Homosexuality, AIDS and celibacy: the church's views
By JUDY L. THOMAS - The Kansas City Star
Priests and seminarians are expected to rely on church doctrine on homosexuality and celibacy and to follow their bishop's or superior's lead in ministering to colleagues afflicted with AIDS.
Catholic doctrine recognizes that the number of men and women who have homosexual tendencies is not negligible and says they should be treated with respect, compassion and sensitivity.
But the church also teaches that homosexual acts are "intrinsically disordered" and "contrary to the natural law." Therefore, the church says, "homosexual persons are called to chastity."
In theory, then, a priest's sexual orientation does not matter as long as he remains chaste. In fact, church officials say that many gay men make outstanding priests.
The Vatican made it clear in a letter issued in October 1986 that homosexual orientation should be viewed "as an objective disorder."
The letter was one of the Vatican's most definitive pronouncements on homosexuality. In the letter, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger said that "although the particular inclination of the homosexual person is not itself a sin, it is a more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil; and thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder."
That contradicted the U.S. bishops' 1976 position, which noted a distinction between homosexual acts, believed to be sinful, and a homosexual orientation.
In 1997, the U.S. bishops issued "Always our Children," a pastoral message in which they urged parents to love their gay children. In the groundbreaking document, the bishops said homosexual orientation was not freely chosen and parents must not reject their gay children.
"God loves every person as a unique individual. Sexual identity helps to define the unique person we are," the bishops said. "God does not love someone any less simply because he or she is homosexual."
The bishops' message in no way abandoned Catholic doctrine, stating clearly that genital sexual activity between same-sex partners was immoral and that the document was not to be interpreted "as an endorsement of what some would call a 'homosexual lifestyle."' It again drew a distinction, however, between homosexual orientation and sexual activity.
While the Vatican has never publicly addressed the matter of priests with AIDS, church leaders have issued several statements about the disease.
In December 1987, the U.S. Catholic Conference's 50-bishop administrative board published "The Many Faces of AIDS: A Gospel Response." It called AIDS "a human illness to which we must respond in a manner consistent with the best medical and scientific information available."
The statement urged churches and individuals to "stand in solidarity with" and show compassion toward people with AIDS. Discrimination or violence directed against people with AIDS, it said, is "unjust and immoral."
The document also opposed the "safe sex" approach to AIDS prevention, saying "this avenue compromises human sexuality -- making it 'safe' to be promiscuous -- and, in fact, is quite misleading."
It added, however, that because the Catholic Church exists in a pluralistic society and many people do not follow the teachings of the church, educational efforts -- if grounded in a "broader moral vision" -- could include "accurate information about prophylactic devices or other practices proposed by some medical experts as a potential means of preventing AIDS."
That statement evoked an instant response from Catholic leaders who feared its comments on prophylactics were ambiguous and may have left the impression that the church was condoning condoms and "safe sex."
In November 1989, the U.S. bishops issued a new statement, "Called to Compassion and Responsibility: A Response to the HIV/AIDS Crisis."
The document, approved 219-4 by the full body of bishops, attempted to clarify the 1987 confusion on condoms, saying that "the use of prophylactics to prevent the spread of HIV is technically unreliable. Moreover, advocating this approach means, in effect, promoting behavior which is morally unacceptable."
The document also presented guidelines for the church and health-care community for dealing with people with HIV and AIDS.
"Without condoning self-destructive behavior or denying personal responsibility, we must reject the idea that this illness is a direct punishment by God," it said.
"HIV/AIDS brings with it new anguish and new terrors and anxiety, new trials of pain and endurance, new occasions for compassion," the bishops wrote. "But it cannot change one enduring fact: God's love for us all."
That same month, the Vatican tried to take the initiative in dealing with the AIDS epidemic by sponsoring an international conference on AIDS, the first of its kind.
During the opening session of the conference, held in Vatican City, an Irish priest shocked the audience by unfurling a banner from the speaker's rostrum.
"The Vatican has AIDS," it declared.
The priest, the Rev. Peter White, was ejected from the conference but welcomed back the next day after explaining that he had AIDS.
White said he had contracted AIDS in Africa while working as a missionary. His shock gesture, he said, had been intended as a call for solidarity for people with AIDS.
Pope John Paul II addressed the conference at its closing session. He said that it was "morally illicit" to promote the use of condoms as a method of AIDS prevention, and he encouraged "a greater and vaster commitment to assist AIDS patients."
"Those who suffer from AIDS ... are entitled to receive adequate health care, respectful comprehension and complete solidarity, just like every other ailing person," he said.
The pontiff also had some words for those in the priesthood:
"Draw close to those who are the least, the most abandoned of our brothers ..." he said. "Be witnesses of the church's love for all those who are suffering and of her preference for those most tried by evil."
The fact that priests suffer AIDS raises the issue not only of gay clergy but also of the church's demand that its clergy be celibate.
Celibacy has not always been the rule for priests in the Catholic Church. Some popes allowed priests to marry until the 11th century, when Pope Gregory VII banned them from doing so, in part to keep priests' families from inheriting church property.
In 1139, the church officially mandated that only celibate men could become priests, a discipline that remains in effect today. Some sects of Catholicism, however, such as the Eastern rite, allow their priests to marry. And in recent years, the church has ordained 70 to 90 married priests -- most of them former Episcopalians who converted to Catholicism.
Today, church leaders say celibacy is a gift from God and an effort to imitate Jesus as closely as possible. Moreover, if a priest is not married, the argument goes, he is freer to devote himself more fully to the church and to those he serves.
But priests are leaving, contributing to a shortage that many church officials think is approaching a crisis level.
In his book Shattered Vows: Priests Who Leave, former priest David Rice said that almost half of all American priests will leave the active formal ministry -- most often, to marry -- before the 25th anniversary of their ordination.
Some priests and behavioral experts say that imposing strict rules on sexuality can actually make matters worse.
"With gay priests, if we continue to say their sexuality is disordered and we continue to tell them to hide and deny who they are, then we're going to have problems, because inner conflict like that can lead to alcoholism, it can lead to sexual abuse, it can lead to violations of celibacy," said the Rev. Robert Nugent, a Baltimore priest and co-founder of New Ways Ministry, a national center on homosexuality.
Most priests concede that celibacy is not easy.
"I don't know of anyone who's ever been ordained who's not thought, `Maybe I should think about marriage someday, maybe I should think about having my own family,' " said Bishop Raymond J. Boland of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph.
He added, however, "I think one of the marks of our society is that the idea of a permanent, lifetime commitment has fallen by the wayside, whether it be the priesthood, or your profession, or marriage."