Homosexuality and the Vatican

by Robert Nugent, S.D.S.

Father Nugent is cofounder of New Ways Ministry in Mt. Rainier, Maryland, and editor of A Challenge to Love: Gay and Lesbians Catholics in the Church (Crossroad, 1983).

This article appeared in the Christian Century May 9, 1984, p. 487.) Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


The distinction between sexual orientation and behavior seems to have been lost or disregarded. It could hardly be argued that the Vatican is expressing support in a way for the “gay liberation movement” in the context of Educational Guidance in Human Love (Published December 1, 1983, by the Sacred congregation for Catholic Education) and magisterial teaching, it is quite evident that “self-control” means total sexual abstinence for homosexual Christians.

The initial response to Educational Guidance in Human  Love, published on December 1, 1983, by the Sacred Congregation for Catholic Education, has been largely positive. Father James Burtchaell calls the new document ‘dull but not damning’ (National Catholic Reporter, December 16, 1983). Comparing it with the 1975 Vatican Declaration on Certain Questions concerning Sexual Ethics, which he describes as “one long peeve.” Burtchaell praises the new Roman venture in sexual education as “positively congenial” He also notes an interesting comparison between the Vatican sex statement and the writings of the German moralist Herbert Doms. who was condemned by the Holy Office under Pius XII in 1944.

But Thomas Blackburn, another NCR columnist, describes the attempt as “another useless document on sex certain which deals with Latinate abstraction rather than with real people” (January 13). Blackburn also points to at least one example of Educational Guidance’s reluctance to speak in direct. forceful language when it talks about “manifestations of a sexual kind which of themselves tend to complete encounter.”

The document generally, however, is carefully worded, since it is addressed to the whole church rather than to one particular country or culture. As with most church statements, it is left to the competent authorities in each setting to clarify, interpret and apply the document’s insights and principles for the local situation. Many U.S. Catholic readers will be tempted to agree with Blackburn when he says. “I think I know what all that is supposed to mean. But it doesn’t say what it’s intended to say.” Fewer will join him in adding, ‘It doesn’t say much of anything.’ What seems to concern more American Catholics is the increasing gap between what official church statements say and what people are experiencing in their own lives. Blackburn describes this as a ‘digression’ between paper and reality.”

Sexuality remains one of the more obvious and sensitive areas of tension between Rome and U.S. Catholicism. Pope John Paul II’s talks to the American bishops on their visits in 1983 seemed to confirm this observation. The stir that Archbishop John Quinn of San Francisco created when he spoke to the 1981 World Synod of Bishops on the witness of American Catholics in the practice of contraception is another example of the explosive nature of issues involving sexuality and church doctrine.

Of all the sexual questions under discussion in the United States, the one which best serves to illustrate the growing difference in approaches is the controversial issue of homosexuality. No one expected Cardinal William Baum’s committee to bestow the church’s blessing on homosexuality. The best that one could hope for was that the discussion of homosexuality would at least acknowledge some of the recent data from the social sciences. Many readers will judge that the document failed to heed its own sound admonitions to give due consideration to the empirical sciences.

The fundamental distinction between sexual orientation, and sexual behavior, for example, seems to have been lost or disregarded by the authors of Educational Guidance. This is a strange reversal, in light of the fact that in Chicago John Paul himself repeated and confirmed this distinction as part of official Catholic teaching when he quoted to the American bishops with apparent approval their own 1976 pastoral letter. To Live in Christ Jesus. The distinction has not gone unchallenged in both its theoretical and practical implications. But it has, at least, proved somewhat helpful in clarifying some of the complexities involved in any rational discussion of homosexuality. Its omission, therefore, is a definite setback to the progress that has been made both pastorally and theologically in the struggle with an emotional question -- one which affects the lives of 5 million Catholics in the United States alone, or one out of every four Catholic families.

Obvious inconsistencies and injustices result when this central distinction is ignored. Blackburn, for instance, says that while the document deals with “categories’’ that used to be taught as “sexual sin,” it is still incongruous to list homosexuality alongside adultery, fornication and masturbation. How does homosexuality, a condition, get in with the acts?’’ he asks, logically. “Why should homosexuality that doesn’t lead to anything be equated with adultery, when heterosexuality that doesn’t lead to adultery isn’t?’’

