The Vatican’s landmark declaration “Fiducia Supplicans,” which permits the blessings of same-sex couples and those “in irregular situations,” under certain circumstances, has elicited a range of reactions—from full approval to outright rejection—in the church. In recent weeks, however, both Catholic and secular media outlets have focused on skeptical responses from some African bishops. As these articles would frame it, the declaration has brought out a fundamental conflict between “liberal” reformers in the shrinking Western church and “conservatives” in a rapidly growing African church. Is that narrative true? Is it productive?
Is there an “African church”?
Christianity on the African continent spans thousands of denominational traditions over 50 countries as well as the lives of more than 700 million people. To this end, continental categorizations can be counterproductive. There is a stark difference, for instance, between Christian life in northern Africa—where Christians are a relatively small minority—and sub-Saharan Africa, where Christian institutions possess enormous influence over healthcare, education and government.
Moreover, there is no one history of “African Christianity” in these subregions. Ethiopia, for instance, was one of the first areas in the world with a substantial Christian population and has over a thousand years of indigenous Christian practice. In fact, at least one Ethiopian Christian is referenced in the New Testament: Acts 8 tells of the baptism of an Ethiopian eunuch (whose story is incidentally relevant to both local Christian communities in eastern Africa and to gender minorities).
In other regions, Christianity became widespread only after European colonization, and was enforced under the auspices of church leaders from various denominations who possessed the institutional power to shape Christian belief, often according to Catholic or Anglican doctrine.
Within various Christian denominations, there are also dividing lines, including on LGBTQ issues. Contrary to some popular narratives, Christian leaders in Africa have sometimes advocated for LGBTQ rights over and against the stated position of their denominations. Bishop Christopher Senyonjo, an Anglican prelate in Uganda, famously fought against the expansion of his country’s aggressive anti-gay laws.
Regardless of any denomination’s formal teachings, the reality of LGBTQ people everywhere in Africa means that local communities will have to develop their own pastoral approaches—and we should not expect all local communities to look the same in practice. There will be more and less welcoming pastors, communities and leaders, as there are everywhere.
“Fiducia Supplicans” and African bishops
That said, there is considerable opposition to “Fiducia Supplicans” and LGBTQ inclusion among the Catholic leadership in Africa. This is most clearly embodied in a statement issued on Jan. 12 by SECAM, an umbrella group of African bishops’ conferences.
The statement, reviewed by Pope Francis and Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández, the prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, said “the Episcopal Conferences of Africa, which have strongly reaffirmed their communion with Pope Francis, believe that the extraliturgical blessings proposed by the declaration … cannot be carried out in Africa.” The majority of Catholic bishops in Africa, it seems, will refrain from permitting extra-liturgical blessings for same-sex couples, at least for now.
The SECAM statement, while likely disappointing to LGBTQ Catholics and their allies, should be clarified in a few ways. First, it expresses a “consolidated summary of positions” across the continent, explaining that each individual diocese remains free to permit such blessings at any point.
Still, “Fiducia Supplicans” is a groundbreaking development in the African context. Prior to the declaration, bishops could not permit blessings for same-sex couples. Now they can, and SECAM’s statement acknowledges that this development does not represent a departure from its fundamental understanding of Catholic teaching.
Moreover, the statement indicates an openness to these blessings in the future. The conference explained that, “some countries prefer to have more time for the deepening of the Declaration, which, in fact, offers the possibility of these blessings but does not impose them.”
“In any case,” it reads, “we will continue to reflect on the value of the general theme of this document.” It’s hard to know what will come of “Fiducia Supplicans” in the long-term, but African bishops have not entirely ruled out a future in which blessings for same-sex couples are permitted on the continent.
Some individual bishops have spoken more forcefully against the recent declaration. Cardinal Robert Sarah of Guinea has called on bishops to refuse blessings to any same-sex couples, telling African Catholics (and other Catholics) to “firmly and radically oppose a heresy that seriously undermines the Church.” As the cardinal insisted: “We do not enter into discussion with the declaration … we simply respond with the Word of God and with the magisterium and traditional teaching of the Church.”
By contrast, the SECAM statement acknowledges the orthodoxy of the Vatican declaration and encourages continued reflection on its teachings. The majority opinion among bishops is neither total agreement with nor total rejection of the declaration. Instead, many conferences seem to be taking a wait-and-see approach, refraining from blessing same-sex couples for now, while keeping the door open to such blessings in the future.
There are likely several reasons for the hesitancy among some African bishops. Many have cited cultural customs in their home regions and a desire to avoid “confusion” among the laity. Some have cited legal concerns over pastoral blessings for same-sex couples in nations where homosexuality is prohibited by law. Same-sex relations are criminalized in at least 67 countries, primarily (but not exclusively) in Africa and the Middle East. At times, Catholic bishops have celebrated the passage of harsh anti-gay laws, even as Pope Francis has repeatedly said that homosexuality is not a criminal offense.
