Father Philip Bochanski, executive director of Courage International, gave the following keynote address at the “Truth and Love Conference” in Bloomfield, Connecticut, Oct. 23.
On Monday morning, a priest friend shared an article with me from the website of Fox News. The headline read, “Catholic Leaders Enter Final Week of Debate on How to Receive LGBT Churchgoers.” The notion that the Synod of Bishops on “Young People, the Faith and Vocational Discernment” — with its yearlong process of preparation and consultation and three weeks of daily meetings and speeches — could be summed up this way in the public mind demonstrates, I think, that we have a lot of work to do in recapturing what professional communicators call the “narrative” in terms of what the Church teaches and how that teaching is perceived when it comes to questions of sexual morality in general and homosexuality in particular.
That we have lost control of the conversation seems clear; when and how this happened perhaps less so. But the effect on our parishioners and fellow Catholics is disconcerting, to say the least. A Pew Research Center poll conducted in 2015, in anticipation of the World Meeting of Families held in Philadelphia that year, asked Catholics their opinions on a number of family-related and “social” issues and reported their responses according to whether they attended Church at least once a week (what we used to call “practicing” Catholics) or if they attended less often. The poll found that 60% of practicing Catholics said that they thought that “a same-sex couple living together in a romantic relationship” was “acceptable,” and nearly the same percentage, 59%, believed that “a same-sex couple rearing children together” was “acceptable.” Perhaps this is not surprising. But in the same poll, 59% of the same group of practicing Catholics said that they thought that “homosexual activity is sinful.” Something is wrong here. … Even if we put the 60% who think it’s “acceptable” at one end and the 59% who think it’s sinful at the other, that still leaves at least one in five practicing Catholics saying, “I believe it’s a sin, but I think it’s okay for them to do so.” Clearly, we are dealing here not with a well thought-out, logical application of Church teaching as much as with a sentimental feeling, a misplaced compassion, a desire not to bother people with difficult teachings and somehow doom them to unhappy lives.
This confusion in the Church mirrors in many ways the general confusion in the secular world over matters of sexual identity. Another poll, from 2017, conducted by the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), reported the astonishing claim that “20% of millennials identify as LGBTQ” — that is, as “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transsexual or Queer/Questioning.” I call this claim astonishing in the sense that it contradicts consistent data from public-health services in the United States and other Western countries regarding the number of gay and lesbian people in the general population, by an order of magnitude: 20% opposed to 2% to 3%. A closer look at the poll numbers resolves this concern, while raising another: In the poll, 3% of millennials identify as “strictly gay or lesbian” and 6% as “bisexual,” while another 7% identify with categories such as “asexual” (4%), “pansexual” (2%) or “unsure/questioning” (1%). When asked about sexual identity, 2% identified as “transgender,” while 10% used categories such as “agender” (3%), “gender fluid” (3%), “bigender” (1%), “genderqueer” (1%) or “unsure/questioning” (2%). In other words, when it comes to today’s young adults who identify with the “LGBTQ” label, most of them find themselves in the “Q” category, with serious questions about who they are and how they are going to live in relationships.
We will be engaging in lots of discussions in the next day and a half about the best ways to understand and to accompany our brothers and sisters who find themselves in this precarious situation. But I think we have to begin with a commitment not to add to their confusion — with a determination to speak consistently, clearly and with great charity and compassion about the truths of the faith, and especially about the truth of the human person. The confusion experienced by those who claim the “LGBTQ” label for themselves is a warning to us against simply going along with it for the sake of an easier conversation. But how are we to respond?
The first difficult reality for us to face as Catholics who believe in the teaching of the Church and want to share it with others is the growing sense that many in the Church, including some very prominent bishops, would prefer that we not have the conversation at all. Around this time last year, the French sociologist Dominique Wolton published Politics and Society, a book containing a series of conversations with Pope Francis. As reported in the press, the Holy Father had harsh words for preachers who taught morality in what he called a “mediocre” way:
How do we Catholics teach morality? You cannot teach it with precepts such as “You can’t do that, you have to do that, have to, can’t, have to, can’t.” … There is a great danger for preachers, that of falling into mediocrity. Condemning only morality — forgive the expression — “under the belt.” But no one talks of the other sins like hate, envy, pride, vanity, killing another, taking a life.
