What Is Dignity?
Dignity is an international lay movement of lesbian, gay,
bisexual, and transgender Catholics, their families, and their friends.
Begun in 1969 in Los Angeles under the leadership of Fr. Patrick Nidorf,
O.S.A. in 1973, Dignity became a North American organization with chapters
in the United States and Canada. In 1980 Dignity Canada Dignité
formed its own organization to address the ecclesiastical issues unique
to Canada. Internationally, Dignity now comprises about 75 chapters in
the United States and twelve chapters in Canada. The national headquarters
for Dignity/USA is in Washington, D.C. and the National Office of Dignity
Canada Dignité is in Ottawa.
In local chapters, participants worship openly with other
lesbian and gay Catholics, socialize, share personal and spiritual concerns,
and work together on educational and justice issues. Members gather at
periodic regional meetings and biannual national conventions.
On a nationwide basis and through its local chapters,
advocates for change in the Church's teaching on homosexuality;
provides educational materials, speakers, and other resources
to Catholic parishes, gay ministries, and other interested groups;
maintains ongoing dialogue with Catholic bishops, represents
gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Catholics in the media;
presents positive testimony from a Catholic perspective on
civil rights legislation;
publishes a quarterly journal and monthly newsletter;
is a founding member of Catholic Organizations for Renewal
in the United States and the Coalition of Concerned Canadian Catholics
in Canada, both networks of diverse groups seeking change within the Church;
networks internationally with gay Catholic groups, including
assisting in the development of new groups in countries such as South Africa,
Poland, and Colombia;
sponsors a Committee for Women's Concerns;
supports an AIDS ministry;
and offers many other services.
What Is The Official Catholic Teaching
In the mid-1970s, the Catholic Church recognized the difference
between being homosexual and engaging in homogenital (same-sex) acts. The
Catholic Church holds that, as a state beyond a person's choice, being
homosexual is not wrong or sinful in itself. But just as it is objectively
wrong for unmarried heterosexuals to engage in sex, so too are homosexual
acts considered to be wrong.
The Church also teaches understanding and compassion toward
gay and lesbian people. In their 1976 statement, To Live in Christ Jesus,
the American bishops wrote, "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. They should have
an active role in the Christian community. The Christian community should
provide them a special degree of pastoral understanding and care." In 1990,
the U.S. National Conference of Catholic Bishops repeated this teaching
in their instruction, Human Sexuality.
What Is The Basis For Catholic Teaching
About The Immorality Of Homogenital Acts?
All Catholic sexual ethics rests on this principle: procreation
is an essential aspect of human sexuality, so every genital act must be
open to the possibility of conception. For this one and the same reason
Catholic teaching forbids homogenital acts as well as contraception, masturbation
and pre-marital and extra-marital sex. This teaching appeals to the very
nature of human sexuality. That is, the Church presents this teaching as
natural law, the ordering which the Creator built into the universe.
What Part Does The Bible Play In Deciding
The Morality Of Same-Sex Acts?
Unlike some other Christian churches, the Catholic Church
does not rest its teaching on the Bible alone. But the Catholic Church
does appeal to the Bible to support its teaching about natural law. Church
documents have claimed that, from the book of Genesis to the end of the
Christian Testament, there is constant opposition to homogenital acts.
However, contemporary Bible scholars raise many questions
about the matter. Read against their own historical and cultural backgrounds,
the Bible texts do not address adult, loving homosexual relations as we
understand them today.
What Was The Point Of The Bible Text
If Not To Condemn Homosexuality?
It is not easy to summarize briefly the body of research
on homosexuality in the Bible. But these are the interpretations that some
scholars are proposing:
The story of Sodom in Genesis 19 is about offense against
the sacred duty of hospitality. That is how Ezekiel 16:48-49 and Wisdom
9:13-14 interpret this text. The attempted male rape only heightens the
atrocity of this offense.
Leviticus 18:22 does forbid male-male sex as an "abomination".
But the word simply means an impurity or a religious taboo like eating
pork. As in the case of Catholics who used to be forbidden under pain of
mortal sin to eat meat on Friday, the offense was not in the act itself
but in the betrayal of one's religion. The ancient Jews were to avoid practices
common among the unclean Gentiles
Romans 1:27 mentions men having relations with men. But the
terms used to describe them are "dishonorable" and "shameless". These refer
deliberately to social disapproval, not to ethical condemnation. Moreover,
according to Paul's usage, different from the prevalent Stoic philosophy
of the day, para physin ("unnatural") would best be translated "atypical"
or "beyond the ordinary." So it bears no reference to natural law. And
it can imply no ethical condemnation because in Romans 11:24 God is said
to act para physin. Paul sees gay sex as an impurity (see Rm. 1:24),
just like uncircumcision or eating forbidden foods. He mentions it to make
the main point of his letter, that purity requirements of the Jewish Law
are not relevant in Christ Jesus.
