In an interview published yesterday, Cardinal Walter Kasperthe leading voice calling for liberalizing Catholic practice at the Church’s current synoddescribed African attitudes toward homosexuality as a “taboo” and said that Africans “should not tell us too much what we have to do.”
An immediate controversy erupted, and for good reason. One need not think that Africa is uniformly exemplary in its handling of these matters (it isn’t, as Uganda’s wicked proposal for the execution of homosexuals demonstrates) to recognize the condescension in Kasper’s remarks. To write off the presumably various and complicated views of an entire continent as mere “taboo” is impressively dismissive.
I criticized the remarks, for which I received some criticism in turn. There was the usual churchy handwringing about the awfulness of politics that is used to deflect any ecclesial criticism: Brother, what an awful thing it is to say someone else said something awful! Here, lower your eyes, close your mouth, and join me in prayer. I make light of what is surely a legitimate instinct because it’s so often exploited for nakedly partisan ends.
More notable and surprising were the defenses of Kasper’s remarks on their own terms by two prominent Catholic journalists: Religion News Service’s David Gibson and Commonweal’s Grant Gallicho. Gibson simply shrugged them off: “this is hardly anything, really.” Gallicho went much further, praising the remarks as containing “obvious truth.”At the end of his long post, Gallicho concluded that Kasper’s statement that Africans “should not tell us too much what to do” was “hardly dismissive, or xenophobic, or worse.” On the contrary, said Gallicho: “It’s just good theological sense.”
Kasper did not agree. He flatly denied the remarks: “I am appalled. I have never spoken this way about Africans and I never would.” Nor were Africans amused. Catholic theologian C. C. Pecknold tweeted that “African priests are writing to me in shock . . . They ask if he is racist. I have no words.”
Edward Pentin, who conducted the interview, quickly countered Kasper’s denial by posting an audio recording of the interview. The reporting, it turns out, was sound. Now added to whatever offense Kasper has given to Africans is an offense against the truth.
It is hard to say why Kasper chose to tell a very obvious lie. It is even harder to say why some were so ready to defend his original comments. It requires an exceedingly partisan mind to spin as insightful comments so offensive that even their speaker won’t stand behind them. Gallicho’s choice to take to the pages of Commonweal to lavish praise on the remarks suggests something that anyone who watches Church politics begins to suspect: Catholicism is now second only to Sufism in the central role accorded to spin.
For many readers, the whole controversy will seem all too familiar. Kasper’s comments fit a pattern of similar statements by liberal churchmen. The most famous example was offered by John Shelby Spong, then the Episcopal bishop of Newark, in a 1998 interview where he discussed African Christians:
They’ve moved out of animism into a very superstitious kind of Christianity. They’ve yet to face the intellectual revolution of Copernicus and Einstein that we’ve had to face in the developing world: that is just not on their radar screen.
After being asked if his remarks wouldn’t be seen as patronizing, Spong shot back, “If they feel patronized that’s too bad. I’m not going to cease to be a 20th-century person for fear of offending somebody in the Third World.”
Meanwhile, Kasper has his own history of offensive comments on the Third World. In the runup to Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to England, Kasper remarked, “England today is a secularized, pluralistic country. When you land at Heathrow Airport, you sometimes think you’d landed in a Third World country.”
The immediate and furious reaction was soon followed by the cancellation of Kasper’s plans to accompany Benedict to England. As John Allen reported at the time:
That line received huge play today in the British press and was widely taken as a slight. (My proof is that a cab driver on the way in from Heathrow today, upon learning that I was here to cover the pope, asked me: “Third world country? Who does that bloke think he is?”)
One of the points that Kasper made in his initial interview was that African bishops are less ready to speak on certain topics than bishops from other parts of the world. That would seem to be an example from which the good cardinal could stand to learn, as, probably, could we all.
With that in mindfin.