LGBT Rights and the UN: What the Church Does Not Teach

Dome of St. Peter'sA 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.

aarontaylor50Aaron 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.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

26 thoughts on “LGBT Rights and the UN: What the Church Does Not Teach

  1. I agree society needs to stay behind cruelty to homosexuals……..and EVERY PERSON….how about the more serious issue of battered kids. And that the Church hasn’t spoken much about this issue. However, if you’ve been a regular at Mass on Sundays you’ll have noticed…..or not….that no moral issue is EVER discussed at homily time. We might hear the priest or deacon in a still small voice uttering something about the upcoming anti abortion rally but never anything on serious moral issues like living together before marriage, chastity and such.

    So….I think any homilies regarding the problems (many serious and worth their time to speak about!) of homosexuals being abused or even about keeping chaste will not be preached or spoken about……at least in this current culture.

  2. I think the author is being naive. The UN is a very liberal organization which is fully onboard with the sexual revolution zeitgeist. They still have some prudence left when it comes to dealing with religion but it’s naive to think that their words were just reaffirming of Catholic teaching. The whole spirit of it was that because of church teaching people are stigmatized. What they mean by documents and statements is really our teaching. When has the Holy See in modern times called for criminalizing or stigmatizing homosexuals? What the Church has done in recent decades is reiterate her teaching regarding this subject. Just that is enough cause to annoy the UN and other organizations. The Church would do better to focus on her own children first so that at least a few of them can be the kind of Christian diplomats and statesmen we need as a leaven in society. Bishops and priests need to be celebrating the Eucharist and serving dioceses. Unfortunately Catholic politicians tend to be the worst at representing the Church. We ought to work on that.

    • Thanks for your comment, Jose.

      I think its important to distinguish between what the report actually says and what the authors of the report may think but did not clearly say. On the latter, you may or may not be right.

      Prescinding from the question of whether the Holy See itself has issued any statements stigmatizing homosexuals or calling for homosexuality to be criminalized, the fact is that Catholic bishops in some African countries have supported criminalization. Sad, but true. Given that the UN doesn’t appear to be capable of distinguishing between the Church as such, national churches, and the Holy See as a diplomatic entity, I think it’s jumping the gun to assume the UN is calling on the Church to change it’s teaching when it does not actually say so.

  3. Not even sure the abortion comment was a call for a change. While the word “permitted” was unfortunate, the UN referenced “canon law,” not the catechism. Now, who knows how well the UN folk know these distinctions, but to me it sounded like what they were talking about was the excommunications in the context of the Brazil case. It would be one thing (and impossible) to say abortion is ever ok (though I’ll point out that there are good arguments that life of the mother procedures are almost never morally “direct” abortion; see Grisez and Lysaught). But it would be another to say that the automatic excommunication (a shaky concept in general that even people like Ed Peters support getting rid of in general) should not apply to cases of rape, incest, life of the mother, or other such difficult circumstances of potential duress. The canonical and the moral/ethical are two different questions. The truly awful thing in the Brazil case was how that bishop (later condemned by his bishops’ conference) turned what should have been a tragic private situation into a culture-war show-down, and the poor girl and her doomed twins into ideological political pawns, using the canonical penalty as the justification for the public spectacle he raised. If adding some more wiggle room to the canons (not the same as morality) could help avoid such situations in the future, I’d be all for it. The UN’s recommendations were generally solid, yet many Catholics are circling the wagons to avoid reforms to protect children from being molested (as their preferred solution, scapegoating the gays, is already in place…)

  4. When you label LGBT people as disordered as well as say that gay marriage threatens the whole of civilization at large, such words incite violence and there can be no friendship as you would like. The same is true when the Catholic Church encourages their fanatics to scream murderers or baby killers at those who seek abortion or who work at abortion clinics.

    • Disordered is a technical term meaning that homosexual behavior is not ordered to sex’s natural end. The reason why men and women are physically different and the reason why we even have sex drives is for the purpose of procreating. For instance, with eating, its purpose is nutrition. If I continually eat in a way that ignores the nutrition part (for example bulimia) but only to the pleasure part (I enjoy tasting good food) my eating is a disordered act. Such behavior forgets the very purpose, the very reason, for the act. Thus it is disordered – not ordered to its proper end. “Disordered” is theological-speak that lay people often don’t understand.

