The Gay Community and the Catholic Church
by Jack Castiglione
The Turbulent 1980s, 1990s
I am not a theologian. I am neither a priest nor an ex-priest. I have never attended a seminary or taken courses in theology at any college. And, I am not interested in engaging in playful intellectual discussion concerning the historical or scriptural development of Catholic Church teachings, or any religion for that matter.
Many, probably most, influential thinkers in the American Catholic Church, which includes, of course, bishops, theologians, and noted authors, have no difficulty understanding gay and lesbian sexuality as morally neutral. That is to say, whether a person is straight or gay, sexual or not, has nothing to do with his or her being moral or immoral. It is, rather, whether a person treats others with respect, care and love that truly matters in Christianity. The progressive leaders of Catholic thought tend to join the ranks of other religious and civic leaders who also see gays and lesbians as legitimate members of society and who are valued by God. They recognize that homosexuals have the same level of human need for intimacy as heterosexuals do.
But it kind of depends on the venue when the conversation takes place. I have come to understand that it is common for priests and bishops to put out contradictory messages about the level of acceptability of gays and lesbians. From the pulpit, the more conservative Vatican language is likely to be heard. In a one-on-one situation, either in the confessional or during an office visit, a much more realistic approach will be heard from progressive and more psychologically astute priests and bishops. These priests will probably acknowledge the importance and need for sexual intimacy among partners of gays and lesbians and make some ambiguous comments approving of it. They may even cite, and properly so, that these sexual matters fall under the guise of the individual’s informed conscience thinking, which is the “prime” factor of consideration.
I want to share my own experience with conflicting messages from priests. I remember when I was about 17 years old. I really loved to beat off. (Sorry, I hate the term “masturbate,” it’s so clinical.) I mean, I thoroughly enjoyed it. I’d do it every couple of days. And it was so awesome.
From time-to-time, I’d here priests from the pulpit talk about it as sin. That went way over my head. Why was that a sin? It’s my penis, it’s my action, in private, and no one else is involved. And it felt really wonderful. The churches view just does not make sense. At some point, I wanted to resolve this conflict. So I walked a mile to get to my local church. Mary, Star of the Sea. I knocked on the door, as the lady if I could talk to a priest and one soon came to the door. “Yes? May I help you?” said the priest who seemed to be in his mid-60s, speaking with an Italian accent.
“Father, I would like to talk to you.” And he showed me into his office.
“What can I help you with?”
“Is masturbation a sin?” I blatantly asked.
He smiled with some embarrassment, “Yes.”
“Why? I enjoy it.”
“Well, it’s like a gun. It can be fun to use, but it depends on how you use it. Target shooting can be fun, but you have to be careful with it for anything else. It’s a part of our bodies for procreation. Anything else is a waste of use.”
That was not an answer at all. I mean, if I do not wish to make children, I cannot touch my body in this most pleasant way? I did not know I was gay when I was 17. (I was actually 21 when I fully understood that and had my first sexual experience.) But as a gay man, am I supposed to ignore those most pleasant urges for the rest of my life? What the hell is that? It made no sense at all. I soon found myself walking home, understanding no more than I did when I first arrived there.
About 2 or 3 years later, I was away to Humboldt state College. On one weekday I found myself near a very small, quaint old redwood Catholic Church, it looked more like a charming rustic chapel. I decided to go in and make a confession as I usually did every few months. It happened to be at a time when confessions were not scheduled. But the young priest, maybe in his mid-20s said it would be fine. So I went into the confessional and said, “Bless me, father, for I have sinned, …” Then I started to tell him the few sins I committed. “Father, I masturbated a couple of times a week and I think I …”
He interrupted, “So for you, masturbation is a sin?”
“I don’t know why it’s a sin, but that’s what I have been told.”
“But do you think there is something bad about it? Do you believe it is a sin?”
“No, I never saw it that way.”
“Then there is no need to mention it in the confessional.”
A huge weight was lifted off my shoulders. I remember talking to someone a few years later at work. His theory was that it is an issue of control. If someone can control someone’s sex life, they have a tremendous psychological power of that person. In other words, as human beings, most of us are born with a rather demanding urge to beat off. No matter who we are, we do – naturally – give in, at least on occasion, to that most wonderful urge. And if we were taught, and do believe, that masturbation is an evil sin, we then need the Church to get us back on the unnatural “straight” path in life. Since we are going to continue committing that “sin,” we will continually need the Church to forgive us. Two things: we have been set up to fail, and we have been set up to need the Church.
Even though masturbation is not a core issue with the Catholic Church scripturally speaking, it is beginning to open the door to doubt, a questioning that continued to grow inside me. There were two parts of this that were unsettling. One was that two priests held opposite positions on the sinfulness of masturbating. But worst was the lack of any basis for vilifying the act of one pleasuring himself. The more I thought about it, the more stupid it seemed.
Though I did not agree with all the Church teachings, I did continue to work with the Church to try to change certain old fashion elements or concepts that modern psychology decried as being counter to a healthy body and brain. As one theologian abruptly put it, “bad psychology is bad theology.” What is harmful to, or detracting from, our health and well-being, cannot be something God wishes for us.
Getting back to my attempt to be helpful to the Church, I made a phone call. “Hi, Orin. How are you doing? This is Jack. Castiglione?” I said hoping he’d recall who I was and that I didn’t catch him at an inconvenient moment. Psychiatrists tend to be rather scheduled and not able to chit-chat.
“Yes,… Jack. I’m fine. What can I do for you?” he inquired with a certain amount of hesitancy. I sensed this was not the best time to call, but with some people, it never is.
“I’d like to ask for your help,” I prodded using my usual direct approach but trying also to be diplomatic.
“Yes?” he said with continuing caution, followed by silence.
Well, so much for a warm reception! I jumped into the purpose of my call as I asked Orin, “Do you know a Dr. Joseph Nicolosi, … he’s based in Dallas, Texas?”
“Well. I’m calling as many professional people as I can, mainly those in the field of psychology, to ask them to write letters to the Archbishop of Los Angeles. The Archdioceses, in cahoots with Nicolosi, who is coming to L.A. next month, is sponsoring this anti-gay seminar. I’m trying to stop it, or at least stop the Church support of it.”
