The day I scared off the Pope: Pinkwashing at the Vatican
We are all aware of the great burden which criminal laws impose upon LGBTI people in countries where Roman Catholic doctrine and lobbying are powerful forces.

This week, OutLeadership welcomed author Frederic Martel in its offices, as part of the monthly speaker series we just launched.

Martel spoke about his latest book, the bombshell: “In the closet of the Vatican:Power, Homosexuality, Hypocrisy“, which came out in paperback this week. The book sold more than 600,000 copies so far and has been translated in 20 languages.

During the meeting I reminisced about a story I was not at liberty to discuss until four weeks ago.

Back in March 2019, I received an invitation to join a “private audience with His Holiness Pope Francis to be held on 5 April 2019 at the Vatican City at 12.00 noon.” During the audience, the Pope was to make “an historical speech” clarifying the official policy of the Holy See on the criminalization of homosexuality. The speech would be followed by a Papal photo op. All in all, the event would take about 45 minutes.

Authentic engagement: the antidote to “Pinkwashing” accusations 1The Church opposes decriminalization in many jurisdictions and even opposes moratorium on such abhorrent laws (see the example of Malawi). We are all aware of the great burden which the criminal laws impose upon LGBTI people in countries where Roman Catholic doctrine and lobbying are powerful forces in maintaining the current laws.

Criminalizing homosexuality and other forms of sexual and gender diversity is one of the root causes of grave and pervasive human rights violations on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. It violates international human rights law, fuels stigma, legitimizes prejudice and exposes people to human rights abuses. In such contexts, deprivation of liberty is akin to arbitrary detention and the imposition of the death penalty for same-sex acts is an arbitrary killing.

Kenya is a good example of the negative impact of the Church. The Catholic lobbying prior to the recent unfavorable judgement of the High Court in May 2019, declining constitutional relief against the colonial criminal laws against gays, was out of control. The Catholic Primate of Kenya was one of the leaders in public agitation opposing change of the law (which he declared would bring Sodom and Gomorrah to Kenya). All of this does indicate the desperate need for guidance and leadership by Pope Francis.

I declined the meeting for three reasons:

  1. I did not believe the Pope would show up
  2. For such a declaration to be effective it would have to be public and not in a private audience
  3. I suspected an attempt by the Church to pinkwash the horrible news that had recently become public regarding clergy sex abuse scandals.

Another invitee, Edwin Cameron, a prominent member of the South African High Court, declined the invitation because like me he feared there would be a lack of concrete steps coming out of this audience. I had previously written a piece ion 2016 on the occasion of the US papal visit warning the community not to accept crumbs from the church.

Authentic engagement: the antidote to “Pinkwashing” accusations 2I also gave the invitation to my friend Frederic Martel – who wrote about it – and I was eventually blamed for derailing the meeting. “There was disappointment that the audience by the Pope had been cancelled and the organizers felt that Martel’s posts may have played a role in this”.

This message was from my boss at the time, the Chief of the Women’s Rights and Gender Section at the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights since 2014, asked if she could attend in my place which the organizers agreed to. She even went ahead and bought a veil for the meeting. Her decision to embrace traditional dress is a powerful political sign of where the UN stands particularly as she is a fervent pro-choice believer.

Many famous activists also made the trip including Justice Michael Kirby, Helena Kennedy QC (Baroness of the United Kingdom and secretary of the International Bar Association human rights Institute secretariat), Minister Helena Dalli of Malta and the organizer Leonard Raznovich from Argentina. Businesses were there too including Deutsche Bank, Brunswick Group, IBM, Microsoft, Linklaters and Virgin Atlantic.

A few days before the meeting it was announced that the Pope would not show up at the last minute and instead Cardinal Pietro Parolin would attend in his stead. The Independent Expert for Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity subsequently announced he would not join the meeting. However, most participants decided to join anyway. All the participants were duly seated in their places as Paolin and 2 colleagues swept into the underground meeting room and sat on a platform looking down on the activists. Paolin kept at a distance for the entire meeting while Kirby, Kennedy and Raznovich made the case for greater respect of human rights of LGBTI people.

It is highly improbable that the Pope got “scared” by Martel’s post and that this is the reason the Pope withdrew. The explanation would much more likely be that the institution had no idea of the scale of the event and the expectations linked to it and when they discovered this, they cancelled the participation of the Pope.

Two months later, the Congregation on Catholic Education published its antagonistic new text ”Male And Female He Created Them‘’ which directly denied the very existence of our trans and intersex brothers and sisters.

I am all for dialogue with the Catholic Church. I hope it continues to take place. Out Leadership will do what it can to advance it. However, I am not sure what can now be done to advance the possibility of real progress on dialogue without a statement by Pope Francis in favor of the abolition of criminalization of LGBTIQ sexual acts.

I will believe it when I see it. Francis has said nice things to and about gay people in personal encounters (he also has said terrible things publicly like when in 2015 he claimed children need heterosexuals parents). But when it comes to exercising his undoubted power and influence as Pontiff, he is much less forthright. In what is said to be a typical Jesuit tradition, he answers every question on homosexuality with a question of his own.

Authentic engagement: the antidote to “Pinkwashing” accusationsThe truth is that common grounds between the rights and LGBTI people with the Catholic Church have been articulated over and over for the past two decades and the Church has made very limited progress. In this context, it would have been preferable for activists who joined the event to have had an assurance or undertaking that Pope Francis would go ahead with his statement on removing criminal laws against LGBTIQ people before setting out for Rome.

The Church got very positive coverage for meeting prominent LGBTI activists – at a time when they were getting bad press for egregious human rights violations – while getting away with not making any commitment which is a pretty savvy move.

The meeting eventually made the headlines globally, after the Vatican Press Office made a press release, reported by La Stampa without the Church having to make any positive statement and getting the benefit of appearing to listen to the voices of people it has victimized for centuries.

The statement read “after having listened to the presentations of some of the participants at the meeting, Cardinal Parolin then assured that he would inform the Holy Father of the contents of the research.”

This did not deserve the applause it got.

A year later, the Church is still fighting decriminalization of homosexuality everywhere it can.

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