PASTORAL guidelines recently adopted by the nation's Roman Catholic bishops suggest how out of touch some of the church's shepherds are with their flock.
The guidelines were meant to clarify church teaching on homosexual activity and birth control to "provide sound, effective ministry." But they only confound many of the faithful about the sharply conservative pastoral direction the church hierarchy is advocating.
While the bishops overwhelmingly affirm traditional church teachings on gay sex and artificial birth control, they never use the word gay or lesbian. Instead, they refer indirectly and with inherent condescension to "persons with homosexual inclinations," whom they say are welcome in church as long as they remain chaste.
While the guidelines are adamant that there should be no hatred or discrimination against gays, they reiterate church teachings that homosexual activity is inherently "disordered." The bishops also reaffirmed church positions against same-sex marriage, civil unions, and the adoption of children by gay couples.
"Because homosexual acts cannot fulfill the natural end of human sexuality they are never morally acceptable," said Bishop Arthur Serratelli, chairman of the doctrine committee, which developed the guidelines. Besides, the bishop added, such acts "do not lead to true human happiness."
Some happily committed gay couples might beg to differ with Bishop Serratelli's generalization, and his committee never consulted with any gay men or lesbians in preparing the document. Thus the guidelines fall short of the realistic needs of religious leaders for outreach programs in parishes and dioceses ministering to Catholic gays and lesbians.
The bishops' documents, approved by the Vatican agency once headed by Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict, also reserve the right of the church to deny service roles to "those whose behavior violates her teaching." Certainly, that is the church's prerogative, but the message it sends about acceptable prejudice appears at odds with other church teachings that "all people are created in the image and likeness of God and thus possess an innate human dignity that must be acknowledged and respected."
On another controversial matter, the bishops did acknowledge that most married Catholics - 96 percent, according to their own estimates - use artificial contraception. But still they exhort Catholics to refrain or risk losing the right to receive Communion.
The bishops do not make church law, but they use such guidelines to explain church teachings in the context of American culture. With this latest effort they are in danger of looking increasingly isolated.