A Harmful Doctrine

The Catholic Church Is Wrong about Gay People
Activists and supporters block the street outside the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington Oct. 8, 2019, as it hears arguments in three major employment discrimination cases on whether federal civil rights law prohibiting workplace discrimination on the "basis of sex" covers gay and transgender employees. (CNS photo/Jonathan Ernst, Reuters)

Look, it’s 2020, so I’m just going to say it: the Catholic Church is wrong about gay people.

To put a finer point on it: it is my opinion that the magisterial teaching of the Catholic Church, as it applies to homosexuality and same-sex relationships, is mistaken and ought to be revised.

This has been my opinion for a long time, but I’ve been quiet about it, for a couple of reasons. First, who cares what I think? And second, why should I make trouble? The answer to the first question is probably still “nobody.” My position on this matter is not especially consequential. That’s why I can say it. As for the second, I still don’t have much of an appetite for trouble. But avoiding the subject for civility’s sake has begun to feel cowardly.

I don’t think the view that the church is wrong about gay people is a radical opinion. I think a lot of Catholics agree. Some are afraid to say so publicly, because it could make real trouble for them, especially if they are contractually obligated to uphold orthodoxy. What will it cost me, besides a little awkwardness? A few years ago, I was invited by a parish in my hometown to give a talk about Vatican II. I was then uninvited: the bishop told them to find someone else. When I asked for a reason, he expressed vague concern about providing a forum for criticism of the church. It’s funny, because I am seldom more positive about the Catholic Church than I am when speaking about Vatican II. But anyway, since I’m already blacklisted in Scranton, what have I got to lose?

So much for keeping quiet. Here are my reasons for speaking up. It has been my experience that same-sex relationships can be occasions of grace and manifestations of deep, self-sacrificing love, just like opposite-sex relationships can. I have seen how the church’s claims to the contrary can damage children who are developing a sense of their own identities and worth. I have known the wounded adults those children grow up to be, whose grudges against the church strike me as entirely just. And I have seen LGBTQ people so drawn to Christ’s presence in the church that they look past all the dismissals and insults to fight for their place at the Eucharistic table. Their faithfulness inspires and challenges me. Their witness convinces me the church is wrong to condemn them.

The church's condemnation of homosexuality isn't just an error.... It is an obstacle that stops Catholics from speaking clearly about urgent moral crises.

Meanwhile, I have looked to the church for guidance in a time of politics gone haywire. I have waited for the nation’s bishops to respond to the malice and hatred and rank dishonesty that characterize President Donald Trump and his supporters in a way that seems commensurate with the threat—not calmly worded statements of dismay over “rhetoric” and “polarization,” but direct denunciations of the ugliness that streams directly from the White House and the human misery it engenders. But when I read what the bishops as a body have to say about what is at stake, their formal guidance about what a Catholic citizen’s priorities should be, I see language about how Catholics are “called to defend marriage” that clangs like a broken bell. When the U.S. bishops talk about religious liberty, I wait for them to condemn Donald Trump’s constant attacks on Muslims, his enthusiastic support for war crimes committed against them, and his campaign pledge to block them as a whole from entering our country. The bishops conference, however, is focused on preserving the right of Catholic institutions to discriminate against LGBTQ people. Flagrant violations of human rights are somehow less urgent than the threat of same-sex couples marrying or raising children. A stubborn persistence in error that used to seem embarrassing but tolerable—Sigh, the church moves so slowly—now makes me feel like I’m losing my mind. Our government is turning away refugees, jailing migrants, cutting assistance to the poor, denying the threat of climate change, fueling violent white supremacy, and undermining the legitimacy of government itself. For a Catholic to support a party that carries out those policies is preposterous. For bishops to hold back on criticizing that party because of a perceived need to “defend marriage” is grotesque.

As I see it now, the church’s condemnation of homosexuality isn’t just an error that needs fixing. It is an obstacle that stops Catholics, leaders and laity alike, from speaking clearly about urgent moral crises and from being perceived as credible when we do.

There are plenty of Catholics who believe the church is right about homosexuality, and they aren’t afraid to say so. Which is good! Let’s all talk about it, instead of keeping quiet and hoping the subject won’t come up. It is reasonable to worry about what such a public debate would do to the church. But I’m much more afraid of what will become of a church that goes on denying the full humanity of LGBTQ people and spending so much of its energy preserving that denial.

Published in the January 2020 issue: 

Mollie Wilson O'Reilly is editor-at-large and columnist at Commonweal.

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