Catholic Homophobia

by Peter Tatchell

In November 1992, after 359 years, the Catholic Church finally admitted it was wrong to condemn Galileo as a heretic for arguing that the Earth was not the centre of the universe. How many centuries will it take before the Vatican acknowledges the equally historic wrong it has perpetrated against lesbians and gay men?

In medieval times, “abominable sodomites” were burnt alive at the stake on the orders of the Papal Inquisitors. As recently as the early nineteenth century, homosexuals were still being strung up on gallows in Britain with the blessing of Catholic leaders. This persecution isn’t over yet. The Vatican is still crucifying queers.

The latest Catechism, which sets out the basic doctrines of the Roman Church, was published in Britain in 1994. It is the first major revision of the Catechism since 1566. To the dismay of lesbians and gay men, it continues to reflect the prescientific ignorance and antihomosexual prejudice of the medieval era.

The new Catechism describes homosexual acts as a “grave depravity” and “intrinsically disordered”. It states that lesbian and gay relationships are “contrary to natural law … and do not proceed from genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved”.

Characterising the homosexual condition as “a trial” for most lesbians and gay men but never acknowledging prejudice as the reason, the Catechism concludes: “Homosexual persons are called to chastity. By the virtues of self-mastery … they can and should gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection”.

In other words, lesbians and gay men are flawed human beings who can redeem themselves only by renouncing the feelings that are integral to their sexual and emotional orientation.

The one concession to liberal opinion in the Catechism is that lesbians and gay men should be “accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity”. However, this apparent liberalism is immediately contradicted by the doctrine that only “unjust” discrimination is to be avoided, which implies that some forms of antigay discrimination are justifiable according to Catholic theology.

This was confirmed in a 1993 letter to the lesbian and gay rights group OutRage! from the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales. Written on behalf of Cardinal Hume, the letter expressed the Catholic Church’s support for discrimination against lesbians and gay men with regard to marriage and immigration rights, social housing, joint property, taxation, and welfare benefits. It turned down a request to endorse a reduction in the gay male age of consent to 16, to establish parity with heterosexuals. Indeed, there is no homosexual law reform which Cardinal Hume and his bishops feel able to support. They have given their official blessing to every key aspect of legal bias against lesbians and gay men.

However much the Catholic church may deny it, these prejudiced declarations offer theological legitimacy and a veneer of respectability to antigay hatred. They are the latest in a long line of antigay pronouncements by the Catholic Church.

In 1986, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, head of the Vatican’s Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (responsible for defining Roman Catholic doctrine and keeping Catholic clergy and theologians in line) issued a “Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons”. Ratzinger wrote that a homosexual orientation, even if the person is totally celibate, is a “tendency” toward an “intrinsic moral evil”. Moreover, a homosexual inclination is both an “objective disorder” and a “moral disorder”, which is “contrary to the creative wisdom of God”. “Special concern and pastoral attention should be directed towards those who have this condition, lest they be led to believe that the living out of this orientation in homosexual activity is a morally acceptable option. It is not.” Ratzinger’s 1986 Letter concludes that pastoral care for homosexual persons should include “the assistance of the psychological, sociological and medical sciences”, and that “all support should be withdrawn from any organisations which seek to undermine the teachings of the Church, which are ambigous about it, or which ignore it entirely”.

In July 1992, the Vatican issued a further proclamation authorised by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and by Pope John Paul II, entitled “Some Considerations Concerning the Catholic Response to Legislative Proposals on the Non-Discrimination of Homosexual Persons”.

This document was designed to mobilise Catholic opinion against equal rights legislation for lesbians and gay men. It describes homosexuality as an “objective disorder” and a “tendency ordered towards an intrinsic moral evil”. Rejecting the concept of homosexual “human rights”, it asserts there is “no right” to homosexuality; adding that the civil liberties of lesbians and gay men can be “legitimately limited for objectively disordered external conduct”.

While condemning “unjust” discrimination, the Vatican document says that some forms of antigay discrimination are “not unjust” and may even be “obligatory”: especially with regard to “the consignment of children to adoption or foster care, in employment of teachers or coaches, and in military recruitment”.

Most shocking of all, the 1992 document suggests that when lesbians and gay men demand civil rights, “neither the Church nor society should be surprised when … irrational and violent reactions increase”.

