Pastoral Letter of the Most Reverend Francis J. Mugavero,
Bishop of Brooklyn

(February 11, 1976)

Dearly Beloved in Christ:

Sexuality is one of God's greatest gifts to man and woman. We can say this not only because sexuality "largely conditions his or her progress towards maturity and insertion into society"(1) but also because it is that aspect of personhood which makes us capable of entering into loving relationships with other. Theology teaches that relationships with others. Theology teaches that relationship--the gift of oneself to another--is at the very heart of God. The Father and Son give themselves totally to one another and the mutuality of their total response in love is the Holy Spirit, binding them together. We honor God and become more like Him when we create in our own lives the loving, other-centered relationships wich at the same time give us such human satisfaction and personal fulfillment.

Recently the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a Declarations on Certain Questions Concerning Sexual Ethics to emphasize the importance of sexuality in our lives as followers of Christ.(2) Bishpos are urged to share the moral wisdom of the Church in a way "capable of properly enlightening the consciences of those confronted with new situations" related to the meaning and value of human sexuality.(3) It is with this hope that we share these thoughts with you, our brothers and sisters in the Lord.

Let us say clearly and without apology that chastity is a virtue which liberates the human person. Chastity means simply that sexuality and its physical, genital expressions are seen as good for man and woman--good in so far as we make them serve life and love. Any of our powers can be turned to destructive purposes due to lack of concern, weakness, or even a well-intentioned error. The excitement and adventure of human living is to take our God-given powers and talents and become someone worthwhile--loveable and loving. It should not be surprising that the power and pleasure which are part of sexuality will demand of us the intelligence, honesty and sacrifice that might test our maturity to the utmost degree. But we do not fear sexulaity, we embrace it. What we fear at times is our own inability to think as highly of the gift as does the God who made us sexual beings.

Sexuality Serving Love

Sexuality is so much more than genital activity. It is an aspect of personality which lets us enter other persons' lives as friends and encourages them to enter our own lives. The dimension of sexuality must be developed by all men and women not only because it is, as we have just seen, a gift making us more like God, but is also so very necessary if we are to follow Jesus' command to become "lovers."(4) It is a relational power which includes the qualities of sensitivity, understanding, warmth, openness to persons, compassion and mutual support. Who could imagine a loving person without those qualities? Our Lord Jesus Christ was fully a man--with the sexuality of a man.(5) Some men and women choose to conform closely to His life of celibate love in service of fellowman and God's Kingdom; most people will express their love of god and neighbor through "the intimate partnership of married life and love." (6)

Does it appear unusual that as members of the same Church some can embrace married love and others celibate love as expressions of personal sexuality? It did not seem contradictory to Christ, who respected and blessed matrimony as a sacrament of His Church yet chose to fulfill his own mission as an unmarried man. Far from condemning sexuality, He knew man and woman were created by God as "very good" and may "become as one flesh" (7) in the permanently faithful union of married love. Neither did He discourage those who would sacrifice the genital expression of their sexuality out of love for serving fellwoman and God's Kingdom as priests, Religious and dedicated laity. (8)

But if we are as honest with ourselves as were the Christians who have lived before us, each of us will recognize that it is not easy to integrate sexuality into our lives. (9) We all want to be loved and accepted. We want to draw close to other people, and many of us will seek fulfillment in that special closeness which married life should be. Helping our sexuality develop in a constructive way--in a way which will help us gain and give the love and affection that brings tremendous joy and peace of mind--demands that we consciously live our lives, that we do not just "let things happen." The relationships with other people which can make our lives full and enjoyable do not just "happen." we are members of Church whose people have been part of the successes and failures of almost two thousand years of human living. We are continually being brought out of slavery by the loving Spirit of God. One form of that slavery is the ignorance of how to live--how to use our sexuality for giving life, for truly loving, for deep and lasting relationships.

There may be no convincing way to say this to someone who does not want to listen. We know, however, that the experience of countless human beings and sound psychology support the wisdom of the Church teaching regarding both the goodness of sexuality and the unfortunate ambiguity related to its genital expression. Although each of us is called to live our sexuality in the sense of the human qualities and relationships seen above, its genital expression (physical sexual contact, arousal, orgasm) needs a special context before it can serve human love and life generously and without deception.

