Next Steps: Catholic Church Teaching About Homosexuality

Today’s post is the second installment of New Ways Ministry’s online series, “Next Steps: Developing Catholic LGBTQ Ministry.” To find out more information about this multi-part series, please click here. All of the resources in this series are copyrighted to New Ways Ministry. Permission is granted to use them for educational and ministerial purposes provided that you cite New Ways Ministry as the source.

Were you to ask an average person on the street what the Catholic Church teaches about LGBTQ people, perhaps one of the most common answers you would get is “The Catholic Church? They’re against them.”

Because so many Catholic church leaders and politicians have spoken so long and so strongly against LGBTQ equality measures, it’s easy to understand where that idea comes from.

If you asked the average person on the street if the Catholic Church can change its teachings on LGBTQ issues, the most common answer you would receive is “No, the church doesn’t change its teachings.”

Both of those answers, however, are wrong.

In this second installment of the “Next Steps: Developing Catholic LGBTQ Ministry” series, we will:

  • Take a short look at the history of how Catholic teaching  on lesbian, gay, bisexual people has already developed;
  • Discover some of the more positive statements that have been made by church leaders;
  • Have a chance to look at some of the relevant passages from church documents;
  • Delineate some of the key points from this development of teaching;

The material in this module will pertain primarily to lesbian, gay, and bisexual people. Transgender issues will be treated in an in-depth manner in its own module.

How Church Teaching on Homosexuality Has Developed

The Catholic Church has been developing its teaching on homosexuality over the past five decades–and it continues to do so.  The history of this development begins in 1975, when the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued its Declaration Concerning Certain Questions on Sexual Ethics (sometimes referred to by its Latin title, Persona Humana), seen by many as the church’s official response to the sexual revolution that had been occurring all over the globe since the 1960s.  For the most part, the document restated and upheld traditional Catholic teaching on sexuality and marriage. Yet, the document broke new ground in its statement about lesbian and gay people.

Up to this point, there was no mention of homosexuality in church documents as anything other than as a behavior that some people chose to engage in. The remedy was short and simple: Don’t do it. But in 1975, the Vatican acknowledged that homosexuality was not a choice, and indeed, was not simply a behavior, but was something inherent in a person–a way of being, not an action. The document stated:

“A distinction is drawn, and it seems with some reason, between homosexuals whose tendency…is transitory or at least not incurable; and homosexuals who are definitively such because of some kind of innate instinct… In the pastoral field, these homosexuals must certainly be treated with understanding and sustained in the hope of overcoming their personal difficulties and their inability to fit into society.” (Section 8)

The first important point here is that the Vatican recognized that homosexuality was a part of a person’s personality. It was not a choice which one made to engage in certain types of acts, and it was not a phase. Furthermore, it acknowledged that this part of an individual’s personality was caused by an “innate instinct,” something inside a person, not because they were influenced by friends, improperly raised by parents, experienced trauma, or any other of a number of incorrect causal myths which circulated at the time (and, unfortunately, still do in some areas).

The second important point here is that the Vatican does not condemn this position as sinful. Unlike some other Christian groups at the time (and continuing today, unfortunately), when the Catholic Church recognized that homosexual people were, to borrow a phrase from a modern pop song, “born this way,” they did not say that a person was sinful because of this part of their personality.

Third, the Vatican was calling for pastoral care for lesbian and gay people, not to “change” them or punish them, but to help them become more integrated in their personal and social lives, presumably because of the intense rejection and ostracization that lesbian and gay people experienced almost everywhere at the time.

So, this document opened two new areas of church teaching about gay and lesbian people, adding to the traditional teaching forbidding sexual activity: affirmation of the non-sinfulness of a homosexual orientation and a call to church leaders to provide appropriate pastoral care to gay and lesbian people.

These changes in church teaching sparked local bishops’ conferences and individual bishops to incorporate these ideas into their teachings on sexuality and pastoral care. As one example, in 1976, Brooklyn’s Bishop Francis Mugavero issued a pastoral letter entitled Sexuality: God’s Gift, in which he said that gay and lesbian people deserved equal treatment in society and in the Christian community. He took the bold step of addressing gay and lesbian people directly (becoming the first Catholic bishop to officially do so), stating, “. . . we pledge our willingness. . . to try to find new ways to communicate the truth of Christ because we believe it will make you free.”  (The phrase “new ways” caught the attention of Sister Jeannine Gramick and Father Robert Nugent who chose to use the phrase to title the workshops—and eventually the organization—they had developed to foster more sensitive pastoral care for lesbian and gay people.)

From the end of the 1970s and 1980s, Catholic officials issued many documents and statements calling for greater acceptance of gay and lesbian people. Dioceses and other Catholic groups developed pastoral plans for how to minister to lesbian and gay people. (By clicking on the following links, you can read some of these official statements and pastoral plans from this era.)

