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Spotlight Report

Vatican warns on same-sex marriage

Broad edict has message for Catholic politicians

By Michael Paulson, Globe Staff, 8/1/2003

The Vatican yesterday declared that same-sex marriages ''go against natural moral law'' and decreed that for a Catholic politician to support gay marriage would be ''gravely immoral.''

The document, which was approved by Pope John Paul II, also vehemently objected to the adoption of children by gays and lesbians, saying that ''allowing children to be adopted by persons living in such unions would actually mean doing violence to these children, in the sense that their condition of dependency would be used to place them in an environment that is not conducive to their full human development.''

The Vatican said it released the document, titled ''Considerations Regarding Proposals To Give Legal Recognition To Unions Between Homosexual Persons,'' to help bishops articulate the church's teaching and in an attempt to direct the political behavior of Catholic lawmakers.

''There are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God's plan for marriage and family,'' declares the Vatican document, which cites human biology, the Bible, and centuries of Catholic teaching as justification for its position. ''Marriage is holy, while homosexual acts go against the natural moral law.''

The document, from the world's largest religious denomination, comes as acceptance of same-sex relationships appears to be growing in the developed world. The Netherlands and Belgium have legalized gay marriage and Canada appears poised to do so after courts in the provinces of Ontario and British Columbia allowed same-sex marriages.

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court is now weighing a case in which seven gay couples are asking to be granted marriage licenses here. And several countries, including Germany, France, Sweden, and Denmark, have laws recognizing civil unions of same-sex couples, as does the state of Vermont.

The US Supreme Court in June overturned antisodomy laws, citing sexual privacy rights.

But public opinion polling on the question of gay marriage has been conflicting. A nationwide survey released last month by the Pew Research Center and the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found opposition to gay marriage has declined significantly since the mid-1990s, to 53 percent from 65 percent. A Gallup poll conducted in July, however, found support for legalized gay unions at its lowest point in four years.

On Wednesday, President Bush stepped into the fray, declaring, ''I believe marriage is between a man and a woman, and I believe we ought to codify that one way or the other, and we have lawyers looking at the best way to do that.'' Bush's predecessor, President Bill Clinton, in 1996 signed the Defense of Marriage Act barring federal recognition of gay marriage, but some conservatives are now hoping for a constitutional amendment that would strengthen such a ban.

An increasing number of liberal religious denominations are permitting clergy to hold religious ceremonies to celebrate gay and lesbian relationships.

The Unitarian Universalist Association and Reform Judaism officially sanction same-sex unions, while individual clergy in the United Church of Christ and the Episcopal Church regularly bless such couples. More than 450 Massachusetts clergy have expressed support for same-sex marriage.

But numerous conservative religious denominations, including Islam, Orthodox Judaism, Orthodox Christianity, and Mormonism, as well as the vast family of evangelical Protestant churches, remain staunchly opposed to civil or religious legitimation of same-sex relationships.

And the Anglican Communion, the global church represented in the United States by the Episcopal Church, faces a rising risk of schism over differing attitudes toward homosexuality. Today the Episcopal Church USA, gathering at its general convention in Minneapolis, begins a debate over whether to consent to the election of a gay priest, Canon V. Gene Robinson, as bishop of New Hampshire. Conservative elements of the Anglican Communion, both in the United States and around the world, have warned of a possible split in the denomination if the American church ratifies Robinson's election or approves liturgies to bless same-sex couples.

The Vatican document, drafted by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, declares homosexuality to be a ''troubling moral and social phenomenon.'' The document, which was approved March 28, does not offer new doctrine but rather reiterates the Catholic Church teachings.

The document says discrimination against gays and lesbians ''should be avoided,'' but says politicians should be wary of gay-rights measures.

The Vatican says that homosexual relationships, because they are not procreative, cannot be justified biologically or anthropologically, and warns that the approval of same-sex marriage would harm society.

''Legal recognition of homosexual unions would obscure certain basic moral values and cause a devaluation of the institution of marriage,'' the Vatican declared.

The document includes a section directed at Catholic politicians, following up on a document issued in January in which the Vatican told Catholic politicians they should not dissent from church teachings on abortion, homosexuality, and euthanasia, and warned that ''a well-formed Christian conscience does not permit one to vote for a political program or an individual law which contradicts the fundamental contents of faith and morals.'' The January document had no discernible impact on the voting of Catholic politicians in the United States.

The document issued yesterday declared that Catholic politicians have an obligation to oppose gay unions and to seek to repeal or limit the effect of laws endorsing gay unions that do win approval.

''When legislation in favor of the recognition of homosexual unions is proposed for the first time in a legislative assembly, the Catholic lawmaker has a moral duty to express his opposition clearly and publicly and to vote against it,'' the document states. ''To vote in favor of a law so harmful to the common good is gravely immoral.''

Stephen J. Pope, a theologian at Boston College, said describing the behavior of such politicians as ''gravely immoral'' is strong condemnation from the church.

'' `Gravely immoral' means that it can never be done under any circumstances, it always offends God in a profound way, and that anyone who thinks it is morally permissible is operating with a malformed conscience,'' Pope said.

Papal biographer George Weigel agreed, saying '' `gravely immoral' means just that: for politicians to support same-sex unions is to violate basic norms of justice. This is not a question of tolerance. It's a question of the defense of a basic social institution.''

Weigel said the document is a defense of the traditional understanding of marriage.

''The new document is a defense of . . . what human beings have understood marriage to mean for millennia,'' he said. ''It's also a defense of the idea of marriage as something richer and nobler than a mere contract. If we think of marriage as any possible configuration of consenting adults satisfying their needs, we've emptied marriage of its intrinsic meaning and its social value. And that, the Catholic Church is suggesting, is bad for everybody.''

The document was welcomed by Bishop Wilton D. Gregory, the president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops.

''Because the human intellect is naturally drawn to the truth, as the human heart is drawn by nature to the good, I am confident that many a careful reader will see the wisdom of what is proposed in this document, including many who may think otherwise at first,'' Gregory said in a statement.

Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley of Boston, who was installed as leader of the Boston archdiocese on Wednesday, did not mention the issue of homosexuality during his initial homily, and declined to comment on the issue yesterday. But in 1999, testifying before the Massachusetts Legislature, he warned that gay parents could ''open the door to polygamy and incest'' and said that ''the church's position is that any tampering with the definition of marriage is dangerous to society.''

Traditionalists hailed the Vatican document, which they hope will bolster their efforts to resist movement toward approval of gay marriage in the United States.

''Because of an aggressive gay-rights movement that seeks to normalize homosexual unions, the Vatican decided the time was ripe to issue a reality check to Catholics,'' said William Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights.

But gay Catholics were irate.

''To say that violence will come to children, from a church that protected predators, is such a contradiction,'' said Chuck Colbert, a gay Catholic journalist living in Cambridge. ''And why aren't they singling out single parents, or divorced and remarried parents? This is going to make it really difficult for lesbian and gay Catholics to stay in the church.''

Michael Paulson can be reached at

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 8/1/2003.
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