He didn’t speak, so I continued, “I have a brochure advertising a seminar titled, `Homosexuality: A New Christian Ethic.’ It talks about, quote, `… an active program for outgrowing same-sex attraction,’ unquote. It talks about supposed causes, idiotic treatment programs, reparative therapy where they try to make gay people straight, and …
“Jack.” Orin interrupted. “The psychiatric community laughs at the Nico…er… what’s-his-name’s approach. It’s so stupid nobody with any sophistication will even listen to it. The only thing important about his approach is that it causes so much misery.”
“Yes, it does! And I feel the Archdioceses got roped into cosponsoring this thing, and I think that if we get certain key people, maybe the heads of the psychology departments of a couple of universities and some other noted and respected individuals to write letters to the Archbishop…”
“As for the Catholic Church, … Jack, the Catholic Church doesn’t give a damn about gays and lesbians! It never did and it never will!”
“I…er, … don’t think so, Orin,” I spoke gently, not wanting actually to start an argument. “I’ve been corresponding with Archbishop Mahony over the past couple of years, and I think we can…”
“Jack!” he shouted. Then, after a pause to collect himself, “Jack. I know you’ve been involved with that gay Catholic organization, Dignity and the Church and all that. And perhaps I haven’t been real clear in the past in my position, but you’re wasting your time. The Church is not going to change its view on homosexuality.”
“Jack! I have worked with hundreds of clients who have been chewed up by the Church and spit out. YOUR CHURCH has caused more hurt and damage to gay people than any government or institution in the history of the world!”
“That’s probably true,” I sadly agreed, “but I think…”
“Jack!…” Orin shouted again being insistent. “Look, Jack,” he lowered his voice, “You’re a nice guy and all that, but I’m not going to write any letters to the Archbishop. It’s just a waste of time and energy. The Church is not even willing to take an honest, educated look at the psychology involved. The Church is only interested in justifying its past positions, not in questioning whether they are right or wrong. The best thing the gay community can do is to get out of the Church and ignore!” Orin spoke in a manner showing me he had run out of time and patience on this subject.
“Wow!” I thought aloud. “There’s no changing your mind, is there?”
“Well. Okay,” I surrendered. “I appreciate your returning my call. Thanks for talking to me.”
I hung up the phone feeling off balance and deflated as I sat there reflecting on Orin’s echoing words. How odd. The straight community disowns me because I’m gay, the gay community disowns me because I’m Catholic, and the Catholic Church disowns me, “officially,” not because I’m gay, but because I feel good about myself and want to share the knowledge of my okayness with the Church as well as with society in general.
Orin’s attitude is not only valid and well-grounded in fact, but it is also the majority view held by gays and lesbians. Individuals, as well as groups, can be quite militant against the Catholic Church and other “traditional” religious institutions. Most of us feel that the Church has not only emotionally and psychologically damaged us in our past, but continues to stifle and inhibit our sense of well-being today.
Still, I needed to try to stop Joseph Nicolosi from spreading his stupid and unfounded and perverted views that gays must be psychologically transformed. I reviewed in my mind all that Orin said to me in our last phone conversation about the Church never changing its anti-gay stance. Maybe it is true. Maybe it is all a waste of energy. My effort to have Archbishop Mahony cancel the Nicolosi seminar included asking nearly two dozen prominent people in the fields of psychology, education and civil rights to write to the Archbishop. My own letter pleaded as follows:
I am distressed by the attached flyer advertising a seminar titled “Homosexuality: A New Christian Ethic.” It indicates that it will be held in cooperation with the Archdiocese Office of Family Life. I have shown this flyer to four licensed psychologists whose consistent first reactions were to laugh at such an approach in light of today’s knowledge of sexual orientation.
Your Excellency, I cannot laugh at this, I find it too rejecting, hurting, and offensive. I have lain awake at night thinking about the purpose of this seminar which is to teach to “Pastors, Spiritual Directors, Counselors, and all others concerned…” the scientifically unfounded and generally discarded belief that gays and lesbians can and should be “changed.” The worst of all of this is that this seminar, rather than promoting the unconditional love of Jesus Christ, directly promotes rejection, poor self-image, ignorance, and judgment, and ultimately promotes hatred, abuse, discrimination, and violence.
In struggling with the sometimes rejecting words and actions of the leaders of the Church, I have focused on you because you are my teacher and because you seemed accepting and embracing of the gay Roman Catholic community. I promoted the Church through you to the (literally) thousands of gay and lesbian Catholics I communicated with since you came to Los Angeles. But actions such as your support for this seminar cause me to temper my words and to feel increasingly estranged from my Church. Do you really want gays and lesbians to surrender their self-respect to “change ministers”? Gay and lesbian Catholics will continue to feel unwelcome in the Church as long as they see events like this seminar of antiquated thinking. It is becoming increasingly difficult for me and other Roman Catholics to maintain our allegiance to “the Church” when it is still debating whether we are acceptable of not.
Yours in Christ,
The Archbishop wrote back stating that this seminar was an appropriate outreach program for the Church to offer to the gay and lesbian Catholic community. It was held as scheduled. Orin says to leave the Church alone; forget about it! Ignore it! There was some measurable accomplishment, however.
I was told by one of the Archbishop’s assistants, that because of the ruckus I raised — no, because of the truth I raised — the Archdiocese would think twice before sponsoring any more anti-gay seminars, programs, classes, or whatever, in the future. I was informed that the Archdiocese lent its support to the Joseph Nicolosi “Reparative Therapist” seminar without giving proper consideration of the degrading and hurting messages contained in it. Furthermore, some of the people who assisted in setting up the seminar actually apologized to me and indicated that they did not know it was an anti-gay program, and assured me that they would not be a party to such an event again. However, if such a seminar were scheduled again, a greater effort must be and would be, mounted by the gay community to stop it. [Note: As it turned out, no other anti-gay seminars like this were ever held again in the Los Angeles Archdiocese.]
Many gays and lesbians feel that the Church’s periodic anti-gay “theological” edicts issued as far back as the Middle Ages. That’s when anti-gay sentiment became broadly entrenched in social thinking. This broad-based, anti-gay sentiment has caused so much pain and degradation in gays and lesbians that it is beyond forgiveness as well as beyond repair. The Church’s position on gay and lesbian sexual activity is so counter to the realities of human nature that it is viewed as being both stupid and cruel. Worse yet, in light of the current deadly AIDS epidemic, the Church’s prohibition of the use of condoms to help protect the health of the gay population is no less than criminal.
