Special Report — Bishops’ Pastoral Letter on Homosexuality: What the Bishops Didn’t Say

Published December 1, 1997
DEAL W. HUDSON

When reporting on “Always Our Children,” the secular media failed to note that this was not a document issued by the entire NCCB. What must be said at the outset is that a small committee of the bishops’ conference should not be allowed to use the media to shape opinion on Church teaching. Structural changes in the bishops’ conference must be made to ensure it truly speaks for all the bishops. They also need to review procedures for releasing statements to the press that are pastoral, not doctrinal, in nature. The press, not knowing better, completely ignores this distinction, thus ensuring that the “pastoral” teaching gets passed into the public square; as the “the Catholic Church now teaches. . . .”

No one can doubt the good intentions of those who have drawn up the document. Their desire to help anguished parents, and show compassion to homosexual men and women, is obvious throughout the text. Its concern is expressly pastoral, not doctrinal, meaning that the statement leaves out much Church teaching on homosexuality. At such a moment, it is helpful to remember what was left out.

Two generations ago, the phenomenon of homosexuality would have been fundamentally a personal matter, a truly individual pastoral concern. The classical personal moral norms developed by the Church would have been rather clearly, if not easily, applicable. If an individual experienced strong same-sex attractions, he or she would have to be vigilant in avoiding occasions of sin, such as gathering places for homosexual persons. He or she would have to “mortify” the imagination, avoiding unclean thoughts and inciting reading material. Two generations ago that would have been easier to do than in our own day. Homosexual gathering places were few and difficult to find, and homosexual pornography was almost nonexistent.

The earnest Catholic suffering from same-sex sexual attraction disorder used his common sense and avoided going on a weekend camping trip with a friend he found attractive, or would shower at home rather than in the YMCA locker room. Finally, there was always recourse to the sacraments, to penance, to the Eucharist, to retreats and spiritual direction.

Today homosexuality has developed into a social/cultural phenomenon. The first executive order President Bill Clinton issued after his inauguration overturned established military and legal tradition by admitting homosexual persons to military service. During both of President Clinton’s inaugural celebrations, there were special balls for homosexual persons. The inaugural parade featured a “family float” with homosexual couples. Major corporations have chosen to provide health care and other social benefits to homosexual partnerships. Princeton University opened its married graduate student housing to homosexual couples, excluding some heterosexual married couples because there was no longer enough housing available. Harvard University permitted a homosexual “wedding ceremony” in its chapel. The state of Hawaii seriously has considered granting legal marital status to homosexual partnerships.

A character on a national TV sitcom declares her homosexuality, and major news magazines celebrate the event with laudatory cover stories. Homosexual persons now proudly broadcast their proclivities by flying the homosexual rainbow flag from their windows and affixing homosexual symbols to their automobile bumpers. Homosexual activists take to the streets, linking arms in common cause with feminists to support access to abortion.

Homosexuality has, over the past twenty years, become de rigueur. Now it is a cause celebre, the “in” thing. Undergraduates who formerly dabbled in leftish causes now dabble in homosexuality. Hardly a week goes by in which National Public Radio does not have a homosexual feature. Every major city now has “gay and lesbian” bookstores, cafes, theaters, gyms, restaurants, and newspapers.

What is most perplexing about “Always Our Children” is the total lack of acknowledgment—or even recognition—of this terribly complicating social/cultural phenomenon. Those well-intentioned people who, in their naive desire to be sensitive, use the ostensibly benign terms “gay” and “lesbian” do not see how this plays into the larger social picture. This lack of insight is even more perplexing when church ministers are asked to use the words homosexual, gay, and lesbian in “honest and accurate ways . . . from the pulpit.” The whole tenor of the pastoral message leads one to think that its authors would be horrified if those words were indeed used in “honest and accurate ways from the pulpit.” In that instance, “homosexual” would refer to one with a same-sex sexual attraction disorder that is ordered toward objectively sinful actions. “Gay” and “lesbian” would be identified as the charged political—indeed, ideological— terms that they are.

To name these realities accurately is no disservice to those who suffer from the disorder, but instead provides the basis for the kind of pastoral care and family solicitude homosexuals require.

The spiritual writers were unanimous in counseling immediate flight from any sexual temptation, avoiding even an occasion of sexual sin with the same rigor one would avoid the sin itself. One did not dally with sexual temptation, or be so arrogant as to think one could “handle” it— because experience had long shown that one would lose more often than not.

Sexual questions have always formed part of the training of Catholic priests. There was a time when the awesome power, the delicacy, and the divine character of human sexuality was so acknowledged that moral theologians, lecturing on sex, would don white surplices over their cassocks and keep a lighted candle on the desk! Such was the reverence— and the realism—shown by the teachers of the Church before the power of human sexuality.

In the pastoral message, one does not sense this respectful, cautionary attitude toward the power of the human sex drive. That caution is all the more in order when the drive for life has become fundamentally disordered. It then becomes, potentially, a drive toward death rather than life, as Josef Pieper makes clear in his chapter on temperance in The Four Cardinal Virtues. Homosexual acts always have been potentially destructive, even before the advent of HIV/AIDS.

Our society has come to speak of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered (yes, honest-to-goodness) as though they constituted a particular race of human beings. These categories have actually come to be used in the nondiscrimination policies of many civil jurisdictions and companies, and homosexuals are listed among protected classes of persons who suffer from hate crimes.

No one should be subject to unjust discrimination or violence in this country or anywhere in the world. However, immunity from prejudice or violence is derived from the dignity of our fundamental humanity, not from an accidental human characteristic such as race or sex or ethnicity.

When it comes to providing some special societal protection or privilege to certain individuals by virtue of their homosexuality, the question must arise: What is a homosexual? Or if one prefers to use the nomenclature: Who is gay? Who is lesbian?

Is one gay or lesbian by self-proclamation? Is the designation based on outward behaviors or inner dispositions? Is it determined by the magazines one reads, by the bars one frequents, by the fantasies in which one indulges? Is there really such a thing as a homosexual, and if there is, how is he so classed? If he feels a strong same-sex sexual attraction but has never acted upon it, does he qualify as a homosexual? Would he want to qualify? If, in a moment of weakness, he committed a single homosexual act over the last five years, does he qualify as a homosexual? Would he want to qualify? Why would anyone want to adopt as one’s fundamental social identity a persona based on a sexual attraction, strong or weak?

In 1986, when the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued its “Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons,” it chose its words very carefully. It did not speak of homosexuals. It certainly did not speak of gays and lesbians. It spoke first and fundamentally of persons, because persons are those who carry the dignity of the children of God. The document refused to reduce persons with immortal souls, persons destined to the divine dignity of the Godhead, to sexual proclivities. Sexual drives are not to be ignored, to be sure, but they do not define us. God has created only men and women, men and women who are either chaste or unchaste, whether the actions they engage in are homosexual or heterosexual.

Scripture still has it straight: “Male and female he created them.”

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