But the rejection of the Vatican declaration is not a universal phenomenon among African bishops. For instance, Archbishop Pascale N’Koué of Parakou, Benin has said that “many will not understand what the pope is saying but he comes back to what Jesus did: not excluding people. […] The Catholic Church without the poor, the sick, the left behind, the rejected, including homosexuals, is not the Church of Jesus Christ.”
For its part, the Southern African Catholic Bishops Conference, which represents the Church in South Africa, Eswatini and Botswana, declared that “couples living in same-sex unions may not be denied a blessing when they spontaneously request it.”
Moreover, the decision has brought great joy to many LGBTQ Africans. Promise Ohiri, a Nigerian-born transgender Catholic, explained it this way: “It’s not going to be an easy thing … They mostly use religion against us, the queer people. I feel like the pope making the decision is … I feel like it’s good for queer people. I’m having a good reaction [feeling] about it.” That, on its own, is reason for rejoicing—and the voices of people like Ohiri deserve as much coverage as any statement from a bishops’ conference.
Bearing this complexity in mind, LGBTQ Catholics and their allies should remember that for many African religious communities, “Fiducia Supplicans” is a much larger step forward than it is in the West. On the African continent, only South Africa provides any legal recognition for same-sex couples; several nations criminalize homosexuality entirely.
In this context, “Fiducia Supplicans” is a groundbreaking move, and it places the institutional church far ahead of the mainstream. Where legal recognition of same-sex couples is in some places unthinkable, one should not be surprised to find some skepticism about the declaration.
Intersectionality in the synodal church
Given these circumstances and the reaction of some African bishops to the declaration, it is easy to imagine an oppositional relationship between the global LGBTQ community and the “African church”—where a step forward for one group is a step backward for the other. As proponents of this story would tell us, we can either have a “European Catholicism” that includes LGBTQ people, or a “Worldwide Catholicism” that excludes them.
Under Pope Francis, however, the College of Cardinals has become (for the first time in many centuries) majority non-European, with Asia and Africa seeing the largest comparative gains. Many of these new cardinals are from countries, including five African nations, that have never been represented in the College before. This is a significant development for a church which had long been steered by Italian cardinals. Catholic leadership has grown less European and more African under Francis while the church has simultaneously taken steps towards LGBTQ inclusion.
Moreover, Pope Francis has been uniquely in tune with issues impacting Catholics across the African continent, particularly concerning climate change, imperialism and the exploitation of developing countries. On his multiple visits to Africa, the pope has demonstrated solidarity with the concerns that African Catholic leaders have been preaching about for decades—most memorably in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where Francis told the West to keep its “hands off Africa!”
“Stop choking Africa: it is not a mine to be exploited, or a land to be plundered. May Africa be the protagonist of its own destiny!” said the pope. This is not the voice of a Eurocentric pontiff or a Eurocentric Church.
Listening to the concerns of African Catholics means listening to the concerns of all African Catholics. LGBTQ people deserve to be at the center of conversations about their personhood, including in Africa—and this means that Catholic and secular media outlets alike should amplify the voices of LGBTQ Africans wherever they can.
Part of this involves challenging the narrative that LGBTQ people are a product of colonialism or that their inclusion is “only Western” or “un-African.” Socially-recognized same-sex activities have a long history in many pre-colonial tribes and kingdoms, and many anti-LGBTQ laws today trace their origins to colonial “anti-sodomy” laws.
The British Empire was a notorious culprit, and many countries that criminalize homosexuality today were at one point under British rule. Often the verbatim texts of British penal codes, inherited after decolonization, are used to enforce anti-LGBTQ policies. When new anti-gay legislation is passed, it is sometimes due to aggressive lobbying from American evangelical leaders, who lobbied throughout Uganda for the passage of anti-homosexuality bills. If anything, harsh and legalistic approaches to queer people are a colonial import.
At least one Catholic prelate, Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana, has called for greater understanding on this point. As the cardinal explained, gender and sexual minorities are “not completely alien to the Ghanaian society,” and Ghanaian languages like Akan had terms for these communities well before colonialism. Turkson made headlines for opposing the criminalization of homosexuality in Ghana, where he said that instead of a harsh crackdown, “it’s time to begin education, to help people understand what this reality, this phenomenon is.”
There have always been sexual and gender minorities in Africa, and they are as African as anyone else. LGBTQ Christians are as Christian as anyone else, too. If we presume that “African” and “LGBTQ” identities are fundamentally at odds, we erase a whole group of people likely numbering in the tens of millions. Moreover, we are doubly erasing communities who already are made invisible by the force of oppressive and often colonialist laws that criminalized their existence.
Until their voices are brought to the center of the conversation, we have not fully accounted for the “African church” or its understanding of LGBTQ issues. Our very catholicity insists that we do so and demands we believe in a church that can hold room for, as Francis has said, “Tutti, tutti, tutti!“