It is appropriate to bring in the condom issue here because it relates both to sex and health, and many people don’t comprehend the unreasonable and dangerous view held by the Church. The Church’s prohibition of the use of condoms can be discussed as it relates to three groups of people. First, we have married couples, the Church’s most honored group of Catholics, and, some say, the Church’s only truly respectable laity. Church edicts prohibit the use of condoms (and all other artificial means of birth control) by married couples because they proclaim that all sexual activity must be open to conception. Catholic Church teaching allows natural methods of birth control such as the rhythm method, but that involves guesswork and uncertainty and does not provide continual sexual access between husband and wife. (I wonder if the Church allows married women who are past menopause to engage in sexual activity since they are biologically unable to bear children. Is their sexual activity branded as “shameful” because it is for pleasure only?) I suppose one could validly summarize the Church’s concern for people who are married as, “If you do not want children, don’t have sex.” Or, to put it another way, “Have all the sex you want without artificial birth control devices, and accept all the children that result.” According to surveys, I have seen, 80% of married Catholic women in the civilized world must find this Church position unrealistic or inappropriate since they practice artificial birth control regularly.
For the second group of people, unmarried heterosexuals, Church teaching prohibits the use of condoms simply because there is to be no premarital sexual activity, not to mention the possibility of children being born out of wedlock. These people are allowed to engage in sexual activity to their heart’s content, provided they start it after the wedding ceremony. So the Church’s position is to wait. “If you want to have sex, you must choose the option of marriage.” So declares the Church. Well, at least it’s something; the Church is recognizing their sexual needs.
Therefore, heterosexual people who are married can have sex “now,” and heterosexual people so are unmarried can have sex “later,” as long as condoms are not used. I wonder if the Church considers that even married couples fall from monogamy and may need the use condoms to prevent the spread of AIDS. (Do the dictators of Church policy believe that vows are never broken? Has the Vatican been moved to Fantasyland?)
Now, let’s move on to the final group, homosexuals. Here, the Church also prohibits the use of condoms. Why? Because they’re going to produce babies? No. Because they’re supposed to wait to be married? No. Gay men, per se, no longer marry because most of us no longer feel the need to pretend that we’re straight. The prohibition against gays using condoms is not based on the Church’s historic stand against artificial birth control. In fact, the pope should embrace the gay community because it practices the ultimate and most effective form of NATURAL birth control: homosexual sexual activity.
The Church’s objection to gays using condoms, of course, is not as a form of artificial birth control, but rather because it would be giving approval to historically prohibited sexual activity. According to Church teaching, gays and lesbians are never to have sex because they are not going to get married. Church leaders realize that true homosexuals will always be homosexual, yet the best it can come up with is to tell gays and lesbians that they are never to have sex. This is so unrealistic that it’s only subscribers are those heterosexual adults who also stay up Christmas Eve to await the arrival of Santa Claus.
In recent years, prompted by the strengthening gay rights movement as well as by the prestigious psychological associations that consider homosexuality a healthy and acceptable sexual orientation, some bishops and theologians have been expressing more understanding and a greater acceptance of gays and lesbians as deserving equal consideration and equal status in the Church and throughout society. Bishops have issued statements couched in cautious Vatican language stating in the necessary roundabout manner, that homosexuality and gay and lesbian relationship are acceptable. (I’ll document this in a moment.) Priests, bishops, and theologians who understand the need to be supportive of the gay community base their position on a well-established Roman Catholic doctrine called the primacy of the individual conscience. Church “permission” for gays and lesbians to engage in sexual activity is “granted” based on the Church teaching that one must follow the dictates of his or her informed conscience.
Fr. Richard P. McBrien, head of the department of theology at Notre Dame University, sums it up this way, stating that if “after appropriate study, reflection, and prayer, a person is convinced that his or her conscience is correct, in spite of a conflict with the moral teachings of the Church, the person not only may but MUST follow the dictates of conscience rather than the teachings of the Church.”
The ultimate authority of the individual conscience does allow for gays and lesbians in relationships to have sex because there is no better, more realistic alternative open to them. The ability for many gays and lesbians to enter into committed, long-term, loving, monogamous relationships is viewed by some priests, bishops, and theologians to be the best gays and lesbians can achieve in our society. In this practical light, and supported by individual conscience, gay and lesbian relationships are not only acceptable but even encouraged by some priests and Bishops.
The point I’m leading to is that if Church leaders can find even this slim justification for the formation of sexually active homosexual relationships, they have a responsibility to inform gays and lesbians of the importance of taking precautions to prevent the spread of AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. They have a moral responsibility to recommend the use of condoms to gays who are sexually active. It is naive and ignorant for the Vatican to ignore the sexual aspect of a gay man’s life, but it is unconscionable and inhumane to withhold information from gay Catholics about the usefulness of condoms in helping to halt the AIDS epidemic. Even more unforgivable is the fact that priests and bishops, each in their own way, actually condemn the use of condoms by gay Catholics, putting out the implied message that it is better for a gay man to die of AIDS than to practice safer sex.
Is there any wonder why the leaders of the gay community have little use for the Roman Catholic Church? The Church, along with other conservative and fundamentalist religions, including Orthodox Judaism, puts out terribly dehumanizing anti-gay messages and then have the nerve to ask, “Why have so many homosexuals left their churches and temples?”
How about these answers: “To save their sanity?” or, “To save their ability to love themselves?” or, “To practice Christianity or Judaism?” or, “To be respected members of society?” or, “So they can live!” The fact many gays and lesbians find it necessary to leave the Church prompts Church leaders to assume stupidly that gays and lesbians lack religious values.
