Wednesday, March 25, 2009

A Catholic Rebellion?

No, I’m not referring to Robert S. McElvaine’s intriguing call to “impeach the Pope,” but to the publication last December of a pastoral leaflet by the Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales.

As Peter Tatchell (pictured at left) writes in The Guardian, this particular resource has created “more than a few ripples throughout the Catholic world.” Why? Well, as Tatchell documents in his December 15, 2008, commentary, the bishops’ leaflet is a “marked departure from the constant stream of anti-gay denunciations by the Vatican.” It urges, for instance, “clergy and churchgoers to be respectful and welcoming towards lesbian and gay people.” (Of course, that this kind of sentiment should contribute to an official publication being perceived as “rebellious” is a sad testament to the overall state of the Roman Catholic Church’s (mis)understanding and treatment of gay people.)

That being said, I join with Tatchell in applauding the bishops of England and Wales for the message of acceptance conveyed in their leaflet.

Following is an extended excerpt from Peter Tatchell’s commentary.


The leaflet, which is distributed to dioceses, is entitled “What is Life Like if You or Someone in Your Family is Gay or Lesbian in Their Sexual Orientation? . . . And What Can Your Parish Family Do to Make a Difference?” Unusually for an official Catholic publication, it acknowledges the “oppression” suffered by homosexuals:

As a group that has suffered more than its share of oppression and contempt, the homosexual community has a particular claim on the concern of the church.

Indeed, the leaflet includes a disarmingly honest admission of the role played by the [Roman] Catholic Church in victimization and marginalization of lesbian and gay people. It quotes comments received from lay Catholics during its Listening Day survey:

The continual message from the church is that homosexuality is so, so dreadful. Our gay son just hasn’t stood a chance . . . My brother is gay; the church has been very intolerant of him.

This frank admission of past failings is brave and honorable, as is the suggestion that Catholics should “express appreciation for the gifts that homosexual Catholics bring to their faith community.” Excluding love, compassion and empathy, the leaflet goes on to advise priests and parishioners:

Try not to assume that everyone is heterosexual . . . Avoid stereotyping and condemning . . . Remember that homophobic jokes and asides can be cruel and hurtful; a careless word can mean another experience of rejection and pain.

The leaflet’s suggested reading list of seminal Catholic statements on homosexuality does not, notably, include any statements from the Vatican. It omits all papal documents denouncing homosexuality and endorsing legal discrimination against lesbian and gay people.

Catholic traditionalists have, predictably, condemned the leaflet’s liberal message and accused the English and Welsh church of defying orthodoxy.

One English critic, Father Ray Blake, has described the leaflet as “troubling” because it does not mention the traditional Catholic teaching that homosexuals should live a life of chastity [understood by the Vatican to mean celibacy].

Although I am an atheist and a strong critic of [Roman] Catholic homophobia (and sexism), I applaud this leaflet. It is a welcome, positive initiative which will bring great comfort to gay Catholics and their families. Its sympathetic, understanding message is a huge improvement on the stern, uncompromising homophobia of most Vatican pronouncements on homosexuality.

Indeed, I hope the Catholic Church in England and Wales will encourage the Vatican to adopt this leaflet for use by Catholic dioceses worldwide. Its broader dissemination would help counteract the ignorance and prejudice that exists among many clerics and laity.

But I would also add the following caveat: the loving, respectful tone of this pastoral leaflet is undermined by the homophobic content of the Catholic Catechism and by the Pope’s frequent endorsement of discriminatory, anti-gay laws. In particular, the Vatican policy of condemning loving, stable same-sex relationships is not only ethically wrong; it risks undoing the good, kind intentions of this leaflet.

The Catechism, which sets out the basic doctrines of the Roman church, reflects the pre-scientific ignorance and anti-homosexual prejudice of the medieval era; describing same-sex acts as a “grave depravity” and “intrinsically disordered.” It states that lesbian and gay relationships are “contrary to natural law . . . and do not proceed from genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved.”

