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Spotlight Report

Bishops affirm teachings on sex

Vow abuse crisis won't silence them

By Michael Paulson, Globe Staff, 11/13/2003

WASHINGTON -- The Catholic bishops of the United States voted overwhelmingly yesterday to oppose any form of public approval for homosexual activity, criticized the decision by the Episcopal Church USA to ordain an openly gay bishop, and decided to launch a public campaign to convince Catholics of the wrongfulness of contraception.

Despite predictions by some that church officials would be less inclined to speak out on sexual morality after the clergy sexual abuse crisis, the bishops conference is now preparing so many statements addressing various sexual practices that one bishop suggested that some subcommittees consolidate their work to reduce the number of documents being produced.

"St. Paul told us that we have to proclaim the message in season and out of season," said Bishop Wilton D. Gregory, the president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, when asked about the potential awkwardness of issuing pronouncements on sexual morality while being criticized for failing to prevent sexual abuse. "It is clearly out of season, in the minds of some people, that the Catholic Church talk about anything."

But Gregory said the church has an obligation to continue to preach its understanding of God's will on matters such as sexual behavior.

"One of the great sorrows of this moment is that some people have said, `Now we have silenced her [the church]. She must be quiet,' " Gregory said. "That can never be the position of the Catholic Church."

The bishops yesterday wrapped up their semiannual meeting after just three days, a half day early. It was the first meeting in two years that was not dominated by the sexual abuse crisis, although the subject was mentioned every day. Tuesday afternoon was devoted to an update from the National Review Board, which is studying the scope and causes of the crisis, and from the Ad Hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse, which is overseeing the church's response.

The bishops addressed a number of nonsexual matters. Yesterday, for example, they authorized a letter to Congress urging passage of legislation that they said would allow more than 500,000 undocumented farmworkers to acquire a legal status, and they approved a statement urging a reduction in agricultural subsidies.

The bishops also adopted new guidelines for socially responsible investing by the bishops' conference and approved a document clarifying church teachings on devotional practices such as the rosary.

"Sex doesn't always come up, but in this case there's a certain nervousness about what's happening in the Anglican Church and about the acceptance of sexuality in the younger generation of Catholics," said Chester Gillis, chairman of the theology department at Georgetown University. Gillis said the contraception document is probably aimed mostly at pleasing the Vatican.

"American Catholics have largely not been very attentive to the church's teaching on sexual ethics, and I think among younger Catholics, this is really probably not going to change their minds," Gillis said. "But I'm not surprised, because I know the bishops are very nervous about the same-sex marriage situation."

The discussion of sexual issues occurred as the church's teachings are increasingly out of synch with public behavior. Just a tiny minority of Catholics heed the church's teachings on contraception, and homosexuality has been gaining acceptance in Western societies, including the United States. Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley of Boston said in an interview Tuesday that the church has become "increasingly counter cultural" in recent years.

"In many respects, we haven't spoken clearly enough, effectively enough, frequently enough," Gregory said yesterday. "If anything, the actions that we are taking today are very much needed . . . and are even late."

During their meeting yesterday, the bishops voted overwhelmingly to approve a document intended to clarify the church's reasons for opposing same-sex marriage at a time when various countries and religious bodies have granted approval to same-sex relationships and the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court is considering legalizing same-sex marriage.

Not a single bishop spoke against the document, which was approved 234 to 3. It uses very careful language, saying, "Christians must . . . oppose as immoral both homosexual acts and unjust discrimination against homosexual persons."

Some bishops wanted to add words describing sexual activity among same-sex couples as "sinful," "gravely sinful," or "objectively sinful." But that idea was abandoned after a brief debate over adding a sentence declaring "any sexual activity outside marriage with others or alone is always sinful," and the bishops began to discuss whether to vote on adding the word "genital" to be clear what form of sexual activity they were talking about.

"Part of what we're dealing with is the crisis in marriage and family life, and what we're saying is that marriage is in crisis, and it will be further devalued and eroded unless we're very strong in pointing out that same-sex unions and marriage are not the same," said Bishop J. Kevin Boland of Savannah, Ga.

In a presentation on the Episcopal Church's ordination of an openly gay bishop in New Hampshire, leading Catholic officials said they viewed the step as a violation of the Anglican Communion's teachings on sexual morality. "Obviously, the decisions they have made make it very difficult for us in our ecumenical relations," said Bishop Stephen E. Blaire of Stockton, Calif.

The decision to write a brochure explaining why Catholics should not use artificial contraception was unanimously endorsed by the bishops.

The bishops said that only 4 percent of Catholics of childbearing age use natural family planning, a church-endorsed method of achieving or avoiding pregnancy by timing sexual activity according to a woman's menstrual cycle.

At a news conference yesterday, Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Denver said that the advent of contraception has led to a raft of social problems, such as same-sex relationships, divorce, and abortion, because it has separated sex from procreation. "This contraceptive mentality which has been rampant in the last 40 to 50 years is certainly a silent killer," said Bishop Joseph F. Martino of Scranton, Pa.

Michael Paulson can be reached at mpaulson@globe.


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