This past week, I have been in London, England, for New Ways Ministry connections, and so I feel somewhat disconnected from the grief and anguish that folks in the U.S. are experiencing these past couple of days. I make the qualification “somewhat” because the news of Orlando is still very much in the forefront here. For one thing, it’s Pride Week in London, and people are gearing up for their big parade on Saturday, though this year security will be beefed-up because of the Orlando tragedy.
Londoners’ hearts are very sensitive to the Orlando news, not only because they have experienced political terrorism, but also because they know the pain of an attack on a gay nightclub. On April 30, 1999, a member of a neo-Nazi organization set off a nail bomb in a Soho neighborhood gay pub, The Admiral Duncan. The bomb killed three people, one of whom was a pregnant woman. That event galvanized the LGBT community here in London. Networking with the LGBT Catholic community in England, I’ve learned that one of the positive outcomes of the renewed resolve for equality that emerged from the 1999 tragedy was the establishment of an outreach ministry to LGBT Catholics by the Westminster diocese.
I find it very hard to read news accounts of the shooting, and I don’t even dare attempt to look at any online video. So I’ve busied myself checking out Catholic responses to this tragic event. New Ways Ministry’s initial response noted that the Catholic bishops’ first reactions were totally unsatisfactory. Despite the fact that almost every headline reported the event as having taken place in an LGBT venue, statements from the Vatican, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the bishop of Orlando, and several other U.S. prelates, glaringly omitted any reference to the LGBT character of this event.
Were such omissions intentional? Did the issuers of the statements go out of their way not to mention that the victims were predominantly members of the LGBT community and that the site of the shooting was an LGBT club? Were they all so oblivious to the prominent details of the news that they did not detect what people around the world noticed about this event? Last night, here in London, thousands of people marched in solidarity with Orlando. Rainbow flags were everywhere.
Perhaps the Catholic bishops’ omission of LGBT references was not intentional because their eyes have become blinded. Are they so isolated from LGBT lives that they don’t even recognize the pain of these communities when it is staring them in the face? Are the bishops so used to seeing LGBT people as opponents that they could not muster the most basic forms of Christian charity in the face of such a horrific event? Have LGBT issues become so politicized in the bishops’ minds that it prevents them from seeing such a basic human tragedy? Or are they so ignorant of church teaching condemning violence against LGBT people that they simply forgot to apply this official teaching to such an obvious case?
One of the most disappointing responses came from San Francisco’s Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone. As leader of the church in one of the most populous LGBT communities of the U.S., one hopes that he would have shown better awareness of LGBT issues. His response did not refer to the LGBT lives lost. Instead, trying to be sensitive, the Archbishop stated that “regardless of race, religion, or personal lifestyle, we are all beloved children of God.”
“Personal lifestyle”? His advisors should have informed him that no one uses such language to refer to the lives of LGBT people because it is inaccurate and misleading; it wrongly implies that sexual orientation is a matter of choice and a matter of sexual actions. He should have been warned that using such a term would push people further away, instead of drawing them closer to the Church and the love of God during this time of deep need.
Cordileone’s statement shows that bishops need much better education about LGBT issues than they have. Without the simple knowledge of basic terminology, they cannot be pastorally sensitive in a crisis of any size, let alone one of such enormous and historic proportions. Lack of education does not make someone a bad person. But becoming aware of this lack makes it incumbent upon a person–especially a bishop–to seek better knowledge, especially knowledge of the Church’s teaching that sexual orientation is not a choice and is not just a series of actions.
In the Catholic world, this incident will be remembered not just for the sheer horror and tragedy of lives lost, but for the fact that it highlighted that so many church leaders still have a long way to go in being aware and sensitive to even the most basic human needs of LGBT people.
Thankfully, there have been a handful of bishops whose statements have offered condolences to the LGBT community. We reported one on Monday, three more yesterday, and today, the latest bishop to join this small band is Bishop Gerald Barnes, of San Bernardino, California, who noted in his statement that he wanted to “make clear our condemnation of discriminatory violence against those who are gay and lesbian, and we offer our prayers to that community.”
Finally, I am truly saddened that the hierarchy’s LGBT omissions separate them not only from the LGBT community, but also from an overwhelming majority of the laity and the wider world. In this moment of tragedy, people are banding together to support the LGBT community in a global expression of solidarity. Catholics, people of other faiths, and people of no faith at all are finding common ground of compassion and witness because of this tragedy. By ignoring the important LGBT character of this unique moment in human history, the bishops are excluding themselves from the many ways that God’s beloved children are building up the reign of justice and peace, as a way to counter the forces of terror and hate. It is truly sad that our Catholic bishops are missing out on such an opportunity.
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry