How should the Catholic Church in the United States respond to what some have labeled the gay agenda? One way would be simply to restate what has been declared repeatedly. This approach, however, may not meet the challenge. The so-called gay agenda has been in the making roughly since 1969, when the patrons of Stonewall, a gay nightclub in Greenwich Village, fought back against a police raid. The closet door was opened, the battle was joined by others, and momentum continues to build. As recently as last April 30, a crowd estimated by its organizers to number 800,000 gathered in Washington, D.C., to protest hate crimes and discrimination against gays and lesbians. Supporters have lobbied for protection of civil rights and partnership recognition as well as adoption and parental rights. Dennis and Judy Shepard, parents of Matthew Shepard, whose horrific murder revealed the depth of homophobic malice that can be harbored in the soul, attended the April rally. In solidarity with the marchers, Mr. and Mrs. Shepard provided a reminder of the serious and critical demands for which gays and lesbians argue.
This agenda faults many institutions in society for fostering homophobic attitudes that lead to misconduct against gaysand the Catholic Church ranks high on the list. The Catholic Church, an entity identified with a hierarchically structured leadership and uncompromising religious and moral doctrines, is often depicted by gays and lesbians as against them and their agenda because of its positions. These positions include an evaluation of the homosexual orientation as objectively disordered and condemnation of all homosexual genital or homoerotic acts as immoral. Furthermore, church opposition to the legalization of gay partnerships has angered gays who have mobilized to secure recognition of same-sex relationships.
Catholic leaders have repeatedly rebutted criticism of the church as an institution that fosters homophobia. Many in the hierarchy do not accept generalizations that portray the church as intolerant and have repeatedly sought to set the record straight. In so doing, Catholic spokespersons often reiterate familiar distinctions: The church accepts gays and lesbians; it welcomes them and provides appropriate ministry to them and their families. Church leaders do not blame gays for being homosexual; the church teaches that the etiology of sexual orientation is complex and defies facile explanation. Being homosexual is not morally wrong; what is morally wrong is to choose to act on a homosexual orientation by engaging in sexual acts. Homosexual acts are always wrong because these acts are contrary to natural law and scriptural teaching.
This saidand consistently restatedmany church leaders insist that the Catholic Church and its teaching supports respect for homosexual persons and opposes discrimination, humiliating remarks including jokes and slurs, and the denial of legitimate civil rights.
The rationale that undergirds Catholic opposition to homosexual acts stems from the way the church understands the meaning and purpose of sex: God created humans as male and female and designed their genital complementarity for procreation. The church teaches that God intends sex to occur only within the context of heterosexual marriage. It maintains that it is important for society to support the institution of marriage in order to validate the lifelong commitment marriage requires, as well as parental responsibilities for the well-being of their children. This fundamental premise presupposes that the family is the basic unit of society and that the well-being of society cannot be maintained unless the nuclear family is preserved.
The gay agenda, in radical opposition to Catholic teaching, does not hold that sexual acts between consenting adults are immoral or that alternative lifestylesincluding same-sex couples and biological or adoptive parenthood by homosexual persons or couplesare ethically problematic.
Rejecting the tactics of some gay advocacy groups that seek to rewrite long-held moral and cultural standards, many Catholic leaders adamantly hold the line. But is this attitude of absolute certitude justified, or are there reasons why dialogue might be an appropriate response to the gay agenda? Those familiar with the formulation of Catholic moral teaching as well as the climate in the church for the past 20 years might advocate dialogue. There are three reasons.
First, a technical issue needs to be resolved before one can proclaim the rational adequacy of Catholic teaching that all homosexual acts are immoral. The issue entails deciding whether it is reasonable to include acts described solely by their objects in the same category as acts classified as evil based on analysis of acts in their entirety, i.e., taking into account object, intention, circumstances and foreseeable consequences. Currently, official church teaching places homosexual genital acts in the same category as lying, stealing and murder.