A new dimension of how the church understood gay and lesbian people emerged in these statements and plans. Homosexuality had always been governed by the church’s sexual ethics tradition which stressed that the only moral sexual acts are those that are open to procreation, which bring two people (one male, one female) closer together in loving intimacy, and which are performed in the context of Christian marriage. Because homosexual acts do not have a procreative element, they are not morally approved. But, now pastoral leaders began to see that the oppressive and alienated social reality of gay and lesbian lives meant that church leaders should apply the Catholic social justice tradition to this topic.

The new documents would reflect the church’s growing understanding that gay and lesbian people needed to be understood more deeply than simply thinking of them as sexual beings. Church officials began to realize the social stigma that homosexuality carried with it, which often resulted in people losing their jobs, their housings, connections to their families, and membership in churches. In addition, they were the subject of malicious stereotypes, offensive jokes, and violent physical abuse. In some areas of the Church, bishops and other leaders began to realize that the negative social realities gay and lesbian people experienced should be the primary focus of outreach to them, not constant reminders about sexual activity.

A More Complete Understanding of Church Teaching on Homosexuality

So two new areas of church teaching emerged from these magisterial documents that applied the church’s social justice tradition to lesbian and gay people. (Clicking on the links below will bring you to pages that contain quotations that illustrate each of the areas):

    1. Protection of the civil and human rights of lesbian and gay people
      The Church teaches that each person’s intrinsic dignity must be protected by law.  This admonition applies to lesbian/gay people, too.  The Church specifically states that they have a right to justice, to belong to and participate equally in the civil community, and to be respected. Catholic leaders have often supported civil rights legislation that assures equality in housing, employment, and public accommodation.
    2. Condemnation of discriminatory and prejudicial behaviors and attitudes towards lesbian and gay people.
      The Church teaches that prejudice and discrimination against gay/lesbian people is sinful and should be avoided.  People have a responsibility to examine their attitudes and behaviors about gay/lesbian people and adjust them so as to be free of hate.  The Church deplores acts of violence against gay/lesbian people and encourages Church leaders to condemn it.

These were added to the previous two developments from 1975:

    1. Affirmation of the non-sinfulness of a homosexual orientation
      The Church teaches that the homosexual orientation is not chosen, and, so, therefore it is not sinful.  A homosexual orientation is permanent and irreversible, so people should not be directed to try to change their orientations.  The orientation is not a phase and is not a block to spiritual growth, but in fact, it should be viewed as a path to spiritual growth.
    2. A call that lesbian and gay people be included in Catholic pastoral life
      The Church teaches that gay and lesbian people must be welcomed into the faith community.  Church leaders have called on pastoral ministers to develop programs for gay/lesbian people that are appropriate to their needs and gifts.

These four areas joined what people think of as the only teaching of the church about homosexuality, the ban on sexual expression. However, throughout the period, and even up to the present day, the church continues to witness a tug-of-war between which moral tradition should govern the church’s treatment of homosexuality: sexual ethics or social justice.  (For a theological study of this debate, see Gay & Lesbian Rights: A Question: Sexual Ethics or Social Justice? by Father Richard Peddicord, O.P.)

While none of the new official teachings challenged or contradicted the traditional teaching against sexual activity, in a number of instances, church leaders encouraged gay and lesbian people to develop strong, chaste friendships, and there were also a number of reminders about the church’s teaching on conscience.  (The most recent strong call to respect consciences of lesbian and gay people came from Chicago’s Cardinal Blase Cupich during the synod on the family in 2015.) At the same time, the Catholic theological community began to develop critiques of the traditional teaching about gay and lesbian sexual relationships, often emerging from the feminist critiques of sexual teaching, dissent on contraception, and new understandings of sexuality based on new evidence from the natural and social sciences. One important school of theological thought that developed stressed the importance of judging the morality of a couple’s relationship, not the morality of sexual acts.  Since that time, with the advent of marriage equality, we have witnessed  a great number of bishops and other church leaders praise the faithfulness and commitment of same-gender couples.

Deeper examination of particular aspects of church teaching on homosexuality will be developed in upcoming installments of this series.

“Objective Disorder”

A word must be said about a powerful theological term that was developed to describe the homosexual orientation. In 1986, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) issued a document entitled Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons (also known by its Latin title, Homosexualitatis problema) in which they described the homosexual orientation as an “objective disorder.”

In all of the Catholic documents about homosexuality written since 1975, no two words have caused so much debate and rancor than “objective disorder.”  Yet, the best and clearest explanation comes from Archbishop John Quinn, who led the San Francisco Archdiocese, and had already issued a comprehensive and sensitive pastoral plan on ministry to gay and lesbian people. He emphasized that the Letter specifically repudiated the idea that a homosexual orientation is sinful. But “disorder” still rang loudly in people’s ears and hearts.