Six months before the Pope spoke of “morality … under the belt,” Bishop Robert Barron sat down for an interview with comedian and satirist Dave Rubin on his program The Rubin Report. When, about halfway through the interview, Rubin brought up the topic of homosexuality, the bishop’s comfortable demeanor changed noticeably. He admitted as much on his blog the next day:
About halfway through the conversation, Dave turned to several hot-button issues, including abortion, pornography and gay marriage. … I will confess that the moment we turned to these matters, something in me tightened, precisely because I knew that, though this part of the interview covered perhaps 10 minutes, it would pretty much obscure everything else that we talked about. And judging from the thousands of comments on the videos, my instinct has proved to be more or less accurate. As I have argued before, this preoccupation with “the pelvic issues” has served to undermine the work of evangelization.
When you read the great evangelizing texts of the New Testament — the Gospels, the Epistles of Paul, the Book of Revelation, etc. — you don’t get the impression that what their authors wanted you primarily to understand is sexual morality. … But I fear that for so many people in the secular world today, religion is reduced to the policing of sexual behavior, and this is massively unfortunate.
These high-profile examples illustrate a fairly common reaction of many people in the Church and in the secular world: Why does the Church have to talk so much about sexual morality when it is abundantly clear that the majority of people either don’t care about, can’t follow or refuse to follow those teachings? Don’t the clergy understand that people are tired of the same old moralizing? Don’t they realize that no one is listening to them? Of course, this attitude is as old as the Scriptures: “Let us lie in wait for the righteous man,” the wicked say in the Book of Wisdom,
because he is inconvenient to us and opposes our actions; he reproaches us for sins against the law and accuses us of sins against our training. … The very sight of him is a burden to us because his manner of life is unlike that of others, and his ways are strange (Wisdom 2:12, 15).
Because we are not only people of faith, but disciples on mission, we instinctively reject the notion that we ought to give up when the truth becomes controverted or disregarded. On the contrary, that is the moment when we must speak more clearly and more often about the truth that is being misunderstood. To “instruct the ignorant,” to “counsel the doubtful” and to “admonish the sinner,” remain spiritual works of mercy and the obligation of every Christian. When it comes to questions of sexual morality, this obligation becomes all the more urgent, for several reasons that are borne out by pastoral experience.
First of all, it is difficult to overstate the attractiveness of sexual misbehavior as a form of self-medication. People are carrying “baggage” — unaddressed wounds, unmet needs, unresolved questions of identity and self-worth — and there is no denying the power of sexual gratification to soothe those wounds, at least for a little while. Statistics show that people (especially men) who are very unhappy resort to masturbation very frequently. A psychologist working with porn addicts notes that they tend to operate from a set of “core beliefs,” beginning with “I am fundamentally unlovable or unworthy of being loved,” and “If people knew the real me they would reject me.” Bruce Marshall (not G.K. Chesterton) wrote, [in The World, the Flesh and Father Smith, 1945], “the young man who rings the bell at the brothel is unconsciously looking for God.” In short, sexual immorality is about something; the lustful person is looking for something. But when sexual gratification is the answer, the result is like taking four aspirin for a broken leg — it does take the edge off the pain, for a little while, but the underlying wound remains untreated, and the pain quickly gets worse. We do no one any favors by remaining silent about the dangers of this supposed panacea.
More importantly, perhaps, is the devastating impact that sexual sins have on the life of the person who is attached to them. Sexual union of spouses always has a twofold purpose and meaning: the building up of a couple in married love and the procreation of a new human life as a fruit of that love. “These two meanings or values of marriage cannot be separated,” the Catechism insists, “without altering the couple’s spiritual life” (2363). Sexual immorality affects one’s relationship with God, with the Church and with other people in serious ways. The shame associated with lustful sins keeps people away from confession for long periods, and for a person otherwise committed to Church teaching and discipline, staying away from confession means staying away from Holy Communion, as well. For many good-hearted people, this is the beginning of a process of separating themselves, first from active practice of the faith and then from a life of prayer: Who wants to converse seriously with God about something that they know has to change but which they feel unable or unwilling to do anything about? It is important to appreciate that many people — perhaps most — seem to stumble into this situation after becoming attached to sexual sins, rather than choosing it in an attitude of deliberate defiance, and experience their situation as a sadness and a loss, even if they can’t put their finger on exactly how it happened or what to do about it. To suggest that it was never a big deal, that they needn’t have worried themselves or felt bad about it, minimizes the spiritual suffering that they have probably encountered, but does not resolve it.
