The following was written for DignityUSA by Daniel A. Helminiak, the author of What the Bible Really Says About Homosexuality. He holds a Ph.D. in systematic theology from Boston College and Andover Newton Theological School, and a Ph.D. in educational psychology from The University of Texas at Austin. For 28 years, he served as a priest in the Roman Catholic Church. He is a member of Dignity/Atlanta. A pdf version of these questions and answers can be found here.
DignityUSA is the oldest and largest national lay movement of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) Catholics, our families, and our friends. Begun in 1969 in San Diego under the leadership of Fr. Patrick Nidorf, OSA, first as a counseling group and then a support group in Los Angeles, DignityUSA has been a national organization since 1973. As an independent not-for-profit group, it has chapters located throughout the United States.
In local chapters, we worship openly with other LGBT and supportive Catholics, socialize, share personal and spiritual concerns, and work together on educational and justice issues. Members gather at periodic regional meetings and biennial national conventions.
On a nationwide basis and through its local chapters, DignityUSA
- advocates for change in the Catholic 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 and other Church leaders;
- 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 (COR), a network of diverse groups seeking change within the Church;
- networks internationally with LGBT Catholic groups, assisting in the development of new groups in countries such as South Africa, Poland, and Colombia;
- supports an AIDS ministry;
- and offers many other services.
In the mid-1970s, the Vatican recognized the difference between being homosexual and engaging in homogenital (same-sex) acts. Catholic teaching holds that, as a state beyond a person’s choice, being homosexual is not wrong. But just as it is wrong for unmarried heterosexuals to engage in sex, so, too, homogenital acts are 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, in their instruction, Human Sexuality, the Catholic Bishops repeated this teaching, which is also in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
In 1997, the U.S. Catholic Bishops published Always Our Children: A Pastoral Message to Parents of Homosexual Children and Suggestions for Pastoral Ministers. Addressing lesbians and gay men, the bishops said, “In you God’s love is revealed.” The bishops encouraged families to remain connected when a member revealed his or her homosexuality and called for the establishment of ministries sensitive to the needs of gay and lesbian Catholics and their families.
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 very same reason, Catholic teaching forbids contraception, masturbation, and pre-marital and extra-marital sex as well as homogenital acts.
The Vatican insists that procreation pertains 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.
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 claim that, from Genesis to Revelation, the Bible consistently opposes homogenital acts.
However, contemporary Bible scholars raise many questions about the matter. Read within their own historical and cultural contexts, the Bible texts do not address adult, loving homosexual relations as we understand them today.
It is not easy to summarize 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, Wisdom 9:13-14, and Ecclesiasticus 16:8 unequivocally interpret this text. The attempted male rape only heightens the atrocity of this offense against charity, the paradigmatic biblical sin.
- 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—and it only applies to penetrative anal sex, not other male or female same-sex acts. Such religious requirements were to maintain and strengthen Jewish identity. 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.
- Romans 1:27 mentions men having sex with men. But the terms used to describe it are “dishonorable” and “shameless.” These refer deliberately to social disapproval, not to ethical condemnation. Moreover, according to Paul’s popular usage, different from the technical Stoic philosophy of the day, para physin (“unnatural”) should be translated “atypical” or “beyond the ordinary.” It bears no reference to natural law. And it can imply no ethical condemnation because in 11:24 God is said to act para physin. Paul sees gay sex as an impurity (1:24), just like uncircumcision or eating forbidden foods. He mentions it to make a main point of his letter, that the purity requirements of the Jewish Law are not relevant in Christ Jesus (14:14). See L. William Countryman, Dirt, Greed, and Sex.
- 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 unknown. It certainly does not include women but refers to some kind of male sexual offense, probably involving money. If it does mean men having sex with men—which is dubious—it presumes the abuse and licentiousness commonly associated with male-male sex in the Roman Empire. See Robin Scroggs, The New Testament and Homosexuality.
- 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.
Recent historical scholarship discredits 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; 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 discredited 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 pleasure; 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. See John Boswell, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality and Mark Jordan, The Invention of Sodomy in Christian Theology.
Besides appealing to Scripture and Tradition (Church teaching through the centuries), the Catholic approach to morality also relies heavily on human reasoning. The argument from natural law is a prime example. Other instances are the findings of the human sciences or the evidence of people’s personal experiences.
Arguments from natural law are inconclusive because 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. Surely, the personal, not the biological, is the prime meaning of sex among human beings.
Similarly, the conclusion of the human sciences is that homosexuality is biologically based, a natural variation affecting about 10% of the population, often fixed by early childhood, and in no way pathological. (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.
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 experience 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 heterosexual married Catholic couples who cannot accept Vatican teaching on contraception.
Certainly yes, not as a matter of public Church teaching but as a matter of conscience, 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.Ss.R. In an interview in L’Europa, January 30, 1976, 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 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.”
According to Catholic teaching, 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. Then 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 neglected to inform 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 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 or before God. Then they need not confess what is not sin, and they may participate in the Sacraments of the Church.
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. In national convention in 1987, DignityUSA declared 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.
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 three to four 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 therefore to give hope to other gay and lesbian Catholics.
It backed away from the prevailing ethical opinion that a homosexual orientation is morally neutral. Reaffirming its 1975 opinion that homosexuality is a "pathological condition," the Vatican now called it "an objective disorder." These statements refer to homosexual orientation itself, not just to its genital expression. Despite massive evidence to the contrary in medical, psychological, and sociobiological research, the official Vatican opinion is that gay people are sick. This teaching is unmistakable in the Vatican's 2005 Instruction on gay seminarians. It holds that gay men lack "emotional maturity" and cannot "relate correctly to both men and women." In addition, supposedly, they are defective in "love of the truth," "a sense of justice," "integrity," "respect for others," "compassion," and "balanced judgment and behavior."
In fact, however, stating what many bishops were known to believe, Bishops Charles Buswell, Thomas Gumbleton, and Walter Sullivan publicly criticized the 1992 document. The bishops in Florida, Maine, Michigan, Oregon, and Washington also opposed discriminatory legislation and/or supported gay rights legislation. However, in 2003 the Vatican called on all public officials to oppose gay marriage as "contrary to the common good," and under Pope Benedict XVI the Catholic bishops have waged an all-out campaign against any civil recognition of lesbian or gay relationships.
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.
- Since 1977, New Ways Ministry in Mount Rainier, Maryland, has provided a national service of education, publications, workshops, and newsletter on homosexuality and Catholicism. Although in 1999 and again in 2000 the Vatican officially silenced co-founders Fr. Robert Nugent, S.D.S., and Sr. Jeannine Gramick, S.S.N.D., the organization continues to provide a "gay-positive ministry of advocacy and justice for lesbian and gay Catholics."
- Another network of groups, much smaller than Dignity, is Courage. 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 Lesbian & Gay Ministries. These ministries vary in quality from excellent to oppressive to nominal.
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 lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender 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 Arc.
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.