THIS MONTH IN CATHOLIC LGBT HISTORY: Archbishop Instrumental in Passing Gay Rights Law

History-Option 1Today, Bondings 2.0 inaugurates a new feature, “This Month in Catholic LGBT History.” We hope this feature will serve to educate readers of the rich history—positive and negative—that has taken place over the last four decades regarding Catholic LGBT equality issues.  We hope it will show people how far our Church has come, ways that it has regressed, and how far we still have to go.

Once a  month, Bondings 2.0 staff will produce a post on Catholic LGBT news events from the past 38 years.  We will comb through editions of Bondings 2.0’s predecessor:  Bondings,  New Ways Ministry’s newsletter in paper format.   We began publishing Bondings in 1978. Unfortunately because these newsletters are only archived in hard copies, we cannot link back to the primary sources in most cases. 

Since this is a new experiment, we would appreciate hearing from you in the “Comments” section if you think an occasional feature such as this is helpful to you.

1991: Archbishop Instrumental in Passing Gay Rights Law

In April 1991, Connecticut’s state legislature was debating a bill that would outlaw discrimination against lesbian and gay people  in housing, employment, and public accommodation.  The bill had originally been introduced in 1973, but always failed.  On April 5, 1991, in the midst of the debate, Hartford’s Archbishop John F. Whealon wrote a column entitled “The church and the homosexual person” in the archdiocesan newspaper The Catholic Transcript,  in which he stated that discrimination against lesbian and gay people “is always morally wrong.”

The Gay Paper reported:

“Whealon’s comments on homosexuality were quickly interpreted as a tacit endorsement of [the] gay rights bill that the state’s Roman Catholic bishops have opposed for years.”

The newspaper also noted:

“In the General Assembly, lawmakers on both sides of the debate said the bishops’ neutrality could mean the General Assembly will pass a gay rights bill this month.

” ‘The neutral position of the church is tantamount to approval.  There is no question about that,’  said Rep. William L. Wollenberg, R-Farmington. ‘People here have said, “If the church isn’t against it, I’m not against it.” ‘ “

The following are some excerpts from Whealon’s column:

Archbishop John F. Whealon

“What is the official teaching of the Catholic Church concerning homosexuality? . . . The cornerstone of this teaching is the dignity of every human being.  Every person is made in God’s image and therefore worthy of love, and must recognize in self a spiritual and mortal soul, and must regard the body as good and honorable because God has created it and will raise it up on the last day. . . . The dignity of every son and daughter of God is basic for any Catholic in approaching this question about homosexual persons. . . .

“The official teachings of the Catholic Church make a sharp distinction between homosexuality as an orientation, which is a tendency or attraction to the same sex, and homosexuality as expressing itself in sexual acts.  The Church clearly teaches that homosexual men and women should not suffer from prejudice on the basis of their sexual orientation.  Such discrimination is contrary to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and is always morally wrong. The Church also consistently teaches that homosexual acts are immoral, against the natural law, and not to be practiced by any person who wants to follow God’s law. . . .

When parents and siblings learn that their son or daughter, brother or sister, is homosexual in orientations, often the topic is discussed in an atmosphere of fear and anger.  Alienation of members of a family from one another is the result. Relatives need to show understanding and the homosexual person needs to be more perceptive of the family’s lack of understanding.  Trust and openness and love are needed in every attempt at reconciliation.

To those who are burdened by the cross of homosexual self-hatred, a special message is also needed.  The Church reminds them that they must accept themselves as God made them, that as persons they also are the handiwork of God, redeemed by the Blood of Christ and cherished by the Church.”

What I think is interesting about Whealon’s approach is that he sees human dignity as the “cornerstone” of church teaching about lesbian and gay people.  While he clearly affirms the magisterium’s disapproval of sexual expression between people of the same sex, it seems that he sees the teaching on human dignity as more basic to the discussion.  It’s important to note this ordering of priorities because under Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, the reverse order was usually promoted:  sexual ethics was seen as primary, with human dignity mentioned often seemingly as an afterthought.  Pope Francis, who also upholds the church’s sexual ethics teaching about lesbian and gay relationships, does seem to be returning, however, to Whealon’s set of priorities.  Pope Francis and other church leaders need to be more explicit about this ordering or priorities, and to be more explicit in their defense of human dignity and rights for LGBT people.

On April 17, 1991,  The New York Times reported that Connecticut’s gay rights bill passed its final legislative hurdle, a Senate vote, and was on its way for the governor’s approval, which it received. At the time the bill’s passage was historically significant because only three other states and the District of Columbia had such protections:

“Wisconsin, Massachusetts and Hawaii have gay-rights laws on their books. Between 50 and 100 cities, counties and other jurisdictions also offer some legal protection, including New York City and the District of Columbia, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.”

