Pope Francis kept his promise and came back to Africa this week. His movements may be restricted by wheelchair dependency but his smile is as broad and honest.
His thinking is as refreshing and provocative as when he first stepped out on Vatican balcony ten years ago.
The eighty-six-year-old pontiff landed in Kinshasa and promptly told the world, ‘Hands off the Democratic Republic of Congo, hands off Africa! Stop choking Africa: it is not a mine to be stripped or a terrain to be plundered’.
That must have unsettled the multi-national mining companies and Messrs Paul Kagame and Yoweri Museveni or any other aspirants who intend to pay their domestic debts by looting the DRC minerals.
To the hundred or so militia groups he spoke frankly, ‘you cannot engage in violence and claim to be a Christian’. As simple and difficult as that.
Francis never hesitates to defend rights and dignity of the poorest, whom he refers to as the excluded or the billions at the bottom of the pile. That is why his groundbreaking Encyclical on Our Common Home, Laudato Si, maintains that environmental justice and social justice can never be separated.
They are inseparable as the ‘gravest attacks on the environment are suffered by the poorest…we must therefore integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both cry of the earth and cry of the poor’. The pontiff has a simple method of talking and teaching that resonates with the common person, who cannot manage the heavy theological and philosophical language favoured by his predecessors. Journalists invited to his in-flight interviews are the envy of their colleagues, for Francis is not afraid to speak the truth nor to address controversial topics.
Last week, he gained global headlines in an interview with Associated Press. The conversation covered a whole range of topics from gun laws to relations with China. However, what grabbed the media’s attention was his comments on homosexuality.
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In an earlier interview in 2017 when asked whether homosexuals are committing sin, he declared, ‘who am I to judge?’ This time he was less evasive and called for decriminalisation of homosexuality in every country.
He added that the gay community must be welcomed into the church since God loves all his children and desires all to know him and be saved. To criminalise homosexuality is ‘unjust’ according to Francis and being gay is part of the ‘human condition’ and cannot therefore be called a crime. There are 67 countries that criminalise sexual relations between consenting adults. Kenya is one of those countries. Many gays know revealing their identity is an existential issue, and can become a matter of life and death. As such rather than be accepted and loved as God would have it, they live lives of secrecy and occasionally end up in unhappy, heterosexual marriages. Those who believe homosexuality is a lifestyle choice should listen to the anxieties, hatred and discrimination that many gay people experience in this country before rushing to condemn them.
Another pro-life concern of Francis of a global nature is abolition of death penalty. That is still on the statute books in Kenya although nobody has been executed since 1987. However, almost 700 remain on death row, rotting away in prison, not knowing when they might be called to the gallows. Previous presidents have commuted the death sentence to life imprisonment. However, it is now time for complete abolition as it does not in any way act as a deterrent.
The Francis agenda is not always welcomed even within church circles. However, his calls to decriminalise homosexuality and to abolish the death penalty should be taken seriously by the Catholic Episcopal Conference as well as the Catholic MPs group in Parliament.
There may be an opportunity for the bishops to advance that agenda next week when they are scheduled to meet President William Ruto. That agenda may not be popular with the evangelical Christians where President Ruto resides, but that is no reason not to take Francis’s agenda to State House.