The members of the gay Catholic community respond to these negative messages and rejecting them in various ways. Some are angry and hostile and will have nothing further to do with any organized religion. Others will simply become indifferent to the Church and continue to practice their spirituality on a personal and individual level. A few of these will join a more liberal Protestant church, or perhaps a Unitarian church. Still, others will hang on to all their traditions and continue to practice Catholicism in the manner taught to them in childhood, but simply ignore the anti-gay statements of the Church. These gays and lesbians may feel that they disagree with the Church on some non-centrally issues such as birth control or the need for priestly celibacy, and the gay and lesbian issue, but believe in the core value of the Catholic Church. For some odd reason, maybe the persistence of habit, they overlook the fact they are supporting a religion that rejects an essential element of who they are. There seems to be a major principle that is lost here. The full respect of gay people may be a side issue in the Church, but it is a most central element in the makeup of gay and lesbian people.
Still, there is another group of gay and lesbian Catholics, which I hope is declining in number. It is comprised of those gays and lesbians who have bought into the Church’s position that gays and lesbians are immoral. Of all various groups mentioned here, these are truly the most unfortunate and the most injured; for they believe in the traditional teachings that they are psychologically flawed, spiritually inadequate, and unworthy of equal respect either in the Church or in society in general. These people tend to be very closeted, to lead double lives, to sustain poor self-images, and because they are ashamed of their homosexuality, to choose to draw no support from the proud, organized gay community. Many of them flounder in self-doubt and reverberating frustration all the days of their lives.
And, finally, there is an ever-growing group of gay and lesbian Catholics who take pride in being both members of the gay community as well as active members of the Catholic Church. Many of these people will join gay and lesbian Catholic support and service organizations, often with a political element to help bring about a more accepting attitude among the Church hierarchy. These organizations are known by different names in different countries. In the United States, the main organization is called Dignity. It was established in 1969 and has about six thousand members and tens of thousands of supporters. In about one hundred major cities across the country, Dignity is sponsoring Roman Catholic Masses, prayer services, rap sessions, speaker bureaus, political strategies, support groups, educational programs, and dialogue opportunities with local bishops. They frequently participate in different community service programs such as those to assist people with AIDS, the homelessness, and the imprisoned. Additionally, it may provide a host of social events such as parties, potluck dinners, and theater nights.
The obvious question about Dignity (it must be obvious because I’m asked it all the time) is, “If the Church has a real problem with gays and lesbians, and gays and lesbians have a real problem with the Church, why don’t you two just go your own separate ways?” Well, there are several reasons for not leaving the Church. Quite frankly, the Church does not have an anti-gay foundation. Jesus Christ never said one word about homosexuality. He is not quoted anywhere in the Bible on the subject. The various authors of the writings of both the Old and New Testaments who have been credited with condemning, directly and by innuendo, people who are naturally gay or lesbian, seem to have had their writings seriously mistranslated. Since this book is not intended to provide a forum for discussing such a highly technical task as translating two-thousand-year-old writings, let me offer supportive documentation in the following two references: The Church and the Homosexual, by Fr. John J. McNeill, published by Next Year Publications, 1985; and Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality, by Dr. John Boswell, published by The University of Chicago Press, 1980.
These and other contemporary scholars have shown that the frequently quoted passages condemning homosexuality, if correctly translated, actually condemn inhospitality, rape, sodomy, infidelity, pagan behavior, and child abuse. Nowhere in the New Testament, according to many references to these sources, is there any evidence that its authors ever criticized gay sexual activities as part of an orientation or natural drive. According to McNeill, Boswell, and many other technical writers who studied Scripture interpretations, when sexual activity between two men was condemned, it was presumed that the two men were heterosexual and therefore deviating from THEIR natural HETEROSEXUAL sexual practices. There are no admonishments in the New Testament of true gay relationships even involving sexual activity.
Homosexuality, A Positive Catholic Perspective published by the Archdiocese of Baltimore in 1986, confirms this understanding, or should I say misunderstanding. “The term `homosexual,’ despite misleading English texts, does not actually appear in any of the original languages of Sacred Scripture. The concept has no equivalent in Old Testament Hebrew or in New Testament Greek, contrary to some attempted interpretations. In fact, the first use of the expression `homosexuals’ (as one word for two distinctly separated nouns) never occurs in an English translation until 1946.
“Biblical authors had no concept of sexual orientation, whether heterosexual or homosexual, as we presently perceive it. Such a distinction presumes a recognition possible only with the advent of modern psychological analysis.
“They [scriptural writers] did not think of homosexuality as a given orientation but as a distortion of one’s sexual makeup. Even into the last century, society believed `homosexual’ people to be `heterosexual’ individuals, who were either emotional midgets or deliberate perverts… Indeed, the Bible makes no statement about homosexual persons living in a permanent and faithful relationship.”
If you read accurate detailed accounts of early European history, you may find it interesting that during the first two centuries the Roman Empire, which includes the time and the setting in which the Gospels were written, was ruled by emperors who were gay. Furthermore, gay relationships were not only common but also protected under Roman law. Marriages between gays and between lesbians were well known and performed until the middle of the fourth century. So while gay relationships were continually present and publicly obvious, there is no evidence that Jesus Christ, the social and legal mores of the time, or the intent of the authors of the Gospels was critical of natural gay relationships. These Scriptural writers never demoralized or even mentioned people who were naturally attracted to people of the same gender. Gay relationships existed openly all around Rome without social criticism, according to Dr. John Boswell.
All this is to say that if Jesus Christ and His early Church were not anti-gay than all present-day anti-gay discourse and rhetoric is simply unfounded and meaningless. Other than for historical intrigue, it really does not matter in which century (after the time of Christ), Church leaders began to incorporate contrived anti-gay elements into the mainstream of Christian thinking. It’s unimportant to me to know exactly which medieval figures are responsible for adulterating Christianity, or what social, political, and economic forces were at play. My concern is that these baseless anti-gay attitudes offend, degrade, and hurt tens of millions of people even to this day. For many gays and lesbians, leaving the Church is tantamount to abandoning a call for truth and justice.
To understand the uncorrupted spirituality of Catholicism is to appreciate the magnificence and the simplicity of the unconditional love of God through the messages of Jesus Christ and His disciples. Gay and lesbian Roman Catholics can rest their case on the fact that they are loved by God unconditionally (a claim fully supported by Church tradition), and this surely cancels out all Vatican statements suggesting the contrary. In actuality, “the Church” is not defined as priests and bishops, or even as the papacies. It is not the collection of documented Christian thought, or the celebration of the Mass, or the Vatican buildings with all its Church facilities around the world. It is the people. In the Roman Catholic sense, “the Church” is all the people who subscribe to the core beliefs of Catholicism known as Church dogma. Since I am included, I am part of “the Church.” I am a valid member who claims the right to participate in the Church and who acknowledges an essential responsibility to communicate my experience of God.
