August 19, 2011

Question Corner

By Father Ken Doyle, Catholic News Service

Q. I am a 19-year-old college student. I was not really into religion very much until my dorm mates convinced me to go with them to the Catholic student center for Mass. I have begun to appreciate what the Catholic Church has to offer and would like to know more. Some friends of mine have told me that, as a gay male, the Catholic Church would not welcome me, but I find it hard to believe that being gay would preclude me from being a practicing Catholic. Can you help me with this? (Tennessee)

A. Your instincts are right. You would be most welcome in the Catholic Church, which believes strongly in the dignity and value of each person.

With regard to homosexuals in particular, the Catechism of the Catholic Church (No. 2358) says clearly: “They must be accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided.”

In 1997, the Catholic bishops of the U.S. authored a document titled “Always Our Children,” which offers guidance especially to parents of homosexuals and to pastoral ministers. They note that, generally, homosexual orientation “is experienced as a given, not as something freely chosen,” that it can result from a variety of factors (genetic, hormonal or psychological), and that a homosexual orientation by itself is neither moral nor immoral.

At the same time, though, the church has consistently taught that homosexual acts are not permitted, and it references such scriptural passages as Genesis 19 (God’s condemnation of the men of Sodom) and Romans 1:27 (“Males did shameful things with males”).

The church’s conclusion is that, in the words of “Always Our Children,” “It is God’s plan that sexual intercourse occur only within marriage between a man and a woman.”

This means that a Catholic homosexual has a special challenge in being called to live a chaste and celibate life, and for that reason there are groups in the church (the Courage website, for example, and the Catholic Association for Lesbian and Gay Ministry) that offer guidance and support in meeting that challenge.

Q. Can you explain the Catholic Church’s position on cremation? (Albany, N.Y.)

A. The Catholic Church, while it prefers a traditional burial or entombment of the body of the deceased, does permit cremation. That teaching is most succinctly expressed in the church’s Code of Canon Law, which states:

“The church earnestly recommends that the pious custom of burying the bodies of the dead be observed; it does not, however, forbid cremation unless it has been chosen for reasons which are contrary to Christian teaching” (No. 1176, Section 3).

In the ancient civilized world, cremation was the norm in nearly every nation. The Catholic Church, however, did not allow it because of its belief in the resurrection of the body.

In 1963, however, an instruction from the Vatican’s Holy Office lifted the ban on cremation but did not allow any prayer or ritual to be used with the cremated remains so any services had to be held in the presence of the body of the deceased, with cremation following.

But in 1997, the bishops of the United States applied for and received permission from the Vatican to have memorial Masses celebrated in the presence of cremated remains. (Pastorally, the bishops felt, this would allow mourners to have something of the deceased present when gathering for a final farewell.)

Today, at a memorial Mass, the “cremains,” as they are called, are most often placed on a small table near the altar and in front of the paschal candle, which reminds mourners of Christ’s resurrection and our own.

Reasons for cremation vary. In some sections of the nation, there is a shortage of burial spaces. Also, many seniors who live in northern states winter in the South; should they die there, it is less burdensome to ship cremains home for burial rather than a body.

Finally, and this is the reason most often cited, a cremation is usually quite a bit less costly than a traditional burial in a casket.

The church specifies that cremated remains are to be treated with the same reverence as the body of a deceased; this means that the cremains are to be placed in a worthy vessel and, following the religious services, to be buried or entombed in consecrated ground. (They are not, for example, to be kept on a mantelpiece or scattered in the deceased person’s favorite park.)

(Questions may be sent to Father Kenneth Doyle, the new “Question Corner” writer, at askfatherdoyle@gmail.com and 40 Hopewell St., Albany, NY 12208.)