No matter how many times church authorities address the matter of homosexuality and ministry to gays and lesbians, it never seems to come out right.
Ultraconservatives are satisfied with nothing less than absolute condemnation, exclusion of gays from seminaries and, if they had the means, expulsion of gays from the priesthood and the hierarchy.
Those on the extreme left are satisfied with nothing less than a moral embrace of homosexuality as something as “normal” as heterosexuality, and a condemnation of anything other than that embrace as a virulent form of homophobia.
Two years ago I did a column in praise of Bishop J. Terry Steib of Memphis, Tenn., who had announced in his diocesan newspaper that he was inaugurating a new ministry to gay and lesbian Catholics “to be sure that we do not leave anyone behind” and to make clear that “all are welcome in their own home.”
“It is no secret,” I wrote in my column for the week of Aug. 8, 2005, “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 Terry Steib has done are perceived by many others as a threat even to the faith itself.”
Around the same time, an openly gay priest was ordered by his provincial to excise a reference to his sexual orientation in a book that he was about to publish on Catholic spirituality. The subsequent reviews were uniformly positive and the book itself received a few awards. That almost certainly would not have been the case if the reference had remained in the text.
Not too long beforehand, a high-ranking Vatican spokesman, who has since retired, even suggested that homosexuals cannot validly be ordained.
“Wherever the fault might lie,” my column concluded, “many gay and lesbian Catholics feel like strangers in their own home — unwelcome and looked down upon, just as Bishop Terry Steib had said.
“If there were more bishops like him, that situation would surely begin to change.”
Almost two years later, there is no evidence that it has.
Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tucson, Ariz., is the latest to try his pastoral hand at dealing with the presence of gays and lesbians in the church. Like Bishop Steib, Bishop Kicanas expressed himself in his diocesan newspaper.
He noted approvingly that, unlike in earlier years, “homosexuality is out of the shadows.” He also acknowledged that he has encountered the same extreme positions on the issue that were cited above. The church is still accused of being either too harsh or too tolerant.
While agreeing with most people that ministry to gays and lesbians needs to be compassionate, Bishop Kicanas now believes that “we should be doing more.”
In pursuit of the “more,” the bishop has met with a group of pastoral leaders and parishioners to reflect on the matter, after which he pledged to continue to explore ways to make clear to everyone that the good news of Jesus Christ is for all people, that each person is a child of God, deserving of respect and dignity, and that “there are no gradations within God’s family: All are his beloved daughters and sons.”
Father McBrien is a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.