Author’s Note: On Tuesday November 15, 2022, at Regis University in northwest Denver, a large gathering of students, faculty and staff came together for a march in public support of the LGBTQ community. The march was an act of solidarity in the wake of the publication of the Archdiocese of Denver’s guidelines for K-12 Catholic schools with respect to students and parents who identify as queer. Just several days later, 75 miles to the south, a young man bearing an AR-15 entered Club Q in Colorado Springs and begin firing, killing five and wounding dozens. Not a few Catholic commentators have drawn a link between the anti-LGBTQ policies of the Archdiocese of Denver and those of other bishops in the US and abroad, and increasingly demonizing rhetoric , anti-LGBTQ political policies, and threats of violence from the right. I was honored to be asked to speak at the march, and delivered the following remarks.
Just over seven years ago, in March of 2015, the people of Ireland voted overwhelmingly to amend their nation’s constitution to legalize same sex marriage. The practice was signed into law and officially recognized on November 16, 2015, seven years ago tomorrow. The first marriage ceremonies of same sex couples in Ireland took place the following day.
The response of many bishops of the Roman Catholic Church was to lament that the church has a messaging problem, that it has failed to communicate its teaching on sexuality adequately to the faithful. The now-retired Archbishop of Dublin, for example, Archbishop Martin, said this after the referendum: “[It is very clear that] the church has a huge task in front of it to find the language to be able to talk to and to get its message across to young people.” Cardinal Parolin of Italy described the outcome as not only “a defeat for Christian principles, but a defeat for humanity,” and he echoed Archbishop Martin’s call for stronger “efforts in evangelization.” German Cardinal Walter Kasper, by no means a staunch conservative, described the Irish vote as “emblematic” of today’s postmodern belief that “everything is equal,” in sharp contrast to church doctrine. The church needs to find new ways and a “new language,” said Cardinal Kasper, to express its fundamental teachings about love, marriage, sexuality and the equal dignity and reciprocal “diversity of man and woman in the order of creation. It’s necessary to be careful,” he said, “about not using expressions that can sound offensive, without, however, hiding the truth.”
I participate in this gathering tonight as a grateful member of the Regis University community, as a Catholic theologian who has reflected on these contentious questions for many years, as a male cisgender heterosexual, and as a teacher in Jesuit schools for nearly 25 years; more intimately, I come as a father and as a friend to many LGBTQ persons. I do not presume to speak for Regis University as a whole, neither for the administration, nor for my faculty or mission office colleagues. The university has spoken clearly, I think, in its statement of support for LGBTQ persons, and I embrace with my whole heart every word in this statement.
Speaking, then, as one who serves the church in my capacity as a teacher and theologian, let me say that I do not believe that the bishops primarily have a messaging problem. I believe, rather, that the church’s teachings on sexuality and gender have been heard, pondered carefully and prayed with for a very long time, and have not been received by a great many lay Catholics as reflecting the full truth, dignity, and mystery of our sexual and sacramental lives as persons. In more technical jargon, the theological anthropology that grounds church teaching has been considered carefully and found inadequate in light of the data of human experience. Clearly, I’m not alone in this judgment.
A great many thoughtful people who love the church and who also love their gay and lesbian friends, transgender and bisexual sons and daughters, are asking for clarity and consolation, rooted in the Gospel, on this issue. A great many of our brothers and sisters in and beyond the church have suffered for too long a kind of existential and theological homelessness, with no room for their lived experience in the language and practice of the church. As Catholic theologian M. Shawn Copeland of Boston College asks, “What are gays and lesbians to do with their bodies, their selves?” I agree with Copeland. There are few questions more urgent today for which “old answers are not sufficient” than how to account for sexual and gender diversity in the greater mystery of God’s love and in the life of the church.
The Archdiocese of Denver’s recently surfaced policy guidelines for Catholic K-12 schools do nothing to address these questions in a thoughtful, compassionate, or pastoral way. To the contrary, by lumping the immense diversity and lived experience of LGBTQ persons under the single defamatory umbrella of so-called “gender ideology,” the policy amounts to a harsh refusal to deal with real persons, many of them faithful Catholics, in favor of a caricatured and stigmatizing portrait of LGBTQ persons. Perhaps nobody has exposed the dangers and internal contradictions of such policies more courageously than Fr. James Martin, the Jesuit author of the book Building a Bridge, and perhaps the most visible public figure in the US church, other than Pope Francis, seeking to chart a way forward on these questions. And because of this, not incidentally, Fr. Martin is also the most frequent target of attacks by conservative Catholics.
