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Homosexual children a ‘gift,’ bishops say

NCR Staff

Parents and activists generally welcomed the U.S. bishops’ new pastoral letter, “Always Our Children,” for its appeal to parents to place support of gay and lesbian children first, above moral condemnation of homosexual activity. The letter, addressed to parents of homosexuals, was released Oct. 1 by the bishops’ committee on marriage and family life.

The letter counsels compassion even as it underscores traditional teaching on the sinfulness of “homogenital behavior.”

Amid the strong emotions parents often experience when gay and lesbian children “come out,” parents should avoid distancing themselves from their children, the bishops urge, noting that rejection can increase the risk of suicide and substance abuse. They point out that parents often feel anger, fear, guilt, loneliness and shame.

“Your love can be tested by this reality, but it can also grow stronger through your struggle to respond lovingly,” the bishops write. They urge parents to regard gay and lesbian children as “gifted and called for a purpose in God’s design” and to seek “appropriate guidance” for their children and themselves.

“I think it’s very pastoral, very compassionate,” said School Sister of Notre Dame Jeannine Gramick, a pioneer in Catholic gay and lesbian ministry. “It will be of great value in helping the Catholic community become more welcoming and sensitive.”

“I’ve known lots of parents who have struggled with the question of whether to love their kid or their church more,” said Charles Connors, a Catholic from Boston and father of a 30-year-old gay son. “Now, the grounds for that struggle should be gone. I couldn’t be more grateful.”

At the same time, some critics charged that parts of the document reflect an overemphasis on sexual conduct, as opposed to other objects of moral concern. Others worried that the letter, while acknowledging that most homosexuals experience their orientation “as a given” rather than a choice, does not clearly reject therapy aimed at reversing homosexual orientation.

Some also regretted that a controversial section on the primacy of conscience was dropped from the final version of the document. A key line from that section had stated, “A person must always obey the certain judgment of his or her conscience.” Experts who advised the bishops in drafting the letter said some prelates were worried that the line might appear to sanction disregard of church teaching.

Further, some parents felt that the letter neglected their most basic struggle -- wanting their gay children both to remain faithful Catholics and to experience love and intimacy, in the face of church teaching requiring them to remain celibate.

“That’s my issue,” said Nancy Mascotte, a Catholic whose son is gay. “I want my son to be able to love someone, to be loved, without the church suggesting it’s wrong. I wish the bishops would finally get their act together on that point.”

Still, reaction was generally enthusiastic to the letter’s pastoral tone. “For the bishops to say we don’t need to be ashamed, that this can even be a blessing, is a great step forward,” said Marge Mayer, mother of a 34-year-old gay son and a staff member for the gay and lesbian ministry office in the Los Angeles archdiocese.

“So often parents blame themselves,” Mayer said. “It’s the standard clichés -- you were a domineering mother, or a permissive father -- and that’s why your child turned out this way.” She said the letter will give “great hope” to struggling families.

Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Gumbleton of Detroit, longtime advocate for acceptance of lesbians and gays in the church, said he hoped the letter would “help break down the homophobia that’s in our society and in our church.

“The letter calls on parents to value the full development of children above all else, and that’s a great message,” he said. “No parent should feel compelled to make a judgment about the state of grace of his or her child.”

The bishops’ committee on marriage and family life, headed by Bishop Thomas O’Brien of Phoenix, began studying the concerns of parents of lesbians and gays in 1992. The document has been through at least three formal rounds of comment and revision.

Leaders involved in lesbian and gay ministry suggest that the test of the letter’s success will be how well church leaders translate its pastoral approach into action. Gramick noted that only a handful of dioceses around the nation offer lesbian and gay ministries.

Salvatorian Fr. Robert Nugent, cofounder along with Gramick of New Ways Ministries for lesbian and gay Catholics, pointed out that just as the letter was issued, Bishop John Egan of Bridegport, Conn., refused to allow a retreat for Catholic parents of homosexuals on diocesan property.

Ironically, “Always Our Children” recommends “participating in a retreat designed for Catholic parents of homosexual children.”

Gramick found the section on lifestyle troubling. “I don’t think we need to harp on the immorality of homosexual activity,” she said. “Why bring it up? It’s been said many times before.” She argued that much more attention should be paid to the need for pastoral outreach and reducing prejudice and discrimination against gays.

The document does stress that “injustice, oppression or violence” toward gays or lesbians is wrong, but notes that the church “has the right to deny public roles of service and leadership” to any person, homosexual or heterosexual, “whose public behavior openly violates its teachings.”

Gramick’s concerns were echoed by Fr. Jim Schexnayder, executive director of the National Association of Catholic Diocesan Lesbian and Gay Ministries. “If the letter were addressed to parents of heterosexual children, I’m not sure the sexuality aspect would be dealt with so repetitively,” he said. On balance, though, Schexnayder said he regarded the letter as a “major advance.”

Bob Miailovich, president of Dignity/USA, a Catholic advocacy group on behalf of lesbian and gay issues, said he found the statement “tremendously positive” and possibly a sign that “some of our message has been heard.”

Miailovich is concerned, however, about the passages on therapy. He regards the wording on counseling to be weak.

“The text waffles a little bit here, and practitioners of so-called ‘change therapy’ may still find a warrant for what they do,” he said. “Therapy that starts off with a presumption that homosexuals need to be converted is very destructive.”

According to consultants who worked on the document, an earlier draft had recommended therapists “who recognize the relative unchangability of sexual orientation.” The final text was more ambiguous, suggesting therapists with “an appreciation of religious values” who understand “the complex nature of sexuality.”

Nugent lamented deletion of the section on conscience. “I suppose the fear is, if we teach the primacy of conscience, people will take it as a license not to follow church teachings,” he said.

Nugent said dropping the section was probably a “compromise move” designed to reassure more conservative bishops concerned about watering down moral strictures governing homosexual conduct.

Nugent, who acted as a consultant to the bishops’ conference on the letter, called it ground-breaking. “The document will validate attempts to reach out to gay and lesbian Catholics and their parents,” he said.

National Catholic Reporter, October 10, 1997