Contradictions in Catholic LGBT Teaching and Practice



Contradictions in hierarchical attitudes towards LGBT issues and people were the theme of two commentaries this week from Catholic writers.

Bryan Cones

The first piece is a blog post from Bryan Cones, managing editor of U.S. Catholic, entitled “Can ‘respect, sensitivity, and compassion’ go with ‘instrinsic disorder’ when it comes to gay Catholics?”

Commenting on three recent news stories–the Worcester Diocese refusing to sell a mansion to a gay couple, the Connecticut priest reprimanded for assisting at his cousin’s wedding, the Franciscan University of Steubenville course which labels homosexuality as “deviant behavior”–Cones reflects on a contradiction that is at the heart of all three cases:

“Every Catholic institution when faced with these controversies (usually of their own creation) will parrot the line from the Catechism that ‘homosexual persons’ must be treated with ‘respect, compassion, and sensitivity,’ then go on to justify any behavior on the basis that a homosexual sexual orientation is an ‘objective disorder.’ Anyone else see the conflict? I don’t think any gay person in these situations (or their family members in the case of the priest at his cousin’s union ceremony) feel treated with ‘respect, compassion, or sensitivity.’

“Catholic teaching is of two minds on this question: On the one hand it upholds the fundamental dignity of every human being, each of whom is made in God’s image and likeness. On the other it insists that a small but consistent subset of human beings are unusually marked by sin in their created sexuality. Inevitably church institutions–Franciscan University, the Diocese of Worcester–get tangled up in in the conflict by clumsy people who try to say both things at the same time and end up embarrassing themselves and their institutions.

“The problem is, the two teachings really don’t go together, and the sooner we all realize that and agree to it, the sooner we will be able to find a new and hopefully more lifegiving way to talk about sexuality and lesbian, gay, and bisexual people in particular.”

Richard Giannone

The second piece is a Huffington Post blog entry from Fordham University Professor Richard Giannone entitled “True and False Religious Freedom.”  Reflecting on the marriage equality and religious liberty debate, Giannone notes:

“Liberty for the bishops is a synonym for power and control, their power, their control. They aim to impose unquestioned submission to their self-styled rectitude. Unlike Jesus’ freedom to challenge the elders and scribes, liberty by contemporary authoritarian lights deprives others of their rights. Such unchristian Christianity adds a new type of suffering on LGBT people.

“I am a 78-year-old man gay man who is a practicing Catholic. The older I get, the more clearly I see how official church teaching on sexuality presents a false idea of freedom and misconstrues Christianity. As in scripture, intolerance in daily life binds and traps. Subjugation comes early. Ecclesiastical homophobia burdens a LGBT child with recrimination and shackles the child in religious censure. Prejudice effectively cuts off young gay people from themselves, others, and God.”

I agree with Cones’ assessment that there is a deep tension between these two aspects of official church teaching.  While one stresses the importance of having positive behaviors towards gay and lesbian people, the other presents a strongly negative judgment about their sexual orientation.

I believe that church leaders are aware of this tension.  The problem, however, is that to resolve the tension, they favor the negative judgment over the positive behaviors.  There is no reason why it can’t be the other way around.

I think that Giannone poignantly describes the problem that such negative judgment produces.  It produces a prejudicial attitude that “effectively cuts off young gay people from themselves, others, and God.”

I agree with him that “Unlike Jesus’ freedom to challenge the elders and scribes, liberty by contemporary authoritarian lights deprives others of their rights.” Christian leaders should always be mindful of the paradox that they live as leaders since Jesus, their model, was certainly critical of institutional religious leaders who used theological principles to burden and oppress people.  Institutional authority creates a conundrum for Christian leaders that often encourages arrogance when it should inspire humility.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry


QUOTE TO NOTE: Is Creationism Next?


We’ve reported that a sociology course at the Franciscan University of Steubenville includes “homosexuality” as one of the topics covered under “deviant behavior.”  The story has sparked much commentary across the nation.

One Catholic commentator, Eric Bugyis, who blogs at, made the following observation in a recent post entitled “Social Work or Catechesis?” :

“What’s next, creationism as a viable alternative to evolution in Biology 101?”

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry


More on Homosexuality and “Deviant Behavior” at Franciscan University

Franciscan University of Steubenville campus

Yesterday, Bondings 2.0 reported that an LGBT alumni group from Franciscan University, Steubenville, has asked the school to remove homosexuality as a topic in a sociology course on “deviant behavior.”  The university had responded by threatening to sue the group if they used the name of the university in their title.

