being quite focused on LGBT people, our families, our marriages, and our rights, does not actually include LGBT or even strongly allied voices. Instead, it's another example of conservative religious groups and leaders getting together to talk about us rather than with us.
Throughout the first day of the conference, I watched all of the available videos, read many news reports, scoured the #Humanum hashtag, poured over speaker transcripts, listened to radio shows from broadcasters in attendance, and done just about all I can to get a sense of the Roman goings-on while remaining ensconced in my New York City environs. For me, three big things stand out from day one.
This "refreshing" new Pope
For the past two years, I've listened to person after person tell me that Pope Francis is somehow a secret LGBT advocate who is on the cusp of standing with equality. I've been suspicious, to say the least. I'm sad to say this his opening address to this convention only reinforced my skepticism.
In his address, Pope Francis spoke pointedly of the exclusionary view of marriage, praying that the event will serve as "inspiration to all who seek to support and strengthen the union of man and woman in marriage as a unique, natural, fundamental and beautiful good for persons, communities, and whole societies." His speech delighted—thrilled, even—America's most anti-LGBT/anti-equality social conservatives who rushed at the chance to laud this Pope for standing with them:
And I have to say I agree with them. Watching the translated video of his remarks and reading the transcript, I hear a Pope whose news-catching "who am I to judge?" views have taken a backseat and onetime support for civil unions no did not merit a mention at a time when such a mention would've been pertinent. And if he wants to send the other (and better) message that the optimistic among us think he truly wants to send, then he needs to step up and offer some clarity rather than forcing this puzzle upon his stances. I think everyone deserves that.
If you don't want a "culture war," don't invite one
Another popular claim is that this Pope is reluctant to involve himself, and by extension the Vatican, in "culture war" debates like the one around marriage. But if that's the case, why does the invite list at this event read like a who's who of American anti-equality activists?
Alliance Defending Freedom's Alan Sears
Manhattan Declaration's Eric Teetsel
Those are just some of the names that I can confirm as in attendance. I've even left off some other anti-LGBT names who I know are there, like mega-pastor Rick Warren and Southern Baptist higher-up Russell Moore, since one could even argue that they are more properly in attendance because of their roles as pastors and church leaders rather than as advocates. But the names I listed are all the heads or top executives at organizations that are specifically in the "culture war" business. These are activists who engage in the culture wars in hopes that they can shape public policy. And yet in this small room of attendees culled from the entire planet, all managed to score an invite to this selective conference.
That's not avoiding "culture war": it's soliciting it. Particularly when you don't seem to have invited even one voice from the pro-equality perspective.
One shocking speaker earns American fans
Late in the day, Archbishop Nicholas Okoh, Primate of the Church of Nigeria in the Anglican Communion, spoke to the gathered masses. His might not be a name you know right off the bat, so here, let's get some info:
Believes the Devil is behind LGBT rights: The Primate of all Nigeria Anglican Communion, the Most Revd. Nicholas D. Okoh has observed that the devil has debased human beings into doing what even beasts cannot and yet they call it human rights. He made this observation during the presentation of his opening address to the Standing Committee of the Church of Nigeria held at St. Peter’s Anglican Church, Yenagoa, Bayelsa state. While speaking on the theme, ‘Put on the whole armour of God’, the Cleric listed homosexuality and lesbianism as one of the manifestations of the devil through the lives of some helpless individuals that need to be fought with the armour of God. [Church of Nigeria Anglican Communion]
Vocally supports Uganda's law that imprisons homosexuality in some cases: The evangelical Anglican Archbishop of the largest province in the Anglican Communion has written a letter to the Anglican Archbishop of Uganda, the Most Rev. Stanley Ntagali commending him for his stand against the "erroneous teaching and practice of homosexuality. The Most Rev. Nicholas D. Okoh, Primate of Nigeria, called on the Ugandan Archbishop to "stand firm in upholding the authentic Gospel and the historic heritage of our Church by rejecting the erroneous teaching and practice of homosexuality. We further wish to encourage you to stand firm in your resolve to please God and not men; to remain immovable and to resist all manner of negative foreign influences," said Archbishop Okoh. He concluded his letter reassuring him of his support, friendship, fellowship and solidarity. [Anglican Mainstream]
Equates homosexuality with pedophilia and instructs parents to "correct" their child: Anglican Archbishop Nicholas Okoh of Nigeria told reporters at a July 14 press conference that "same-sex marriage, pedophilia and all sexual pervasions [sic] should be roundly condemned..."We therefore call on parents to ensure that their children obtain their first degree in Nigeria before travelling abroad. Parents and guardians should closely watch and monitor the relationship which their children or wards keep so that deviant behavior could be timely corrected." [Episcopal News]
Homosexuality is an "acquired habit" that needs "rehabilitating": “If anybody is gay, our position is that we should counsel the person because it is an acquired habit that can be delivered through the power of the gospel; that is our attitude to it. We want to show them love by rehabilitating them and helping them to abandon that habit which they have acquired and is inconsistent with the scriptures." [Punch]
More: During the service, Okoh described homosexuality and same-sex marriage as great evils and works of the devil that must neither be condoned nor allowed to exist in Nigerian society. He has previously condemned the “homosexual lifestyle”, describing it as “the way of death.” [Tatchell Foundation]
Okoh has been one of the most vociferous supporters of hiw own country's draconian anti-homosexuality law, which very closely mirrors the one in Uganda. In fact, he suggested that God will punish those who oppose it.
With that kind of track record, you would think that American groups like the National Organization For Marriage and Family Research Council, not to mention the Vatican itself, would want to shy away from Okoh's views. But no. When he rose to spoke at the Vatican conference, those aforementioned groups and their in-attendance leaders (as well as lesser-known cultural conservatives), enthusiastically promoted the archbishop's advocacy:
To remind you, this is a man who supports laws that imprison people for simply being gay. But at this conference, to these leaders of America's top anti-LGBT groups, he is a voice of reason.
On his radio show this afternoon, FRC president Perkins even highlighted Okoh and praised him for his "boldly proclaimed" words:
And let's be clear, too: Tony knows what's going on in Nigeria. Tony follows this stuff as closely as anyone. When Tony talks of "distress" and being "bold," he knows exactly what that looks like in places like Uganda and Nigeria. It is more than a little troubling to hear a "mainstream" conservative pundit (e.g. Tony practically has a standing gig on Megyn Kelly's Fox News show) specifically highlighting this speaker, from this nation, on this topic, at this time.
But the whole conference is troubling, frankly. And sad, really. Here in a truly plagued world with millions of missions that could unite rather than divide, the Catholic church's leadership is courting an overtly political crowd with a decidedly exclusionary view and trying to pass it all off under the simple guise of love and faith and God. All will tell you that the aim is to "strengthen" marriage and families, yet every speaker pushes an ideal, from softer-toned to Archbishop Okoh, that tells the world my marriage and my family are a threat. There is no room for discussion. There is no consideration that perhaps my own monogamous union of twelve-years-going on-life, with one beloved child for whom and I my husband would instinctively lay down our own lives, is actually part of the strength that they seek. The preconceived thesis is that my marriage, no matter how productively and peacefully lived, is at war with what they are trying to do. And by inviting the types of activists that they have invited, it's clear that the Vatican is eager to disseminate this view into the public policy arena.
Might there be a chance at dialogue over the next two days, with attendees daring to raise pertinent questions or, better yet, a challenge to the prevailing view? Perhaps. But day one gave no indication of that.