An Open Letter to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Regarding "Natural Law" Theology

November, 2001

Dear Bishops:

Over the last year, as we have attempted to raise issues concerning the Church’s teachings, we have been told by Church leaders, including bishops, that they "can’t change Church teachings." The suggestion seems to be that once the Church has created a dogma around an issue it never changes it. But that’s clearly not true. Areas where the Church has changed its teachings, include usury, slavery, and of course, the excommunication of Galileo for contradicting Church belief that the sun revolved around the earth.

We are asking you to read this open letter with a prophetic heart, because lives have been shattered by the Church’s current teachings on homosexuality. The basis of the Church’s teachings against sexual intimacy between members of the same sex is based on what the Church calls "natural law." The key to this teaching on sexual ethics has been the insistence that the procreative capacity is essential to sex and may not be deliberately excluded. However, our studies indicate that this belief is not supported by either Hebrew or Christian scriptures. Its origins are based primarily from stoic philosophers St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas.

These teachings have, over the last forty years, been expanded to recognize the interpersonal dimension of human sexuality. A clear indication of that change has been the Church’s blessing of non-procreative sex within the marriages of sterile and elderly couples. It also is reflected in the numbers of priests who no longer consider the use of birth control by married couples to be a cause to deny the sacraments to them. Gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Catholics who are partnered are, like married couples who practice the use of birth control, guided by their own understanding of personal conscience.

As Cardinal Newman once stated, the laity’s view "may serve at times as a needed ‘witness to the truth’ of a revealed doctrine." Though ignored time and again by the Magisterium, the people of God continue to bear "witness to truth." According to the book Roman Catholicism in America by Chester Gillis, 88% of Catholics in 1993 believed that contraception was a matter of personal moral judgment. Obviously the hierarchy’s teachings on "natural law" are not a dogma accepted by the laity, which Cardinal Newman referred to as "the believing Church." When the Church refuses to listen to the "believing church," Cardinal Newman went on to say, it loses its authority to teach.

We live on a planet on which reside more than 6 billion people. We live in a time in which science has come to to recognize the natural order of homosexuality both within the human and animal kingdoms. Will the Church react to this new scientific understanding as it did to Galileo’s recognition that the sun did not revolve around the earth? The Church’s reaction to this scientific pronouncement was to excommunicate Galileo for heresy, and then some 400 years later to apologize for that excommunication.

Certainly many bishops are aware of the role gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Catholics have played within our Church. What then keeps those bishops from acting as the prophetic voice that is so needed at a time like this? Clearly it is fear. And while that fear is based on what has happened within the Church, historically, we must always remember that fear and love cannot coincide. When our ministry is primarily a "profession," a job, then the prophetic witness is too easily silenced.

It is time, now, for bishops to claim the role of prophetic witness within the Church. Changes have come when people have had the courage to stand up against a teaching and to say that this must change. Consider if you will where the Church might be without the prophetic witness of the Purcell brothers. Most of us within the Church do not even know their names. It was their vision of justice that led them to condemn slavery at a time when the Church had publicly declared that slavery was not "intrinsically evil." Do those words sound familiar? Same sex acts of intimacy are, according to the Church "intrinsically evil," but in 1866, the Vatican was still declaring that " Slavery itself… is not at all contrary to natural and divine law…"

Obviously, Church teachings on this subject have changed to reflect a new vision and understanding of scripture and the inclusiveness of God’s love. And the Roman Catholic Church, since that time, has been a leading voice against racism. We call on you to once again be a prophetic voice and to speak out the truth as the Purcell brothers did. Be willing to courageously lead the Church in the faithful application of the Gospel in light of the truth about human sexuality. This may involve risking careers, but it also means a profound fulfillment of the call to ministry. By not confronting the antigay teachings of the Church, you risk something much more important than your career. You risk the alienation of gay people and their families from God and the Church, as well as the continuation of the persecution and oppression of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. It is long past time for the Church to recognize that sexual intimacy based on love binds people in a loving and loyal union that contributes to the wholesome functioning of society.

Be a prophetic voice in the wilderness! Now is the time for the Roman Catholic Church to appoint an International Board of Inquiry to seek the truth about sexual and gender minorities. The anti-homosexual teachings flow out of ignorance and superstition, the same kind of ignorance and superstition that declared Galileo to be a heretic. Those teachings must be thoroughly reviewed and speedily repudiated.

Now is the time for the Roman Catholic Church to listen to the voice of the people of God, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Catholics as well as our families and friends. Hear our cry for truth and for justice. Include on that Board of Inquiry gay people in loving relationships. Hear our stories. Share our suffering, suffering that flows directly and indirectly out of the anti-gay teachings and actions of our Church.

Reclaim the Church’s authority to teach, by listening to the people of God!

Kara Speltz
Catholic Co-Chair, Soulforce/USCCB Vigil

Mel White
Founder & Executive Director, Soulforce, Inc.