Next Steps: Catholic Church Teaching About Prejudice, Discrimination, and LGBTQ Civil Rights

Today’s post is the third installment of New Ways Ministry’s online series, “Next Steps: Developing Catholic LGBTQ Ministry.” To find out more information and a registration form for this multi-part series, please click here.  To find the first two installments, 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.

In 1983, the Washington State Catholic Conference, the public policy arm of the bishops there, issued a document about civil rights legislation for gay and lesbian people entitled Prejudice Against Homosexuals and the Ministry of the Church.  In that document, they produced one of the most remarkable sentences in all of Catholic discourse on LGBTQ people:

“…prejudice against homosexuals is a greater infringement of the norm of Christian morality than is homosexual…activity.”

Why is that sentence so remarkable?  If you have been following this series on LGBTQ pastoral ministry, you may remember from the second installment that Catholic teaching on LGBTQ issues is often a tug of war between two moral traditions in the Church: the sexual ethics tradition and the social justice tradition.  As a brief review, the sexual ethics tradition governs sexual behavior, and requires that the procreative dimension be present in all sexual acts. This requirement, thus, leads to the Church’s prohibition of lesbian/gay sexual relationships, even those that include long-term commitments.

The social justice tradition governs how human beings treat one another in society, and prizes equality and respect for all people’s inherent human dignity.  These requirements lead to the position that attitudes, words, actions, and even law must respect and protect all people equally—including LGBTQ people.

The tension between these traditions runs through many church documents and often is expressed in some sort of variant of this formula:

The church protects the human dignity of LGBTQ people and condemns all kinds of unjust discrimination against them.  AND the church also teaches that sexual activity between people of the same sex is not morally permitted.  And/or, the church believes that people’s gender identity is determined by the sex, either male or female, assigned at birth.

What makes the Washington State Catholic Conference statement so remarkable is that instead of placing the two traditions on equal footing, it places the two traditions in a small hierarchy, prizing the social justice tradition over the sexual ethics tradition in the discussion of lesbian/gay rights. The bishops seem to have said that fact that lesbian and gay people are endowed with human dignity is a much more important church teaching than the teaching about sexual activity.

Church Teaching Develops in U.S. and Around the World

The Washington statement was not the first or only statement from bishops disapproving of prejudice and discrimination against LGBTQ people.  As we mentioned in the previous installment of this series, Brooklyn’s Bishop Francis Mugavero had called for equal treatment of lesbian/gay people in his 1976 pastoral letter entitled Sexuality God’s Gift.

And he was not alone.  In the same year, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (in the U.S.A.) released a pastoral letter entitled To Live in Christ Jesus in which they stated:

“Homosexuals…should not suffer prejudice against their basic human rights.  They have a right to respect, friendship and justice.  They should have an active role in the Christian community.”

They reiterated that teaching in their 1991 pastoral letter, Human Sexuality: A Catholic Perspective for Education and Lifelong Learning where they also added:

“We call on all Christians and citizens of good will to confront their own fears about homosexuality and to curb the humor and discrimination that offend homosexual persons. We understand that having a homosexual orientation brings with it enough anxiety, pain and issues related to self-acceptance without society bringing additional prejudicial treatment.”

Throughout the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, there were dozens of statements from Catholic officials affirming the human dignity of lesbian and gay people, and calling on church members to root out discrimination.  You can see the wealth and variety of such statements by clicking here.  Support for this teaching was also found in the many pastoral plans written during this period, which you can read by clicking here.

If you examine some of those statements and pastoral plans mentioned in the previous paragraph, you will see that not all of them are from the United States.  Catholic bishops and leaders from the United Kingdom, Canada, France, New Zealand and the Netherlands were also supporting the equality and human dignity of LGBTQ people during this period.  In fact, the Vatican itself weighed in on the discussion with supportive statements. In the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s 1986 Letter to the Bishops on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons, it states:

“…It is deplorable that homosexual persons have been and are the object of violent malice in speech or in action. Such treatment deserves condemnation from the Church’s pastors wherever it occurs. It reveals a kind of disregard for others which endangers the most fundamental principles of a healthy society. The intrinsic dignity of each person must always be respected in word, in action and in law.” (Section 10)

“What is essential is that the fundamental liberty which characterizes the human person and gives him his dignity be recognized as belonging to the homosexual person as well.” (Section 11).

These teachings became very public and explicit in the 1994 publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which stated in section 2358:

“They must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided.”

This teaching remained consistent even as the U.S. bishops conference became more conservative in the late 1990s.  In 1997, the conference’s Committee on Marriage and Family Life issued Always Our Children, a letter to parents of lesbian and gay people, though also containing recommendations for pastoral ministers and others in the church.  In that document they stated:

“Nothing in the Bible or in Catholic teaching can be used to justify prejudicial or discriminatory attitudes and behaviors.”

In 2006, the bishops conference took the additional step to say that the institutional church itself should be mindful not to discriminate. In an instructional document entitled Ministry to Persons with a Homosexual Inclination: Guidelines for Pastoral Care, the bishops state:

“Church policies should explicitly reject unjust discrimination and harassment of any persons, including those with a homosexual inclination.  Procedures should be in place to handle complaints.”

