VATICAN CITY — The Vatican issued a strongly worded document July 31 giving guidelines to bishops and politicians on how to counter the growing trend of legalization of homosexual unions. (Read the complete text on page 16)

In the document, titled “Considerations Regarding Proposals to Give Legal Recognition to Unions Between Homosexual Persons,” Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, restates and clarifies the sanctity of marriage between man and woman and calls homosexual unions “gravely immoral.”

“There are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God's plan for marriage,” the statement reads. “Marriage is holy, while homosexual acts go against the natural law.”

The document, requested by bishops, has been two years in the making and comes on the heels of legislation passed recently in Holland and Belgium — and pending in Canada — to permit homosexual “marriage.”

It reminds Catholic politicians they have a “moral duty” to publicly oppose such legislation and to vote against it in legislative bodies.

“To vote in favor of a law so harmful to the common good is gravely immoral,” the document says. It urges non-Catholics to join the campaign to “defend the common good of society.”

The issuance of the guidelines was met by a small protest in St. Peter's Square by Italy's Radical Party, where demonstrators held up banners reading “No Vatican, No Taliban.”

Italian parliamentarian and homosexual-rights activist Franco Grillini said the document was part of a “homophobic crusade” by the Vatican. A senior official in Germany's Green Party, Volker Beck, called it “a sad document of closed-minded fanaticism.”

But its release came a day after President Bush, at a White House press conference, upheld the sanctity of marriage, suggesting it be codified in some way.

Vermont is the only state to recognize civil unions that give homosexual couples the full benefits and responsibilities of marriage but are separate from legal marriage. A Massachusetts court is expected to rule soon on the legality of homosexual marriage in that state.

Dominican Father J. Augustine DiNoia, undersecretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the body responsible for upholding sound Church doctrine, told the Register the document is “in line with the magisterium and the teachings of Pope John Paul II, where he argues the importance of democratic societies coming to some consensus about the truth of what it means to be human and for human beings to be in a society that fosters the common good.”

“If the consensus is not argued through in a rational manner and some convictions about truth are not presented, then the consensus is going to have to be imposed,” he said. “It's not instruction or notification. It's directed toward helping people direct arguments in different cultural, political and legal contexts from country to country and where there are different kinds of proposals.”

“Marriage is not something created by the state,” Father DiNoia continued. “It's a natural institution. The state acknowledges its existence but it cannot alter or destroy what marriage is.”

However, the state can differentiate between persons in society by granting benefits to married rather than unmarried persons. By recognizing homosexual unions in this regard, therefore, Father DiNoia argued they are being put “on a par with marriage, and that's what this document is arguing against.”

Father John Harvey, director of Courage, an international organization that works with people who have same-sex attractions and desire to live a chaste life, very much welcomed the document, saying it is importantly based on natural law arguments as much as on Scripture.

“Most people don't understand there's actually such a thing as natural moral law because they're so obscured by relativism, subjectivism and other forms of moral theology that are not rooted in objective reality,” Father Harvey said.

“From natural moral law you can point out that God created man and woman as complementary to one another, which leads to sexual physical union out of love, out of which come children and family,” he added. “Fruitfulness and complementarity belong to the very nature of marriage.”

“By its very nature homosexual activity is objectively disordered, and there's no way it can ever be tolerated,” he continued. “Governments that allow such conditions to exist through the recognition of homosexual unions are therefore weakening the common good.”

Although the document makes a particularly strong demand on Catholic politicians to oppose the legal recognition of homosexual unions, it is essentially aimed at all lawmakers.

“It's time we challenged these politicians no matter what their religion and get them to recognize marriage and the goodness of marriage,” Father Harvey said.

Catholic journalist and author Russell Shaw also welcomed the document for being “clear, forceful and timely,” but added he was “very anxious” about the impact it will have on public opinion.

“Unfortunately the sex-abuse scandal has put the bishops under a dark cloud among many Catholics,” he said. He said he was not sure if it would “hurt or help” the Church.

Msgr. Peter Fleetwood, deputy general secretary of the Council of European Bishops’ Conferences, praised the clarification the document brings for those whose task it is to instruct the Catholic faith. He also applauded its “tone of sensitivity” but said it “won't help people to deal with the awfully delicate situations that are bound to arise.”

But could the Church be responding too late? “The Church has by implication already condemned this,” Father Harvey said. “It's late, but not too late.”

“Who could have anticipated how this might have appeared as little as five years ago?” Father DiNoia said. ‘It's a bit surprising it's gone so far and so fast.”

Although he criticized a “lack of leadership” from bishops opposing homosexual-rights legislation, Father Harvey said he is “hopeful that by God's power things will begin to change.”

But he was under no illusion about the challenge the issue poses not just to Catholics but to all Christians.

“The battle is on,” he said, “the battle for our culture.”

Edward Pentin writes from Rome.