Due to a turn to conservatism under the papacy of John Paul II, and to his narrow view of acceptability on various social and religious matters, the Church is losing its influential grip on American Catholics, not to mention Catholics around the world. This is viewed as a positive turn of events in every liberal and progressive thinking segment of American culture, including the gay community. It is not to say that these people are opposed to Christianity, or even to the institutional Church, per se, but it is definite opposition to the un-American, “We in the Vatican, and only we in the Vatican, know the mind of God, so don’t question us!” approach to religion. Although some people may want to throw out the baby with the bath water, it is more the shamefully dictatorial and rustic policies of Church leaders such as John Paul II, rather than the Church itself, which these people find objectionable. Moreover, it isn’t just gays and lesbians who are dissatisfied. Look at the Vatican’s view of the largest “minority” group in the world, women, the only true “silent majority!” Rather than modernize Church thinking, John Paul II continues the degrading mentality that defines women’s role in the Church as having babies at home, or cooking and cleaning at the local rectory. Yes, of course, women, both religious and secular, hold administrative positions in the Church today. We all can bring to mind the proverbial image of the outspoken mother superior who runs her nunnery with an “iron fist.” These, though, are not policy-making positions. They are allowed to share no authority with priests and bishops. How ridiculous, in light of today’s progressively sophisticated social systems, to maintain that women would be incapable or inappropriate leaders in the Church! As the Church continues to hang on, tooth and nail, to outdated values, it will be regarded with less and less significance.
Once again, it could be asked, “If it’s that bad, why don’t you just leave the Church?” Even though it is experiencing serious problems and a decline in status in most parts of the world, the Catholic Church remains an important institution which still commands an appreciable amount of attention and respect. It is, therefore, important continually to seek to strip away it’s barnacle growth which obscures the simple message of Jesus Christ: Love one another. I hope, in time, and with proper strategies and hard work, gays and lesbians can affect Church policy in the same way they have caused local, state and federal laws to become fairer and more supportive. In fact, the gay civil rights movement already has had a significant effect on the local and regional levels of Church structure. I’m not suggesting that the Pope will say, “Homosexuality is good,” but I do feel it is realistic to believe that Church leaders will soon stop issuing demeaning and hurtful statements about gays and lesbians, that is, providing enough of us remain actively involved in the Church to continue to question its tainted perception of truth.
The Church’s Response To The Gay Community
The Church does have a solid basis in which it can help eliminate discrimination against gays and lesbians and encourage the establishment of their basic human rights. In 1965, at the Second Vatican Council, some two thousand Catholic bishops ratified The Church in the Modern World, which stated in part, “With respect to the fundamental rights of the person, every type of discrimination, whether social or cultural, whether based on sex, race, color, social condition, language, or religion, is to be overcome and eradicated as contrary to God’s intent. For in truth it must still be regretted that fundamental personal rights are not yet being universally honored…”
Two years later, the American Catholic bishops issued a similar statement, “Indignity, injustice, and inhumanity, at any time, in any place, toward any person, should arouse in us a deep and burning concern… It is a concern active in us when individuals are denied human or civil rights…” (The Church in Our Day)
The American bishops focused specifically on gays and lesbians in 1976 by stating, “Some persons find themselves, through no fault of their own, to have a homosexual orientation. Homosexuals, like everyone else, should not suffer from prejudice against their basic human rights. They have a right to respect, friendship, and justice…” (To Live in Christ Jesus)
The gay rights movement, with its cries for social justice, has captured the attention of various bishops who have been willing to sit down with gays and lesbians and discuss the issues. Several bishops have individually issued statements calling for more compassion and understanding of the gay community as well as for the protection of their civil rights. A few bishops have been realistic enough to appreciate the needs of gays and lesbians to enter into long term relationships and even to have sexual intimacy with in those relationships.
The following excerpts provide examples of how some Church leaders can be extremely pastoral in their approach to ministering to gays and lesbians and show their desire and ability to incorporate a modern day, healthy psychological approach which reflects their understanding that gays and lesbians, like everyone else, are only human.
The Catholic bishops of England and Wales stated in 1980, “The pastor may distinguish between irresponsible, indiscriminate sexual activity and the permanent association between two homosexual persons, who feel incapable of enduring a solitary life devoid of sexual expression. This distinction may be borne in mind when offering pastoral advice and establishing the degree of responsibility…
“Many homophiles (homosexuals) find the loneliness of their lives a burden. They long for intimate partnerships as much as heterophils (heterosexuals) but cannot find it in marriage. It is this longing for intimacy which leads some to form stable unions with each other. There will frequently be a physical genital expression in such unions…” (An Introduction to the Pastoral Care of Homosexual People)
Archbishop Rembert Weakland of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 1980 said, “In justice, I would hope that we can grow beyond the myths surrounding the Gay person, myth, for example, that picture all Gays as perverts of children – a picture that simply is no true.
“We must be concerned, also about their rights. Consequently, I cannot believe it is a Christian attitude that would block them from holding responsible positions in the community.
“It seems clear to me that Gay people – like all of us – fare better when they are able to develop stable relationships…” (Who is Our Neighbor?)
In 1981, the Archdiocese of Baltimore was one of the first Catholic authorities to offer a constructive gay and lesbian outreach program. Many dioceses soon followed this lead:
“Because of prejudice and misunderstanding, men and women with a homosexual orientation (more properly spoken of as gays and lesbians) have suffered public ridicule, social exclusion, and economic hardship, thereby denigrating their human dignity by denying them respect, equality and full participation in society. Therefore the Roman Catholic Church of Baltimore is setting up a formal and public ministry to gay and lesbian people to bear witness to its opposition to the injustice they have suffered and are suffering:
“The needs of gays and lesbians cannot be stated for them by those who are not part of that group… Gays and lesbians must have the freedom as well as the means to make known to the whole Church the needs they have.