The keyword in this last quotation is “unjust.”  What is “just” discrimination?  And doesn’t the meaning of “discrimination,” when discussing social relationships, already entail the attribute “unjust”?  It’s important to take note of this word because it still is often used when church leaders discuss LGBTQ rights.  Although it is never defined by them, it is often read by others to mean that these leaders are reserving the right to discriminate when they feel that the church’s religious liberty is being threatened.

Interestingly, I have not heard of one diocese that has instituted procedures to handle complaints.  This has come into stark relief recently when so many LGBTQ people have lost their jobs at Catholic institutions.  In the reports of over 100 public employment disputes in dozens of different dioceses, there has been no mention of any such procedures.  While that absence is disappointing (and while I admit some policies may exist of which I am unaware; I’d love to hear about them if people know of such), it should serve as encouragement for parishioners to develop LGBTQ ministry programs as ways of advancing the church’s mission and teaching even if leaders have not done so.

Respect for Transgender People

Over the decades, the lesbian/gay/bisexual movement grew to explicitly include transgender and queer people, and the Church is still struggling to come to terms with these latter two groups.  However, in the Vatican Congregation for Education’s 2019 instruction Male and Female, He Created Them, church leaders explicitly supported the human dignity of transgender and gender non-conforming people:

“Another position held in common is the need to educate children and young people to respect every person in their particularity and difference, so that no one should suffer bullying, violence, insults or unjust discrimination based on their specific characteristics (such as special needs, race, religion, sexual tendencies, etc.). Essentially, this involves educating for active and responsible citizenship, which is marked by the ability to welcome all legitimate expressions of human personhood with respect.” (Section 16)

Why is this important to beginning or developing an LGBTQ ministry program in your parish or community?  Perhaps the most important reason is that this is an area of church teaching which is so little known.  Most Catholics probably hear more about sexuality than about social justice in the average parish.  The news media more often publicizes the negative things that Catholic leaders say about LGBTQ people than the positive and supportive things they say.

This area of church teaching on LGBTQ issues has much less to do with LGBTQ people and much more to do with the wider community.  It calls on this wider community to check their own attitudes, assumptions, and misconceptions about LGBTQ people.

So another important reason is that many parishes have learned that if they want to be able to welcome LGBTQ people into their communities, they must first work on helping staff and parishioners overcome their own homophobia and transphobia.  If they don’t, then they would be trying to welcome LGBTQ people into a community that is not prepared to treat them with dignity and respect.

Back in the 1990s, I was working with a suburban parish whose social justice committee wanted to start an LGBTQ ministry.  When I met with them, one gentleman made it clear that he was not “on board” with this project.  “Everyone is welcome here,” he said. “I don’t see why we need to do this special welcome.”  At the first meeting, I gave them some of the church documents quoted above to read as well as some information about the lived experiences of gay and lesbian people.

Two months later, when I returned to meet with them, that gentleman had done a total about face.  “I’ve come to realize that we had to do this education, not for other people, but for ourselves,” he said.  “Even if no gay or lesbian person walks through our doors, we could not call ourselves a true gospel-based and Eucharistic community if we didn’t confront the ignorance and fears in our own hearts.”

This man’s testimony reminds us that LGBTQ ministry is not just about LGBTQ people, but about renewing the lives and faith of the whole community, helping all to become more authentically who they are.

For further reading and writing:

To further your understanding of church teaching on civil rights and respect for LGBTQ people, please click here and here.  For an archive of many of the quotations used in this post, please click here.

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: Examining Church Teaching about Pastoral Ministry

To find the first two installments of the “Next Steps” series, as well as more information about the program and a registration form, please click here.

Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, July 28, 2020


3 replies
    DON SIEGAL says:

    Re: In 1983, the Washington State Catholic Conference issued a document “Prejudice Against Homosexuals and the Ministry of the Church”

    It must be remembered that the archbishop of Seattle at the time was Raymond G. Hunthausen. The archbishop supported such causes as wider roles for women within the church, dialogue with homosexuals and the broadest possible interpretation of guidelines for liturgical experimentation. These and other positions lead some conservatives to write letters of complaint to the Vatican. Later that year, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), initiated an apostolic visitation to the Archdiocese of Seattle.

    Read more: Archbishop Hickey Ordered to Investigate Seattle Diocese

  2. Sarasi
    Sarasi says:

    This was a remarkable round-up of statements, though I agree with Don that the Washington State Catholic Conference statement might have been an unusual one because of Archbishop Hunthausen. In particular, this statement takes aim at one of the most peculiar notions of Catholic sexuality, which is that we are not human without being men or women; we are only human insofar as we are male-human or female-human, a “design” that confers male-female “complementarity” and ensures each of us is destined for heterosexual marriage or its symbolic equivalent, the religious life. By characterizing “prejudice against homosexuals” as a greater infringement of morality than “homosexual behaviour,” the Washington statement prioritized “human” over anatomy, gender, sexual orientation, or sexual behaviour. The powers that be should dig this out and have a good long look at it and consider why it may be the way forward. Oh, ha ha. I say things like that and then dissolve into a puddle of laughter (or tears). As if.

  3. Joseph Yankech
    Joseph Yankech says:

    ‘And doesn’t the meaning of “discrimination,” when discussing social relationships, already entail the attribute “unjust”?’ Well, no, not always. As I used to teach in Soc 101, “when I married my wife, I discriminated against every other female to whom I felt attracted” as an example of ‘just’ discrimination. But, I have yet to figure out what the CCC 2358 (and the bishops) means by “just discrimination”. My sociology is not helping me here.


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