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Bishops stress sexual issues and warn on Communion


BALTIMORE — The Catholic bishops of the United States overwhelmingly approved new documents yesterday, exhorting Catholics to refrain from using artificial birth control, describing gay sex as immoral, and saying that anyone who disagrees with key church teachings should not take Communion.The statements mark the first time the bishops have attempted to explain and offer guidance on longstanding church teachings, in light of recent controversies.

The bishops said current events, including the legalization of same-sex marriage in Massachusetts and the 2004 presidential candidacy of Senator John F. Kerry, a Catholic Democrat from Massachusetts who supports abortion rights, prompted them to speak out. They acknowledged that most married Catholics — 96 percent, according to their own estimate — use birth control, and the bishops said they recognize that the church’s teachings on homosexuality are contested in American society.

“To be a Catholic is a challenge, and to be a Catholic requires a certain choice, and these are the choices that are consistent with the Gospel of Jesus,” the chairman of the bishops’ doctrine committee, Bishop Arthur J. Serratelli of Paterson, N.J., said during a press conference.

Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann of Kansas City, Kan., also speaking at the press conference, said: “As teachers, we have an obligation to teach, not just about the things people agree with, but the difficult things as well. . . . We have a responsibility to try and help our people understand things that, because of the culture being hostile, aren’t easily accessible to them.”

The documents approved yesterday drew criticism from liberal Catholic organizations. Call to Action, a reform organization, said “the bishops are going against everything for which Communion stands” by emphasizing the reasons people should not seek Communion.

New Ways Ministry, an organization focused on outreach to gay Catholics, called the bishops’ guidelines “out of touch” and said “this document tries to turn back the clock three decades.” And Catholics for a Free Choice, an organization that supports abortion rights, said that ” if the bishops continue making pronouncements such as those issued this week in Baltimore, they will find themselves increasingly isolated.”

The Communion document was prompted by the 2004 controversy among the bishops over Kerry. During the presidential campaign, a handful of bishops said Kerry should be denied Communion for opposing a key church teaching; most bishops, including Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley of Boston, said Communion was a matter for the conscience of the worshiper, not for the judgment of the priest or bishop.

The Communion document endorses the less confrontational approach taken by O’Malley and other bishops, declaring that Catholics who “knowingly and obstinately . . . reject the defined doctrines of the church” should not seek to receive Communion, but it does not advise any action by priests or bishops against politicians who oppose church doctrine and yet seek to receive Communion. The document also declares that people guilty of mortal sin should not seek to receive Communion without first going to confession; among the disqualifying behaviors, according to the bishops, is “engaging in sexual activity outside the bonds of a valid marriage” and “failing to worship God by missing Mass on Sundays . . . without a serious reason.”

The document on contraception, which the bishops plan to publish as a pamphlet for distribution to couples preparing for marriage, is titled “Married Love and the Gift of Life.” “Suppressing fertility by using contraception denies part of the inherent meaning of married sexuality and does harm to the couple’s unity,” the document declares.

The document on gays, titled “Ministry to Persons with a Homosexual Inclination: Guidelines for Pastoral Care,” is intended to provide criteria for the church’s ministries to gays and lesbians.

Those outreach programs, which exist in multiple parishes and dioceses including Boston, are often the target of criticism by conservatives. In 1999, Pope John Paul II barred a US priest, the Rev. Robert Nugent, and nun, Sister Jeannine Gramick, from “any pastoral work involving homosexual persons,” declaring that the two had refused to communicate the church’s teaching about “the intrinsic evil of homosexual acts and the objective disorder of the homosexual inclination.”

The bishops were encouraged to produce the document approved yesterday by the Vatican agency then headed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who is now Pope Benedict XVI.

The document says outreach programs must be clear about the teachings on homosexuality. It says that such gays should be welcome in churches, but that “the church has a right to deny roles of service to those whose behavior violates her teaching” because “such service might be an occasion of scandal and appear as condoning immoral lifestyles.”

The document also says there should be no hatred of or discrimination against gays. But it reiterates the church’s teaching that “homosexual acts are immoral” and that “the homosexual inclination is objectively disordered.” It declares that the church opposes same-sex marriage and cannot bless civil unions and says that the church does not support adoption by gay couples.

“Because homosexual acts cannot fulfill the natural end of human sexuality, they are never morally acceptable,” Serratelli said.

O’Malley said the church’s opposition to the use of artificial contraception and to same-sex marriage is linked by the church’s belief that heterosexual marriage is divinely ordained because of its role in procreation.

“Our teachings are all interconnected, and we’re hoping as people reflect on what marriage and sexuality mean for us, it will help people understand why we’re so against a redefinition of marriage,” he said.

Also yesterday, the bishops elected O’Malley the next chairman of the committee on world missions.

This article originally appeared in the 15 November 2006 edition of The Boston Globe.

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