of the
(1 Oct, 1986)


The Most Rev. John R. Quinn , Archbishop of San Francisco, Calif .
AMERICA, February 7, 1987, pp. 92-116

WIDESPREAD attention was given recently to a document from the Congregation for the Doctrine of he Faith entitled “On the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons.” A good deal of comment was negative, especially on the part of those who read the document as condemnatory of homosexual persons.

At the outset, it should be noted that the document is in the form of a letter and is addressed to the bishops of the Catholic Church. It is not addressed to the general public and, consequently, is not written in popular, everyday language but in technical, precise language. On the one hand, this contributes to the clarity of the document, yet, paradoxically, it also contributes to its obscurity. Clear, technical language is not likely to be understood correctly by those who are not familiar with it.

In assessing the letter, we should note that it has been approved, as theologians say, “in forma communi.” This means that although Pope John Paul II has approved the document, it is not a document of the Pope but a document of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Nevertheless, it is an authentic teaching of the Holy See, and for this reason it carries weight apart from the merit of its intrinsic arguments precisely by reason of the formal authority of the Apostolic See. It is an act of the teaching church and cannot be regarded simply as just another theological opinion.

Having an objective understanding of such a document according to the mind of the church is important. Hence it is appropriate to ask: What kind of assent does such a document require? An examination of the letter reveals that it contains affirmations of different kinds. For instance, some affirmations are of a doctrinal nature and represent the constant teaching of the church. An example of this kind of affirmation would be the statement: “It is only in the marital relationship that the use of the sexual faculty can be morally good. A person engaging in homosexual behavior therefore acts immorally” (No. 7).

On the other hand, there are affirmations that are not of a doctrinal nature but pertain more or less to the realm of social commentary. An example of this kind of affirmation would be that “[When] homosexual activity is consequently condoned, or when civil legislation is introduced to protect behavior to which no one has any conceivable right, neither the church nor society at large should be surprised when other distorted notions and practices gain ground, and irrational and violent reactions increase” (No. 10). Clearly these are different kinds of affirmation that do not call for the same measure of assent. The former is a witness to the constant moral teaching of the church. The latter is a judgment about the social effects of certain ways of thinking or acting.

Given this necessary distinction, the document as such does not claim to be de fide. It is not a dogmatic definition. Still, as an authentic teaching of the magisterium it does lay claim to internal and respectful assent, particularly in those matters that are doctrinal in character and witness to the constant teaching of the church.

Central Moral Affirmations.

The central moral affirmation of the letter is: “It is only in the marital relationship that the use of the sexual faculty can be morally good. A person engaging in homosexual behavior therefore acts [p.93] immorally” (No. 7). Of course, in virtue of this principle, those who commit adultery or who engage in heterosexual behavior before marriage also act immorally.

This principle is based on two biblical foundations. The first is the creation narrative in Genesis in which man and woman are created as complementary, each destined for the other. This reveals God’s plan for creation. The differentiation of the sexes is meant for the union of the two in the service of life and love. The second foundation of the letter’s teaching is found in three Old Testament and three New Testament texts that explicitly condemn homosexual acts. The understanding of these texts has been a constant in the moral tradition of the church. The most recent biblical scholarship also supports this understanding. For instance, Richard B. Hays, writing in the Journal of Religious Ethics (Spring 1986), makes a detailed analysis of the first chapter of Romans. He concludes that the condemnation of homosexual acts is here beyond question and that this is the consistent stance of the Scriptures.

Consequently, the church cannot be faulted for its teaching on the grounds that such teaching is in conflict with Scripture or with the best contemporary exegesis. It should be clear from these indications that those who entertain the hope that the church will alter its moral teaching on homosexuality or that it can be forced to do so through various forms of pressure are soaring into the realms of fantasy.

Scope of the Letter.

 Given the clarity of its moral teaching, what is the scope of the letter? Its second paragraph begins: “Naturally, an exhaustive treatment of this complex issue cannot be attempted here.” Hence, the letter itself indicates that its scope is limited; some things are left unsaid.

Furthermore, the word “complex” is used twice in this same paragraph, indicating that the subject is not dealt with easily. For this reason, it states that the church requires of its ministers “attentive study, active concern and honest, theologically well-balanced counsel.” It further states that “the church is thus in a position to learn from scientific discovery.” In other words, there is more to be learned at the empirical level. Nevertheless, the moral teaching of the church, based in the Scriptures, must be the basis of understanding “the phenomenon of homosexuality, complex as it is.”

