Thursday, October 31, 2013

Scary Hallowe'en Reads? Cardinal Ratzinger's "Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons"

There's an interesting Hallowe'en thread right now at Commonweal, responding to Dominic Preziosi's question to readers about forgotten, overlooked, or lesser known scary stories. As I've thought about the question, it occurs to me that it's hard for me to think of many scarier documents than the one the previous pope issued on Hallowe'en 1986,* when, as Cardinal Ratzinger, he headed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The CDF document purports to be about the "pastoral care" of "homosexual persons."

Instead, the CDF letter to the bishops of the church introduces into Catholic magisterial teaching a fateful neologism that was later picked up by the Catechism of the Catholic Church: it defines those who are gay as "disordered" in their very natures. The document also suggests that when violence occurs after gay people come out of the closet, that violence is entirely understandable as a backlash reaction on the part of social groups whose values the open acceptance of homosexuality undermines.

Not very long after the Ratzinger document came out, I attended a seminar in which people providing hands-on pastoral care to gay folks and health professionals concerned about the psychological and physical well-being of members of the gay community met to discuss the challenge the Hallowe'en document presented. At that seminar, a psychotherapist who specialized in dealing with troubled teens at risk of suicide told us that when she read the letter, she sat down on the floor and cried. She knew, she said, that this letter from the top sectors of the Catholic church would play a very serious role in making life more difficult and precarious for many of the teens she treated.

She knew that much of the self-loathing and the social and familial condemnation with which some of her suicide-prone teens dealt derived from what religious officials said to these teens and about these teens. And she knew in her bones that telling her troubled teens who struggled with issues of sexual orientation that they were disordered in their very nature would lead to self-destructive behavior, possibly even to suicide.

There's been a lot of weeping due to what the leaders of my church say to and about those who are gay. Placed beside the effects of documents like "Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons," some of the scariest reads I've come across in my life seem to pale by comparison.

It's time for the Catholic magisterium to ditch the homophobic analysis and terminology of Ratzinger's 1986 Hallowe'en letter, and to start atoning for the damage Catholic leaders have done to those who are gay for a long time now. If evangelization is really the primary task of the Catholic church, as Pope Francis is proclaiming, and if evangelization depends on encountering others with respect and willingness to learn from the insights they derive from their cultural experiences, it's time the leaders of the Catholic church start mustering that respect and willingness to learn--and put it into practice as they deal with those who are gay.

* Hallowe'en was the official publication date of the letter, according to Robert E. Goss, "Jesus, Prophet, Healer, Bodhisattva," in John McNeill, Sex as God Intended (Maple Shade, NJ: Lethe Press, 2008), p. 185--though the document itself states that it was "given at Rome" on 1 October 1986.

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