The Pope did not change any official Catholic position when he stated on Monday that gays should not be marginalized or judged. But the effects of his words could be transformational in parts of the world where homophobia is institutionalized. This is especially true in sub-Saharan Africa and other parts of the developing world.
Catholicism has exploded in sub-Saharan Africa over the past century, from 1% of the region in 1910 to 21% in 2010, according to the Pew Research Center. Attitudes about homosexuality in sub-Saharan Africa are also some of the least accepting in the world. A June 2013 Pew report found that 98% of Nigerians say society should not accept homosexuality, as well as 96% of Ugandans, and the numbers are similarly high in neighboring countries. “The Pope’s comments will have significant resonance in many African countries, including Nigeria, Cameroon and Uganda, and also in the Caribbean,” says Graeme Reid, director of the LGBT Rights Program at Human Rights Watch.
Catholic leaders there are often active in the fight against gay rights, sometimes claiming it is a Western notion to avoid. In Nigeria, Cardinal John Onaiyekan was seen as giving tacit support for parliament’s bill in May that criminalized gay marriage, relationships, and membership to gay rights groups. Catholic bishops in Uganda, a 42% Catholic country, joined other Christian leaders to encourage Parliament to pass the anti-homosexuality bill in 2012. In Cameroon, a 40% Catholic country, homosexuality is illegal.
“Marriage of persons of the same sex is a serious crime against humanity,” Victor Tonye Bakot Archbishop of Yaounde, preached there last year. “We need to stand up to combat it with all our energy.” Earlier this month in the Dominican Republic, a 67% Catholic Caribbean country, Cardinal Nicolás de Jesús López Rodríguez referred to President Obama’s nominee for DR’s ambassador by the anti-gay slur “maricón.”
The Pope’s comments will now challenge these bishops to adopt a different tone. Change in the Vatican has always moved at glacial pace. But when it does happen, it often starts in small ways in local parishes. “A shift like this could affect everything from the kinds of homilies preached at Sunday Mass, to how much leadership bishops take on anti-LGBT equality measures, to whether bishops speak out when laws making homosexuality a capital crime are being considered,” explains Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of LGBT Catholic organization DignityUSA. And, she continues, the pope’s example matters greatly for gay Catholics, especially those in the least accepting environments.
“For gay people to hear a Pope speak of us as people of faith and goodwill who should not be marginalized in society, rather than as threats to civilization, is a great shift,” she said.