Despite repeated iterations and reiterations of Roman Catholic Church teaching over the past 30 years from the Vatican and the U.S. Catholic bishops, the morality of homosexuality remains clouded and confused in the minds of many Catholics. Stated in the simplest terms, the core of that teaching emphasizes that being homosexual is not a sin, but engaging in homosexual acts is a sin. The distinction between the individual and the act has consistently been maintained in church teaching: Love the sinner; hate the sin.
In promulgating the teaching, the church has attempted to walk a fine line between compassion for the individual and a defense of firm moral values and the integrity of the traditional family.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church states the church’s condemnation of homosexual acts unequivocally. “Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as great depravity, tradition has always declared homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered. They are contrary to natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstance can they be approved.”
Although the church steadfastly condemns homosexual acts, on the pastoral level it has just as consistently argued for compassion for homosexual people. In the 1973 document Principles to Guide Confessors in Questions of Homosexuality, the U.S. Catholic bishops encouraged confessors to “avoid both harshness and permissiveness,” to not make psychiatric treatment a requirement when a change in orientation is impossible, to encourage stable friendships, and to understand that homosexuality is not a choice.
Recognizing that judging the morality of individual acts is always a complicated issue, the 1975 Vatican document A Declaration on Certain Questions Concerning Sexual Ethics emphasized that prudence should be used in judging the culpability for individual homosexual acts. “In fact, circumstances may exist, or may have existed in the past, which would reduce or remove the culpability of the individual in a given instance; or other circumstances may increase it. What is at all costs to be avoided is the unfounded and demeaning assumption that the sexual behavior of homosexual persons is always and totally compulsive and therefore inculpable.”
The Catechism points out, “The number of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies is not negligible. This inclination, which is objectively disordered, constitutes for most of them a trial. They must be accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided. These persons are called to fulfill God’s will in their lives and, if they are Christians, to unite to the sacrifice of the Lord’s cross the difficulties they may encounter from their condition.”
The church notes that homosexual persons are not singled out to a higher standard of morality. The bishops have consistently maintained that the expression of sex is licit only within the confines of a marriage that is open to the possibility of creating new life. Therefore, church teaching requires the same conduct from homosexual and heterosexual single people: chastity. The U.S. bishops also write: “because heterosexuals can usually look forward to marriage and homosexuals, while their orientation continues, might not, the Christian community should provide them a special degree of pastoral understanding and care.”
Generally, the U.S. bishops have focused on pastoral concerns. Along with such concerns, the Vatican also has clarified the philosophical underpinnings of church teaching. Troubled that the church had given mixed signals on the matter of homosexuality in its 1975 Vatican document, for instance, in 1986 the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) emphasized its opposition to living out the homosexual orientation. The CDF wrote: “In the discussion which followed the publication of the 1975 Declaration, an overly benign interpretation was given to the homosexual condition itself, some going so far as to call it neutral, or even good. Although the particular inclination of the homosexual person is not a sin, it is more or less a strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil; and thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder. Therefore, special concern and pastoral attention should be directed toward those who have this condition, lest they be led to believe that the living out of this orientation in homosexual activity is a morally acceptable option. It is not.”
The CDF went on to voice its concern that certain organizations ministering to gay and lesbian Catholics were blurring church teaching. The doctrinal group wrote: “All support should be withdrawn from any organizations which seek to undermine the teachings of the Church, which are ambiguous about it or neglect it entirely.”
Most recently the Vatican has addressed the issue of homosexual marriage, which it considers an assault on the traditional family. Last year, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued Considerations Regarding Proposals to Give Legal Recognition to Unions Between Homosexual Persons_. The document voices the concern that if homosexual relationships are approved by civil law then such a union “becomes an institution of the legal structure and therefore assumes profound influence resulting in changing the organization of society ‘contrary to the common good.’”
Further, the CDF writes: “Lifestyles and the underlying presuppositions these express not only externally shape the life of society, but also tend to modify the younger generation’s perception and evaluation of forms of behavior. Legal recognition of homosexual unions would obscure certain basic moral values and cause a devaluation of the institution of marriage.”
The document also states: "Allowing children to be adopted by persons living in such unions would actually mean doing violence to these children, in the sense that their condition of dependancy would be used to place them in an environment that is not conducive to their full human development. (They would be deprived of the experience of either fatherhood or motherhood.) This is gravely immoral and in open contradiction to the principle recognized also in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, that the best interests of the child as the weaker and more vulnerable party are to be the paramount consideration in every case.
“The inevitable consequence of legal recognition of homosexual unions would be the redefinition of marriage which would become, in its legal status, an institution devoid of essential reference factors linked to heterosexuality—for example, procreation and raising children. . . . Marriage would undergo a radical transformation with grave detriment to the common good.”
Finally, the document concludes, “The principles of respect and nondiscrimination cannot be invoked to support legal recognition of homosexual unions. (Refusing social recognition is only unacceptable when it is contrary to justice.)”
In calling on Catholic politicians to oppose legalizing homosexual marriage, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith argues that legalization would make homosexual marriage a model in society and “obscure values which belong to the common inheritance of humanity. The Church cannot fail to defend these values for the good of men and women and for the good of society itself.”
Dealing with homosexuality is one of a few moral issues that cause many people of good will and divergent understanding a great deal of pain. The church steadfastly maintains that homosexual men and women are called to celibacy, along with all non-married Christians, and all Christians must extend to them compassion and understanding. “Though at times you may feel discouraged, hurt or angry, do not walk away from your families, from the Christian community, from all those who love you,” the U.S. bishops plead to homosexual persons in their 1997 pastoral letter. “In you God is revealed. You are always our children.”
_John Monczunski is an associate editor of this magazine.