A Failure to Communicate

The Synod’s Mistake on LGBT Catholics
Archbishop Charles J. Chaput attends the opening session of the Synod on Young People (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

The recently concluded Synod on Young People reflected Pope Francis’s call for a listening church that accompanies people and discerns together. Unlike synods in previous papacies, where a final script was essentially drafted in advance and most bishops dutifully signed off, a more authentic process unfolded during the month-long gathering that ended last Sunday. A mode of engagement that prioritizes a humble posture of encounter is essential if the Catholic Church hopes to stem the tide of young people leaving an institution they often view as irrelevant, hypocritical, and aloof. In fact, those who are raised Catholic are more likely than those raised in any other religion to cite negative religious treatment of gay and lesbian people as the primary reason they leave, according to the Public Religion Research Institute.

“We’ve gone from talking about young people and from talking to young people to talking with them,” said Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster, president of the Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales. A hopeful church that listens from below and engages in dialogue is better positioned than a fearful, fortress church to fulfill the Second Vatican Council’s proclamation to read the “signs of the times.” For young gay Catholics and their allies, the synod offered a space where bishops could learn from the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties, of the LGBT faithful. Signs pointed to a potentially important step forward. In a document prepared before the synod, the Vatican used the term “LGBT” for the first time. “Some LGBT youth,” it read, want to “benefit from greater closeness and experience greater care from the church.” Not exactly a revolutionary statement, and rather painfully obvious. But the use of “LGBT” was striking and significant. The church has a major language problem when it comes to respecting the dignity of gay, lesbian, and transgender people. Catholic teaching documents typically use “homosexual” or refer to “homosexual tendencies.” Using the LGBT descriptor—often preferred by many gay, lesbian, and transgender people—is a sign of respect.

But the final report from the synod did not use the term “LGBT.” Several bishops, including Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput, criticized its potential appearance. For the church, he said, “there is no such thing as an ‘LGBTQ Catholic’ or a ‘transgender Catholic’ or a ‘heterosexual Catholic,’ as if our sexual appetites defined who we are.”

Some bishops and other church leaders foster a toxic culture that scapegoats and demonizes LGBT laity and clergy

This observation reflects, perhaps unwittingly, a certain theological arrogance. Saying there are “no LGBT Catholics,” when many Catholics who love and contribute to the church embrace that description, is disrespectful at best, and at worst denies a person dignity. Chaput warns of “sexual appetites” defining who we are—a reasonable caution—but it seems that the archbishop is the one who is reducing being gay, lesbian, or transgender to sexual mechanics, as if our friends, neighbors, and family members are little more than a bundle of physical urges rather than complex and multidimensional human beings. I understand the instinct not to balkanize the church into islands of identity. We are “one, holy, catholic and apostolic church,” in the words of the Nicene Creed. Our shared faith unifies.

But the church does recognize and often names those who reflect our diversity. Some dioceses have offices, retreats, or specific events for Latino Catholics, African-American Catholics, young-adult Catholics, and senior Catholics. None of this is reductionist. There is a proud tradition of celebrating Irish-American and Italian-American Catholics’ contributions to the church, distinct cultures that are nonetheless part of the beautiful mosaic of Catholicism. In the same way a Latina Catholic doesn’t exclusively define herself by being a Latina, identifying as an LGBT Catholic doesn’t circumscribe one’s identity, but acknowledges its significance as part of the whole.

For Archbishop Chaput, the church should not use LGBT because it is wrong to, in his words, “categorize people.” This is a laudatory concept, until you reflect on the irony of that statement coming from a leader in a church that uses language often viewed as clinical and demeaning by the very people it seeks to describe. Homosexual “inclinations” and “intrinsically disordered,” words used in official church teaching, also categorize people, and in ways that exclude and wound. San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy has suggested the church needs to rethink such language. In an interview with America magazine, he said the description “intrinsically disordered” is “very destructive language that I think we should not use pastorally.” He added that “in Catholic moral theology, it is a philosophical term that is automatically misunderstood in our society as a psychological judgment.” The church can’t be a “field hospital” for the wounded, to use a central metaphor from Pope Francis, if its own language wounds.

The synod’s final report included some positive things: reiterating the church’s condemnation of any violence directed at sexual minorities; acknowledging that ministry to gay and lesbian people is already being done in the church; and emphasizing accompaniment. Perhaps presaging a future and much-needed discussion on the broader dimensions of how the church addresses human sexuality, the report noted that “there are questions related to the body, to affectivity and to sexuality that require a deeper anthropological, theological, and pastoral exploration.” This is significant, and it rattles conservative bishops. “The Catholic hierarchy is acknowledging that the church needs to update its understanding of the science of sex and gender, and that also means updating the church’s theology on sexuality and its ministry to gay people,” David Gibson wrote in an analysis for Religion News Service.

Archbishop Chaput characterized that line in the final report as “subtle and concerning.” The church “already has a clear, rich, and articulate Christian anthropology,” he told the National Catholic Register. “It’s unhelpful to create doubt or ambiguity around issues of human identity, purpose, and sexuality, unless one is setting the stage to change what the church believes and teaches about all three, starting with sexuality.”

Whatever discussions may yet take place in the church, an editorial in The Tablet underscored a painful truth. “Few progressive Catholics would have dared to dream that Synod might open a conversation about ‘intrinsic disorder,’ or that it might acknowledge that even the acronym LGBT excludes queer, intersex, and asexual Catholics,” the editors wrote. “What is, perhaps, most heartbreaking is that LGBT Catholics pinned their hopes on so little: being discussed in a language that wasn’t overtly offensive, with words that will—for many gay people—trigger memories of bullying and harassment.”

Several U.S. bishops, including Chicago Cardinal Blase Cupich, have articulated a strong message of solidarity with LGBT Catholics. Putting this accompaniment into practice will require calling out organizations such as Church Militant, a group that bullies, threatens, and demeans LGBT Catholics and their allies. A few weeks ago a pastoral associate at a San Diego parish submitted his resignation after he “endured physical and emotional violence from groups like Church Militant and LifeSiteNews for the past year and a half,” according to an email he sent to friends and associates obtained by the National Catholic Reporter. The harassment included slashed tires, death threats, attacks outside Mass, and “hundreds of letters, phone calls, and emails.”

Of course the Catholic Church doesn’t condone this abuse; in fact, the Catechism explicitly denounces it. Nevertheless, some bishops and other church leaders foster a toxic culture that scapegoats and demonizes LGBT laity and clergy. Former Vatican ambassador Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, who has called for Pope Francis’s resignation, warns of “homosexual networks” with the “power of octopus tentacles” that are “strangling” the church. “It is time to admit that there is a homosexual subculture within the hierarchy of the Catholic Church that is wreaking great devastation in the vineyard of the Lord,” Bishop Robert Morlino of Madison, Wisconsin, wrote in a letter to Catholics in his diocese. Such language only tills the soil for potentially violent acts. As James Baldwin wrote: “It is a terrible, an inexorable law that one cannot deny the humanity of another without diminishing one’s own.” When the church continues to deny LGBT people their full humanity, isn’t that the risk it takes?

John Gehring is Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life, an advocacy group in Washington, and a former associate director for media relations at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. He is author of The Francis Effect: A Radical Pope’s Challenge to the American Catholic Church (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015) and a contributing editor to Commonweal.

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