This essay was originally published by America Magazine, the Jesuit review, on October 30, 2016. This is also a teaser of Fr. James Martin’s upcoming book Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity, available here.
The relationship between the L.G.B.T. Catholic community and the Catholic Church in the United States has been at times contentious and combative, and at times warm and welcoming. Much of the tension characterizing this complicated relationship results from a lack of communication and, sadly, a good deal of mistrust, between L.G.B.T. Catholics and the hierarchy. What is needed is a bridge between that community and the church.
I invite you to walk with me on that important bridge. To that end, I would like to reflect on both the church’s outreach to the L.G.B.T. community and the L.G.B.T. community’s outreach to the church. Because good bridges take people in both directions.
As you know, the Catechism of the Catholic Church says that Catholics are called to treat the homosexual person with “respect, compassion and sensitivity” (No. 2358).
What might that mean? Let’s meditate on that, and on a second question as well: What might it mean for the L.G.B.T. community to treat the church with “respect, sensitivity and compassion”? Of course, L.G.B.T. Catholics are part of the church, so, in a sense, those questions imply a false dichotomy. The church is the entire people of God, and it is strange to discuss how the people of God can relate to a part of the people of God. So, in good Jesuit fashion, let me refine our terms. When I refer to the church in this discussion I mean the institutional church—that is, the Vatican, the hierarchy, church officials and the clergy.
The First Lane
Let us take a walk on the first lane of the bridge, the one leading from the institutional church to the L.G.B.T. community, and reflect on “respect, compassion and sensitivity.”
Respect. What might it mean for the church to “respect” the L.G.B.T. community?
First, respect means, at the very least, recognizing that the L.G.B.T. community exists, as any community would want its existence recognized. It also means acknowledging that the L.G.B.T. community brings unique gifts to the church, as every community does.
Recognizing that L.G.B.T. Catholics exist has important pastoral implications. It means carrying out ministries that some dioceses and parishes already do very well. Examples include celebrating Masses with L.G.B.T. groups, sponsoring diocesan and parish outreach programs and, in general, making L.G.B.T. Catholics feel part of the church, and feel loved.
Some Catholics object to this approach, saying that such outreach betokens a tacit agreement with everything that anyone in the L.G.B.T. community says or does. That seems an unfair objection, because it is raised with virtually no other group. If a diocese sponsors, for example, an outreach group for Catholic business leaders, it does not mean that the diocese agrees with every value of corporate America. Nor does it mean that the church has sanctified everything that every businessman or businesswoman says or does. No one suggests that. Why not? Because people understand that the diocese is trying to help a particular community feel more connected to their church, the church they belong to by virtue of their baptism.
Second, respect means calling a group what it asks to be called. On a personal level, if someone says, “I prefer to be called Jim instead of James,” you naturally listen. It’s common courtesy. And it’s the same on a group level. We don’t say “Negroes” any longer. Why? Because that group feels more comfortable with other names: “African-Americans” or “blacks.” Recently, I was told that “disabled persons” is not as acceptable as “people with disabilities.” So the latter term is what I’ll use. Why? Because it is respectful to call people by the name they choose. Everyone has the right to tell you their name.
This is not a minor concern. In the Jewish and Christian traditions names are important. In the Old Testament, God gives Adam and Eve the authority to name the creatures (Gn 2:18-23). God also renames Abram as Abraham (Gn 17:4-6). Names in the Old Testament stand for a person’s identity; knowing a person’s name means you know him or her. That is one reason why, when Moses asks to know God’s name, God says, “I am who am.” In other words, none of your business (Ex 3:14). Later, in the New Testament, Jesus renames Simon as Peter (Mt 16:18; Jn 1:42). The persecutor Saul renames himself Paul. Names are important in our church today as well. The first question a priest or deacon asks parents at an infant’s baptism is “What name do you give this child?”
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.
Finally, respecting L.G.B.T. people means accepting them as beloved children of God and letting them know that they are beloved children of God. The church has a special call to proclaim God’s love for a people who are often made to feel like damaged goods, unworthy of ministry and even subhuman, whether by their families, neighbors or religious leaders. The church is invited to both proclaim and demonstrate that L.G.B.T. people are beloved children of God.
