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For gay Catholics, conscience is the key

“Judging the sinfulness of any particular act is a matter ultimately between God and the individual person. This is the function of one’s conscience, which the Second Vatican Council described as the divine voice echoing in our depths, as a law written by God in human hearts. A person must always obey the certain judgment of his or her conscience.”

The U.S. bishops chose to delete those three sentences from the final draft of their recently published pastoral letter, “Always our Children,” addressed primarily to parents of homosexual children.

Reading the deleted passage to an audience of nearly 200 people, auxiliary bishop Thomas Gumbleton of the Detroit, Mich., diocese referred to primacy of conscience as “very sound theology.” Gumbleton was on hand to address a focus session at the Call to Action annual conference.

Why was primacy of conscience left out?

Some bishops were concerned about creating a loophole in church doctrine and giving the impression that the church was deserting its teaching, Gumbleton said. “Active homosexuality or genital homosexuality is totally against the teaching of the church,” he said.

The bishops’ pastoral letter, while adhering to the Vatican’s prohibition against homosexual activity, makes a distinction between chastity (or “modesty and self-control”) and celibacy (abstinence from sexual activity).

The bishops write: “Chastity means integrating one’s thoughts, feelings and actions, in the area of human sexuality, in a way that values and respects one’s own dignity and that of others.”

But chastity for gays and chastity for non-gays means two different things. Both the Vatican and the U.S. bishops still insist upon mandatory celibacy for gays for life but not for non-gays.

OK to be gay, but don’t act on it. Love the sinner, but hate the sin. That’s the official line, with its inherently contradictory message.

The Vatican’s insistence on imposing the medieval discipline of celibacy as a way of life on all homosexual people today rankles faithful gay Catholics like me.

From my perspective, celibacy not freely chosen is repressed sexuality, utterly irreconcilable with a gay-positive identity, self-respect and dignity -- mine and that of others. In other words, obligatory celibacy is tantamount to not experiencing a fully human life.

Isn’t there also a double standard here? Doesn’t this standard unjustly preclude gay people from having what non-gays take for granted -- intimate and loving, long-term committed relationships?

Unlike our non-gay counterparts, who can have sex by marrying, we are asked not to experience either. What’s more, we can’t marry in the secular sphere while our church officially denies us the sacrament of (same-gender) marriage in the spiritual realm.

Sex and marriage for some, but not for others. Or love for non-gays, but not for gays. That’s how I hear the doublethink.

Does this thinking really make any sense? Not to Bishop Gumbleton, who has an openly gay brother, Dan. Dan has a life partner. It is not surprising, therefore, that the bishop has been able to comprehend fully the double bind that church teaching imposes on gay Catholics.

What’s more, “that [teaching] puts a homosexual person in a terrible bind,” said Gumbleton, “because ... it seems absolutely clear that genuine homosexual people have been homosexual from their earliest years. It isn’t something they chose in their teenage years or as an adult.”

That’s an essential and important part of the bishops’ pastoral message: Gay people don’t choose their sexual orientation.

“How then does a person deal with the teachings of the church and stay faithful to the teaching?” the bishop asked.

“Every person has to come to a point of personal growth where we fully integrate sexuality into our whole lives -- not repress it. Each person, struggling to be a whole person, must deal with this very serious question of conscience,” Gumbleton said.

For an increasing number of us, it’s the church’s very own teaching -- a carefully informed conscience as the ultimate guide in every moral decision -- that empowers us to remain good, faithful gay Catholics and be sexually active, in spite of hurtful pronouncements from the Vatican.

Primacy of conscience is the gay Catholic’s way through the double standard in church teaching about homosexuality.

Following one’s conscience is also a good practice for anyone.

“Primacy of conscience is a very important piece of Catholic teaching” said Gumbleton. “It’s not up to anyone of us to judge anyone else.”

Ultimately, the judgment of sinfulness -- at least for believers -- is a matter best left to God. It’s too bad the bishops missed a chance to say that.

Freelance writer Chuck Colbert of Cambridge, Mass., serves on the board of directors of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association.

National Catholic Reporter, January 16, 1998