Now, how we communicate the truths of the faith requires careful attention to both the tone and the structure of the message. In an interview [with Antonio Spadaro, “A Big Heart Open to God,” America, 209:8 (Sept. 30, 2013)]
early in his pontificate, Pope Francis noted that every effort to teach “must begin with the first proclamation, with the proclamation of salvation.” In his letter Evangelii Gaudium, he says  it “must ring out over and over: Jesus Christ loves you; he gave his life to save you; and now he is living at your side every day to enlighten, strengthen and free you.” The proclamation of salvation comes first, he says, and “it is from this proposition that the moral consequences then flow. Then you have to do catechesis. Then you can draw even a moral consequence. But the proclamation of the saving love of God comes before moral and religious imperatives.” (Spadaro). The New York Times version of this instruction, of course, is: “Pope Francis says don’t talk about hard issues; just preach love.” But that is clearly false; the Pope is prioritizing, not minimizing. It is clear that we must begin with the proclamation of the love of God, if for no other reason than that a person who has no knowledge of, no relationship with the Lawgiver, has very little motivation to observe the Law.
The catechetical and doctrinal life of the Church tends to follow a pattern: Dogmatic definitions come about at the periods when a teaching has become controverted and misunderstood. It is always and precisely in these moments when the Church turns her attention to getting it right, to making very clear what the teaching is, to defining it once and for all. In the fourth century, it was the Incarnation; in the 12th century, nature and grace; in the 16th century, the Church and the sacraments; and in our own day, sexuality, marriage and the family. These periods in the life of the Church are often times of crisis, but also generations in which saints are born. We must not shirk our responsibilities, to face the challenges, and to answer the call to holiness, by avoiding “pelvic issues” so as not to offend the world.
Doctrine, Praxis and Labels
So how does the Church teach clearly on important issues, particularly ones so profoundly and personally felt as sexual desires and sexual intimacy? In another age, we would probably be talking about convening an ecumenical council, the fruit of which would be dogmatic definitions settling the question. Whether we could effectively do so in the present moment is a question too big to answer here; in any case, the Church in our own day is employing a different method: the Synod of Bishops. Overarchingly, the idea of the synod has been to provide an opportunity for bishops representing the whole globe to come together, with the collaboration of experts and with the consultation of their local Churches, to discuss the lived experience of Catholics around the world in light of the teaching of the Church, and to form good pastoral plans for providing for their needs. Typically, the fruit of a meeting of the synod takes the form of recommendations to the Holy Father, who reflects on them in a document called a post-synodal apostolic exhortation. The synod is, or has been, specifically pastoral in nature, not doctrinal, as it comprises only a portion of the College of Bishops, and so it cannot define doctrine as a council can.
We have seen, however, in the last few years a trend of raising expectations of the outcome of a meeting of the synod well beyond this pastoral threshold. Much has been made, for example, of the use of the label “LGBT” in the working document (the instrumentum laboris) in light of which the synod participants have been structuring their discussions. Some people have suggested that this represents a shift at least in the attitude, if not yet in the actual teaching, of the Church toward those people who experience same-sex attractions … and they have then gone on to portray a change in teaching as inevitable. These expectations are false; but more dangerous is the reason that was provided for including the “LGBT” label in the first place. The contention that this label was used by the young people who had been consulted by the synod’s preparatory commission was demonstrated to be false, which is bad enough. But it betrays a misunderstanding of what the synod is for and of how theology is and ought to be carried out in our day.
We are used to thinking of catechesis and theology in terms of orthodoxy, that is, “correct doctrine,” as that doctrine has been revealed in sacred Scripture and the living apostolic Tradition, and has been handed on and taught by the magisterium of the Church. Orthodoxy leads to orthopraxis, a correct way of acting, in acceptance of and response to the teaching. But some strains of modern Catholic thought, influenced primarily by Gustavo Gutiérrez and his book Theology of Liberation, seek to reorder the relationship between doctrine and practice, giving the primary place to lived experience, even when it seems to contradict a consistent teaching. This is what Jesuit Father James Martin is getting at when he speaks of the “official teaching” of the Church (the orthodoxy) as something that has not been “received” and thus not put into practice by people who identify as “LGBTQ.” He thus applies a criterion of judging the rightness of the teaching by the praxis, rather than the other way around. Another Jesuit, Father Thomas Reese, expressed this approach with astonishing candor in an article at the opening of the extraordinary synod in October 2014:
A modern, historical consciousness recognizes that everything changes, even Church teaching. The Church’s teaching on usury (interest) changed, the Church’s teaching on capital punishment has changed, and the Church’s teaching on religious liberty was changed at the Second Vatican Council.
