Over the past several weeks, I’ve been in Chicago and San Francisco talking to LGBT Catholics and hearing from theologians, Catholic school leaders, parents, and others about how the church can do a better job reaching out to and learning from gay Catholics. One of the most hopeful messages I heard came from a Catholic bishop appointed by Pope Francis.
“In a church that has not always valued or welcomed your presence, we need to hear your voices and take seriously your experiences,” Bishop John Stowe of Lexington, Kentucky, told several hundred participants at the New Ways Ministry gathering in Chicago last month, “LGBT Catholics in the Age of Pope Francis.”
New Ways Ministry, founded in 1977 by Fr. Robert Nugent and Sr. Jeannine Gramick, faced sanction in 1999 when Cardinal Ratzinger—then the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, later Pope Benedict XVI—issued a directive that prohibited them from “any pastoral work involving homosexual persons.” The two continued their pastoral ministry anyway. Nugent died in 2014, but Gramick is still active with the organization. Given this history, Bishop Stowe’s presence at the conference is a sign of the times.
Since his election in 2013, Pope Francis has strongly defended the traditional church teaching against same-sex marriage. He also has been critical of what he calls the “ideological colonization” of some contemporary ways of understanding gender. Still, Francis has taken a dramatically different approach to speaking about gay and lesbian people than previous popes, who emphasized homosexuality as an “intrinsic moral evil,” as well as those American church leaders who have put opposition to LGBT rights at the top of their lobbying efforts. While most U.S. bishops still have not caught up to the pope, Cardinal Joe Tobin, appointed by Francis to lead the Newark archdiocese last November, recently welcomed a pilgrimage of LGBT Catholics to the Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart. "I am delighted that you and the LGBTQ brothers and sisters plan to visit our beautiful cathedral," Tobin wrote in an e-mail to the group's leader. "You will be very welcome."
Francis’s fresh start is in line with his frequent acknowledgments that the church has too often excluded people by fixating on a narrow, moral legalism. “A person once asked me, in a provocative manner, if I approved of homosexuality,” the pope said in a 2013 interview. “I replied with another question: ‘Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person? We must always consider the person. Here we enter into the mystery of the human being. In life, God accompanies persons, and we must accompany them, starting from their situation.” Less than a year later, when asked by reporters about gay priests at the Vatican, his quote become a viral papal soundbite that has reached near-iconic status: “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord, who am I to judge?”
During a spiritual reflection at the New Ways Ministry conference, Bishop Stowe noted how Jesus often challenged what he called the “self-proclaimed Sabbath police,” and made a direct connection to that mindset with how LGBT Catholics are often treated. “Some of you have experienced the same kind of approach to the law that Jesus corrected so many times in the Gospel—an approach that sometimes devalues human beings,” he said.
The most painful stories I heard came from gay and lesbian Catholics who have been fired from Catholic schools or other Catholic institutions after public disclosures of their relationships. Since 2007, according to New Ways Ministry, at least fifty LGBT Catholics have been fired or forced to resign. Margie Winters, a long-time religious education director at Waldron Mercy Academy in Philadelphia, was fired in 2015 after a disgruntled parent outed her marriage to another woman. (See “Fighting a Firing in Philadelphia” for more details.) “I loved and still love that community because it’s a part of my heart,” Winters said at the Chicago conference. “It was like a death. This kind of firing is a trauma. The sense of exile has been hardest for me.”
Bishops who can cite the fine print of the church’s teaching on sexuality should also be listening more closely to the raw, honest stories of Catholic parents. “Ten years ago I was blissfully ignorant of all things LGBT until it came to my family,” said Ray Dever, a deacon in St. Petersburg, Florida. The father of five, who describes his family as “pretty darn Catholic”—four of his five children were in Catholic schools at the same time—is now a proud and public advocate for his transgender daughter Lexi. “The hard part is seeing one of your loved ones endure self-hatred,” he said. “When the word suicide comes into play, your life changes. We wanted to get her through her junior year alive. There are so many families who reject their LGBT kids and that’s tragic, especially when that is done in the name of faith. I’m no expert but what these families need to hear is God created these kids just the way they are and that God loves them.”
