In October 1987, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith released a letter to the Catholic bishops on the subject of the pastoral care of homosexual persons. Authored by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and approved by Pope John Paul II, the Pastoral Care of Homosexuals – sometimes advanced by Catholics themselves – which were at odds with the teaching of the Church.

Asserting that “only what is true can ultimately be pastoral,” the letter is first and foremost, a sustained effort to distinguish the sinner from the sin. It deplores homosexuality itself, calling it an “intrinsic moral evil,” but as for the homosexual person, it presses the bishops to “care for those whose suffering can only be intensified by error.”

The letter entreats the worlds’ bishops to back “appropriate forms of pastoral care for homosexual persons,” these, however, should not evade the moral issue of the evil of homosexuality. If they want to effectively free men and women from homosexual disorders, the letter concludes, bishops must withdraw support from organizations which subvert Christian sexual morality: “Such support or even the semblance of such support can be gravely misinterpreted. Special attention should be given to the practice of scheduling religious services and to the use of church buildings by these groups, including the facilities of Catholic schools and colleges.

Health and well-being

Have the Catholic bishops responded to the challenge presented in The Pastoral Care of Homosexuals? In many dioceses, the answer is yes. Organized programs, guided by Church teaching, now exist in many places to promote the health and well-being of homosexuals. One of these, is Courage, a spiritual support group of Catholic lay men and women who aspire to live chaste lives in accordance with the teaching of the Church.

At the instigation of the late Cardinal Terrance J. Cooke, Fr. John Harvey, who teaches medical ethics at Allentown College in St. Francis de Sales in Pennsylvania, founded Courage in New York City in 1980. A decade later it has spread to a number of other U.S. dioceses, including Philadelphia and Washington, and to two Canadian ones – Toronto and Vancouver.

The Toronto chapter of Courage operates with the official approval of the Archbishop of Toronto.

“The Archdiocese of Toronto is in agreement with the principles espoused by Courage and with the practices and lifestyle it encourages,” wrote the then Vice-Chancellor of the Archdiocese, Rev. Ronald H. Kelly in a letter to the president of the chapter, dated June 19, 1987.

“We believe that the [1987 Vatican] document calls for a pastoral approach. Courage specifies that approach and makes it concrete in terms of a program…that assists homosexual persons to live a life of sexual abstinence dedicated to Christ,” Fr. Harvey told The Interim. The Oblates of St. Francis de Sales priest was in Toronto June 23, to mark the fourth anniversary of its fledgling chapter, now at 12 to 15 members. Numbers are still relatively small, but that is no surprise in view of the organization’s strict adherence to Church teaching on homosexuality. This position discourages the popularity and publicity that a pro-homosexual rights group like Dignity has, for example, on the same weekend that the Toronto chapter of Courage met quietly and modestly to observe its anniversary. Dignity Toronto marched with other homosexual activists in the city’s annual Lesbian and Gay Pride Day Parade.


A number of U.S. bishops have denied pro-homosexual organizations the use of diocesan properties. In late 1987, for example, Archbishop Roger Mahoney of Los Angeles disallowed the pending move of the local Dignity chapter to St. Ambrose Church in West Hollywood. The Archbishop cited the Vatican’s letter in his decision. Dignity/Los Angeles – the founding chapter in the twenty-year-old, 4,500 strong Dignity/U.S.A. network – was therefore forced to use facilities in an Episcopal (Anglican) church in the same district.

Initially U.S. based Dignity first came to Canada in November 1974 when a member of Dignity/Boston visited Toronto to establish a chapter. Still in existence today, and a member chapter of Dignity/Canada, an organization now independent of the U.S. parent, Dignity/Toronto meets each Sunday at Our Lady of Lourdes Roman Catholic church in the central part of the city.

Fr. John Duggan

The acting pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes, Fr. John Duggan, S.J., vehemently defended the church’s decision to make its parish hall available to Dignity/Toronto despite the Vatican’s clear prohibition of such. At the same time, however, Fr. Duggan did not seem to know about Dignity/Toronto’s meeting schedule or that they have Mass said for them once a month.

Fr. Duggan denied that any similarity existed between Dignity and the groups identified in the Vatican letter which generates confusion about the Church’s clear teaching on homosexuality. “This is one document that you choose to connect with Dignity…Why should we connect this document to Dignity? You’re identifying Dignity with unrepentant homosexual groups and I think that that’s questionable,” he told The Interim.