Pope Francis causes confusion to those with a classical approach to reality. He wants to look at facts. He even says that facts are more important than ideas, something that would be inconceivable on the lips of Pope Benedict XVI. Pope Francis saw in his own country how ideologies of both the left and the right destroyed lives and harmed the poor. He has no patience with them.
Theological ideologies can do the same by imposing rules and regulations that are pastorally counterproductive. That is why he has asked the bishops to first talk about their pastoral experiences. Sharing their pastoral problems can lead bishops to a recognition that something must change even if they don’t know how to explain it in their classical framework. …
Perhaps bishops, guided by the Spirit, should just discern better pastoral practices and then leave it to the theologians to explain why they are okay.
While perhaps few clerics or theologians would put matters as bluntly as Father Reese, I can assure you from my experience that this idea — that the Church has changed on lots of important things because the People of God started acting differently and the theologians caught up with them — has many adherents among the clergy and laity alike. Father Martin regularly employs the “But the Church changed it’s teaching on slavery” trope, and those who are attracted by his pastoral approach eagerly take up the refrain.
Some professional theologians have gone a step further and suggest that not only actual practices but, more importantly, a purportedly more developed understanding of psychology and sociology, call into question all the age-old teaching of the Church on the nature of the human person, of the body, the soul, the purpose and ordering of sexual relationships, and much more. This has the added benefit of sounding “scientific” — the Church used to teach that the earth is flat, and that the sun revolves around the Earth, I’ve been told; remember Galileo and all that.
In the same week that Father Reese published the article I mentioned a moment ago, Father Krzysztof Charamsa, a Polish priest who taught theology at the Gregorian University and the Regina Apostolorum in Rome and held positions at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the International Theological Commission, held a press conference in Rome to announce that he is gay and to introduce his partner. A few months later, he gave an interview in which he explained his theological rationale for rejecting the Church’s teaching on the immorality of homosexual acts:
The role of homosexual people within God’s project is the same as the one of heterosexual people, that is to say, realizing with love the image of God which we carry within us, accepting and realizing the gifts and the charisms peculiar to heterosexuals, homosexuals, lesbians, transsexuals, intersexuals, etc. No one can be excluded from this project, because no one can be excluded from love. ...
Today we have this awareness thanks to the development of human knowledge. I’m talking about all the knowledge and experience of the healthy diversity of sexual orientations; that is not a thesis or one hypothesis of science among others, about which you can discuss or, even worse, ignore, as the Church does.
It is equally certain that the Bible couldn’t know anything about it. It had no idea of sexual orientation, as, moreover, neither our great-grandfathers knew anything clear about it. ...
The Bible never speaks about homosexuality as we know it today. We can say that it never condemned the love of two gays in Rome or in San Francisco, or the love of two lesbians in Milan or in Istanbul, who realize their love following their sexual orientation, who start a family and have kids, who are citizens openly living their sexual orientation, as a good and as the potentiality of love. The Bible never condemns homosexuals, just as it never condemns heterosexuals, on the basis of their sexual orientation. … Obviously, the Bible speaks about some acts which I and other theologians call homo-genital acts, which is to say, sexual acts carried out by two same-sex people. But it doesn’t take into account the fact that this kind of realization of sexuality may be natural or not to the ones who act. The homosexual acts are natural to homosexual people, and they reflect the order of their human nature. This is a knowledge that the Bible could not have, so it sees same-sex sexual acts as material acts, and it doesn’t distinguish whether or not such acts may be the healthy expression of sexuality by someone who is not heterosexual. …
But in the modern Church, we have a problem: God has to open his Church’s mind, which has never discussed this subject, but ideologically closed itself to such discussion …
I think it is worthwhile to quote this interview at length because, although not many would explain it in such detail, many people who are looking for a change in the Church’s teaching take a similar position to Father Charamsa. Beginning with the assertion that the biblical authors could not possibly understand what we understand about human sexuality, and thus could not possibly have conveyed the truth about it in their writings, they go on to reject the biblical truth outright. The Bible can’t be correct in its condemnations, so homosexual acts and relationships must be seen, not only as not evil, but as a positive good. But they do not stop there. Rather, the supposed ignorance of the biblical authors — notice that the question of divine inspiration of the biblical texts is left out of the discussion — allows us to call into question such fundamental aspects of Christian anthropology as the creation of man and woman for each other and of the solidarity of the human family as sharing one identity, one common human nature. The “Charamsa approach” ends up positing a different kind of human nature, a different kind of human being, distinguished by his or her sexual orientation, with a consequently different morality by which to live out his or her “true nature.”
