CATHOLIC LGBT HISTORY: Dutch Bishops’ Statement Critiques Negative Approach to Lesbians and Gays

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 of Bondings 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. 

Dutch Bishops’ Homosexuality Document Released in English by New Ways Ministry

On February 20, 1980, which was Ash Wednesday that year, New Ways Ministry published an English translation of the Dutch bishops’ recently published document, Homosexual People in Society, a groundbreaking text, which strongly critiqued the way Catholic leaders had traditionally approached lesbian and gay issues.

The document, which had been published in the Netherlands in August 1979 by the Catholic Council for Church and Society, an official agency of the Dutch hierarchy comparable to a committee of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, was intended to promote discussions in parishes and Catholic groups in Holland.  New Ways Ministry said that it reprinted the document in English to be “a tool for discussion among grassroots people and hopefully as a spur to larger study” on gay and lesbian issues. The National Catholic Reporter announced the English translation in the pages of its March 7, 1980 issue.

As its title suggests, the document was primarily concerned with the social effects that gay and lesbian people experienced, particularly as a result of Church doctrine and practice.  In its introduction, the Council stated:

“In light of the Church’s traditional views of sexuality, this position of excluding homosexual persons from Church life causes even further discrimination.  Singling people out within the Church community can tend to foster social discrimination.  Consequently, it is not surprising the the Church’s pronouncements about rejecting social discrimination do not always sound very credible.”

One of the important points of the document was its critique of traditional Scripture interpretations which were used to condemn lesbian and gay people.  In some of its strongest language, the Council observed:

“First, a direct biblical basis for judgment on a homosexual orientation as such is absent; the Scripture writers were not aware of a constitutional or irreversible homosexual orientation.  This means that any appeal to the Scriptures in order to condemn a homosexual orientation and to transfer that condemnation into social discrimination must be rejected as an abuse of Scripture.

“Secondly, when the Scriptures speak disapprovingly about homosexual acts, the main emphasis appears to be on the condemnation of abuses in which homosexual acts play only a part.  Most often these abuses are mentioned very explicitly: violation of hospitality, blackmail, prostitution, and especially idolatry. . . .

“There seems to be insufficient grounds for justifying discrimination against homosexual persons by appealing to those texts.”

Also, significant for its time, was an openness to critique natural law by appealing to new scientific research.  The Council wanted to examine

“. . . the problem of how an appeal to the natural law can be convincing in those cases where homosexual behavior can not be shown to be an expression of arrested development or perversion of a heterosexual orientation from personal or social pressures, but is understood and experienced as a natural expression of a homosexual orientation. This problem is even more urgent since, even in the sciences, a consensus is growing about the constitutional or irreversible homosexual orientation.”

In a certain respect, the Dutch document was promoting similar ideas of non-judgmentalism that we have seen advocated by Pope Francis.  In one section, the document states:

“. . . [F]rom the moral judgment on homosexual behavior one cannot derive automatically a total condemnation of someone who behaves homosexually, let alone relegate him or her to the position of a social outcast or second-class citizen.”

These words are extremely important for Church leaders and pastors to pay heed to before excluding LGBT Catholics from sacraments, volunteer ministries, or employment.

 The document continued in the vein of Pope Francis.  In the following section, we read a forerunner to the pope’s complaint that Church leaders overemphasize sexuality issues. The document condemns “all too one-sided and exaggerated attention to sexual behavior.”  It continued:

“This overemphasis plays a role in another way in the problems of homosexual people in society, since this overemphasis can itself be a source of discrimination.  The Council wants to call attention emphatically to this.  Respect or personal freedom and conscientious striving for a just society exclude a position on sexuality which identifies orientation and behavior too closely together.  This creates a danger of shortsightedness and one-sidedness in judging people.  It can easily lead to an excessive attention to sexual behavior especially in its strict expressions of genital sexuality.”

The document does not challenge the prohibition of sexual activity between persons of the same sex, though it does acknowledge at one point that “the rejection of homosexual behavior embarrasses the Church precisely because some successful homosexual love relationships do exist.”