“Secondly, the Church must listen to gays and lesbians to learn what they have to teach about the saving presence of Christ among us. As the scriptures show over and over again, God takes the side of the poor and the oppressed.” (Ministry to Gay and Lesbian Catholic Persons)
In 1983 the Washington State Catholic Conference of bishops issued another major statement supporting the legitimacy of the gay community:
“Some persons fear an orientation and a style of living that differ in important respects from their own. They are gripped by fear of the unknown. Others have received misinformation and prejudicial attitudes from parents and the surrounding environment. In addition, many Christians have based irrational opposition to homosexuals upon a false or fundamentalistic reading of the Scriptures. Within the Catholic Church, magisterial teaching has been incorrectly used as a basis for acts against gays and lesbians, and the teaching itself, at times, has been expressed in a way that has occasioned prejudicial attitudes and activity on the part of some Church members.” (The Prejudice Against Homosexuals and the Ministry of the Church)
These and other statements reflect the rapidly growing interest by Church leaders in responding with encouragement and theological support of the gay civil rights movement. Since scripture “interpretations” has been, and are still being, used by various conservative church leaders to persecute and outcast gays and lesbians, there is clearly a strong sense of responsibility on the part of those opposing religious leaders to come to the defense of the gay community. Indeed, many churches and religious organizations took a formal stand to support civil rights for gays and lesbians. Among these are: National Council of Churches, Lutheran Church of America, United Church of Christ, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), National Federation of Priests’ Councils, Commonwealth, Christianity and Crisis, National Conference of Catholic Bishops, Catholic Theological Society of America, The Protestant Episcopal Church, Unitarian-Universalist Association, United Methodist Church, United Presbyterian Church, Union of American Hebrew Congregations, Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism, and Society of Friends (Quaker). The list goes on extensively.
However, 1983 was the halting point for the Catholic Church. Pope John Paul II put down his slippered, dictatorial foot to stop his bishops and Catholic organizations from lending further support to the gay and lesbian quest for equality. Within a few years, several examples were made to assert Vatican control of the magisterial reins. Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen of Seattle, Washington, had certain powers and responsibilities taken away from him due to his general supportiveness of the gay community’s acceptability, for lending support to Dignity (a gay and lesbian Roman Catholic organization with a goal to secure unconditional acceptance in the Roman Catholic Church), and for taking various other progressive stands that the conservative Vatican opposes. Due to pressure from the local population and especially from the American bishops, his full position was restored a few years later, but not without creating a complete mess for the Archdioceses of Seattle and exposing the embarrassing, heavy-handed punishment for Hunthausen.
Fr. Charles Curran, noted Catholic theologian and author of more than forty books on a variety of theological issues, was fired as a professor of theology at Catholic University of America because he found the gay and lesbian cause for equality to be respectable and because he believed that the Catholic Church should reexamine some other outdated, rigidly held positions such as those involving remarried Catholics, the role of women in the Church, the supremacy of the individual conscience, and the need for Catholic theologians to engage in free and vigorous discussions of all elements of theology.
A third example of exerting control was made of Fr. John J. McNeill who authored The Church and the Homosexual and was granted the imprimi potest (permission to publish) under the papacy of Pope Paul VI. Imprimi potest does not denote that the presentation of the subject matter is approved or that the conclusions reached are accepted by the Church. According to Fr. McNeill, it simply means that “the book is a prudent work that meets the standards of scholarship for publication on a controversial moral topic.” Two years after the book was published, and under the new reign of Pope John Paul II, the imprimi potest was removed, and Fr. McNeill was prohibited from making any further appearances or giving future lectures on the subject.
These kinds of harsh and, at least, recently unprecedented disciplinary actions not only threw a wrench into the course of progress of Church’s recognition of gays and lesbians; but it also put the fear of God, or more accurately and worse, the fear of readied papal punishment in the minds of Catholic bishops. The Vatican went so far as to seek to abolish the civil rights for gays and lesbians already achieved inasmuch as those rights were establishing societal legitimacy for them.
So why is Pope John Paul II doing all this? He is not just stating a Church position; he is demanding that priests, theologians, and bishops comply with it to the letter, without delay, and without question. Does he hate gays and lesbians? Is he uneducated on the subject? Does he believe that he can actually turn the tide against gays and lesbians attaining their civil rights in societies around the world? Does he really care that much whether gays and lesbians do this or that or whether they think this way or that way?
My thinking is that it isn’t the gay community that is bothering the pontiff at all. I do not believe he really cares one way or the other what gays and lesbians do. All the bother is really directed at a fairly unknown, but highly organized national organization of gay and lesbian ROMAN CATHOLICS called Dignity. Because Dignity proclaims that its members are gays and lesbians who are members in good standing of the Roman Catholic Church and that their sexual activity, per se, is not an affront to God and does not warrant condemnation by the Church.
In its 1989 statement, Sexual Ethics: Experience, Growth, Challenge, Dignity states, “We meet the special challenge to be sexual persons and disciples of Jesus, and we stand firm in the conviction that we can live responsibly as gay and lesbian Christians and grow in likeness to Christ. We have felt this challenge more deeply than many of our brothers and sisters because Church officials have not only condemned the genital expression of our sexuality but have even regarded our sexuality as disordered. Despite our commitment to the Church, we are convinced that such condemnation is not the word of God. Our own experience is that we can express our sexuality in a manner consonant with Christ’s teaching.”
It may seem as if Dignity is focusing on only the sexual aspect of humanity, but it is that aspect and only that aspect of a gay and lesbian person that the Church is condemning. By its continual criticism of the sexual aspect of gays and lesbians, the Vatican is wittingly destroying the wholeness of these individuals. It is destroying self-respect and self-love and substituting them with shame, self-rejection, and ultimately, self-hatred. Dignity’s entire program is not only to tell Church leaders this is un-Christian and untrue, but also, and I believe, more importantly, to tell other gays and lesbians that their sexuality, orientation, and sexual activity are morally neutral. Dignity’s message to gays and lesbians is that they are as healthy, lovable, valuable, self-respectable, and spiritual as heterosexual people. Gays and lesbians need not apologize to the Church, to society or to God for who they are. Gays and lesbians are also made in His own image.
While Dignity disseminated articles and newsletters, held rap groups and Bible sharing sessions, the central event of Dignity’s program soon became sponsoring Roman Catholic Masses. As bishops sorted through Church arguments against gays and lesbians, and Dignity’s arguments supporting gays and lesbians, many seem to sense a need to understand better and to provide an outreach effort to gays and lesbians that were nonjudgmental and noncondemning.