Educational Guidance discusses homosexuality in three major paragraphs: “Homosexuality” (101), “Cause” (102) and “Necessity of Offering Efficacious Help” (103). These three paragraphs do not afford the reader a thorough, much less a comprehensive, treatment of the subject. In all fairness, however, the document cannot be faulted for not doing what it doesn’t attempt to do -- namely, to give an exhaustive treatment of the topic. It, can be faulted, however, for its failure to be conversant with contemporary data when it makes pronouncements and gives advice to parents and educators about homosexuality. Calling homosexuality a “problem’’ is viewed from several perspectives. The use of the term “disorder,” however, is simply inadequate, either as a general description of homosexuality or of particular gay and lesbian experiences in the United States today, without using some moral or psychological distinctions. The American Catholic bishops expressed much more sensitivity when they described homosexuality as a “complex issue” in their 1978 document A Vision and Strategy: The Plan of Pastoral Action for Family.

Official church statements which insist on using the term “disorder’’ without any distinctions or definitions will fail to receive a serious hearing from some segments of the U.S. Catholic community, including many theologians and those in the therapeutic professions. The rejection of this terminology by gay and lesbian people themselves is already widespread. This rejection has received support from two recent official Catholic statements on homosexuality.

In 1979 the Catholic bishops of England and Wales issued guidelines for the clergy titled An Introduction to the Pastoral Care of Homosexual People. Three kinds of homosexual people are carefully distinguished: (1) those who have personality disorders which lead to criminal offenses; (2) those who have psychological problems such as neuroses and alcoholism; and (3) those who are “well-adjusted, stable people . . . who have come to terms with their homosexuality, who never seek help and who are never in trouble with the law.” The bishops describe this last group as individuals who are psychologically adjusted, sometimes even better than the average heterosexual.’’

A more recent document from the senate of priests of the Archdiocese of San Francisco, Ministry and Homosexuality in the Archdiocese of San Francisco (May 1983), comes to the same conclusion about some homosexual people. The contrast between this paper’s approach and that of the new Vatican study is even more apparent. Educational Guidance suggests that homosexuality might be caused by a lack of “normal sexual evolution.” Ministry clearly rejects this explanation, at least as an adequate explanation for all homosexual orientations. ‘‘What is clear, however,” says the San Francisco statement, “is that the homosexual orientation is not simply a matter of . . . truncated sexual development.” Nor do homosexual people “experience their homosexual orientation as sinful, truncated or abnormal.” It should be added that many homosexual people do not judge their responsible homosexual expression in those terms, either.

Educational Guidance encourages both parents and educators to face the issue of homosexuality in “all objectivity” when it arises. Yet it seems to lack some objectivity in its own approach. Paragraph 101, for example, which is basically a repetition of another statement on homosexuality taken directly from the Vatican Declaration of 1975, talks only about the “personal difficulties” of homosexual people and of their social maladaption.” No mention is made of the part that societal and ecclesial attitudes and practices play in these personal and social difficulties. Thus a great opportunity is lost to lend some balance to the understanding of homosexuality by calling the Catholic community to responsibility for its part in the difficulties and problems that homosexual men and women face.

A more balanced and realistic approach is found in another study, titled The Prejudice against Homosexuals and the Ministry of the Church, published by the Washington State Catholic Conference in 1983. Here “the manner in which Church teaching is conveyed” is acknowledged as contributing to the prejudices against gay and lesbian people. Because certain church spokespeople have contributed to the formation of an environment that is prejudicial to homosexual people, declares the WSCC document, “the Church is seriously obliged to work toward the uprooting of such prejudice.’’ If Vatican documents included some mention of these “problems” in future discussions of homosexuality, they would be guaranteed a fairer and more respectful hearing than such pronouncements presently receive from the secular homosexual community and increasingly from the gay and lesbian Catholic community as well.

Educational Guidance, like many other church discussions of homosexuality, seems dominated by a one-sided concern with homosexual behavior. Homosexual acts are described as being. “deprived of their essential and indispensable rule!” The document fails to consider other facets of homosexual people which are of equal or greater moral importance. Here again there is a need for greater balance and the clear recognition that homosexual people should not be reduced to their orientations; nor should the homosexual orientation be reduced to sexual behavior.

