WASHINGTON -- The nation's Roman Catholic bishops approved yesterday, for the first time, a comprehensive statement on sexuality that encourages parents and Catholic schools to educate children about a wide range of sexual issues.
The 188-page statement -- which drew criticism from both conservative and liberal bishops -- was approved by a voice vote during the third day of the bishops' annual meeting here. The session ends today.
Conservatives complained that the statement was insensitive to those Catholic parents who want all sex education done in the home. Liberal bishops complained that the statement failed to address unhappiness among some Catholics with the church's position on birth control.
While reaffirming the Catholic Church's opposition to artificial birth control, sex outside marriage and homosexuality, the statement leaves room for Catholics to look to their own conscience when they make decisions about their sexual behavior.
"In the end a person is bound to live with and to stand by his or her own discernment of God's Will. . . . Ultimately each person -- whether single or married, whether widowed, divorced, or celibate, whether adult or adolescent -- must discern his or her own moral decisions," the statement said.
The statement appeared to strike a delicate balance between reiterating traditional doctrine while framing it in more moderate terms.
For example, on the topic of sex in marriage, the bishops said sex has two purposes: to express love and to have children. The two purposes are given equal weight, rather than focusing solely on sex as a means to have children, the view commonly taught in the 1950s and 1960s.
Other points addressed by the bishops include:
* Artificial birth control of any kind -- condoms, birth-control pills, diaphragms and sterilization -- is prohibited, but the prohibition is softened by a quote from an earlier church document urging sensitivity to "those who find it hard to accept this teaching."
* Masturbation, especially in adolescence, is taken as common behavior and, rather than saying it should be repressed, the bishops urge parents, teachers and counselors to "see these actions in context and . . . not reduce their esteem and benevolence for the person."
* Homosexuality is an "intrinsically disordered" orientation and "evil," the bishops affirmed, but they added that censure does not apply to the person who is homosexual.
"Such an orientation in itself is not sinful because it is not freely chosen," Archbishop Oscar Lipscomb of Mobile, Ala., said. The bishops said they wanted to reflect their agreement with sociologists who say that homosexuals do not feel they have an alternative.
Bishop Kenneth Untener of Saginaw, Mich., who reflected the concerns of liberal bishops with some of the harshest criticism, said the bishops' failure to discuss any modification of the Catholic prohibition on birth control made the church like a "dysfunctional family unable to talk about a problem that everyone knows is there."
Bishop Untener described an informal survey he had taken in his diocese in which almost everyone he polled said they were uncomfortable with the church's prohibition of artificial birth control.
Auxiliary Bishop Austin Vaughan of New York City was among conservative critics. "Parents haven't been involved at all here. These guidelines are in critical areas. I think there is a likelihood of a sharp reaction," he said.
The bishops also approved $2 million in funding to help dioceses coordinate fund-raising for Catholic schools. Catholic schools have been unable to raise tuition to meet a 500 percent increase in costs over the past 20 years, church officials said.
A multimillion-dollar plan to aid emerging churches in Eastern Europe also was approved. The plan depends on a nationwide parish collection beginning in the spring.