Since Dignity had credibility in the gay community, it also had the ability to get gay and lesbian Catholics to consider a different approach in thinking about the Church, an approach that included the fact that Church teaching is wrong on this no central issue and that gay and lesbian Catholics could not only ignore the anti-gay messages (based on and informed individual conscience), but also promote the attitude changes necessary to achieve full Church acceptance. I’m not suggesting that those bishops who loosely joined forces with Dignity’s outreach programs subscribed to all the tenets of Dignity’s stated purpose — some bishops may have, and other bishops may not have — but all these bishops did seek a healing of these Church inflicted gay and lesbian injuries, The simple plea for equal social justice and civil rights was sufficient for some bishops to listen to, respect, and offer some assistance to Dignity. Bishops were increasingly allowing Dignity chapters across the country to use Church property for celebrating Masses and for holding other meetings.
What troubles the Vatican, is not merely Dignity’s statements and challenges but the fact that throughout its twenty-year history, Dignity has supported its claim of acceptability with both theological arguments and psychological principles and presented them convincingly in the light of human compassion. It all started to make sense. Priests, bishops, and theologians were beginning to address the concerns voiced by Dignity. Dignity was beginning to be heard and respected by Church leaders and the flaws of the Vatican’s Dark Ages anti-gay teachings were beginning to show up under closer examination by free modern thinkers.
The Vatican seemingly felt threatened enough by “little” Dignity’s public debate calling for gay civil equality and acceptance in the Roman Catholic Church that it took further action to thwart the organization’s progress. The Vatican’s Cardinal Ratzinger released its coup de grace in October 1986, titled Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons, a “pastoral” letter that is so offensive and heartless to the gay community that Dignity dubbed it the “Halloween Letter.” In addition to reaffirming the Church’s uncharitable and ignorant nineteenth-century mentality toward homosexuality — criticizing not only gay and lesbian sexual activity, but also the non-sexual gay and lesbian orientation — it ordered a severance from gay and lesbian “pressure groups” which “seek to undermine the teaching of the Church, which are ambiguous about it, or which neglect it entirely.”
Did I say that the Ratzinger letter was uncharitable and ignorant? Well, what would you call it when he blames gays and lesbians for society’s acts of violence against them? “… the proper reaction to crimes committed against homosexual persons should not be to claim that the homosexual condition is not disordered. When such a claim is made and when homosexual activity is consequently condoned, or 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 is to say that violence against gays and lesbians is the obvious outcome of their community seeking civil rights, suggesting, I suppose, that civil rights should not be granted to gays and lesbians for their own protection. Now isn’t that interesting. Gays and lesbians who are seeking equal protection under the law should not be seeking equal protection under the law because equal protection under the law will mean that they will be beaten up. This letter, like all statements by various conservative Catholic bishops, while always including the notion that they “deplore violence against homosexuals” in one paragraph, come very close to justifying violence against them elsewhere in the same document. I wonder if Ratzinger would apply the same thinking process to American Blacks who sought their equal rights in the 1960’s. Would Ratzinger say that Black people promoted their own violence against them by their seeking equality in our society?
The pernicious Ratzinger letter included the harshest measure taken against the gay Catholic community in modern times. It literally ordered the eviction of Dignity from Church property by stating, “All support should be withdrawn from any [of these prohomosexual] organizations… Such support, or even the semblance of such support, can be gravely misinterpreted. Special attention should be given to the practice of scheduling religious services and to the use of Church buildings by these groups, including the facilities of Catholic schools and colleges. To some, such permission to use Church property may seem only just and charitable; but in reality, it is contradictory to the purpose for which these institutions were founded, it is misleading and often scandalous.”
For whom were these institutions (namely Church buildings, Catholic schools, and colleges) founded if not for people who are Roman Catholic? Are individuals and groups of Catholics who disagree on non-centrally issues in the Catholic Church no longer Catholic? Has it now become an excommunicable offense to question Church laws and practices regarding such minor elements of Catholicism as celibacy for priests, or birth control, or the nature of homosexuality? After two thousand years of roller coaster evolution, are Church leaders now saying that the Church can no longer change any of its positions? Or, perhaps, is it that certain Catholics are permitted to give input, and others are not? Perhaps the Vatican is seeking a system whereby all those Catholics who are in one hundred percent agreement can voice their opinions and those Catholics who are not, cannot. Some bishops have expressed to me that the problem with Dignity is that it represents an “organized” effort to change a traditional teaching of the Church. Does this mean that if individuals remain unorganized they would be permitted to question and even push for the same changes? Is the Church, then, only opposed to “collective bargaining”? Is the Vatican coming to the point where it is dictating who may question what, when, and in what manner? Is this book an organized questioning of what the Church is doing, and will I, as an individual, no long be permitted to enter Church property? Is it no longer my Church?
Perhaps there are those who will not take my expressed feelings, thoughts, beliefs, and experiences seriously because this presentation comes not so much from a learned head, but more from an observing heart. Words justifying interpreted ancient concepts drawn from age-old memories of historical events fostered in cultural fields, exposed to plastic politics, shielded from popular scrutiny, and imprisoned by those they empower, should not be considered more valid than one’s knowledge of Christ’s love. If one needs to be a theologian in order to be a good Catholic, very few deacons, priests and bishops would, themselves, qualify, let alone the average “good Christian” member of the laity. Luckily, Jesus Christ never placed such a complicated and difficult burden on us. In view of the Ratzinger letter, which serves as an example of the most recent uncivil and relentless Vatican attack against gays and lesbians, it’s no wonder why self-respecting gays and lesbians, as a population, have no love for the Roman Catholic Church or for the other anti-gay religions.
So where do we go from here? The Church remains an anti-gay institution. Most gay and lesbian Catholics find no home in the Church they were born into. Why are Dignity members still in there fighting? Because it is still THEIR Church too, and it is much too influential to have its course determined by the harsh, non-pastoral, prevailing political Vatican winds. Church leaders must be reminded continually that love is found in truth, and truth is found in love and in the power of each. American Bishops and other Bishops and theologians began to acknowledge the realities once but were countermanded by the Vatican under Pope John Paul II. The more progressive minds in the church are now sadly silence, but that does not mean that their hearts and minds have stopped functioning. Church leaders in past times when freedom of speech was commonplace supported a number of liberal or progressive causes including gay rights. I am hopeful that Church policy will soon resume its development of a more forward-thinking and all-embracing approach to homosexuality which must include an understanding of the complexity of human psychology and an appreciation of the necessary elements of a healthy self-image.
