Controversial Homosexuality Document Reissued with Revisions by U.S. Bishops

SAN FRANCISCO—The U.S. bishops' Committee on Marriage and Family has issued a revised version of Always Our Children, its controversial document addressed primarily to parents whose children possess a homosexual orientation, and to “pastoral ministers” who are often approached by parents or their children struggling with the issue. The document encourages parents to love and support their homosexually oriented children and not break off contact.

Critics, while generally agreeing with that objective, attacked the original document as muddled regarding Catholic moral teaching and unsound in some of the advice offered to parents and pastors.

When first released last October, the document generated strongly opposing sentiments. Warmly received by some, including homosexual advocacy groups such as Dignity, which rejects aspects of Catholic teaching on sexuality, Always Our Children was criticized by other groups supportive of Church teaching, such as Courage. Even many American bishops appeared divided. Some bishops praised the statement as a compassionate approach to homosexuality; others criticized it as insufficiently Catholic, with one prominent bishop even asking people to ignore or oppose it.

Though approved by the bishops' administrative board and widely reported in the media as the U.S. bishops' definitive statement on the subject, the document was not voted on by the full body of bishops, nor even discussed by them before its issuance.

U.S. bishops received the revamped version in a June 26 mailing, accompanied by a letter from Bishop Thomas O'Brien of Phoenix, chairman of the Committee on Marriage and Family. In the letter, Bishop O'Brien stated, “The core message, tone, and direction of Always Our Children remain the same as in the first printing. The modifications have been made in order to ensure the completeness and to clarify the intent of this pastoral statement.”

Sources familiar with the process have told the Register that the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) had communicated concerns about the original document to the bishops' conference and sought revisions of it. Bishop Anthony Pilla of Cleveland, president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, consulted with the CDF and changes were made by the Committee on Marriage and Family, in collaboration with Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk of Cincinnati, the chairman of the Committee on Doctrine. According to Bishop O'Brien, the CDF has “reviewed the textual modifications” and “is satisfied with the result.”

The revisions are modest in number—three substitutions, a deletion, an added paragraph, and two additional footnotes—but nonetheless substantive. Some modifications seem to address critics' concerns, though other criticized sections of the document are unaltered.

The original version told parents, “If your son or daughter is an adolescent, it is possible that he or she may be experimenting with some homosexual behaviors as part of the process of coming to terms with sexual identity. Isolated acts do not make someone homosexual. Adolescence is often accompanied by anxiety or confusion about sexual identity. Sometimes the best approach may be a ‘wait and see’ attitude, while you try to maintain a trusting relationship and provide various kinds of support, information, and encouragement.”

Some critics charged it is irresponsible to tell parents to “wait and see” about the possible homosexual orientation and activities of their adolescent children. They pointed to parental obligations to protect children from immoral and spiritually damaging behavior as well as potential physical threats such as sexually transmitted diseases.

The revised passage seems to reflect these concerns, even speaking of parental intervention regarding their children's behavior, when necessary:

“If your son or daughter is an adolescent, it is possible that he or she may be displaying traits which cause you anxiety such as what the child is choosing to read or view in the media, intense friendships, and other such observable characteristics and tendencies. What is called for on the part of parents is an approach which does not presume that your child has developed a homosexual orientation and which will help you maintain a loving relationship while you provide support, information, encouragement, and moral guidance. Parents must always be vigilant about their children's behavior and exercise responsible interventions when necessary.”

The original document was also criticized as ambiguous regarding the nature of sexual orientation. Some analysts said that homosexuality was presented as an unalterable, God-given aspect of one's personhood. According to the original version, “[I]t seems appropriate to understand sexual orientation (homosexual or heterosexual) as a fundamental dimension of one's personality.” This has been changed to “a deep-seated dimension of one's personality,” avoiding the inference that if homosexuality is a “fundamental dimension of one's personality,” it must be God-given and permanent.

Regarding homosexual orientation vs. homosexual acts, both versions maintain that the homosexual orientation is not itself a sin, but that “homogenital behavior” is “objectively immoral.” Moreover, homosexual orientation is said to be “experienced as a given, not as something freely chosen. By itself, therefore, a homosexual condition cannot be considered sinful, for morality presumes the freedom to choose.”

The amended version adds a footnote, a quotation from the Catechism of the Catholic Church's revised statement on homosexual orientation: “This inclination which is objectively disordered, constitutes for most (persons with the homosexual inclination) a trial” (2358). No explanation is given, however, of how this Catechism passage applies to the section it is cited in reference to.

On the subject of sexual orientation and discrimination, the revision appends a footnote to the following section from the original version: “Nothing in the Bible or in Catholic teaching can be used to justify prejudicial or discriminatory attitudes and behaviors.” The footnote adds, “In matters where sexual orientation has clear relevance, the common good does justify its being taken into account, as noted by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Some Considerations Concerning the Response to Legislative Proposals on the Nondiscrimination of Homosexual Persons, 11 (1992).”

Yet the CDF document itself goes further than the footnote suggests, stating that discrimination based on sexual orientation is not always unjust.

“There are areas in which it is not unjust discrimination to take sexual orientation into account,” it declares, “for example, in the placement of children for adoption or foster care, in employment of teachers or athletic coaches, and in military recruitment” (11). It also states, ‘Sexual orientation’ does not constitute a quality comparable to race, ethnic background, etc., in respect to nondiscrimination” (10) and that, “Including ‘homosexual orientation’ among the considerations on the basis of which it is illegal to discriminate can easily lead to regarding homosexuality as a positive source of human rights, for example, in respect to so-called affirmative action or preferential treatment in hiring practices.”

The original version of Always Our Children instructed “Church ministers” to “Use the words ‘homosexual,’ ‘gay,’ ‘lesbian’ in honest and accurate ways, especially from the pulpit. In various and subtle ways you can give people ‘permission’ to talk about homosexual issues among themselves and let them know that you're also willing to talk with them.” The revised version says only, “When speaking publicly, use the words homosexual, gay, and lesbian in honest and accurate ways.”

Interestingly, the revised document eliminates a passage from the Catechism. The original version quoted No. 2333 as, “Everyone … should acknowledge and accept his sexual identity.” The quoted material preceded a discussion of God's gift of sexuality. The problem: the words “man and woman” were left out of the quotation, which in its entirety runs, “Everyone, man and woman, should acknowledge and accept his sexual identity” (italics added).

The “sexual identity” that everyone “should acknowledge and accept,” according to the Catechism, is being a man or woman. The emphasis of the text, in fact, is on the difference and complementarity of men and women, which are said to be “oriented toward the goods of marriage and the flourishing of family life.” But, critics argued, the abridged quotation left the impression that all forms of “sexual identity,” including homosexual orientation, are supposed to be acknowledged and accepted. Removing the quotation from Catechism No. 2333, as the revision does, eliminates such a misreading.

Finally, the reworked document adds a section on the Sacrament of Penance and conversion, taken from the Vatican's 1986 letter to bishops, On the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons: “Furthermore, as homosexual persons ‘dedicate their lives to understanding the nature of God's personal call to them, they will be able to celebrate the Sacrament of Penance more faithfully and receive the Lord's grace so freely offered there in order to convert their lives more fully to his way’” (12).

Whether the changes to Always Our Children will satisfy its detractors remains to be seen. But at least one bishop highly critical of the original document declared, “Clearly, this is an improved text. I'm glad to see it.”

Mark Brumley writes from San Francisco.