By Alan Cooperman and Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, November 15, 2006
BALTIMORE, Nov. 14 -- Faced with rising public acceptance of same-sex relationships, three U.S. Christian denominations are taking strong measures this week to condemn homosexual acts as sinful.
The nation's Roman Catholic bishops, meeting in Baltimore, declared Tuesday that Catholics who minister to gays must firmly adhere to the church's teaching that same-sex attractions are "disordered." Catholics with "a homosexual inclination" should be encouraged to live in chastity and discouraged from making "general public announcements" about their sexual orientation, the bishops said.
The largest Baptist group in North Carolina, meanwhile, moved to expel any congregation that condones homosexuality, adopting a policy that allows the Baptist State Convention to investigate complaints that member churches are too "gay-friendly."
And on Wednesday in Pittsburgh, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), a mainline Protestant denomination with about 3 million members, will put a minister on trial for conducting a marriage ceremony for two women.
The decisions are part of a mounting backlash in many U.S. denominations against church groups whose stated goal is not only to welcome but also to "affirm" gay congregants. For many religious groups, the biblical injunction to hate the sin but love the sinner is no longer sufficient, because many believers do not view homosexuality as a sin.
The impulse to restate traditional teachings against same-sex activity is complicated by the simultaneous desire to minister to gays. Thus, Bishop Arthur J. Serratelli of Paterson, N.J., chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' committee on doctrine, stressed that the tone of the bishops' statement was intended to be "positive, pastoral and welcoming," even as it compared same-sex attractions to the temptations of "envy, malice or greed."
Asked how he could square those two messages, Serratelli told reporters that "the truth is always welcoming."
The bishops' statement came in the form of new guidelines for Catholic ministries aimed at gay men and lesbians. Bishops must take care, it says, "to ensure that those carrying out the ministry of the Church not use their position of leadership to advocate positions or behaviors not in keeping with the teachings of the Church."
It is not sufficient, the document adds, for those ministering to gays to take a position of "distant neutrality" toward the church's teachings.
Donald W. Wuerl, Washington's new archbishop, said the document should not be seen as a crackdown on pro-gay ministries. Rather, he said, "the starting point is the church living in a culture in which these things are being promoted, and our task is to keep saying: 'Remember, here are the true teachings of the church.' "
Serratelli, summarizing the document, said the church considers same-sex attractions to be "objectively disordered" because "they do not accord with the natural purpose of sexuality." Although "simply experiencing a homosexual inclination is not in itself a sin," he said, homosexual acts are "sinful," "never morally acceptable" and "do not lead to true human happiness."
A coalition of 15 Catholic groups that support the full inclusion of gays in the church, including Call to Action and DignityUSA, denounced the document as "not at all pastoral, but rather harmful."
"These guidelines try to make gay and lesbian people invisible in the church. The plan here is not to minister but to make a 'problem' disappear," said Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, a Catholic outreach group for gays.
In North Carolina, the state Baptist Convention voted to broaden its fight against homosexuality by moving to expel churches that "affirm," "approve," or "bless" same-sex relationships.
The measure targets as many as a dozen Baptist churches in the state that position themselves as actively welcoming gays, but it could exclude any church that enrolls openly gay members.
The growing acceptance of gays in popular culture and the fact that homosexuality has powerful advocacy groups made the stance necessary, Baptist leaders said.
"In our day and time, no other sin marches so defiantly across our national landscape," Mark Harris, the head of the committee that introduced the measure, told the 2,600 delegates, or "messengers," assembled at a convention hall in Greensboro, N.C.
But while the proposal was approved by the required two-thirds majority, hundreds held up their hands to object. Some worried that churches would spy and report on one another. Others said the measure impinged on local church autonomy and reflected an unfounded obsession with homosexuality.
"It seems so contrary, at least to me, to the picture and posture of Jesus in the gospels," Nathan Parrish, from a church in Winston-Salem, N.C., told the assembly. "Jesus's life and ministry were marked by radical hospitality, openness, vulnerability, humility. By contrast, the Baptist State Convention is recommending that we . . . magnify the message that certain types of people, as well as their friends and perhaps their fellow believers and family members, are neither welcome nor worthy of a place at the table of this community."
What made the measure extraordinary, church members on both sides said, is that for what may be the first time in the convention's 176-year history, membership in the group would be contingent upon a specific policy -- that is, treatment of gays.
"This issue has emerged as a litmus test," said Andrew Wakefield, professor of biblical studies at Campbell University, in Buies Creek, N.C., which is affiliated with the Baptist State Convention.
On Wednesday in Pittsburgh, the Rev. Janet Edwards will go on trial before a Presbyterian Church tribunal for officiating at a same-sex marriage ceremony. Earlier this year, the Redwoods Presbytery in Northern California acquitted a minister in a similar trial, ruling that ceremonies for same-sex couples are not "contrary to the essentials of the Reformed faith."
Jimmy Creech, who was defrocked as a United Methodist minister in 1999 for performing a marriage ceremony for two men, said the number of U.S. churches that welcome openly gay members has been rising steadily, including many congregations in the Methodist Church, the Episcopal Church and the United Church of Christ.
"But it's a social change that, for many, has theological implications they just are not willing to accept," he said.
Whoriskey reported from Greensboro.