There is a problem with putting homosexual acts into the same category as lying and murder. Lying can be defined as speaking falsely without a justifying intention in circumstances that do not require false speech, with awareness of negative consequences. Similarly, murder is taking the life of an innocent person for an evil reason, not required by circumstances or consequences. Thus, speaking falsely and killing become evil acts based on intention, circumstances and consequences. Moral conclusions about specific instances of speaking falsely or taking life are not made until these relevant aspects are considered. In contrast, the homosexual act of a person with a homosexual orientation is condemned by church teaching without regard for why the act is engaged in, the circumstances of the persons involved or the consequences for them as individuals as well as for the broader society.
Evaluating actions based on the object of the act (that which is done) rather than in a broader context that includes intention, circumstances and consequences has been criticized by some moral theologians as a biologistic and unreliable rendering of natural law thinking. Biologism can be described as an oughtness ascribed to the biological structure of the heterosexual act of intercourse. Here, a moral law is perceived in the way the act is configured, and human sexual acts that do not conform to this structure are said to be immoral. Morality is thus identified with physical or biological processes rather than with human decisions about how to exercise sexuality in loving and responsible ways.
Since natural law morality is first and foremost rational, a theoretical criticism is made that church teaching is not on firm ground when it crafts its response to homosexual acts in a biologistic vein that fails to take into account the intentions, circumstances and consequencesall of which are inherent aspects of human actions. This criticism, reaching as it does to the core of official Catholic teaching, calls for serious and sustained dialogue by able theoreticians from across the Catholic ideological spectrum. That the magisterium does not recognize this need and that Catholic moral theologians, for the most part, have stopped discussing it, does not mean that it does not exist. On the contrary, the uneasy silence indicates the present climate in the church, in which questions go unaddressed for fear of reprisals.
Second, the current situation calls for humble tentativeness rather than pulpit-thumping certitude. Scientific and genetic knowledge are ever-expanding, and scientists still do not know the root causes of homosexuality. Until more is understood about the degrees and varieties of same-sex orientation, it makes sense to be tentative.
As far as empirical data from gays and lesbians are concerned, church leaders need to listen in order to learn about sexual and spiritual experiences of gay and lesbian Catholics. Requesting that gays and lesbians speak openly and freely would be helpful for church leaders, as it would enable them to learn how gays and lesbians experience their sexuality. In its pastoral practice the church maintains both its relevance and sensitivity. Neither of these attributes can be claimed by leaders who are not open to dialogue with those who receive church teaching.
Third, the church should manifest reverence for God and Scripture. In its teaching on homosexual acts, however, the church may actually be showing disrespect. How so?
According to the doctrine of creation, God created all that is and blessed humans with the gift of sexuality. But, according to some surveys, as many as 10 percent of humans experience their sexuality as an attraction for same-sex partners. Because God is not capricious, it is difficult to imagine why God would have created humans with a sexual orientation destined to be a source of frustration and embarrassment. Might it not be that the search by the pilgrim church to discover in what truly moral human sexual conduct consists has not yet been completed? Might this not also leave open the door to a possible revision in respect to its teaching on homosexual acts?
As far as Scripture is concerned, the church ironically finds itself in the company of fundamentalist evangelical Christians in citing biblical verses as proof texts that homosexual acts are evil and contrary to God’s will. In light of the fact that the Catholic Church supports scientific study of Scripture, credibility for its teachings on homosexuality demands a similar openness to Scripture scholarship to determine what moral guidance can be gleaned from Bible verses that seem at first glance to be germane to the contemporary debate. Uncritical literalism cannot provide justification for Catholic teaching. Fully nuanced exegesis, as complex and time-consuming as this process is, is required. Anything less should be rejected out of hand.
A New York Times story about the April 2000 gay rights rally in Washington recounts: There were tiny clusters of protesters. As the march began, a man with a bullhorn shouted, Sick! Sick! Sick!’ The marchers chanted back, Shame! Shame! Shame!’ Another protester yelled: You’re despicable before God. You know nothing about families.’ And a marcher shouted back, Jesus loves me.’
Jesus loves us, each and every one. There is no question about that. But we would love one another more fully if we could determine how to move beyond attacks and counterattacks, suspicions and threats. This is not a task for Catholic leaders alone, but there is no underestimating the significance of the role they play in establishing fundamental insights about who gay and lesbian people are and what standards they should observe in their sexual conduct. If this is an open question, it goes without saying that truth, justice and charity require that it be faced.