Part of the problem is that when the CDF used “disorder,” they did not mean it as a medical or psychological term—though that is how most people heard and understood it. In a 1987 article in America magazine on the 1986 CDF “Letter to the Bishops,” Quinn explained why “objective disorder” could be so easily misunderstood:

“This is philosophical language.  The inclination is a disorder because it is directed to an object that is disordered. . . . First, every person has disordered inclinations. . . .Consequently, homosexual persons are not the only ones who have disordered inclinations.  Second, the letter does not say that the homosexual person is disordered.  The inclination, not the person, is described as disordered.”

While Quinn’s explanation shows the limitations of “objective disorder,” unfortunately, the negative connotations of the word which echoed caused immense offense and pastoral damage and suffering to countless people. Worse, it often provided a rationale for anti-gay Catholics to hurl violent epithets towards gay and lesbian people.  Many theologians and bishops find the term pastorally harmful and wish it would be erased from Catholic discourse. In fact, during the synod of 2015 , we heard many bishops calling for the church to eliminate this term its discourse. (For more background on the 1986 document, click here.)

It is important to note, too, that until 1998, the U.S. bishops never used the term “objective disorder” in their official documents about homosexuality, and when they finally did so, in the revision to their pastoral letter Always Our Children, they only mentioned it in the footnotes.

For further reading, reflecting, and writing

To further your understanding of church teaching on homosexuality, please review a selection of quotations from statements and documents, available here:

  1. Affirmation of the non-sinfulness of a homosexual orientation
  2. Protection of the civil and human rights of lesbian and gay people
  3. Condemnation of discriminatory and prejudicial behaviors and attitudes towards lesbian and gay people.
  4. A call that lesbian and gay people be included in Catholic parishes and that sensitive and appropriate pastoral care be provided for them.
  5. A ban on sexual expression between people of the same sex.

Click here to find some questions to aid your reflection and writing.  You may want to answer one, some, or all of these questions in your journal for this series. This practice is not homework. The purpose is so that you will have some ideas to look back on at the end of this series when you will be encouraged and guided to develop a plan of pastoral action for your parish or faith community.

Next Installment of Next Steps Series: Church Teaching on Prejudice, Discrimination, and LGBTQ Civil Rights

To find all previous installments, click here.

Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, July 1, 2020

4 replies
    DON SIEGAL says:

    Catholic Church Teaching About Homosexuality

    “Objective Disorder”

    There is no way to diminish the negativity, hate, and bigotry of those words. Trying to apply its meaning to homosexuality and not the homosexual person simply is not possible. Those words have to be removed from all Church teaching documents. Those words are as despicable as the homophobic slur beginning with F. There is no reasonable purpose in their use, and there is no justifying them by saying the document did not apply them to the person.

    In a Similar Way

    “Archbishop John Quinn…emphasized that the Letter specifically repudiated the idea that a homosexual orientation is sinful.” That is just another version of love the sinner; hate the sin. That is another statement that is unacceptable to the LGBTQ community. We have to accepted for our entirety, both our orientation and or sexual expression. It is an oxymoron to suggest that one can condemn our sexuality and at the same time not condemn our personhood.

    As for Part One and Part Two

    In all other aspects, I find part one and part two of this module very helpful and uplifting.

  2. John M
    John M says:

    Thank you for this summary and compendium of resources. I am wondering if you are planning a similar post about transgender persons – who are facing a renewed focus of discrimination inside the Church, especially in terms of health care issues. I am even more intrigued that some in the Church view transgender in light of sexual ethics instead of social justice.

    • Francis DeBernardo, Editor
      Francis DeBernardo, Editor says:

      Yes, we are planning a separate post on transgender people and church teaching. In the introduction to today’s post, I mentioned that transgender issues would be treated separately because they deserved their own examination. Thanks for inquiring.

  3. John Hilgeman
    John Hilgeman says:

    Thanks, Francis.

    I have always found publications and information from New Ways Ministry to be the best source for Catholic documents and discussions. I have never found those original documents in any other Catholic publication.

    The word “philosophical” to describe “intrinsic disorder’ points out the fatal flaw in the teaching about homosexuality. Philosophers can create whole systems of thought and world views that are internally very logical and consistent, but totally nonsensical when applied to the messiness of life and reality. The same applies to theologians who create wonderful theories and world views in their minds.

    I think that’s why the real knowledge about homosexuality, bisexuality, and any other form and expression of sexuality comes from real people, not from authorities who are limited in their philosophical and theological systems. The authentic systems of moral theology have to be measured against the golden rule, and and against John’s teaching that God is love, and those who live in love, are living in God’s love. It is the reality of love in LGBT lives and relationships that is beginning to bring about a change in official Church teaching.


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