By Marcus Mescher
Jesus never said one word about LGBTQ persons. But that’s not the impression that many Christians – including several Catholic bishops – proclaim when it comes to people who identify as LGBTQ. Recently, Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence tweeted a warning to Catholics to “not support or attend LGBTQ ‘Pride Month’ events in the month of June.” He explained that these events “promote a culture and encourage activities that are contrary to Catholic faith and morals. They are especially harmful to children.” Bishop Strickland of Tyler, Texas, quickly affirmed this statement and later tweeted an objection against the label of homophobia for bishops “who speak the truth of the Gospel.”
There are several theological and ethical problems with these statements. The first is that Bishop Strickland misrepresents the content of the Gospels: Jesus never mentions LGBTQ persons once in Mark, Matthew, Luke, or John. Neither does Jesus – as Bishop Strickland erroneously claims – teach that human sexuality is ordered to procreation and the unity of (heterosexual) spouses.
Another – and perhaps even more troubling – problem is that Bishop Tobin is blaming “Pride Month” events for being “especially harmful to children” when he, as auxiliary bishop of Pittsburgh from 1992-1996 claimed that he bore no responsibility to act to protect children (and adults) when he became aware of sexual abuse. In light of the 900 page Pennsylvania Grand Jury report released in August 2018 and other subsequent reports about widespread abuse of minors (and adults) that were covered up over the past decades, Bishop Tobin should be doing more apologizing and atoning than judging. Our bishops still have much work to do to listen to survivors of abuse, work to heal their trauma (as well as that of their family and friends), and tackle what is needed for greater transparency, accountability, and prevention. Our bishops still have not responded to the open letter signed by more than 5,000 Catholic theologians, educators, lay leaders, and parishioners, calling for penance, healing, and solidarity with all those impacted by these clerical failures in servant-leadership. They cannot continue like “business as usual” after such a horrifying abuse of power.
A third problem with the bishops’ statements is that they contribute to homophobia in our churches. The Catechism of the Catholic Church clearly states that LGBTQ persons “must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided” (no. 2358). When bishops attack LGTBQ persons or events, they contribute to “unjust discrimination,” producing stigma and shame. It is deeply troubling that 40% of youth who experience homelessness are LGBTQ, many of whom have been rejected, disowned, abandoned (and sometimes abused) by family and friends. LGBTQ persons are more likely to endure intimate partner violence and less likely to report it to the police. As Rev. James Martin, SJ, pointed out, LGBTQ persons are five times as likely to attempt suicide. LGBTQ issues are life issues. To be #ProLife is to stand with the dignity and rights of each and every human person. This obviously includes LGBTQ individuals who are made in the “image and likeness” of God (Genesis 1:26). LGBTQ persons are beloved children of God – just as we all are – “wonderfully” made by God (Psalm 139:14).
Even though Jesus never addressed LGBTQ persons, the moral core of the Gospels is clear: mercy for and solidarity with everyone, especially those on the margins of society. This message is affirmed in the Beatitudes, in Jesus’ healing ministry to social outcasts (like lepers and others considered unclean and thus unworthy of belonging to the community), and especially in Matthew 25:31-46, where Jesus presents the “judgment of nations” as contingent upon their treatment of those in greatest need. It’s hard to square Bishop Tobin and Strickland’s statements with Jesus’ repeated emphasis on providing welcome, care, and support for the most vulnerable among us, the basis for the principle of “the preferential option for the poor” in Catholic Social Teaching. Incidentally, another core tenet of Catholic Social Teaching is the primacy of the family as the building block of the church and society. Imagine the pain caused by Bishops Tobin and Strickland – and other bishops and priests who might echo their statements – for family and friends of LGBTQ persons. LGTBQ persons are members of our families, they are friends and co-workers, and they belong to our churches. We should see them as part of us, members of the Body of Christ (Galatians 3:28), certainly not an “other” to be judged, distanced, or denigrated.
