Wednesday, November 12, 2003

The nation’s Catholic bishops overwhelmingly voted yesterday to endorse a proposed booklet outlining why same-sex unions should not be given the legal equivalent of marriage.

The vote, which was 234 yes, three no and three abstaining, was one of the last votes at the annual meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill.

The basic thrust of the booklet will be to “enable [Catholics] to defend marriage” in a lucid fashion, said bishops who haggled for almost an hour on various amendments to a resolution approving the document’s creation.

A few changes, such as adding the word “genital” before the words “sexual activity” were implemented throughout the document to erase any ambiguity.

“This is a brief question-and-answer pamphlet; this is not a moral theology textbook,” said Cardinal Roger Mahoney of Los Angeles. “The question is whether denying marriage to homosexual persons demonstrates unjust discrimination and a lack of respect for them as persons?”

Bishop John C. Nienstedt of New Ulm, Minn., pegged the document as “serving a great purpose.”

“In the Diocese of New Ulm, there is great confusion over this issue,” he said. “High school and college-age students have the idea it’s a human right to express their sexual feelings and desires. We need to do a full-court press on this.”

The document, which spends several pages on the nature of marriage, explains that only the “natural complementarity of male and female” makes marriage possible.

“Because homosexuals cannot enter into a true conjugal union with each other, it is wrong to equate their relationship to marriage,” it says.

In a reference aimed toward politicians, the document explained that laws “shape patterns of thought and behavior, particularly about what is socially permissible and acceptable.”

“In effect, giving same-sex unions the legal status of marriage would grant official public approval to homosexual activity and would treat it as if it were morally neutral,” it says.

Although the bishops did not refer to the U.S. Supreme Court decision in June that decriminalized sodomy, the document said marriage has been “devalued” and “weakened,” which has “already exacted too high a social cost.”

According to Catholic teaching, any sexual activity outside of marriage is sinful. Homosexual acts have been additionally labeled as “intrinsically evil” and “disordered” by the Vatican.

USCCB President Wilton Gregory at a press conference said bishops had to speak out on the issue because of increasing threats to the institution of marriage.

“In many respects, we haven’t spoken clearly enough, effectively enough, frequently enough,” he said. There have been “other voices speaking and instructing and misinforming people so if anything, the actions we are taking today are very much needed and many would say even late.”

When asked how the bishops could speak out on sexual morality while at the same time facing the biggest sexual-abuse scandal in the USCCB’s 214-year history, Bishop Gregory defended the document.

“St. Paul told us we have to proclaim the message in season and out of season,” he said. “It’s clearly out of season in the minds of some people that the Catholic Church talk about anything; that we talk about immigrants, rights of workers, human sexuality, relationships, honesty.

“One of the great sorrows of this moment is that some people say: ‘Now we have silenced her. She must be quiet.’ That can never be the position of the Catholic Church. Admitting our faults as we have admitted them and will have to admit them in the future: of errors in judgment, mistakes, difficulties, problems; yes, the church is very human. But she must run by the passion and the prophetic office given her by Christ. And that means teaching clearly, honestly, forthrightly the truth of the Gospel even when it’s not welcome.”

The document, called “Between Man and Woman: Questions and Answers About Marriage and Same-Sex Unions,” can be viewed at

In other business, bishops also expressed consternation with the Episcopal Church — a church body with whom Catholics have had close ecumenical ties through the Anglican/Roman Catholic International Commission — for its decision to consecrate as bishop an actively homosexual priest. Canon V. Gene Robinson was made a bishop-co-adjutor of New Hampshire on Nov. 2.

“Do we quit dialoguing with them?” asked Bishop Alexander J. Brunett of Seattle, a member of the USCCB’s committee on ecumenical and religious affairs. “The Holy Father has said we must keep dialoguing … but sometimes it is very difficult work.

“This is an Episcopal problem because they don’t have any structure to change what they did. … They have no [pope]. … We do and we can resolve issues of this nature,” he added.

The rest of the 70-million-member Anglican Communion differs with the Episcopal Church, which is but one of 38 Anglican provinces, he said. The ARCIC meets in Rome next week to discuss how to react to the Episcopal consecration issue.

San Francisco Archbishop William Levada was less optimistic that American Catholic bishops will see eye to eye with their Episcopal counterparts any time soon.

“The vote on Robinson was about 55 percent majority and 45 percent minority,” he said. “It seems to me the trajectory is not greater convergence, but greater divergence, at least with [the Episcopal Church].”

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