      The Church does not teach that homosexuality threatens the whole of civilization at large. She teaches that redefining marriage does and that is because marriage is and has always been about human flourishing. Marriage is about creating and raising children. The family is the basis for civilization. It is the most stable way to bring up the next generation. When you start redefining that, you threaten all of civilization. Marriage has always been defined as something necessarily between a man and a woman. It went without saying because marriage between the same genders is completely divorced from marriage’s purpose. Such a foundational change in the understanding of marriage will have repercussions far and wide.

      The Church does not encourage its members to ‘scream murderers or baby killers.’ Some rogue folks might do that but that is most definitely not what the Church teaches her followers to do. Or perhaps you do not understand the difference between the Westboro Baptist people and the Catholic Church?

      I really think everyone needs to understand that there are two distinct views on human sexuality. The Church has the traditional one based in reason and divine revelation. The modern understanding is based on Kinsey and Masters and Johnson among others. It is a very new concept of it that has swept the 1st world very quickly. I think both sides feel threatened by the other’s point of view. But we should all remember we are humans together on this planet. We have more in common than not in common. We should work to humanize each other as much as possible and not demonize the other. God is love and with God all things are possible, even friendship between people who have such diverse understanding of the the world.

      • I was hoping that someone would seriously address that person’s charges. Thank you. Let us pray for reconciliation.

      • I’m convinced that the confusion and outrage is not so much a dissonance between secular and theological uses of “disordered,” but rather between uses of “homosexuality.” It seems pretty clear to me that by “homosexual inclinations” the catechism is talking only about temptations to same-sex sex-acts.

        I don’t think secular people are stupid; they’d understand that if we think a given act is sinful, that desire for it is thus “temptation,” and that of course we might call Temptation of any sort disordered (though why homosexual temptations are singled out might be asked, and a double standard conservatives sometimes seem to have of “unnatural vs natural temptations” might come up.)

        Rather, I think the problem is that the Church has been vague about how “homosexual inclinations” (presumably an inclination to certain types of acts) maps onto the modern construct of sexual orientation, a vagueness conservatives jump on to justify homophobia and the experience of a gay orientation generally.

        I don’t think people generally care that much about religious teachings against certain acts (say, eating pork) as long as the group in question doesn’t try to impose them on anyone else. They might find them silly or quaint or even psychologically stunting, but not odious or contemptible if people are free to leave the group and it’s all voluntarily undertaken anyway.

        What is going to bite the Church (or any religious group) is when it looks like you’re putting the anathema on PEOPLE as such (by condemning a class or group that they may be a part of socially), or on relationships (abstracted from any sin they may contain or facilitate). Or try to politically “enforce” a morality on the populace at large.

        “They hate us for our teachings!” is simplistic. They don’t seem to hate the Amish or Hasidic Jews (though there might be fears about the psychological atmosphere of “closed” groups). And they don’t seem to hate Pope Francis. The difference is in approach and tone.

      • Sex is what I staying within the law, no rape, no child nor sex with minors nor anyone nor anything that cannot give consent, decide is its natural end. Not you nor any church gets to decide that for me. As far as I am concerned Fr. Pachwa’s march to the west coast for life harassing pro choice people, defamining my San Francisco Bay Area as some Sodom and Gomorrah is exactly like the Westboro Baptist Church. People eat for pleasure, people have sex for pleasure. If you choose to be utilitarian in both areas you probably think that me watching cooking shows is engaging in food porn. I don’t give a hoot as long as you don’t impose your dysfunction values onto me. Live and let live, impose and I’ll fight you like the cultists that you are. By the way, the scandal of that poor girl victim of rape whose helpers in her abortion were excommunicated was the the prime motivator in then newly elected president Dilma of Brazil to loosen the statisticians abortion laws in Brazil. Good for her.

      • As I said, this is interesting but irrelevant to what I was talking about.

        It seems like you just want to rant generally.

      • Cults that commit and try to defend those behind heinous acts with statements such blame the individuals, not the holy church are provoking and force one to rant in response, if the person has any decency in them.

