Pope Francis has repeatedly made news this fall, calling for a Catholic Church that is more welcoming toward LGBTQ+ people. In October, a newly released documentary on the Pope's life aired earlier comments in support of same-sex civil unions. During a September visit to Hungary and Slovakia, the Pope commented on the need for the Church to "do pastoral work" with same-sex couples. At a press conference a few days later, he remarked on the prospect of same-sex civil unions, saying that "if a homosexual couple wants to lead a life together, the State has the possibility to give them safety, stability, inheritance."
These comments have led some Catholic observers to praise the Pope's "pastoral approach to L.G.B.T. people." This approach not only respects LGBTQ+ people as members of society but calls on governments to provide them basic legal protections.
Yet it appears that in Ghana, the Pope's remarks have fallen on deaf ears.
Just a few days after the Pope's visit to Hungary and Slovakia, the Ghanaian Catholic Bishops Conference publicly expressed its support for a draconian bill making its way through parliament -- The Promotion of Proper Human Sexual Rights and Ghanaian Family Values Bill 2021 -- and stated that "homosexual practices [should be made] illegal in Ghana."
As the bishops suggest, the Ghanaian bill broadly targets LGBTQ+ people and purports to criminalize many of their basic freedoms of expression, assembly, and access to information. The penalties for violating the bill are drastic. Disseminating information about LGBTQ+ people can result in a five-to-ten-year prison sentence. Groups seeking to advance LGBTQ+ rights can be punished with six to ten years in prison. Funding or sponsoring vaguely defined prohibited activities can result in a five-to-ten-year sentence.
Even without this bill, Ghanaian laws already create a hostile environment for LGBTQ+ people. The 1960 Criminal Offences Act criminalizes same-sex relations. Though rarely directly enforced, Human Rights Watch and local groups have documented how the law fosters a climate of violence and intimidation toward LGBT Ghanaians. Earlier this year, Human Rights Watch and Ghanaian groups also documented how authorities in Ghana use existing laws concerning unlawful assembly to target LGBTQ+ people for arbitrary arrests and other abuses.
Given this climate of discrimination and instances of violence, the Ghanaian Catholic bishops' call for the "abominable practice [of homosexuality to be] made illegal in our country" seems even more appalling. Indeed, the bishops appear to speak out of both sides of their mouths. On the one hand, they say that "it is not right to subject homosexuals to any form of harassment simply because they are homosexuals," and that LGBTQ+ people should be "loved and respected and not discriminated against." On the other, they openly support a cruel and unnecessary law that foments the same anti-LGBT harassment and discrimination they claim to abhor. Archbishop Philip Naameh, President of the Ghana Catholic Bishops Conference, has remained steadfast in his support of the bill.
The Holy See has already taken a public stance in opposing violence, unjust discrimination, and criminal penalties against sexual and gender minorities. In its teachings as well as in several public statements at the United Nations (U.N.) General Assembly, the Catholic Church has voiced the need to protect everyone's human dignity.
Meanwhile, the Archbishop of Canterbury, spiritual leader of the global Anglican Communion, has stated he is "gravely concerned" over the Ghanaian bill, which has sparked controversy with the Anglican Church of Ghana.
As the Ghanaian parliament continues to debate this bill, it seems Archbishop Naameh and his colleagues would do well to heed the example of the Pope and the public statements of the Holy See -- and join in the condemnation of this heinous law.
Graeme Reid is the LGBT rights director at Human Rights Watch.