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The Roman Catholic Church and Homosexuality

1997 Events

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1997 Dignity convention

Dignity is a support group for gays and bisexuals. Their convention in Boston MA started on 1997-JUL-11. 1 There were references to a softening of the Church's stance towards homosexuality:

  • The National Catholic Reporter, conducted a poll in 1996 which revealed that most US Roman Catholics support full rights for homosexuals in the church, including the right to marry.
  • Dignity members met regularly with Cardinal John. J. O'Connor in New York, NY. One result of these meetings was a church decision to decrease the police protection at St. Patrick's Cathedral during New York's annual Gay Pride Parade. A second was an end to the church's opposition to a recent New York State bill dealing with hate crimes against homosexuals.

Dignity leaders expect to shift the emphasis of the group away from supporting gays and lesbians towards challenging the Church's treatment of homosexuals.

1997 rewording of the Catechism:

On SEP 8, the CDF revised the 1992 Catechism from:
bullet "They [homosexuals] do not choose their homosexual condition; for most of them it is a trial." to
bullet "This inclination, which is objectively disordered, constitutes for most of them a trial."

They seem to have changed their mind on the cause of sexual orientation at some time between 1992 and 1997.

1997 letter from US Catholic Bishops

Bishop Thomas Gumbletons led the 5 year project to prepare a pastoral letter directed to parents of gays and lesbians. On 1997-SEP-30, the Bishops issued the pastoral letter titled "Always Our Children". 2,3 It was posted for a while on their Web site, but later removed. Fortunately, the National Catholic Reporter has made it available on their site. 4 The bishops asked that parents of gays and lesbians not reject their children:

"A shocking number of homosexual youth end up on the streets because of rejection by their families. This, and other external pressures, can place young people at greater risk of self-destructive behaviors, like substance abuse, and suicide."

" is essential for you to remain open to the possibility that your son or daughter is struggling to understand and accept a basic homosexual orientation."

"Church teaching acknowledges a distinction between a homosexual 'tendency' which proves to be 'transitory' and 'homosexuals who are definitively such because of some kind of innate instinct' (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Declaration on Certain Questions Concerning Sexual Ethics, 1975, n.8)."

"There seems to be no single cause of a homosexual orientation. A common opinion of experts is that there are multiple factors -- genetic, hormonal, psychological -- that may give rise to it. Generally, homosexual orientation is experienced as a given, not as something freely chosen. By itself, therefore, a homosexual orientation cannot be considered sinful, for morality presumes the freedom to choose."

"God loves every person as a unique individual. Sexual identity helps to define the unique persons we are. One component of our sexual identity is sexual orientation...God does not love someone any less simply because he or she is homosexual."

Implicit in the last two statements is the assumption that a person cannot change their sexual orientation.

The Bishops promote the concept of gays and lesbians remaining sexually inactive. They quote a statement by the U.S. Catholic Conference: 5 

"Only within marriage does sexual intercourse fully symbolize the Creator’s dual design, as an act of covenant love, with the potential of co-creating new human life."

They observe that only within a marriage between a man and a woman is sexual intercourse open to the possible creation of new human life. Thus they conclude that sexual activity within a loving, committed, homosexual partnership is "objectively immoral." This statement is, of course, deeply offensive to many individuals, including married heterosexuals who are infertile by reason of medical operation or age. For them, as for gays and lesbians, there is no possibility of sexual intercourse creating human life.

On the matter of civil rights, the Bishops comment:

"... the fundamental human rights of homosexual persons must be defended and that all of us must strive to eliminate any form of injustice, oppression, or violence against them...Homosexual persons 'must be accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity."

Of course, the Church does not include the right of gays and lesbians to marry, and to thereby receive hundreds of economic benefits, as a legitimate fundamental right.

The bishops recommended that parents:

  • urge their children to be sexually inactive
  • challenge any aspects of their children's lives that they find objectionable
  • maintain the relationship with their children.
  • "First, don't break off contact; don't reject your child...This child, who has always been God's gift to you, may now be the cause of another gift: your family becoming more honest, respectful and supportive"
  • "do everything possible to continue demonstrating love for your child."

The letter encourages priests to:

  • welcome homosexuals into the church's life.
  • help support groups for parents of gay children (perhaps similar to the Encourage program).
  • help promote support groups for Gays and lesbians (perhaps similar to the Courage program).

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Reactions to the bishops' 1997 letter

  • Marie Summers is president of Dignity Philadelphia. She responded: "This letter will provide comfort to many parents. However, there's irony in the fact that while the church is encouraging people not to reject their own, it is rejecting its own...Most people have a hard time accepting celibacy. It doesn't follow that God would create us as we are and not let us have a loving relationship with another person."
  • Mary Ellen Lopata, of the Catholic Gay and Lesbian Ministry in Rochester, NY, said many parents struggle with the issue. "For them to hear the bishops say to love their child first is very important and can go a long way to help them resolve those conflicts and begin some healing."
  • Barbara Costa, a member of the Tiverton RI chapter of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, has a gay son. She said: "It's not enough just to say somebody is gay and has no choice about it and then turn around and say they must remain celibate for the rest of their lives...It takes so long for the church to come around. There's going to be an awful lot of pain and misery in the meantime, because if somebody is gay, they want to live a normal life like anybody else. They want to love like anybody else and have that love recognized."
  • New Ways Ministry is an educational organization geared toward issues affecting Gay Catholics. Its executive director, Frank DeBernardo said: "It was a giant step forward for Gay Catholics. But I think the real potential for that letter is in Gay and Lesbian Catholics and their parents bringing it to the attention of their pastors."
  • Dignity/USA is a national organization organized in 1969 for gay Catholics and their supporters. Its new executive director, Charles Cox, said: "The letter certainly marked, not necessarily a change, but certainly movement on the part of the Catholic Church, and the bishops in particular." Cox feels that the most significant item in the letter was its acknowledgement that sexual orientation is probably not a choice.
  • The National Association of Catholic Diocesan Lesbian and Gay Ministries has representatives from 30 dioceses and is based in Oakland CA. Their executive director, Rev. Jim Schexnayder, said that the pastoral letter: "...has practical recommendations. And because of that, it will be something that people will be turning to as a basis for their ministry...Each parish church has to respond in its own way...and some are more welcoming than others."


  1. Diego Ribadeneira, "Gay Catholics see a Growing Acceptance", Boston Globe, 1997-JUL-12
  2. "Church Urges Catholics Not to Reject Gay Offspring", Associated Press, 1997-OCT-3
  3. The National Council of Catholic Bishops issued a news release on the 1997-OCT statement titled "Bishops Urge Parents of Homosexuals to Accept Their Children, Themselves, Church Teaching on Human Dignity" See:
  4. The text of the Bishops' 1997-OCT statement is still available at the National Catholic Reporter. See:
  5. U.S. Catholic Conference, "Human Sexuality: A Catholic Perspective for Education and Lifelong Learning,"(1991), p. 55.
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Copyright © 1997 to 2008, by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2008-JUL-25
Author: B.A. Robinson

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