Moreover, L.G.B.T. people are beloved children of God with gifts—both as individuals and as a community. These gifts build up the church in unique ways, as St. Paul told us when he compared the people of God to a human body (1 Cor 12:14-27). Every body part is important: the hand, the eye, the foot. Just consider the gifts brought by L.G.B.T. Catholics who work in parishes, schools, chanceries, retreat centers, hospitals and social service agencies. Here’s an example from my life: Some of the most gifted music ministers I have known in my almost 30 years as a Jesuit have been gay men, who have brought tremendous joy to their parishes. And they themselves are among the most joyful people I know in the church.
And an aside, I’m disheartened by the trend, in a few places, of firing L.G.B.T. men and women. Of course church organizations have the authority to require their employees to follow church teachings. The problem is that this authority is applied in a highly selective way. Almost all the firings in recent years have focused on L.G.B.T. matters. Specifically, these firings have most often related to those employees who have entered into same-sex marriages, which is against church teaching, and where one or another partner has a public role in the church.
But if adherence to church teaching is going to be a litmus test for employment in Catholic institutions, then dioceses and parishes need to be consistent. Do we fire a straight man or woman who gets divorced and then remarries without an annulment? Divorce and remarriage of that sort is against church teaching. In fact, divorce is something Jesus himself forbade. Do we fire women who bear children out of wedlock? How about a person who is living with someone without being married? Those actions are against church teaching too.
And what about church employees who are not Catholic? If we’re firing employees who do not agree with, or adhere to, church teaching, do we fire every Protestant who works in a Catholic institution, because they do not believe in papal authority? That’s an important church teaching. Do we fire Unitarians who do not believe in the Trinity? Do we fire all these people for all these things? No. Why not? Because we are selective about which church teachings matter.
Moreover, requiring church employees to adhere to church teachings means, at a more fundamental level, adhering to the Gospel. To be consistent, we should fire people for not helping the poor, for not being forgiving and for not being loving. That may sound odd, but why should it? Jesus’s teachings are the most essential “church teachings.”
The selectivity of focus on L.G.B.T. matters when it comes to firings is, to my mind, to use the words of the Catholic Catechism, a “sign of unjust discrimination,” something we are to avoid (No. 2358) Indeed, America magazine this week published an editorial that said, “The high public profile of these firings, combined with the apparent lack of due process and the absence of any comparable policing of marital status for heterosexual employees, constitute ‘signs of unjust discrimination’ and the church in the United States should do more to avoid them.”
Let’s return to the gifts of the L.G.B.T. community. The church as a whole is invited to meditate on how L.G.B.T. Catholics build up the church with their presence, in the same way that elderly people, teenagers, women, people with disabilities, various ethnic groups or any group builds up a parish or a diocese. While it is wrong to generalize, we can still pose the question: What might those gifts be?
Many, if not most, L.G.B.T. people have endured, from an early age, misunderstanding, prejudice, hatred, persecution and even violence, and so often feel a natural compassion toward the marginalized. Compassion is a gift. They have often been made to feel unwelcome in their parishes and in their church, but they persevere because of their vigorous faith. Perseverance is a gift. They are often forgiving of clergy and other church employees who treat them like damaged goods. Forgiveness is a gift. Compassion, perseverance, forgiveness are all gifts.Let me add another gift: that of celibate priests and brothers who are gay, and chaste members of men’s and women’s religious orders who are gay or lesbian. There are several reasons why almost no gay and lesbian clergy and religious are public about their sexuality. Among them are the following: They are simply private people; their bishops or religious superiors ask them not to speak about it; they themselves are uncomfortable with their sexuality; or they fear reprisals from parishioners. But there are many holy and hardworking clergy and members of religious orders who are gay or lesbian, and who live out their promises of celibacy and vows of chastity and help to build up the church. They freely give their whole selves to the church. They themselves are the gift.
Seeing and naming all these gifts is part of respecting our L.G.B.T. brothers and sisters.
Compassion. What would it mean for the church to show compassion to L.G.B.T. men and women? The word compassion means “to experience with, or suffer with.” So what would it mean for the institutional church, the hierarchy, not only to respect L.G.B.T. Catholics, but to be with them, to experience life with them and even to suffer with them?
