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End this evil teaching

The Age, Friday 28 July 2000


TODAY, Premier Steve Bracks and Archbishop George Pell will open the new campus of Australian Catholic University in East Melbourne. This multi-million-dollar development will house several Catholic institutes, and it is a real coup for George Pell.

Literally a stone's throw from his new offices in Victoria Parade, the campus will radically centralise this archdiocese's resources for education in theology, teaching, nursing, counselling and family welfare, putting everything under his watchful eye. There is no doubt this will greatly facilitate his continuing project of imposing his brand of conservative Catholicism on the future of the Melbourne church.

And so, when our Catholic Premier and our Catholic Archbishop meet to cut ribbons and sprinkle holy water, I must confess that I, as a Catholic gay man, will feel rather uneasy.

Last week, ABC and SBS television screened documentaries examining violence and abuse directed at homosexual people. The bashings, the murders, the endless abuse and the threats were brutal, commonplace and shocking. Almost equally disturbing, however, was the way so many of the abusers, both in Australia and the United States, relied on Christian teachings to justify their disgust with homosexuals.

"I am a Catholic!" proclaimed one young Townsville man, as if this obviously explained his next statement: "It's meant to be a woman with a man, not a man with a man. That's sick. That's hitting material."

Most church leaders would rush to dissociate themselves and their religion from all forms of gay bashing. However, their actual teaching deserves closer scrutiny.

The Townsville man's claim that "It's meant to be a woman and a man, not a man and a man" could have been proclaimed from any pulpit in the country. This is what all mainstream churches teach as the will of God and the order of nature, readily dismissing all the evidence of modern biology, psychology and anthropology. Our man in Queensland learnt this lesson well.

His second statement, "That's sick", expresses succinctly what most churches continue to teach. Consider Catholic doctrine, which calls homosexuality "disordered" and an "orientation and intrinsic evil", claims that all homosexual love-making is "grave depravity" and says gay relationships undermine the family and threaten the fabric of society. In simply saying "that's sick", our man neatly summarises lesson two.

It is true that most churches condemn physical violence against homosexuals, at least overtly. Yet in 1986 the Vatican issued an official letter saying when homosexuals seek legal protection "for behaviour to which no one can have any conceivable right", then "neither society nor the church should be surprised when violent and irrational reactions increase". In less-elevated terms, "that's hitting material". Lesson number three.

These three lessons and their violent results are inextricably connected. You cannot repeatedly, and in the name of God, present a group of people as unnatural, disordered, oriented towards evil, depraved and a danger to society and family, and not expect that violence will break out against them sooner or later. Church leaders must have the moral courage to face the destructive results of teachings they claim are the Word of God. They must also examine their own words.

On this page last year, for example, Archbishop George Pell repeatedly claimed that gay adults engage in the "recruitment" and "seduction" of youth. This is one of the most dangerously inflammatory of all anti-gay slurs. He spent four words condemning homophobia, in a long article that gave voice to some of its ugliest claims.

This man is archbishop of a city where 84 percent of gay people recently reported experiencing physical or verbal abuse in public places, and where more than 90 percent of gay-identified youth report being abused and harassed, mainly at school.

When Steve Bracks and George Pell meet to open this new campus that will shape the future of the Melbourne church, I will be wondering what place gay youth will have in that future. Who will care for them?

Some things can, and must, be done.

First, Catholic school principals, religious orders, teacher unions, welfare agencies, hospitals and individual priests, teachers and church employees must commit themselves, whether privately or publicly, to never teaching or promoting official Catholic doctrine on homosexuality. Mahatma Gandhi said that not cooperating with evil is a moral imperative, and this teaching is evil. It must not be given space to do its work.

Second, federal and state governments - including that of Bracks - must show vision and backbone. They should require, as a condition of funding, that all schools, whether state, Catholic or independent, give students age-appropriate and continuing instruction about homosexuality that is objective, scientifically and psychologically sound, free of ideology and based in understanding and appreciation of diversity. (Many religious schools may insist on teaching their traditional doctrines as well, and the resulting discussions should be all to the good.)

Our schools, right across the board, have raised too many homophobic young adults, too many potential gay-bashers. The lives and wellbeing of thousands of gay youth continue to be at risk, and our society must demand that they be cared for.

Finally, those of us who claim to be Christians must educate and challenge our leaders. We have been sheep for too long, listening passively to prejudice and fear masquerading as Absolute Truth. It's time we found a passion for justice, and stopped the abuse.

Michael Kelly was a Catholic educator for 17 years.