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Gays, Lesbians, and the Catholic Church: 
an unfolding story (July 1999)

Editor's personal comment
Ingrid H. Shafer

As those who know me  might be able to guess, I disagree with the magisterial teachings of the Catholic Church concerning homosexuality. Fortunately, there is more to "the Church" than the magisterium. "We are the Church" -- and that "we" includes all of us Catholics -- lay and ordained, women and men. 

Three years ago, at a conference in Vienna where both of us were among the speakers, I asked Franz Cardinal König (one of the main shapers of the second Vatican Council) what he considered the most essential result of the Council.  He mentioned the reduction of the power of the clergy and the corresponding empowerment of the laity.  He then put his index finger on my chest and said emphatically, "You are the Church!"  He did this having read my articles on various aspects of "loyal dissent" in the NCR, and knowing my involvement in various Catholic reform movements. 

The magisterium actually has a long tradition of adjusting teachings to scientific "fact" -- albeit generally some time after the scientific theories have been formulated. The official stance concerning abortion, for example, changed from the Thomistic position of distinguishing between the periods of gestation before and after "quickening" to the notion of "moment of conception" after mobile sperm could be seen under the microscope and was described, with much imaginative elaboration, as a miniature human being about to be inserted into the fertile field of the womb.  It was only then that even first trimester abortion came to equated with infanticide.

The offical position of the Church concerning homosexuality will change once those responsible realize that it is based on faulty biology and faulty psychology.  It makes no more sense than the condemnation of Copernicus and Galileo that were based on faulty astronomy.  It brings to mind the era of witch-hunts inspired and chronicled by the notorious Malleus Maleficarum and the centuries of anti-Judaism that have vitiated Christian history. I remember stalking out of a Good Friday service as a teenager in the 1950s because I got sick at the long list of intercessions, including "Oremus pro perfidis Judaeis . . ."

All I can say is, "Father forgive them, for they don't know what they are doing!" 

I consider the position of gays in the Church the way Pastor Martin Niemöller described the position of Jews in his famous statement concerning the Nazis eliminating group after little group while members of other groups stood by in silence, until no one was left to stand up for anyone. If our Church is truly catholic then WE ARE CHURCH, and we are church of and for all, each in his or her own unique way. We must not merely allow but encourage and challenge each individual to reach his or her potential as a child of God.  Our sexuality is inextricably woven into out very essence (I won't get into the Existentialist or Buddhist argument that there is no essence), and unless we assume that God made a mistake when S/He gave us the kinds of genetically unique bodies each one of us has, the desire for sexual union and our position along a homosexual-heterosexual continuum are part of our God-given (and hence good) nature. As long as homosexuality is branded as "intrinsically disordered," gay men and women are an inferior subclass, and that is in conflict with the kind of all-embracing love Jesus came to share and the Church claims to  represent. 

Unfortunately, this will not change until Rome agrees to revise the position that the fundamental purpose of love-making is procreation.  Homosexuality cannot be fully accepted by Rome until the magisterium clearly acknowledges that for humans (in contrast to most if not all animals) sexuality is also but not only (or even primarily) a means of procreation, and affirms sex as a sacramental channel for divine grace--a way of communicating, sharing, joining spirit and body, and literally making love.  For a church supposedly dedicated to being in harmony with nature, this should be easy, since heterosexual humans continue to make love throughout the estrus cycle, during pregnancy, lactation, and after a woman has gone through menopause or had a hysterectomy. Official endorsement of the rhythm method of birth control silently acknowledges this fact.

Instead of obsessing on rules and technical details, the Church should be concerned about ways to foster a spirit of linking sex to spiritual/mental love between persons.

The magisterium is wrong to consider homosexuality anything other than one of a whole series of merging bands in the spectrum of sexuality, each no more and no less legitimate than others.  The magisterium (and all of us) must learn to distinguish not between mechanical acts but between types of motivation -- between sex that is lovingly mutual and sex that exploits or uses.  Once the magisterium ceases limiting legitimate sex to procreation and admits that love-making is a powerful natural sacrament in its own right then homosexuality will no longer be automatically condemned. 

Twenty-five years ago my husband of thirteen years (the first and only man I had ever dated) left me and our two children.  At first I was sure he would come back and give the marriage another chance; I did not contest the divorce, and I used his attorney to make sure we would remain friends. I simply could not imagine life without him. Eventually I had to accept that he was gone permanently. I was crushed.  Around then, a new colleague I barely knew came to visit one afternoon, asking if we could talk. He broke down and told me that he was gay, and that his lover of many years had packed up and left him for a younger guy. He sat on my couch and wept for what seemed like hours.  Until that moment I had never seriously thought about homosexuality. For some reason I had assumed from the time I was a teenager and first heard about sexual orientation that some men simply felt about other men the way my mother felt about my father, and some women, such as the poet Sappho, looked at other women the way my father looked at my mother--with tenderness, caring, and passion. 

Suddenly, there, in my living room was one of "them"--but only for a little while. Soon there was simple a "we."  That afternoon, and for months thereafter, this man and I wept separately and together, both mourning our lost loves.  We were human beings together, we suffered together, we supported one another, and precisely because I am very straight and he is very gay we could be "just" friends with absolutely no erotic strings attached. I remember sharing with him the one thought that had supported me: the realization that the pain we feel when we are separated from loved ones -- whether through death or love-turned-indifference -- is the price we pay for the privilege of sharing love.  I would not trade in all the good years with my husband.  He should remember the good times with his lover.  No one could take away the past.  We were simply paying a debt.

Since then I have met several truly wonderful gay couples, including a recently ordained Episcopal priest (a former attorney) who has been with his partner for some 20 years.  Their love for one another is clearly far more of a sacrament (in Andrew Greeley's sense of "sex as sacrament") than the relationship of numerous bickering and angry "normal" couples I know.

When my straight students make anti-gay comments I simply suggest they imagine how they would feel if someone were to pass a law that being hetero was a disgusting perversion and that from now on they would have to limit all of their sexual desires and activities to members of the same sex. That, generally, causes them at least to think.

Ingrid Shafer
27 July 1999


Other voices

Another Voice

Questions From a Ewe

Challenges Facing Catholicism
(Bishop Geoffrey Robinson in converation with Dr Ingrid Shafer)

Home Web-Site Editor:
Ingrid H. Shafer, Ph.D.
e-mail address: ihs@ionet.net
Posted 27 July 1999
Last updated 10 March 2001
Copyright © 1999-2001 Ingrid H. Shafer
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