Positive Affirmations.

 Because the letter was reported in such a negative way and created such a bitter reaction in some areas, I believe it will be helpful to point out some of its many positive aspects. Among the positive affirmations found in the letter are these:

“The particular inclination of the homosexual person is not a sin” (No. 3).

“Homosexual persons are often generous and giving of themselves” (No. 3).

“It is deplorable that homosexual persons have been and are the object of violent malice in speech or in action. Such treatment deserves condemnation from the church’s pastors wherever it occurs. .. [and] the intrinsic dignity of each person must always be respected in word, in action and in law” (No. 10).

“What is essential is that the fundamental liberty that characterizes the human person and gives him his dignity be recognized as belonging to the homosexual person as well” (No. 11).

“The characteristic concern and good will exhibited by many clergy and religious in their pastoral care for homosexual persons is admirable and, we hope, will not diminish” (No. 13).

‘A homosexual person, as every human being, deeply needs to be nourished at many different levels simultaneously .... The human person, made in the image and likeness of God, can hardly be adequately described by a [p.94] reductionist reference to his or her sexual orientation.... Today the church provides a badly needed context for the care of the human person when [it] refuses to consider the person as a ‘heterosexual’ or a ‘homosexual’ and insists that every person has a fundamental identity: the creature of God and, by grace, His child and heir to eternal life” (No. 16).

The Letter and Pastoral Practice.

The letter’s doctrinal and biblical analysis is complemented by its treatment of pastoral practice. Having ruled out homosexual acts as contrary to the teaching of Scripture and of God’s plan for creation, the letter quotes a 1976 document on sexual ethics: “Culpability for homosexual acts should only be judged with prudence” (No. 3).

Then for the first time in a magisterial document, the letter admits the possibility that the homosexual orientation may not be “the result of deliberate choice” (No. 11). And having noted this, it continues: “Here, the church’s wise moral tradition is necessary since it warns against generalizations in judging individual cases.”

The reason for avoiding generalizations is: “In fact, circumstances may exist, or may have existed in the past, that would reduce or remove the culpability of the individual in a given instance; or other circumstances may increase it” (No. 11).

What is to be avoided is “the unfounded and demeaning assumption that the sexual behavior of homosexual persons is always and totally compulsive and therefore inculpable.”

The pastoral stance, then, is to uphold the church’s teaching and, within that framework, to be cautious in judging culpability-avoiding the extremes of saying that there is always culpability or that there is never culpability.

The Homosexual Orientation.

 The section of the letter dealing with the homosexual orientation has created one of the most negative reactions. It states: “Although the particular inclination of the homosexual person is not a sin, it is a more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil; and thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder” (No. 3).

This is philosophical language. The inclination is a disorder because it is directed to an object that is disordered. The inclination and the object are in the same order philosophically. But “the particular inclination of the homosexual person is not a sin” (No. 3).

In trying to understand this affirmation, we should advert to two things. First, every person has disordered inclinations. For instance, the inclination to rash judgment is disordered, the inclination to cowardice, the inclination to hypocrisy-these are all disordered inclinations. Consequently, homosexual persons are not the only ones who have disordered inclinations. Second, the letter does not say that the homosexual person is disordered. The inclination, not the person, is described as disordered. Speaking of the homosexual person, the letter states that the church “refuses to consider the person as a ‘heterosexual’ or a ‘homosexual’ and insists that every person has a fundamental identity: the creature of God and, by grace, His child and heir to eternal life” (No. 16). Consequently, the document affirms the spiritual and human dignity of the homosexual person while placing a negative moral judgment on homosexual acts and a negative philosophical judgment on the homosexual inclination or orientation, which it clearly states is not a sin or moral evil.

Why Was the Letter Written?

A variety of concerns lay behind and led to the writing of the letter. The letter itself mentions some of them. The increasing public debate about homosexuality, the enunciation of positions that are incompatible with the teaching of the church, the increasingly positive appraisal of the homosexual orientation used as a basis for a positive appraisal of homosexual acts. But still another source of concern for the church is that certain militant elements appear to be posing a threat to family life. The church is fearful of the trivialization of sex and of the trivialization of its relationship to marriage and the family. While the church does not place all homosexuals in one category, it does want to diminish the harmful effects of some homosexual groups and individuals.

