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social sciences

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Roman Catholicism  
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This risk makes even more courageous the statement issued in late 2003 by nearly two dozen Chicago priests denouncing the Vatican's anti-gay rhetoric as "vile" and "toxic." The priests said they were particularly disturbed by Vatican documents that called gay sex and same-sex marriage as "intrinsically disordered," "a troubling moral and social phenomenon," and "harmful to the proper development of society." Such language, the priests said, is driving gay men and lesbians from the Church.

Political Stances

The Church claims that its theological doctrines are immutable and universal, but it is quite adept at adapting its social policies and political stances to changing political climates. Thus, the Roman Catholic position on civil rights for glbtq people varies somewhat from country to country, depending largely on the power of the Church to shape political realities in particular jurisdictions.

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While the Church officially asserts that homosexual persons are to be treated with respect for their human dignity, going so far as to declare in the Catechism that "Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided," its actions belie its assertions. The fact is that the Roman Catholic Church has never taken the lead in advocating human rights for sexual minorities. Indeed, the Church has vigorously opposed almost every initiative that would recognize the civil rights of glbtq people, including the repeal of sodomy laws, and has declared that discrimination against glbtq people is sometimes justified.

In a directive to American Bishops in 1992, entitled "Some Considerations Concerning the Catholic Response to Legislative Proposals on the Non-Discrimination of Homosexual Persons," the Vatican specifically condemned anti-discrimination laws, and in effect blamed violence against homosexuals on the political activism of the glbtq rights movement. It declared that when "civil legislation is introduced to protect behavior to which no one has any conceivable right, neither the Church nor society at large should be surprised when other distorted notions and practices gain ground, and irrational and violent reactions increase."

The Church has tepidly endorsed laws that prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation only in jurisdictions where such laws have broad popular appeal and would be adopted regardless of its endorsement; and in those cases, it has worked to limit their application. For example, following the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court's 2003 decision that denying the rights and responsibilities of marriage to gay and lesbian couples violated the Massachusetts state constitution, the Bishops of the state hinted that they might endorse, at least tacitly, civil unions for gay and lesbian couples, but only as a measure to prevent gay marriage in the state.

The Roman Catholic Church has increasingly diminished political power in Europe, where its pronouncements on sexual issues are generally not taken seriously except in a few countries such as Ireland, Poland, and Italy. In 2000, for example, the Church successfully pressured the conservative Italian government to withdraw its support for a large gay pride celebration, "World Pride Rome 2000"; however, when the Pope himself attacked the gathering, the response was such that the celebration grew to exceed original projections and became a great success. Because he was seen as attempting to stifle the free speech rights of homosexuals and limit their rights of assembly, and because of his intemperate language, the Pope actually lost political credibility in Europe.

In North and South America, on the other hand, the Church retains enormous political power, although the recent scandal of the sexual abuse of children by priests may have diluted the Church's influence in the area of sexual morality. Moreover, North American Catholic laypeople increasingly reject the Church's political positions on a number of issues, from capital punishment to birth control to the use of condoms to prevent the transmission of HIV.

As the largest religious denomination in the United States, the Catholic Church unquestionably wields considerable political power. But it is not clear that there is a Roman Catholic voting bloc, at least in regard to glbtq rights. Roman Catholics as a group do not appear to differ significantly from the population as a whole in regard to gay issues; they may even be slightly more supportive of gay and lesbian rights than the population as a whole. Certainly, they are significantly more supportive than are evangelical Christians.

Recent Political Developments

Two recent documents issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith have raised serious issues about the role of the Church in the civic arena of secular states, but they may be more indicative of the Vatican's frustration with the political gains of the glbtq movement than any real threat to the movement.

In November 2002, the Congregation issued a letter entitled "Doctrinal Note on Some Questions Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Political Life," which declared that voters and legislators are not free to support parties and laws that are inconsistent with the teachings of the Church.

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