Thursday, November 13, 2008

How Times Have Changed

Did you know there was a time when the Roman Catholic Church could actually recommend “steady partnerships” for gay people?

Don’t believe me? Well, take a moment or two to read the following excerpt from an insightful piece by theologian Daniel Helminiak entitled “Homosexuality in Catholic Teaching and Practice.” It’s from his 2006 book,
Sex and the Sacred: Gay Identity and Spiritual Growth.


Catholicism . . . allows for gay and lesbian sex. The Catholic position includes what is called “pastoral application of official teaching”. The notion is that, in practice, the general principles of official teachings need to be prudently applied to fit individual cases. People are different. No two cases are exactly alike. What is ideally required is not always attainable, so allowances need to be made in pastoral situations, in one-on-one counseling, or in the privacy of the confessional. People can be required to do only what they are able.

The Vatican mentality follows the Roman notion of law. Laws are thought to express ideals that people should strive to achieve. Laws do not, as in English and American traditions, express minimum requirements that must be met. Catholic ethics propose ideals, and these apply variably in individual cases.

Thus, Father Jan Visser, a principal author of the 1975 Vatican document on sexual ethics, could write in the January 30, 1976, edition of L’Europa, “When one is dealing with people who are so deeply homosexual that they will be in serious personal or social trouble unless they obtain 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.” This is authentic Catholic teaching. In practice, for the good of individuals and society, in certain circumstances Catholicism may even recommend lesbian and gay relationships.

(NOTE: For further excerpts from Helminiak’s “Homosexuality in Catholic Teaching and Practice,” see the previous Wild Reed post, Catholic Teaching on Homosexuality: “Complex and Nuanced” Says Theologian.)


Yes, yes, I know. When it comes to gay people, the idea and practice of “pastoral application of official teaching” has long been thrown out the window.

David McCaffrey, co-founder in 1980 of the
Catholic Pastoral Committee on Sexual Minorities (CPCSM), recalls how in the early days of the group there was a clear distinction between the “official teaching” and “pastoral practice.” In those days, CPCSM did not challenge church teaching. Why should it? There was room then to be prudent and creative and sensitive to gay people’s particular experiences and pastoral needs. And contrary to what the chancery of the Archdiocese of St. Paul/Minneapolis may say now, the ministry work of CPCSM was indeed considered at that time to be within the Catholic fold.

Now, of course, the Church’s response to its gay members emphasizes strict adherence to “official teaching,” to doctrines, rules, and the letter-of-the-law. And you know what? This is probably a good thing because it has forced Catholics – and gay Catholics in particular – to realize just how dysfunctional and lacking in compassion and insight this teaching and such a legalistic approach really are. There’s no avoiding it; no taking refuge in that “out” once provided by the “pastoral application of official teaching.”

I, for one, welcome this. I wasn’t even out as gay back in the 1970s and ‘80s when the Church, to varying degrees, allowed for the “pastoral approach” toward gays. I was in high school and fearfully ignorant of the truth about myself. To be honest, though, I actually find the “pastoral approach” somewhat demeaning. “Oh, you poor homosexual,” I can well hear some saying (or at least thinking) back then, “you’re so afflicted that you can’t possibly live up to our teaching. We’ll find a way to let you off the hook.”

Yeah, well, sorry. It’s the hook that’s the problem.

And today the overwhelming number of gay Catholics know it and have simply left. The Vatican’s infamous
“Halloween Letter” of 1986 was the death kneel for the “pastoral application of official teaching” approach. Gay people felt utterly betrayed and, as I noted, many simply walked.

Many of those who stayed began educating themselves about the history and development of the Church’s teaching on not only homosexuality, but human sexuality in general. It was during this period that I came of age as a Catholic gay man. And for that I'm very grateful.

What LGBT Catholics discovered about Church teaching as a result of such research (coupled, I should add, with prayerful reflection) was that it was insultingly insensitive, intellectually dishonest, and morally bankrupt. Not surprisingly, we have dedicated ourselves to facilitating change. This, of course, is no easy task, especially when gay Catholics who, in good conscience, reject the Church’s view of the “intrinsically disordered” nature of the homosexual orientation and call for reform of Church teaching, are dismissed and even maligned by the hierarchy - members of which see themselves as the guardians of a closed system of ideas and beliefs that cannot accommodate new insights and information.

As a result we’re left with
discriminatory ideology masquerading as theology; and a “fortress under siege” mentality that has usurped an understanding of church as a pilgrim people still learning and growing.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: as Catholics we can do better.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
The Non-Negotiables of Human Sex
Relationship: The Crucial Factor in Sexual Morality
The Many Manifestations of God’s Loving Embrace
Making Love, Giving Life
Compassion, Christian Community, and Homosexuality
Be Not Afraid, You Can Be Happy and Gay!
Truth Telling: The Greatest of Sins in a Dysfunctional Church
The Catholic Church and Gays: An Excellent Historical Overview


Anonymous said...

I don't know, Michael. Just because a particular cleric, religious or theologian does or doesn't advocate something, doesn't mean the Church and it's pastors do too.

One of the tasks of the Magisterium is to dampen out the fads and mood-swings of God's "stiff necked" people. Not every academic, social or cultural movement is the work of the Holy Spirit. By the same token, not ever such movement is the work of the devil, either.

Christopher said...


You've sparked some further thinking at my own blog. I think the error here is that the ideal is centered on heterosexuality, heterosexual marriage, and/or celibacy rather than Jesus Christ.