Catholic LGBT History: 30th Anniversary of the “Ratzinger Letter”

History-Option 1“This Month in Catholic LGBT History” is Bondings 2.0’s  feature to educate readers of the rich history—positive and negative—that has taken place over the last four decades regarding Catholic LGBT equality issues.  We hope it will show people how far our Church has come, ways that it has regressed, and how far we still have to go.

Once a  month, Bondings 2.0 staff will produce a post on Catholic LGBT news events from the past 38 years.  We will comb through editions ofBondings 2.0’s predecessor:  Bondings,  New Ways Ministry’s newsletter in paper format.   We began publishing Bondings in 1978. Unfortunately, because these newsletters are only archived in hard copies, we cannot link back to the primary sources in most cases. 

Thirty years ago today,  the Vatican released a document entitle “Letter to the Bishops on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons.” This document is probably the most influential piece of church teaching on the topic of homosexuality, and debates about it still continue among theologians, lay people, pastoral ministers, and bishops.  It set the tone for most of the very harsh messages about gay and lesbian people that emerged from Catholic leaders over the past three decades.

Because the news of this letter made headlines on the following day, October 31st, (and probably also because of the harsh content of the document) it is sometimes referred to as the “Halloween letter.”  (In fact, the Letter was actually promulgated on October 1st, but not made public until the 30th.)

Because the document was authored by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (which was the Vatican office which released it), it is also sometimes referred to as the “Ratzinger letter” or “CDF letter.”

It’s official Latin title is perhaps the most telling about the document’s contents.  Latin titles of church documents are always the first two or three words of the document itself.  In this case, the Latin title is “Homosexualitatis probelma” or “the problem of homosexuality.” From the very first words of the document, the author understood the issue in negative terms, as a problem.  The introductory paragraphs explain that the letter was written in response to a growing acceptance of homosexuality, not only in society, but in the church too:

“The issue of homosexuality and the moral evaluation of homosexual acts have increasingly become a matter of public debate, even in Catholic circles.”  (section 1)

Reading between the lines, and remembering the historical context of this document, it’s important to point out that this Letter was, in fact, a reaction to many positive developments concerning lesbian and gay persons that were occurring in Catholicism.  The 1970s and early 1980s were a rich time for discussion and initiatives in the Church around lesbian and gay issues. This Letter was designed to shut down those projects, as we shall see later in this post.

A more proximate cause of the Letter’s origin was the fact that in 1975, in the Vatican’s “Declaration on Sexual Ethics,” homosexual orientation was recognized as not a sinful state, though homosexual activity or relationships were still considered immoral.  So, in this new document, the CDF set out to clear things up:

“In the discussion which followed the publication of the Declaration, however, an overly benign interpretation was given to the homosexual condition itself, some going so far as to call it neutral, or even good. 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.” (section 3)

Those last two words, “objective disorder,” were the ones which launched the major battles of the next thirty years.  Although theologians explained that it was not intended to refer to a medical or psychological disorder, but instead was a philosophical term to describe heterosexuality as part of the natural moral order,  the term has caused great pain and harm to people.  Only a few understand the philosophical nuances of it, and many who proclaim it are likely intending people to accept its very negative connotations.

In addition to the theological content of the letter, a significant feature of it was how it tried to close down any positive discussion of  lesbian and gay issues in the church.  The letter contains many references to Catholics who question or challenge the church’s teaching on homosexuality.  Some examples from the Letter:

“Nevertheless, increasing numbers of people today, even within the Church, are bringing enormous pressure to bear on the Church to accept the homosexual condition as though it were not disordered and to condone homosexual activity. Those within the Church who argue in this fashion often have close ties with those with similar views outside it. . . . The Church’s ministers must ensure that homosexual persons in their care will not be misled by this point of view, so profoundly opposed to the teaching of the Church. But the risk is great and there are many who seek to create confusion regarding the Church’s position, and then to use that confusion to their own advantage.”(section 8)

“The movement within the Church, which takes the form of pressure groups of various names and sizes, attempts to give the impression that it represents all homosexual persons who are Catholics. As a matter of fact, its membership is by and large restricted to those who either ignore the teaching of the Church or seek somehow to undermine it.” (section 9)

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger

“. . . [T]his Congregation wishes to ask the Bishops to be especially cautious of any programmes which may seek to pressure the Church to change her teaching, even while claiming not to do so. A careful examination of their public statements and the activities they promote reveals a studied ambiguity by which they attempt to mislead the pastors and the faithful. For example, they may present the teaching of the Magisterium, but only as if it were an optional source for the formation of one’s conscience.” (section 14)

“The Bishops are asked to exercise special care in the selection of pastoral ministers so that by their own high degree of spiritual and personal maturity and by their fidelity to the Magisterium, they may be of real service to homosexual persons, promoting their health and well-being in the fullest sense. Such ministers will reject theological opinions which dissent from the teaching of the Church and which, therefore, cannot be used as guidelines for pastoral care.” (section 17)

“All support should be withdrawn from any organizations which seek to undermine the teaching of the Church, which are ambiguous about it, or which neglect it entirely. Such support, or even the semblance of such support, can be gravely misinterpreted. Special attention should be given to the practice of scheduling religious services and to the use of Church buildings by these groups, including the facilities of Catholic schools and colleges. To some, such permission to use Church property may seem only just and charitable; but in reality it is contradictory to the purpose for which these institutions were founded, it is misleading and often scandalous.” (section 17)

So, far from being a document which was theological in nature, the Letter had a strong emphasis on trying to repress discussion of homosexuality and in the church and to silence any and all forms of openness towards lesbian and gay people and their concerns.

The Letter had some seemingly positive statements, but these statements were always undercut by other messages in the text.  Section 10 of the Letter is a classic case of this phenomenon:

“It is deplorable that homosexual persons have been and are the object of violent malice in speech or in action. Such treatment deserves condemnation from the Church’s pastors wherever it occurs. It reveals a kind of disregard for others which endangers the most fundamental principles of a healthy society. The intrinsic dignity of each person must always be respected in word, in action and in law.”

Yet the next paragraph undercuts any positive message from the one above:

“But the proper reaction to crimes committed against homosexual persons should not be to claim that the homosexual condition is not disordered. When such a claim is made and when homosexual activity is consequently condoned, or when civil legislation is introduced to protect behavior to which no one has any conceivable right, neither the Church nor society at large should be surprised when other distorted notions and practices gain ground, and irrational and violent reactions increase.”

In terms of pastoral care, the Letter offered similarly mixed messages. For example, in section 17 the Letter stated:

“. . . [W]e would ask the Bishops to support, with the means at their disposal, the development of appropriate forms of pastoral care for homosexual persons. These would include the assistance of the psychological, sociological and medical sciences, in full accord with the teaching of the Church.”

Yet, earlier in the Letter, they warned against scientific understandings:

“The Church is thus in a position to learn from scientific discovery but also to transcend the horizons of science and to be confident that her more global vision does greater justice to the rich reality of the human person in his spiritual and physical dimensions, created by God and heir, by grace, to eternal life.” (section 2)

And earlier on , the Letter described what an appropriate pastoral program would look like, and it was one which assumed that gay and lesbian people were always tempted towards sexual activity:

“No authentic pastoral programme will include organizations in which homosexual persons associate with each other without clearly stating that homosexual activity is immoral. A truly pastoral approach will appreciate the need for homosexual persons to avoid the near occasions of sin.” (section 15)

We are still living with the effects of the 1986 Letter, but there may be signs that some leaders in the church are moving away from it’s negative message.  During the 2015 synod, we heard many bishops state that the language of “objective disorder” and “intrinsic moral evil” needed to be scrapped.  We also see that some bishops are willing to open discussions about homosexuality, and to listen to voices which disagree with the Church’s teaching.  We see  gay-friendly parishes and diocesan programs which do not see avoidance of sexual activity as their prime focuses.