1 Corinthians 6:9-10 and 1 Timothy 1:8-10 list arsenokoitai
among those who will be excluded from the Reign of God. This obscure term
has been translated "homosexuals" but its exact meaning is debated. It
certainly does not include women but only some kind of male sexual offenders.
It must be interpreted in light of the abuse and licentiousness commonly
associated with male-male sex in the Roman Empire.
Finally, Genesis 1-3 shows Adam and Eve created for mutual
companionship and procreation. These accounts use the most standard of
human relationships to teach a religious lesson. The point is the love
and wisdom of God, who made all things good and wills us no evil. Nothing
suggests the biblical authors intended a lesson on sexual orientation.
Hasn't There Been Constant Opposition To
Homosexuality Throughout Christian History?
Recent and detailed historical scholarship questions that
claim. Although one could find some opposing voice in every century, there
was no common opposition to homosexuality in Christian Europe until the
late 12th century except for a period around the collapse of the Roman
Empire. Indeed, for nearly two centuries after Christianity had become
the state religion, Christian emperors in Eastern cities not only tolerated
but actually taxed gay prostitution. In 7th century Visigoth Spain, a series
of six national church councils refused to support the ruler's legislation
against homogenital acts. By the 9th century almost every area in Christian
Europe had local law codes, including detailed sections on sexual offenses,
and none outside of Spain forbade homogenital acts. By the High Middle
Ages, a gay subculture thrived, as in Greco-Roman times. A body of gay
literature was standard discussion material at courses in the medieval
universities where clerics were educated.
Opposition to homosexuality, as in Augustine and Chrysostom,
rested on reasons unacceptable today: "natural-law" arguments based on
beliefs about supposed sexual practices among hares, hyenas, and weasels,
a philosophical Stoicism that was suspicious of any sexual enjoyment, a
sexism that saw a degrading effeminacy in being the receptive partner in
sex. All-out Christian opposition to homosexuality arose at a time when
medieval society first began to oppress many minority groups: Jews, heretics,
the poor, usurers. A campaign to stir up support for the Crusades by vilifying
the Muslims with charges of homosexual rape also played a part in Christian
Europe's change of attitude toward gay and lesbian sex.
What Other Considerations About The
Morality Of Homogenital Acts Need To Be Made?
Besides appealing to Scripture and Tradition (constant
Church teaching), the Catholic approach to morality also relies heavily
on human reasoning. The argument from natural law is a prime example. Other
instances are the study of the human sciences or attention to people's
But arguments from natural law are inconclusive, for the
nature of human sexuality is debated. Procreation is certainly one aspect
of sexuality. Yet the Catholic Church allows marriage between known sterile
couples and sex between couples beyond child-bearing age. Moreover Catholic
teaching has recently emphasized the unitive aspect of sex: loving, caring,
interpersonal sharing. Is the biological or the personal the key aspect
of sex among human beings?
Similarly, the human sciences provide no universally accepted
conclusion, but the majority opinion is that homosexuality is a natural
variation, biologically based, fixed by early childhood, in no way pathological,
and affecting about 10% of the population in virtually every known culture.
(This 10% includes both the exclusively and the predominantly homosexual.)
Likewise, while some may condemn practicing homosexuals as Godless and
sinful, contemporary lesbian and gay Christians recognize their self-acceptance
as a graced moment and report that, since coming out, they are happier,
healthier, and closer to other people and to God.
What Options Are Open To A Person Who
Is Homosexual And Catholic?
Official Catholic teaching requires that homosexual people
abstain from sex. But the Catholic Church also teaches solemnly that people
are obliged to form their conscience carefully and responsibly and to follow
it as the bottom line in every moral decision.
Neither Scripture nor Tradition nor natural law theory
nor human science nor personal experiences convincingly supports official
Catholic teaching about the immorality of homogenital acts. Accordingly,
and after much soul-searching, many gay and lesbian Catholics have formed
consciences that differ from official Church teaching, and have entered
into homosexual relationships. In this respect they are exactly like the
many married Catholic couples who cannot accept the official teaching on
Can Someone Be Involved In A Lesbian
Or Gay Relationship And Still Be A Faithful Catholic?
Certainly yes, not as a matter of public Church teaching
but only as a matter of conscience, only as a matter of personal application
of the whole of Catholic teaching to their particular case.
