Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Catholics often feel ignored, marginalized, excluded, insulted and even persecuted by their own church. Since my book Building a Bridge was published a year ago, I have heard stories from L.G.B.T. Catholics who have been treated like dirt by priests and other pastoral workers in their church.
A few months ago, for example, a woman who worked in a hospice in a large city in the Western United States asked me if I knew any “compassionate priests” in her archdiocese. She explained that the local parish priest assigned to provide pastoral care to the hospice was refusing to anoint a dying man—because he was gay.
A lesbian woman, who was not in any sort of romantic or sexual relationship, said that her pastor in a Midwestern small town told her that “your kind” were not welcome in the parish and that while he did not “wish you any harm,” she should look for another parish.
L.G.B.T. Catholics often feel ignored, marginalized, excluded, insulted and even persecuted by their own church.
Most poignantly, an autistic man in his 30s called to tell me that a pastoral associate at his parish told him that he could no longer receive Communion. The man was not sexually active or involved in any relationship; he simply had “come out” to his family and friends, and only recently. The pastoral associate, calling it a “scandal,” said that the man could receive Communion “privately” in the rectory if he kept away from the rest of the parishioners.
The church needs to listen to the experiences of L.G.B.T. Catholics in order to better treat them with “respect, sensitivity and compassion,” as the Catechism of the Catholic Church asks. Before we can minister to these Catholics, we need to listen.
When we listen, we will hear not only of their experiences but also their calls for help and prayer, especially in times and places of persecution. And when our L.G.B.T. siblings are persecuted in any way, church leaders are called to stand with them.
Catholics are often surprised to learn that in many parts of the world today, L.G.B.T. persons are liable to experience appalling incidents of prejudice, violence and murder.
Before the church can minister to L.G.B.T. Catholics, we need to listen.
In some countries, a person can be jailed or even executed for being gay or having same-sex relations. Indeed, as of this writing, engaging in same-sex relations is a crime in over 70 countries, and simply being gay or bisexual is punishable by death in 13 countries.
In other words, these are questions of life and death. L.G.B.T. issues in many parts of our world are, therefore, “pro-life issues.”
In these countries, the institutional church has an absolute moral duty to stand up for its persecuted and endangered brothers and sisters, publicly. Sadly, this does not often happen, and in fact, a few church leaders have supported these discriminatory laws. But embedded in Catholic teaching is a call to stand with our L.G.B.T. brothers, sisters and siblings. The Catechism, in its discussion on homosexuality, says “every sign of unjust discrimination” must be avoided (No. 2358). More fundamentally, helping, defending and caring for someone who is being subjected to any sort of physical violence is surely part of compassion. It is part of being a disciple of Jesus Christ.
In some countries, a person can be jailed or even executed for being gay or having same-sex relations.
Closer to home, what would it mean for the church in the United States to say, when needed, “It is wrong to treat the L.G.B.T. community like this”? Catholic leaders regularly publish statements—as they should—defending the unborn, refugees and migrants, the poor, the homeless, the aged. This is one way to stand with people: by voicing your support for them, even taking heat for them.
But where are statements specifically in support of L.G.B.T. people? When I ask this, some people say, “You can’t compare what refugees face with what L.G.B.T. people face.” As someone who worked with refugees in East Africa for two years, I know that is often the case. But it is also important not to ignore the disproportionately high rates of suicide among L.G.B.T. youths and the fact that L.G.B.T. people are the victims of proportionally more hate crimes than any other minority group in this country.
Here are some statistics from The Trevor Project, an organization that helps prevent teen L.G.B.T. suicides, which remind us again that these are often matters of life and death. They are matters of protecting, defending and respecting the lives of L.G.B.T. people.
What would it mean for the church to say, when needed, “It is wrong to treat the L.G.B.T. community like this”?
- Lesbian, gay and bisexual youth are almost five times as likely to have attempted suicide compared with straight youth.
- Lesbian, gay and bisexual youth who come from “highly rejecting” families are 8.4 times as likely to have attempted suicide as L.G.B.T. peers who have reported no or low levels of family rejection.
- In a national study, 40 percent of transgender adults reported having made a suicide attempt, and 92 percent of these individuals reported having attempted suicide before age 25.
The bullying of L.G.B.T. students in schools is another evil that should be squarely opposed, particularly given the Catholic Church’s long history and extensive experience with running elementary, middle and high schools.
Two years ago, in the wake of the murder of 49 people at Pulse, an Orlando nightclub that catered to a gay crowd, many were discouraged that more bishops did not immediately signal their support for the L.G.B.T. community. A few did. But imagine if the attacks had been on, God forbid, a Methodist church. Many bishops would have said, “We stand with our Methodist brothers and sisters.”
Why didn’t more Catholic leaders express sorrow for or show compassion to our L.G.B.T. brothers and sisters in Orlando?
Why didn’t more Catholic leaders express sorrow for or show compassion to our L.G.B.T. brothers and sisters in Orlando? To me, it seemed a failure of compassion, a failure to experience with and a failure to suffer with.
Orlando invites us to reflect on the implications of these failures. As James F. Keenan, S.J., a professor of moral theology at Boston College, pointed out to our class in graduate school, more often than not Jesus did not critique people who were weak but trying. Rather, Jesus criticized people who were strong but not bothering. For example, the rich man who does not bother to help the poor man by his door (Lk 16:19–31), the religious leader who does not bother to consider that someone needs healing on a Sabbath (Lk 13:10-16) and the Pharisee who does not bother to offer Jesus a welcome (Lk 7:36-45).
For Jesus, sin was, as Father Keenan said, “a failure to bother to love.” In Orlando, many in the church simply failed to bother to love.
How often do all of us fail to bother in this way?
How often do we fail to see the importance of the lives of L.G.B.T. people?
How often do we sin this way?