An editorial in the St. Louis archdiocesan newspaper has commented on the controversy which erupted two weeks ago at Nerinx Hall H.S., a Catholic school, when the Nerinx president turned down a request from students to establish a gay-straight alliance (GSA). The editorial’s headline, “One-on-one pastoral care suggested for adolescents with same-sex attraction,” summarizes its main point, and it also shows the main problem with policies which deny students the opportunity to have a GSA in Catholic schools.
While some, and perhaps many, LGBT youth need one-on-one pastoral care, such a model should not be the only one offered to them. The problem is that if this is the only assistance provided, the method itself sends a message: your sexual orientation is a private matter which you should only talk about in secret and confidential meetings with authority figures. When this type of pastoral care is the only kind offered, it can foster, even if unintentionally, feelings of shame, fear, and alienation.
A more public model, such as a GSA, helps students to recognize that they are not alone, that they have peers with whom they can discuss these issues, that the topic itself is not a taboo. Moreover, such groups provide social experiences for youths who are at risk of feeling isolated and alone. GSAs help not only LGBT youth, but heterosexual and cisgender students who may have a close friend or family member who is LGBT.
At the heart of the controversy at Nerinx Hall was the application of a set of guidelines for working with LGBT youth, entitled “Hope and Holiness: Pastoral Care for Those With Same-Sex Attraction,” that the Archdiocese of St. Louis had developed. Again, the title belies a negative assumption about LGB youth by referring to them as having “same-sex attraction.” Fr. James Martin, SJ, noted the problem of such terminology in the talk he gave upon receiving New Ways Ministry’s Bridge Building Award. He said:
“. . . [R]espect means calling a group what it asks to be called. . . .
“Names are important. Thus, church leaders are invited to be attentive to how they name the L.G.B.T. community and lay to rest phrases like ‘afflicted with same-sex attraction,’ which no L.G.B.T. person I know uses, and even ‘homosexual person,’ which seems overly clinical to many. I’m not prescribing what names to use, though ‘gay and lesbian,’ ‘L.G.B.T.’ and ‘L.G.B.T.Q.’ are the most common. I’m saying that people have a right to name themselves. Using those names is part of respect. And if Pope Francis can use the word gay, so can the rest of the church.”
In the editorial, an archdiocesan official defended the guidelines document, saying that the goal is to help youth:
“Kurt Nelson, superintendent of Catholic education for the archdiocese, said the very idea that students requested a club signals that they ‘want more help and support.’
While it may be true that the students want help and support, the fact that they requested a club indicates that the kind of help and support they want is peer socialization, not one-to-one counseling. If they wanted the latter, that is what they would have requested.
The editorial continued:
“But Nelson also said that ‘just because you don’t have a club doesn’t mean you’re not providing help and support to kids.’ However, many factors need to be considered, such as the adults who will lead the group, as well as providing content that doesn’t contradict Church teaching, thus posing the threat of creating a public scandal.”
When a church official speaks of LGBT issues and uses phrases like “doesn’t contradict Church teaching” and “creating a public scandal,” I always assume that they are discussing issues of sexual ethics. Of course, not providing sensitive pastoral care to LGBT people or actively discriminating against them both also contradict Church teaching, but I don’t think that these are what Nelson had in mind. I may be wrong, but I’ve never heard an official use those terms in the ways I described.
If I am correct, then the big problem here is that the archdiocesean officials are only looking at LGBT issues as relating to sex. They are avoiding things like stigma, oppression, alienation, repression, family difficulties, mental illness, self-loathing–all of which are frequently experienced by youth who have no support for their LGBT identity. And these are all things which a GSA would help to mitigate.
The editorial noted correctly:
“The one-on-one approach also provides students an experience of accompaniment in many individual aspects of their lives, beyond the issue of sexual orientation.”
Yes, one-on-one is a much-needed form of ministry with LGBT people, especially youth. But social opportunities, community-building, group prayer, and mutual peer support are also very needed. GSAs can help provide that kind of ministry. And their model of openness, honesty, trust, courage, and pride which they inspire are things that one-on-one ministry simply cannot provide.
—Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, February 28, 2017