I am not Catholic. I am not a believer.
And yet, as a South African, I am aware of the positive and negative roles the Catholic Church can play. It was outspoken against apartheid, and its liberation theology (controversial within the church) inspired a generation. In my personal experience, it was a Catholic school in Johannesburg that both defied apartheid’s race quotas and welcomed gay families, including my own.
Yet during the height of the AIDS crisis Cardinal Napier dismissed government efforts to distribute condoms as ineffectual. As Archbishop of Durban, he spoke from the epicenter of the epidemic. More recently Napier stated, “I can’t be accused of homophobia because I don’t know any homosexuals.”
In South Africa, as elsewhere, the church has stood up for the oppressed and has been a force for social change; it has also been the source of stagnation and prejudice. At times – such as preaching against condoms in the midst of the AIDS crisis – these are shortcomings of unforgivable magnitude.
I am unlikely to agree with Pope Francis on many issues, but unlike Cardinal Napier, he knows homosexuals and I am willing to listen to what he has to say.
In fact it is hard not to pay attention, because Pope Francis is causing a stir.
He is the first Jesuit to become pope and he is focusing on problems of poverty and injustice and away from a single-minded obsession with sexual morality.
He speaks of a church for the poor and does not hold back from criticizing opulence and ostentation within the church: “One cannot speak of poverty,” he said, “if one does not experience poverty.”
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