The 1986 Letter did an enormous among of pastoral harm and damage to lesbian and gay people.  Many people,  straight and gay, left the Church because of its message, and many more continue to do so when they hear its message proclaimed.

But perhaps, 30 years later, we are starting to see that the criticisms that theologians and lay people have leveled against this document are starting to reach the highest levels of the Church.

Whenever I read the Letter, I always end up having an idea that the author imagined the Church being besieged from inside and outside by people who had a positive view of lesbian and gay people.  I always imagine that the authors imagined that this Letter was building a fortress wall around the Church.  Perhaps, thirty years later, we are seeing that wall begin to crumble at least a bit.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, October 30, 2016

5 thoughts on “Catholic LGBT History: 30th Anniversary of the “Ratzinger Letter”

  1. John Hilgeman October 30, 2016 / 1:59 am

    “But the proper reaction to crimes committed against homosexual persons should not be to claim that the homosexual condition is not disordered. When such a claim is made and when homosexual activity is consequently condoned, or when civil legislation is introduced to protect behavior to which no one has any conceivable right, neither the Church nor society at large should be surprised when other distorted notions and practices gain ground, and irrational and violent reactions increase.”

    I always did think this was a horrendous statement, blaming those who advocate for decriminalizing sexual behavior of gay couples and the legal recognition of same gender relationships, for the violence perpetrated against them. This is akin to blaming women for being sexually assaulted and raped.

    There is a great contrast in the letter. An inability to recognize the love and commitment lesbian and gay couples have for each other in relationships which may well have a sexual element, while at the same time expressing understanding for those who react violently to gay and lesbian people. This letter, far from presenting any reflection of a message from a loving creator, presented bias and prejudice packaged in theological terms.

  2. Wilhelm Wonka October 30, 2016 / 8:23 am

    That dreadful document is going down in Church history as rather a dark page, isn’t it? How embarrassing for its author.

    Still, it’s good to know that we can now laugh about such silly, paranoid things.

    Someone obviously had a “funny” episode way back in ’86.

    Let’s forgive him.

  3. Paul Morrissey October 31, 2016 / 11:40 am

    Thank you, Francis for a great post, and a painful memory that is slowly being exorcised. Paul Morrissey

  4. Albertus November 2, 2016 / 2:17 pm

    Thank you for your enlightening article on a most unenlightened Vatican document. ”Objective Disorder”, as used by the authors of this Document and by the Hierarchy since the publication of this document in 1986, is much more than a ”philosophical” term, of course: The authors of the document itself (primarily Cardinal Ratzinger, and Pope John Paul II, who signed it and caused it to be published and disseminated) explained themselves what they meant by the term! ”In the discussion which followed … an overly benign interpretation was given to the homosexual condition itself, SOME GOING SO FAR AS TO CALL IT NEUTRAL (!), or even good. 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.” This, in Vatican jargon, ”objective disorder” means ”a strong tendency (within the character and soul of the person ”afflicted”) ordered towards an intrinsic moral evil”. They have condemned themselves with their own words, and nothing can make the above definition seem good-willed, harmless, or neutral. Since John Paul II, the Vatican’s official definition of homosexuality as a ”tendency towards evil”, in later documents issued by the Vatican termed ”a deep-rooted tendency towards evil”, is clearly a condemnation of the homosexual orientation itself. And logically so. For until the Vatican admits that same-sex love and relationships are good, they will never be able to bring themselves to say that the homosexual orientation itself is neutral (as the Church used to say before JPII), let alone good! For them homosexuality as an orientation, (condition / tendency) will always remain ”ordered towards an intrinsic moral evil”. It seems to me that the only solution for us is to petition the Vatican to revoke the 1986 document. The document is not infallible, it has nothing to do with dogma, it is not even highly authoritative or important on the scale of Church teachings. Let’s pray, petition and clamour to have this infamous document officially scrapped, and that the Pope make his excuses to homosexual persons for the harm caused by it.

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