“It is a common tactic these days,” writes Fr. Martin, “to reduce the experience of LGBTQ persons to an `ideology,’ as if they were socialists or communists. This is both false and misleading. It is part of their identity, not an `ideology.’ Overall,” he continues, “this is a convenient way to dismiss the varied experiences of LGBTQ people who, after all, have [an infinitely wide] range of thought [and experiences, life stories, and perspectives].”
More darkly, Fr. Martin calls to account those church officials, politicians, and others who would dismiss not only the loving witness of LGBTQ persons themselves but also the cumulative voices of medical and psychological professionals with respect to gender dysphoria and manifestations of human sexuality that have always been with us but do not map neatly onto the male/female binary. “The use of religious language to stigmatize, marginalize and otherwise harm LGBTQ people . . . has serious consequences,” he writes. “Telling someone, or even implying, that a person is de facto [a `disordered’ person, a bad Catholic, or even] an atheist because he or she identifies as [queer] is deeply insulting.” (Here he notes that one of the most common reasons for suicide among LGBTQ youth is rejection by religious families.)
Personally, it’s difficult for me to get past the dread feeling that a vocal handful of the church’s pastors are reinforcing the cruelest tendencies of our politics, from right to left: if you can’t fall into line, get out. It is a vision of the church that I don’t recognize, the church as a kind of purity cult: a smaller, purer church hiding behind the fig leaf of defending “church doctrine,” or “avoiding scandal.” Saddest of all, for me, such policies fly in the face of the Gospel that they presume to uphold. Again, Fr. Martin says it well: “In the person of Jesus, we see someone who continually reached out to those who felt that they were on the margins, who felt excluded, who felt persecuted. . . . Church teaching cannot [be credible or trustworthy] with no reference to Jesus’s ministry of love, mercy and compassion, especially to those who feel excluded in any way. . . We don’t treat other groups without considering their lived experiences. Neither did Jesus.”
When I was growing up as a kid in Lexington, KY, and playing the piano for our parish choir, there was one song that I loved to play and sing that I think still holds up pretty well. It’s called, “They’ll Know We Are Christians By Our Love,” and it surfaced in my memory this past week as I searched for a spirit of Christ-like love in those 17 pages of the diocesan policy.
I have little doubt that church officials who write and enforce such policies believe in their hearts that they are exercising a kind of tough, pastoral love for a flock that seems to be going terribly astray. But I would submit, respectfully, that none of us can truly love without first truly listening, without seeking to know and understand the other with whom we are called to be in relationship. Without listening and learning, without humility, without first recognizing, as Pope Francis insists, the mystery of the person before us, our self-professed “Christian love”—love the sinner, hate the sin—will continue to land on our children, families and friends, like the blows of a sledgehammer, its impact on people’s lives devastating.
Let me humbly suggest that our gathering here is not the protest of a childish, misled, miseducated, or wayward flock, swimming in a sea of political correctness or postmodern moral relativism. It is a lover’s protest, an act of solidarity, and it seeks to do—as James Baldwin once put it—it seeks to do what lovers do, which is to reveal the beloved to himself, and with that revelation, to make human freedom and human dignity real. Our fidelity is not to ideologies. It is to people and to the Gospel of Jesus. It is to the mystery of a God whose presence is manifest in the unfathomable beauty and diversity of creation itself.
We are a pilgrim community, and a Jesuit Catholic university, striving to live out the Gospel in a faithful, university way. May they know we are Christians, may they know we are human beings, by our love.
Again, I’m very grateful to be with you. Thank you.
Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person? We must always consider the person. Here we enter into the mystery of the human being. In life, God accompanies persons, and we must accompany them, starting from their situation. It is necessary to accompany them with mercy. When that happens, the Holy Spirit inspires us to say and do the right thing.Pope Francis, “A Big Heart Open to God”
Postscript: resources for LGBTQ Catholics can be found at Outreach, an initiative of America magazine.