‘God Made You This Way’
This is the dangerous and inevitable result of our playing fast and loose with the language we use to describe human beings and with the labels that we allow people to place on themselves and others based on sexual desires or sexual identity. There is a growing tendency to speak of people as “being gay” or “being LGBTQ,” as if this were the defining characteristic of the human being, something innate, immutable and all-encompassing. In typical prophetic fashion, the CDF [Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith] warned against this tendency in its landmark “Letter to Bishops on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons” in 1986:
The human person, made in the image and likeness of God, can hardly be adequately described by a reductionist reference to his or her sexual orientation. … Today, the Church provides a badly needed context for the care of the human person when she refuses to consider the person only as a “heterosexual” or a “homosexual” and insists that every person has the same fundamental identity: to be a creature and, by grace, a child of God, an heir to eternal life.
Nevertheless, the idea that a person is fundamentally defined by his or her experience of sexual attraction — that a person “is” and “is made” gay — is common parlance among bishops, cardinals and even, reportedly, from Pope Francis himself. Last May, Juan Carlos Cruz, a survivor of sexual abuse by Father Fernando Karadima in Chile, gave an interview to the Spanish newspaper El Pais about his private meeting with Pope Francis in April. During the meeting, Cruz claimed, “He told me, ‘Juan Carlos, that you are gay does not matter. God made you like that, and he loves you like that, and I do not care. The Pope loves you as you are; you have to be happy with who you are.’”
Frustratingly, the Holy See has never confirmed or denied that the Holy Father said this, or indeed said anything at all about Cruz’s sexual identity. But the question is on the lips of many, many Catholics of all walks of life, and there is a clear answer: No, God does not make a person gay. To suggest that God creates an individual and, in the process, causes that individual to experience same-sex attractions, one of two things would necessarily follow, neither of which is acceptable. Either we would have to posit that, having revealed that there is one human nature, created in the image and likeness of God, created male and female and ordered to conjugal union — in other words, having revealed one plan for human nature and human sexuality — God has begun at some later point to create a different kind of human being, with a different kind of human nature and a different ordering of sexuality. Indeed, we would have to say that this new creature’s nature and order was not only different from, but contradictory to, what has been revealed in Scripture and Tradition. God just doesn’t work like that: God is the one source of Truth, and he cannot contradict himself. So the other alternative is to suggest that there is still only one human nature, and one ordering of human sexuality, and that God is deliberately creating individuals with unfulfillable desires, setting them up to be frustrated and to fail. That monster is not the God that we believe in either. So we must hold to the truth that same-sex attractions do not come from God; that it is a situation about which he is certainly aware, and in which he offers his sons and daughters abundant grace to know and embrace his will for them, but not a situation that he has caused.
Sadly, this is not the conclusion that prominent clerics are drawing. In a Facebook video post soon after the Cruz article appeared, Father Martin applauded the Holy Father’s purported remarks as clearly true and good. It corresponds, he said, with the lived experience of people who identify as “LGBTQ,” who have known “all their lives” that this is “who they were” and “how God made them.” The Pope was simply affirming, he suggested, the truth that they had always known, and it was up to the Church to acknowledge this truth. This is a common sentiment: Over the summer, a parish pastor who identifies as gay and came out to his parish more than a decade ago, told me at a parish gathering, “I’ve always known I’m gay, and if God didn’t make me this way, I don’t know who did.” But such statements beg the question and assume that something that seems natural is always so. It should not surprise us that people looking back on their early lives seem to perceive that a “gay identity” has always been part of their story, since the relationships and events of early childhood play such an important role in an individual’s sense of self and understanding of his sexuality and identity. But to assert that something that feels natural and lifelong is therefore necessarily inborn, immutable and God-given, is a leap of logic and theology that is too much to bear. It fails to take into account God’s own nature; it devalues the revealed nature of the biblical texts and the apostolic Tradition; and it overlooks the impact of the Original Sin on human perceptions of what is natural and good.
