Catholic schools must show LGBTQ students they are loved

Views David Palmieri / March 7, 2023 Print this:
Photo courtesy of cottonbro studio via Pexels

This is the final part of a three-part series about Catholic school policies on gender identity and sexual orientation. The first and second parts are available here.

Suffering is not the entirety of the Christian life

LGBTQ persons are often asked, “Where is your suffering?” Opponents frequently remind them that Jesus said, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me” (Mt. 16:24). In other words, LGBTQ people are often told by opponents that their lives should, and must, include some suffering and sacrifice. Usually, this relates to their being celibate and chaste, as church teaching states.

Yes, suffering can be redemptive. It invites us to conversion and unites us with the salvific work of Jesus Christ (Catechism, 1435, 1521). But our faith is not simply about Good Friday. It is about Easter. And while Good Friday was one day, Easter is forever.

Our Lord was lifted up both on the Cross and in his Resurrection. The Christian life is not solely about suffering. Moreover, Jesus came to us in this world so that we may share his joy (Jn. 17:13).

Jesus also said, “Go, and from now on do not sin any more” (Jn. 8:11). Those of us who work in LGBTQ ministry hear this often, as if it’s some sort of mic-drop moment, or that the entirety of church teaching about LGBTQ people can be reduced to “Don’t sin.” When, people often ask, are we going to tell them this? Why aren’t we talking more about sin? And when, they ask, are we finally going to tell LGBTQ persons to overcome their “gay lifestyle”? 

But why is there an assumption that LGBTQ children are always and everywhere engaging in sin? That rash judgment is both false and unjust. How is the 15-year-old gay teen, who is not in a relationship and certainly not married, “sinning”?

“Go and sin no more” is a narrow lens through which to read the life of the disciple. Jesus also said:

  • “Go and learn the meaning of the words, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice’” (Mt 9:13).
  • “Go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Mt. 10:6)
  • “Go, sell what you have and give to the poor” (Mt. 19:21).
  • “Go out…and invite to the feast whomever you find” (Mt 22:9).
  • “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations” (Mt. 28:19).
  • “Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature” (Mk. 16:15).
  • “Go and do likewise” (Lk. 10:37).
  • “Go and take the lowest place (Lk. 14:10).

Bringing the love of Christ to others

Each of these quotes is an appeal from Jesus to bring his love to others. However, with LGBTQ students, this bringing of love demands a subtler approach. Adolescents are already considered a vulnerable population because of their age, so we must learn to work from a place of trust if we are to open hearts and minds to the Gospel.

First, this work begins with love. As Saint John Bosco, an experienced educator, said, “Young people must know that they are loved.” And they can know best that they are loved not because we tell them, but because we show them by caring about their lives, no matter how ordinary they may seem. As the Springtide Research Institute has noted, when children feel noticed, named and known, they feel like they belong.

Through this love, they can also meet Jesus Christ. Building this type of relationship is the primary role of every Catholic educator. We call this a “ministry of presence,” and it works on God’s time, not our own.

Second, after children feel that it’s safe to talk, they want to be heard, not judged or told what to do. We need to share a listening heart that seeks to feel the worth of every child’s soul. This doesn’t happen through preaching only. It comes from living in the spirit of the Beatitudes and appreciating every child’s story as unique, specific and personal.

Third, we can look to the art of accompaniment, as modeled by Jesus. This applies to all kinds of students: scholars, athletes, artists, hard workers, slackers and clowns. Our mission is to help our students move through a process of self-discovery, guiding them toward a transcendent horizon where they can meet Jesus Christ and become the person God intends them to be.

LGBTQ youths and teachers are in every school, but not every school creates an environment with eyes to see and ears to hear.

In this kind of social environment, children have a better opportunity to be authentic. In the process, they naturally gravitate toward adults who respect, inspire and support them. It is within this context that some educators will earn the right to know LGBTQ students. LGBTQ children (and LGBTQ teachers) are in every school, but not every school creates an environment with eyes to see and ears to hear.

As Catholic doctrine teaches, that the deliberate use of the sexual faculty, for whatever reason, outside of marriage is illicit (CCC 2352). But we must also support the dignity of an adolescent who is on the journey to “know thyself.”

While our Catholic faith rejects ideologies of identity choice, the U.S.C.C.B., since 1991, has been equally firm that sexual orientation is “not freely chosen.” As such, we should never assume bad faith or bad intentions (CCC 2478). Instead, we should be willing to encourage all persons to discover and imitate Christ in the common, ordinary, unspectacular flow of everyday life.

The beauty of the sea

“Stop, no more of this!” (Lk. 22:51).

Even during his arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus intervened to stop the fighting. Does he not want to do the same today? On behalf of the children and families who face the threat of intentional exclusion from Catholic schools, it is time for greater and more peaceful dialogue. As many of the diocesan synod reports from the United States (and from around the world) have shown, the universal church needs to do a better job in discerning proper ministry to LGBTQ persons. 

The U.S.C.C.B. national synthesis document, the result of listening sessions across U.S. parishes, is clear evidence that the institutional church is willing to use the language of “LGBTQ+” as a sign of being “a more welcoming Church where all members of the People of God can find accompaniment on the journey.” 

The synthesis report also notes the “perceived lack of unity among the bishops in the United States, and even of some individual bishops with the Holy Father, [is] a source of grave scandal. This perceived lack of unity within the hierarchy seems to, in turn, justify division at the local level.”

Obvious signs of strain today include acts of civil disobedience in places like Omaha, Neb., where independent Catholic schools refused to accept the diocesan policy on transgender individuals, and the outcry of the community was so great that the archdiocese was forced to revise their policy

In other cases, aligned with Saint Augustine’s principle that “an unjust law is no law at all,” administrators and teachers are taking professional risks with wink-and-nod strategies that quietly choose to accompany children rather than enforce restrictive policies. Schools are placed in this position by dioceses that remain publicly silent about these documents, leaving administrators to take on the burden of defending the policies when their primary responsibility is to steward children in learning, faith and service. 

How do we bring about reconciliation? It starts with an acknowledgment that good discernment requires a proper understanding of both the uniformity of doctrine and the plurality of human experience. Rather than anchoring to one side or the other, we need to hold these sides in tension, lest we look like a fractured Body of Christ.

As many of the diocesan synod reports from the United States (and from around the world) show, the universal church needs to do better in discerning proper ministry to LGBTQ persons. 

The 1997 General Directory for Catechesis reminds us that we have a responsibility to present the Gospel message with integrity and authenticity. But “integrity must also be accompanied by adaptation,” and “the criterion of authenticity is closely connected to that of inculturation.” These two sides are “always in tension,” so that our effort to model the pedagogy of Christ must proceed “without falling either into closed inflexibility or into facile accommodations.”

In addition to suggestions that I’ve offered previously about the need for collaboration among scholars and experts, I would like to share three considerations.

Three considerations

First, while there is dismay over the growing number of diocesan policies, there are actually fewer than 40 known policies to date. With roughly 200 dioceses in the United States, that means that 160 more are watching this discussion unfold. The laity, our priests and our bishops need to start speaking up with the courage of Saint Óscar Romero, who said, “We know that every effort to better a society…is an effort that God blesses, that God desires, that God demands of us.”

Second, we need to reframe our goals. So much of Catholic messaging to LGBTQ persons treats them like object lessons—as categories and stereotypes, not as individuals. They are called daily to chastity, penance and healing, but those are not behaviors reserved for LGBTQ persons alone. As Bill Henson, the founder and president of Posture Shift, says, “A Gospel of exclusion has no power to reach already banished people.” 

Maybe a better strategy would be to adopt a “logic of integration,” which Pope Francis discussed in regard to divorce and remarriage:

The logic of integration is the key to their pastoral care, a care that would allow them not only to realize that they belong to the church as the Body of Christ, but also to know that they can have a joyful and fruitful experience in it. They are baptized; they are brothers and sisters; the Holy Spirit pours into their hearts gifts and talents for the good of all.

Such persons need to feel not as excommunicated members of the church, but instead as living members, able to live and grow in the church and experience her as a mother who welcomes them always, who takes care of them with affection and encourages them along the path of life and the Gospel.

Under the care of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, can we find a way to prioritize this integration of relationships? To talk with people, and not talk about them? To serve LGBTQ persons so that they feel like they belong as subjects and not objects? In short, to love them?

Finally, perhaps the best policy is no policy at all. We have Scripture, which is “inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for refutation, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16). We also have the Catechism to present the four pillars of creed, sacraments, morality and prayer.

Principles to guide persons should prevail over policies to control persons.

We can also rely on canon law, which establishes ecclesial order and discipline. What further instruction or policy is needed than that which has already been revealed by the deposit of faith?

Here we can take a page from Pope St. John Paul II, who wrote, “Before making practical plans, we need to promote a spirituality of communion.” Principles to guide persons should prevail over policies to control persons.

Saint Thomas Aquinas is credited with saying, “If the highest aim of a captain were to preserve his ship, he would keep it in port forever.” Our Catholic faith is not just retained in the mind. It is also expressed through the heart and the hands of the faithful.

If we believe in the Incarnation and the Resurrection, then Jesus Christ has shown us the way to live our the truth of our faith. If we trust in his example with humility, then we should not fear to leave port and sail into the stormy sea. It is Jesus himself “whom even the wind and sea obey” (Mk. 4:41).

David Palmieri

David Palmieri is a contributing writer for Outreach and a theology teacher at Xaverian Brothers High School in Westwood, Mass. He is a D.Min. candidate at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.

All articles by David Palmieri

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