The news story noted some legislators’ observation about the 1991 debate:

“Lawmakers said that several factors were different this year. The Roman Catholic Church, in particular, which had been perceived to be in opposition before, played no role in opposing the legislation this year. . . .

“The co-chairman of the General Assembly’s Judiciary Committee, Representative Richard D. Tulisano, Democrat of Rocky Hill, said the church’s role, or at least its lack of opposition, was probably the key.

” ‘It created a different atmosphere,’ he said in an interview. Mr. Tulisano, who has worked in support of the measure since the mid 1970’s in the Assembly, said that in previous years, much of the debate was spent on whether gay people represented a threat to traditional family values.

“This year, however, he said lawmakers finally focused equally on the threat that discrimination posed to society. ‘The whole tone was different,’ he said.”

Another interesting quality about Whealon’s column is he never once mentioned the gay rights bill in the legislature.  That is quite a difference from today’s bishops who frequently opine explicitly on bills.  Perhaps Whealon did not want to explicitly support the bill, or perhaps he did not want to be seen as engaging in political debate.  Regardless of his motivation, it is clear that politicians inferred his support, allowing them to vote for its passage in a strong Catholic state.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry




0 replies
  1. Terence Weldon (@queering_church)
    Terence Weldon (@queering_church) says:

    Definitely a helpful feature. I look forward with interest to future posts.

    Catholic hierarchs have a habit of referring to the Church’s “constant and unchanging tradition” – but the truth is that the Church, like everything else that exists, is constantly changing, in ways large and small. On the other hand, for those of us in the trenches resisting or actively fighting against current injustices in doctrine or practice, it’s too easy to get caught up in the moment. It’s helpful to step back and take a long view: sometimes to remind ourselves how far we’ve in come (with the promise that further progress is possible), sometimes recall that no, current horrors were not “ever thus”, and can be undone.

  2. lynne1946
    lynne1946 says:

    Fascinating! I had not been aware of this, and it clarifies some of the thinking that preceded the passing of the new law.
    I think this is an excellent addition to your page, and will look forward to it.

  3. Bob Zillich
    Bob Zillich says:

    Thanks for for this perspective. There were some islands of clarity which we can so easily pass over or forget.

    A good addition to your Bondings reporting.

  4. Friends
    Friends says:

    Living here in Western Massachusetts — just a short drive from Connecticut — I’m in a position to share what amounts to a dire cautionary tale about “good pastoral leadership” versus “horrible pastoral leadership”. The Archdiocese of Hartford owns a high-powered FM radio station, whose call letters are “WJMJ”. (I think the acronym in their call letters “JMJ” is rather obvious!) Archbishop Whealon, obviously influenced by the cultural climate of Vatican II, allowed the station to operate as an ecumenical public media resource. WJMJ carried a weekly Episcopal program, called “Sundays At Six” — hosted by a priest from a Hartford Episcopal church — and the organist who accompanied the nightly “Compline” service was the Minister of Music at a local Congregational church.

    However, Archbishop Whealon was succeeded by a new archbishop named Daniel Cronin — who was having none of this “Ecumenical” stuff. He booted ALL of the station’s non-Catholic programming off the air, and ordered WJMJ to start carrying huge chunks of Mother Angelica’s decidedly right-wing EWTN network programming. Cronin’s motivation is encapsulated in a two-sentence clip from his Wikipedia entry: “Considered theologically conservative, Cronin is opposed to the ordination of women and to homosexuality. He once stated, ‘The dominion of human life is in the hands of God. The gift of life starts from the time of conception and ends at the time of natural death.'”

    Well, the proverbial “stuff” hit the proverbial “fan” — as fierce and angry responses from the station’s many listeners spilled over into the “Letters” columns of major Connecticut newspapers. The damage done by Cronin to the station’s public image and popular acceptance — which it enjoyed under the direction of Archbishop Whealon — has subsided in recent years, under his two more temperate successors. WJMJ’s programming is now, once again, considerably more diverse and mainstream. But it still carries significant amounts of EWTN’s right-wing version of Catholicism — which is decidedly at odds with the way in which most of today’s surviving adult Catholics view and practice their faith. And as for young Catholics, I doubt if they even know the station exists! They inhabit their own generational media universe. But thanks for highlighting the good work done by Archbishop Whealon, during the flourishing of a brief period of “Vatican II” sunlight.


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