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Letter on Pastoral Care of Gay and Lesbian Persons

This document is the response of Dignity/USA to the Vatican's Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons of October, 1986. It was approved by the Dignity/USA House of Delegates in Miami, July, 1987.

"By the grace of God I am what I am, and God's grace to me has not been without effect." (I Corinthians 15:10)

We are gay men and lesbian women, and we are Catholic. We find that we are able to integrate both our sexual and our spiritual identities into our lives and are richer for doing so. Dignity exists as a group to communicate the joy of this experience to others and to celebrate that joy in worship.

Nevertheless, we also sadly acknowledge our experience of alienation between gay/lesbian Catholics and some other members of the Church, including many leaders. Faced with this alienation, we have devoted ourselves to a ministry of reconciliation.

Homosexual Catholics are often tempted to abandon their faith and the practice of their religion out of anger against a Church in which they feel unwelcome. Dignity invites them instead to worship in a mutually supportive atmosphere. Dignity invites other members of the Church to dialogue and understanding in order to heal this brokenness within the Catholic community.

As faithful followers of Jesus Christ, we have been incorporated into His body by our baptism. We look to our church for ministry based on justice and charity. At the same time, we accept our responsibility to live our lives based on virtue and good conscience. We fully accept both the comfort and the challenge of our faith. Like all Christians, we strive to be earnest seekers after the truth.

It is in this spirit that the faith community of Dignity addresses itself to the leaders of the Catholic Church in this country. From the substantial store of our ministry experience with gay/lesbian people, we offer the following counsels. We urge Catholic bishops and others involved in ministry and teaching to give this advice serious consideration and to join us in the necessary work of reconciliation.

1. We counsel the uprooting of prejudice against gay and lesbian persons. Homosexuals are often the objects of vicious prejudices that are clearly an offense against Christian morality. The Washington State Catholic Conference and some individual bishops have made statements that affirm the full humanity of homosexual persons and that oppose demeaning and harmful attitudes. Such repudiation of prejudicial attitudes by Church leaders is a necessary precondition for effective ministry to gay and lesbian persons.

2. We counsel the rejection of sexism and oppressive behaviors towards women and gay men. Lesbians women often feel a double alienation from the Church, as women and as homosexual persons. Like other women, they find their personhood denied by exclusive language and behaviors. The American bishops have already decided to address these issues in a pastoral letter on women. The adoption of inclusive prayer language, the use of other than male images of God, and the removal of barriers to women's full participation in the Church are some specific remedies that both lesbian women and gay men find necessary and just.

3. We counsel support for laws protecting the basic human rights of homosexual persons. Homosexuals are frequently deprived of access to housing and employment simply because of their orientation. A number of bishops and many clergy and religious groups have supported the inclusion of homosexual persons among protected classes in civil rights laws. They have recognized that opposing discrimination does not imply condoning homosexual behavior but that opposing legal guarantees fore basic rights does condone injustice. Supporting such laws is one of the principal ways for church leaders to reduce the alienation between gay/lesbian Catholics and the rest of the Church.

4. We counsel strenuous opposition to violence against gay and lesbian persons. Both lesbian women and gay men are subjected to unprovoked physical abuse, sometimes even rape and murder. The perpetrators of such violence frequently go unpunished by courts that do not respect the rights or lives of homosexual persons. Church leaders could be helpful by decrying such violence and being careful to say nothing that implicitly condones or inspires it.

5. We counsel a compassionate perspective on the AIDS crisis. The bishops of California have rejected as bad theology the notion that AIDS is a plague visited by God upon gay people for their sins. They preach the same compassion and caring for gay people with AIDS as for all victims of disease. They have given credit to the gay community for its support services to persons with AIDS. They urge education on AIDS prevention. They support guaranteeing the rights of infected persons. We recommend their statement to other Church leaders as a model of Christian compassion and reconciliation.

6. We counsel openness to discussion on the morality of homosexual acts. We recognize that the Church's leaders have been taking a strong stand on this issue. Yet in the past, the Church has revised its stance on grave moral issues, such as the taking of interest, the ownership of slaves, and the condemnation of the Jews. Vatican Council II made a major advance in sexual theology by solemnly acknowledging the unitive dimension of human sexual experience in addition to the procreative dimension. As further understanding about the biological, psychological, and personal dimensions of sexuality emerges, we ask the Church's teachers to present their teaching with some measure of humility and openness.

7. We counsel a reexamination of the use of Scriptures against gay and lesbian persons. Contemporary Christians no longer regard as moral guides many Scriptural passages about sex, such as the stricture against intercourse during menstruation, Paul's recommendation of virginity whenever possible, or the description of the roles of husbands and wives. Impressive scholarship has now demonstrated that in even more serious ways the Biblical passages concerning same-sex acts are irrelevant to the contemporary discussion about homosexuality. We urge Catholic leaders to examine and respond to this scholarship-- either with a reasoned and credible rejection of its findings or with an honest and humble acknowledgment of its conclusions. We further urge Catholic leaders to look beyond these Scriptural passages to the total "Gospel perspective" on gay persons or anyone else.

