Greenbelt Interfaith News
    U.S. News

    October 2, 1997

    Gay Catholics Praise "Warm" Pastoral Letter from Bishops
    By Heather Elizabeth Peterson
    Greenbelt Interfaith News

    A new pastoral letter released by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops is winning praise from the gay Catholic community. "Always Our Children: A Pastoral Message to Parents of Homosexual Children and Suggestions for Pastoral Ministers" is the product of several years' work by the U.S. bishops' Committee on Marriage and Family. It was approved by the bishops' administrative committee on September 10.

    The Catholic Church, although it has distinguished between homosexual behavior and homosexual orientation since 1975, has in the past two decades issued several strong statements against homosexuality. In October 1986, for example, the Vatican issued a letter entitled "On the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons," in which it said, "Although the particular inclination of the homosexual person is not a sin, it is a more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil; and thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder."

    The letter also condemned violence against homosexuals, but added that "when civil legislation is introduced to protect behavior to which no one has any conceivable right, neither the Church nor society at large should be surprised when other distorted notions and practices gain ground, and irrational and violent reactions increase." This passage was quoted by the Vatican four years later, when it forbade bishops from supporting civil rights legislation favoring homosexuals.

    "Always Our Children," which was released on September 30, does not break any new ground theologically, as the letter itself says. Its tone, however, is markedly different from the Vatican statements. Like the 1986 letter, "Always Our Children" says that homosexual acts are sinful, while sexual orientation is not a sin; however, the new letter does not go on to describe the orientation as "an objective disorder." Instead, the letter proceeds on an upbeat note. It condemns violence against homosexuals and urges parents not to reject their gay children, saying, "A shocking number of homosexual youth end up on the streets because of rejection by their families. This, and other external pressures, can place young people at greater risk of self-destructive behaviors, like substance abuse, and suicide."

    The letter also mentions the issue of therapy, which has been a matter of great dispute in the gay community since the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its list of mental illnesses in 1973. The letter says, "Given the present state of medical and psychological knowledge, there is no guarantee that . . . therapy will succeed. Thus, there may be no obligation to undertake it, though some may find it helpful."

    The letter concludes by telling parents, "Do everything possible to continue demonstrating love for your child. However, accepting his or her homosexual orientation does not have to include approving all related attitudes and behavioral choices." The letter also urges church ministers, "Welcome homosexual persons into the faith community. Seek out those on the margins. Avoid stereotyping and condemnations. Strive first to listen."

    Dignity, an organization of gay Catholics which disagrees with the church's teaching that homosexual behavior is sinful, is reacting strongly to the American bishops' letter. In many parts of the country, Dignity was evicted from church property following the 1986 Vatican letter. That letter is commonly referred to by Dignity members as "the Halloween letter"; this latest statement, though, is being praised by Dignity officials.

    "I think it's a really positive step forward," says Michael C. Morgan, president of Dignity/Washington. While emphasizing that the letter is not "the end" of dialogue, he says that the letter should go a long way to help gay teenagers who are at risk of being expelled from their homes or committing suicide. The letter, he says, is "giving a lot of excitement and hope to people."

    Robert Miailovich, president-elect of Dignity/USA, agrees, calling the letter "marvellous."

    "We welcome the letter as a long overdue, positive statement," he says. "It says the kind of things that we in Dignity have been urging needed to be said for many, many years." He adds, "The letter is not perfect. There is still much that remains to be done. But it is such a warm statement that we need to compliment the bishops' committee."

    Mr. Morgan says that is important to distinguish Catholic teachings on homosexuality from those of conservative Christian churches that maintain homosexuality can always be changed. "The teachings that have been come out of the [Catholic] hierarchy in the past few years have been that the origins of homosexuality are not clear, but it is clear that it is a deep-seated tendency that most individuals do not take as a choice," he says. "Flowing from that [view] is this pastoral approach that you need to accept people as they are, that the orientation is not a sin. Those are all very positive conclusions."

    Related Articles

    Washington Feature: "Our Exodus was Actually a Rebirth": D.C.'s Gay Catholics Celebrate Their Silver Anniversary. By Heather Elizabeth Peterson. Ten years ago, Dignity/Washington was evicted from a Georgetown University chapel. It was a lucky day for Washington's gay Catholics. (September 25, 1997)

    Related Links

    Declaration on Certain Questions Concerning Sexual Ethics (1975)

    On the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons (1986)

    Regarding Legislation on Homosexuals (1990)

    Always Our Children: A Pastoral Message to Parents of Homosexual Children and Suggestions for Pastoral Ministers (1997)

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    ©1997 Heather Elizabeth Peterson