The first and most essential requirement is listening. It is nearly impossible to experience a person’s life, or to be compassionate, if you do not listen to the person, or if you do not ask questions. Questions that Catholic leaders might ask their L.G.B.T. brothers and sisters are: What is your life like? What was it like growing up as a gay boy or lesbian girl or transgender person? How have you suffered? What are your joys? And: What is your experience of God? What is your experience of the church? What do you hope for, long for, pray for? For the church to exercise compassion, we need to listen.
Church leaders also need to stand for their L.G.B.T. brothers and sisters when they are persecuted. In many parts of the world, L.G.B.T. persons are liable, again in the words of the catechism, to appalling incidents of “unjust discrimination”—to prejudice, to violence and even to murder. In some countries, you can be jailed for being gay or having same-sex relations and murdered for being a gay leader. In those countries the institutional church has a moral duty to stand up for their brothers and sisters, publicly. Remember, the catechism says “every sign of unjust discrimination” must be avoided. Helping someone, standing up for someone when they are being beaten, is part of compassion. It is part of being a disciple of Jesus Christ. If you doubt that read the parable of the good Samaritan (Lk 10:25-37).
Closer to home, what would it mean for the church in the United States to say, when needed, “It is wrong to treat the L.G.B.T. community like this”? Catholic leaders regularly publish statements defending—as they should—refugees and migrants, the poor, the homeless, the unborn. This is one way to stand with people: by putting yourself out there, even taking heat for them.
But where are statements in support of our L.G.B.T. brothers and sisters? When I ask this, some people say, “You can’t compare what refugees face with what L.G.B.T. people face.” And as someone who worked with refugees in East Africa, I know that’s true. But it is important not to ignore the disproportionately high rates of suicide among L.G.B.T. youths and the fact that L.G.B.T. people are the victims of proportionally more hate crimes than any other minority group in the country. In the wake of the Orlando massacre, when the L.G.B.T. community across the country was grieving, I was discouraged that more bishops did not immediately signal their support. Some did, of course. But imagine if the attacks were on, God forbid, a Methodist parish. Bishops would have most likely said, “We stand with our Methodist brothers and sisters.” Why not in Orlando? It seemed a kind of failure of compassion, a failure to experience with, and a failure to suffer with. Orlando invites us all to reflect on this.
We need not look far for a model on how to do this. God did this for all of us—in Jesus. The opening lines of the Gospel of John tell us that the Word “became flesh and dwelt among us” (1:14). The original Greek is more vivid: The Word became flesh and “pitched its tent among us” (eskēnōsen en hēmin). Isn’t that beautiful? God entered our world to live among us. This is what Jesus did. He lived alongside us. Took our side. Even died like us. This is what the church is called to do with all marginalized groups, as Pope Francis has reminded us, including with L.G.B.T. Catholics: to experience their lives and suffer with them.
And to be joyful with them as well! Because Jesus came to experience all our lives, not just the sorrowful parts. L.G.B.T. people, though they may suffer persecution, share in the joys of the human condition. So can you rejoice with our L.G.B.T. brothers and sisters?
Sensitivity. How can the institutional church be “sensitive” toward L.G.B.T. people? That’s a beautiful word used by the catechism. One dictionary defines it as “an awareness or understanding of the feelings of other people.” That’s related to Pope Francis’s call for the church to be one of “encounter” and “accompaniment.”
To begin with, it is nearly impossible to know another person’s feelings at a distance. You cannot understand the feelings of a community if you don’t know the community. You can’t be sensitive to the L.G.B.T. community if you only issue documents about them, preach about them, or tweet about them, without knowing them. One reason the institutional church has struggled with sensitivity is, in my opinion, that many church leaders still do not know many gay and lesbian people. The temptation is to smile and say that church leaders do know people who are gay: priests and bishops who are not public about their homosexuality. But my point is a larger one. Many church leaders do not know L.G.B.T. people who are public about their sexuality. That lack of familiarity and friendship means it is more difficult to be sensitive. How can you be sensitive to a person’s situation if you don’t know them? So one invitation is for the hierarchy to come to know them as friends.
