Early in June, Bishop J. Terry Steib of Memphis announced in his regular column in The West Tennessee Catholic the inauguration of a new diocesan ministry to gay and lesbian Catholics “to be sure that we do not leave anyone behind” and that “all are welcome in their own home.”
He disclosed that he had been reflecting of late on the church as a home: “I have become more acutely aware of the number of people– the number of Catholics– who are no longer comfortable in their home. In fact, some are no longer certain that the Church is their home.”
Such feelings of alienation, the bishop pointed out, can develop for various reasons. Sometimes they are generated by “the circumstances of life that cause people to feel estranged or separated.” Occasionally, it is a matter of misunderstanding the teachings of the church, or of sensing that their lives do not conform to the values and expectations of others, “or worse,” of feeling that “who they are is unacceptable.”
Bishop Steib reported that he had met recently with several gay and lesbian Catholics, and later with their parents. “For all of them,” he wrote, “being Catholic is at the core of who they are. At the same time, they are people who are not sure of ‘their place’ in their home. They are people — wonderful, good Catholic people — who are gay and lesbian.”
The parents of these gay and lesbian Catholics, the bishop observed, see the “goodness” and “giftedness” of their sons and daughters, “but they also see (their) loneliness … as no one else sees it.”
He urged his readers to recognize and accept their gay and lesbian brothers and sisters as full-fledged members of the church, “welcome in their own home,” and to “lay aside preconceived notions of who does or does not belong.”
The bishop pointed to Jesus as our model, and Jesus, he insisted, “loved all, lived for all, and died for all.”
Himself an African-American, Bishop Steib cited the era of slavery in the U.S. South, the “march of tears” of Native Americans and the grape strikes in California as reminders “that God’s work is always hampered when human beings are afraid of differences in each other.”
“A new ministry with gay and lesbian persons,” he explained, “will push open even further the door to promoting understanding and compassion among all of us. It will open the door to ‘home’ for many who are an important part of who we are, and to a segment of our family that has been apart from us for too long.”
“In my meetings with gay and lesbian Catholics,” Bishop Steib noted, “I told them that God does not withhold love from any of us. I believe that wholeheartedly. God’s love is unconditional and that is the gift God offers us in Christ Jesus: the gift of loving each other with that same Godly and unconditional love.”
It is no secret that any discussion of homosexuality — particularly one without the standard condemnations — makes many people uncomfortable, inside and outside the church. It is also no secret that those who write and speak as Bishop Steib has done are perceived by many others as a threat even to the faith itself.
In fact, Bishop Steib’s initiative was viewed as so much of a threat that the editor of a weekly paper in a nearby diocese was explicitly forbidden by his own bishop to publish anything about Bishop Steib’s column and his inauguration of a diocesan ministry of outreach to gay and lesbian Catholics.
Unfortunately, such stories can be multiplied. One openly gay priest was recently ordered by his provincial to excise a reference to his sexual orientation in a book that he was about to publish on Catholic spirituality.
A high-ranking Vatican spokesman once suggested that homosexuals cannot validly be ordained, and there have been persistent rumors that Rome will issue a directive prohibiting the admission of gays into seminaries and the priesthood.
There is, however, a certain ambivalence in the church’s official approach to homosexuality. It teaches that homosexuality is an “objective disorder” and that homosexual acts are an “intrinsic moral evil.” At the same time, the church insists that the homosexual is a person of dignity who should never be the object of contempt or discrimination.
Wherever the fault might lie, many gay and lesbian Catholics feel like strangers in their own home — unwelcome and looked down upon, just as Bishop Steib has said.
If there were more bishops like him, that situation would surely begin to change.
Father McBrien is a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.