Of Lost Sheep and Wavering Shepherds

What is the duty of a Catholic bishop regarding the moral teaching of the Church about same-sex attraction and homosexual acts? It’s no different than his duty towards the entirety of the Church’s moral teaching: he is to preach and defend the truths that are found in God’s revelation and in the natural law, and are authoritatively proposed by the Church for our acceptance and belief in view of our salvation.

Moral truths teach us how we are to live in this world so as to live forever in the world to come. The bishop, conscious of the doubts and difficulties plaguing believers in our aggressively secularist society, must respond to these difficulties with the eternal truths of the Gospel.

As Vatican II taught, “The bishops should present Christian doctrine in a manner adapted to the needs of the times, that is to say, in a manner that will respond to the difficulties and questions by which people are especially burdened and troubled. They should also guard that doctrine, teaching the faithful to defend and propagate it.” (Christus Dominus 13)

This responsibility was restated in the 2004 Directory for the Pastoral Ministry of Bishops approved by St. John Paul II: “As an authoritative teacher of the faith, the Bishop sets revealed truth at the heart of his pastoral action as the primary criterion with which to evaluate opinions and ideas emerging from the Christian community and from civil society. At the same time, he offers hope and certainty by shedding the light of truth upon the people’s journey through life. . . .His pastoral activity is authentic when it is anchored in truth.” [57]

Our journey through life will be perilous if we follow the wrong path. Christianity teaches what we’ve been given by Christ, “the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” This way needs to be confidently proclaimed by shepherds if the flock is to find and follow the path to eternal life.

Alas, two of our shepherds have recently spoken in a way that undermines the Church’s teaching on the immorality of the homosexual lifestyle, claiming that the aggrieved feelings of some people, who are “offended,” are signs that the Church should change her teaching.

Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego spoke with America magazine this summer. Reporter Kevin Clarke wrote of that conversation:

While the Catechism of the Catholic Church on homosexuality and other teaching on pastoral care for LGBT Catholics deplores violence or unjust discrimination against people who are gay or lesbian, it also describes homosexual acts as “intrinsically disordered.” Bishop McElroy thinks that phrasing ought to be reconsidered. “The word ‘disordered’ to most people is a psychological term,” he explains. “In Catholic moral theology it is a philosophical term that is automatically misunderstood in our society as a psychological judgment.” He thought the term is an example of “very destructive language that I think we should not use pastorally.”

The Bad Shepherd by Pieter Breughel II, c. 1616 [Private collection]
The Bad Shepherd by Pieter Breughel II, c. 1616 [Private collection]

Bishop McElroy fails here to address whether this teaching is true. If so, any repudiation of the language concerning intrinsically disordered acts would likely lead people to conclude (wrongly, but understandably) that the Church no longer considers sodomy to be a mortal sin.

A second prelate, Bishop Vincent Long of Parramatta, Australia, has joined Bishop McElroy. He gave a lecture in August during which he said:

We cannot be a strong moral force and an effective prophetic voice in society if we are simply defensive, inconsistent, and divisive with regards to certain social issues. We cannot talk about the integrity of creation, the universal and inclusive love of God, while at the same time colluding with the forces of oppression in the ill treatment of racial minorities, women, and homosexual persons. It won’t wash with young people, especially when we purport to treat gay people with love and compassion and yet define their sexuality as “intrinsically disordered.”

Thus we have two Catholic bishops who publicly assert that it is destructive, defensive, divisive, and lacking in love and compassion to preach the simple truth that sodomy is a disordered use of the sexual faculty and is thus is a mortal sin. Or to say that any inclinations to commit acts of sodomy are likewise disordered and are to be resisted, as such inclinations are not in accord with God’s plan for mankind.

We appreciate the beauty of God’s creation when we act in accord with our nature and in accord with God’s positive commands regarding the use of our bodies. To violate God’s order in sexual matters is serious, and becomes even more grave when those acts are intrinsically disordered because they frustrate the procreative end of sexuality and do not promote mutual assistance – rather mutual harm – by cooperating with the other person in sinful behavior.

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith reaffirmed the Church’s teaching in a 2003 document approved by St. John Paul II: “Homosexual unions are also totally lacking in the conjugal dimension, which represents the human and ordered form of sexuality. Sexual relations are human when and insofar as they express and promote the mutual assistance of the sexes in marriage and are open to the transmission of new life.”

Pope Francis, in Amoris laetitia, concurs: “There are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family.” [251]

People unhappy with the Church’s teaching on homosexuality should be the object of our special care and solicitude, and should be guided to see that the true root of any unhappiness in their lives is not God’s law, but rather refusal to embrace that law, even in the midst of turbulence and temptation. Mercy and joy are gifts from God – and we experience them when we turn towards Him, not away.

True shepherds know that and should help their flocks to see it, not put further obstacles in their way.

The Rev. Gerald E. Murray, J.C.D. is a canon lawyer and the pastor of Holy Family Church in New York City. His new book (with Diane Montagna), Calming the Storm: Navigating the Crises Facing the Catholic Church and Society, is now available.