In 1975 the Vatican published a
Declaration on Certain Questions Concerning Sexual Ethics. One of those
questions was homosexuality. A principal author of that document was Fr
Jan Visser C.S.S.R. In an interview published in the January 30, 1976,
edition of L'Europa, he said, "When one is dealing with people who are
so deeply homosexual that they will be in serious personal and perhaps
social trouble unless they attain a steady partnership within their homosexual
lives, one can recommend them to seek such a partnership, and one accepts
this relationship as the best they can do in their present situation."
One of the very men who formulated the Vatican teaching that homogenital
acts are wrong allows that in certain individual cases one may not only
permit but even recommend a homosexual relationship.
Similarly, speaking about Catholics who dissent on Church
teaching about contraception, the Canadian bishops wrote in 1968: "Since
they are not denying any point of divine and Catholic faith nor rejecting
the teaching authority of the Church. these Catholics should not be considered
nor consider themselves cut off from the body of the faithful."
How Could Someone Do What The Church
Says Is Wrong And Not Be Living In Sin?
As the Catholic Church understands it, wrong and sin are
not the same thing. Wrong is harm, disorder, destruction, it is in the
objective or external world. Sin is self-distancing from God, it is in
the heart. Sin is more a general attitude than any particular action. We
sin when we deliberately do what we believe is wrong. Then in our hearts
we opt for evil, and we move away from goodness and from God, who is good.
It may well be that what you do is not wrong at all. But
if you think it is and you do it anyway, well, you are corrupt. That's
sin! Or what you do may really be wrong. But if you don't honestly think
so and you do it, well, your heart is not really amiss. You may be uninformed,
naive, or stupid, and even dangerous, but unless you have neglected properly
informing yourself, you are not sinful.
The Church teaches right and wrong but never says who
is a sinner. Only God knows our hearts. Many homosexual people simply cannot
believe that gay sex as such is wrong. So they do what for them is "the
best they can do," though Church teaching says that homogenital acts are
wrong. Still, according to the same Church's teaching on conscience, they
do not sin in their hearts nor before God. Then they need not confess what
is not sin, and they may participate in the Sacraments of the Church.
If There Is Space For Homosexual Relationships
Within Catholic Teaching, Why Have Bishops Expelled Dignity Chapters From
Perhaps just addressing homosexuality openly and fully
would be enough to provoke an official reaction. But the history is more
complicated. On October 30, 1986, the Vatican issued A
Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual
Persons. This document instructed the bishops to withdraw all support,
or even the semblance of support, from any group vague on the immorality
of homogenital acts. Surely the Vatican had Dignity in mind. And many found
the letter harsh and uninformed. At its national convention in 1987, Dignity
USA declared in its Letter on Pastoral
Care of Gay and Lesbian Persons that it believes lesbian and gay
people may indeed engage in loving, life-giving, and life-affirming sex,
always in an ethically responsible and unselfish way.
Dignity proclaimed publicly what Church teaching does
allow, but only in the privacy of conscience. Following these events, bishops
began evicting local chapters for rejecting Church teaching and, most importantly,
for opposing ecclesiastical authority. However, a few chapters continue
to meet in Catholic facilities.
Why Did Dignity Make A Public Statement
Challenging The Official Catholic Position?
Dignity felt called to a prophetic stance, which, simply
said, is to be honest about the matter. After nearly twenty years of ministering
to hurting Catholics, Dignity members were aware of the harm that the Church's
repeated condemnation of homosexuality does to individuals. One statement
from a pope or bishop can throw devout gay Catholics back into guilt and
self-deprecation that they may have spent years trying to overcome. According
to a 1989 study conducted by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services,
the rate of attempted suicide among gay and lesbian adolescents is two
or three times higher than that among straight adolescents. According to
some estimates, a homosexual person is harassed or assaulted in the USA
about every 90 seconds. Insensitive church pronouncements only aggravate
these conditions. In contrast, Dignity wanted to go on record as a group
of homosexual but self-affirming and practicing Catholics. And Dignity
wanted thus to give hope to other gay and lesbian Catholics.
What Did People Find Harsh And Uninformed
In That 1986 Vatican Letter?
It backed away from the prevailing ethical opinion that
a homosexual orientation is morally neutral and called it "an objective
disorder." Whatever this is supposed to mean, it suggests that gay people
are sick, despite massive evidence to the contrary in medical, psychological,
and sociobiological research. As if blaming gay people for the AIDS epidemic
and ignoring their heroic - and virtually solitary! - efforts to stem it,
the letter said: "Even when the practice of homosexuality may seriously
threaten the lives and well-being of a large number of people, its advocates
remain undeterred and refuse to consider the magnitude of the risks involved."