Unlike the members of Courage, who believe that “homosexual activities under all circumstances is immoral,” Dignity believes that “homosexual activity is justified if the two people are involved in a loving and faithful relationship,” said Fr. Harvey. “One groups is supporting the Church and the other groups is not supporting the Church; that’s what it comes down to in practice” he added.

A sampling of declarations from Dignity and its defenders over fifteen years bears out this crucial distinction:

“We believe that gay men and lesbian women can express their sexuality in a manner that is consonant with Christ’s teaching,” reads Dignity/Canada’s Statement of Purpose.

“We are people in the self-acceptance and celebration of our lesbian and gay sexuality. This birth buries the past belief that the practice of our sexual orientation, the expression of our love – the expression of ourselves is inherently sinful,” wrote a Dignity/Toronto member in 1984, the tenth anniversary of the founding of Dignity in Toronto and Canada.

“Gay sexual love is a holy, and must therefore be accepted by the Catholic Church,” said John McNeill at the December 4, 1988 meeting of Dignity/Toronto according to a source present. McNeill an honoured guest at the May 1990 national meeting of Dignity/Canada in Ottawa, is an ex-Jesuit priest who now touts homosexuality throughout North America.

“Rome is wrong,” Said M. Marc Desjardins, spokesman for the Dignity/Ottawa chapter. “There is nothing sinful about being gay, and we have to change the church from within, from the grass roots.” M. Desjardins was responding to the November 1989 protest led by Fr. Michael McCarthy, a priest of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, against the regular Sunday presence of Dignity at St. Joseph’s church in Ottawa. (See “Inaction in Ottawa” in this issue.

Out of the closet

The decisions of U.S. bishops to deny church services and facilities to Dignity may have forced the organization to ‘come out of the closet’ with regards to what it claims is the “blessing and gift” of homosexuality. In August 1989, at its twentieth anniversary convention in San Francisco, Dignity/U.S.A. issued a document which formally parted company with Church teaching.

The document, Sexual Ethics: Experience growth, challenge, states in part, that “We cannot accept the position of church officials that our sexual identify is an objective moral disorder, a tendency toward an intrinsic moral evil, and that any genital expression of its is absolutely forbidden…We reclaim our sexuality and its genital expression as intrinsically good.”

With unintentional irony, the authors justify this dissent from Church teaching on homosexuality by appealing to the teaching of the same Church on the individual’s freedom of conscience. Homosexual activity is not only permissible, the document argues, but obligatory in the eyes of the Church if the individual has “responsibly” concluded that it cannot be otherwise.

Asked by The Interim early in March 1990 if Dignity/Toronto agreed to this opinion, the chapter’s chairperson – who refused to give his full name – provided a written answer which can only be described as evasive and legalistic:

“Dignity/Toronto subscribes to the statement of purpose of Dignity/Canada of which it is a chapter,” he wrote. “Dignity/Toronto is not a chapter of Dignity/U.S.A., and is not accountable [i.e., liable] for the policy statements of that organization.”

However, in Yes, you can be gay and Catholic, a recent publication (1989), of Dignity/Toronto, the organization reveals that it is essentially at one with the dissenting opinions, expressed in Sexual Ethics: Experience, growth, challenge:

“The Catholic Church’s official position on homosexuality is that…sexual expression of homosexual love is sinful. But, officially, the Church also teaches that contraception is sinful. However, many, many good and conscientious Catholics practice contraception because they know it is the responsible thing to do in their given circumstances. And the Church officially supports their right and gay people’s right to follow their own conscience.”

In the light of this self-serving argument, it is clear that while Dignity/Toronto rods in the direction of Church teaching on homosexuality, it presents that teaching as not normative for the formation of individual conscience. “While their members may claim a desire to conform their lives to the teaching of Jesus,” The Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons, asserts, “In fact, they abandon the teaching of his church. This contradictory action should not have the support of the bishops in any way.” (emphasis added)

For three years the Archdiocese of Toronto has officially sponsored Courage, an authentic program of pastoral care that offers true dignity for homosexual persons without deluding or isolating them. In its Christian concern for all the people of Toronto, homosexual or not, the time has come for the Archdiocese to free itself of further contradiction, scandal and confusion. Its course of action is clear.