The Vatican identifies homosexuality as a deep-seated personality disorder and psychological flaw; variously condemning same-sex acts as “grave sins . . . objectively disordered . . . [and] intrinsically immoral.” Even people who have a gay orientation but abstain totally from sex are condemned by the Pope as possessing a “tendency towards an intrinsic moral evil.” In October, the Vatican ruled that chaste gay men should be barred from the priesthood and this month it again vilified same-sex marriages and announced its intention to oppose a UN general assembly statement calling for the decriminalization of homosexuality worldwide.

The English church’s pastoral leaflet challenges these outdated, bigoted attitudes. It reflects the growing acceptance of loving, loyal, long-term lesbian and gay relationships by grassroots Catholics. It is also a fitting tribute to the late Cardinal Basil Hume [pictured at right] and a continuation of his valiant, but often tortured and incomplete, attempts to move English Catholicism towards the acceptance of gay people and gay human rights.

I know from my personal dialogue with Cardinal Hume in the 1990s that he was personally pained by the Vatican’s intransigent, heartless homophobia. He tried, as best he could, to distance the English church from Rome, with nuanced theological pronouncements that discreetly differed from those of the Pope. Although his distancing was far too subtle for my liking, I appreciated his efforts.

It is good to see Cardinal Hume’s more gay-sympathetic theology reflected in this pastoral leaflet. He would be happy and proud. Congratulations and thanks to the Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales. Now please reform the Catechism – or publish your own non-homophobic English version.

To read Peter Tatchell’s article in its entirety, click here.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
How Times Have Changed
The Pope’s “Scandalous” Stance on Homosexuality
And a Merry Christmas to You Too, Papa
The Vatican’s Actions at the UN: “Sickening, Depraved, and Shameless”
Compassion, Christian Community, and Homosexuality
The Catholic Church and Gays: An Excellent Historical Overview
Catholic Teaching on Homosexuality: Complex and Nuanced
Celebrating Our Sanctifying Truth
Our Catholic “Stonewall Moment”
A Catholic Presence at Gay Pride


Anonymous said...

I had heard about this English pamphlet, now that I see what it actually said it's very encouraging of what COULD happen if things began to change at a larger level. Perhaps the English Episcopal Conference is tapping into that rebellious attitude left over by the Protestant Reformation which left an indellible mark on the Church in England forever.

From what I've heard, Cardinal O'Connor was also suprisingly "liberal" as prelates go. Still as to how liberal he actually was can be subject to debate because I remember vividly his attempts to prevent Catholic adoption agencies to cater to homosexual couples, even under the threat of closure.

It's wonderful that the English Episcopal Conference took it upon themselves to embrace progressive, scientific, and most of all compassionate thinking rather than rigid, medieval, pessimistic ideology. If only the USCCB might follow suit. The last compassionate statement which might come even remotely close to being as bold as the one released by the English Episcopal Conference was "Always our Children" put out sometime in the nineties I believe. If I remember correctly I don't think it anywhere mentioned the official Vatican definition of homosexuality being "disordered." It was remarkebly inclusive and hopeful towards fully integrating homosexuals as full and valued members of the Catholic faithful. But it seems after George Bush became President that things went downhill, and the next document from our Bishops that was issued was noticeably less encouraging and blatantly contained the official Vatican opinions on homosexuality...

When will things change with our Bishops? Who knows...? It seems that President Obama's election has onlys strengthened their pessimism and aggression towards any expressions of free or progressive thought (obviously proved by the recent Notre Dame controversy...). But it looks like things will take awhile to change in our own hiearchy...

But that pamphlet issued by the English Bishops was very uplifting! Time will tell though how long they stick to this message, we're still waiting to see who the Holy Father's appointment to fill now Cardinal O'Connor emeritus' seat will be. And if it's anything like the rest of his appointments it will be a conservative, blatant departure from the past...

But as always, let's not lose hope! Thanks for posting this Michael! It's given a Ray of Light to my day =D

Michael J. Bayly said...

Hey, you're welcome, Phillip!

And thanks, as always, for your thoughtful and articulate comments. They add so much to The Wild Reed. And for that I'm happy and grateful.