Respect, Compassion and Sensitivity
The Catholic Church’s stance on homosexual activity is well known. There probably isn’t an intelligent Catholic in this country, perhaps even in the Western world, who isn’t aware of the church’s clear teaching. The Catechism teaches that homosexual activity is “intrinsically disordered,” that is, always and everywhere wrong. It also teaches that the inclination itself is an "objective disorder."
More recently, the Vatican and many local church leaders have communicated the church’s strong opposition to same-sex marriage, as that issue has increasingly come to the fore in many countries. Archbishop (soon Cardinal) Timothy Dolan of New York, who serves as the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, has spoken out against same-sex marriage, calling it an “ominous threat” to society. The archbishop of Minneapolis-St. Paul, John Nienstedt, recently wrote to his priests about the “gravity of this struggle, and said he expected them to support his efforts opposing same-sex marriage or remain silent. (Last year Archbishop Nienstedt sent out 400,000 DVDs explaining the church’s position to Catholics in his archdiocese.) And Charles J. Chaput, the newly installed archbishop of Philadelphia, called it “the issue of our time.”
As I said, the church’s stance on homosexual activity and its opposition to same-sex marriage are well known. The excerpt from the Catechism that underlies these teachings may now be one of the most well known of all church teachings. Line 2357 reads: “Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity, tradition has always declared that ‘homosexual activity is intrinsically disordered’.” (The quote within the quote comes from a document from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.)
I’m not writing to contradict these teachings in any way, nor to contradict any of these church leaders. (Some of the men above are friends as well.) Rather, I’d like to turn our attention to another part of the church’s official teaching, something equally as valid. It is contained in the very next line, and is an important aspect of our tradition that is often overlooked. Line 2358 of the Catechism reads: "The number of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies is not negligible. This inclination, which is objectively disordered, constitutes for most of them a trial. They must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided." (The original 1994 version included the line "They do not choose their homosexual condition.")
That line says much that is important, even though it is less well known than the previous line.
First, it says that gays and lesbians are not a negligible part of the population, Catholic or otherwise. They are not a minuscule minority that can be overlooked or that should be ignored; as such, they are a valid concern for the church and its ministers. To use the language of the Second Vatican Council, their “joys and hopes, and their griefs and anxieties,” matter.
Second, while some gays and lesbians may not appreciate having their situation described as a “trial,” the Catechism reminds Catholics that being a homosexual in many modern cultures is still fraught with difficulty. It can be a painful struggle for a gay person to accept himself or herself as someone loved by God. As most of us know, bullying, beatings and, in rare cases, murder, is often part of being a gay or lesbian teen. As a result, the rate of suicides among gay teens is significantly higher than it is for straight teens in our country. In other parts of the world the situation is more dire: in some countries homosexual activity can bring imprisonment or execution.
Finally, the Catechism says that every sign of unjust discrimination must be avoided when it comes to gays and lesbians. That’s every sign. (And remember a “sign” in Catholic theology is a broad term.)
But buried within #2358 are three words that warrant further attention, particularly in these times, when tensions flare, controversies arise and people feel pitted against one another. Gays and lesbians, says the Catholic church’s official teaching, are to be treated with “respect, compassion and sensitivity.” What might that mean?
My old Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines “respect” as a verb that means “to consider someone worthy of high regard.” The definition of the noun form includes words like “honor,” “deference” and “esteem.” The word derives from the Latin respectus, meaning to look back, or to “regard.” Respect is a way of looking at someone, and looking at them with “high regard.” The Catechism says that Catholics should look at gays and lesbians in this way—with respect. But what does that mean?
Certainly this means not denigrating them in any way, not making sweeping generalizations about them, not treating them as second-class citizens. But that’s the minimum. Showing someone honor, deference and esteem means going far beyond that; it means treating them with a special care. Respect is more than just acceptance.
One of the hallmarks of respecting a person, for example, is listening to him or her. If a child interrupts an adult, or fails to listen to a teacher, the child may be told, “Show some respect.” You would scarcely say that you respected a person if you showed no real concern for what they said, or, likewise, for their personal experiences. So, to show real respect Catholics need to listen carefully to the experiences of gays and lesbians. Indeed, I think one reason for the fraught nature of the church’s relations with gays and lesbians is an absence of listening. (On both sides.)
