When an auxiliary bishop in the Archdiocese of Boston asked the nearly 200 students in a high school confirmation class what questions they had for him earlier this month, two themes quickly emerged. First, they wrote him, why did you want to become a bishop? Second, why does the church hate gay people?
The first one was easy, Bishop Mark O’Connell told them, since very few priests set out to become bishops.
But the second question, which he said comes up frequently when he meets with young people, was more difficult for him to answer, not because church teaching is unclear to him, but because the language the church often uses fails to resonate with a generation that increasingly sees kindness as the highest virtue. An experience he had with a student following the listening session earlier this month led him to post a message on Twitter to encourage other bishops to listen to the concerns young Catholics have about fraught issues of gender and sexuality:
Did a Q&A with 190 High School students last night. Important questions about Catholics and gender identity. My message was that bishops need to hear their powerful voices for real dialog. I’m listening. #BishopHearMe— + Mark O'Connell (@rfkram) January 8, 2018
“I feel inspired by Pope Francis to find new language to express the beauty of our truth,” Bishop O’Connell told America in a recent interview. And to that end, the bishop, who also serves as pastor of a parish with 2,800 families, has held 22 listening sessions.
A canon lawyer by training, Bishop O’Connell said duringan address at his ordination as bishop last August that church leaders are called to reach out to the “many who feel the church doesn’t want them.” He said part of that ministry includes listening, including to “the many young adults who have nothing but skepticism and doubt when they think of the Catholic Church.”
Bishop O’Connell: “I feel inspired by Pope Francis to find new language to express the beauty of our truth.”
“By naming our own weaknesses, we can develop new language, new ways to explain the soundness of our teaching, new ways to show the beauty and authenticity of our faith to the world,” he said. “If we cannot find the new language, at least we can listen.”
In the interview with America, he made clear several times that he does not question church teaching on issues of gender and sexuality—he is simply searching for better ways to articulate those teachings during a particularly “critical moment” in the lives of young people.
“Giving them a bad explanation of the truth could cause them to lose their faith forever,” he said.
Many students tell him they see the church as “unkind” on L.G.B.T. issues, which he thinks is driven in part by media reports that tell them “we’re a bigoted church” and that Catholics are “bullies.”
“As a generation,” he said of today’s high school students, “they’re kind-hearted, and they don’t like people being put down, bullied.”
“Giving [young people] a bad explanation of the truth could cause them to lose their faith forever.”
He said that after reflecting on their questions he told them, “We’re not against gay people, we have lots of gay members in our church.” He noted that there are priests who are gay and who live chastely. He tries to impress upon young people that the church is “not prejudiced” against gay people but does not shy away from the church’s teaching on marriage.
Attitudes about L.G.B.T. issues among Catholics in the United States have changed in recent years. Catholics as a cohort are accepting of same-sex marriage and believe that businesses should not be allowed to discriminate against L.G.B.T. people in the marketplace. But officially, the church still bans gay men from entering seminaries, though how that rule is enforced varies from diocese to diocese, and sexual relations between people of the same gender are considered sinful. Since gay marriage was legalized nationwide in 2015, there has been a rash of firings of church workers because of issues related to sexuality.
Then there is the issue of language itself, which has caused turmoil between some L.G.B.T. Catholics and church leaders.
Bishop O’Connell said the search for acceptable language is ongoing, noting that even in the L.G.B.T. community language continues to evolve.
James Martin, S.J., an editor at America, published a book last year in which he calls church leaders to use the terms “gay” and “lesbian” when talking about L.G.B.T. people, rather than the more clinical sounding “same-sex attracted people” preferred by many church leaders. Many high-profile church leaders have backed Father Martin on this, though others continue to resist the labels.
For his part, Bishop O’Connell said the search for acceptable language is ongoing, noting that even in the L.G.B.T. community, language continues to evolve. “We need to work on language that we can all agree on,” he said.
The dizzying pace of progress for L.G.B.T. people has also presented the church with new challenges, he said. “These are not old issues,” he said, pointing specifically to the challenges over rights for transgender issues. “Jesus did not say, ‘In 2018, when we speak about transgender people, this is the answer.’”
“Jesus did not say, ‘In 2018, when we speak about transgender people, this is the answer.’”
Bishops, he said, are “struggling” with the issue and are considering, “How do we really be kind?” when formulating policies about bathrooms and locker rooms in church-affiliated institutions.
Young people see the church as a scold, the bishop said, and urged pastors to act like good parents when confronted with parishioners who are unsure about their gender or sexuality. If a child told a mom or dad that she or he is struggling with sexual identity, “a good parent would take that as a real cry for a conversation and not just say, ‘Stop it,’” he said.
In some of the other listening sessions Bishop O’Connell has hosted, he said there are usually two types of participants: “people confused because the church has too many rules” and “people confused because the church ‘took away’ all of our rules.”
“We are losing three generations of people, and we need to hear why.”
While many people have thanked the bishop for holding the listening sessions, he says not everyone agrees with the premise. One person told him that bishops should teach, not listen. But he says he takes seriously the goal of listening to the faithful, adding, “We’re not a church that should be afraid of questions, but I think a lot of people are afraid of these questions.”
When asked how church leaders might better address questions from young people about L.G.B.T. people, he said that first, “We have to stop avoiding it.” He said it is “rare” for bishops to listen to the concerns of young people about these issues, adding, “every bishop should be able to answer these questions adequately.”
But what if the young people are unimpressed with the answers they hear? Well, Bishop O’Connell said, they need to use their voice. “When I was first ordained 27 years ago, our high school students were upset that there weren’t girl altar servers,” he said. Today, it is common to see young girls serving in that role.
“We are losing three generations of people, and we need to hear why,” he said. “So I would encourage my brother bishops to listen, listen to what they’re saying.”