National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  January 9, 2004

Priests protest language on gays

Public letter signed by 23 Chicago clerics calls recent Vatican document 'vile and toxic'


In an “Open Letter to the Hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church,” 23 Chicago priests protested “the increase in the use of violent and abusive language” directed at gays and lesbians by the Vatican, bishops conferences and some bishops.

“Has any other group within the Body of Christ been so assaulted and violated by such mean-spirited language?” they asked. The Vatican document released last summer urging Catholic politicians and others in positions of authority to oppose any measures that might make gay unions legitimate represents a clear “demonization of these children of God,” said the letter. By way of example, the priests cited expressions in that document calling homosexuality a “serious depravity,” “grave detriment to the common good” and “intrinsically disordered.”

“Does anyone consider this vile and toxic language invitational?” they asked.

What is needed, said the priests, is “a new atmosphere of openness to dialogue, which includes the lived experience of many Catholic members.”

Copies were sent to Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. A copy to Chicago Cardinal Francis George elicited an immediate reply to each of the signers.

A principal drafter of the letter, Fr. Richard Prendergast, pastor of a suburban parish, said he was moved to take action in part by the experience of a lesbian couple in his parish. They had adopted a baby from an orphanage in a foreign country. She was considered developmentally impaired when she arrived in the United States. Prendergast said that now, 18 months later, the couple has “loved her back to a normal level” of development. “To call their loving of that child an abomination is outrageous,” he said.

The Vatican statement, he said, has caused other Catholic homosexuals to finally “flip the switch” and abandon Catholicism. “They’re beyond anger,” he said. “There’s just a sadness that tells them they can’t belong to such a church anymore.”

Another signer, Fr. Robert McLaughlin, also a suburban pastor, said, “It seems so simple that you don’t talk to anyone the way the church talks to lesbians and gays. We don’t even talk to mafia dons that way. Can’t we respond to people in pastoral language?”

Prendergast said a draft of the letter was sent to about 80 Chicago priests known for their social justice concerns. The 23 priests were the first who agreed to sign it. Others have since agreed to sign, said Prendergast, while some offered to endorse the letter anonymously, and still others did not approve of the letter’s message.

In his letter to signers, George acknowledged that “church language can seem lacking in respect.” The church, he said, “speaks … a philosophical and theological language in a society that understands, at best, only psychological and political terms.” Such language, said George, “does not help us in welcoming men and women of homosexual orientation.” He added, “It would be good to discuss [this problem] together.”

But, he told the priests, being pastoral means more than welcoming people. “It also means calling them to conversion in Christ. This dimension of the pastoral life is absent from your letter.” God, he said, “knows the difference between right and wrong, and he expects us to know it, to live accordingly, and, as ordained priests, to preach the demands of the Gospel with integrity to every group.” He thanked the group “for loving your people.”

However, he told each signer, if “you yourself cannot resolve that tension between welcoming people as they are and still calling them to leave their sinfulness … or if you yourself do not accept the church’s moral teaching on the use of the gift of sexuality, it would be all the more important for us to talk.”

Another drafter of the letter, Fr. Michael Shanahan, an inner-city pastor, said the priests are eager to discuss the issues with the cardinal. “If the problem is language,” he said, “then I think it’s up to the church to find a way to speak that is intelligible to gays and lesbians.”

Robert McClory, a longtime contributor to NCR, lives in Chicago.

National Catholic Reporter, January 9, 2004

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