Pope John Paul II on Homosexuality

Male couple enjoy intimate time together
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Official Catholic doctrine describes homosexuality as a “disorder” even though the Catechism also insists that gays “must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity.” What is the reason for this duality? According to Catholic doctrine, sexual activity only exists for the purpose of procreation, and obviously, homosexual activity cannot produce children. Therefore, homosexual acts are contrary to nature and God’s wishes and must be a sin.

The Vatican's Position

Although the Vatican has never accepted any of the arguments offered by those who want to change Catholic policy on homosexuality, it did make a number of statements during the 1970s that were treated as hopeful. Although they, of course, reaffirmed the traditional teachings, they also began to stake out new ground.

Under Pope John Paul II, however, matters began to change. His first major statement on homosexuality was not made until 1986, but it marked a significant departure from the hopeful changes which had begun to mark the previous years. Issued on October 31, 1986, by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of Faith (the new name for the Inquisition), it expressed traditional teachings in very harsh and uncompromising language. According to his “Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons,”

“Although the particular inclination of the homosexual person is not a sin, it is a more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil; thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder. Therefore special concern and pastoral attention should be directed to those who have this condition, lest they be led to believe that the living out of this orientation in homosexual activity is a morally acceptable option. It is not.”

The key here is the phrase “objective disorder” — the Vatican had not used such language before, and it outraged many. John Paul II was telling people that even if homosexuality is not freely chosen by each individual, it is nevertheless inherently and objectively wrong. It’s not merely that homosexual activity is wrong, but homosexuality itself — the orientation of being emotionally, psychologically, and physically attracted to members of the same sex — that is objectively wrong. Not a “sin,” but still wrong.

Another important factor was that the letter was written in English rather than the traditional Latin or Italian. This meant that it was aimed at American Catholics in particular and as such was a direct rebuke to the growing liberalism in the United States. It did not have the effect which was intended. After this letter, American Catholic support for the Vatican’s position dropped from around 68 percent to 58 percent.


John Paul's and the Vatican's attack on gays in the United States continued five years later when, in 1992, gay rights initiatives began to appear on ballots in several states. A directive to the bishops, entitled “Some Considerations Concerning the Catholic Response to Legislative Proposals on the Non-Discrimination of Homosexual Persons” was issued, declaring:

“Recently, legislation had been proposed in some American states which would make discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation illegal. ...Such initiatives, even where they seem more directed toward support of basic civil rights than condonement of homosexual activity or a homosexual lifestyle, may in fact have a negative impact on the family and society... 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.”

Apparently, family and society are threatened when the basic civil rights of gays are explicitly protected by the government. Apparently, it might be better to allow gays to suffer from discrimination and persecution when it comes to employment or housing rather than risk giving the impression that the government approves of either homosexuality or homosexual activity. Naturally, supporters of gay rights were not pleased by this.

Memory and Identity

Pope John Paul II's position on homosexuality only grew more intransigent and harsh over time. In his 2005 book Memory and Identity, John Paul labeled homosexuality an “ideology of evil,” saying when discussing gay marriage that, “It is legitimate and necessary to ask oneself if this is not perhaps part of a new ideology of evil, perhaps more insidious and hidden, which attempts to pit human rights against the family and man.”

Thus, in addition to labeling homosexuality as “objectively disordered,” John Paul II also regarded agitating for the right of gays to marry as an “ideology of evil” that threatened the very fabric of society. Only time will tell if this particular phrase can gain the same currency among conservative Catholics as the well-worn “culture of death” continually used to describe agitation for the right to things like contraception and abortion.