Recent hopes that the Catholic Church was warming in its attitudes towards same-sex relations were dashed last Saturday when senior Church officials vetoed a document that spoke of "welcoming homosexual persons."
The report — presented at the Extraordinary Synod on the Family — originally spoke of the "gifts and qualities" that gay people can offer, and the "precious support" that they can give each other.
Cardinal Wilfrid Napier, 73, was one of two conservative priests brought on board to help redraft the document after the Synod realized that their statements were being widely celebrated.
He spoke to VICE News about his views on divorce, remarriage and homosexuality, and his answer to any hopes that Pope Francis can bring about lasting change.
VICE News: How do you feel the Synod went?
Cardinal Wilfrid Napier: I was very pleased with how the Synod went, especially in the first week when, after Pope Francis had encouraged everyone to speak openly, honestly, but with humility, I think what we heard were very honest opinions from the bishops from all over the world. No one seemed to be afraid to say what was on their mind, the things that were concerning them, so they described very clearly the problems that they were having to deal with in their parts of the world.
You were critical of the mid-term report that considered "welcoming homosexuals." Why?
The reason was that it was wrongly described as the opinion of the Synod. What it actually is in every Synod the same process is followed. In this case it was one week, in other cases it's two weeks of input by the Synod members on various aspects of the subjects under discussion. When this report after initial discussions was published it seemed to indicate that the Synod as a whole had adopted a certain position, and that was not true because we received that document after it had been presented to the media at the press briefing earlier on Monday morning. That was what really did upset us about it. It was the contents certainly, but also the way that this content was being presented as the view of the Synod.
Was there a lot of tension among the senior officials debating these issues?
I think there was a lot of criticism of the opinions that were attributed to us. And as a result the tension was to the question "why are we being presented as if we said this when we haven't discussed it yet?" So the second part of that process was when the group actually went through the document and advised that certain sections be dropped, other sections be modified, redrafted so to as to reflect first of all what the Catholic Church teaching is, secondly what the group felt we should be saying about this.
Many have hailed Pope Francis as a force for liberalizing the church, and as someone who is committed to softening its stances in several areas. Do you think that's accurate?
The problem with that kind of a statement is that Pope Francis spoke to us right at the beginning of the Synod, urging us to be open and humble about our opinions. He spoke at the end of the Synod where he advised against hostile rigidity, and on the other hand against being irresponsibly liberal. Now he was obviously painting two extreme positions. But what I found extremely disappointing was the way in which the media at one stage calling that mid-term report the report of the Synod, but when the real report of the Synod came out, the final document, it was now as if the Synod had turned against Pope Francis, so as to say that the position which was stated in the first document was Pope Francis's position, and we had rejected it. Now that is not true. Pope Francis did not talk on any of those subjects, so how could you come to a conclusion that the Synod had gone against Pope Francis? I don't know.
Do you think that it's important that the Church is unified on these matters, or is there room for divergence of opinion?
I think we're engaged in a debate, and no one expects everyone to have the same opinion, but we are united in looking to the church's teaching, and looking for the best possible methods of implementing that teaching. That's going to change from area to area. Some of the positions advocated by some people in the debate would not certainly work in Africa, and some of the things that we would be saying in Africa would not certainly be the answers that other areas of the church would be advocating or find appropriate in their area.
In relation to Africa, in countries like Uganda the Catholic Church has been criticized for encouraging discrimination, which in turn can perpetrate violence. What would your response to that be?
I don't know what the Catholic Church has said, and I'm very cautious about taking what the media is reporting as the position of the church after this experience. I wouldn't be in a position to comment on what the Catholic Church has actually said in Uganda, but I would guess that they have upheld the Catholic Church's teaching which is in the catechism of the Catholic Church, which is that we should not discriminate unjustly against people because of their sexual orientation.
You've said before that you can't be called a homophobe because you don't know any homosexuals. Is that true?
Yes, that was part of a statement that I made. What I actually explained to the journalist at the time was that what I meant was that I do not deal with people according to their sexual orientation, I deal with people person to person. That is the way I deal with people. If someone walked in now I wouldn't know if they were homosexual or heterosexual or whatever they are. I honestly meant that, and that's not the way I operate. I receive a person as a person. If they have a particular problem we deal with the problem, and I don't regard the person as a problem, I deal with the problem.
Do you think divorced and remarried people should be allowed to receive communion?
That is still a topic to be debated at the next session of the Synod. It would be premature for me to talk about that now. It's something we're going to be talking about in our church throughout this year, looking at the cases that are evident in our dioceses and then taking advice as to how we would deal with these cases of situations where people would find themselves.
Do you worry that having harsh stances in these areas isolate Catholics and cause people to leave the church?
It's a very hard question to answer because if you were to call and spade a spade and say something is wrong people take offence or want you to put it in a different way. If something is wrong it's morally wrong. It's just not right. It's sinful. How can you express these things in any other way than the truth? And I think one of the guidelines Jesus gave us was that truth will set you free.
In the past the church has made some major changes, the most recent being in 2006 when they got rid of limbo, and before that when they allowed mass to be held in local languages. Do you think the church is a progressive organization?
I don't think so. I think we're a very conservative organization because our main task, as a church, is to receive from previous organizations the essential teaching that comes from Jesus, from the scripture, and to keep that tradition and to apply it to our concrete situation in as faithful a way as possible. So I think the church has to be by nature a conservative body. How we can be progressive is in the way that we apply that teaching and that tradition to the circumstances of our time. You mentioned a couple of things there which I think show that in particular situations at particular times the church has been able to go further than we were going before. To go into the vernacular was certainly a way of passing on that tradition in a way that would be much more acceptable and understandable to people of our time.