The LGBT Community and the Catholic Church
An Update, 2017
Back then, my involvement with the LBGT positions in the Catholic Church began when I joined the Long Beach, CA chapter of Dignity in 1980. During the time I was an active member, I served as president of that chapter as well as Information Officer and general board member most years. I monitored the helpline in my home on a dedicated line. I talked to many gays and lesbian who were struggling with the rejection they experienced from the Church. It was not uncommon to receive calls from people in tears as they reflected on the pain they felt.
About 1985 I help to set up a support group for LBGT Catholics at St. Matthew’s church in Long Beach, CA. We named our group, Comunidad. Many of my friends took heart in this development. They liked that the Catholic Church officially recognized them as gay Catholic. Local priests, good-hearted priests, would minister to them. They, my friends, all dignity members, felt good that they had this recognition from the Church. Unlike my friends, I soon saw this as meaningless. It had become apparent to me that we were still considered “broken,” and as individuals who needed special healing.
I have long presented myself as a “student of psychology.” I have no degrees in this field, [my degree is in Political Science] but I love and greatly value the subject matter. I read many books and talk with many, many professionals on the importance of a healthy self-image. Ever since high school, this had become a favorite subject of mine in general, not to mention an extremely helpful information tool to attain a more positive, fuller life. The Church does not support a healthy self-image in LGBT people.
I saw clearly how Orin was correct. The Church would not change position, not now, not in this century. I spent a lot of time and energy on trying to improve the Church. By there was no better time to cut ties and move on with real life. In 1986, I left the Catholic Church or more accurately stopped attending Church. I also resigned from the dignity organization. There was just not enough dignity in Dignity. There was just nothing I could ever do that would effect any change in the Church.
I now had a lot more time on my hands. So, in 1986, I volunteered to be a trained hospital visitor for PWAs (Persons with AIDS) at St. Mary’s Hospital. You may read more about that on this website under the section, “AIDS.” In addition to that, I also volunteered to work with the Long Beach Police Department as a liaison with the LGBT community. You may read more about that under the section “Gay Rights.” In these two areas, my time was well-spent. I was able to assist PWAs in different important ways, and with the police department, I helped to make great strides in dramatically curbing the anti-gay violence in Long Beach.
As one might have guessed, the Catholic Church as made no progress to remove its persistent negative attitude about the LGBT community. More Church outreach is out there across the country, especially in larger cities. But in my view, it actually creates a worse situation for most gay and lesbian Catholics. These outreach programs, like the one I help to start in Long Beach, (Communidad) tend to bring more gay and lesbian people into the Church, as well as to prevent some from leaving. We are still defective in the thinking of the Church. By gay and lesbian people feeling the Church is doing a good thing for them in these outreach programs, they are actually buying into the notion that they are, indeed, defective people. One could argue that the current pope, Pope Francis, has calmed the anti-gay rhetoric initiated by the last two popes. But, seeming more accepting AND delivering rejection in a nicer tone is of no help. It’s actually more damaging to those individuals who buy into it. In addition, understand that if one pope acts more accepting of the LGBT community, the next pope can easily reverse that nicer tone.
Let me take a step back. I used to be a very strong Catholic when I was “indoctrinated” at the age of seven. I then, even being the youngest member of my family, insisted that we all go to church every Sunday. My mom concurred and we all went, every Sunday. I remember a Catholic Bishop saying on TV, “Give me a child to the age of 10, and I will give you a Roman Catholic all the years of his life.”
When I fully realized that I was gay, and confirmed it by having gay sex, I was 21 years old. There is nothing as life-affirming as having a wonderful, loving sexual experience. I had known for many years, of course, that the Church teaching is that that is very wrong. Over the next few years, I came to know that being gay could not be wrong and that, instead, the Church’s teaching was wrong. I did what most people do when they disagree with a particular view of the Church, I ignored it. Here’s another example of individuality among Catholics. It has been substantiated by public poll after public poll that the vast majority of American Catholic women (I believe it’s 80%) practice birth control, which is also against the Church’s teaching. Those women, those “otherwise” good Catholics, simply ignore that part of Church teaching.
In case I need to be clearer about my current position, Yes, I definitely regret my encouraging and assisting gay and lesbian people to stay in the Catholic Church. I try not to be too hard on myself since there was no way to know if we were on the verge of changing the Church’s teachings regarding homosexuality. As you can see in the next section, I have uploaded three years of back-and-forth correspondence between the then Archbishop Rodger Mahony and me. It took me five years (of working through Dignity) to realize that there just is no way the Church would change its negative policy toward gay and lesbian people in the foreseeable future. I would suggest that anyone who wants to spend their time and energy trying to move the Church, may want to reconsider and do other things to help people and improve our communities. In my case, I stopped all my wasted energy on this issue and doubled my efforts to help stop anti-gay violence in Long Beach. There, I was largely very sucessful and helped to improve the lives of many, many people.
I went from being a strong Catholic, to being a Christian, to being a Spiritualist, to being an agnostic, to being an atheist, to being an atheist advocate. What does not come across at all in this writing is that I am not an atheist because the Church rejects my equality because I am gay. But in my studies over many years I saw/see many, many unreasonable, ill-rational – and to be as blunt as I can – ridiculous precepts about Catholicism and organized religion in general. The very basic foundational principals in Catholicism, as in all institutional religions, just make no sense. In no way am I going to go to delve into the subject of scripture and biblical teachings, and Church history. I did read a wonderful book recently on the strong arguments in support od atheism, titled, “Why I Believed,” written by Kenneth W Daniels. I am in 100% agreement with this author and highly recommend this book.
The “words” that Jesus speaks in the New Testament about how we should treat each other are good principles to live by. I do believe we should all treat each other with care and kindness. We should be fair, respectful and loving. I don’t need an archaic religious institution to clutter my life with nonsense.