Incidentally, when Father Martin commented on the Pope’s alleged remarks, he began by asserting that, in saying “God made you this way,” Pope Francis was simply and correctly acknowledging a settled scientific fact. All scientists agree, he asserted, that sexual orientation exists on a spectrum and that a person’s sexual orientation is inborn, part of their natural makeup. However, scientists do not agree with Father Martin’s characterization of their assertions. On the contrary, the American Psychological Association has this to say on its website:
There is no consensus among scientists about the exact reasons that an individual develops a heterosexual, bisexual, gay or lesbian orientation. … Many think that nature and nurture both play complex roles. … Although much research has examined the possible genetic, hormonal, developmental, social and cultural influences on sexual orientation, no findings have emerged that permit scientists to conclude that sexual orientation is determined by any particular factor or factors.
What People Want to Be Called
Of course, these extended discussions are not taking place very often in our discourse on the nature of sexual attraction and the morality of sexual intimacy. Rather, contemporary conversations among clerics and hierarchs tend to avoid the details by following the example of the culture and using labels to oversimplify things. We have already seen how the “LGBTQ” label has been promoted in public discussions, especially at the synod, as a way to raise expectations for a change in teaching. Hopefully we can now understand better why this is so — those five little letters are being used to encompass all these ideas of nature and identity that threaten to undermine Christian anthropology. Using the “LGBTQ” label combines three modern virtues: It has the appearance of being “scientific”; it is vague enough not to offend; and it gives an excuse to avoid having to get to know a person.
For these reasons, arguing over using the “LGBTQ” label to describe a person has become its own form of virtue signaling. Cardinal Blase Cupich, among others, has taken up the assertion expressed by Father Martin that this is the most respectful way to talk with and about people who experience same-sex attractions. Speaking at the City Club in Chicago in July 2017, the cardinal said,
We have always wanted to make sure that we start the conversation by saying that all people are of value and their lives should be respected and that we should respect them. That is why I think that the terms gay and lesbian, L.G.B.T., all of those names that people appropriate to themselves, should be respected. People should be called the way that they want to be called, rather than us coming up with terms that maybe we’re more comfortable with. So it begins with that.
Cardinal Cupich’s predecessor, Cardinal Francis George, agreed that our choice of language is important and noted insightfully that “the Church speaks, in moral and doctrinal issues, a philosophical and theological language in a society that understands, at best, only psychological and political terms.”
“Our language is exact,” he continued, but “it can seem lacking in respect. … Pastoring any group of people, however, means more than welcoming them. It also means calling them to conversion in Christ” (letter to Father Richard Prendergast, Dec. 19, 2003). The way to show respect, compassion and sensitivity to people who experience same-sex attractions is, as St. Paul told the Ephesians, “to speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15). Thus, when someone identifies as an “LGBTQ Catholic” or as “gay and Catholic,” the appropriate response, if we love that person, is to start a dialogue. First, we must try to understand what he or she means by that label and then consider whether that self-description conveys what he or she really means about his or her identity.
However an individual uses terms like “gay” or “LGBTQ,” that individual is not in complete control over how another person will hear it or what secular society means by it. We have to acknowledge that when most people say “gay” or “LGBT” they do not simply mean that a person experiences attractions to the same sex; they presume that that person is open to homosexual intimate acts and relationships and that that person rejects the teaching of the Church about the immorality of those actions. So it is dangerous to promote ministries or write documents that employ labels that most people, at least outside the Church take to imply a rejection of the teaching of the Church.
If the person means, “I believe what the Church says; I experience these attractions but I am committed to chastity,” then we ought to talk about whether “LGBTQ” communicates that commitment to most people who will hear it. Our responsibility as disciples is not just to be holy, but to communicate the truth clearly to others by word and example. If they’ve chosen it in order to signal that they don’t accept the Church’s teaching, our response should be a charitable invitation to discuss that teaching more deeply, in hopes of leading that person to understand and embrace chastity. A clear, consistent teaching based on Scripture and Tradition obligates Catholics to believe it and to live it.
This dialogue takes time, trust and vulnerability, which is why labels are so attractive. When we can reduce our having to get to know a person to simply accepting a label he puts on himself, then no commitment or risk is required of us. Insisting on taking labels at face value tends to halt dialogue, and thus limit real relationships. They also make our preaching and teaching less precise, because they take for granted — or at least allow people to take for granted — all of the problematic notions we have been discussing.