His daughter Lexi came to terms with her identity at Georgetown University, where she worked at the LGBTQ resource center on campus. “Transgender people just want to live an everyday life and be a normal person in a crowd,” she said. “I struggled with coming out. I was convinced I would be abandoned by family and friends because I saw that happening to others.” Trans youth have disproportionately high suicide rates, she noted, and the average life expectancy of a transgender woman is only thirty-one years.
One of the most impassioned and articulate Catholic voices for the full-inclusion of LGBT Catholics is Fordham University theologian Bryan Massingale, an African-American priest. While some have brushed aside Pope Francis’ oft-quoted statements as merely signaling a shift in tone on LGBT issues, Massingale sees a more substantive process unfolding in this papacy. “There is a change of tone, to be sure, but the tone masks a definite doctrinal shift and development now underway—a change that is cautious, tentative, tense, at times ambiguous and contradictory, and yet nonetheless real,” Massingale said during a plenary address at the New Ways Ministry gathering. "What is neuralgic for many church leaders lies not so much in being gay, but in being honest, forthright, and transparent about it," he said. "The open closet," as Massingale calls it, is a paradoxical dynamic of "private toleration and public condemnation," a stance that he finds problematic. "Justice is inherently public," he said. "Justice is the social face of love. To insist on private acceptance and compassion for LGBT persons without an effective commitment to defending LGBT human rights and creating a society of equal justice for all is not only contradictory, it is inherently incomprehensible and ultimately unsustainable."
At the University of San Francisco, I met with more than two dozen Catholic teachers, school administrators, theologians, and women religious, along with the mayor's point-person on transgender initiatives. The group came together for a conversation about how to support LGBT students and help Catholic institutions think about making a culture of inclusion central to Catholic identity. Michael Duffy, director of the McGrath Institute for Jesuit Catholic Education at the university, pulled together the meeting in part because of his experience at some Catholic workshops and conferences, where discussions about LGBT issues have often been unhelpful and narrowly defined.
Theresa Sparks, the San Francisco mayor’s advisor on transgender initiatives, told the group that she has had little engagement with Catholic institutions. “There is a vacuum there,” said Sparks, who raised all her children in Catholic schools and spent some time homeless after transitioning herself. One in five transgender individuals have experienced homelessness, according to the National Center for Transgender Equality.
Last spring, an English teacher at Mercy High School in San Francisco came out as transgender. Gabriel Bodenheimer put his job at risk when he decided to transition from female to male—but the Sisters of Mercy, which owns and operates the school, supported him. “We feel because of our values, the choice was this, but that doesn’t mean it was easy,” Sister Laura Reicks, president of the 16-state region of the Sisters of Mercy West Midwest Community told the San Francisco Chronicle. Bodenheimer told the San Francisco gathering that his experience was “harrowing and also heartening.” But “a culture of fear and silence,” he said, is still the norm when it comes to transgender issues at Catholic schools.
One longtime Catholic school educator, who requested anonymity, told me that a “Breaking the Binary” conference at his school in March caused an uproar among a vocal contingent of parents. “Some parents were upset and felt a Catholic school should not be talking about gender identity,” he said. “We’ve never had a response like this to anything we’ve done before.” About fifty parents kept their children home from school. Students picked the theme of the conference, which was not solely focused on transgender issues but included discussions about women in the workplace and gender stereotypes. The transgender conversation was optional. A panel of experts spoke to the students: an attorney who specializes in representing transgender clients, two health care providers who work with the trans community, and a social worker. A student who transitioned after he graduated shared a video about his experience. The school is operated by an order of women religious.
“We really used the mission of our school and our Catholic identity to talk about transgender people not as a political issue but in terms of standing on the margins and going to the existential peripheries where people are sometimes suffering,” the educator said. “A Catholic school is a place where kids should learn to think critically so they can make the world a more just and humane place. We teach the church’s position on sexuality and we also have an obligation to help them wrestle with complex moral issues.”