The LGBTQ conversation is a sign of new life in the church

Is the church changing its tone regarding LGBTQ issues?

“Who am I to judge?”

Those five words, spoken by Pope Francis in July 2013 in reference to gay Catholics, were a watershed moment for the church. This was a stark contrast to the tone set by his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, who instead referred to the “intrinsic moral evil” and “objective disorder” of “same-sex attraction.”

Pope Francis’ comment is one influential moment in a story of wider acceptance of LGBTQ people throughout society in the last five years. Sixty-three percent of all Americans think homosexuality should be accepted by society, and 70 percent of Catholics agree. Two years after Pope Francis’ remark, the United States Supreme Court guaranteed the right to civil marriage for same-sex couples throughout the entire United States. So while society at large has continued to rapidly accept LGBTQ people, how has the leadership of the Catholic Church responded?

Despite the pope’s compassionate tone, many people both gay and straight find it hard to reconcile a welcoming attitude with official church teaching that condemns “homosexual acts” and with statements from individual bishops and priests that reflect a more contentious attitude toward the LGBTQ community. And while many steps have been taken to bridge the gap between LGBTQ Catholics and their church, most agree: There’s still plenty of work ahead.

A change in tone

The compassion of Pope Francis mimics the pastoral tone that has infused his entire papacy, creating an environment that is more open to conversation. He uses the word gay and has offered messages of support and welcome to LGBTQ people. He met with a gay former student on his visit to the United States in 2015. He has called on Christians to apologize to gay people for offenses committed throughout history.

“Pope Francis isn’t creating a revolution, but what he’s doing is creating the space in which the Spirit can speak and be heard,” explains Father Bryan Massingale, professor of theological and social ethics at Fordham University and an outspoken voice for welcoming LGBTQ people, particularly the transgender community. “While there hasn’t been any official change in church doctrine, under the papacy of Pope Francis there is a greater freedom to address issues of sexual ethics and sexual morality more openly than there has been under the previous papacies.”

Pope Francis has also appointed bishops that share his emphasis on pastoral care to prominent roles, including Cardinal Joseph Tobin, Archbishop of Newark. In May 2017 Tobin held a welcoming Mass for LGBTQ Catholics at the Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Newark. (Tobin did not celebrate the Mass and left before the service for a prior commitment.) Cardinal Blase Cupich, appointed Archbishop of Chicago by Pope Francis in November 2014, recently called for listening sessions with LGBTQ Catholics to foster dialogue and limit feelings of alienation.

Jesuit Father James Martin is among the most vocal advocates in church leadership for compassionate dialogue between LGBTQ Catholics and the church. In 2017 he published Building a Bridge (HarperOne) to spark conversation between the two sides. He believes Francis’ appointments demonstrate remarkable change on the part of the church over the past five years. “[The welcoming Mass] wouldn’t have happened five years ago simply because Cardinal Tobin wasn’t in Newark,” Martin says. “Cardinal Cupich wants to have listening sessions with LGBTQ Catholics. That wouldn’t have happened because he wasn’t the archbishop of Chicago five years ago.”

Inconsistency abounds

Although the words and actions of certain bishops have been a welcome change for many LGBTQ Catholics, church hierarchy is not united on LGBTQ issues. “While the influence of the bishops has helped create safe spaces and the ability for dialogue where there wasn’t 5 to 10 years ago, the institutional church does not seem to be on pace with what’s happening in society,” says Arthur Fitzmaurice, a lay Catholic living in Atlanta who gives talks and workshops on LGBTQ ministry. “Pope Francis has made a lot of comments about being pastoral first, but there are priests and bishops who are not being pastoral to people in their parishes and dioceses.”

Contrasted with the actions of welcome from Archbishops Tobin or Cupich, other bishops and priests strike a markedly different tone. There are new directives that funerals could be denied to LGBT people as well as the Eucharist. One bishop held an exorcism in response to the legalization of same-sex civil marriages in 2013.

Massingale sees two ways to look at this inconsistency within the church. The first offers a more positive view and looks at the experiences of other Christian groups that have taken a more accepting stance toward LGBTQ people, such as the Episcopal, Presbyterian, Methodist, and Lutheran churches. “They all went through a messy period marked by a divergence of opinion and open disagreement on approach,” he says. “We can’t expect the Catholic experience to be any different. The differences we see among official leaders are part of a normal process of coming to a different place.”

