Theological succour for bigots everywhere: The Vatican's new catechism pointedly excludes women

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IN NOVEMBER 1992, after 359 years, the Catholic Church finally admitted it was wrong to condemn Galileo as a heretic for arguing that the Earth was not the centre of the universe. How many centuries will it take before the Vatican acknowledges the equally historic wrong it has perpetrated against lesbians and gay men?

In medieval times, 'abominable sodomites' were burnt alive at the stake on the orders of the papal inquisitors. As recently as the early 19th century, homosexuals were still being strung up on gallows in Britain with the blessing of the Catholic bishops. This persecution isn't over yet. The Vatican is still crucifying queers.

The new catechism, which sets out the basic doctrines of the church, is its first major revision since 1566, yet it continues to reflect the pre-scientific ignorance and anti-homosexual prejudice of the medieval era. It describes homosexual acts as a 'grave depravity' and 'intrinsically disordered'. It states that lesbian and gay relationships are 'contrary to the natural law . . . . They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved.'

Characterising the homosexual condition as 'a trial' for most lesbians and gay men but never acknowledging prejudice as the reason, the catechism concludes: 'Homosexual persons are called to chastity. By the virtues of self-mastery . . . they can and should gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection.' In other words, lesbians and gay men are flawed human beings who can only redeem themselves by renouncing the feelings that are integral to their sexual and emotional orientation.

The one concession to liberal opinion is that lesbians and gay men should be 'accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity'. But this apparent liberalism is immediately contradicted by the doctrine that only 'unjust' discrimination is to be avoided, which implies that some forms of anti-gay discrimination are justifiable according to Catholic theology.

However much the Catholic Church may deny it, its declarations offer theological legitimacy and a veneer of respectability to anti-gay hatred. They are the latest in a long line of anti-gay pronouncements by the church. In July 1992, the Vatican issued a proclamation authorised by Pope John Paul II entitled Some Considerations Concerning The Catholic Response To Legislative Proposals On The Non-Discrimination Of Homosexual Persons.

This document was designed to mobilise Catholic opinion against equal rights legislation. It describes homosexuality as an 'objective disorder' and a 'tendency ordered towards an intrinsic moral evil'. Rejecting the concept of homosexual 'human rights', it asserts there is 'no right' to homosexuality, adding that the civil liberties of lesbians and gay men can be 'legitimately limited for objectively disordered external conduct'.

Most shocking of all, the document suggests that when lesbians and gay men demand civil rights, 'neither the Church nor society should be surprised when irrational and violent reactions increase'. This implies that by asking for human rights, lesbians and gay men encourage homophobic prejudice and violence; we bring hatred upon ourselves, and are responsible for our own suffering.

More recently, in February, the Pope attacked the European Parliament's support for the repeal of anti-gay legislation in member states. Condemning homosexuality as an 'aberrant deviation', he described proposals to remove discrimination as an 'attack on the family' and accused MEPs of 'inappropriately conferring an institutional value on deviant behaviour.'

This Vatican offensive against homosexual equality is threatening basic rights worldwide. In Italy, Bologna city council introduced an equal opportunities policy to give homosexual couples access to municipal housing on the same basis as heterosexual partners. The Catholic Church responded, with the backing of the neo-fascist MSI party, by announcing plans to mount a legal challenge.

Cardinal John O'Connor, in the United States, has ordered that gay Catholics dying of Aids should be refused the last rites unless they repent of their 'sin' and renounce their partners. His diocese has supported a ban on Irish Catholic lesbians and gay men marching in New York's annual St Patrick's Day parade. In Nicaragua, Cardinal Obando y Bravo has attacked homosexuality as 'immoral' and publicly aligned the Catholic Church with the recriminalisation of gay sexuality by President Chamorro's right-wing coalition. Article 204 of the new criminal code stipulates three years' imprisonment for anyone who 'induces, promotes, propagandises or practices in scandalous form concubinage between two people of the same sex'.

Here in Britain, at the height of the recent age of consent debate, Cardinal Hume declared that 'homosexual genital acts, even between consenting adults, are morally wrong'. He urged Parliament to be 'cautious'. This stance was symptomatic of the Catholic Church's support for a wide range of legislationwhich renders lesbians and gay men second-class citizens. Under a 'segregationist' legal system which treats us differently and unequally compared with heterosexual people, we can be denied custody of our children, sacked from work, arrested for consenting sexual relations, and refused the right to marry the person we love. All these things can be done to us, with the full sanction of the law, and with the moral approval of the Catholic bishops.

The Catholic Church pays lip service to opposing victimisation, without doing one practical thing to challenge homophobia. Instead, it requires all Catholics to learn and follow the teachings of a catechism which, whatever its intention, gives theological succour to bigots everywhere.

The author is a member of the lesbian and gay rights group OutRage.