Cardinal Christof Schönborn, the archbishop of Vienna, reminded us of this at the meeting of the Synod of Bishops on the family, when he spoke of a gay couple he knew who had transformed his understanding of L.G.B.T. people. He even praised same-sex unions. The cardinal said, “[O]ne shares one’s life, one shares the joys and sufferings, one helps one another. We must recognize that this person has made an important step for his own good and for the good of others, even though, of course, this is not a situation that the church can consider regular.” He also overruled a priest in his archdiocese who had prohibited a man in a same-sex union from serving on a parish council. That is, Cardinal Schönborn stood with him. Much of this came from his experience of, knowledge of and friendship with L.G.B.T. people. Cardinal Schönborn said simply, “We must accompany.”
In this, as in all things, Jesus is our model. When Jesus encountered people on the margins, he saw not a category but a person. To be clear, I am not saying that the L.G.B.T. community should be, or should feel, marginalized. Rather, I am saying that within the church many of them do find themselves marginalized. They are seen as “other.” But for Jesus there was no “other.”
Jesus saw beyond categories; he met people where they were and accompanied them. In the Gospel of Luke, when he met a Roman centurion who asked for healing for his servant, Jesus didn’t say, “Pagan!” Rather, he saw a man in need (Lk 7:1-10). Later in Luke’s Gospel, when Jesus met Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector in Jericho, who would also have been considered the chief sinner in the area, he didn’t say, “Sinner!” Rather, he saw a person seeking to encounter him (Lk 19:1-10). Jesus was willing to be with, stand with and befriend these people.
One common objection here is to say, “No, Jesus always told them, first of all, not to sin!” So we cannot meet gay people because they are sinning, goes the argument, and when we do meet them, the first thing we must say is, “Stop sinning!”
But more often than not, this is not Jesus’s way. In the story of Zacchaeus, you’ll remember, Jesus first spies the tax collector perched high in a sycamore tree, trying to catch sight of Jesus. Jesus says that he will dine at Zacchaeus’s house, a sign of welcome in first-century Palestine, before Zacchaeus has said or done anything. Only after Jesus offers him welcome is Zacchaeus moved to conversion, promising to pay back anyone he has defrauded. Likewise, in the story of the Roman centurion, Jesus does not scold the man for being a pagan. Instead, he praises the man’s faith and then heals his servant. For Jesus, more often than not, it is community first, conversion second.
The pope echoed this in a recent press conference. “People must be accompanied, as Jesus accompanied,” he said. “When a person who has this situation comes before Jesus, Jesus will surely not say: ‘Go away because you’re homosexual.’”
Sensitivity is based on encounter, accompaniment and friendship. And where does that lead? To the second meaning of the word, which is, in common parlance, a heightened awareness of what might offend. We are “sensitive” to people’s situations and so we are “sensitive” to anything that might needlessly offend.
One way to be sensitive is to consider the language we use. Some bishops have already called for us to set aside the phrase “objectively disordered” when it comes to describing the homosexual inclination (as it is in the Catechism, No. 2358). The phrase relates to the orientation, not the person, but it is still needlessly hurtful. Saying that one of the deepest parts of a person—the part that gives and receives love—is “disordered” in itself is needlessly cruel. Setting aside such language was discussed at the recent Synod on the family, according to several news outlets. More recently, an Australian bishop, Vincent Long Van Nguyen, said, “We cannot talk about the integrity of creation, the universal and inclusive love of God, while at the same time colluding with the forces of oppression in the ill-treatment of racial minorities, women, and homosexual persons…. It won’t wash with young people, especially when we purport to treat gay people with love and compassion and yet define their sexuality as ‘intrinsically disordered.’”
Part of sensitivity is understanding that.
The Second Lane
Now let’s take a walk on the other lane on the bridge: the one leading from the L.G.B.T. community to the institutional church. What would it mean for the L.G.B.T. community to treat the institutional church with “respect, compassion and sensitivity”?
Now, in the church it is the hierarchy that possesses institutional power. They have the power to allow someone to receive the sacraments, to permit or prevent priests from celebrating the sacraments, to open or close diocesan or parish ministries, to allow people to retain their jobs in Catholic institutions and so on. But the L.G.B.T. community has power too. Increasingly, for instance, the Western media is more sympathetic to the L.G.B.T. community than to the hierarchy. That’s a kind of power. Still, in the institutional church, the hierarchy is in the position of power.