Pre-Marital Relations

Human beings canuse minerals for health and strength or turn them into bombs to kill and destroy. The pleasant smile can find its true meaning as a sign of friendship or be used to deceive. Sexuality can find its genital expression serving mutual love and new life in the total commitment of marriage, or it can easily become self-serving and stripped of its true meaning. What is meant to be the expression of the deep love of a man and woman joined forever through marriage in the service of life can be trivialized as merely a way of enjoying this person I am with (10). In premarital intercourse, the full genital expression of sexual love is robbed of its proper context of exclusive commitment, the genuine and permanent gift of oneself to ones beloved, and the possibility of he couple's love showing itself in a stable enough environment to develop new life (11).

In truthful human communication, we must accept the meaning which is present in certain actions. A warm smile and a tender embrace are universal signs of friendship; to communicate in a human way is to be true to the meaning of a sign when I use it in my life. As much as they might like to do so, no couple can rewrite the meaning of sexual intercourse. It is tied to committed love; it is tied to life-giving. When a person engages in sexual intercourse it is a shign of giving one's very self, whether one intends to or not. To let my actions be a sign of self-gift if my heart knows the truth to be different is to lie.

We must pledge ourselves to be true to what is really happening. Is our love so real that it is truly permanent, exclusively centered on this one person with whom I wish to link my life forever, the kind of love which could some day bring forth children as its sign? Then we are ready not for "second best" but for the joy of marriage in Christ--not in any sence "a piece of paper from the Church," but a chance to stand at the altar before God and fellowman and say "We love one another and want our love to last forever. We ask you to respect this, to rejoice with us, to help us to keep it so." This is marriage in the Church.

How inadequate it would be to propose Christian marriage merely as a solution to sexual problems or needs! Those who have grown to a point where they can make that permanent, exclusive pledge of themselves one to the other in Christ are people who are alive with hope, signs of the wonderful "foolishness" of a love deeep enough to face together an unknown future. They remind us that life is neither stagnant nor finished, and their total commitment to one another in Christ is broad enough to share someday with their own children. In light of this beautiful reality, do not the tentative and shallow aspects of "sleeping together" or "living together" without the maturity of a marriage commitment become painfully clear?

We know the pressures society and peers place on unmarried people. The young are made to feel "out of step" or unpopular if they avoid genital sexuality. Lonliness and searching for something or someone can lead the unmarried or unloved of any age to seek and answer to their pressing need in some passing intimacy. But this is a "solution" which is short-lived. The genital expression of sexuality is too much "myself" to let it become something commonplace or "shallow", to reduce its significance to a "handshake," to lose the meaning and mystery. I am worth more than that.

Multiple Motivations

We recognize how sexual behavior is often intertwined with many other needs, often unconscious ones. Sexual behavior can be used to express nonsexual feelings and relationships such as the need to prove one's identity or self-worth, to escape from loneliness or to express strong aggressive feelings. To deny these multiple levels of motivation in the human personality would isolate the problems of sexuality from the whole reality of the person. Certain inadequacies of sexual integration must be worked on from within the person and need pastoral guidance, professional counseling and therapy. Let us not forget, however, that religious commitment has a tremendous influence on the development of our sexual perception and behaviour. It is this meaning in ones life that will enable a person to discipline himself and renounce certain destructive types of activity. We must not, therefore, presume on grace alone to heal what truly requires psychological counseling, nor feel that habit or emotional problems totally excuse one from long-proven means of asceticism and spiritual growth. Here the generosity of our response to God's love can open us to beneficial scientific and spiritual means to achieve greater personal integration.

The Practice of Masturbation

The practice of masturbation is a prime example of the complex nature of sexual behavior. It may begin in adolescence as an immature expression of "self-discovery" or enter a person's life at any time and for any number of reasons.

We wish to encourage people to go continually beyond themselves in order to acheive greater sexual maturity and urge them to find peace and strength in a full sacramental life with the Christ who loves them.

"Modern psychology provides much valid and useful information for formulating a more equitable judgment on moral responsibility and for orienting pastoral action...In the pastoral ministry, in order to form an adequate judgment in concrete cases, the habitual behavior of people will be considered in its totality." (12).

Homosexual Orientation

The complexus of anthropological, psychological and theological reasoning in regard to human sexuality has contributed to the chruch's teaching that heterosexuality is normative. All should strive for a sexual integratino wich respects that norm since any other orientation respects less adequately the full spectrum of human relationships.

Whatever the cause of the homosexual orientation, both to those who share that orientation and to society in general there are certain cautions we wish to put forward.

We urge homosexual men and women to avoid identifying their personhood with their sexual orientation. They are so much more as pwersons than this single aspect of their personality. That richness must not be lost.

Being subject to misunderstanding and at times unjust discrimination has resulted in an overreaction on the part of some persons of homosexual orientation. It is not homosexuality which should be ones claim to acceptance or human rights or to being loved by us all; it is the fact we are all brothers ans sisters under the Fatherhood of God. Our community must explore ways to secure the legitimate rights of all our citizens, regardless of sexual orientation, while being sensitive to the understanding and hopes of all involved.

On a more personal level, we wish to express our concern and compassion for those men and women who experience pain and confusion due to a true homosexual orientation. We pray that through all the spiritual and pastoral means available they will recognize Christ's and the Church's love for them and our hope that they will come to live in His peace.

A Call to Healing

A most important way to aid the human person achieve sexual integration and live in the virtue of chastity is to provide from life's earliest years a loving and secure climate. We urge parents and teachers to examine their own attitudes toward sexuality and to set the pace for young people's pride in developing as loving and mature men or women.

We restate the Declaration's plea that responsible sex education be provided for all our people including children who should receive "information suited to their age." (14) Knowing the beauty of sexuality and the wisdom of chastity facilitates the young person's moral growth, as encouraged by the Second Vatican Council: (15)

This Holy Synod likewise affirms that children and young people have a right to be encouraged to weigh moral values with an upright conscience, and to embrace them by personal choice and to know and love God more adequately. Hence, it earnestly entreats all who exercise government over peoples or preside over the work of education to see that youth is never deprived of this sacred right.
We call on all men and women of good will to help created a more wholesome climate in society. There are still so many imprisoned either psychically or physically in the destructive activity of prostitution. The social problems of pornography must be challenged by community concern. Advertising and media too often miss vitally important opportunities to free the human spirit and instead contribute to a sex-saturated atmosphere that confuses rather than heals.

To those engaged in the ministry of healing--religious people, doctors, psychiatrists, teachers and so many others--we encourage inter-disciplinary work to improve the quality of pastoral care and to help Christians in the delicate task of forming their own conscience. We hope that parish communities will cooperate in studying sexuality and chastity so these important gifts of God can enrich each of us in the way He intends.


We are very conscious of the fact that all of us touch one another with our lives. What gratitude we should all have for those who have struggled with the difficulties of sexual integration and chastity in their lives and are now witnesses to us that it can indeed be done--that fidelity, commitment, self-sacrifice and compassion are realities in the lives of so many. We rejoice in you and thank you.

Yet we recognize that maturity in these areas comes only through what for many people will be a long and demanding process of growth. To our brothers and sisters of all ages who are experienceing difficulties--to those who cannot yet see that the personal and public commitment of marriage should be the context for the gift of oneself in sexual relations; to those whose homosexual orientation is causing them pain and confusion; to the widowed and to the adolescent encountering sexual needs; to those separatied from their spouses by circumstances or by divorce--to all of you we pledge our willingness to help you bear your burdens, to rty to find new ways to communicate the truth of Christ because we believe it will make you free. We respect you in your struggle.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ.

Faithfully yours in Christ,


Francis J. Mugavero
Bishop of Brooklyn

  1. Declaration on Certain Questions Concernign Sexual Ethics, issued by the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Rome, December 29, 1975, N. 1.
  2. Declaration, N. 1.
  3. Declaration, N. 13.
  4. Matthew 22:36-40.
  5. Hebrews 2:14-18; 4:15.
  6. Vatican II, The Church Today, N. 48.
  7. Genesis 1, 2.
  8. Matthew 19:12.
  9. Evident themes in Sacred Scripture, the Fathers, and the constant teaching of the living Church. Also Declaration, N. 5 and N. 12.
  10. Declaration, N. 7.
  11. Vatican II, The Church Today, N. 49 and N. 50.
  12. Declaration, N. 9.
  13. Declaration, N. 8.
  14. Declaration, N. 13.
  15. Vatican II, Christian Education, N. 1. Also Declaration, N. 13.
Text used with permission from the Diocese of Brooklyn.

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