Enduring lessons from a courageous manifesto
What Protestants can learn from Benedict’s pastoral letter on homosexuality
Some called it “the Halloween letter,” because it was first released to the public around Halloween in 1986. Its author, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI), saw the need for a document that would give the Catholic Church a series of explicit guidelines on the pastoral care of “homosexual persons.” While recognizing their dignity as image-bearers, the letter underscored official church teaching that homosexual acts are sinful, and same-sex attraction is “intrinsically disordered.” Embraced by conservative Catholics and rejected by gay activists like Andrew Sullivan, who condemned its “extraordinary lack of compassion,” it remains a touchstone document to this day.
In hindsight, there is a sad irony in the late former pope’s strong words as we consider the decades of homosexual abuse scandals that would go on to haunt his beloved Church. Strong words alone, it seems, weren’t enough. Yet, they were true, and they still carry wisdom, not just for Catholics but for Protestants still navigating these stormy waters in 2023. Four key points especially stand out to me.
First, compromise is callous. Writing in the thick of the AIDS crisis, Ratzinger calmly addressed the strong emotional pressure from activists within and without to change the Church’s theology in the name of “love.” Three years later, St. Patrick’s Cathedral would famously become the site of vocal protests, despite the fact that Archbishop O’Connor had overseen the opening of New York’s first specialized AIDS facility in St. Clare’s hospital. As long as he held the line on the immorality of gay acts, as well as sex ed and condom distribution, all his charitable efforts were nothing in the activists’ eyes.
The same remains true today for conservative churches of any stripe who clearly affirm a biblical sexual ethic, however kind and charitable they remain towards those who openly flout it. Though Ratzinger chiefly had in mind activist groups that are fully “affirming,” he urged that official support must be “withdrawn” not only from groups that outright defy church teaching, but from groups that are “ambiguous” about it.
Today, this point is well taken with reference to conferences like Revoice and prominent speakers like Eve Tushnet who may fall short of affirming gay sex acts but still support same-sex partnerships, even when they’re erotically charged. Ratzinger’s challenge to them rings loud and clear: For the sake of vulnerable souls who will be led into confusion, churches “can never be so callous” as to condone such a distortion of truth in the name of being “pastoral.” In the end, “only what is true can ultimately be pastoral.”
Second, truth is dignifying. People can experience same-sex attraction in a variety of circumstances, for a variety of reasons. But contrary to popular messaging, it is not an assault on their “dignity” to remind them they have the freedom to resist even those inclinations they didn’t choose. On the contrary, Ratzinger noted that it is demeaning and patronizing to treat them as if they alone among human beings can’t control their sexual appetites. Further, nature has left them without excuse for ignoring the fact that same-sex romance is fundamentally unnatural, life-rejecting, and self-centered. We must boldly preach this as a dignifying and life-giving truth, truth woven into the fabric of reality.
Third, self-denial is fruitful. Pursuing chastity can be painful for anyone, but it is especially painful in the context of same-sex attraction. Ratzinger was sensitive to the “bitter ridicule” faced by people who persist in this struggle. He was also sensitive to the temptation to see sexual self-denial as a fruitless sacrifice when there is no realistic pathway to rightly ordered consummation. But he reminded us that no suffering is pointless when it is joined to Christ’s suffering. As His sacrifice was not pointless, neither is ours.
Like all of us, men and women with same-sex attraction are called to conform themselves to the same pattern of self-giving holiness. The fruit of this sacrifice is the fruit of new life from death. To quote an anonymous Anglican Christian writing in 1970, one day his struggle with same-sex desire will, like all struggles, be “finished in both senses”—in the sense that God will bring them to an end, and in the sense that He will complete the work He has been doing through them. “They are neither endless nor pointless.”
Finally, people are not their sexuality. Ratzinger ended with the vital reminder that no human being can be summed up by “a reductionist reference to his or her sexual orientation.” This is no less true of the “homosexual person” than the “heterosexual person.” We all need to be “nourished at many different levels simultaneously.” We all have our unique hopes, fears, sorrows, and gifts. Through “prayer, witness, counsel, and individual care,” the community of believers can come together to provide this nourishment, neither neglecting anyone nor offering them false hope.
Compromise is callous. Truth is dignifying. Self-denial is fruitful. People are not their sexuality. Whatever legitimate differences remain between Protestants and Catholics, the man who would become pope reminded us that there are still some things all who love Christ can get behind.
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