What messages do we send?
I spent much of this weekend reflecting on last week’s post by Fr. Jim Martin on what the Catholic response could be to young people who despair to the point of ending their lives because of the negative messages they receive and bullying they endure for being gay. Jim’s thoughtfulness to this issue is refreshing, and he offers a prayer for those who find themselves on the margins: lonely, afraid and desperate. Surely, we as outsiders are incapable of understanding fully what people feel when they decide life is no longer worth living. But we can take a critical look at the messages individuals receive that may lead them to despair and darkness. With regards to young people who are gay or lesbian, consider how they may interpret what the church says about them.
“Something is wrong with you.”
Though it also includes pleas for the faithful to demonstrate love and compassion for all people, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2358, states that homosexual inclinations are, “objectively disordered.”
“Showing affection to the person you love is a grave sin, perhaps evil.”
Again from the Catechism, 2357: “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered;” scripture shows them to be “acts of grave depravity.” Further, “they are contrary to the natural law” and “under no circumstances can they be approved.”
“You are unworthy of a lifetime commitment with the person you love.”
Catholic leaders and organizations from around the world, including Pope Benedict, prominent bishops, and the Knights of Columbus, are at the forefront of condemning same-sex marriage and exhorting all the faithful to speak out against gay rights.
“You are unworthy of employment with your church.”
There have been several cases in recent years of Catholic institutions that fire employees when they come out as gay or lesbian. I blogged about an episode in Massachusetts recently, involving an employee of a Catholic high school who was forced to resign because she married her longtime partner.
“You are unworthy to be a parent.”
Catholic Charities agencies in Massachusetts and Washington, DC, decided to close down their adoption programs rather than comply with state and local laws that say discrimination based of sexual orientation is illegal.
“You are unworthy of receiving the Eucharist.”
An incident in Minnesota has a group of gay students and their allies claiming that they were denied communion by Archbishop John Nienstedt. Though details remain a bit murky about what happened at the Mass, the students say that they were wearing buttons that showed their support for same-sex marriage, and that when they approached the archbishop to receive the Eucharist, they were instead offered a blessing.
“You are unworthy of heaven.”
Mexican Cardinal Javier Lozano Barragan, the retired head of the Vatican's Council for Pastoral Assistance to Health Care Workers, said that, “homosexuals will never enter the kingdom of heaven and it is not me who says this, but Saint Paul. People are not born homosexual, they become homosexual, for different reasons: education issues or because they did not develop their own identity during adolescence. It may not be their fault, but acting against nature and the dignity of the human body is an insult to God.”
“You are unworthy to be a priest.”
Part of the Vatican’s slow and often frustrating response to clergy sexual abuse was to create standards by which to judge which men would be ineligible to enter seminary, including those “who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies.”
“You are a threat to human existence.”
Pope Benedict was accused of using an address that called for continued vigilance to protect the environment as an opportunity to remind the world that gays and lesbians are a threat to God’s creation as well.
The issue is not church teaching on sexuality; scholars much smarter than me spend careers and countless books debating just that. Rather, I raise questions about the messages young people receive from the church and its leaders. Do some of the “messages” I construct above misinterpret their corresponding stories or quotes? Probably. But imagine for a moment that you are a young adult Catholic struggling with your sexuality. Perhaps you’re bullied at school; you don’t have close family members or friends whom you can trust. Your faith is an important part of your life, and you turn to your church leaders for help and guidance. But what messages are sent to these kids? If they interpret the general themes anything like the examples above, we as a church have much to consider: Are our messages life-giving? Are we providing hope and comfort to the confused and fearful? Is accurate and repeated articulation of a complex and closed theological system more important than pastoral care for those who live on the margins?
The church and its most vocal leaders sometimes seem to lend their voices toward defending the abstract (“sanctity of marriage” or “family values”) with much more gusto than they offer for those whom their words ultimately affect. The tension is lucidly present even in that little bit of canon law I cited above. The code itself is two-fold: homosexual acts are gravely immoral but gay and lesbian people must be treated with love and respect. Both sentiments may be worthy of propagation, or may not, but in the church today, it feels as if the voices promoting the former are much louder and commanding than those calling for the latter. And if we can learn anything from the tragic episodes over the past several weeks, it’s that words affect how people view themselves and have life-changing and life-ending consequences.