“If someone is gay and searches for the Lord and has goodwill, who am I to judge?” Pope Francis’ well-known words mark a new stage in the church’s relationship with LGBTQ persons.
Exactly what the pope meant by “Who am I to judge?” continues to be debated and discerned. But relatively little attention is given to his observation that same-sex oriented persons “search for the Lord and have goodwill.” This is a key insight that can and should inform how Catholic parishes minister to those of us with a sexual orientation or gender expression that differs from those of the majority.
I say us deliberately. Members of this community are not “out there.” They are already among us—sometimes hidden in plain sight. Every priest and religious educator has in their congregation or classroom someone who is impacted by how they engage LGBTQ topics. For many Catholic parishioners, we are speaking of human beings who are loved and cherished. They are us.
This is the deepest insight for Catholic parish ministry to LGBTQ persons: It’s not really about them. It’s about who we are and what we represent as Christ’s body. The deepest purpose of the church is not to defend doctrine but to continue the earthly ministry of Jesus. We extend compassion, sensitivity, respect, and even extravagant welcome not for the sake of LGBTQ Catholics but for the sake of our own integrity and credibility as the church of Jesus Christ. The following suggestions and insights can help us advance this goal.
The deepest purpose of the church is not to defend doctrine but to continue the earthly ministry of Jesus.
Commit to learning
Our knowledge about human sexuality is dynamic and evolving. We are discovering that human sexuality is more complex than we ever realized. So we have to commit ourselves and our parishes to ongoing education about human sexuality.
Some Catholics may feel uneasy, concerned that new discoveries may unsettle previous certainties. Here we need to recall a fundamental Catholic conviction: Reason and faith are not contradictory. We believe an intelligent investigation of human experience confirms our deepest faith convictions. We need not fear what the human sciences tell us of the complex mystery of our sexuality.
The better informed we are, the better we can understand the true core of our faith. For example, the church gained deeper insights into our beliefs about creation after Galileo discovered wonders that overturned belief in an Earth-centered universe. To reject new knowledge out of fear or a misplaced allegiance to a previous understanding of “tradition” is fundamentally un-Catholic.
Listen, apologize, and be patient
Let’s now consider some more practical actions. The first: Realize that many LGBTQ Catholics approach the church with longing, fear, and, at times, anger. Carl Jung said that sexual minorities often have a unique spiritual sensitivity, one gained from the experience of being “different” and an “outsider.”
Yet many are wary of the church. They hear of gay and lesbian teachers dismissed from their jobs, even after exemplary employment, solely because they publicly affirmed their love for another. Others have had priests publicly name them as embodiments of sin. Perhaps we are guarded, cautious, even angry when we approach you. Listen for the longing and the fear beneath our words. Apologize for the pain inflicted upon us by church leaders. Be patient with us as we learn to trust you with the pains and longings of our souls.
Related to that, assure us that God loves us. Full stop. Too often, we hear God’s love proclaimed with qualifications: “Of course, God loves you. But you’re a sinner” or “Yes, you are entitled to respect. But you are still objectively disordered.” I can hear some object: “But we’re all sinners.” True. But I know of no other group with whom we immediately follow the good news of God’s love and mercy with qualifications and reminders of sinfulness.
God’s love is so unearned, undeserved, unmerited, and boundless that it is scandalous and even outrageous. All of us are loved beyond any merit or deserving. Sexual minorities need that message and deserve to hear that message just as the rest of the faithful do. Perhaps even more so.
We extend compassion, sensitivity, respect, and even extravagant welcome not for the sake of LGBTQ Catholics but for the sake of our own integrity and credibility as the church of Jesus Christ.
Celebrate and respect our love
Speaking of love: Respect LGBTQ families as communities of love who struggle to love as any other family does. Many among us are raising children who provide both delight and challenge. These families are also “holy families”—imperfectly yet truly holy—like every other family in a parish. Even if you disapprove of or do not understand the love that binds a couple together, respect this “domestic church” as an incubator of faith and love.
Celebrate our life moments, especially baptisms and funerals. The church is discerning whether or how to ritually recognize same-sex unions; the German-speaking churches are at the forefront of this discussion. But nothing should exclude our children from being baptized in the faith. Nor is there any excuse to compound our grief with gratuitous insult when burying our deceased loved ones.
Finally, what if parishes or ministers decide that, in conscience, they cannot adapt such a pastoral orientation? They should be upfront and say that this is not the place for us. I realize that some might object, believing that LGBTQ Catholics need “the truth” to save their souls. I invite such persons to consider this painful truth: After such zealous counsel, many LGBTQ Catholics have endured dark depression, abandoned religion altogether, engaged in self-harm, and tragically even taken their lives. Are these really risks worth taking out of the belief that you are the appointed agent to save a soul?
Far better to state you are not the one for us and to leave us to continue our faith exploration elsewhere. If you are right, then trust that the Spirit will guide us to embrace the insights you cherish in the Spirit’s own time and way. And if you are wrong, then you have avoided risking lasting harm to a beloved seeker of Christ and will have manifested the highest value of the church’s law: the welfare of souls.