Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Proposed Bishops' Doc on Gay Ministry: Holiness Necessary... Therapy, Not So Much

Seeking to highlight "the Church's balanced approach" on questions of human sexuality, the proposed text of the US bishops' long-awaited guidelines on ministry to "persons with a homosexual inclination" attempts draw a similarly nuanced line on the issue.

Praising those "ardently striving" by means of chastity "not to fall into the lifestyle and values of a 'gay subculture,'" the document, to be considered at next month's USCCB meeting in Baltimore, stringently affirms the church's traditional teaching on the inadmissibility of same-sex acts while "eschew[ing] temptations toward extremist positions" in catechesis and devoting its more sweeping emphases to a positive and welcoming approach to gay Catholics in the area of pastoral practice, including a conditional green-light for the baptism of children adopted by gay couples.

Setting its tone early in the text by reminding the flock that all "are created in the image and likeness of God and thus possess an innate human dignity that must be acknowledged and respected," the document asserts that "Those who would minister in the name of the Church must in no way contribute to... injustice" against homosexuals -- with the subsequent caveat that "it is not unjust... to limit the bond of marriage to the union of a woman and a man" nor to "oppose granting to homosexual couples benefits that in justice should belong to marriage alone," i.e. civil unions.

Assailing contemporary cultural tendencies toward "moral relativism" and "hedonism" as obstacles to the acceptance of the church's moral teaching, the bishops note that "it is not surprising that there are a number of groups active in our society that not only deny the existence of objective moral norms but also aggressively seek approval for homosexual behavior. The message of such groups misleads many people and causes considerable harm."

The product of four years of deliberations, the fulltext of 24-page statement prepared by the USCCB's Committee on Doctrine was obtained by Whispers in advance of a discussion and vote by the full body of bishops at next month's Fall Plenary, where documents on liturgical music and contraception are among other hot-button action items facing the nation's hierarchs.

Citing the "deplorable" record of "violent malice in speech or in action" against gays, the proposed text says near its beginning that ecclesial ministers "should prayerfully examine their own hearts in order to discern any thoughts or feelings that might stand in need of purification."

"Those who minister are also called to their own ongoing conversion," it continues. "In fact, the work of spreading the Good News involves an ever-increasing love for those to whom one is ministering."

In its exploration of the history and principles of Catholic moral teaching leading into its treatment of same-sex relations, the document primarily reiterates the divergence between the "sinful[ness]" of homosexual acts but not of the "inclination" thereto, though the inclination is still deemed "objectively disordered." However, as the bishops note that church teaching on homosexuality has been "misinterpreted or misrepresented," the committee articulates that it "is crucially important to understand that saying a person has a particular inclination that is disordered is not to say that the person as a whole is disordered. Nor does it mean that one has been rejected by God or the Church."

At several points, the proposed text takes great pains to clarify the use of the term "disordered," which has marked the ecclesial conversation on homosexuality to a greater extent than other moral questions. Saying that "it is not only sexual inclinations that can be disordered within a human person," the committee cites similar motivations "such as those that lead to envy, malice or greed" and, elsewhere, notes a "variety of acts, such as adultery, fornication and contraception, that violate the proper ends of human sexuality." Later, the document speaks with sadness that "in our society violation of chastity and the pervasive human suffering and unhappiness that follow in its wake are not uncommon," offering as examples "the human devastation that results when marriage vows are broken, or the human heartbreak that can lie in the wake of sexual promiscuity."

However, the bishops also cite the teaching of St Paul "that homosexual acts are not in keeping with our being created in God's image and so degrade and undermine our authentic dignity as human beings," saying that the apostle "tells how homosexual practices can arise among people who erroneously worship the creature rather than the Creator."

Paul "listed homosexual practices among those things that are incompatible with the Christian life," the text reads.

In one of its key passages, the text says that "reparative" or "conversion therapy," as the clinical option advocated by some conservatives is commonly known, has attained "no consensus" as to its effectiveness and that those with a same-sex inclination are under "no moral obligation to attempt it."

"The Church recognizes the 'legitimate authority' of the sciences and respects their own proper methodology and field of inquiry," the committee says. "Thus, the Church does not endorse one particular theory of the genesis of homosexuality or one particular therapy over another."

However, "there is another kind of 'therapy' or healing of which we all stand in need," the draft says, "regardless of whether one is attracted to the same or opposite sex: Every person needs training in the virtues."

Closing its section on "general principles" with an appeal to the universal call to holiness voiced at Vatican II, the text says that "The ministry of the Church to persons with a homosexual inclination must always have the overriding aim of fostering the greatest possible friendship with God, participation in the divine life of the Trinity through sanctifying grace." It then transitions into several pages of "guidelines for pastoral care" for gays, beginning with an exhortation that their "full and active participation" in the life of the church "is encouraged."

The committee subsequently states, however, that "the Church has a right to deny roles of service to those whose behavior violates her teaching," as "such service might be an occasion of scandal and appear as condoning immoral lifestyles." Note the wording -- "a right," as opposed to something like "an obligation" or "a duty," appears to allow for a degree of flexibility. The formulation will likely be a source of debate when the document comes up on the floor.

On another point, the guidelines advise bishops to "ensure that those carrying out the ministry of the Church not use their position of leadership to advocate positions or behaviors not in keeping" with its doctrine, underscoring that "it is not sufficient for those involved in this ministry to adopt a position of distant neutrality with regard to Church teaching."

While affirming that the church "does not support" same-sex marriage, "civil unions that give the appearance of a marriage," nor adoptions by gay couples, in a significant inclusion the proposed text addresses the question of the baptism of children adopted by same-sex couples. Conceding that baptizing the adoptees of gay parents "presents a pastoral concern," the committee expressed its decision that "nevertheless, the Church does not refuse the Sacrament of Baptism to these children," provided "a well founded hope that the children will be brought up in the Catholic religion" is present.

Near its close, the document calls for "Church ministers [to] listen to the experiences, needs and hopes of the persons with a homosexual inclination to whom and with whom they minister" and, with an emphasized reminder that "we must all work for unity among God's people," it thanks "our brothers and sisters who have labored so patiently and faithfully in pastoral ministry and outreach to persons with a homosexual inclination.

"They have done so at times under adverse and difficult conditions," the text says. "They have set an example for this important service to the Church."

Undertaken by the US bishops in 2002 with "some encouragement from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith," the project has long been shepherded by the CDF's most recent prefect.

Cardinal William Levada served from 2003 until his 2005 appointment to the Vatican post as chair of the American bishops' Committee on Doctrine. Particularly given his experience with the issue of gays in the church over his decade as archbishop of San Francisco, it would be more than just reasonable to expect that Levada has maintained a close involvement in the document's drafting and precis.

Notably, the text's pastoral angle appears culled from the same spirit of statements on gay Catholics made last year by then-Archbishop Sean O'Malley of Boston and Bishop J. Terry Steib of Memphis in their respective dioceses.

Currently chaired by Bishop Arthur Serratelli of Paterson, the membership of the seven-prelate committee includes Archbishops Jose Gomez of San Antonio and Donald Wuerl of Washington. Among its consultors are Cardinals Francis George, OMI of Chicago and Avery Dulles, the Jesuit theologian.