‘Let nothing but good be said of the dead,’ the saying goes.  Regarding Desmond Mpilo Tutu I do not intend to observe that advice.  I will, however, gladly begin this post by giving Tutu his due. 

Both before the achievement of majority rule in South Africa in 1994 and in the decades that followed that achievement, Tutu worked effectively for peaceful reconciliation of the mosaic of racial, tribal, linguistic, and religious groups that composes South Africa.  Tutu supported the rights of an oppressed majority, sought to achieve those rights by peaceful means, and when once achieved worked to reconcile formerly antagonistic communities to the extent possible.  South Africa is not a perfect place, but it has avoided many of the mistakes made by many post-colonial nations.[i]  South Africa has utterly confounded the most common post-colonial jibe:  ‘One man, one vote, once’.  Instead of installing a new autocracy, South Africa has a free press, a strong judiciary, a multi-party system, diffusion of political power, and at least a measure of accountability for the corrupt.  The white minority has not been expelled to the detriment of the economy.  South Africa remains a magnate for immigration and an economic engine for Africa.  Such successes in the first instance were not least due to the moderating influences of Desmond Tutu and of Nelson Mandela after his assumption of the presidency. 

As a national political figure in South Africa, and in regard to the burning moral issue of achieving majority rights without a bloodbath or an economic collapse, Tutu was a force for good.  His influence in this area was widely and justly lauded by the world, as with the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize.  It likewise was rewarded by his elevation as Archbishop of Cape Town, the highest office of his Church, the Church in the Province of South Africa (CPSA; now called the Anglican Church of Southern Africa, ACSA). 

Finally, by way of acknowledging Tutu’s real virtues, he was quite willing to condemn corruption and abuse of power both within South Africa and internationally.  For example, Tutu roundly criticized Nelson Mandela’s successors, Thabo Mbeki and (especially) Jacob Zuma.  Tutu urged a boycott of China’s Olympic games due to the genocidal abuse of Tibet.  Closer to home, Tutu condemned Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, even calling for an international intervention.  Clearly Tutu was willing to condemn powerful people when he believed they were in the wrong. 

The eulogies pouring forth for Tutu since his death in December 2021 have referred to him as South Africa’s ‘moral compass’.  One can accept such a term for Tutu as a politician, as an anti-apartheid figure, and as an architect of majority rule for South Africa. 

As a churchman and a theologian, alas, this praise was undeserved.  Far from being a steady moral compass, on moral issues relating to the sanctity of human life Tutu was in grave error.  Insofar as his position changed on such issues as abortion and euthanasia, it changed for the worse.  Likewise, on issues of human sexuality, Tutu comprehensively abandoned the teachings of his faith.  Far from being a reliable moral compass, Tutu seemed utterly lost at sea, tossed about by every shifting wind of liberal, white, Western moral fashion.  His moral compass was not that of the central Christian theological tradition, which as a senior churchman he might have been expected to follow.  His moral compass looked much more like the editorial page of the New York Times or The Guardian, than the teaching of the great Anglicans of his theological training such as Kenneth Kirk (Some Principles of Moral Theology) or R.C. Mortimer (Elements of Moral Theology). 

Consider euthanasia.  After long maintaining something like the traditional Christian opposition to killing the dying, Tutu from 2014 embraced assisted suicide and euthanasia:  ‘Dying people should have the right to choose how and when they leave Mother Earth.  I believe that, alongside the wonderful palliative care that exists, their choices should include a dignified assisted death.’  Again, Tutu wrote, ‘I do not wish to be kept alive at all costs.  I hope I am treated with compassion and allowed to pass on to the next phase of life’s journey in the manner of my choice.’ 

There is great moral confusion and ambiguity embedded in those statements.  The moral tradition that formed Tutu, of course, agrees that people should not ‘be kept alive at all costs.’  There is no moral obligation to extend dying by extraordinary means, and no one asserts such an obligation.  Likewise, the Christian moral tradition includes compassion for the sick and the dying.  These principles, however, have nothing to do with a claimed right to ‘pass on…in the manner of my choice.’  To mention these ideas together implies that they mean the same thing and that natural death and compassion imply assisted suicide.  The implication is false and disingenuous.

Christians proclaim that the Holy Spirit is ‘the Lord and Giver of life’.  God’s Lordship over life includes his sole authority over the end of innocent human life and over the time and manner of death.  Christians are free to refuse heroic treatments or to end death-delaying therapies that simply prolong the unfolding of an underlying condition.  Christians, and all people, however, are absolutely not free to kill the innocent by choosing to introduce a new condition or cause of death.  There is no right to kill:  not even to kill myself and not even under the guise of compassion or mercy or dignity.   To let die and to kill are very different, as Tutu ought to have known well.

While asserting a ‘right to die with dignity’, Tutu in fact argued for a right to assisted suicide.  Tutu ignored the spiritual values of respecting natural death.  Those values include both the great good of showing care and love to the dying and also the graces and reconciliations and repentances that often attend – and often attend unexpectedly – the process of dying.  Tutu did not argue the theological case for his position, but rather followed Western liberal fashion and noted as presumed authorities the fact of assisted suicide laws in places such as Canada and California.  Far from being a courageous Christian voice, Tutu simply went with the flow of elite opinion and surrendered the Christian vision of life as a gift of God.  Tutu did not lead but followed; and followed the wrong side to the wrong conclusions. 

So too with abortion.  In 1996 when South Africa abandoned restrictive abortion laws, Tutu was a voice for the deadly change.  Tutu condemned as ‘immoral’ the idea that abortion should be withheld in cases of rape or incest.  More generally, Tutu argued that women in other cases ‘should be allowed to have abortions’, with the sole qualification that their decisions should be made after ‘counselling’ and in consultation with their families and communities. 

Tutu condemned the phrase ‘abortion is murder’ as generating heat not light.  Tutu argued for easier access to abortion by asserting ‘the realities of the situation, that there are very many abortions which lead often to death because people are unable to have proper facilities available.’  That is, the death of the unborn should be made easy and sanitary lest there be a risk of another death.  The moral fallacies embraced by Tutu’s position on abortion here are those of the standard pro-abortion Western liberal.  Tutu tacitly accepted the dehumanization of the unborn child and the stripping of all rights from that child.  While acknowledging that ending a pregnancy is not as trivial as removing a tooth, Tutu’s moral compass pointed to few or no real limits to abortion.  Tutu simply abandoned the central Christian moral tradition on this issue also and embraced the culture of death. 

On issues of sexual morality, Tutu in 2013 made international headlines by saying he would ‘rather go to hell than to a homophobic heaven’.  Similarly, after the achievement of majority rule in the 1990s, Tutu said that the Church should consider for its next ‘worthy moral crusade…the fight against homophobia and heterosexism’.  While the terms ‘homophobia’ and ‘heterosexism’ are loaded, clearly Tutu intended to reject the idea that traditional sexual morality has any normative authority.  It is one thing to feel and show compassion for those with other sexual inclinations; it is another to deny the existence of any sexual norm at all.  South Africa by the time of Tutu’s death was in the vanguard of the sexual revolution, with even polygamy (both traditional African and Muslim) permitted by law and practiced even by President Zuma.  While Tutu condemned Zuma for presenting an irresponsible model in sexual matters, in general he did nothing to restrain the abandonment of sexual norms on the level of national law. 

Desmond Tutu simply rejected the central moral tradition of the Church that gave him high office and an international platform.  Bishop Emmanuel Chukwuma from Nigeria condemned Tutu as ‘spiritually dead’.  Now that Tutu is physically dead, it will be for God to judge between the positions of Chukwuma and Tutu.  Fortunately for Tutu, our God is a merciful judge.  But there is a great deal of moral confusion or even darkness in Tutu’s teaching, and the fact of God’s mercy does not alter that sad fact.  Tutu’s moral theology is not Catholic, is not Anglican, and is not Christian.

May he rest in peace, and may his moral influence where he was wrong quickly fade. 


[i] I understand, of course, that South Africa was not during its apartheid era an actual colony of a European power.  The political arrangements in apartheid era South Africa have been described as those of an ancient Greek democracy.  That is, there were elections and significant liberties, but only a small proportion of the population was enfranchised.  The change to majority rule in South Africa did differ from changes in decolonizing nations elsewhere in Africa:  in South Africa most of the previously dominant population could not simply repatriate to a colonial motherland as, say, Englishmen could return to England from Ghana.  Most white South Africans, particularly the Afrikaans speakers, were born in Africa from parents whose forebears were born in Africa, and they had no foreign passport.  Nonetheless, the achievement of majority voting rights in South Africa brought about changes that were in many ways analogous to those experienced in many African former colonies in the 1960s and later.

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