One of this month’s most frequently tweeted links is to an Easter Sunday interview with Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, archbishop of New York. In an appearance on ABC, the cardinal was asked to comment on the fact that many gay and lesbian Catholics feel “unwelcome” in the church. Cardinal Dolan responded: “We gotta do better to see that our defense of marriage is not reduced to an attack on gay people. And I admit, we haven’t been too good at that.”
Some among the Twitterazzi immediately suggested that the cardinal’s remarks reflected a “softening” of the church’s teaching on homosexual acts or same-sex marriage. Cardinal Dolan, of course, intended nothing of the kind; at least twice during the interview he made it clear that the church remains firmly committed to the traditional definition of marriage. Even the cardinal’s expression of sympathy for the pastoral situation of gay and lesbian people was not a departure from tradition; his statement, in fact, was an example of the church’s teaching that gay and lesbian people “must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity.”
Still, by acknowledging that the church has failed to display such sensitivity and respect, the cardinal has by implication called the church to account for the uncharitable and unjust prejudices among her sons and daughters. This could serve as a welcome invitation to repentance and renewal for the church in the United States. And by church I do not mean just the bishops; I mean all of us. By “uncharitable or unjust prejudices,” I do not mean church teaching; I mean the attitudes of its members.
It is clear to me that one of the main reasons why gay and lesbian people feel unwelcome in the church has less to do with the church’s formal teaching and more to do with the informal bigotries among Catholics. The issue, in other words, isn’t necessarily what’s in the catechism, as important as that is, but what’s in our hearts.
Too often, for example, when the conversation concerns gay and lesbian people, the catechism is invoked as if it were a penal code that simply proscribes acts and prescribes punishments; the catechism, though, is a holistic treasury of the church’s living tradition, one that prompts us all to holiness. Too often, for example, the pastoral sensitivity that is extended to other people in unconventional living situations is withheld from gay and lesbian Catholics. In the one instance, a full pastoral response begins with, “It’s a complicated world and people lead complicated lives; they’re doing the best they can.” In the case of gay and lesbian Catholics, the pastoral response frequently begins and ends with, “Their lifestyle represents a radical social agenda that must be repudiated.”
Too often, in short, gay and lesbian Catholics are more quickly suspected of sinful behavior and more fiercely condemned for it. Gay and lesbian people are human, of course, and can also be prejudiced. It is unfair, for example, to assert that a person who supports traditional marriage is ipso facto a bigot. For people of good will, it’s much more complicated.
Cardinal Dolan told ABC that we need to listen to those who don’t feel welcome. The cardinal is spot on. We need to listen—all of us. In order to open our hearts more fully to the love and mercy of the One we follow, we must open our hearts to one another. We need to listen in order to learn how the church can be more supportive of gay and lesbian people while remaining faithful to its tradition.
Ideas matter, as do public policies. In the end, though, it is not ideas or public policies that make the world an unjust place. The world is unwelcoming mainly because we fail to love one another. If we’re going to follow the cardinal’s good advice, then we would do well to re-member that.