This implies that by asking for human rights, lesbians and gay men encourage homophobic prejudice and violence: we bring hatred upon ourselves, and are responsible for our own suffering. The Catholic Church, it seems, blames the victims of homophobia, not the perpetrators.

More recently, in February 1994, the Pope attacked the European Parliament’s support for the repeal of antigay legislation in member states. Condemning homosexuality as an “aberrant deviation”, he described proposals to remove discrimination as an “attack on the family” and accused Euro-MP’s of “inappropriately conferring an institutional value on deviant behaviour”.

This Vatican offensive against homosexual equality is threatening personal suffering worldwide. In Italy, Bologna City Council in 1993 introduced an equal opportunities policy to give homosexual couples access to municipal housing on the same basis as heterosexual partners.

The Catholic Church responded, with the backing of the neofascist MSI party, by announcing plans to mount a legal challenge. Cardinal Silvio Oddi condemned Bologna’s decision as “bestiality” and warned that “divine retribution” would fall upon the city.

Cardinal John O’Connor, in the United States, ordered that gay Catholics dying of Aids should be refused the last rites unless they repent of their “sin” and renounce their partners. The New York diocese has supported a ban on Irish Catholic lesbians and gay men marching in New York’s annual St. Patrick’s Day parade. It is opposing attempts by the city’s education authorities to encourage greater understanding and acceptance of homosexuals through the inclusion of nonjudgemental information about homosexual issues in the school curriculum.

In Nicaragua, Cardinal Obando y Bravo attacked homosexuality as “immoral” and publicly aligned the Catholic Church with the recriminalisation of lesbian and gay sexuality by President Chamorro’s right-wing UNO coalition. Article 204 of the new criminal code stipulates three years’ imprisonment for anyone who “induces, promotes, propagandises or practises in scandalous form concubinage between two people of the same sex”. This legislation penalises not only victimless homosexual behaviour, but also the advocacy of homosexual human rights and a homosexual lifestyle.

At the 1995 UN International Women’s Conference in Beijing, the Vatican opposed discussions on lesbian human rights and backed moves to block the participation of lesbian organisations and delegates.

The following year, a new Vatican handbook on education condemned homosexual relationships as a “disorder”, and urged Catholic parents to remove their children from sex education classes that discuss gay sexuality and teach safer sex.

Also in 1996, the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore called on its readers to vote against political candidates who back legal equality for lesbians and gays. Attacking a huge same-sex partnership ceremony in San Francisco where dozens of homosexual couples made declarations of commitment with the endorsement of Mayor Willie Brown, the newspaper said: “The citizen who … favours the election of a candidate formally committed to translating homosexual demands into law, cannot be without censure. Gay marriage fundamentally undermines the family model on which human civilisation was built … The legislature cannot be turned into a clerk for changing habits, least of all deviant trends.”

Here in Britain, at the height of the 1994 Parliamentary debate on the Age of Consent, Cardinal Hume declared that “homosexual genital acts, even between consenting adults, are morally wrong”. He urged Parliament to be “cautious”. Hume did not have to overtly oppose an equal age of consent for gay men. His condemnation of homosexual acts and his failure to come out in favour of equality at 16 were, by default, an endorsement of discrimination.

This stance is symptomatic of the Catholic Church’s support for a wide range of legislation in this country which renders lesbians and gay men second class citizens. Under a “segregationist” legal system which treats us differently and unequally compared with heterosexual people, we can be denied custody of our children, sacked from work, arrested for consenting sexual relations, and refused the right to marry the person we love. All these things can be done to us, with the full sanction of the law, and with the moral approval of the Catholic bishops, for no other reason than we happen to be homosexual.

Because of prejudice, over 30 per cent of all lesbians and gay men have been beaten up by queer-bashers, according to three surveys in the early 1990’s, including one funded by the Home Office. Other research shows that one in eight lesbian and gay teenagers are thrown out of their homes by hateful parents and one in five are driven to attempt suicide.

The Catholic Church pays lip-service to opposing this victimisation, without doing a single practical thing to challenge homophobia. Instead, it requires all Catholics to learn and follow the teachings of a Catechism which, whatever its intention, gives theological succour to bigots everywhere.