Also, out of respect for the church, gays and lesbians may themselves be moved to share their experiences and thoughts. This should sound familiar to American Catholics in particular. In the first line of the Declaration of Independence, the writers state that they are setting forth their grievances “out of decent respect to the opinions of mankind.” The signers respected the rest of humankind enough to explain why they were taking a momentous step. Respect impelled them to speak out. This is something of what I mean when it comes to gays and lesbians. No, I’m not comparing them to the Founding Fathers. But in a similar way they respect the church by sharing their joys and hopes, their griefs and anxieties, and especially, the way that God is at work in their lives.
What would it mean for the church to listen to the experiences of gays and lesbians? First, it would mean willingly and honestly listening to what it is like to grow up as a homosexual child and adolescent. It would mean paying attention to the voices of young people who feel persecuted or who are bullied. It would mean taking seriously the heightened threat of suicides among gay and lesbian youth, which is, after all, a “life issue.” It would also mean listening to what it is like to be an adult gay or lesbian, particularly within the church. That would mean another, more difficult, kind of listening: trying to understand the widespread feeling among many gay and lesbian Catholics that their own church doesn’t “respect” them. Then it would mean asking the difficult question: “Why is this?”
The Holy Spirit works not only from the top-down, but also from the bottom-up. It “blows where it will,” as Jesus says in the Gospel of John. Each of us, as St. Paul says, is a Temple of the Holy Spirit, wherein God dwells. Respect means not only loving each person as a child of God, with a unique vocation, called in baptism to the Body of Christ. It also means accepting the way that the Spirit might be at work in that person. As the Second Vatican Council says, “The holy People of God share also in Christ's prophetic office.” The Spirit blows where it will; it’s up to us to listen to it. Or not.
The prophetic office is often exercised in a powerful way by people on the margins, by the “unexpected” ones. Think of people in the Old Testament, like Samuel, the young boy who surprisingly hears God’s call, or David, the last person imaginable thought worthy to be a leader. The prophet who speaks from the margins may give voice to experiences that are not well known, or in some cases understood, but are nonetheless important. This is not to say that every gay Catholic is a prophet. But can the church listen to the experiences of gays and lesbians to discern where God might be at work in new ways? Because the question “How much does the church listen?” is the same as “How much does the church respect?”
When Jesus sees someone who is struggling, the Gospels often say that he is moved with pity. But the original Greek word used is far more vivid: splagchnizomai. It means that his bowels were moved with compassion. In other words, Jesus feels that emotion “in his guts.” Catholics are called to treat gays and lesbians with that same kind of visceral compassion. When we see them suffering, we are called to be moved in the same profound and transformative way.
What about our use of the term? The English word “compassion” comes from a Latin root meaning to “suffer with” or “experience with.” What would that mean in this case?
To suffer with gays means to be with them, and to stand with them, in solidarity. It means to be, and to be seen to be, on their side, battling "every sign of unjust discrimination.” It means sticking up for them when others mock or belittle them. It means reaching out in ways that might move us beyond our comfort zones. It might mean finding ourselves mocked as a result. It means aligning ourselves with them. That’s what Jesus did, after all. Even more than that, it means showing the kind of love that Jesus shows for those on the margins—a special kind of love.
Jesus made a special effort to reach out to those on the margins. He could easily have ministered solely to those who were thought to be “acceptable,” like observant Jews and the wealthy and the well. Over and over, though, Jesus moves beyond those groups, and takes his ministry to those who have been shunned by polite society—the “unclean,” the lepers, the poor, the sick, the tax collectors, prostitutes, “sinners.” It is an intentional ministry on the margins.
For Jesus there is no “other.” He works to bring all—through healing, welcome and forgiveness of sins—into the community. And often he does this before the sin is forgiven. For example, the Gospel of Luke tells the story of Zacchaeus the tax collector (a hated role among the Jews in Roman-occupied Palestine). Passing through the town of Jericho, Jesus sees the short man climbing a sycamore tree and calls up, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” This was a public sign of acceptance, and it must have seemed shocking to those for whom Zacchaeus was supposed to be hated. After he climbs down from his branch, Zacchaeus offers to pay back anyone that he has cheated four times over and give his money to the poor. But Jesus offers to go to his house before Zacchaeus does any of that.
Jesus is not afraid to stand with those on the margins. He always calls people to conversion, but most of all he “suffers with,” and “experiences with.” This is one of the meanings of compassion.
There are many examples of such compassion in the Catholic church. Gay and lesbian ministry is more widespread than most observers (and most Catholics) may think. On the local level, in parishes, gays and lesbians are ministered to in quiet and private ways by pastors and pastoral associates. More publicly, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, to take one of many examples, runs a successful and long-lasting (founded in 1986) ministry to gays and lesbians, a sign of their respect for these men and women. “The Ministry with Lesbian and Gay Catholics (MLGC) recognizes that all persons with a homosexual orientation are capable of living a full Catholic life in union with all the members of the Church,” says its website, quoting the former archbishop, Roger Cardinal Mahony. “MLGC has as its primary goal "to foster a spirit of community and fellowship among gay Catholics so that they can offer and receive mutual support in living their lives of faith with the Church."
What would it mean to treat gays and lesbians with “sensitivity” in the church? The word connotes that you are dealing with something that is itself “sensitive.” And that’s true. This is not to say that gays and lesbians are not strong people; rather, their experiences growing up often leaves them hurt and scarred. (Yes, other groups are also hurt and scarred but we’re talking about one group that often feels that the church has not been “sensitive” to them.) Can Catholics treat gays and lesbians with the same sensitivity that they would treat another victim or wounded soul?
What do you do with someone who has been hurt? You treat them with great attention and a special care. This would mean going out of our way to be loving and listening.
Another thing for Catholics to remember: Words matter. Words can hurt. Words can also heal. Not long ago, Francis Cardinal George, the archbishop of Chicago, compared certain gays and lesbians activists to the KKK--out of fear that a gay pride parade could possibly turn anti-Catholic. The cardinal’s original fear was that a scheduled pride parade would interfere with people entering a Sunday Mass along the parade route. The remark stung many in the gay community. In response, the organizers changed the time of the parade. Initially the cardinal issued a statement that repeated the analogy of the KKK, which caused further hurt. Later on, though, he issued an outright apology. “I am truly sorry for the hurt my remarks have caused,” he said. “Particularly because we all have friends or family members who are gay and lesbian. This has evidently wounded a good number of people. I have family members myself who are gay and lesbian, so it’s part of our lives. So I’m sorry for the hurt.” His apology, to me, seemed an example of sensitivity.
Another area of sensitivity is the way that the church’s overall teaching on gays and lesbians (not just about activity but about individuals as well) is presented. Or not presented. Some Catholic leaders lead off with the “thou shalt nots” and never get to the “thou shalts.” If all gays and lesbians hear about is the church’s opposition to same-sex marriage (to the exclusion of anything else about gays and lesbians), then it’s perhaps not surprising that many would report feeling rejected. Some of this may be the result of the media coverage focusing on one issue—but not all. What a difference it would make if Catholic leaders could speak as often about the great contributions of gays and lesbians in the church, for example. Or about treating gays with “respect, compassion and sensitivity.” Or if they raised their collective voices against gay suicide.
This way of proceeding has always struck me as surprising. It would be as if the first thing that a priest said to a group of married Catholic couples at a retreat was not “Welcome,” but “No extramarital sex!” Or if a group of Catholic business leaders was greeted at a luncheon by a bishop who said, “No unfair wages!” Or if a group of Catholic physicians was told at the beginning of a conference, “No abortions!” Gay people sometimes feel as if the “thou shalt nots” are the entirety of the church’s teaching on who they are. Because sometimes that’s all they hear.
An old scholastic dictum is helpful here. St. Thomas Aquinas wrote in the Summa Theologiae, "Quidquid recipitur secundum modum recipientis recipitur." Loosely translated: That which is received is received according to the mode of the receiver. So when trying to communicate something, one needs to be sensitive not only to how it is communicated, but how it is received.
Part of sensitivity, in other words, is knowing how your message is coming across. And presenting the whole message, not just part of it.
As I said, none of what I say contradicts Catholic teaching. Quite the contrary. Treating gays and lesbians with “respect, compassion and sensitivity” is Catholic teaching. It may sound odd to hear these things discussed, which are all perfectly in line with church teaching, because Catholics don’t hear it all that much. And that is a great loss to gay and lesbian Catholics, to all Catholics for that matter; indeed, to all people of good will.