Dignity, Love, Life

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

Recent debates and conflicting views regarding homosexual law reform, as well as the expectations of the Catholic community and others, make some clarification of the Church's teaching both timely and appropriate.

We address this letter to you because you are partners with us in important pastoral and teaching ministries of the Church. We need and appreciate you and see the guidance offered here as supporting and encouraging your involvement.

As you know, it is not enough merely to state Church teaching. Rather, it is necessary to "explain to anyone who asks you to account for the hope that is in you" (1 Peter 3:15). In this case, we need to be able to show how the Church's teaching is consistent with what is most human, and compatible with sound pastoral practice and compassion.

The debate on whether, in certain circumstances, homosexual activity should be legal or not must not be allowed to obscure the more important question of whether it is moral or not. In this letter we shall touch upon matters of both justice and chastity, hoping to provide you with a framework for your own discussions and guidance on this issue.

It is well known that at the heart of the Catholic Church's social teaching is the God-given dignity of persons. This leads to the Church's teaching concerning the sacredness of human life, the essential equality of all persons, the dignity of human work, the requirements of justice, development and peace, and of shared responsibility for the well being of each other and of all people. This same concern for human dignity and human life undergirds our position regarding homosexual persons and homosexual activity.

Our letter continues under the headings of:

  • The Rights of Homosexual Persons and of Society
  • The Morality of Homosexual Activity
  • Loving Homosexual Persons "in the Truth"
  • Pastoral Care and Education
  • Christian Hope

The Rights of Homosexual Persons and of Society

Concern for the dignity of persons leads us to oppose all forms of unjust discrimination against homosexual persons. Homosexual persons have the same basic human rights as any other persons, including the right to respect, friendship and justice. Proper regard for their rights must be reflected in personal attitudes and in society's social, economic and legal dispositions. Like all persons, they are made in the image and likeness of God, and are called to a living relationship with God as equal members of God's people.

We draw attention to a necessary distinction between "unjust" discrimination and the necessary limitations which are placed on the exercise of anyone's actions whenever these would interfere with the rights of others or the common good. All persons, whether heterosexual or homosexual, must sometimes accept the personal inconvenience, pain and challenge of being limited in the exercise of their freedom in favour of the good of society as a whole. A wide range of laws is based on this obvious and important principle. Not all limitations on freedom constitute "unjust discrimination" Only the unnecessary limitation of people's freedom constitutes injustice.

Recognition of the human and civil rights of homosexual persons means that, like heterosexual persons, their conduct should not be proscribed by criminal law except to the extent that it threatens the rights of others. In addition to the question of whether homosexual activity is morally right or wrong, society must determine, from time to time, in the light of experience and of the behavioural sciences, whether and in what circumstances it constitutes any threat to the common good.

Some danger to the common good results not directly from law reform, but indirectly from the widespread assumption that what is legally permissible is therefore also morally acceptable. There are some who even try to promote this false equation between what is legal and what is moral. They cannot expect our support. On the other hand, there are others who advocated change in the law for humanitarian reasons and not because they believe homosexual activity is morally acceptable.

The Morality of Homosexual Activity
Having made it clear that our concern for human dignity leads us to defend the human rights of all persons, both heterosexual and homosexual, we now pass on to explain why our concern for human dignity and human life leads us to regard homosexual activity as morally wrong.

We wish to emphasise immediately that this judgement on homosexual activity does not imply any judgement on when homosexual persons are guilty of sin (only they themselves and God can judge that). Nor does it imply any judgement on the condition of being a homosexual person. Homosexual inclinations or orientation, like heterosexual inclinations, are morally neutral. It is homosexual activity that we regard as wrong.

To understand the reason for this, it helps to reflect on the meaning of love by reflecting on common human experience. We quickly realise that love and life belong together. For example, when we glimpse the security experienced by people in love, whether at the beginning of a relationship between two people which they hope will be for ever, or after years of tested, loyal love for each other; when we see the solace, strength and restoration married partners can bring to each other through their love; when we see how the experience of being loved brings about a healthy sense of self-worth, and how seriously persons can be damaged when they do not experience being loved; when we see the remarkable hearings, hope and vitality that love can bring even to severely handicapped people; or when we look at the language of love and its natural gestures, and even its sacrifices - in all these situations we see that life, and the giving of life, are what love is really all about.

The experience of true love is the experience of receiving what we could not demand or own or claim - it is the experience in quiet surprise and wonder of something gifted. This experience leads people to a new discovery of themselves and enables them to live with gratitude, trust and security. Love is life-giving.

The life-giving language of love runs right through all kinds of human relationships. This includes lives of service to others and the sacrifices people make, even the sacrifice of their own lives, for the sake of those they love. In marriage, the language of love finds expression in sexual intercourse which, in the circumstances of fertility, is lifegiving in a pre-eminent way. It issues in a new human life - a new person.

This essential relationship between love and life shows that it is people's understanding of love itself that is diminished if they fail to see love's natural orientation towards the giving of life.

