How Can There be Frank Discussion, in a Climate of Fear?

Ever since his election last year, Pope Francis has caught the popular imagination with his message of inclusion, mercy and hope. This has been particularly notable, for LBGT Catholics, beginning with the celebrated simple line, “Who am I to judge?” on the flight back from Brazil, and continuing (amongst other memorable quotes) that the Church should be a “field hospital for the wounded”. This week, there was more of the same kind, without the rhetorical flourish. To resolve problems of division and disagreement within the Church, he says, we need discussion.


In the church, as in any other situation, “problems cannot be resolved by pretending they don’t exist,” Pope Francis said.

“Confronting one another, discussing and praying — that is how conflicts in the church are resolved,” the pope said Sunday before praying the “Regina Coeli” with visitors gathered in St. Peter’s Square.

The pope focused his remarks on the day’s first reading, Acts 6:1-7, which describes how the early Christian community, as it grew to include people from different groups, began to experience internal tensions, and how those tensions were resolved at a meeting of the disciples.

National Catholic Reporter

Last week, Francis’ point man in the Italian Bishops’ Conference, whom he had personally handpicked as its secretary general, said much the same thing. Bishop Nunzio Galantino told an Italian newspaper that the Church needs to listen, “without taboos”,  to all the arguments in favour of gay relationships, married priests, and communion for the divorced.

Welcome words? Well yes, of course – but for queer Catholics, they remain just words, sizzle without the steak. We cannot have the proposed frank discussion to resolve conflicts, in a climate of fear. The Church cannot be a field hospital for the wounded – while continuing to inflict the wounds.

For far too many, this fear is all too real, and well founded. I’ve seen it in a small way myself, when I was told by Cafod that I was not acceptable as a school volunteer, because I publicly criticize some aspects of Church teaching: some aspects, evaluated against other aspects, and in the light of the Gospels. In other words, I attempt to stimulate precisely the discussion suggested by Pope Francis, to which Bishop Galantino says the Church should listen. In my case, this exclusion was not of any material consequence, but it was nevertheless emotionally deeply hurtful: a wound inflicted by the Church, not healed by it. ( See”“Despised and Rejected – but also “Phall if you but will, rise you must”)

For others, the consequences, and reason for fear, are much greater: loss of employment and livelihood. Pope Francis may ask, “Who am I to judge?”, but that has not stopped a series of bishops taking it on themselves to judge, and if those employed in parishes or church schools are found to be gay and honest in their relationships, forcing them out of their posts.

Catholic employment contract

For still more, the issues are not about employment, but deeply spiritual matters. I was moved by a reader’s response to the Bondings 2.0 report on Bishop Galliano. After recounting some local church history, and an active witch hunt against gay men and lesbians in that diocese, she continues:

In truth, now I won’t admit to any priest I’m lesbian. I’m too worried that if something happens to me and I need last rites, the very priest to whom I admitted I was gay will be the same one walking in the hospital and denying me last rites (and possibly attempting to excommunicate too boot ). Call me paranoid or chicken or both but I just don’t want that to happen. I’m more than happy to stand up for other people but .. not so much for myself. Seems pointless to do so much of the time.

Even for those with nothing much to lose, who are able to set aside this fear, and come out openly as both gay and Catholic, there remains another problem. Frequently, they may find full acceptance, inclusion and welcome in a local congregation – as I do myself. Such local congregations may indeed be those field hospitals for the wounded that Pope Francis extols. From the institutional Church, and from some sections of the church – not so much. Fr James Martin SJ wrote about this last week at America, in a piece called Simply Loving. At Bondings 2.0, Frand DeBenardo headlined his report on Martin’s post with a pertinent question, “Why Do LGBT People Feel the Catholic Church Hates Them?” One reason suggested by Fr Martin, was that when LGBT people hear the Church, or people speaking on behalf of the Church, about “homosexuals”, it’s almost always accompanied by words about sin – even when the words are intended to be welcoming and helpful.

As always with Martin,his piece is thoughtful, compassionate and sensitive. However, when read together with the reader responses, it simply highlights the extent of the problem. When I read it a few days ago, the first comments I came across seemed to be saying,

“Excellent piece, well done – but after all, we really must remember that homosexual acts are indeed sinful”.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose!


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