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The Roman Catholic Church, the largest Christian denomination in the United States with an estimated 62 million members, has welcomed celibate gay and lesbian people into its church life but increasingly is becoming more intolerant even of this population.
The Roman Catholic Church is the largest Christian denomination in the world, with approximately 1.2 billion members across the globe. With its origins in the earliest days of Christianity, the Church traces its leadership––in the person of the Pope––to St. Peter, identified by Jesus as “the rock” on which the Church would be built.
The Catholic Church in the United States numbers over 70 million members, and is organized in 33 Provinces, each led by an archbishop. Each bishop answers directly to the Pope, not to an archbishop. Those Provinces are further divided into 195 dioceses, each led by a bishop. At the base of the organizational structure are local parishes, headed by a pastor, appointed by the local bishop. The Conference of Catholic Bishops in the United States meets semi-annually.
As part of a global organization with its institutional center at the Vatican, the Catholic Church in America is shaped by worldwide societal and cultural trends. It is further shaped by leadership that is entirely male, with women excluded from the priesthood and thus from key leadership roles.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church, a text which contains dogmas and teachings of the Church, names “homosexual acts” as “intrinsically immoral and contrary to the natural law,” and names “homosexual tendencies” as “objectively disordered.” While the Catholic Church does not consider “homosexual orientation” sinful in and of itself, it does have a very negative attitude toward it. The 1986 Letter states, “Although the particular inclination of the homosexual person is not a sin, it is a more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil; and thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder.”
The fact that Catholicism does not consider the “inclination” sinful is very different from more fundamentalist Christian churches. It is one of the reasons that the Catholic Church has not officially approved of reparative therapy. The Catechism further states that “Homosexual persons are called to chastity.” However, the doctrine also specifies that, “Such persons must be accepted with respect and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided.”
The actual experience of LGBTQ parishioners can vary widely across dioceses and parishes. Many Catholic communities reach out to LGBTQ members to offer as full of a welcome as possible within the limits of a Church policy that does not approve of same-sex relationships, even committed ones. Other parishes have denied membership to LGBTQ individuals and families. There have also been recent instances of LGBTQ employees in the United States being dismissed from Catholic schools and parishes following the celebration of a same-sex couple’s marriage.
There is no official policy regarding transgender individuals in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, though doctrinal teachings clearly equate birth anatomy with gender. The Vatican’s Extraordinary Synod, convened in October 2014, debated several issues related to LGBTQ inclusion but did not address questions regarding transgender church members. However, the experience of transgender Catholics varies depending on their communities, (Tia Pesando, a transgender woman, recently made news when she was accepted to a Carmelite Sisters’ novitiate in Canada.)
In September 2015, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, responsible for enforcing Catholic doctrine, did not permit a transgender man in Spain to serve as a godfather effetively barring transgender Catholics from serving as a baptismal sponsors. The statement concluded:
"[...] the result is evident that this person does not possess the requisite of leading a life conformed to the faith and to the position of godfather (CIC, can 874 §1,3), therefore is not able to be admitted to the position of godmother nor godfather. One should not see this as discrimination, but only the recognition of an objective absence of the requisites that by their nature are necessary to assume the ecclesial responsibility of being a godparent."
The Catholic Church does not celebrate or recognize same-sex marriages, yet the Catholic laity have been increasingly vocal in their support. Lay organizations, such as Catholics for Marriage Equality, played a key role in the United States during the 2012 elections, and have maintained an active presence since then.
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has not issued an official policy regarding the Equality Act, a comprehensive bill that would, if passed, add “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” to the federal civil rights protections that already exist based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin.
In the past, the USCB opposed the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), stating that it “could be used to punish as discrimination what many religions – including the Catholic religion – teach, particularly moral teaching about same-sex sexual conduct.” The Vatican’s policies, however, state that those with “homosexual tendencies . . . must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided.”
A 2005 Vatican document, approved by then Pope Benedict XVI, instructed that the Church “cannot admit to the seminary or to holy orders those who practice homosexuality, present deep-seated homosexual tendencies or support the so-called ‘gay culture.’ Such persons, in fact, find themselves in a situation that gravely hinders them from relating correctly to men and women.”
Despite Pope Francis’ famous “Who am I to judge?” comment––made in response to a question about the acceptability of gay men as priests––his statement is not official church teaching. However, many Catholic observers see that his remark neutralizes the instruction given in 2005 under Pope Benedict. Today, many men’s religious orders and some bishops often make their own decisions regarding gay men as candidates for the seminary and priesthood.
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