In the aftermath of the Orlando massacre, one of the questions roiling the Catholic blogosphere is: does it matter if Church officials mention that Pulse is a gay club?
Here's why. On one hand, the central tragedy here is the loss of 49 lives, young people going out to dance on a Saturday night. Any attack on innocents is a horrific assault on our common humanity. The Pope's response captured that well, without noting that it was a gay club that was targeted. Likewise USCCB president Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz. Likewise Orlando Bishop John Noonan. Likewise when Catholic Charities of Central Florida stepped up to offer financial assistance to victims and their families in the wake of the shooting. To express condolences and call for prayers and offer assistance are all admirable things, to be sure. It should also be noted that some of these statements were released very soon after the attack, when the shooter's motives were unclear. Perhaps they thought it might be a coincidence that it was a gay club and that it was Latin Night.
But this was no random attack, as LGBTQ people and their allies suspected (or knew) immediately.
Just as it is rarely a coincidence that a church burning "just happens" to target a black church, the likelihood was strong from the start that this was an anti-gay hate crime inflected by anti-Latino/a racism, whether or not the shooter's motivation(s) also included Islamist radicalism. In the week since the attack, the homophobic motivation of the shooter has become clear. He was known to his colleagues to be "Belligerent, Racist, and 'Toxic'", a nasty brew under any circumstances, but it seems to have been anti-gay and racist bias that determined his choice of target. He may himself have been struggling with same-sex attraction and self-directed homophobia. President Obama called the massacre "an act of terror and an act of hate," which seems to me to be the most accurate description.
We live in a time of increased danger to LGBTQ people (and those thought to be LGBTQ.) According to the FBI, most hate crimes are those targeting sexual minorities, even as (perhaps especially as,) societal acceptance of LGBTQ people is rising and same-sex marriage is now the law of the land. Homo- and transphobia and racism travel together: according to the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, black and hispanic people are most likely to be killed in anti-gay hate crimes, and fully 54% of those killed in anti-LGBTQ violence in 2015 were transgender women of color. The Orlando shooter's targeting of Pulse on Latin Night was sadly consistent with the overall patterns of anti-gay violence in our country. Same-sex couples may now marry, but in the first three months of this year, nearly 100 anti-gay rights and 44 anti-trans rights bills have been introduced in state legislatures.
How might Catholic leaders respond? Several bishops did recognize the targeting of the LGBT community in their responses to the shooting: Archbishop Blase Cupich of Chicago, and Bishops David Zubik of Pittsburgh, Robert McElroy of San Diego, and John Stowe of Lexington, KY all specifically addressed the LGBT community or drew attention to the homophobic nature of the attack. Bishop Robert Lynch of the neighboring diocese of St. Petersburg specifically noted the role of religion in the killing:
sadly it is religion, including our own, that targets, mostly verbally, and often breeds contempt for gays, lesbians and transgender people. Attacks today on LGBT men and women often plant the seed of contempt, then hatred, which can ultimately lead to violence.
The Orlando shooter was not Catholic. Nor does any reputable voice of Catholic leadership justify the killing of LBGT people, as, sadly, some "Christians" have. While racism still afflicts our Church, our doctrine is not to blame, at least not any more--we still have much work to do, certainly, but no current Church teaching upholds racial or ethnic discrimination on theological grounds. Not so homophobia, which does still afflict both doctrine and practice in Catholicism. In a response to Jesuit Fr. James Martin's plea that Catholic leaders recognize that Pulse was an attack on the LGBT community in particular, Elliot Milco in First Things called LGBT identity a "mirage of sin and ideology" incompatible with Catholic identity. Indeed, while the Catechism decries "unjust discrimination" against LGBT people, it also declares:
Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity, tradition has always declared that "homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered." They are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved. (CCC 2357)
And of course, the US bishops teach that civil recognition of same-sex relationships "poses a multifaceted threat to the very fabric of society" (p. 8). Transgender people are essentially invisible in our theology, though easily attacked using the Theology of the Body or vague imprecations decrying "gender theory" as Pope Francis has done. Back in 1986, the CDF spoke strongly against what it called "overly benign" readings of homosexual "inclination" (over against homosexual acts,):
Although the particular inclination of the homosexual person is not a sin, it is a more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil; and thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder. Therefore special concern and pastoral attention should be directed toward those who have this condition, lest they be led to believe that the living out of this orientation in homosexual activity is a morally acceptable option. It is not. (On the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons, 3)
Official Catholic teaching on homosexuality seeks to distinguish orientation from practice, but when magisterial teaching couches that sentiment in language like "depravity," "intrinsic disorder," "objective moral evil," "threat to society," it really does seem to go further than a condemnation of acts. Further the wholesale magisterial rejection of the possibility of loving, truly unitive same-sex intimate relationships is more than a rejection of particular sex acts; it strikes at the very human dignity of LGBTQ people by denying them the right to share their lives with a partner, which is affirmed as an inalienable right for straight people. When we add to that the epidemic of firings of gay employees in Catholic institutions, the message is clear. Not since we renounced murderous anti-semitism (still a lingering wound to be sure) has a category of human beings been described in such harsh language.
Black Lives Matter called America's attention to the fact that urban violence and police shootings are not randomly distributed, and the movement describes itself as "working for a world where Black lives are no longer systematically and intentionally targeted for demise. It is an affirmation of Black folks’ contributions to this society, our humanity, and our resilience in the face of deadly oppression." Indeed, justice demands that we ask (in my colleague William ONeill's words), "Whose equal human dignity and equal human rights are unequally threatened or denied?" Black lives matter--we must act against race-based oppression of human beings, and take note of the systematic and intentional targeting of people of color in our society. Alongside this, Orlando calls us to affirm that Queer lives matter.
In the wake of Orlando, where racist homophobia killed 49 Americans and terrorized millions of LGBTQ people, especially queer people of color, it is time for the Church--the people of God, all of us--to step away from language that fuels distrust and disdain of sexual minorities. It is time for us to exercise positive solidarity with LGBTQ people. As with racism, it is not enough to renounce overtly homophobic acts, but rather we must recognize and stand against the structures of social sin that drive them. As Bishop Lynch observed, the Catholic faith is not innocent on this score. Instead, our churches must be safe places for LGBTQ people (and especially clergy, who are largely silenced about their sexuality) to be "out," and our institutions must be secure places to work. Let's work together on strategies to minimize the carnage, as Rand Cooper argues in his excellent post. At a minimum, let us remember in our prayers and in our liturgies our LGBTQ brothers and sisters who are the victims of the hateful anti-gay rhetoric that too often spirals into deadly assaults. And please--if there is a Pride parade coming up near you, go out and stand with the LGBTQ community. Come and mourn and celebrate, come thumb your nose at the forces of sin and death that only love can overcome. In the wake of this most recent explosion of savage racist homophobia, we must all stand together as children of the same God.