By Jose Sanchez
There’s a common misconception that as Christians we are responsible for the state of a person’s eternal soul, including those of LGBT individuals. We think that it’s our responsibility to outreach, evangelize, convince, and convert them. We believe that their success or failure is directly correlated to our efforts in their lives.
While there’s nothing wrong with wanting what’s best for others, or with guiding them to what we believe Jesus wants for their lives, we have to recognize that their spiritual well-being is ultimately not under our control. We play a role, but it is ultimately between them and God, and nourishing that relationship between God and LGBT individuals should be our priority.
A Destructive Message
When someone comes out to us, we almost immediately try to let them know that acting upon their sexual orientation is considered sinful but that there’s hope in Jesus. It’s a response that often sounds like “I love you, but you know that acting upon your same-sex attraction is a sin, right?”, “I love you but the Bible says same-sex acts are wrong”, “I love you but God has a better plan for you”, “I love you but maybe Jesus can help you fix your sexual brokenness”.
We think that these words are the best way to love the sinner while hating the sin. However, these responses are almost always perceived as judgement and condemnation.
To LGBT individuals, these responses rather sound like: “I love you but you know something deep within you is wrong”, “I love you but I think it’s important to focus on the sinfulness of your actions”, “I love you but you aren’t good enough”, “If you just work hard enough to repress these feelings, I know God will save you”.
In Fr. James Martin’s words, “the language of ‘hate the sin, love the sinner’ is difficult for many gay people to believe when the tepid expression of love is accompanied by strident condemnation. And the notion that love calls first for admonishing the loved person seems to be applied only in the case of gays and lesbians. To take another example, it would be like telling a child, ‘You’re a sinful child, but I love you anyway.’ This can end up sounding more like, ‘Hate the sinner.’”
What we say as Christians and what LGBT people hear are two very different things. The delivery of the “love the sinner, hate the sin” message drives people away from Jesus, instead of towards Jesus.
No matter how carefully it’s framed, that message tends to contribute to feelings of shame, alienation, and depression for gay Catholics.
In 2009, the American Psychological Association (APA) issued a comprehensive report which laid out numerous kinds of conflict that can arise when people are trying to reconcile their faith with their sexuality:
Some report fearing considerable shifts or losses in their core identity, role, purpose, and sense of order if they were to pursue an outward LGB identity. Some report difficulty coping with intense guilt over the failure to live a virtuous life and inability to stop committing unforgivable sins, as defined by their religion. Some struggled with their belief in God, perceiving that God was punishing or abandoning them — or would if they acted on their attractions; some expressed feelings of anger at the situation in which their God had placed them.
Some individuals’ distress took the form of a crisis of faith in which their religious beliefs that a same-sex sexual orientation and religious goodness are diametrically opposed led them to question their faith and themselves. Spiritual struggles also occurred for religious sexual minorities due to struggling with conservatively religious family, friends, and communities who thought differently than they did. The distress experienced by religious individuals appeared intense, for not only did they face sexual stigma from society at large but also messages from their faith that they were deficient, sinful, deviant, and possibly unworthy of salvation unless they changed sexual orientation.
The report then explained how the research had found that all of these struggles came with mental health consequences. Individuals felt culpable, unacceptable, unforgiven, disillusioned, and great emotional distress — feelings that were associated with anxiety, panic disorders, depression, and suicidality. And notably, these consequences occurred “regardless of the level of religiosity or the perception of religion as a source of comfort and coping.”
Survivors of ex-gay therapy have confirmed these consequences with their own stories. In an informal survey conducted by the organization Beyond Ex-Gay in 2013, 92 percent of people who had undergone SOCE reported experiencing harm as a result. Besides the fact that the treatments didn’t actually work to change their orientation, the respondents said that trying to “pray away the gay” caused them to experience shame, depression, fear, anger, lowered self-esteem, feelings of failure, and even suicidal thinking. Imagine being told that a deep part of you you, the part that feels love, is disordered.
Our current pastoral approach underestimates the burden of feeling marginalized, scrutinized, because one of the most inherent desires in us is stated as sinful. As a result, LGBT individuals abandon the Church and therefore are further away from Jesus. What’s the point of evangelizing, trying to convince and convert when the result is ultimately the opposite of what it should be?
What if we focused more on promoting the overarching teaching of our Church, on evangelizing on Jesus and his unconditional love for us? What about instead of upholding our perception of truth, we focus more on pointing LGBT people to the one who is the Truth, on allowing the God who made them to guide their lives?
In John 15, Jesus stresses the importance of remaining in him: “Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.” Jesus doesn’t say “follow this particular set of rules and you will remain in me” or “change your sexual orientation and you will remain in me”. The core of Jesus message is about helping others get to Him, it’s about accompanying them, it’s about nourishing their connection with Christ.
This is also about recognizing that not loving first, and drawing people to Jesus first, is actually hurtful and destructive.
Loving means starting a dialogue with our LGBT brothers and sisters, listening to their stories, getting to know them, acknowledging the good in their lives as a whole. As Chicago Archbishop Blase Cupich says, respectful, compassionate and sensitive treatment of LGBT people “must be real, not rhetorical, and ever reflective of the church’s commitment to accompanying all people.”
Until we as Christians listen, promote real dialogue and connect in authentic care, our words will not be perceived as respectful, sensitive, compassionate or loving.
“The Church doesn’t grow by proselytism, but by attraction,” says Pope Francis. “We [Christians] don’t save anybody. We are just those who transmit the one who saved us. And that we can only transmit if we in our lives, in our history, if we embody that one who is called Jesus (…) To understand one another, and to grow in charity and truth, we need to pause, to accept and listen to one another.”
In the words of Christian blogger Julie Rodgers, “our ultimate hope should be that our LGBT brothers and sisters grow to love Jesus more and that this love overflows into a life spent on others.”