Starting in the 1970s, New Ways Ministry leaders crisscrossed America urging Catholics to believe that somehow, someday, the Vatican would repent of what they saw as the church's dangerous doctrines on homosexuality.
During a 1989 Denver workshop, the late Father Robert Nugent stressed that there was more to the church's teachings than homophobia and heterosexism. Hopeful tensions already existed in official church statements and the Catechism.
For example, a 1986 Vatican letter said: “Although the particular inclination of the homosexual person is not a sin, it is a more or less strong tendency ordered towards an intrinsic moral evil, and thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder.”
That's bad, said Nugent. But the church also defends the dignity of all persons, including gays and lesbians. Someday, a reformer pope could argue that church teachings should evolve because of this larger truth about human dignity.
“We hear a lot of anger about the church and what it teaches,” he said, several years before Rome ordered him to cease his New Ways Ministry work. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger -- who later became Pope Benedict XVI -- led the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith at that time.
“We try to say (to gays and lesbians), 'Hey folks, what the church is saying isn't all bad news,'“ said Nugent.
Three decades later, New Ways Ministry is still making that argument, especially in light of new language used by Pope Francis and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith's current leader, in their condemnation of the death penalty.
The Catholic Catechism now proclaims that there is “an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes. ... Consequently, the Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that 'the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person,' and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide.”
Cardinal Luis Ladaria, in an explanatory letter to bishops, explained that this revised Catechism language “expresses an authentic development of doctrine that is not in contradiction with the prior teachings of the Magisterium. ... (It) desires to give energy to a movement towards a decisive commitment to favor a mentality that recognizes the dignity of every human life.”
This is a very positive development, according to Francis DeBernardo, the current executive director of New Ways Ministry.
“So, the change is not a contradiction, even though it is the opposite of what came before it? Hmmmm,” wrote DeBernardo in a blog post that was republished by The Advocate, a national gay news source. The Advocate headline stated: “The Vatican Evolved on the Death Penalty. Are LGBTQ Rights Next?”
There are several reasons that this death penalty shift -- which caught liberal and conservative Catholics by surprise -- offers hope for Catholics who want to see changes in the church's doctrines on sex, argued DeBernardo.
“First, we now have a clear, explicit contemporary example of church teaching changing, and also a look into how it can be done: with a papal change to the Catechism,” he wrote.
“Second, we can see that the process that brought about this change has been decades of theological debate and discussion, and not just a papal whim. That means the theological and even ecclesial discussions and debates right now about LGBT people have great potential to shape future changes in church teaching in regard to those topics.”
In terms of rhetoric, however, the crucial point is that “dignity” language has emerged -- in secular legal debates and in theological discussions -- as the cornerstone for arguments backing LGBTQ rights, added DeBernardo.
It's clear that the cultural context for debates about homosexuality is changing in the modern world, just as it has for discussions of the death penalty.
Thus, DeBernardo noted that, in the updated death penalty stance, the pope’s “emphasis that human dignity is not eradicated despite whatever condition a person may be in highlights an important theme of his papacy, which has been helpful for pastoral ministry to LGBT people: Because everyone has inherent human dignity, the church should be open and welcoming to all people, regardless of whether or not their lives conform to church teaching in other areas. The church should not leave anyone out.”
(Terry Mattingly is the editor of GetReligion.org and Senior Fellow for Media and Religion at The King's College in New York City. He lives in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.)