By David Agren, Catholic News Service
SALTILLO, Mexico (CNS) — Celebrating Mass for participants in a diocesan-endorsed forum on sexual diversity, Bishop Raul Vera Lopez of Saltillo told gays and lesbians, “The church is your home.
“Jesus founded the church to bring in those on the outside, for those suffering exclusion and rejection … so that they find the love of God,” he said March 27.
Bishop Vera has made the inclusion of homosexuals in the Catholic Church a priority in his northern Mexican diocese, which has a reputation for championing human rights issues.
The Diocese of Saltillo recently held the “Fourth Sexual Diversity, Family and Religion Forum” and now sponsors a ministry for homosexuals that promotes the ideas of providing gays and lesbians with expanded legal protections and human rights — along with an expanded sense of dignity for individuals whose emergence from the margins of society has caused conflict for many Catholics.
Bishop Vera told Catholic News Service he objects to the mentality of love the sinner and hate the sin promoted by many Christians and the view that people are “homosexual by choice.”
“I can’t judge a gay person or a lesbian by their sexual preferences,” Bishop Vera said. “The most important thing for us is that they have legal protections. Period.”
He emphasized that gays will not marry in the Catholic Church and the sacrament of marriage is exclusively for heterosexual couples, even though he endorsed a 2007 law in Coahuila state — which includes his diocese — allowing same-sex civil unions.
Bishop Vera said the church needed to better address the issue of same-sex couples adopting children, too.
“How am I going to evangelize to these people who already have children in their care?” he asked.
Bishop Vera defended the work of his diocese, saying members of the ministry serving gays — known as Comunidad San Aelredo — have become evangelists, spreading the Gospel among a social group with spiritual needs and often negative perceptions of the Catholic Church.
“It’s a serious project that is within the Gospel, within the thinking of the Catholic Church,” he said.
The recent sexual diversity forum drew approximately 50 participants on the final day with some coming as couples — and a few bringing children. Mass was celebrated and a diocesan plan for serving the gay community was unveiled. Deacon Julian Cruzalta, a theologian, spoke on the subject, “Homosexuality Seen From the Church.”
The forum drew controversy, too. LifeSiteNews.com accused the diocese of straying from church teachings on homosexuality. It also questioned the inclusion of Deacon Cruzalta, who submitted a paper to the Supreme Court in May 2008 defending the secular state and expressing support for a Mexico City law decriminalizing abortion during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy — a law declared constitutional a few months later.
Bishop Vera called accusations made against the conference and his views on homosexuality baseless and wondered why no critics queried him personally for media articles.
Deacon Cruzalta voiced similar sentiments. He called for Christians to abandon the attitude, “You’re welcome, but your behavior is not,” when dealing with the issue of homosexuality.
“The Bible does not call us to look down on people,” he said.
Some participants said they had never expected any sort of welcome from the church — and felt a sense of openness and belonging in Comunidad San Aelredo that is lacking in the broader society.
“We’re out as a couple here, but in the closet most other places,” said Eduardo Camacho, who sells hunting and fishing gear with his partner in Saltillo.
Ricardo Cruz, 25, joined San Aelredo after years ago falling away from the church, which he figured was unwelcoming to gays.
San Aelredo coordinator Fernando Hernandez had a similar experience, explaining he had left the church at age 14 after realizing he was gay. He returned three years later after discovering San Aelredo.
“The people that come here are looking for spiritual support,” he said. “We help so that being gay and Catholic isn’t a conflict.”
Criticism of the group has been harsh at times. Father Robert Coogan, the spiritual adviser to the community, said a television host on local state television regularly refers to him as “Father –” and uses a socially unacceptable word for gays.
Father Coogan said Comunidad San Aelredo was formed as a youth group in 2002 after gay teenagers began seeking him out for confession, figuring an American priest would be more understanding. He added that serving the local gay population fit with the Bishop Vera’s philosophy, “The church is for everyone.”
The Mexican church has called for treating homosexuals with respect. It also been critical of court decisions validating same-sex marriage laws in Mexico and allowing the adoption of children by gay couples.
In a book-length interview published last fall, Pope Benedict XVI was asked whether the church teaching that homosexuals deserve respect is not contradicted by its position that homosexual acts are “intrinsically disordered.”
The pope answered: “No. It is one thing to say that they are human beings with their problems and their joys, that as human beings they deserve respect, even though they have this inclination, and must not be discriminated against because of it.
“At the same time, though, sexuality has an intrinsic meaning and direction, which is not homosexual,” the pope said. “The meaning and direction of sexuality is to bring about the union of man and woman and, in this way, to give humanity posterity, children, a future.”