L.G.B.T. Catholics are called to treat those in power with “respect, sensitivity and compassion.” Why? Because, as I mentioned, it’s a two-way bridge. More importantly, because L.G.B.T. Catholics are Christians, and those virtues express Christian love. Those virtues also build up the entire community.
Respect. What would it mean for the L.G.B.T. community to show “respect” to the church? Here again, I am speaking specifically about the pope and the bishops—that is, the hierarchy and, more broadly, the magisterium, the teaching authority of the church.
Catholics believe that bishops, priests and deacons receive at their ordinations the grace for a special ministry of leadership in the church. We also believe bishops in particular have an authority that comes down to them from the apostles. That is what we mean, in part, when we profess our belief each Sunday at Mass that the church is “apostolic.” Also, we believe that the Holy Spirit inspires and guides the church. Certainly that happens through the people of God, who, as the Second Vatican Council says, are imbued with the Spirit; but it also happens through the pope, bishops and clergy by virtue of their ordination and their offices.
So the institutional church—popes and councils, archbishops and bishops—speaks with authority in their role as teachers. They don’t all speak with the same level of authority (more about that later), but all Catholics must prayerfully consider what they are teaching. To do that, we are called to listen. Their teaching deserves our respect.
So first of all, listen. On all matters, not just L.G.B.T. issues. The episcopacy speaks with authority and draws from a great well of tradition. When bishops speak on matters like, but not confined to, love, forgiveness, mercy and caring for the poor and marginalized, the unborn, the homeless, prisoners, refugees and so on, they are drawing not only from the Gospels, but from the spiritual treasury of the church’s tradition. Oftentimes, especially on social justice issues, you may find that they will challenge you with a wisdom that you will not hear anywhere else in the world.
And when they speak about L.G.B.T. matters in a way that you don’t agree with, or that angers or offends you, listen anyway. Ask: “What are they saying? Why are they saying it? What lies behind their words?” Listen, consider, pray and, of course, use your conscience.
Beyond what you might call ecclesial respect, the hierarchy deserves simple human respect. Often I m disheartened by the things that I hear some L.G.B.T. Catholics and their allies saying about certain bishops. I hear these things privately, but also publicly. Recently one L.G.B.T. group, in response to a statement from bishops on same-sex marriage, said that the bishops should stop being “locked in their ivory towers.” I thought, “Really? You’re saying that to bishops in poor dioceses too? That they live in ‘ivory towers’? To bishops who personally minister to the poor, and who oversee parishes in inner-city neighborhoods, sponsor schools that educate the inner-city poor and manage Catholic Charities offices?” You may disagree with the bishops, but that kind of language is not only disrespectful, it’s inaccurate.
More seriously, L.G.B.T. Catholics and their allies sometimes mercilessly mock bishops for their promises of celibacy, their residences and, especially, the clothes they wear. The barely disguised implication of posting online photos of bishops wearing elaborate liturgical vestments is that they are effeminate, they are hypocrites or they are repressed gay men. Does the L.G.B.T. community really want to proceed in that way? Do gay men want to mock bishops as effeminate, when many gay men were probably teased about those precise things when they are young? Is that not simply perpetuating hatred? How can someone castigate a bishop for not respecting the L.G.B.T. community while not affording them respect? Do they want to critique people for their supposed un-Christian attitudes by themselves being un-Christian?
This may be hard to hear for people who feel beaten down by the church. But being respectful of people with whom you disagree is not only the Christian way. Even from a human point of view, it’s good strategy. If you sincerely want to influence the church’s perspective on L.G.B.T. matters, it helps to earn the trust of the hierarchy. And one way to do that is by respecting them. So both the Christian approach and simple wisdom would say: Respect them.
Compassion. What would it mean to show compassion to the hierarchy?
First, let’s recall the definition of compassion: “to experience with, or suffer with.” Part of that, as I mentioned, is knowing what a person’s life is like. So part of compassion toward the institutional church is a real, felt understanding of the life of those in power.
In my life as a Jesuit priest, I have met many cardinals, archbishops and bishops. Quite a few I consider my friends. All the ones I’ve met are kind, hardworking and prayerful men, many who have been very kind to me personally, and are loyal sons of the church trying to carry out the ministries for which they were ordained.
