U.S. Catholic bishops are advising parents of gay children to put love and support for their sons and daughters before church doctrine that condemns homosexual activity.
In a pastoral letter, the bishops say homosexual orientation is not freely chosen and parents must not reject their gay children in a society full of rejection and discrimination.
“All in all, it is essential to recall one basic truth. God loves every person as a unique individual. Sexual identity helps to define the unique person we are,” the bishops say. “God does not love someone any less simply because he or she is homosexual.”
The document, titled “Always Our Children,” was approved by the Administrative Board of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops early in September and released Tuesday.
In the last two decades, with almost every other church struggling over gay ordination or efforts to ease condemnatory church doctrine, the Roman Catholic Church has stood firm, teaching that homosexual activity is morally wrong.
In two high profile cases in the 1980s, the Vatican disciplined Seattle Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen for allowing a group of gay Catholics to meet at St. James Cathedral and revoked Charles Curran’s license to teach moral theology at Catholic University in Washington, D.C. Curran had said homosexual acts sometimes are morally acceptable.
But the mounting turmoil and pain felt by Catholics torn between church teaching and love for their gay children prompted several bishops to request guidance from the bishops’ Committee on Marriage and Family. The committee began studying the conflict in 1992.
Five years later in their letter, the bishops describe parents who suffer guilt, shame and loneliness because their children are gay, and they report that “a shocking number” of homosexual youth are rejected by their families and end up on the streets. The parental rejection, along with the other pressures faced by young gays and lesbians, place them at greater risk of drug abuse and suicide, the bishops said.
Why the form of a pastoral letter from the church’s spiritual leaders?
“Primarily to get them to accept the fact that their son or daughter is gay or lesbian, and that their child was not damned forever,” Bishop Joseph Imesch of Joliet, Ill., chairman of the Committee on Pastoral Practices, said in an interview.
The Vatican, in the new Catholic Catechism and in the pronouncements of Pope John Paul II, has staunchly held that sex is morally acceptable only within the bounds of heterosexual marriage.
And the U.S. bishops’ letter in no way abandons Catholic doctrine. It states clearly that genital sexual activity between same-sex partners is immoral and that the letter is not to be understood “as an endorsement of what some would call a ‘homosexual lifestyle.”’ It draws a distinction, however, between homosexual orientation and sexual activity.
In the letter, the bishops urge parents to encourage their children to lead a chaste life and, at times, to challenge aspects of their children’s lives they find objectionable. But the bishops also tell parents that maintaining a relationship with their child should be their primary goal.
“First, don’t break off contact; don’t reject your child,” the bishops say. Instead, they say, create an atmosphere in which a child would be willing to discuss his or her sexual orientation.
Among their recommendations, the bishops urge parents to “do everything possible to continue demonstrating love for your child.” That includes remaining open to the possibility that even after counseling, a child may still be “struggling to … accept a basic homosexual orientation.”
The document also encourages priests to welcome homosexuals into parishes, to help establish or promote support groups for parents of gay children and to let people know from the pulpit and elsewhere that they are willing to talk about homosexual issues. When they lead chaste lives, homosexuals should be given leadership opportunities in the church, the bishops said.
“Generally, homosexual orientation is experienced as a given, not as something freely chosen,” the bishops said. “By itself, therefore, a homosexual orientation cannot be considered sinful, for morality presumes the freedom to choose.”
“The basic hope here,” said Bishop Thomas O’Brien of Phoenix, chairman of the Committee on Marriage and Family Life, “is that parents will accept their children, regardless of their sexual orientation.”
Mary Ellen Lopata, co-founder of the Catholic Gay and Lesbian Ministry in the Diocese of Rochester, N.Y., said many parents struggle with the conflict between loving their child and their understanding that church teaching condemns that child.
“For them to hear the bishops say to love their child first is very important and can go a long way to help them resolve those conflicts and begin some healing,” she said.
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