The WSCC document offers a sounder model when it says that church teaching is “positive about most activities’’ of gay and lesbian people. Only homosexual activity is disapproved, since “the Church sees these acts as attaining their full significance only in the context of marriage.” The WSCC statement refuses to reduce homosexual people to their genital expression: “Gays and lesbians have just as much right to our approval and acceptance of their overall activity.” No Christian commentator denies the importance of dealing with the morality of same-sex behavior. Likewise, no serious study of homosexuality in a Christian context can ignore this area. But neither can official church statements emanating from the Vatican and other Catholic agencies ignore other equally serious ‘‘moral issues’’ such as prejudice, willful ignorance, hostility, violence (both physical and psychological) and the pastoral neglect that homosexual people face every day. Some bishops are disturbed by what they call ‘‘ambiguity” or “vagueness” in official church teaching on homosexuality. Yet the same leaders remain quite unconcerned about their own ambiguity or vagueness on the moral issue of concrete justice for homosexual people and their need for sensitive and competent pastoral care.

Church leaders are accused of fostering psychological violence against homosexual people by repeating certain myths or ignoring the important issues responsible for many problems that gay and lesbian people experience, both in churches and the wider society. The WSCC is quite clear in pointing out the immorality of such a double standard:

“The prejudice against homosexuals is a greater infringement of the norm of Christian morality than is homosexual orientation or activity.’’

Section 102 of Educational Guidance discusses possible causes, or the “factors which drive toward homosexuality,” as the document calls them. In looking for these causes, family and teachers are urged to take into account “the contributions which various disciplines can offer.” The authors then list a number of theories which seem to indicate a lack of familiarity with current research in the etiology of sexual orientation.

Several of the suggested “causes” are taken directly from those already noted in the 1975 Vatican Declaration. The nature/nurture controversy is alluded to (“physiological or psychological factors”), even though this controversy (at least in an either-or dichotomy) has been largely abandoned by the majority of researchers, who tend to favor theories which combine both genetic and environmental components. The other theories which the document suggest have all been treated in the literature. Many of them have been found to affect few homosexuals in the development of sexual identity. Some of them have very little scientific evidence to substantiate them, and several of these accepted notions have been statistically tested with startling results in Sexual Preference; Its Development in Men and Women, by Alan P. Bell et al. (Indiana University Press, 1981). In listing “social isolation” among the possible causes, Educational Guidance might be confusing true homosexuality with “situational homosexual behavior,” such as occurs in same-sex, isolated social situations like prisons. In the latter case the individual tends to revert to his or her heterosexual pattern once the social isolation is rectified. It would have been both helpful and accurate in dealing with theories like these if the authors had pointed out that there is no one cause for homosexual orientation. There are some homosexual individuals who do not fall under any of the accepted theories. Given the present state of our knowledge about the etiology of homosexual orientation, it is more honest to say that we simply do not know with certainty and specificity what factors are involved in the genesis of one’s sexual identity and corresponding sexual orientation. This is not to say that nothing is known, but simply that caution must be used in talking about a reality which has only recently become the subject of scientific research.

Educational Guidance adds two new and rather novel theories, including “deprivation in dress” and “license in shows and publications.” One is hard-pressed to imagine how nudity or pornography can affect the development of sexual orientation or sexual identity. From what is a distinctly Christian point of view, the document proposes as another possibility for the origin of homosexuality “the consequences of original sin,” and “the loss of the sense of God and of man and woman.’’ A footnote refers the reader to Romans 1:26-28, but there is no indication of scholarly discussion among Scripture experts as to what precisely Paul is saying about the relationship between homosexuality and unbelief.

Paragraph 103, which lists a number of “efficacious helps,” says that parents and teachers will not only seek out the causes for homosexuality, but will understand them as well. This judgment is perhaps a bit too optimistic. We are expecting untrained people to accomplish something that not even the experts in the field have done, at least in those cases in which the homosexual orientation cannot definitely be traced to childhood trauma, fear of the other sex or other family-related problems.

The efficacious helps which the authors suggest are both positive and helpful to homosexual people: they are to be aided in the “process of integral growth,” “welcomed with understanding” and given a “climate of hope.” Educators should encourage the “emancipation of the individual and his or her growth in self-control, promoting an authentic moral force towards conversion to the love of God and neighbor.”

