Church Dilemmas: Slavery, Same-Sex Blessings, and the Battle of Beliefs

'Tosin Adeoti
4 min readJan 8, 2024

In the mid 1880s, slavers in the southern United States faced a crossroads. Slaves had been officially emancipated in Britain. To not piss off the slaveholders, the 1833 act subjected freed slaves to a transitional period of unpaid “apprenticeship”. In every jurisdiction around the world, slaveholders were appealed upon to release slaves, and in all, except the United States, masters were financially compensated.

But unlike in northern United States where slaves were being freed even though generally denied citizenship and most civil rights, it was legally impossible to free a slave in the Deep South. And these were deeply religious societies.

Today, we wonder how they justified this stance for slavery, but they did. The slavers indeed had a compelling biblical case. The Bible never condemns slavery and implicitly condones it. Where abolitionists (also Christians) appealed to the Golden Rule, “do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” their opponents impatiently explained that this meant treating others as you would wish to be treated in their situation: a father may still treat a child as a child, and a master may treat a slave as a slave.

Slavers argue that the slave and slaveholder were bound together in a Christian household. If Abraham had bought slaves, if Paul had sent a runaway slave home (instead of appealing for him to be freed), if Christ himself had never spoken a word against slavery, who were these upstart prophets to proclaim a new abolitionist gospel of their own invention?

We all know how it ended. In 1860, the avowed abolitionist Abraham Lincoln was elected president, exclusively on northern votes. Most of the southern states promptly seceded from the United States. The North treated this as rebellion. The resulting war lasted from 1861 to 1865 and was fought with unforeseen savagery, leaving more than 600,000 dead.

I remember this story as I think of the response to the raging debate in Christendom over the Vatican’s recent declaration allowing the blessing of same-sex couples, especially among African Catholics. The Catholic congregation in Africa, home to 236 million of the world’s 1.3 billion Catholics, accounted for more than half of the 16.2 million people who joined the church worldwide in 2021.

Africa is where the church is growing faster than anywhere else in the world, mainly due to the high birthrate on the continent. In a region where evangelism has become more about converting people with other forms of Christianity to one’s own, discontent among many Catholics over the policy is causing issues.

Without exception, church leaders in Africa have emphasized to their flocks that the declaration approved by Francis was explicit in saying that marriage remained a union between a man and a woman. They stressed that the church’s doctrine on marriage has not changed, and the declaration is about blessing the individuals, not their relationships.

In fact, bishops in Malawi and Zambia have already said that, to avoid confusion, their clergy would be instructed not to give blessings to same-sex couples. The Catholic Bishops Conference of Nigeria did not take a firm position on the issue, stating in a release that “asking for God’s blessing is not dependent on how good one is.” However, it added that there was “no possibility in the church of blessing same-sex unions and activities,” a nod to the declaration’s nuance of blessing gay individuals, not relationships.
Last week, the Vatican sought to placate African bishops alarmed by the new rule, saying that allowances should be made for “local culture,” but it would remain church policy.

What I find even more interesting are the comments of Father Russell Pollitt, the director of the Jesuit Institute South Africa, reported by the New York Times. He pointed out the hypocrisy of the criticism in Africa, wondering at how many African Catholics criticize homosexuality but have little to say about other “irregular unions” identified in the Vatican’s declaration, such as unmarried heterosexual couples who live together. The document says that priests can bless them, too. There have also been many cases on the continent of priests breaking celibacy rules by having children, but that does not get the same scrutiny among church leaders.

A few supporters of the Church blessing same-sex unions in Africa argue that Jesus did not explicitly address the topic of homosexuality in the recorded teachings. In Matthew 19:4–6 (“For this reason, a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh”), they are convinced that this passage does not explicitly address same-sex relationships. Instead, they say it is about Jesus’ focus in this context on the sanctity and permanence of marriage. They ask for more emphasis to be given to the teachings of Christ on love and compassion. Other critics argue that understanding the cultural and historical context is crucial, saying ancient biblical texts were written in specific cultural settings.

I have no horse in the race, so I can only sit on the sideline and watch which direction the argument will tilt in the next 20–30 years. Still, what I know is that whatever prevails, five generations from now, our descendants may yet make peace with it.