These days, in addition to the normal “triple ministry” to “teach, govern and sanctify” (that is, teach the Gospel, run the diocese and celebrate the sacraments), bishops have to do the following: (a) deal with the fallout—financial, legal and emotional—from clergy sex abuse cases, usually cases they had nothing to do with; (b) staff parishes in the face of rapidly declining vocations to the priesthood and religious orders; (c) decide which parishes and schools to close or consolidate in the face of emotional pleas and angry protests, pickets and sit-ins from parishioners, neighbors, students and alumni; (d) help raise money for nearly every institution in their diocese, including schools, hospitals, retirement communities for priests and social service agencies; and (e) answer complaints from furious Catholics that pour into their chanceries about everything you can imagine, including supposed liturgical abuses during Mass, stray comments a priest made in a homily, an article they didn’t like in the diocesan newspaper, even a Catholic receiving an award from a group they don’t like.
Compassion also leads us to a certain equality of heart. That means coming to see that at least a few in positions of leadership in our church may be struggling themselves. They might be homosexual men who at a younger age were tortured by the same hateful attitudes that most L.G.B.T. people experienced growing up, and who entered a religious world that seemed to afford them some safety and privacy. This was far from the only reason that some of these men entered diocesan seminaries and religious houses of formation, but it may have been a factor in the appeal of that life: a certain privacy, a way to sincerely serve God without having to admit one’s sexuality. A few may have remained with that worldview, even as, over the last few decades, the truth about being gay gradually became more easily understood and less terrifying to live with. This is what it is like to have been burdened by the effects of the hatred of gays and lesbians, particularly the hatred that existed decades ago, and not being able to admit a deep part of oneself. So L.G.B.T. Catholics are invited to feel for, and pray for, these our brothers, even when their own backgrounds sometimes lead them to behave as if they were our enemies.
The invitation is to see these bishops in their humanity, in their complexity and amid the great burdens of their ministries. There is compassion in trying to do this.
Now, many L.G.B.T. people feel that the institutional church, and a few priests and bishops, have persecuted them. They see these men as their enemies, or, at the very least, as people who misunderstand them. Sadly, some bishops, priests and deacons have indeed said and done ignorant, hurtful and even hateful things. But I believe these actions represent a minority in the hierarchy, albeit one that until recently seemed to hold some sway in the church, and that the tide is slowly changing, that Francis’s papacy, and the actions of some church leaders today, is helping to heal some of that hurt.
What is the Christian response if you feel hostility toward select Catholic leaders? By way of a suggestion, let me tell you a story. When I was 27, I told my parents I was entering the Jesuits. I sprang the news on them with no warning; I hadn’t even told them I was considering it. Not surprisingly, they were confused and upset. They saw the decision as reckless. And that confused and upset me. I wondered: How could they not see what I was doing? How could they not understand me? In response, my spiritual director said, “You’ve had 27 years to get used to this, Jim. And you just sprung it on them. Give them the gift of time.”
Challenging as it may be to hear, and without setting aside the suffering that many L.G.B.T. people have experienced in the church, I wonder if the L.G.B.T. community could give the institutional church the gift of time. Time to get to know you. In a very real way, an open and public L.G.B.T. community is new, even in my lifetime. In a very real way the world is just getting to know you. So is the church. I know it’s a burden, but it’s perhaps not surprising. It takes time to get to know people. So perhaps the L.G.B.T. community can give the institutional church the gift of patience.
The other Christian response if, even after all this, you still perceive some few church leaders as your enemies, is to pray for them. And that is not me talking, that’s Jesus.
Sensitivity. Let’s return to that beautiful word. We can use it again in terms of not denigrating the bishops or the hierarchy. Again, that is not only simply human courtesy; it is Christian charity.
But I’d like to use sensitivity in another way. Here I would like to invite the L.G.B.T. community to more deeply consider who is speaking and how they are speaking. As Catholics we believe in various levels of teaching authority in our church. Not every church official speaks with the same level of authority. The simplest way of explaining this is that what a pope says in an encyclical is not the same level of authority as what your local pastor says in a homily. There are different levels of authoritative teaching, which begin with the Gospels, then church councils, then papal pronouncements. Even the different papal pronouncements have various levels of authority. Among the highest would be constitutions or encyclicals, addressed to the whole church, then apostolic letters and motu proprios, then the pope’s daily homilies and speeches, and so on. It is important to be sensitive to that. There are also documents from synods and individual Vatican congregations. Then, on the local level, documents from bishops’ conferences and local bishops. Each has a different level of authority. They all need to be prayerfully read, but it is important to know that they do not all have equal authority.