Homosexual persons might also find a certain strength and solace in their friendship. But when that friendship seeks expression in sexual activity, the inherent contradiction of their position is revealed. This is not always acknowledged by those who are still new to the experience, and especially if they are trying to justify their choices. But we must also think of those who are much longer experienced in homosexual activity, and who often tell us how they wish it could have been different. Their experience has not been life-giving.

Even the experience of heterosexual couples who happen to be infertile (at a particular time or permanently) is a different experience from that of a homosexual couple. Circumstances (whether chosen or otherwise) prevent the infertile couple from conceiving. But it is the very nature of what homosexual persons do that prevents them from conceiving. Actions which are radically dissociated from the giving of new life are of a different order, i.e. do not have the same meaning. It is at the level of meaning that homosexual activity cannot properly satisfy, whatever can be said about mutual affection or pleasure.

The behavioural sciences can teach us about the causes of homosexuality and the needs of homosexual persons, but to know the moral quality of any sexual behaviour (heterosexual or homosexual) we must look for its meaning.

There used to be a tendency to look for this meaning mainly in the biological aspects of human nature. This mistake is similar to the mistake of those who now look only, or mainly, to the psychological inclinations of a person. The fallacy common to both these methods is their reductionism. In other words, they reduce the search for meaning down to only one or other aspect of human nature.

It was as an over-simplified approach that tried to determine what was moral (i.e, authentically human) only from biological data, but it is equally over-simplified to ignore biological facts. In order to determine what is authentically human (i.e. morally right), it is necessary to take seriously every aspect of human personhood and not treat any one aspect as inconsequential.

It is right to emphasise the quality of relationships (e.g. fidelity and commitment as against domination, manipulation etc.), but this does not require us to ignore other aspects of human nature and human relationships, including sexual differentiation. Biological differences cannot be invoked to justify artificial differentiations of role, but nor can the biological difference between male and female be regarded as making no difference to our understanding of human nature, and therefore of what is properly human behaviour.

Homosexual activity could be regarded as authentic human behaviour only if sexual differentiation could be regarded as an aspect of human nature that does not really matter. Such a position does not take the body seriously enough.

In the Christian tradition, the meaning of sexual behaviour is linked to the meaning of marriage. There are other philosophies which see marriage and sexual activity as being only incidentally, not essentially, related. The difference between these philosophies and the Christian tradition amounts to what Pope John Paul II has called "irreconcilable concepts of the human person and of human sexuality" (Familiaris Consortio (1981) n.32).

We are well aware that sexual intercourse, which should be a profound expression of love, can sometimes be made into the language of half-truth and non-truth. When the body language of total and loving commitment is used to express something less than a permanent, faithful commitment, it is not being "spoken" truthfully. Less still is it a true expression of love when it involves violence, manipulation or deceit, even inside marriage. But our society must expect sex to be used in the expression of falsehood because as part of its regular entertainment it presents sex only in terms of pleasure, unrelated to its proper meaning. Its meaning, we repeat, is related to heterosexual marriage, and for this reason homosexual activity is wrong.

Loving Homosexual Persons “in the Truth”
We sometimes suspect that well intentioned people feel they must somehow justify homosexual behaviour in order to feel that they are treating homosexual persons as equals. On the basis of the Gospel, we proclaim that people can be, and should be, loved, respected and treated as equals even if their behaviour is wrong. God does not love us only on condition that our behaviour is right. The splendour of the Gospel is in the fact that God has loved us even though we are undeserving. To imagine that we must first be able to justify people's behaviour in order to say they are being loved, respected and treated as equals is to fail to take the Gospel seriously enough. Therefore, it is not necessary to try to justify homosexual activity in order to defend the rights of homosexual persons.

In this letter we have declared our opposition to unjust discrimination against homosexual persons. We have also declared our support for the common good which can sometimes require limits on the exercise of any person's rights. But we have gone further than just supporting people's rights - including the rights of people whose activity we believe is wrong. Prompted by the Gospel, we believe that love seeks truth and is not indifferent to it. We do not subscribe to the assumption of contemporary Western culture that provided there is love, truth does not really matter.

Objective truth, based on meaning and on reality, is lightly dismissed in a culture that encourages the popular fallacy that truth is a purely relative matter. Another feature of this culture is its exaggerated individualism which leads to the view that people's choices and decisions are no one else's business but their own. We challenge our society, and particularly educators, to reflect on these popular assumptions and to recognise their superficiality and their destructiveness. Error matters because truth matters because people matter.

On the occasion when Jesus refused to condemn the woman who had committed adultery, He told her not to sin again (John 8:1-11). He did two things: He showed His acceptance of her and His non-acceptance of her sin. It would never have occurred to anyone at the time that because He respected her, He was somehow condoning her sin. But nor would it have occurred to anyone that because He disapproved of her sin, He was rejecting her. He wasn't.

What would have made it easy for that woman to acknowledge the reality of her sin and try to avoid it in future was the experience of knowing she was accepted by Our Lord. Let's be honest: Which one of us can face the reality of our sins if we are not first of all assured of Christ's love for us made tangible through the love of others? It is in knowing Him that we can know ourselves. That is why the Church's expressed disapproval of sin always needs to be in the context of its acceptance of the persons concerned.

Pastoral Care and Education
Because our parishes are mainly family oriented, they tend not to take sufficiently into account the needs of single persons, widows, separated persons and solo parents. Homosexual persons especially can feel like strangers in ordinary society.

Clear teaching that homosexual activity is morally wrong must be accompanied by the kind of experience that enables homosexual persons to know they are not being rejected or put down. They have a right to the respect and acceptance that Jesus Himself gave to all people. They are called to be His disciples, and they belong to His Church.

This point finds support in Pope John Paul II's recent encyclical letter on the Holy Spirit (1986). Speaking of the "Spirit of truth" who alone can convince the world concerning sin and the forgiveness of sin (John 15:26; 16:8), the Pope stresses that this "convincing" "has as its purpose not merely the accusation of the world and still less its condemnation. Jesus Christ did not come into the world to judge it and condemn it, but to save it" (n.31).

We also realise, and in situations of pastoral care and counselling we are sometimes painfully aware, that no more can be asked of any person than that they do their best. What this "best" consists of can vary according to stages of personal growth and moral development, as well as circumstances. An openness to God through prayer, the sacraments and self-sacrifice is the key to new growth and great strength. But God's grace does not work as magic, and sometimes what people are capable of, even with God's grace, is less than the full measure of what is objectively true and good. Despite this shortfall and provided they are doing their best, they should not be denied every support the Church can give them, including the sacraments.

Caution is necessary in the interpretation of scientific data. To start with, there is still a significant lack of agreement among behavioural scientists concerning the nature and causes of homosexuality. But even allowing for what we can learn from these sciences, it is one thing to acknowledge the development during early childhood of sexual inclinations and preferences, and the permanent influence of these; it is another thing to assume that these early developments on their own must dominate adult life. It is just as scientific to recognise that the patterns of later experience can make a difference to how far these earlier developments master us, or we them.

All inclinations - heterosexual, homosexual, masochistic, addictive - are only inclinations. Unless they are seriously compulsive, they are more or less under the control of our freedom. What matters are the choices we make - not the inclinations which precede our choices. By our choices and decisions we can increase our freedom and self-control, or we can diminish our freedom and self-control.

In relation to sexuality, this freedom or self-control is called chastity. Obviously, it is a positive, not a negative, thing. An education which has the dignity of human personhood and freedom at heart will promote chastity.

Precisely because the early years of development are so important, families and those who support family life should aim to make it possible for children to experience the wonder of being loved unconditionally, respect for persons whose beliefs are different, appreciation of femininity and graceful manliness, and unpatronising compassion for persons in need.

Christian Hope
The hope that we Christians should be able to bring to people we teach or counsel is specifically that hope which is rooted in faith.

From a non-faith perspective, hope is limited to what can be managed without faith. But the impossibility of finding the meaning of each one's life within such limits inevitably leads to hopelessness. From a faith perspective, however, even "impossible" situations can be full of hope. Faith is what enables us to know that we still have a place, and our life still has meaning "even if the earth gives way, the mountains tumble into the sea, and its waters roar and seethe·" (cf. Psalm 46:2-3).

It enabled Jesus to know that somehow all would turn out well even if the death He did not want overtook Him and the forces of evil and stupidity had their way.

Hope is what Christians can still have even though the Son of God is put to death, goodness is defeated and all hope seems ended. In every age men and women have experienced this same profound conviction, even when their own lives have been about to be unjustly taken from them.

Does the meaning of a person's life depend on them being able to enjoy life's normal joys and the fulfilment of all their human rights? What if they are cruelly cheated out of these things by ill-health, or misfortune, or even downright injustice? It is the secularist assumption that these situations are "hopeless" for the individuals concerned.

Faith sees the meaning of life from a wider perspective with implications for the here and now of every person's life. The profound conviction that we still have a place and that our life still has meaning no matter what happens to us is a conviction of faith, with its roots in the Resurrection of Christ. It is also the greatest cause for joy.

Faith's reward is not greater for those who suffer or struggle less. And the opportunity for holiness of life is not dependent on wholeness or even the fulfilment of our rights. Hope and joy can be experienced even more profoundly by those who have to suffer or struggle. Scripture's way of saying this is that God is very close to those who have heavy burdens to bear.

It is our privilege as Christians to share this hope which the world cannot give, and sometimes resents. We thank you for taking your part in this mission of love.

Yours sincerely,

+ Thomas Cardinal Williams DD, Archbishop of Wellington

+ Denis Browne DD, Bishop of Auckland

+ Peter Cullinane, Bishop of Palmerston North

+ Leonard Boyle DD, Bishop of Dunedin

+ Edward Gaines DD, Bishop of Hamilton

+ Denis Hanrahan DD, Bishop of Christchurch