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August 7, 2003
Vol. 1, No. 86




Tom Fox Gays get hit twice

By Tom Fox, NCR publisher

Gay Catholics got slammed twice this past week.

First, less-federal-government-the-better George W. Bush said he was taking steps to outlaw same sex marriages. Then, one day later, the Vatican went into spins vigorously condemning same sex unions, saying they are the outgrowth of "deviant behavior."

The thrust of the new 12-page Roman document did not surprise anyone. Close church observers knew the dye was cast back in 1986 when the Vatican termed gays and lesbians to be "objectively disordered."

The Vatican seems to be its own worst enemy. Anyone who follows NCR Vatican Correspondent John Allen's writings knows it's a complex bureaucracy filled with varied views and intentions. But when it comes to issuing statements on human sexuality they go berserk, throwing miters and staffs at anyone in sight.

Instead of white heat, judgment and absolute demands, wouldn't the Roman prelates have more influence if they posed questions in a spirit of compassion? When will they learn that the medium is also the message?

We are told same sex unions are a grave threat to society. Along the lines of nuclear proliferation, AIDS, suicide bombers and chemical warfare?

Meanwhile the vastly eroded credibility of the Catholic hierarchy in the wake of months of revelations of sordid sexual abuses of children and episcopal complicity would make you think that this is the time to hold your tongue. But no, someone is insisting Catholic bishops need to be dragged deeper into the mud.

The Vatican attack -- yes, it is seen as an attack -- on gays has quickly produced counter-attacks in the media. Some editorial cartoonists have had a field day.

"In those situations where homosexual unions have been legally recognized or have been given the legal status and rights belonging to marriage, clear and emphatic opposition is a duty," the Vatican statement declared. Curiously, Catholics almost never hear similarly unambiguous admonitions on matters of morality outside of the pelvic area.

A potentially fatal disconnect continues to grow between official church teachings on human sexuality on the one hand and Catholic practice on the other. It started at least as far back as 1968 when Pope Paul VI issued Humanae Vitae, condemning all forms of artificial birth control.

Repeated polls show that 90 to 95 percent of Catholics, regardless of nation or culture, simply disregard that teaching, saying they simply do not believe the use of a condom is necessarily "intrinsically evil."

Birth control is generally not an issue for most lay Catholics. To the degree it becomes a moral issue within a marriage, absolutist church utterances often obfuscate rather than lend light to a couple's discernment.

Stripped to the moral core, the Vatican condemns sexual intimacy between two men or two women because their actions are viewed as unnatural and have nothing to do with procreation, the fundamental purpose of sexual union. For centuries the church had a very restricted view of sex, seeing it as intended only for procreation. In the 20th century, the church slowly came to acknowledge that sex within marriage also had a secondary purpose, supporting the psychological intimacy of a couple.

Modern society, meanwhile, has come to learn that gays and lesbians do not necessarily choose their lifestyles. Genetics play a significant role in determining male or female attraction. This widely accepted understanding has forced the world's religions to rethink their views on homosexuality. We have seen this play out this week as Episcopalians wrestled with the ordination of an openly gay bishop.

A reasonable question cannot be avoided. Does the Creator condemn all gays and lesbians to lives without sex and sexual intimacy? Going further, would the Creator banish forever those gays and lesbians who seek sexual intimacy? Why would God's creation plan be so devastatingly uncaring to significant portion of the human family?

Are all gays and lesbians to lead celibate lives? We know how hard this is. Just consider the record of clergy who have freely chosen celibacy. The church teaches that celibacy is a gift from God given to a relative few. It requires certain commitment and strength.

Are we led to believe all gays and lesbians are so "gifted?" It stands to reason they are not.

And if not, how do they find intimacy, which is for most an essential for human and spiritual growth?

Consider something else. Is it possible the Catholic Church still has it wrong on sexual morality and needs to reconsider church attitudes and teachings? This would require admitting the church is, like other institutions, capable of making mistakes, even big ones. It would require becoming a more humble church, perhaps one with less sweeping claims to infallibility.

The complex truth is that for the past half century or more church teachings on sexuality are intimately tied to church teachings on authority. There's the rub. Can the church have had it wrong on sexuality for these many years?

Many Catholics not only believe this is possible; they believe this to be the fact. These Catholics still love their church and want to open the issues of sexuality to the light of new understandings, discernment and experience. Many lay Catholics are saying to their clergy: "Listen to us. Listen to our experiences. We can get through this together."

Should the experiences of overwhelming numbers of active, loving, healthy lay Catholics, gay and heterosexual alike, matter? If they did at least the tone of church documents on sexuality would change. And that would be a major step in the right direction.


I received an email the other day from a reader, Mike Kirk-Duggan, who counted certain words in the recently released Vatican pronouncement, "Considerations regarding proposals to give legal recognition to unions between homosexual persons." Here is what he found. Jesus, 0; love, 0; forgive, 0; compassion, 1; Christ, 2. Doctrin(e/al), 11, law, 24, legal, 31.

Point made.

Tom Fox is NCR publisher and author of "Sexuality and Catholicism." He can be reached at

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