Roman Catholic bishops in the United States on Tuesday adopted new guidelines on gay outreach that are meant to be welcoming, while also telling gays to be celibate since the church considers their sexuality "disordered."
Gay Catholic activists said the approach was so contorted and flawed that it would alienate the very people it was trying to reach.
The statement, "Ministry to Persons with a Homosexual Inclination," was adopted by a 194-37 vote, with one abstention, at a meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
The bishops also overwhelmingly adopted separate statements encouraging Catholics to obey the church's widely ignored ban on artificial contraception, and directing parishioners to examine their consciences to decide if they are worthy of receiving Holy Communion.
Anyone who knowingly persists in sinful behavior, such as gay sex or using artificial birth control, should refrain from taking Communion, the bishops said.
"To be a Catholic is a challenge," said Bishop Arthur Serratelli of Paterson, N.J., chairman of the bishops' doctrine committee. "To be a Catholic requires a certain choice."
Presenting the gay ministry document at the meeting, Serratelli acknowledged that gay and lesbian Catholics "have a difficult task in this world, but this task is necessary and good."
"The tone of the document is positive, pastoral and welcoming," Serratelli said. "Its starting point is the intrinsic human dignity of every person and God's love for every person."
Gay Catholics score effort
But gay Catholic groups thought the bishops' approach was flat-out wrong.
Francisco DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, an independent outreach to Catholic gays that has run afoul of some church leaders, said the guidelines "do not reflect good science, good theology or human reality."
"This document proposes that lesbian and gay people be viewed not in the entirety of their lives, but in one dimension only — the sexual dimension," DeBernardo said. "No other group in the church is singled out in this way."
The guidelines condemn discrimination against gays and say it's not a sin to be attracted to someone of the same sex — only to act on those feelings.
The bishops also underscore Catholic opposition to gay marriage and adoption by gay and lesbian couples, but also say children of gay Catholics can be baptized if they are being raised in the faith.
Under the guidelines, parishes are instructed to help Catholics avoid "the lifestyle and values of a 'gay subculture.'" Gays also are discouraged from telling anyone about their sexual orientation outside a close circle of friends and supporters in the church.
Counseling at issue
On the subject of therapy to change same-sex attraction, the bishops said there is no scientific consensus on whether it can succeed. But church leaders say gays are free to seek counseling to help them live a chaste life.
Sam Sinnett, president of DignityUSA, an advocacy group for gay Catholics, said the document is damaging because it recommends that gays "stay emotionally and spiritually in the closet."
Separately, the bishops voted to restructure the conference's Washington headquarters, so American dioceses would send less money to the conference, which would in turn cut jobs and committees.
Bishops have complained for years that the funds they turn over for conference work are badly needed in their home dioceses. The bishops are trying to streamline their agenda, focusing on support for married couples, an increase in the number of candidates for the priesthood and better educating Catholics on church teaching.
The bishops ended their public sessions Tuesday, meeting behind closed doors through Thursday. On Monday, the bishops urged national policymakers to leave behind the campaign season's "shrill and shallow debate" over Iraq and help end sectarian violence, so that citizens of the war-torn nation can find peace.