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         (published in 'Opinion'     The Age March 2000)

By ignoring gay people, the Papal Apology is a hollow one.

                By Michael B. Kelly

No serious historian could deny that the Catholic Church's history of dealing with homosexual people has been bloody and brutal. It has also been bereft of the "compassion, sensitivity and respect" that modern Catholic leaders claim to offer homosexuals. A formal apology, after many centuries of condemnation and persecution, would seem to be the least gay people could expect from today's more enlightened church

And yet, as church leaders prepared the recent papal apology and looked back over twenty centuries of bigotry perpetrated in the name of Christ, they could not find it in their hearts to say sorry to gay folk. Why was this?

It is important to note that the papal apology was prepared in a climate of anxiety and conflict. It's no secret that many powerful cardinals and bishops were disturbed, even alarmed, by the whole idea. Their concern was that an apology might undermine the church authority, give ammunition to the church's critics and call into question policies the church leadership had no intention of changing.

Despite all this, Pope John Paul II went ahead, determined to use repentance as a way to cleanse the church and prepare it for the third millennium. However, unless the church learns to admit and address its oppression of lesbian and gay people it's apologies will be hollow and its future blighted by injustice.

Today the Catholic Church no longer advocates execution by fire for homosexuals. It no longer tortures or imprisons us, claims we are corrupted by demons, or condemns our love-making as more sinful then rape, incest, or murder. However, its oppression is real and it still destroys people's lives. What does this oppression look like today?

In 1986, the Vatican issued a crucial letter on the homosexual person. Despite incorporating some modern ideas and affirming the dignity of homosexual persons, this document declared the "condition" to be an "objective disorder" and an "orientation to intrinsic evil". It condemned gay relationships, no matter how committed or loving, and stated that when homosexuals seek a legal protection for "behaviour to which no one can have any conceivable right, then neither the State nor the church should be surprised when violent and irrational reactions increase".

This document caused outrage throughout the Catholic world. Yet in Australia the gay question has only recently gained prominence within the church, perhaps because gay Catholics here have tended to accept the requirement of being silent and invisible -- or they have simply given up on the church.

Most of the energy of our church leaders has been expended not on caring for gay folk or on listening to them, but on ensuring the church keeps the right to sack gay employees. The Catholic Church, which is Australia's largest private employer, has fought several expensive legal battles to ensure that it will never have to employ gay or lesbian people in any capacity -- even as cleaners or truck drivers. The church's huge network of schools, hospitals, welfare agencies and community services, most of which are overwhelmingly funded by public money, are exempt from anti-discrimination legislation -- so if a lesbian teacher or gay gardener comes out they can be sacked.

The real hypocrisy in all this is that the church leaders know they have plenty of gay employees who are doing good work. It's just that the secret needs to be maintained, the blanket condemnations need to be protected from the threat posed by honesty.

The same fear of honesty infects that clergy, which, as international studies repeatedly show, includes a disproportionately high proportion of closeted gay men. No church Law officially prevents them from coming out, but church culture is rigidly opposed to such openness.

Church culture has also kept silent about the suffering of gay youth in Catholic schools. Every teacher knows that to tell young people who may be gay that they have a disordered orientation towards intrinsic evil, and they may never look forward to sexual and emotional intimacy is a recipe for despair. Teachers also know that it's hard to counteract homophobic bullying when church leaders seem to be standing with the bullies.

In Melbourne last year, for example, When The Rainbow Sash Movement sought to draw attention to the suffering of gay Catholic youth, our Archbishop responded by claiming that homosexual sex was a more grave health hazard than smoking, by accusing gay people of the "recruitment" and "seduction" of youth, and promoting a group that encourages gay youth to seek conversion therapies so they can become heterosexuals.

For all this, however, it could be that the Catholic hierarchy's greatest crime against gay people in our age is its worldwide ban on education in using condoms for safer sex. The church's vast international networks are officially required to oppose condom use. Countless millions of lives may be lost to AIDS, but Catholic ideology his kept pure and intact.

The Pope and the bishops of the Catholic Church cannot and will not apologise to lesbian and gay people, because they are still actively engaged in our oppression. The Pope's Jubilee apology is a tragic, wasted opportunity for true conversion of heart among those who claimed to follow the man who said: "Whatever you do to the least of these my brethren, you do to me"
May God forgive them.

Michael B. Kelly is spokesman for the Rainbow Sash Movement.