He also recognizes that the discord can be disconcerting for people in the pews. “We’re used to living with the idea that church leaders all act the same way or use the same voice,” Massingale says. “I think this is a call for us as Catholics to accept the reality that we live in a church that’s in the midst of hesitant but real change and development. How do we help our people to understand that this isn’t something that’s entirely new in church history?”


These messages from the pulpit do have a real influence on people in the pews. Javier and Martha Plascencia became active in LGBTQ ministry after their son came out to them as gay and opened their home to support groups for parents and families in the Los Angeles area. Especially for the Latino community, they explain, the words coming from priests and bishops hold real authority. “We’ve seen parents crying saying, ‘I had a priest telling me that my son was going to hell,’ ” Martha says. “People were very thankful that we were speaking about loving and embracing their children.”

Other types of exclusion

Kristen Ostendorf taught at Totino-Grace High School in Fridley, Minnesota for 18 years, serving as an English teacher, campus minister, and liturgist. In 2013 the school’s corporate board found out the school’s president was in a same-sex relationship, and he resigned. In response, Ostendorf, who had been out to friends and family for about seven years, told the faculty she was in a relationship with another woman. She was fired the next day.

“It’s hard for me to believe the church has changed, mostly because people I know are so fearful for the future of the LGBTQ kids they minister to and teach,” Ostendorf, who now teaches in a public school in St. Paul, Minnesota, says. “They are so fearful for their colleagues who are gay. They are still so conscious that their jobs might end immediately if someone finds out who they are and who they love.”

According to the Catholic LGBTQ advocacy group New Ways Ministry, approximately 70 people since 2007 have been fired from Catholic institutions for reasons related to their sexual orientation. Firings from Catholic places of work highlight more of the inconsistency in messaging. Certainly not all gay teachers are fired, and the decisions often do not reflect the views of students or the community.


As individual church leaders change, so too can the tone for LGBTQ dialogue in certain areas. Marco Cipolletti has been active in LGBTQ ministry with St. Peter parish in Charlotte, North Carolina through multiple administrations. The late Bishop William Curlin served Charlotte from 1994 to 2002, and part of his work included holding listening sessions for parents of LGBTQ children.

His successor did not continue the sessions and also prevented New Ways Ministry’s cofounder Sister Jeannine Gramick from speaking at an event at St. Peter in 2015. The next year, a diocesan fundraiser was postponed when a singer scheduled to entertain at the event was revealed to be in a same-sex relationship. “These experiences are hurtful, and some people say, ‘Forget the church’ and they leave,” says Cipolletti.


When these kinds of disinvitations and firings filter through to the national media, it not only harms relationships within the church, it can also be detrimental to how those outside the church perceive Catholics and Catholicism. “When bishops say intolerant things and this makes it into the mainstream, it gives non-Catholics a reason not to engage with the church,” says Fitzmaurice. “A lot of times people within the church have already made up their minds. Many practicing Catholics will stay in the church regardless of what any bishop says. If the bishop agrees with them, they’ll feel reinforced; but if they disagree, they’ll feel that bishop is out of touch.”

From the bottom up

According to the Pew Research Center on Religion and Public Life, 70 percent of Catholics believe that homosexuality should be accepted, including 85 percent of Catholics ages 18 to 29. This acceptance seems to be growing and moving outward from the pews, rather than trickling down from the top of the church (despite Pope Francis’ pastoral example).


Yunuen Trujillo has volunteered with Catholic Ministry with Lesbian and Gay Persons (CMLGP) in the Los Angeles archdiocese for the last four years and believes that meaningful change is more often than not coming from laypeople. “It’s happening from the bottom up,” she says. “My parish started an LGBTQ ministry, and the community has been asking questions. Some people are not happy with it and some are, but just the fact that they’re starting to ask questions is a good thing, since that’s how we start the dialogue.”

Part of the reason for changes in attitudes in the pews is that as society has created a more welcoming atmosphere, more people have come out, meaning that more people are likely to personally know someone who identifies as LGBTQ. In 2013, 75 percent of Americans identified that they have a friend, relative, or coworker who has personally told them they are gay.

What’s more, 92 percent of LGBTQ Americans agree that over the past 10 years, society has become more accepting of them. “As more LGBTQ Catholics are public about their sexuality and their identity, more families are affected, and as more families are affected, more parishes are affected,” Father James Martin says. “And as more parishes are affected, more priests and pastoral workers are affected, and in turn more bishops are affected.”