How Should Homosexual Persons Be Treated?

 We may find an answer to this question in several documents of the magisterium. I would begin by applying the words of Pope Paul VI in Humanae Vitae to homosexual persons. He said: “To diminish in no way the saving teaching of Christ constitutes an eminent form of charity for souls. But this must ever be accompanied by patience and goodness, such as the Lord Himself gave example of in dealing with men. Having come not to condemn but to save, He was indeed intransigent with evil, but merciful toward individuals. In their difficulties, may [homosexual persons] always find, in the words and in the heart of a priest, the echo of the voice and the love of the Redeemer” (No. 29).

[p.95] Pope John Paul II, addressing a group of bishops from the United States during their ad limina visit, said: “In particular, the bishop is a sign of the love of Jesus Christ: He expresses to all individuals and groups of whatever tendency-with a universal charity-the love of the Good Shepherd. His love embraces sinners with an easiness and naturalness that mirrors the redeeming love of the Savior. To those in need, in trouble and in pain, he offers the love of understanding and consolation....

‘As a sign of Christ’s love, the bishop is also a sign of Christ’s compassion, since he represents Jesus the High Priest who is able to sympathize with human weakness, the one who was tempted in every way we are, yet never sinned. The consciousness on the part of the bishop of personal sin, coupled with repentance and with the forgiveness received from the Lord, makes his human expression of compassion even more authentic and credible....

“The bishop, precisely because he is compassionate and understands the weakness of humanity and the fact that its needs and aspirations can only be satisfied by the full truth of creation and redemption, will proclaim without fear or ambiguity the many controverted truths of our age. He will proclaim them with pastoral love, in terms that will never unnecessarily offend or alienate his hearers” (Sept. 5, 1983).

And the bishops of the United States wrote in their 1976 pastoral letter “To Live in Christ Jesus”: “Some persons find themselves through no fault of their own to have a homosexual orientation. Homosexuals, like everyone else, should not suffer from prejudice against their basic human rights. They have a right to respect, friendship and justice. They should have an active role in the Christian community. Homosexual activity, however, as distinguished from homosexual orientation, is morally wrong. Like heterosexual persons, homosexuals are called to give witness to chastity, avoiding, with God’s grace, behavior that is wrong for them, just as nonmarital sexual relations are wrong for heterosexuals. Nonetheless, because heterosexuals can usually look forward to marriage, and homosexuals, while their orientation continues, might not, the Christian community should provide them a special degree of pastoral understanding and care” (No. 52).


Moral norms provide vectors for human behavior and development. Some people reach the minimum and stop. Others move on toward the heights. Others plod along and find it a slow and tedious journey marked by setbacks. Not all measure up perfectly to these norms at all times. But without moral norms it would be a darksome journey. It would be a chaotic journey if the church’s moral [p.116] teaching were so fluid as to change with every change of viewpoint in secular society.

Pope Paul VI’s words, addressed to an international congress in 1970, apply equally well to the struggles of the homosexual person: “It is only little by little that the human being is able to order and integrate his multiple tendencies, to the point of arranging them harmoniously in that virtue of conjugal chastity wherein the couple finds its full human and Christian development.... Their conscience demands to be respected, educated and formed in an atmosphere of confidence and not of anguish. The moral laws, far from being inhumanly cold in an abstract objectivity, are there to guide the spouses in their progress. When they truly strive to live the profound demands of holy love, patiently and humbly, without becoming discouraged by failures, then the moral laws ... are no longer rejected as a hindrance, but recognized as a powerful help.”

The final portion of Richard Hays’s article, to which I made reference earlier, is most useful. He says: “Certainly any discussion of the normative application of Romans 1 must not neglect the powerful impact of Paul’s rhetorical reversal in Rom. 2:1-all of us stand ‘without excuse’  before God, Jews and Gentiles alike, heterosexuals and homosexuals alike. Thus, Romans 1 should decisively undercut any self-righteous condemnation of homosexual behavior. Those who follow the church’s tradition by upholding the authority of Paul’s teaching against the morality of homosexual acts must do so with due humility.”


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