Scott Jaschik, a journalist at Inside Higher Ed, has done some inquiring into the matter, questioning the university administration about the inclusion of homosexuality in the course:

“In response to questions from Inside Higher Ed, the university released a statement by Daniel R. Kempton, vice president for academic affairs. In the statement, he said that some materials used in the course “present the view that homosexual behavior is not deviant.” But Kempton said that principles of academic freedom apply to the course and that the view that homosexuality is deviant is a legitimate perspective for the course.

“While critics of the university are ‘entitled to their opinion that their understanding of homosexual behavior is scientifically confirmed and thus should be imposed on all universities, we respectfully disagree,’ he said. Kempton quoted Catechism of the Catholic Church as saying that while gay people should be treated with respect and dignity, ‘homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered. They are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity.’

“At Franciscan, Kempton said, offering that perspective is essential, and academic freedom should protect the idea. ‘[O]ur faculty members have the right to present a variety of views in the classroom,; the statement said. Then, quoting the university’s mission statement, Kempton said that ‘Franciscan University opposes the promotion of propositions and values contrary to Catholic teaching.’ He added: ‘In sum, our faculty can present a variety of views on a topic, but cannot promote values contrary to Catholic teaching.’ “

Interestingly, Jaschik points out that this defense of academic freedom was not the university’s first response:

The initial response from the university was not to answer the critique offered of the course description, but to threaten to take legal action against the alumni group.

“Deviant” is sometimes used as a technical term to denote differing from the statistical norm, particularly in sociology courses.  Kempton, however, does not cite this usage, though he could have.  Instead, he argues that the alumni are

 “entitled to their opinion that their understanding of homosexual behavior is scientifically confirmed and thus should be imposed on all universities, we respectfully disagree.”

Kempton’s statements seem to indicate that the course was indeed NOT using “deviant” in a statistically technical way, but was including a judgment in the term.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

Franciscan University Course Labels Homosexuality as “Deviant Behavior”

A group of LGBT and allies alumni of Franciscan University, Steubenville, Ohio, has publicly criticized the inclusion of homosexual people as a topic in a sociology course entitled “Deviant Behavior.”  The university’s response has been to threaten legal suit if the group continues to identify with the school in their public materials.

The Daily posted the group’s press release, as well as the text of the letter from the university’s General Counsel which threatens suit.    The press release, in part, states the group’s criticism of the course and its description:

“Outdated prejudices appear to be given more weight than scientific truth at Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio. A recent survey of Franciscan University’s course offerings found this active course description on their website:

” ‘SWK 314
DEVIANT BEHAVIOR focuses on the sociological theories of deviant behavior such as strain theory, differential association theory, labeling theory, and phenomenological theory. The behaviors that are primarily examined are murder, rape, robbery, prostitution,homosexuality, mental illness, and drug use. The course focuses on structural conditions in society that potentially play a role in influencing deviant behavior.
3 credit hours (Bold font added for emphasis)’

“Despite more than 25 years of solid mainstream scholarship in the fields of psychology, social work, and mental health demonstrating the psychological health of gay and lesbian individuals, Franciscan University continues to teach otherwise, allowing pseudo-science to be taught at an accredited university.

“To classify the normal day-to-day life of gay and lesbian citizens as being on par with that of murderers, rapists, and prostitutes is offensive, untrue, and an example of religious ideology being allowed to trump the scientifically demonstrated truth of the matter. . . .

“The alarm must be raised that psychology and mental health graduates from Franciscan University are less prepared than graduates at other universities and colleges, being taught ideological falsehoods in the classroom rather than solid, proven research and evidence.

“Further concern must be raised that such classifications feed cultural biases and promote hatred for lesbian and gay individuals and runs counter to official Roman Catholic teaching on this matter.

“We urge Franciscan University to revise its course descriptions and to stop contributing the culture of hate and ignorance that is already too pervasive. The University should conduct an audit of its entire curriculum and remove any information being taught on this subject that is outdated and not substantiated by sound scientific fact. “

The university’s General Counsel, Adam E. Scurti, sent the following brief letter to the alumni group’s contact people, Gregory Gronbacher and Elizabeth Vermilyea:

“I am advising you that you have no right to use the Name of Franciscan University, its logo or any other reference to the University in any of your activities.

“This statement by me is as General Counsel to the University. Should you not comply with my demand that you cease and desist, I will take all measures available to the University to interdict your activities as they relate to the University.”

The alumni group responded by dropping “University” from their title, calling themselves simply “Franciscan Gay Alumni & Allies.”

While there have been many stories of Catholic campuses being criticized for not updating their policies in regard to sexual orientation, this is the first I’ve heard where a school’s course material is being asked to be updated.  On the good side, I think the reason there haven’t been more stories of this sort is that, by and large, Catholic campuses have done as good a job of updating their course material in regard to sexual orientation as other schools have.

For a list of gay-friendly Catholic colleges and universities across the nation, visit New Ways Ministry’s website.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry