Yesterday, May 17th, was the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia. In Italy, at least 11 of the prayer vigils for this day to show opposition to oppression against sexual and gender minorities were hosted by Catholic parishes, including at least one basilica. In this most Catholic of nations, it seems, some people take seriously the church’s teaching condemning discrimination, prejudice, and violence against LGBT people.
Catholic support for this important church teaching is relatively minor among the Catholic hierarchy here in the United States. Our leaders here tend to ignore the fact that the church teaches that lesbian and gay people must be accepted with “respect, compassion, and sensitivity.” While they may often express that sentiment in words, they are less likely to take any action whatsoever to show that they truly accept that teaching. Instead, they tend to focus only on the church’s sexual teachings.
Jesuit Father James Martin, a well-known writer and lecturer, examines this dilemma in a column in America magazine this week. His essay is well-worth reading in full, and you can do so by clicking here. In this blog post, I will comment on some excerpts from the essay.
Martin tries to explain to his audience why so many gay and lesbian people feel that the Catholic Church hates them. He states:
“Let me suggest a reason beyond the fact that many gays and lesbians disagree with church teaching on homosexual acts: only rarely do opponents of same-sex marriage say something positive about gays and lesbians without appending a warning against sin. The language surrounding gay and lesbian Catholics is framed primarily, sometimes exclusively, in terms of sin. For example, ‘We love our gay brothers and sisters—but they must not engage in sexual activity.’ Is any other group of Catholics addressed in this fashion? Imagine someone beginning a parish talk on married life by saying, ‘We love married Catholics—but adultery is a mortal sin.’ With no other group does the church so reflexively link the group’s identity to sin.”
I agree with him, and I would go even a little further: no other group in the church is discussed primarily in terms of sex as gay and lesbian people are. I would imagine that in terms of sheer power of sexual urgency and desire, adolescents and young adults are probably the people most interested in sexual activity out of the entire human population. Yet, church leaders do not always refer to sexual temptation when they discuss or welcome young people to the church, as they do with gay and lesbian people. The focus of youth ministry in dioceses and parishes is not on sexual behavior, as some dioceses and parishes would like gay and lesbian outreach to be. Young people’s concerns are not shunned or ignored because it might seem to give the indication that church leaders are approving of non-marital sexual activity, yet that is routinely done to gay and lesbian people. Indeed, the highest office of the church offers World Youth Day to let young people know that they are welcome in the Church. Where is World LGBT Day?
In addition to being thought of primarily as sinners, lesbian and gay people resent that they are thought of primarily as sexual, as if no other aspect of their life mattered, and as if that was the primary factor defining their lives.
Martin offers the gospel story of Jesus’ encounter with Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10) as a model for how church leaders can approach gay and lesbian people. He analyzes the important features of this story about Jesus welcoming a much reviled tax collector:
“Notice that Jesus shows love for Zacchaeus even before the man has promised to do anything. That is, Jesus loves him first, by offering to dine with him, a powerful sign of welcome in that time. Jesus does not say, ‘Zacchaeus, you’re a sinful person because you’re gouging people with taxes collected for the oppressive occupying power, but even though you’re a public sinner, I love you anyway.’ He simply loves him—first.
“The story of Zacchaeus illustrates an important difference between the ministry of John the Baptist and of Jesus. For John the Baptist, conversion came first, then communion. First you repent of your sins; then you are welcomed into the community. For Jesus, the opposite was more often the case; first, Jesus welcomed the person, and conversion followed. It’s not loving the sinner; it’s simply loving.
“This is the kind of welcome that LGBT people want from the church. It is the kind of welcome that all people want from the church. LGBT people want this kind of welcome not because they are a special category of sinners, but, because they are, like most people, average, garden-variety sinners. Pope Francis illustrated this profound human reality last September during his groundbreaking interview with a Jesuit magazine. When asked who Jorge Bergoglio is, the pope answered, “I am a sinner. This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner.”
Martin concludes with some tips about how the church can show its love for gay and lesbian people more deeply:
“First, it would mean listening to their experiences—all their experiences, what their lives are like as a whole. Second, it would mean valuing their contributions to the church. Where would our church be without gays and lesbians—as music ministers, pastoral ministers, teachers, clergy and religious, hospital chaplains and directors of religious education? Infinitely poorer. Finally, it would mean publicly acknowledging their individual contributions: that is, saying that a particular gay Catholic has made a difference in our parish, our school, our diocese. This would help remind people that they are an important part of the body of Christ.”
While, yes, I agree with Martin here, there is also a sense of regret upon reading the passage because for the past two years we have been witnessing dismissals of LGBT people from church employment, a total devaluing of their gifts and personhood. Yes, this type of welcome is urgently needed, not just for a positive message, but to correct the terribly negative message that firings have sent.
It’s important, too, that LGBT people’s spiritual gifts are also acknowledged and affirmed. The particular journeys that LGBT people go on to accept, affirm, and announce their identities to others often results in incredible spiritual gifts that are not as readily attained by others. For instance, their journeys often provide them with a strong sense about telling the truth, a deep reservoir of courage to stand up to fear and rejection, a profound sense of God’s love, and a new respect for the primacy of their consciences. Amazing gifts that they can offer to the rest of the church!
As Fr. Martin concludes, they are indeed an important part of the Body of Christ.
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry