The Vatican’s Iron Curtain

Pope John Paul II moved against gay and lesbian Catholics as AIDS wrought a horrific toll

As hundreds of thousands of pilgrims and dozens of heads of state flock to the Vatican to mourn the death of Pope John Paul II, whose passing has occasioned encomia for his role in overthrowing communist rule in Eastern Europe and reinvigorating a church whose global membership now exceeds one billion believers, many gay American Catholics have a decidedly different appraisal of a man likely to receive expedited consideration for sainthood.

More so than any other issue, the confluence in the 1980s of the rising death toll from AIDS in the U.S. and the efforts by the Vatican to reassert a doctrinal orthodoxy that unequivocally condemns the sexual expression of gay and lesbian Catholics, explains the alienation now widely felt by many. By 1986, when the Vatican issued its first official statement on homosexuality in more than a decade, AIDS had claimed the lives of nearly three thousand Americans, with tens of thousands more infected with HIV. Within the next several years, American fatalities from the disease would skyrocket, nearly a decade before the advent of protease inhibitors, and ahead of the virus’ leapfrogging around the globe to wreak havoc in African, Asia and elsewhere

In 1985, the irrational fear of AIDS had reached a feverish height, with scientists still struggling to understand the virus’ replication and with the popular perception lingering that AIDS was a “gay disease.” That same year, only after a successful re-election campaign, did Pres. Ronald Reagan utter the word AIDS for the first time. Meanwhile, the tragic story of a 13-year-old boy named Ryan White, a hemophiliac, who became HIV-positive from a blood transfusion, and forced to leave his school after officials acceded to the demands of classmates’ parents, made clear that AIDS was not an affliction spawned by the irresponsible sexual practices of gay men, but a deadly virus that knew no racial, sexual or geographic boundaries.

Faced with governmental neglect and popular scapegoating, some church-going gay and lesbian American Catholics, particularly in more socially tolerant cities like New York, Chicago and elsewhere, were met by a pastoral outreach undertaken by clergy responding to the social justice ethos articulated in the 1960s following the reformist Second Vatican Council. These parish priests and nuns ministered to AIDS sufferers and encouraged gay and lesbian involvement in church services. During the early 1980s, membership in gay and lesbian Catholic groups like Dignity significantly increased, with Masses celebrated inside neighborhood parish churches such as Manhattan’s St. Francis Xavier on West 16th Street.

In Washington, D.C., Sister Jeannine Gramick and Rev. Robert Nugent, began New Ways Ministry, an apostolate dedicated to closing the breach between the church and gay and lesbian Catholics. Yet, as this pastoral work made inroads amongst a disaffected population of Catholics, the Vatican, in 1986, spoke out unequivocally against any acceptance of homosexual expression. In a letter addressed to bishops on the pastoral care of “homosexual persons,” the Vatican labeled homosexuality “a more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil” and expressed the church’s opposition to any recognition of same-sex relationships and even to the right of gay groups to celebrate within churches.

The directive’s virulence crystallized in a passage denouncing the right of groups like Dignity to maintain a toehold in helping to shape the life of the church. After excoriating the supposed success of “pressure groups” within the church in convincing pastors of the concept that “homosexuality is at least a completely harmless, if not an entirely good, thing,” the letter, authored by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, head of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, a central administrative and doctrinal office within the honeycomb of the Vatican bureaucracy, stated, “even when the practice of homosexuality may seriously threaten the lives and well-being of a large number of people, its advocates remain undeterred and refuse to consider the magnitude of the risks involved.”

At a time when many gays felt physically threatened by elements of society whipped into an AIDS-phobic hysteria, the document’s reference to such violence, while denouncing its immorality, also seemed like a justification for gays upsetting the “natural order” of human sexual relations. “Neither the Church nor society at large should be surprised when other distorted notions and practices gain ground, and irrational and violent reactions increase,” wrote Ratzinger, in a document that received the pontiff’s imprimatur.

The veiled phraseology, so typical of Vatican documents, including papal encyclicals—in which the Vatican’s avoidance of temporal preoccupations precludes specific references to individuals or current events in order to underscore the historic breadth of the church’s teachings—was, nevertheless, unmistakably directed at those bishops who either tacitly or actively encouraged openly gay and lesbian Catholics to become active church members.

The denunciation of “homosexual behavior,” or gay sex, steeped in a scriptural justification, outraged gay and lesbian people, Catholic and otherwise. That John Paul II, the “people’s pope,” a relatively young, charismatic world traveler—the first non-Italian pontiff in more than 450 years who did not hesitate to criticize Pres. Reagan for cutting social service-spending, or to stare down a Polish generalissimo during martial rule—authorized such an official attack, struck many gay Catholics as rubbing salt in the wounds, both physical and psychic, of an un-remedied plague.

Previous Vatican pronouncements on homosexuality, including a document on sexual ethics issued during the papacy of Paul VI that termed homosexual relationships as “intrinsically disordered,” seemed relatively benign, even if simply misinformed, compared to this studied diatribe that, while lacking awareness of emerging scientific and historic data about the resilience of homosexuality, brooked no dissent or misinterpretation.

By 1986, then, as he continued to staff the curia with doctrinaire leaders, like Ratzinger, the present chamberlain of the interregnum, Cardinal Eduardo Martinez Somalo, and others—many rumored to be members of the ultra-conservative Opus Dei sect—John Paul II established a stance against homosexuality that never wavered throughout his papacy and will likely persevere through that of his successor.

The Vatican’s 1986 pastoral directive pitted gay activists, already energized and terrified by the AIDS epidemic, against the American church’s leaders. ACT UP, known for its unabashed acts of civil disobedience, was aiming for a confrontation with New York’s late Cardinal John O’Connor, a John Paul appointee, known for his outspoken opposition to gay rights and the distribution of condoms in the city’s public schools. Meanwhile, the Vatican undertook disciplinary proceedings against Gramick and Nugent, eventually prohibiting them from ministering to their Washington flock, censuring their writings on homosexuality and in 1999 ordering Gramick to maintain silence on the subject.

In 1992, as gay rights initiatives became ratified in various American localities and in Europe, the Vatican, in another letter to bishops, argued against the passage of hate crime laws that included protections for gays and lesbians. Some American bishops simply ignored these directives, or actively spoke out against them. However, when such leaders, many of whom were elderly, died or retired, the Vatican replaced them with strict adherents of Catholic orthodoxy.

Elsewhere, closer to Rome, after the Netherlands and Belgium legalized same-sex marriage and the European Union began consideration of other forms of legal recognition for same-sex relationships, the Vatican issued yet another decree on “de facto unions,” underscoring its opposition to gays adopting children and demanding that gay Catholics remain chaste in order to abstain from a “grave moral sin.”

In 2000, during the celebration of the Vatican’s jubilee, Pope John Paul II publicly expressed his disgust with an international gathering of 70,000 gays and lesbians who paraded in Rome in a World Pride event that unfolded without incident. John Paul told the press that the parade had desecrated a holy city.

By November 2003, when the Massachusetts high court ruled that the state’s same-sex couples had a right to marry, the battle lines were firmly drawn and the Vatican did not hesitate to weigh in during the subsequent presidential election season, when Pres. George W. Bush endorsed a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage and powerful officials in the Vatican’s bureaucracy, including Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, decried the immoral impact that gay marriages would have upon society, and another document called upon Catholic elected officials to actively undermine the passage or enforcement of laws that granted recognition to same-sex couples.