In every age, the church finds herself asking very important questions. And, at the same time, the church cannot change and the church has to change. We can see examples of this throughout history. For the better part of 19 centuries, the church condoned slavery. It was only in the past century that it has recognized slavery as evil and immoral. The church also used to say that religious liberty was bad. But since the Second Vatican Council, the church counts it as a good.
In our own day, the landscape of sexual orientation and gender identity is changing faster than a three-year-old falling asleep at a Sunday homily. While the church does not have to jump on every bandwagon that passes by, it must listen to, and read, what Jesus called the “signs of the times.”
The concept of sexual orientation and all that it entails must be faced and thought about by the church. Questions must be asked, answers must be sought and conversations must be had. The Catholic Church cannot be absent from the dialogue and conversation about sexual orientation. If the church is absent from this conversation, it is absent at its own peril.
I live and work at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., where I am privileged to serve LGBTQ students. Recently, I set out to meet individually with these students. I wanted to speak with them one by one, to hear their stories (if they wished to share them) and to ask if they would come to a gathering to determine how campus ministry might serve the needs of LGBTQ students.
Each student that I met with was trying to figure out how to make their faith and their sexual identity connect and intersect. What is the intersection of spirituality and sexuality?
I explained that the purpose of the meeting was not to talk about policies or platforms. Rather, I would listen to what these beautiful children of God want of the church and what they want from our campus ministry. And I would try to respond with mercy, to lead with mercy.
I learned so much.
A female student sat across from me in my office and said, “I am 100 percent Catholic and I am 100 percent lesbian. I am both these things to the core. I cannot imagine not being both.” Her words touched my heart and soul.
A male student sat very comfortably, looked at me, and said, “I’m somewhere on the scale between gay and bisexual. I have known this since I was in grade school. I am also Catholic. I am proud to be a Catholic. I will always be Catholic. Even if the church tells me that who I am sexually is somehow wrong, I know that before God, I am not. I want to be both and I will be both.” His words pierced my heart and soul.
How can Helen be both 100 percent lesbian and 100 percent Catholic? How can Bill be Catholic to the core and yet very open about being LGBTQ? How can our LGBTQ students be who they are and practice the faith that they love?
It’s impossible to listen to the painful stories of gay and lesbian people without being converted. In other words, in truly listening to these stories, we have to think differently. In listening to anyone’s story, especially to stories of people who have been marginalized, we are changed. We are converted.
As in so many other places, the LGBTQ community at Notre Dame is a shadow community. It is known mainly to others in the same community. By and large, it cannot express itself as it might want to. It has been forced to go into hiding but would prefer to live in the light. This is easier said than done.
I believe that the LGBTQ population at Notre Dame might be as large or even larger than many of the other minority communities at Notre Dame. The LGBTQ population certainly cuts across cultures, ethnicities, racial identities, economic statuses and more. It is its own form of diversity.
I am interested in this ministry for many reasons. If our LGBTQ students do not find a home in the Catholic Church— or worse, if they feel disrespected by the church—they will leave. Sadly, this happens all too often and nobody wins. They lose and the church loses. They live without the sacraments and the life of the church, while the church is weakened by their departure. A part of the face of Christ is absent from the church. A part of the Body of Christ is missing. No one wins.
The language from the church about LGBTQ people has not been good. At times, it has been awful, dreadful and completely bereft of mercy. The world is getting better at understanding the LGBTQ person, but I don’t think that the world understands why faith might be so important to an LGBTQ person, especially to an LGBTQ person who wants to live in a church that has often shunned, disrespected or maligned them. The church must make every effort to understand what it means to be LGBTQ and Catholic. And part of how it has to do this is by talking with, and listening to, LGBTQ Catholics.
I was not surprised to find students who genuinely want to live their faith and want to be Catholic while not having to deny who God created them to be. How to be Catholic and how to be LGBTQ is a big question. But answers can be found if we commit to listening to each other’s stories.
I love the Catholic Church with all my heart and soul. I am a son of the church who wants to die in her arms. I have hoped for a long time that the church might take the lead on this issue, on understanding and accepting and explaining what it is to be LGBTQ and Catholic.
Sadly, when it comes time to changes its views, the Church is often the caboose of the train. But I hope that it might be the engine in some areas where our thinking needs to change. I cannot understand why the church drags its feet on this issue. Pope Francis has said that there are certain people born with an LGBTQ orientation. Well, then….
This is a conflict in search of resolution, and it has implications for all of us, sinners in need of mercy.
Jesus invites us, regardless of sexual orientation, to love one another. And there are many ways to love and to give ourselves to one another, to sacrifice for one another, to help one other build up the Body of Christ. No one gets a pass from the Lord’s invitation to love one another. That we love is more important than how we love.
The mercy of God invites us to listen to one another, to hear each other’s stories and to share each other’s joys and sorrows. We are all children of God. All of us, straight or LGBTQ or anywhere in between, need the mercy of God and are called to extend that mercy.
As Pope Francis has said so often during the Year of Mercy: “No one is excluded from the mercy of God.” No one has to be other than who they are to receive this mercy from God. It is available to all of us.