Ostendorf agrees, explaining that she grew up in the 1970s when it was less acceptable to be who you were in public. “It’s my perception that there is a larger swath of Catholics in the pews who are more accepting when it comes to LGBTQ people and more willing to stand in those gray areas and talk with them, probably because there are more people who are gay who are saying, ‘OK, this is me,’ ” she says. “There are lots of communities saying, ‘Here are our gay brothers and sisters, here are their partners and kids and we’re all in this together.’ ”

Finding true dialogue

What permeates many conversations with LGBTQ Catholics, and the premise of Martin’s Building a Bridge, is a consistent call for dialogue between LGBTQ Catholics and the institutional church. Cipolletti describes a somewhat uneasy truce in Charlotte between LGBTQ ministry and the bishop. “We don’t meet regularly. Hopefully in the future both sides of the bridge will open up,” he says.

Trujillo believes that dialogue should look past LGBTQ people as a topic and focus on the whole person. “We tend to forget that sexuality or orientation is only one small part of who the LGBTQ community is,” she says. “LGBTQ people have amazing testimonies of faith, and I think anyone who hears their stories would agree that this is not a person we’d deny sacraments or other things to.”

One reason why Pope Francis’ “Who am I to judge?” comment was so groundbreaking was that he used the word gay. Dialogue will benefit from using the words that LGBTQ people use to refer to themselves. “I think it’s important to call a group what they asked to be called. It’s just simple respect,” Martin says. “If Pope Francis can use the word gay, so can everyone else.”

Fitzmaurice cites a time a bishop invited him to speak in the diocese but asked that he title the talk using the phrase “same-sex attraction” as opposed to LGBTQ or gay. “Before the event he came right out and asked me, ‘Why do you want to say gay?’ ” Fitzmaurice recalls. “When we actually had a conversation about it, it made a difference to him, because when he introduced me at the workshop he actually used the words gay and lesbian.”

Dialogue and openness is important not only between lay Catholics and ordained leadership but also for relationships between friends and families. Massingale recalls an interaction he had with a parent: “I remember a beautiful story where a dad told me with tears in his eyes, ‘I was so afraid that I was going to have to choose between being a Catholic and loving my son. You’ve shown me that I can do both. I was prepared to leave the Catholic Church, because there was no way I wasn’t going to love my son.’ These are the kinds of voices that we need to listen to far more. If we did listen to these voices of very sincere, committed, loyal Catholic people, then I think that our church would find a way to a stance that more adequately reflects the life and ministry of Jesus.”

An ‘early spring’

While official teaching on sexual ethics or marriage isn’t likely to change soon, hope exists that Catholics can continue to come together on the issues.

“I think it would be huge if the church said, ‘We acknowledge that there is love between many people in the church, not just heterosexually married people, that is reflective of the kind of love that Jesus proclaims,’ ” Fitzmaurice says.

A focus on the gospel of Jesus reveals his example of reaching out to those on the margins. “We sometimes forget the gospel when we talk about this topic,” Trujillo says. “We forget that Jesus encountered people exactly where they were and did not say, ‘Give some fish to these people but not to these other people.’ ”


But the message of love doesn’t always reach young people, especially as committed educators or employees continue to be fired for their sexual orientation. “It says to the gay kids, ‘You have no future in this church. Don’t say out loud who you are, and if you do, we will squash you.’ That is not a church of Christ, it can’t possibly be,” says Ostendorf. “There’s a ton of us who stick around in a church that really doesn’t want us. So there’s got to be a message of Jesus that’s appealing. There’s got to be a truth to that Christian story that we keep telling. LGBTQ people keep showing up because they are hopeful in the truth of that message.”

Father Massingale believes that while it may not be an easy journey, eventually the Catholic Church will celebrate the committed expressions of love between LGBTQ persons. “I don’t think that our commitment to the equal sacred personhood of every human being gives us any other choice,” he says. “The metaphor I use to say where we are as a church is that we are in an early spring. Especially in the Midwest, in early spring the fields are muddy and you can have blinding snow storms and frigid arctic blasts even as the season changes. We’re in this transitional time when we’re moving out of one paradigm of understanding human sexuality and into another. That’s part of the mess we’re in, but it is our faith as Catholics that this mess contains the ground for new life and new birth.”

This article also appears in the April 2018 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 83, No. 4, pages 25–30).