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  6. Aaron, I wrote a letter to Archbishop Francis Chullikatt about my observations about the news surrounding the UN’s report as well as the regrettable reaction of too many apologists. Perhaps you could do the same.

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  8. The UN entity in question is a committee of child care experts commissioned to see if the Holy See was living up to its commitments as a signatory of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Included in the evidence presented to the committee is the case of a 12-year-old girl in Brazil, who had been raped and impregnated. Her mother found health caregivers who legally terminated the pregnancy, whereupon the mother and the doctors were excommunicated by the local archbishop. I doubt if any reputable child-care expert on the face of the earth would state, it’s in the best interests of a child in these circumstances to be compelled to carry the pregnancy to term.

    • That’s interesting but unrelated to the Church’s teaching on homosexuality or the question of whether the UN asked the Church to change it.

      Incidentally, the incident in Brazil happened in Brazil, not in the Holy See, which is in the middle of Italy, so it would be more appropriately considered within the context of a report on whether Brazil is living up to its commitments as a signatory of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

  9. Aaron, I missed this when you first posted it.

    The key thing to look at is the para about diverse forms of the family and telling the Holy See She must recognize them. In the UN parlance this was created precisely to promote the homosexual “family.” So, when the Committee tells the Church to accept this, they are telling the Church to change Her teaching on homosexuality. The good news is that the phrase is falling out of favor and the GA has started to reject it.

    The other para is the one on getting over taboos on adolescent sexuality. Though the report puts this in the context of information and education about pregnancy, HIV/AIDS etc, this is also a reference to the Church to accept homosexual acts.

    Lastly, since you made a veiled reference to me in your post [that wicked Catholic leader who rejected a UN report on violence against homosexuals]; the reason my group, along with the Holy See, opposed this report is not because we support the harm of homosexuals or that we favor such harm. It is rather because of a reason related to something called customary international law. We, along with the Church, oppose any reference to “sexual orientation and gender identity” for the same reason the gay lobby supports it, because its inclusion in any UN document, no matter how laudable, is used to bootstrap new human rights ideas. This has been attempted with the term “reproductive health”. The Holy See even opposes its use in a document about “Summary execution and extra-judicial killings.”

    So, to get back the previous point. The Committee did direct the Church to change her teachings on homosexuality by directing Her to accept the homosexual family, whcih the Church cannot do.

    • Thanks for your comment.

      I’m not sure I buy the idea that recognizing the existence of diverse forms of household/family structure as a matter of fact, and recognizing that they should have some rights (since “rights” as are always legal constructions anyway), is the same as saying that those structures are morally good or the same as asking the Church to change her moral teaching on how the family *should* be structured, any more than by recognizing, say, the civil rights of Muslims to religious freedom, the Church changes her teaching on the moral obligation of all men and societies toward the true religion. I’d have to do more reading, but I suspect it might be the case that we’re just going to have to agree to disagree on that.

      Likewise on the extra-judicial executions and summary killings thing. I guess as a gay man, my bias is in favor or not being summarily killed, so I doubt we’ll agree. But thanks for pointing out that your organization’s stance was simply the same as the Holy See’s.

      The thinly-veiled reference was veiled precisely because I didn’t see the point in slating a fellow Christian or Christian organization openly, which is why I didn’t link to anything mentioning you or your organization, but thanks for chiming in with the extra info all the same.


      • The committee was directing the universal church under its hard law treaty obligations to accept family structures which the church would consider immoral. That’s pretty strong.

        Regarding summary execution etc. I urge you not to be so flip. The church does not support the killing of homosexuals. The church opposes the introduction of language — sexual orientation and gender identity— that would be used to advance a new category of nondiscrimination that would be used to impose samesex marriage and much else. The reasons the church opposes this language is very important.

      • I did not claim that the Holy See “supports” the killing of homosexuals. I did not say that you did either. I understand the points you are making. I simply said we are not going to agree.

      • I am not sure what “we are not going to agree on”? Is it the killing of gay men extrajudicially? I am not sure though I suspect we do agree on the extrajudicial killing of gay men. Anyway, what “are we not going to agree on”?

      • Austin, you made your made point. I thanked you for it. We’re evidently not going to agree here.

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