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social sciences

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In taking this action, Benedict was affirming policies that he helped to formulate during the reign of his predecessor John Paul II (Karol Wojtyla, 1920-2005; elected Pope, October 16, 1978). Appointed Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1981, Ratzinger wrote On the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons, a Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which was issued with papal endorsement on October 1, 1986. The longest and harshest critique of homosexuality to date, this Letter characterized the propensity to love others of the same sex as a "strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil."

Further, this document demanded that all the faithful oppose any civil legislation that would grant civil rights (including freedom from job discrimination) to homosexual persons. Individuals inclined to homosexuality ideally would live in isolation, imitating Christ's example by willingly accepting suffering. Because of their supposedly inherent propensity to sin, homosexuals were to be discouraged from meeting one another except in situations in which the evil of their "affliction" was emphasized.

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In addition, the letter maintained that the proliferation of homosexuality "may seriously threaten the lives and well-being of a large number of people." Generally, the latter assertion has been interpreted as an allusion to AIDS, but this remark may refer also to the proliferation of violence and breakdown of social order, which, according to the letter, would inevitably result from legalization of homosexual acts. The letter on homosexual persons develops ideas presented more briefly in the Declaration on Certain Questions of Sexual Ethics, issued by the Congregation of the Doctrine of Faith on December 29, 1975.

Beginning in the 1990s, John Paul II condemned homosexuality with increasing frequency. On July 31, 1999, he ordered the Americans Father Robert Nugent and Sister Jeannine Gramick to halt their pastoral work in the gay and lesbian communities because they did not emphasize sufficiently "the intrinsic evil of homosexual acts and the objective disorder of the homosexual inclination."

After 1994, when the European Parliament encouraged member states to legalize same-sex unions, John Paul spoke frequently about the "attack on the family" allegedly posed by gay marriage. On August 1, 2003, he issued a letter to all Catholic bishops requiring that educational programs in all Catholic schools and churches make it clear that all gay unions are an "attack upon God."

Papal Encyclicals on Sexuality, Issued during the Modern Era

Since the late nineteenth century, the papacy has been preoccupied with sexual matters. A series of encyclicals, issued since 1880, articulated a distinctive Catholic system of sexual ethics. According to these encyclicals, any physical expressions of love outside of (and, under some circumstances, within) Catholic marriage are condemned. None of these documents explicitly name homosexual acts, although they may be implied, for example in the "basest evils," discussed by Pius X.

In the first of these encyclicals, On Christian Marriage, issued on February 10, 1880, Pope Leo XIII asserted that civil disorder and widespread crime would result from the replacement of the sacrament of marriage by a civil union, which could be terminated by divorce. Further, he maintained that carnal lust could have no role in Catholic marriages.

In the encyclical On Chaste Marriage, issued on December 31, 1930, Pius XI affirmed more strongly the dangers posed by lust. Thus, he asserted that sex, even within the context of marriage, should never be utilized as a source of pleasure, and he condemned nonreproductive sex as a manifestation of a grave moral disorder. On Holy Virginity, issued on May 25, 1954 by Pius XII, placed virginity above marriage and emphasized the negative aspects of all sexuality, affirming that sexual intercourse should take place only within marriage with the explicit goal of procreation.

Among the documents issued by Vatican Council II, Gaudium et spes (Joy and Hope, December 7, 1965) presented a somewhat more positive view of sex, describing it as a source of joy and consolation within a monogamous, consecrated Catholic marriage.

In On the Regulation of Birth (July 25, 1968), Paul VI presented a "mixed" message about sexuality. He recognized that pleasure derived from sexual acts could contribute to the solidity of the family, and he authorized the "rhythm" method of birth control. Yet, he also prohibited artificial birth control, praised the ideal of chastity, and warned against any sexual acts outside of marriages consecrated by the Catholic Church.

John Paul II and Benedict have reverted to many of the ideas concerning the moral dangers posed by sexuality that were emphasized by modern popes before Vatican II. However, they have focused specifically upon the supposed evils of homosexuality, which had not been explicitly considered in the encyclicals of their predecessors.

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