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Posted December 4, 2008

Africa may be the future of
'seamless garment' Catholicism

By John L Allen Jr

The late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago used the Biblical image of a “seamless garment” to refer to what he described as a “consistent ethic of life” – beginning with abortion, the family, and other traditional “life issues,” and extending into peace and economic justice. The idea was to unify the church’s “pro-life” and “social justice” constituencies.

To date, the “seamless garment” has struggled to take hold in the American church, which still tends to be fractured at the grassroots between pro-life Catholics (who stress issues such as opposition to abortion, gay marriage and embryonic stem cell research) and peace and justice Catholics (who focus more on poverty, war, the death penalty, and the environment). That divide seemed visible in the Catholic vote during the 2008 elections.

If there is a future for the “seamless garment” in 21st century Catholicism, it may well come not from the United States, but from Africa – where a highly traditional approach to sexual morality, both in the broader culture and in the church, often blends with a progressive attitude towards key social justice concerns.

A recent parliamentary vote in favor of a new penal code in Burundi, a war-torn nation of 8.7 million where Catholics represent more than two-thirds of the population, offers an illustration of the point.

The new code was endorsed on Nov. 22 by a vote of 90-0 in Burundi’s parliament, with ten abstentions. On the one hand, it abolishes the death penalty, a move which has been hailed by progressive human rights groups around the world. It came in part after Burundi’s Minister of Justice joined a late September meeting of African ministers of justice organized by the Catholic Community of Sant’Egidio, which has been a global leader in efforts to abolish capital punishment.

Under the new law, all prisoners currently on death row will see their sentences commuted to life terms in prison. The code also incorporates provisions of international law against genocide, crimes against humanity, and torture, as well as strong penalties against rape and the abuse of children.

On the other hand, the new penal code also criminalizes homosexuality for the first time, making same-sex acts punishable by anywhere from three months to two years in prison and a substantial fine. The law comes atop already-existing legislation in Burundi banning gay marriage, even though analysts say no serious advocacy for such arrangements exists in the country.

To be sure, neither move was uncontroversial.

Given the country’s recent history of ethnic violence and genocide, which has left an estimated 300,000 dead since 1993, some Burundians have charged that abolition of the death penalty amounts to a way for perpetrators to save their own necks. Others have argued that the measure reflected external pressure, noting that abolition of the death penalty was set as a condition by the United Nations for the creation of a truth and reconciliation commission and a special tribunal in the country.

Meanwhile, gay rights groups such as the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission and the local Association pour le Respect et les Droits des Homosexuels protested the criminalization of homosexuality, arguing among other things that it will complicate anti-AIDS efforts by driving the homosexual community further underground.

While the new penal code still has to be adopted by the senate and signed into law by the president, local analysts say the 90-0 parliamentary vote suggests that it’s likely to be adopted in its present form.

Abolishing capital punishment and criminalizing homosexuality in one fell swoop may seem schizophrenic by Western ideological standards, since anti-death penalty advocacy tends to be a cause of the political left, while a negative view of homosexuality is associated with the right. In both cases, however, Burundi’s new penal code appears to represent a growing African consensus.

In 1990, according to Amnesty International, Cape Verde was the lone African nation that had no provision for capital punishment. Today, 15 African nations have formally abolished the death penalty for all crimes, and 22 countries are considered “de facto” abolitionist in that they have not executed anyone for at least ten years. By way of contrast, only 14 African nations retain the death penalty as a matter of law, and in 2007, executions were carried out only in Botswana, Equatorial Guinea, Somalia and Sudan.

Meanwhile, according to an African news agency, two-thirds of African nations currently have criminal penalties for same-sex behavior. In recent years several countries, including Nigeria, Zimbabwe and Uganda, have strengthened laws against homosexuality, and others have adopted bans on same-sex marriage.

