An Open Letter from Dr. William Sloan Coffin to the National Conference of Catholic Bishops to be Presented on November 14th in Washington


November 14, 2000 (to be presented in Washington)


In a Washington cemetery, on the gravestone of a Vietnam veteran, it is written "When I was in the military, they gave me a medal for killing two men and a discharge for loving one."

Why, like the army, are so many churches on the wrong side of history? What is a man loving another immutably immoral? Can a Hamlet once again persuade a reluctant Horatio that "there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy"?

As we have done in other cities addressing the leaders of other Christian denominations, so, dear Bishops, we have come today to Washington to plead with you to revisit your teaching on homosexuality. Previously you issued two shining pastorals, one supporting the poor, the other cautioning against war. But on this issue you are remounting the barricades, facing the wrong direction, causing much suffering and prompting countless seekers to say, "If this is religion we’re better off without it."

Homosexuality was not a big issue for Biblical writers. Nowhere in the four Gospels it is even mentioned. And the verses that forbid homosexual behavior – all seven in seventy-one books – these should properly be used not to flay gays and lesbians but instead to chastise Christians who choose to recite a few sentences from St. Paul and to retain passages from a misread Old Testament law code. Everything Biblical is not Christ-like, and these particular verses, involving more hate than love, have no place whatsoever in the human heart. For Christians, the problem is not how to reconcile homosexuality with scriptural passages that condemn it, but how to reconcile the rejection and punishment of homosexuals with the love of Christ. If people can show the tenderness and constancy in caring that honors Christ’s love, what matters their sexual orientation? Shouldn’t a relationship be judged by its inner worth rather than by its outer appearance? Shouldn’t a Christian sexual ethic focus on personal relationships and social justice rather than particular sexual acts, particularly when evidence increasingly emerges that homosexuality is a natural biological variation?

I’m a great believer in tradition. It’s a big mistake casually to discount Church doctrines that once convinced the wisest among our Christian forebears. But doctrines are not immune to error; tradition is no oracle. And a tradition that cannot be changed also cannot be preserved. That lesson is as old as history itself. In other words, church people have always both to recover tradition and to recover from it.

I know that the Roman Catholic Church repudiates violent forms of homophobia. But to deplore the violence while continuing to proclaim the ideas that undergird it strikes thoughtful people as hypocritical. The teaching of the Church sanctifies the denigration of gays and lesbians. So instead of looking at gays and lesbians from the perspective of Catholic theology wouldn’t it be better to look at Catholic theology from the perspective of gays and lesbians? The picture of Matthew Shepard hanging on a Wyoming fence burns in my mind and heart.

Said Edmund Burke: "Falsehood has a perennial spring." And why not? "Our knowledge is imperfect", "We see in a mirror dimly." Isn’t that why the revelation of Jesus is finally about loving rather than knowing?

I close with another image, one that has haunted me for fifty years. Albert Camus complained of Christians who climb up on the cross to be seen from afar, thereby trampling on the One who has hung there so long.

Were you moved to respond I would be deeply grateful.

William Sloane Coffin

*Dr. Coffin will present this "Open Letter" to the National Conference of Catholic Bishops During a Soulforce, Dignity/USA, Equal Partner’s in Faith Press Conference At a Vigil and Civil Disobedience at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception Washington, DC, November 14, 2000, 10AM

A Brief Biography of the Rev. Dr. William Sloane Coffin

"No stranger to controversy, Coffin became famous while chaplain at Yale in the 1960s for his active support of the civil rights movement and his opposition to the Vietnam War. Jailed as a civil rights "Freedom Rider," indicted by the government in the Benjamin Spock conspiracy trial, he attained popular immortality as Reverend Sloan in the Doonesbury comic strip. Now in his 70s and retired as senior minister of New York’s Riverside Church, Coffin has lost neither his fire nor his wit. Dr. Coffin is president emeritus of SANE/FREEZE: Campaign for Global Security. His books include Once to Every Man: An Autobiography, The Courage to Love, Living the Truth in a World of Illusions, and A Passion for the Possible."

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