Of course the hierarchy is not the only group that speaks with authority. Authority resides in holiness as well. Holy men and women who are not members of the hierarchy, like St. Teresa of Calcutta, and holy lay people like Dorothy Day or Jean Vanier, speak with authority.
Also, be careful about taking what the mainstream media says about “church teaching” at face value. A few weeks ago I read the headline, “Keep Homilies to Eight Minutes, Vatican Tells Clergy.” And I thought, “the Vatican?” Sure enough, when you read the article carefully, you discovered something else. It was an individual bishop offering his suggestions. The headline was false. The “Vatican” wasn’t doing any such thing. So, again, be sensitive.
Moreover, there is an invitation to be sensitive to the fact that when someone in the Vatican speaks—whether the pope or a Vatican congregation—they are speaking to the whole world, not just the West, and certainly not just the United States. Something that seems tepid in the United States might be shocking in Latin America or Africa. To that end, I was disappointed in the reaction of some L.G.B.T. Catholics in this country to the pope’s apostolic exhortation on family life, “Amoris Laetitia” (“The Joy of Love”). In that document he said, “We would like before all else to reaffirm that every person, regardless of sexual orientation, ought to be respected in his or her dignity and treated with consideration, while ‘every sign of unjust discrimination’ is to be carefully avoided, particularly any form of aggression and violence. Such families should be given respectful pastoral guidance, so that those who manifest a homosexual orientation can receive the assistance they need to understand and fully carry out God’s will in their lives” (No. 250).
“Before all else,” the pope says, L.G.B.T. people should be treated with dignity. That’s an immense statement, and, by the way, nowhere does he mention anything about “objective disorder.” Nonetheless, among some L.G.B.T. Catholics in this country those lines were dismissed with cries of “Not enough!”
Well, perhaps in the West those words seemed insufficient. But the pope is writing not simply for the West, much less simply for the United States. Imagine reading that in a country where violence against L.G.B.T. people is rampant and the church has remained silent. What is bland in the United States is incendiary in other parts of the world. What might be obvious to a bishop in one country is a clear, forceful, even threatening, challenge to another bishop. What seems arid to L.G.B.T. people in one country may be, in another country, water in a barren desert.
So we are called to be sensitive in many ways.
Together on the Bridge
Overall, the invitation is for both the institutional church and the L.G.B.T. community to step onto a bridge of mutual “respect, compassion and sensitivity.”
Some of this may be hard to hear for the L.G.B.T. community. It is hard to step onto that bridge. And some of this may be challenging for bishops to hear. Because neither lane on that bridge is smooth. On this bridge, as in life, there are tolls. It costs when you live a life of respect, compassion and sensitivity. But to trust in that bridge is to trust that eventually people will be able to cross back and forth easily, and that the hierarchy and the L.G.B.T. community will be able to encounter one another, accompany one another and love one another. It is to trust that God desires unity.
We are all on the bridge together. Because, of course, the bridge is the church. And, ultimately, on the other side of the bridge for each group is welcome, community and love.
In conclusion, I would like to say something specifically to the L.G.B.T. community. In difficult times you might ask: What keeps the bridge standing? What keeps it from collapsing onto the sharp rocks? What keeps you from plunging into the dangerous waters below? The Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is supporting the church and is supporting you.
For you are beloved children of God who, by virtue of your baptism, have as much right to be in the church as the pope, your local bishop or me. Of course, that bridge has some loose stones, big bumps and deep potholes. Because the people in our church are not perfect. We never have been—just ask St. Peter. And we never will be. We are all imperfect people, struggling to do our best in the light of our individual vocations. We are all pilgrims on the way, loved sinners following the call we first heard at our baptisms, and that we continue to hear every day of lives.
In short, you are not alone. Millions of your Catholic brothers and sisters accompany you, as do your bishops, as we journey imperfectly together on this bridge. More important, we are accompanied by God, the reconciler of all men and women of good will, as well as the architect, the builder and the foundation of that bridge.