Questions about L.G.B.T. issues are being discussed at the Synod of Bishops on Young People, the Faith and Vocational Discernment, currently underway in Rome, mainly because young people today are increasingly interested in questions about lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. For many young people, L.G.B.T. people are their brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, friends and neighbors—and sometimes themselves. This is reflected in the synod’s working document, which stated, “[S]ome LGBT youth…wish to benefit from greater closeness and experience greater care from the Church.”
In some parts of the church, this may be considered primarily a “Western” concern. But the ethnic diversity of the L.G.B.T. community in the West, in part because some have sought refuge or asylum there because of their sexuality, demonstrates how the treatment of L.G.B.T. people is an issue for the global church. Moreover, increasing numbers of Catholics worldwide identify as L.G.B.T.
As a result, a few questions about L.G.B.T. people face the delegates at the synod. According to participants, discussions so far have centered on two questions, both about nomenclature: First, can the synod use the term “L.G.B.T.” in its documents? Second, can the synod acknowledge that gay couples can form a “family”? How might we approach those questions—while not challenging the church’s teaching on homosexuality or its opposition to same-sex marriage?
First, can the synod use the term “L.G.B.T.” in its documents?
Let me suggest three reasons why “L.G.B.T.” can be used in synod documents.
1. Naming L.G.B.T. people what they ask to be named is part of the “respect” called for by the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
This may be the most important reason to use the common term “L.G.B.T.” Referring to L.G.B.T. people with the name that most now use for themselves is part of the “respect” called for by the Catechism(No. 2358). To take another example, contemporary usage avoids the term “Negro” and instead opts for “African-American” or “Black,” which reflects what this group prefers. Refusing to call a group by the name that most in the group prefer borders on disrespect. L.G.B.T. youth, who are often harassed, bullied and “called names” are especially attentive to disrespectful language.
L.G.B.T. youth want to feel a part of the church.
Furthermore, if the church uses terms that are dated, unknown, overly clinical or considered disrespectful or even offensive (as “same-sex attracted” is with most L.G.B.T. people), the church risks preventing real dialogue with the group. And if the church cannot engage in dialogue, then it cannot do theology properly—a path contrary to the Second Vatican Council’s invitation to be a church in the modern world (“Gaudium et Spes”). Thus, acknowledging this common term, especially for young L.G.B.T. people, is both respectful and helpful theologically.
2. Using “L.G.B.T. Catholics” includes them in the church.
Some have argued that using that term separates L.G.B.T. people from the rest of the church. But this argument is not made with other groups in the church. There are many other groups who are regularly identified by a particular characteristic—young adult Catholics, Latin-American Catholics, elderly Catholics, Catholic parents—and few suggest that such an identification divides them from the church. It simply identifies them as constitutive members of the Body of Christ and reminds us of the rich diversity in the church (1 Cor 12:20). In particular, L.G.B.T. youth want to feel a part of the church. This is a sign of diversity not division.
3. Using “L.G.B.T. Catholics” does not connote acceptance of an ideology.
When people describe themselves as L.G.B.T. it does not mean that they consider their sexuality or identity the dominant trait of their personhood, any more than people who refer to themselves as “Italian Catholics” or “elderly Catholics” consider this the dominant trait. Using the term does not mean that being L.G.B.T. is the most important part of who they are. Overall, using an adjective is not equivalent to defining a person or group in terms of one characteristic.
Likewise, the term does not constitute a declaration of support for a political ideology or theological position. For example, when a young person identifies as “gay” or “lesbian,” he or she is simply expressing a part of who he or she is, not making a claim about any controversial issues. In fact, L.G.B.T. persons embrace a wide spectrum of social, political, economic worldviews and commitments.
For all these reasons, I would suggest that the synod can use the commonly accepted term “L.G.B.T.”
Second, can the synod acknowledge that gay couples can form a “family”?
Again, let me suggest three reasons why, without challenging the church’s opposition to same-sex marriage, it may make sense for the synod to use this nomenclature.
1. There are many ways to be a “family.”
Given the vast cultural difference in the world, there are many types of families, in addition to the nuclear family of the mother, father and children. And, historically, there have also been different kinds of families—in the Bible, for example, families came in many shapes and sizes.
Today, families are not always constituted solely by marriage but also by other bonds of love and kinship—for example, a single mother and her child; a divorced man and his adopted child; a remarried and divorced couple with children; a common-law couple with children; a grandparent, aunt or uncle raising grandchildren, nieces or nephews; a legal guardian living with his or her ward; multiple generations of adults living with siblings and cousins; and an extended family of brothers and sisters whose parents are deceased. Perhaps most common of all, at least in the West, are increasing numbers of children born to unmarried couples (men and women). Each group, though in a non-traditional setting, would consider themselves a family.
If the church desires to address the contemporary world effectively it must consider using the terms by which the world understands itself.
The church may not approve of some of these situations, but it nonetheless refers to them as families. It uses the term and has used the term in the synod, widely and colloquially. Perhaps even some synod delegates hail from non-traditional families, but they most likely refer to their own “family.” Pastors, too, recognize that families are far more complex than we can imagine. In these same ways, gay couples can form families and are deserving of the term.
2. Gay couples are “families” in both the legal and emotional sense.
The church is opposed to same-sex marriage. But increasingly, gay couples are recognized by civil authorities as families. Civil courts in many countries regard same-sex couples as legally families and in other countries as having affinitas (kinship). Thus, they are families in the legal sense.
These families are also a place where love resides—in care for one another, care for children, care for aging parents, care for the larger community—just as love resides in traditional families. Many gay couples also heroically adopt the most disadvantaged and marginalized children. Such families provide a measure of social stability in the world and add to the flourishing of society as they support others in community and contribute to the common good.
Overall, if the church desires to address the contemporary world effectively it must consider using the terms by which the world understands itself. And, again, for the church to deny this may prevent dialogue with these many kinds of families.
3.Gay couples have children who need spiritual care—as members of “families.”
The church’s opposition to same-sex marriage is clear. But even though they are married without the church’s approval, gay parents do many of the same things that other parents do: love their children, provide for their upbringing and strive to help them become the persons God desires for them to be.
They also desire for their children to be part of the church. Thus, gay couples have their children baptized, bring them to Mass, teach them to pray, enroll them in religious education classes, rejoice at their reception of the sacraments and, overall, desire for their children the treasury of the church’s graces. This is the clear fruit of faith, the grace of God at work in the hearts of these parents.
Even in situations where L.G.B.T. Catholics have felt wounded by the church, many still want to raise their children in the faith—an unmistakable sign of God’s grace. This is a powerful source of life for the Body of Christ, and it is important for the church to recognize and affirm this. Children of these couples also naturally see themselves as part of a family. To argue otherwise risks making these children and young people feel excluded from their church.
The family has often been called the “little church,” where children first learn about God and about love. Thus, perhaps the best reason for using the term “family” for these couples and their children is that they are a locus of love.