The more important emphasis in this document, however, is its insistence that Church leaders and pastors should not become condemnatory of lesbian and gay people. The authors were aware that the Church’s prohibition on same-sex activity could be inflated and destructive.  They warned that the prohibition “should certainly not be viewed as any indication of silent support for discrimination,” noting:.

“For that would be a sad caricature of Christianity.  In fact, the destructive results of this caricature are already being felt.  There is evidence of this, for example, in the fact that the self-acceptance of the homosexual person, which is often the result of a difficult struggle, frequently leads to an automatic break with the Church.  This is understandable within the framework of that caricature.  But in our opinion, it is a sad state of affairs both for the Church and the homosexual person.”

For its time, the Dutch document spoke truths that were hard for people to accept.  I think that even today, unfortunately, some Church leaders would be uncomfortable with some of the idea that the document expressed.  But in many quarters of the Church, including in the papacy, we are seeing some of their ideas finally taking root.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, February 22, 2017

New Ways Ministry’s Eighth National Symposium, Justice and Mercy Shall Kiss: LGBT Catholics in the Age of Pope Francis, is scheduled for April 28-30, 2017, Chicago, Illinois. Plenary speakers:  Lisa Fullam, Leslie Griffin, Rev. Bryan Massingale, Frank Mugisha. Prayer leaders:  Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, Bishop John Stowe, OFM, Conv.  Pre-Symposium Retreat Leader:  Sr. Simone Campbell, SSS.  For more information and to register, visit www.Symposium2017.org.

Ignorance Leads to Dutch Catholic Castration Atrocity

I hate to report sickening news.  When I do, I try at least to find some important lesson in the story that I think will provide readers with possibility for making improvements in the world.

For several days I have tried to find some such possibility in the horrific story out of the Netherlands that in the 1950s, Catholic Church officials approved of the castration of 11 boys in church-run psychiatric institutions, as a method to cure homosexuality.  (According to a news report in The New York Times, there may also be some evidence that castration was used to punish youths for reporting sexual abuse by priests.)  Very little possibility for improvement exists in such a story.

If these revelations were not sickening enough, it was also reported that the commission that the Catholic church established to investigate sexual abuse by priests was told of these incidents, but decided not to include any reference to them in its 1,100 page report last year.

The lastest development, reported in an online story by U.S. Catholic is that church officials have condemned these acts and promised to cooperate in an investigation:

“The Dutch church has pledged to fully cooperate with investigations into reported claims that Catholic institutions castrated boys and young men in their care to rid them of homosexuality.

“Bert Elbertse, spokesman for the Dutch Catholic bishops’ conference, said the bishops found the reports ‘shocking and appalling’ and that they ‘condemn and regret such practices in the strongest possible terms.’

A further comment by Elbertse reveals how truly low the reputation of Catholic officials has sunk:

“Our church has been badly damaged by accusations of sexual abuse. The fact that people were unsurprised by these latest claims suggests our image couldn’t get any worse.”

Elbertse also tried to explain the castration decisions by saying

“Although the initial public reactions to this newspaper report were very negative, many people are now asking whether the use of castration had more to do with health care at the time than with the church.”

Such an explanation rings terribly hollow, especially in view of a further explanation offered by the Dutch Catholic weekly Katholiek Nieuwsblad.   According to the U.S. Catholic story, this Dutch Catholic newspaper

“. . . said records suggested about 400 men were castrated in the Netherlands between 1938 and 1968. The newspaper said castration and electric shock treatment also were used ‘not uncommonly’ on gay men at state-owned institutions in Britain and Scandinavia.

“There was no specific link with Catholicism. Indeed, Catholics and Protestants were against the use of castration as a blow to the integrity of the body.”

One has to wonder how seriously Catholic officials thought of the integrity of the bodies of young men suspected of homosexuality if these same leaders allowed the youths  to be castrated.

If there is any lesson to be learned from this story, I think it is that ignorance about homosexuality naturally leads to atrocity.  While church officials participating in investigations of these incidents is helpful, a better and more effective step would be for them to educate themselves about  scientific knowledge about the realities of sexual orientation.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry