Bishop John Stowe to LGBTQ Catholics: “I love you.”

Views Bishop John Stowe, O.F.M. Conv. / December 18, 2022 Print this:
Bishop John Stowe of Lexington, Ky., attends the Outreach LGBTQ Catholic ministry conference at Fordham University in New York on June 24, 2022. A Conventual Franciscan, Stowe was ordained a bishop in 2015. (Photo courtesy of Keara Hanlon)

This essay is the first part of an address delivered by Bishop John Stowe, O.F.M. Conv., at the Outreach conference in New York City on June 24, 2022. This text has been edited for style and clarity. The second part of this speech will be published on Tuesday.

Just before his historic trip to the United States in 2015, Pope Francis, a pope of many firsts and many surprises, had arranged virtual meetings, together with ABC’s David Muir, to spots in the country that could not be included in his first trip to Washington, D.C., New York and Philadelphia. Naturally, one of the virtual visits was to the U.S.­-Mexico border, and the site chosen was a packed church in Brownsville, Tex.

As people had the opportunity to greet Pope Francis in real time and ask him questions, the pope said that he noticed a religious sister in the church and asked if she could please stand up. He didn’t know her personally, but that moment brought a great deal of attention to Sister Norma Pimentel, who runs a Catholic Charities shelter for migrants in Texas.

This is a typical gesture of Pope Francis, who actually does not enjoy being in the spotlight himself, but always makes use of the opportunity to reflect the light on someone or something else that the world easily overlooks. Calling attention to the plight of migrants is nothing new for Pope Francis, but in this particular case, even more was going on. A national organization of women religious in the United States had somehow aroused the suspicion of the Vatican and were accused of not being faithful or orthodox enough. They were said to be in need of some kind of correction. 

Many sisters were insulted by that suggestion and many people thought that religious women were the last people the church should be cracking down on after all the scandals involving priests and bishops. When Pope Francis asked the nun in Brownsville to stand up, he said that he had a message for her and for all the religious women in the United States. He looked at her and simply said: “I love you.”

With that simple phrase and gesture, a lot of panic, pain and pressure were dissipated and a Vatican investigation was basically concluded.

I mention this incident primarily because I have been invited to address this Outreach gathering as a bishop, as one who holds teaching authority in the church and as a member of a body that has not always been friendly towards you. I was moved, as I have been many times, by what I witnessed in that gesture of Francis. And I believe that my first words to you and to the LGBT community in the church must be the same: “I love you.”

I have been privileged to hear the stories and be part of the struggles of many LGBT persons during my years as a friar, priest and bishop, and I have heard about so much pain, rejection and self-doubt.

I have heard stories of self-hate, attempted suicide, anger, hurt and deep sorrow from people who know they did not choose their identity, but are certain it is an essential part of who they are. That identity is both gay and Catholic, and while many have attempted to change one or the other or both, when accompanied by loving, supportive and faithful people, they have come to see that they cannot and should not change.

I believe that my first words to you and to the LGBT community in the church must be the same: “I love you.”

To those of you who have experienced any part of that struggle and to those of you who have accompanied others or even prevented them from reaching depression and despair, you have my profound admiration.

More recently, I have become aware of people struggling with gender dysphoria, and am appalled by how many people in the church are simply dismissive of this lived experience and deny that it is possible or real. I am sorry that we don’t often enough have the humility to admit what we don’t know and express a willingness to learn. Pope Francis invites us to listen and to accompany, not to begin with a judgment.

I am grateful to the few but brave people who have done just that: people in the fields of healthcare, spiritual direction, counseling, education and theology. I admire the brave and faithful people who have suffered misunderstanding, rejection accusations of having an agenda when they are simply striving to survive. Surely, we can do better as a church.

During that same first visit of Pope Francis to the United States, he met with all the bishops in the country at St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Washington and he told us, among other things, to let everything that we say and do convey the mercy of Jesus.

I was struck by those words; they made a deep impression on me. Far from doing so perfectly, I have tried to live those words and make my daily examination of conscience precisely about whether I have done so or not. At the time of that visit, I was still in my first months as a bishop, but quickly discovered how many opportunities there are to speak a word or offer a gesture that conveys the mercy of Jesus.

And I have been amazed by the response. Sometimes that means rejection, as Jesus himself experienced, but more often there is a flood of emotion, expressing gratitude and a renewed sense of dignity just for being noticed or considered important.

When Pope Francis proclaimed 2016 to be the Year of Mercy—mercy that is not just about forgiveness but about God’s generous and unconditional love—he instructed pastors to be intentional about reaching out to those who had been hurt by the church’s ministers and those who were in any way marginalized. 

It was during that year that I accepted an invitation to address a conference organized by New Ways Ministry. Little did I know what I was in for. The conference was inspiring, the community gathered their loving and most impressive. The event was hopeful and joyful in every sense.

But the backlash from the self-appointed guardians of Catholic orthodoxy was fierce and ferocious, nothing like the fraternal correction Christians are supposed to offer each other. I was not prepared for the venom but I am grateful to have experienced only a bit of what so many of you have had to live with simply because you are people of faith, because your expression of faith in Jesus Christ is best expressed in the Catholic tradition and because intolerance wrapped in religious garb is particularly ugly.

So, as I address you at this wonderful event organized by Father Jim Martin. I am ready for the next round of condemnations. One of the most frequent comments I expect to receive is a reminder that I am obliged to counsel you on the church’s expectation of chastity for all, but somehow especially for the LGBT community.

Now, if I were to address any gathering of young adult Catholics or speak at a Catholic youth ministry event, I would not be expected to start with or be exclusively focused on how well they are living chastity. There is no data to suggest that Catholic youth or young adults who identify as straight are more faithful to the teachings on sexual morality than LGBT youth, but you wouldn’t know that by the obsession with correcting the immoral behavior of this community.

Intolerance wrapped in religious garb is particularly ugly.

I will in no way denigrate the virtue of chastity, to be sure. I myself have embraced it as a vow. But that will not be the focus of my words, because it is not the essential heart of the Gospel.

We come together to celebrate what God has revealed in Jesus Christ, God’s eternal Word made flesh. Jesus, the begotten Son of God, describes his Father as love. Jesus is the incarnation of that unconditional love, and it is Jesus who reveals the Father most perfectly.

Jesus, in his incarnation, entered into our human experience and shared our human flesh and blood. Being perfect and infinite in his divinity, he humbled himself, as the priest says in the offertory prayers of the Mass, to share in our humanity. Jesus does not just share in the concept of humanity, or in some ideal of humanity, but as Paul says emphatically: “He who was sinless became sin for us” (2 Cor. 5:21).

In the Incarnation, God experiences humanity from the inside. He becomes one of us. He identifies with us, as the Letter to the Hebrews states, although sinless himself. In the Fourth Gospel, Jesus is quoted as saying that God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but rather to save it. 

In the well-known verse that some Christians have rightly publicized as a summary of the Gospel, John 3:16, we know that “God so loved the world that in the fullness of time he sent his Son so that whoever believes in him might not perish but have eternal life.” This is the abundant, generous and extravagant love that God has for each of us, manifest in Jesus who lays down his life for us.

That same Gospel, as it moves from the portrayal of the earthly ministry of Jesus to his glorification, passion, death and resurrection, states: “[H]aving loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the extreme, to the end” (Jn 13:1). The church is the living Body of Christ and exists to further his mission, so we must proclaim and incarnate that kind of love.

The Gospels reveal that Jesus was frequently criticized by the religious people of his day, people from both Jewish parties—Sadducees and Pharisees—and by the outliers as well. Jesus’ words of mercy and his revelations of God’s mercy were seen by many as scandalous. Jesus’ presence, bread-breaking and drinking with sinners was considered outrageous, but criticism didn’t change Jesus’ behavior.

When appropriate, although he was raised by very observant parents who did not think of themselves as in any way privileged or exempt from the law, Jesus did not hesitate to break minor laws in the service of the higher law of love. There are many instances of healing on the Sabbath, disregard for rites of purification, touching the bleeding flesh of humanity and more.

Jesus told his holier-than-thou critics that it is not those who are well that need a doctor, but the sick. He experienced more openness to conversion and to his message from those labeled as sinners than from religious leaders and scholars of the law.

Now, I do not relate this to in any way suggest that the LGBT community should be identified with sinners or are any more or less in need of conversion than anyone else. But even if one held that erroneous view, there would be all the more reason for outreach and pastoral attention. 

The Gospel itself begins with, and is all about, a call to conversion for all of God’s children. This is an invitation to turn towards God when so much distracts us from the face of God and from the direction that God has laid out for our lives. Ongoing conversion is something that the saints all recognized as a need in their lives. Even Paul, whose encounter with Christ sparked a complete and immediate change of course, still needed daily to conform his life more and more to the example of Christ.

Don’t let anyone tell you that you are not Catholic, that you are not part of the church, that you cannot be holy or that you are defined by sin.

In his apostolic exhortation “Gaudete et exultate,” Pope Francis re-emphasizes an important teaching of the Second Vatican Council: the universal call to holiness. Put in the Texas dialect we hear frequently these days, the pope’s words might be translated as “Universal means all, y’all.” None of the baptized are excluded from the call to holiness, nor are any of the baptized exempt from this call.

The grace that is given us in baptism is meant to be treasured, grown, developed and be a driving force in our lives towards the holiness and ultimate happiness, for which we are created. Saint Paul reminds us that we are “heirs” of God’s kingdom, called and sanctified through baptism.

Don’t let anyone tell you that you are not Catholic, that you are not part of the church, that you cannot be holy or that you are defined by sin. Each of us has been blessed with unmerited grace, and each of us is free to reject that grace. Most of us need time, experience and grace to become the person that God is ultimately calling us to be—saints among the saints of God.

If the love of God is the highest good, and the greatest commandment is to love God and love our neighbor as ourselves, we who think we are on the right track should be very careful about condemning others, especially based upon whom they love.

Since verbal vitriol does not in any way allow for dialogue, I do not respond to the hateful messages I receive concerning LGBT issues. But internally my response is always the same: “Remember what Jesus said about removing the beam from your own eye so that you can see clearly enough to help another remove the speck from their eye” (Mt. 7:5). In the New Testament, hypocrisy was not exclusive to any religious party. Then and now, hypocrites were to be found everywhere.

Remembering that the word “hypocrite” literally means an “actor,” we can see that hypocrisy, acting as if one were a Christian, is still far too present in the church—and always in the top ten reasons people give for staying away from the church. The law, Jesus taught, was given to help human beings live in a relationship of love with God and with others. The law is not meant to be an obstacle or to push people away from God, and Jesus resented those who used it in such a way.

I need to be clear: My presence here as a bishop is not to say that church teaching does not matter, nor am I here to bless or condone any practices denounced by our faith. I would be derelict in my office as shepherd and teacher to do so. But I am here to say that first and foremost is the law of love, and that an encounter with the all-merciful Christ, who reveals the Father to us, is what we should all be seeking.

As St. John Paul II said in one of his annual Holy Thursday letters to priests: Before you teach the commandments of God, be sure you have taught “the God of the commandments.” A loving relationship comes before rules and regulations.

Bishop John Stowe, O.F.M. Conv.

John Stowe, O.F.M., Conv., is the Bishop of Lexington, Ky.

All articles by Bishop John Stowe, O.F.M. Conv.

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