HOW A SORRY CHURCH
STILL DESTROYS SO MANY LIVES.
(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
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
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
May God forgive them.
Michael B. Kelly is spokesman for the Rainbow Sash Movement.