8. We counsel study of the Catholic tradition on homosexuality. Contemporary historical research has shown that central Christian doctrines-- like the divinity f Christ, the hierarchical structure of the Church, the nature and number of the Sacraments, salvation outside the Church-- have not always been the same, but have developed over time. Similar scholarship demonstrates that Church teaching on homosexuality has not been clear and constant and that factors other than ethical concerns explain the current severe condemnation of homosexual acts that stems from the 13th century. We urge Catholic leaders to study this scholarship and to respond to it, faithful to our respected Catholic intellectual tradition.

9. We counsel accepting the finding of human sciences about gay men and lesbians. Homosexual people have been often been regarded as sick or criminal. But psychologists have found homosexual persons to be as emotionally healthy as other persons. Sociologists have found that the social adoption of homosexual persons to be nondeviant. Anthropologists have found them to be a variant in virtually all cultures. We urge Catholic teachers to be faithful to the traditional Catholic insistence that truth is one, that scientific truth and religious truth must be reconcilable. Gay/lesbian Catholics would welcome ministry based on this concept that their difference is a normal variation within the human family.

10. We counsel listening to the witness of gay and lesbian Catholics. Many testify that they experience their sexuality as God's good gift that enables them to relate intimately and responsibly to others and more securely and passionately to God. Some bishops have already begun discussions with gay/lesbian Catholic groups, and other church leaders have attended educational seminars. Gay and lesbian Catholics want their personal spiritual experience to be heard and taken seriously. They would like the profound influence that Church leaders have on their lives to be more sensitive and more positive.

11. We counsel respect for the consciences of homosexual persons. Neither scripture nor tradition nor the human sciences nor personal experience seems to support the official Catholic teaching about homosexuality. Accordingly, and usually after much soul- searching, many gay and lesbian Catholics have formed consciences that differ from that teaching. In this respect they are like many married couples who cannot accept the official teaching on contraception or those who do not accept the official teaching on masturbation. Catholic teaching defends the ultimacy of responsibly formed conscience in every moral decision. All Catholics would welcome recognition of their personal integrity and respect for their consciences.

12. We counsel healing and nurturing ministry for gay and lesbian persons. Homosexuals who come to the Church for ministry often feel wounded by a hurtful and prejudiced society. But they may perceive the Church as trying to alienate them from the God who made and loves them. To be effective, ministry to such persons needs to concentrate on the healing of these hurts. A Church environment that accepts honest self-disclosure of gay and lesbian persons would promote their self- esteem and the healing process.

13. We counsel the development of a variety of ministries to gay and lesbian persons and their families based on their needs. Gay people who are "coming out" want help in that often difficult process. Their families want healing, advice and support. Gay people want meeting opportunities that foster friendships and growth, rather than promiscuity. Lesbians may want some women-only space within the Church. Gay couples want respect for their relationships. Lesbian couples with children want to be accepted as families within the parish community. Gay alcoholics and drug abusers want spiritual help in their rehabilitation process. Many of these ministry activities already occur within the Church. We ask for a more concerted effort by the leaders of the Church to take all these needs into account both in general ministry activities and in specific gay outreach.

14. We counsel the establishment of special ministries for persons with AIDS. People suffering from AIDS are the lepers of our time. A number of Church leaders have spoken out against the ways in which these people, who are sick to death, are often treated by society. The Catholic bishops of New Jersey have proposed an anti-discrimination policy for persons with AIDS. We encourage more Church leaders to follow suit. And such witness can be made more effective through the establishment of hospices and social support programs based on healing and reconciliation.

15. We counsel acceptance for priests and religious who provide pastoral care for gay/lesbian people. Some bishops have appointed clergy or religious specifically to gay ministry. Other educators and ministers who have ventured into the field have often found themselves held in suspicion for doing so. Church leaders could do much to reduce the climate of fear by publicly legitimizing this ministry and by providing spiritual and financial support to those who have taken on this task.

16. We counsel acceptance of and cooperation with like-to-like ministries organized by gay and lesbian Catholics. Sincere gay Catholics have banded together to promote their spiritual growth and participation in the liturgy. Such groups offer the primary hope for reconciliation between the gay/lesbian community and the rest of the Church in our time. Some church leaders have provided an understanding and supportive presence. We urge bishops to respond in this manner and not to impose special conditions on gay ministry groups.

Elsewhere we have criticized recent statements and actions that have served to deepen the alienation many homosexual persons feel toward the Catholic Church. In this letter we have focused upon the accomplishments of church leaders in reducing the alienation between gay/lesbian Catholics and the rest of the Church. While we must decry injustices, we must also do our part to promote the work of reconciliation through encouragement and positive advice. We do so willingly. We are angry but loving as well.

In their 1976 pastoral letter "To Live In Christ Jesus," the American Catholic bishops affirmed the basic rights of gay people to freedom from prejudice, to respect, friendship, and justice, to an active role in the Christian community, and to a special degree of pastoral understanding and care. Dignity now calls upon the leaders of the Catholic Church in this country to deepen their commitment to these principles. We invite them to join hands with us in prayer and to dialogue with us in charity to heal the wounds of alienation.

Dignity Canada Dignité is Canada's organization of Roman Catholics who are concerned about our church's sexual theology, particularly as it pertains to gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered persons. We work in collaboration with other Catholic organizations seeking reform in our church's leadership and teachings.

Dignity Canada Dignité