Almost a dozen years ago now, I wrote a pastoral letter in which I recounted a story told by retired Bishop John Snyder, who then was bishop of St. Augustine, Fla. Bishop Snyder recalled a private meeting he had had with Pope John Paul II in which the bishop detailed his plans to start a ministry to gay and lesbian people.
After outlining this new ministry, he asked the Holy Father for his opinion and advice, not wanting to do anything which would compromise the teaching of the church. After a moment to think, the saintly pope replied, "We all need redeeming, don’t we?"
I have been reminded of this story recently, and the compassionate wisdom of the Holy Father, because of what I perceive is an increasing polarization in our society over issues involving gay and lesbian people, especially as it pertains to same-sex marriage, a debate in which the Catholic Church has weighed in strongly.
While dialogue and debate are always helpful, I am worried that, increasingly, the public discussion has degenerated in many cases into name-calling and condemnation or, even worse, acts of hate and malice. Frankly, I am saddened by how easily we can draw lines in the sand over these issues and fall into the trap of grouping, classifying and herding individuals, thus dehumanizing and even demonizing them.
I will not dwell here on the well-known teaching of the Catholic Church opposing same-sex marriage. It is a teaching the church has made clear, and one I understand theologically and uphold faithfully as bishop. At the same time, I lament that the "don’ts" of our teaching too often drown out the "do’s." I lament that the full teaching of the church as it concerns gay and lesbian people is either too little known, too often left unspoken or, in some cases, deliberately ignored.
Put simply, what I fear are getting lost in all of the lobbying and labeling going on these days are Catholic teachings that call us to love, respect and care for our sisters and brothers who are gay or lesbian. Rather than condemn, judge or discriminate against them, we are called to recognize that they, like all of us, are created and loved absolutely by a compassionate, merciful God.
We are reminded of this mandate in the U.S. bishops’ statement "Always Our Children," which notes that "the teachings of the Church make it clear that the fundamental human rights of homosexual persons must be defended and that all of us must strive to eliminate any form of injustice, oppression, or violence against them. … It is not sufficient only to avoid unjust discrimination. Homosexual persons ‘must be accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity’ (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2358).’"
Yet it is just that "respect, compassion and sensitivity" described by the catechism that I feel has become obscured. I would hope we could strive to work at this with more vigor as church, balancing our need to uphold our firm beliefs about such things as marriage with more compassion and less judgment.
Over the years, I have heard and seen firsthand the pain felt by gay and lesbian men and women and their families. In conversations I have had with them, they speak of their anguish, feelings of loneliness and abandonment, of not feeling welcome in our churches, feeling constantly under scrutiny. I have heard their parents and loved ones describe with a sense of fear, guilt, shame and utter sadness the unkind reaction of neighbors and friends — their fellow Catholics and fellow Christians — to their gay children. They speak of their own sense of being torn between church teachings and their love for their children. I have heard as well from many priests who want to reach out to gay and lesbian people as the church asks them to do, but feel caught in the crossfire of current debate and division.
I wish it were not so. In all of these conversations, I have told them — and I repeat again now — that we must love these children of God with a heart worthy of Christ. I am reminded of the words in "Always Our Children": "You are always my child. Nothing can ever change that. You also are a child of God, gifted and called for a purpose in God’s design."
In our own diocese, I have been proud of the work of the Catholic Gay and Lesbian Family Ministry, which advocates for and facilitates pastoral care in our diocese and its parishes for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people and their families.
This ministry is guided by the words of the 1976 U.S. bishops’ letter "To Live in Christ Jesus," which states that "they have a right to respect, friendship and justice. They should have an active role in the Christian community."
Catholic Gay and Lesbian Family Ministry has worked with many of our parishes to develop a loving outreach ministry, one that encourages pastoral leaders to create a climate of welcome through bulletin items; inclusion of gay and lesbian people in discussions of diversity; sensitivity to language in liturgies and homilies; and encouragement of dialogue, education and affirmation of families. If you are interested in finding out more about this work or need some help and guidance, you can contact CGLFM through www.dor.org (click on More Catholic Links) or by calling 585-303-8605.
This ministry, while very important, is not in itself sufficient to the work that must be done to ensure our church is a loving and welcoming one. To achieve that end, every one of us — every pastoral leader and minister, every church official, every person in the pews — must practice what we preach, avoiding any sense of oppression or discrimination.
It will take every one of us if we are to avoid adding to the dangerous division and labeling of people we know can only hurt our society.
I think the concluding words of "Always Our Children" say it well:
"To our homosexual brothers and sisters … we stretch out our hands and invite you to do the same. We are called to become one body, one spirit in Christ. We need one another if we are to ‘grow in every way into him who is the head, Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, with the proper functioning of each part, brings about the body’s growth and builds itself up in love’ (Eph. 4:15-16).
"Though at times you may feel discouraged, hurt or angry, do not walk away from your families, from the Christian community, from all those who love you. In you, God’s love is revealed. You are always our children."
Peace to all.