The pope’s unprecedented approval of same-sex marriage has sent shockwaves across Africa, leaving many Africans confused and with mixed emotions, triggering widespread backlash throughout Africa.
Breaking away from the conservative stance upheld by his predecessors, Pope Francis in a declaration formally approved letting Catholic priests bless same-sex couples on Dec. 1—a radical shift in policy aimed at making the church more inclusive, while maintaining its strict ban on gay marriage. Elaborating on the document from the Vatican’s doctrine office sent to five conservative cardinals, Francis suggested such blessings could be offered under some circumstances if the blessings were not confused with the ritual of marriage.
Africa is a continent deeply rooted in cultural and religious traditions with strong conservative views. Sexual orientations and gender identities are controversial topics, although historically existing in many pre-colonial African societies, contemporary attitudes towards homosexuality and LGBTQ+ individuals in Africa are often hostile and bigoted.
Out of the 54 countries on the continent, 31 have laws criminalizing homosexuality, more than any other continent, according to the Human Dignity Trust, which defends LGBTQ+ rights. And with the current resurgence of anti-gay bills and the introduction of draconian laws on the continent, homophobic sentiments and violent attacks against the LGBTQ communities have intensified in the last few months.
Inexorably, the document was bound to cause a commotion among Christians, and particularly Catholics. But while this development resonated positively with some, its impact in Africa—a home to 265 million Catholics, nearly a quarter of the world’s 1.3 billion Catholics—was met with a furor of protest which swept across Africa following the publication on Dec. 18.
Many of those Catholics who live in countries where homosexuality is condemned and criminalized are now finding themselves tackling an upheaval that challenges long-established beliefs. The move doesn’t change the church’s stance on homosexuality. It remains of the position that marriage is strictly between a man and a woman, just that the pope has expressed support for same-sex civil unions.
Christians in Africa are confronted with a dilemma trying to navigate the delicate balance between tradition and modernism, in a society where homosexuality is seen as an abomination and a western import. This exposes the decades-long tension between evolving social values and the desire to preserve African cultural heritage.
“As a Christian, I’m highly disappointed in the pope. I couldn’t believe it when I saw the news,” Frank from Ghana told me in an interview. “He just embarrassed the Catholic Church in front of the whole world.” Judith from Nigeria shared a similar discontent, “The Catholic Church has been corrupted. Homosexuality is an abomination and we Africans will not participate in such sacrilege” she said.
So we see Christians facing the challenging task of reconciling their faith with a church that appears to be changing their stance on a controversial topic they did not anticipate. Vividly, we can also see that the controversy centrally lies in the clash between the pope’s progressive stance and the deeply ingrained cultural and religious values that define many African societies.
Religion—being the major influence on art, culture, and philosophy throughout the entire continent—has shaped the moral fabric of communities for generations. Pope Francis’ stance on same-sex marriages directly challenges these deeply rooted norms, triggering a visceral reaction from those who see it as a departure from established doctrines.
It is perhaps no surprise then that this drastic shift has given rise to a groundswell of discontent, with Christians across Africa calling for a boycott of the pope and the Church of Rome. The call for boycotts reflects the depth of discontentment, homophobia, and the perceived betrayal of core religious principles. The backlash is not limited to congregants, but extends to religious leaders who have historically played a central role in shaping societal norms.
While advocates of the LGBTQ+ community rejoiced, the pope’s new stance on same-sex marriages opened a rift between the Vatican and African churches. African bishops of both the Catholic and Anglican churches in Africa showed widespread defiance.
Catholic Bishops Conference of Nigeria (CBCN)—in a statement signed by CBCN’s president and secretary, the Most Rev. Lucius Ugorji and the Most Rev. Donatus Ogun—said that blessing same-sex marriage is against God’s law, teachings of the church, the laws of the country, and the cultural sensibilities of Nigerians. The bishops assured the ‘people of God’ that the teachings of the Catholic Church on marriage remained the same.
According to the Associated Press, while reaffirming their fidelity to the pope and the church of Christ, Catholic bishops of Africa and Madagascar released a collective statement signed by Congolese Cardinal Fridolin Ambongo last week, saying they “generally prefer” not to offer blessings to same-sex couples. “We, the African bishops, do not consider it appropriate for Africa to bless homosexual unions or same-sex couples because, in our context, this would cause confusion and would be in direct contradiction to the cultural ethos of African communities,” it said.
Ambongo emphasized on how inappropriate it is for African priests to offer such blessings because of the scandal and confusion it would create. Citing biblical teaching condemning homosexuality as an abomination and the African cultural context, where he asserted that LGBTQ+ unions “are seen as contradictory to cultural norms and intrinsically corrupt.”
This defiance from the African Bishops garnered commendations from some international Christian communities, praising their resilience and unwavering commitment to preserving African cultures. Rev. Fr. Jean-Miguel Auguste, a Catholic priest of the Brooklyn diocese commended the stand of Catholic bishops in Africa on blessing same-sex couples, saying “Africa is the only continent that will save the world.”
Fr. Auguste, in his homily at St. Pius X Parish, New York, praised the courage of the Catholic Church in Africa: “Today all the bishops in Africa said to the Pope that they will not allow any priest to bless same-sex couples,” Fr. Auguste said. “ I have an obligation to bless and pray for anybody without them revealing their identity, but blessing same-sex marriages should not be encouraged.”
These leaders, once aligned with the Vatican, now find themselves at odds with the pope, leading to a dissonance between the Church of Rome and its African counterparts. The ripples extend far beyond religious dogma, delving into the fabric of cultural identities and societal norms.
Pope Francis in a televised interview on Sunday according to Reuters, doubled down on decision approving blessings for same-sex couples, suggesting that those in the Catholic Church who have resisted it have jumped to “ugly conclusions” because they do not understand it.
“Sometimes decisions are not accepted, but in most cases when decisions are not accepted, it is because they are not understood,” Francis said in response to a specific question about the December declaration. “The danger is that if I don’t like something and I put it (the opposition) in my heart, I become a resistance [sic] and jump to ugly conclusions.”