These are noble goals indeed, and few homosexual Christians would disagree with them. They are open to a variety of interpretations, however. The word “emancipation,” for example, is sometimes a continental equivalent for our word “liberation.” Yet it could hardly be argued that the Vatican is expressing support in any way for the gay liberation movement.” In the context of the total document and magisterial teaching on human sexuality, it is quite evident that “self-control” means total sexual abstinence for homosexual Christians.

It is this conclusion that has been met with questioning among some reputable U.S. Catholic moral theologians and among a number of gay and lesbian Catholics in the U.S. Still, there is a growing movement in this country of support groups like Courage for Catholics, which are attempting to adhere to the church’s requirement of celibate chastity. While these groups are undoubtedly a valuable support for many people, there have been some questions raised recently from within the group itself about the underlying premise of Courage that a homosexual orientation is a psychological disorder.

No official Catholic document has ever argued for the possibility of the church’s accepting under any circumstance any kind of homosexual expression. Yet there are still some differences in the way U.S. theologians, pastors and educators approach the issue of homosexuality compared with that of their Roman counterparts. We seem not to be afraid in this country to suggest that there is a need to “rethink’’ our position on homosexuality in light of current biblical and empirical research, or that the church’s absolute and total ban on homosexual expression “might be open to some modification.” In most Roman theological circles, however, even the whispered mention of such a possibility is considered heretical. Yet the Catholic bishops of the state of Washington were able to say that while their recent statement on homosexuality and prejudice represents “an official Church position” on the morality of homosexual expression, it does not attempt to rethink or to develop substantially the Catholic position, “however much such re-thinking and development is needed in this and all other areas of the Church’s teaching.”

Educational Guidance in Human Love says that homosexual people might benefit from “medical-psychological assistance.” Such assistance, it cautions, must also come from “persons attentive to and respectful of the teaching of the Church.”

Catholic psychologists and psychiatrists are divided on the issue of homosexuality. For some of them, at least, the new Vatican statement on sex education will present a conflict in the area of helping homosexual people. The viewpoint of these professionals and the tensions that are generated by the church’s teaching are summed up in the words of a former president of the Guild of Catholic Psychiatrists:


Current medical knowledge about homosexuality seems to contradict the attitudes of the Christian churches on the subject. The American Psychiatric Association has said that homosexuality is a normal variant. I might ask then: How can the Church justify its condemning position when homosexuality appears to be a condition deeply imbedded in the individual even prior to his receiving communion Church? . . It would seem that the Church is unwilling to accept the American Psychiatric Association’s perception of homosexuality. . . . I believe that the Catholic Church’s official position concerning homosexuality tends to promote sickness manifested In denial or rationalization, . . The Catholic (or Christian) psychiatrist is easily caught in a bind if he or she tries to adhere to the moral teachings of his or her religion and to apply these teachings when treating patients, for any psychiatrist is also expected to keep abreast of medical knowledge, which now teaches that homosexuality is a deeply ingrained pattern of behavior that is probably established by the age of five years. Perhaps the best treatment and research approach is taken by the therapist who constantly remembers the similarities rather than the differences between heterosexual and homosexual lifestyles [L. Noltimier, “A Clinical Reply.” Bulletin of the National Guild of Catholic Psychiatrists. vol. 24 (1978). pp. 41-42].

In 1981 the National Committee for Human Sexuality of the United States Catholic Conference’s Department of Education, published Education in Human Sexuality for Christians. The guidelines for sexual education were roundly and predictably attacked by Catholics United for the Faith and other rightwing Catholic groups. The USCC’s Thomas Lynch has successfully defended the new American guidelines against an attempt by the conservative front to drive an ideological wedge between the USCC’s work and the work from Cardinal Baum’s group.

What will probably happen is that parents and educators will supplement the Vatican document with its American counterpart, whose language and understanding of human sexuality resonates much more authentically with the experience of U.S. Catholics. The American document will serve to broaden and deepen the Roman approach; the Roman document will provide official sanctions for establishing sound sexual education programs which embody and articulate some of the fundamental principles of Roman Catholic sexual morality. Used in conjunction with each other, both documents will enable educators and others to move fearlessly and creatively into the whole area of human sexuality in a Christian context.

As for the treatment of homosexuality, it would seem that Burtchaell’s wistful hope that “maybe the folks over there are understanding things a little better now’’ must remain, at least for the present, just a hope.