What is a Catholic response to gay suicide?
It's impossible not to be moved by the terrible stories of the five youths who recently took their own lives because they were being harassed as gays and lesbians. In New York the story of Tyler Clementi, the Rutgers freshman who was filmed having a romantic encounter with another man, which was them live-streamed by his "friends," seemed particularly harrowing. A despairing Clementi, age 18, ended his life by jumping off of the George Washington Bridge. Any suicide is an unspeakable tragedy, just as any murder of any kind is a tragedy, but there is something especially sad about a young person believing that their life will never be, or can never be, better. The Christian heart is, as Jesus's heart was, "moved with pity."
This rash of deaths has prompted a response, especially on college campuses, and the "It Gets Better" project, which has adult gays and lesbians reminding youth that as one matures "it gets better." Essentially, it is an argument against despair and suicide. Sadly, many of the people interviewed speak of overcoming the hatred that they felt in Christian churches, schools and other organizations.
We Catholics, at least as I see it, can do a better job in reaching out to young gays and lesbians. On the positive side, the USCCB's document "Always Our Children" is a fine start, especially for parents who have homosexual children. And many large dioceses and archdioceses, like the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, have excellent outreach programs for gay and lesbian Catholics. And of course on the local level many gays and lesbians feel not only welcomed by their pastors and pastoral staffs, but have become key members of their parishes communities, serving in a variety of roles. Without them our church would be immeasurably poorer.
But often the Catholic message to gay and lebian Catholics starts off with the "Thou shall nots" instead of the "Thou Shalls." We invariably start off with "Thou Shall Not Have Sex" instead of "Thou Are a Beloved Creation of God," or "Thou Art a Full Member of the Community," or "Thou Have Much to Bring to the Church." To what other group is the "Thou Shall Not" our opening line? For example, have you ever been to a gathering of Catholic married couples where the opening line was "Thou Shall Not Commit Adultery"? Or a gathering of Catholic business leaders where the opening line was, "Thou Shall Not Steal"? We are all "loved sinners," as Jesuits like to say, but people--especially young people, especially people on the margins, and especially young people on the margins--should be reminded of the "loved" part before the "sinner" part.
Simply speaking about outreach to gays and lesbians brings forth such swift and terrible condemnations in some Catholic circles these days that it surely must make the gay Catholic want to say to his or her church, as Jesus said to St. Peter, "Do you love me?"
It's a sad irony, because there is one life-changing resource in the Christian tradition that can transform those who feel unloved--that is, Jesus. The Son of God reached out specifically to those on the margins, specifically to those who felt rejected, specifically to those who felt excluded from the community. For Jesus, as the theologian James Alison has written, there was no "other." And there is much in the Catholic tradition in particular that can help gays and lesbians as well. To begin with, the lives of the saints, which show us how God builds on the individuality of each person to create something wonderful and holy, are powerful messages to all who feel too "different" to be part of the Body of Christ. (Even specific episodes from the lives of the saints--like the story of St. Francis of Assisi leaping off his horse to tend to the leper, the outcast, and being rewarded with a mystical vision--speak of the Christian call to reach out precisely to those who feel most marginalized.) The voluminous writings of popes and theologians on human dignity all speak to the great gift that every person's life represents. Or the Catechism, which states (in a line often ignored) that gays and lesbians must be welcomed with "respect, sensitivity and compassion." They can also reach "Christian perfection," that is, holiness, says the Catechism.
Those places in our tradition might all be good places to start when it comes to outreach, especially with youth (and not just with gay and lesbian youth, but with all who feel excluded). And if pro-life means trying to avoid anything that will threaten any life, from natural conception to natural death, then we should be finding ways to protect all life, which also means preventing suicides, and preventing gay suicides. In any event, there is much for us, the church, still to do.
For my part, not knowing what else to do, I wrote this prayer.
A Prayer When I Feel Hated
Loving God, you made me who I am. I praise you and I love you, for I am wonderfully made, in your own image.
But when people make fun of me, I feel hurt and embarrassed and even ashamed. So please God, help me remember my own goodness, which lies in you. Help me remember my dignity, which you gave me when I was conceived. Help me remember that I can live a life of love, because you created my heart.
Be with me, loving God, when people hate me, and help me to respond how you would want me to: with a love that respects others, but also respects me. Help me find friends who love me for who I am. Help me, most of all, to be a loving person.
And God, help me remember that Jesus loves me. For he was seen as an outcast, too. He was misunderstood, too. He was beaten and spat upon. Jesus understands me, and loves me with a special love, because of the way you made me. And when I am feeling lonely, help me to remember that Jesus welcomed everyone as a friend. Jesus reminded everyone that God loved them. Jesus encouraged everyone to embrace their dignity, even when others were blind to seeing that dignity. Jesus loved everyone with the boundless love that you gave him. And he loves me, too.
One more thing, God: Help me remember that nothing is impossible with you, that you have a way of making things better, and that you can find a way of love for me, even if I can’t see it right now. Help me remember all these things in the heart you created, loving God.