Pope Francis addresses pushback from African bishops on same-sex blessing

Pope Francis has addressed criticism over his consent to priests to bless same-sex couples, saying the pushback from African bishops was “a special case” influenced by culture.

The Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar (SECAM), an association of Catholic bishops on the continent had opposed the pope’s decision to approve nonliturgical blessings for gay couples, describing such blessings as inappropriate.

But in an interview with Italian newspaper La Stampa, published Monday, Francis said critics of his declaration “belong to small ideological groups” except Africans whom he said were “a separate case” because “for them, homosexuality is something ‘bad’ from a cultural point of view (and) they don’t tolerate it.”

A shifting stance on same-sex blessings

Last month, the pope endorsed a radical shift in the church’s stance on same-sex unions by authorizing blessings for gay couples, which the Vatican’s doctrinal office cautioned must not be included in the church’s rituals and liturgical rites or imparted during a civil union.

African Catholic bishops said in a letter the pope’s endorsement “caused a shockwave” on the continent and “has sown misconceptions and unrest in the minds of many”, including pastors.

“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,” added the letter issued on January 11 by SECAM President, Cardinal Fridolin Ambongo.

Homosexuality is illegal in swathes of Africa, where some of the world’s harshest anti-gay laws have been passed. African countries such as Uganda punish same-sex sexual relationswith life imprisonment and prescribes the death penalty for “aggravated homosexuality”, described as sex with a minor, incest, or having sex while HIV positive.

The African bishops argued that “the cultural context in Africa, deeply rooted in the values of the natural law regarding marriage and family, further complicates the acceptance of unions of persons of the same sex, as they are seen as contradictory to cultural norms and intrinsically corrupt.”

Calls for Vatican u-turn

Catholic bishops in central Asia also called for a reversal of the pope’s directive approving same-sex blessing.

Kazakhstani bishops Tomash Peta and Athanasius Schneider jointly described blessings for same-sex unions as a contradiction to the age-long practice and doctrine of the Catholic Church.

“To bless couples in an irregular situation and same-sex couples is a serious abuse of the most Holy name of God,” said the preachers who head the Archdiocese of Saint Mary in the country’s capital Astana.

“We ask Pope Francis to revoke the permission to bless couples in an irregular situation and same-sex couples, so that the Catholic Church may shine clearly as the pillar and ground of the truth”, they added in a joint statement on X, while barring priests at the archdiocese from accepting or performing such blessings.

The Vatican’s guidelines have, however, received strong support from bishops across Europe, including catholic clergies in France, Austria, and Germany.