A lot of information (and misinformation) has been swirling around concerning a recent report by the United Nations (UN) Committee on the Rights of the Child which criticizes the Catholic Church. Among the claims that keep being repeated is that the UN has called on the Church to “change its teaching” on homosexuality. It’s a claim repeated gloatingly by some in the media (“see, we told Catholics they were wrong, now the UN says so”), and with outrage by Catholic commentators (“how dare those liberal desk-drivers at the UN tell the Church what to do!”). But is it actually true? And, either way, what difference does it make to our efforts to reach out to the LGBT community?
The section of the report on non-discrimination begins by noting a “concern” over “the Holy See’s past statements and declarations on homosexuality,” which the authors argue “contribute to the social stigmatization of and violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender adolescents and children raised by same sex couples.” A concern, that is, not a demand for substantive change in moral teaching; nor is it even clear which “statements and declarations” the UN is referring to. Clearly it can’t be all Catholic statements on homosexuality, since some statements condemn discrimination and violence against LGBT people.
Next, the UN takes the opportunity to urge the Holy See “to make full use of its moral authority to condemn all forms of harassment, discrimination or violence against children based on their sexual orientation or the sexual orientation of their parents.”
Again, there is no demand for a change of teaching here. The Church already teaches that “every sign of unjust discrimination” against homosexual people should be avoided. It teaches that it is “deplorable that homosexual persons have been and are the object of violent malice in speech or in action” and that such treatment “deserves condemnation from the Church’s pastors wherever it occurs.” Do Catholics hear much about these teachings? Unfortunately, no. In fact, I know at least one Catholic lobbying group whose President criticized the fact that the UN even wanted to study the issue of violence against homosexuals—a stance that hardly comports with the Church’s admonition that such violence not only be studied but condemned wherever it occurs. It is easy to understand why the UN might have the impression that Catholics are opposed to basic human rights for LGBT people. In reality, by calling for the Church to respect these rights it is not calling for the Church to change its teaching but to respect the teaching it already has.
Perhaps more controversially for some American conservatives, the UN calls on the Church “to support efforts at [sic] international level for the decriminalisation of homosexuality.” Yet again, this does not require any change in Catholic teaching at all. Defending “sodomy laws” is a cause célèbre for some American Catholics who have been profoundly influenced by America’s Puritan heritage and by the harsh system of morals legislation exported by Great Britain to its colonies. But most Catholic countries did away with any laws against homosexuality a long time before Lawrence v. Texas overturned the remaining American laws in 2003. Italy abolished such laws in 1890; Poland in 1932; Argentina in 1887 and Paraguay in 1880; Belgium and Luxembourg in 1795 and Monaco in 1793. Malta, one of the most Catholic countries in the world which prohibited even divorce until 2011, abolished its anti-homosexuality laws in 1973 after it gained independence from the British Empire—it didn’t stop being Catholic, it just stopped being a British colony.
Even the English Catholic bishops themselves issued a lengthy statement in 1956 calling on the British Government to abolish its laws against homosexuality (the Government ignored it). The Vatican in 2008 issued a statement at the United Nations calling on all states to “do away with criminal penalties” against homosexuals. In 2009 it lobbied against the criminalization of homosexuality in Uganda, with Cardinal Antonelli Ennio, then-President of the Pontifical Council for the Family, affirming the Church’s position that legal approaches to homosexuality are wrong and that Catholic bishops should not support its criminalization. Even more recently, Cardinal Oswald Gracias, Archbishop of Mumbai, opposed the re-imposition of a colonial era law against homosexuality in India. “The Catholic Church is opposed to the legalisation of gay marriage,” he argued, but “has never been opposed to the decriminalisation of homosexuality, because we have never considered gay people criminals.”
Some years ago I read about the story of “Eve,” a transgender woman from Louisiana. As a child, Eve was molested and so ran away from home as a teenager:
Homeless and alone, she was forced to trade sex for survival. During this time, she was arrested and charged with a Crime Against Nature, an archaic Louisiana law originally designed to penalize sex acts associated with gays and lesbians … Eve, who asked that we not reveal her real name or age, spent two years in prison. During her time behind bars she was raped and contracted HIV. Upon release, she was forced to register in the state’s sex offender database. The words “sex offender” now appear on her driver’s license. “I have tried desperately to change my life,” she says, but her status as a sex offender stands in the way of housing and other programs. “When I present my ID for anything,” she says, “the assumption is that you’re a child molester or a rapist. The discrimination is just ongoing and ongoing.”
Of course, once you’re a registered sex offender and you can’t find a job, it’s probably not easy to get health insurance, especially not insurance that covers your pre-existing HIV contracted after being raped in prison. I’d encourage any Catholic who thinks laws against homosexuality are a good way to promote “family values” (much less to evangelize the LGBT community!) to read the stories of people like “Eve.”
Whether individual Catholics agree or disagree with the Holy See’s opposition to such laws, the fact is that opposition to anti-homosexual legislation, while admittedly not among the Church’s priorities, has for some time been the settled position of the Catholic Church. Individual Catholics may or may not be at liberty to disagree with this position, but they are not at liberty to suggest that the Church’s position is anything other than it is. For Catholic commentators to claim that support for decriminalization of homosexuality, for an end to violence, harassment, and discrimination against LGBT people requires a “change” in the Church’s teaching, gives the false impression that the Church’s teaching currently stands opposed to these things. It does not, and given that many LGBT people are already profoundly alienated from the Church, it’s a false impression that we must work to avoid.
There is certainly much to regret in the UN’s report. When dealing with other issues (e.g. abortion) it does seem to call for a change in the Church’s teaching, and that is to be deplored. Moreover, the UN seems incapable of distinguishing between the Catholic Church and the Holy See. The Holy See is a small city-state in the middle of Rome. It is the diplomatic hub of the Church, but is not a global mind-control machine that dictates the contents of every textbook in every Catholic school in the world, along with every action performed by every Catholic bishop, priest and layperson. But, on the matter of homosexuality, nothing the report calls for requires any change in Church teaching, or even necessarily a change in the substance of the Holy See’s diplomatic policy. It merely calls Catholics to be faithful to the beliefs we already espouse.
Aaron Taylor is a Ph.D. student in Ethics at Boston College. He previously studied at the Universities of London and Oxford, and worked for a London-based research institute dedicated to raising the quality of thinking about public policy in civil society.
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