The legal climate toward homosexuality in much of Africa is, if anything, more restrictive than Catholic teaching would suggest. While a 1992 document from the Vatican’s doctrinal office asserted that “no one has any conceivable right” to engage in homosexual behavior, the Catechism of the Catholic Church also states that “every sign of unjust discrimination” against homosexuals “should be avoided.” In general, Catholic officials typically do not campaign in favor of criminalizing homosexuality, but rather against attempts to “normalize” it, especially with regard to marriage.

The attitude towards homosexuality in Africa is of a piece, however, with a generally conservative approach to sexual morality across the continent, at least as a matter of civil law. At present, for example, there are only four African nations where abortion is legal in cases beyond rape, fetal defects, or threats to the mother’s health: Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, South Africa, and Tunisia. (This is not to say, of course, that abortions in other circumstances do not occur in the rest of Africa, merely that they are not sanctioned by law.)

These cultural mores are clearly reflected at the leadership levels of African Catholicism.

Archbishop John Onayiekan, for example, is a past president of the Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar (SECAM) and the current president of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), the country’s main ecumenical alliance. In a 2006 interview, he explained the African view of sexual morality.

“The virulent and strong currents [in the West] that have tried, and almost succeeded, to push a non-traditional view of sexuality – on homosexuality, abortion, and so on – are actually quite circumscribed, even if they’re in circles that are very powerful,” he said. “It’s not only the Africans who are complaining, but it’s the Asians too, and the Latin Americans. We are the mainstream, not them. The onus lies upon them to explain why they are doing something new. It’s a very heavy onus to explain how it is that for 2,000 years the Church somehow did not understand what Jesus meant.”

Even on the question of contraception, where one might expect the African Church to take a more liberal stance because of HIV/AIDS, the moral line is often strikingly traditional. For example, in 2006, then-Archbishop Raphael Nzeki of Nairobi urged the Kenyan government to reject condoms in AIDS prevention efforts.

“When condoms are provided, chances of promiscuity increase since a majority of our people end up engaging in casual sex,” Nzeki said. In the same year, the bishops’ conference of Tanzania called a school science syllabus “sinful” because it included condoms as one way to prevent HIV/AIDS.

Yet African prelates are also often outspoken proponents of peace and social justice. Onaiyekan was a leading critic, for example, of the U.S.-led war in Iraq, and expressed frustration that American Christian leaders were not sharper in their own protest.

“As Africans, we are often surprised by the extent to which our brothers and sisters in the North will sometimes follow only half of the gospel,” Onaiyekan said in a 2007 interview in Abuja, the capital of Nigeria. “Some Christians will oppose abortion but support war. How can you say no to the killing of a fetus, but yes to the killing of an adult?”

In an October 2008 interview in Rome, Onaiyekan stated unambiguously that if he had a vote in the American elections, he would have cast it for Barak Obama.

“The fact that you oppose abortion doesn’t necessarily mean that you are pro-life,” Onaiyekan said. “You can be anti-abortion and still be killing people by the millions through war, through poverty, and so on.”

One reason that African Catholic positions on these matters have been less visible in the West is that church doctrine regards abortion and homosexuality as moral absolutes, whereas other matters leave room for prudential judgment. This distinction, however, is one to which many African Catholics are less sensitive.

The bishops of Zimbabwe, for example, unambiguously told their country’s aging dictator, Robert Mugabe, in Easter 2007 that he either had to step down or face “open revolt.” The bishops did not say they wished to offer some considerations to illuminate public debate, which is the formula that might have been used in the United States or Europe. They simply told Mugabe, “Pack your bags and go.”

All this points to a distinctively African version of the “seamless garment” approach – one that will alternately delight and confound the various ideological factions in the West, depending upon which issue is under consideration.

In that regard, Burundi’s new penal code may be a harbinger of things to come in the 21st century, especially, perhaps, for the Catholic church. Catholicism is growing more rapidly in Africa than anywhere else on earth, and 2009 is shaping up as an “African year,” with a planned papal trip to Cameroon and Angola in March and a Synod for Africa in Rome in October.

It will be fascinating to watch how the African version of the “seamless garment” plays out in Catholic debate, especially as African Catholics play a more influential role in setting the tone for the global church.