Regarding gay-bashing it reads: when gay people seek 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."
As for securing the civil rights of gay people, "The bishops
should keep as their uppermost concern the responsibility to defend and
promote family life" --as if lesbian and gay children, sisters, brothers,
fathers, or mothers were not part of family life.
The Vatican's 1992 follow-up letter,
Considerations Concerning the Catholic Response to Legislative Proposals
on the Non-Discrimination of Homosexual Persons, actually required
the American bishops to oppose all gay rights legislation, even legislation
exempting the churches. It compared homosexuality to contagious disease
or mental illness and argued that, for the common good, the state has the
right and obligation to curtail people's civil rights. In the case of teachers,
athletic coaches, military personnel, and adoptive or foster parents, this
document said "it is not unjust discrimination to take sexual orientation
into account." Ignoring all the evidence, the Vatican presumed that lesbian
and gay people, and not heterosexuals, are the greatest sex offenders or
are automatically unfit role models or are incompetent. Quite inconsistently,
the Vatican suggested there would be no problems if homosexual people just
kept their sexual orientation secret.
In fact, however, stating what many bishops were known
to believe, Bishops Charles Buswell, Thomas Gumbleton, and Walter Sullivan
publicly criticized the 1992 document. Moreover, since 1992, through their
respective Catholic conferences, bishops in Florida, Maine, Michigan, Oregon,
and Washington have opposed discriminatory legislation and/or supported
gay rights legislation.
Is Dignity The Only Ministry To Gay
And Lesbian Catholics?
No. Through his pioneering books, lectures, and counseling,
Fr. John McNeill, expelled from the Jesuit order for his work, continues
to minister to gay and lesbian Catholics from his home in New York City.
New Ways Ministry
in Mount Rainier, Maryland, has provided a national service of education,
publications, workshops, and newsletter on homosexuality and Catholicism.
Co-founders Fr. Robert Nugent, S.D.S., and Sr. Jeannine Gramick, S.S.N.D.,
investigated by the Vatican for their work, have continued to publish and
to lecture throughout the country.
Another network of groups, much smaller than Dignity,
Founded in the early 1980s by Fr John Harvey, O.S.F.S., of New York
City, it helps people to be celibate "in accordance with [the narrowest
interpretation of] the Roman Catholic Church's teaching on homosexuality."
A positive, life-enhancing celibacy is certainly a legitimate goal for
those who freely choose it. But the Courage ministry rests on the belief
that homosexuality is a psychological aberration, an emotional debility.
Built on a 12-step program like Alcoholics Anonymous, Courage aims to have
people restrain and control their "sickness." Such a negative starting
point, which ignores the bulk of current scientific opinion, can hardly
foster personal integration, emotional well-being, or real holiness.
Many dioceses now have their own official gay ministries
or at least appointed chaplains, and many belong to the National Association
of Catholic Diocesan Ministries to Gays and Lesbians. These ministries
vary in quality from excellent to oppressive to nominal.
What Hope Is There For The Future?
Our best hope is not to be afraid to love one another.
To love sums up the Law and the Prophets, according to Jesus. Christian
love covers a multitude of sins, according to St. Peter. And human love
cannot be separated from the honest affections of the heart. So Dignity's
mission is to help gay and lesbian people to follow the ideal of Christians
throughout the centuries to be prayerful, respectful, honest, fair, forgiving,
compassionate, and joyful-- like the gay abbot, St. Aelred of Rievaulx,
and like the martyr for conscience who dressed like a man, St. Joan of
There is encouragement in numerous signs of the times.
The gay liberation movement is gradually fostering an understanding of
homosexuality and securing the civil rights of lesbian and gay people.
The tragic AIDS epidemic has had the positive effect of forcing an awareness
of homosexuality and of letting people witness the deep love and care among
lesbian and gay "family" members. According to a 1992 Gallup study, half
of American Catholics believe a lesbian or gay committed relationship may
be a morally acceptable choice. And 78%, up from 58% in 1977, believe gay
and lesbian people should have equal rights in terms of job opportunities.
In fact, compared to people in other Christian denominations, Catholics
are the most accepting of homosexuality. Besides, many Catholic priests,
religious, and lay ministers are sensitive to the needs of homosexual people,
and good-willed American bishops are quietly doing what they can to provide
ministry to lesbian and gay Catholics.
The hope is that one day the wide array of differences
within the human family will be everywhere accepted and celebrated, and
all peoples, praising God, will live together in peace.