Many Catholics see and believe this. In fact, a majority of baptized and practicing Catholics believe the church should reconsider its teaching on LGTBQ persons and relationships, especially in light of the mental health and wellbeing of young people. In some cases, the percentage of Catholics who support LGBTQ persons is higher than the general population. Pew Research Center reports that 61% of Catholics (and 66% of Protestants) support same-sex marriage.
Some might (rightly) point out that church teaching isn’t democratic. While church teaching can and does change over time (Dr. Katie Grimes of Villanova University gives 15 examples here), it should be pointed out that the Catechism’s teaching that same-sex acts are “intrinsically disordered” (no. 2357) was written when the “psychological genesis remains largely unexplained.” Today, that is no longer the case. We now know that sexual orientation is a genetic predisposition, like the color of your eyes or whether you are right-hand or left-hand dominant. In truth, human sexuality is more complicated than simple binaries (e.g., gay or straight) and we need to proceed with caution when we talk about what it means to be human. As the rich diversity of human identity and expression illustrates, there is no one way to be human.
As we learn more about the complexity of human experience from psychology and other social sciences, we should reconsider our approach to Scripture and Tradition, given that the operating assumption for most of Christianity has been that LGBTQ persons were acting against the natural order (that sex is ordered toward procreation). In other words, same-sex acts were judged wrong because of the assumption that these individuals were acting against their God-given-nature. That is part of the reason why, in the rare instances when same-sex acts are mentioned in Scripture, the biblical authors condemned these actions as sinful. (It should be noted, however, that these references often condemn male prostitution and anal rape; the biblical authors do not consider same-sex acts between people acting according to their God-given-nature to love another person in free consent and mutual respect.)
Finally, the statements by Bishops Tobin and Strickland are problematic because they do not make room for the freedom of conscience of those who might attend Pride Month events or show outward support for LGBTQ persons. The Catechism makes clear that the conscience is the “sanctuary” to hear the voice of God as the “Vicar of Christ” (nos. 1776, 1778). While the conscience should be informed by church teaching, it is also an activity and process that draws from reason and human experience – including the experiences of others – to seek what is right, true, good, and just. It is not the place for bishops to tell lay Catholics whether they should support or attend Pride Month events because the bishops cannot predict the action, intention, and circumstances of those who may do so, especially those who do in clear conscience, in respect and love for a parent, child, sibling, another family member or friend.
In his book, Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity, Rev. James Martin, SJ, makes clear that debates do not help our church become more like Christ. He offers, instead, “an invitation to conversation and prayer, and then to a ministry rooted in Jesus Christ.” Each one of us – straight or LGBTQ, lay, ordained, or vowed – has a responsibility to promote respect, compassion, and sensitivity to all individuals, especially those most in need of it. Our bishops can and should lead these efforts, especially in response to the call by Pope Francis to be more like “shepherds who smell like their sheep” through pastoral accompaniment, mercy, and solidarity. But we cannot wait for our bishops to be people who model Christ through mutual respect, the invitation to inclusion, and agents of a “culture of encounter.” An authentic “culture of encounter” means going to the frontiers – to streets and to shelters, to places of mourning and celebration – to stand with and share life with others.
What better way can we advance the “revolution of tenderness” (Evangelii Gaudium, no. 88) that helps us build a culture of solidarity?
What better way can we be “repairers of the breach” (Isaiah 58:12) in our broken, wounded, and divided world?
What better way to be witnesses of the “truth of the Gospel” that love, mercy, and solidarity should extend to each and to all?
Marcus Mescher, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor of Christian Ethics at Xavier University. His primary area of specialty is Catholic social thought, particularly family life and the common good, solidarity and the preferential option for the poor, as well as ecological responsibility. He writes for academic and popular audiences in journals and digital platforms. His book, The Ethics of Encounter: Christian Neighbor Love as a Practice of Solidarity, proposing an ethical framework for Pope Francis’ call to build a “culture of encounter,” will be published in March 2020 with Orbis Books. Follow him on Twitter at @marcusmescher.