Building Bridges With a Purpose
We must also push back against the sentimental notion that the teaching of the Church about homosexuality can be reduced to one sentence in paragraph 2358 of the Catechism: “They must be accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity.” Of course this is true: It is a basic requirement of foundational Christian charity and is as old as the Gospel itself. In fact, the CDF makes the point even more explicitly [in “Letter to Bishops,” 10]:
It is deplorable that homosexual persons have been and are the object of violent malice in speech or in action. Such treatment deserves condemnation from the Church’s pastors wherever it occurs. It reveals a kind of disregard for others which endangers the most fundamental principles of a healthy society. The intrinsic dignity of each person must always be respected in word, in action and in law.
The phrase “respect, compassion and sensitivity” is an essential one — indeed, Father Martin employs it in both the subtitle and the structure of his book, Building a Bridge. But to separate this respect, compassion and sensitivity from the rest of what the Catechism says is to make a straw man out of the notion that the Church’s teaching on sexual morality is inherently harmful and intentionally hurtful. Father Martin was in Dublin last August to speak at the World Meeting of Families, and a “behind-the-scenes” video produced by America magazine caught a bit of conversation between him and a woman who asked him to inscribe her copy of Building a Bridge. Father Martin mentioned a line that “a gay priest” had told him, that “God loves you, and the Church is learning to love you.” This kind of sentimental, sloppy language creates a false dichotomy between love and truth, and a division in the Church between those with the new ministerial gnosis — we might say the new ministerial “wokeness” — and those whose pastoral sense remains woefully unevolved.
In reality, there is only one welcome to offer: that of Christ himself. “Everything that the Father gives me will come to me,” he once said in the synagogue at Capernaum, “and anyone who comes to me I will never drive away” (John 6:37). His welcome is absolute, yet it comes in a context and with a purpose. A moment later, Jesus went on to say, “Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me” (John 6:45). As we welcome our brothers and sisters, it is also our privilege to share with them the truth of the Gospel, which Jesus proclaimed by his words and particularly by the manner of his life. Indeed, he said that we could recognize his love and friendship from the way that he spoke the truth to us: “I have called you friends,” he told his disciples on the night before he died, “because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father” (John 15:15). The word “Gospel” means “Good News,” and we are convinced that the message of Jesus is truly good news for everyone, including our “LGBTQ+” brothers and sisters.
Friendship with Jesus means not only receiving this good news, but responding to it, with love for Christ and for one another. “This is my commandment,” Jesus said, “that you love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12). Because Christ loves us, we are called to love one another, and it is in this spirit that we welcome all our brothers and sisters, particularly those who are marginalized or made to feel unwelcome or “less than” by others. Indeed, Jesus tells us that it is precisely by the measure of our love for those who are rejected by others that we will be judged: “Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40).
“You are my friends,” Jesus also said at the Last Supper, “if you do what I command you” (John 15:14). His beloved disciple, St. John, wrote that “by this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments,” and was quick to add that “his commandments are not burdensome” (1 John 5:2-3). Formed by the teaching of the Second Vatican Council, we are convinced that “all Christians in any state or walk of life are called to the fullness of Christian life and to the perfection of charity,” and so “all are called to holiness.” God gives us the grace to “turn away from sin and [to] be faithful to the Gospel” (Mark 1:15) and to practice the virtues, those dispositions of mind and heart that allow us “not only to perform good acts, but to give the best of [ourselves].”
Building bridges to those who are marginalized — because of their experience of same-sex attraction, or of gender dysphoria, or for any other reason — is the responsibility of every pastoral minister. But no one lives on a bridge. We build bridges to those who are far from us in order to meet them, to welcome them in the name of Christ, and to call them to walk with us along the road that God has marked out for all of us. We build bridges and step out on them in order to bring those who once were far off back home with us to the Father’s house, to the bosom of the Church. We build bridges to those whom we love so that we cannot only hear their story, “starting from their situation” as Pope Francis advises, but also to be able to present the whole truth, to tell the rest of the story, to answer their questions and address their desires in the light of the Gospel. The Church builds bridges not as permanent sites of compromise, of meeting in the middle without any need for change or growth, but because welcome and accompaniment in the name of Christ provides a clear, compassionate message: “Come close; we are friends, and I have something to tell you, to which I want you to respond, because I believe it will transform your life.”
Editor's Note: This post was updated on Oct. 26 to correct a typo.