About three years ago I received a call about 10:30 on a Sunday night. My forty-three year old nephew called me, all excited, to tell me that he'd just been to Sunday Mass. He went on to tell me what a wonderful experience it was for him. Why do I mention this? Well, my nephew is a police sergeant hadn't been to Mass in over twenty years because he was so alienated from the Church. He and his partner are gay. The Mass in which he participated with other LGBT friends was at the local DIGNITY USA community. He phoned me for the next three Sundays and today he is a member of the Dignity leadership group. Gays have not had an easy time in the Church.
In the recent past, the Vatican and U.S. Bishops have treaded lightly in this area. They upheld the official "tradition" in regard to homosexual identity and behavior, but informally allowed for pastoral care of gays; a number of dioceses permitted DIGNITY to function and priests to preside at the Eucharist. In the UK, the current Archbishop of Westminster seems to be the first bishop to officially and publically permit a Catholic parish in SOHO to minister to the LGBT community. In 1997 the U.S. Catholic Bishops wrote Always Our Children. This document presented a humane approach to the personhood of homosexuals and emphasized a pastoral approach to gays and their families within the traditional norms.
As Bob Dylan sang, Times They are A-Changin, and today that is most certainly true regarding the tenor of statements and, now, actions on the part of the American Bishops. On November 19th the bishops released Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan [Go to bottom of 2nd paragraph and select link] which expresses in very harsh words their position on homosexuality and homosexual behavior (as well as same-sex unions, heterosexual cohabitation and masturbation). And the language and sanctions presented in this final version, have been softened from an even harsher draft version!
A new element added to the bishops' "tool box" in this and other areas is clear and direct political action. In the past, the bishops as moral teachers enunciated moral principles and expected pastors and, especially, lay Catholics to prudentially apply them. This is no longer the case.
In 2008 the bishops of California supported the California Marriage Protection Act (Prop 8). Catholic dioceses and organizations outside of California also made contributions. In fact, the Knights of Columbus contributed $1,400,000 in support of Prop 8, making the K of C the largest single contributor to the "pro side." Of greater importance than the monetary contributions is the of exercise of active political influence and lobbying on the part of the Hierarchy in this controversial civil issue.
More recently, the use of political power and threats to withdraw financial support and programs (E.g. Catholic Charities) by the Archdiocese of Washington over gay marriage legislation, is one more indication of a new assertive, increasingly aggressive action designed to forcet (or prevent) change in civil law by a religious organization.
The latest and clearest example of external Catholic attempts to interfere in the civil affairs of a state is the supportto provided by over 50 dioceses to overturn legislation permitting gay marriages with a constitutional amendment restricting marriage to heterosexual couples. With most of the assistance coming from the outside (including $50,000 from the K of C), the Portland Diocese raised $550,000 to fight against gay marriage.
So what does this mean for LGBT persons and Vatican II Progressive Catholics?
First, it means that the Hierarchy is hardening its position and articulating a very conservative ethic, especially related to homosexuality and same-sex behavior. Second, it means that the institutional Church is entering into the concrete political fray to influence legislation policies rather than remain a moral teacher enunciating moral principles. Third, it means that professional church ministers will find it increasingly difficult to serve LGBT persons (as can be seen in other areas of Church life ). Fourth, it means that Vatican II Progressive Catholic laity themselves must assume leadership in developing a humane, Christian understanding of the life and situation of GLBT persons, welcoming them into the Catholic-Christian community and stand in solidarity with them. Fifth, it means that Vatican II ("liberal") Catholics must do all they can in civil society to ensure humane, truly Christian, treatment of gays so that they will secure all the citizen rights that accrue to all citizens regardless of gender or sexual orientation. Sixth, we must study, ponder and apply a sexual ethic that makes just judgments and deals with contemporary issues from a Christian, personalist-relational foundation. Finally, there is a great need to attend to trends and changes in the globalizing world and our increasingly world-focused Church. Much of what happens in and influences the U.S. Church will be determined by the "Southern Church.