JOS, Nigeria – Last fall, Pope Francis convened a Synod of Bishops at the Vatican that featured lively debate on issues related to family life, including homosexuality and same-sex relationships, and at this October’s edition of the synod most observers expect similar divisions to surface.
You won’t find any such clash, however, in the Nigerian Archdiocese of Jos, which is a nerve center of Catholic life in this emerging African superpower under its influential archbishop, the fiery and outspoken Ignatius Kaigama.
On Tuesday, Kaigama opened his 13th annual Catholic assembly in Jos with a sort of “State of the Union” address, which, among other things, touched on gay marriage.
“The culture of same-sex marriage is alien to our understanding of the family and should not be imposed on Nigerians,” he said, drawing vigorous applause from a crowd of priests, nuns, and lay delegates taking part in the August 24-28 assembly.
In January 2014, Nigeria adopted a law criminalizing homosexuality, and the country’s bishops called the move a “courageous act.” Kaigama praised the Nigerian president for not caving in to international blowback, warning of a “conspiracy of the developed world to make our country and continent the dumping ground for the promotion of immoral practices.”
On Tuesday, Kaigama, who is also the president of the Nigerian bishops’ conference, lashed out at critics of that stand.
“Our biggest concern,” he said, was “that marriage must be between a man and a woman in accordance with our cultural and religious norms.” (In Kaigama’s prepared text, the words “between a man and a woman” were in all-caps.)
Kaigama charged that unnamed international organizations and media outlets intentionally distorted what the bishops said, complaining that they “mischievously reduced our position to advocating severe punishment for gays and lesbians with long prison terms!”
“This is a deliberate distraction,” he insisted, “and a wicked deviation from what is our primary concern.”
Kaigama phrased the bishops’ basic stand as, “No to same-sex marriage.” In an emphatic coda, he added: “As we say in Nigeria, ‘No shaking!’”
Critics may find the Nigerians’ position in contrast with that of Pope Francis, who has encouraged his bishops to call a truce on culture wars and famously said he would not judge a gay person who “searches for the Lord and has good will.”
On the other hand, Francis has also denounced the “ideological colonization” of the developing world in terms similar to those used by Kaigama.
The harder line of many African prelates may also spark further arguments at the synod with the more liberal German bishops, who relaxed so-called morality rules for their employees in May, meaning that workers who enter into a gay relationship will no longer automatically lose their jobs at Catholic institutions.
But Kaigama clearly wasn’t speaking just for himself, which is probably no surprise in a country where the Pew Forum’s 2013 Global Attitudes Survey found that a whopping 85 percent of Nigerians believe homosexuality is “morally unacceptable.”
Anthonia Ogbolafor, chairwoman of the assembly, took the microphone to denounce what she described as unacceptable contemporary efforts to “redefine” marriage.
“Before, marriage was between Adam and Eve,” she said. “Now it can be between Adam and Steve, or Eve and Amanda, and this is wrong,” she said.
She also argued that if gay couples are permitted to adopt children, they should not be considered their legal parents, but rather their guardians because “a family means one man and one woman.”
Those lines too drew strong applause from the assembly, the opening ceremony for which was staged at a local Catholic school.
It wasn’t just Catholic voices. John Wade, who directs an office of strategic planning for the government of Plateau State where Jos is located, and who was speaking in the name of the governor, also applauded the anti-gay marriage stand.
“Some other churches have embraced it, but the Catholic Church has said no, and we appreciate that,” Wade said, triggering more applause.
“Saying no is important to dispel today’s confusion,” he said. “The archbishop has reiterated it today, and we thank him.”
Wade then drew laughs by telling a story about a religious leader officiating at a same-sex marriage and, when it comes to the moment where the minister usually pronounces the couple “man and wife,” he hesitates.
In his confusion, Wade said, the minister said, “I pronounce you Man United” – a joking reference to the Manchester United club from English soccer’s Premier League, which is wildly popular in Nigeria.
“When the Catholic Church resists the pressure for same-sex marriage,” Wade said, “we must support that, because otherwise we will end up with Man United!”
Kaigama was seen as one of the stars of last October’s Synod of Bishops, helping lead an African charge in favor of maintaining traditional doctrine. Although he will not be attending this fall’s edition, he didn’t mince words about what he hopes the synod will produce.
“Whether you like it or not, the Catholic Church is a very powerful institution,” Kaigama told Crux in an Aug. 25 interview. “I believe there is a serious ganging up [on the Church] by others, secularists and the media and so on, who feel this giant has to be brought down in some way or the other.”
In such a context, Kaigama said, the Church needs to stand strong, not allowing the faith to be “lost or contaminated.”
Given that outlook, proponents of a softer line may be cheered by the news that Kaingama is sitting out the second, and final, round of the synod process. They may be less comforted, however, by his diagnosis of where the Nigerian bishops who take his place are likely to stand.
“You could wake up any bishop in Nigeria from his sleep and ask for his opinion on issues related to the family, and they’d all say more or less precisely the same thing, almost word-for-word,” he said.
“On these matters,” Kaigama said, “we are absolutely of one mind.”