The nation's Roman Catholic bishops have drafted new guidelines for ministry to gay people that affirm church teaching against same-sex relationships, marriages and adoptions by gay couples, yet encourage parishes to reach out to gay Catholics who feel alienated by their church.
The bishops' document, the result of a four-year effort, gives specific instructions on some of the conundrums now faced in many parishes.
The guidelines recommend baptizing the adopted children of same-sex couples, as long as the children will be raised as Catholics. It says that gay people may benefit from revealing their "tendencies" to friends, family and their priest, but should not make "general public announcements" about it in the parish.
The guidelines also say that gay men and lesbians have "no moral obligation to attempt" therapy, an apparent reference to therapy programs that claim to change gay people's sexual orientation. It says that while "some have found therapy helpful," there is "no scientific consensus" either on therapy or the causes of homosexuality.
The bishops will vote on the document - "Ministry to Persons with a Homosexual Inclination: Guidelines for Pastoral Care" - when the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops meets Nov. 13-16 in Baltimore. It could be amended and needs a two-thirds majority to pass.
Bishop Arthur J. Serratelli of Paterson, N.J., the chairman of the bishops' doctrine committee, which wrote the new guidelines, said that although it was difficult to predict whether it would pass, "It's a very sound document, a very clear document. My sense is that the bishops will readily embrace it."
Gay Catholic leaders who had read the draft, however, predicted that it would only further alienate gays and their families from the church.
"There certainly is some lovely language that sounds welcoming in here," said Sam Sinnett, president of DignityUSA, an organization for gay Catholics, "but essentially they're repeating all the spiritually violent things they've been saying about gay and lesbian Catholics for a couple of decades - that we are `objectively disordered' and our relationships are intrinsically evil."
A previous document, issued by a committee of bishops in 1997, was directed primarily at parents with gay children. But it proved controversial and was never approved by the bishops conference.
This new document puts more emphasis on the church's moral teaching about sexuality. It says that although having a "homosexual inclination" is not a sin, homosexual sex is a sin - as are premarital sex and adultery. The answer in all these situations is chastity.
The document says that although the church teaches that homosexuality is "objectively disordered" - a teaching in the catechism that says homosexual acts violate the natural law - the church is not saying that homosexual people themselves are disordered or "rendered morally defective by this inclination."
Such distinctions will provide little comfort to gay Catholics, said Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, a gay outreach group for Catholics based in Maryland. DeBernardo criticized the document for saying that gay people should make their sexuality known only to a small group, and that gay people whose behavior "violates" church teaching should be denied leadership roles in parishes.
"Gay and lesbian people are going to read those remarks and see them as offensive, as telling them to go underground," he said.
That is not the intention, said the Rev. Thomas G. Weinandy, who worked on the document as executive director for the U.S. bishops' secretariat for doctrine and pastoral practices.
"The bishops would like people with homosexual inclinations to really participate in the church, but they don't want to `give scandal,'" Weinandy said. "If you knew a heterosexual couple were just cohabiting and not married, you wouldn't let them be eucharistic ministers either."
The Rev. James Martin, an editor at the Jesuit magazine America, said, "The document expresses the tension in the church between a sincere desire to minister to gays and lesbians, and the reality that many gays and lesbians feel unwelcome in the church by virtue of the church's teaching."
The bishops have issued statements in recent years condemning gay marriage, gay adoption and benefits for gay partners. They have historically been more attuned to gay issues, however, than some of their colleagues overseas. Last year, the Vatican issued an "instruction" saying that men with "deep-seated" homosexual attraction should not be ordained. Some American bishops commented in their diocesan newspapers or privately that they did not regard this as a ban on ordaining gay men.
The bishops said they felt the need for clear guidelines because there were many pastoral ministries for gay people in parishes and dioceses around the country, and "confusion" about what was an "authentic" Catholic approach, Weinandy said. He noted that the Vatican had disciplined the founders of New Ways Ministry for preaching acceptance of gay relationships.
As such, the guidelines repeatedly say that bishops should not countenance church leaders and pastoral workers who fail to uphold its teachings on homosexuality, or who advocate harm toward gay people.
It says, "The church cannot support organizations or individuals whose work contradicts, is ambiguous about, or neglects her teaching on sexuality."