Conflicting Freedoms: the Catholic Church and Homosexuality

Photo: Danny Hammontree

During Pope Francis’ return journey to the Vatican from Brazil – the location of his first overseas trip since being elected Pope in March 2013 – he held a press conference with journalists on board the flight. In response to a question about gay clergy, he said, “Who am I to judge them if they are seeking the Lord in good faith?”

Catholics and gay rights campaigners, among others, have questioned whether this should be interpreted as a sign that the current pontiff might bring about a significant change in the Church doctrine on homosexuality.

Over the last few years, the Catholic Church has come under growing pressure to alter its traditionally intolerant stance on this issue. The pressure comes from various groups, including those who argue that the Church’s stance is contrary to religious values and those who argue it represents a violation of human rights. This debate, which carries on both within and outside of the Church, raises important questions about what the relationship between religious values and civic values should be, and how contradictions between them should be resolved.

Contesting opinions on the Catholic doctrine


Catholic teaching has traditionally been intolerant of homosexuality. A recent Pew Research survey found that 79 percent of lesbian, gay, transgender, and bisexual adults in the United States perceive the Catholic Church as unfriendly towards them. The Catechism states that homosexual acts are “intrinsically disordered.” The previous Pope, Benedict XVI, placed strong emphasis upon this message. In his 2012 Christmas address, he said that “people dispute the idea that they have a nature, given to them by their bodily identity, that serves as a defining element of the human being.” Homosexuals “deny their nature.” In 2005, he signed a document which stated that men who had deep-rooted homosexual tendencies should not be priests. According to Human Rights Campaign – the largest gay rights group in the United States – Pope Francis’ recent remarks “represent a significant change in tone.”

Argentinian-born Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected to the pontificate in March 2013. Commentators have noted that, unlike his two predecessors, he cannot immediately be associated with the conservative wing of the Catholic Church. David Gibson writes in the Washington Post that Pope Francis is unsettling the Catholic right by ignoring their preferred agenda items; for instance, the Pope barely spoke of homosexuality or abortion until this in-flight press conference. He also has a tendency to focus upon social justice issues that are important to progressives. He has repeatedly voiced a concern for the poor and, in a speech on May 16, he criticized the ‘cult of money’ created by free market economics. According to the Catholic news website Catholic Online, Pope Francis is known for the emphasis he places upon mercy. Prior to his remark regarding homosexual priests at the press conference, the Pope affirmed the importance of treating homosexual persons with respect and love.

Yet while this change in tone and approach is significant, there is no guarantee that it will translate into substantive changes to the Church doctrine on issues relating to homosexuality. The available evidence suggests that Pope Francis has no intention of bringing about such reform. While Bishop of Buenos Aires, Pope Francis was an outspoken critic of Argentinian President, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s efforts to legalize gay marriage and adoption. He speaks of homosexual acts as sinful, and has shown no intention of breaking with the Catechism on this matter. In an interview with the German news website Spiegel Online, theologian David Berger says that the Pope’s comments during the flight were no cause for rejoicing. To think that this press conference represented some watershed moment for Catholic teaching on homosexuality is “incredibly naive.” Berger argues that Pope Francis has done nothing to address the marginalization of Catholics within his Church and asks, “What are gays or lesbians to think when someone tells them: I don’t want you to be discriminated against, but you are not allowed to live out your ‘tendency’ anyway?”

Berger is one of many gay Catholics who call for a substantial change in Church teaching on homosexuality. In an interview with the New York radio station WNYC, Jamie Manson, columnist for the National Catholic Reporter, said that she finds the Church doctrine on homosexuality oppressive and cannot accept the Pope as a moral authority. She distinguishes between the teachings of the Church and the teachings of Christ, who welcomed every person to his table, especially those who were discriminated against. Manson argues that the Catholic Church should bring its teaching in line with the teaching of Christ.


Surveys show that it is not only the gay Catholic community that disagrees with the opinions of the clergy on matters of sexuality. A study published in March 2011 by the Public Religion Research Institute found that only 39 percent of Catholics in the US said that homosexual behaviour was morally wrong. Further, a Gallup poll carried out in July 2013 found that 60 percent of Catholics would vote for legalizing same-sex marriages in all 50 states of the US. Marianne Duddy-Burke, Executive Director of DignityUSA, an organization that works to secure respect and justice for gay people within the Catholic Church, wrote in the Huffington Post that the Catholic Church is living a “split reality.” She argues that we ‘’need to grapple with fact that our bishops are defining Catholicism in a way that is directly opposed to what most Catholics believe and want our church to be.’’

Civil rights vs. religious freedom

As well as those demanding a re-interpretation of Catholic doctrine, pressure upon the Church to change its position on homosexuality also comes from campaigners who argue that current Church teaching represents a violation of the human rights of gay people.

A Californian Supreme Court ruling in May 2008 found that sexual orientation is a protected class like race and gender. The implication is that discrimination against people for reasons of sexuality is a matter of civil and human rights, not one of religious belief. This same assumption is evident in recent legislation, most notably the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), which was introduced to the United States Congress in April 2013. The bill was approved by a Senate Committee on July 10, and now awaits a full vote in the Senate and House. If approved, this legislation would prohibit discrimination by private employers in hiring on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. The Human Rights Campaign argues that this bill “simply affords to all Americans basic employment protection from discrimination based on irrational prejudice.”

While religious organizations themselves are exempt from the bill, it would still have considerable ramifications for the institutions and practices of Catholic believers. For instance, as explained by Melissa Moschella on the Public Discourse blog, as a result of the ENDA, a Catholic school could not refuse an application from a gay teacher on the grounds of his or her sexuality, even though he or she may openly live a lifestyle in contradiction to Catholic teaching.

In the United States, freedom of religion is a constitutionally guaranteed right. To change Catholic doctrine such that it would sanction practices like homosexual marriage and sex would call into question some of the most fundamental tenets of Catholic belief regarding the purpose of marriage and the concept of the family. It is for these reasons that Moschella argues that the ENDA would violate the right to religious freedom.

Reconciling conflicting freedoms

Religious freedom is more often thought of as a human right rather than as a challenge to human rights. Homosexuality is one of a few issues- including abortion, contraception and female priests – that has put Catholic values and human rights into an awkward conflict.

2013 has been a year of progress for gay rights legislation, particularly as several countries in Europe and the Americas have legalized gay marriage. This makes the challenge of finding a way to reconcile religious values and civil freedoms increasingly urgent.

Meeting this challenge is not easy. UK case law, which was cited by the European Court of Human Rights in a judgment regarding four devout appellants on January 15, 2013, states that “religion involves belief in the supernatural. It is not always susceptible to lucid exposition or, still less, rational justification.” Yet, an editorial in The Guardian argues, “If we are serious – as we must be – about the freedom to believe, we at least try to reconcile the two.”

To demonstrate the validity of religious values within legislative debates, and to allow religious argument to hold its own against the concept of human rights, it is necessary to explain why such values should be treated differently from other belief systems. One way forward may be for a person, who wants to advance an argument based upon religious values, to adopt the terminology of civil rights in order to justify their position. On June 3, 2013, the Archbishop of Canterbury, head of the Anglican Church, explained his opposition to the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act in England and Wales: he said that the bill “assumes that the rightful desire for equality…must mean uniformity, failing to understand that two things can be equal but different.”

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