Catholic teaching is unequivocal on lesbian and gay Catholics is clear: they should be treated with “respect, compassion and sensitivity”, and should be protected from unjust discrimination, and from any form of malice or violence Teaching on transgender people is not explicitly spelled out, but the same principles apply. In matters of employment, protection from discrimination and injustice is further entrenched in a series of solidly magisterial social justice encyclicals. In spite of that, recent years have seen an alarming number of reports of lgbt Catholics who have lost employment, excluded from ministry, or suffered other forms of discrimination, on the basis of their orientation or gender identity.
On the other hand, we should always remember that the stories that make the news, do so precisely because they are unusual. There are many more examples of people who do not suffer discrimination, and are fully accepted in their parishes, or places of Catholic employment – but because their situations are so ordinary, they are just not reported.
Occasionally, there are exceptions. One such is the example of a school in San Francisco, where the Mercy Sisters have written to parents of their decision to continue employment of a transgender man. This decision has been welcomed by New Ways Ministry as “Gospel based”. So it is – and also solidly based in authentic Catholic doctrine.
Francis DeBenardo, executive director of New Ways, writes in a press statement:
Catholic Ministry Thanks Mercy Sisters For Equal Employment of Transgender Teacher
MOUNT RAINIER, Maryland– New Ways Ministry congratulates and thanks the Sisters of Mercy and the administrators of Mercy H.S., San Francisco, for their Gospel-based decision to continue employment of one of their teachers who identifies as a transgender man. This decision stands as a beacon of hope in the midst of the terrible darkness of the recent trend of firing LGBT employees from Catholic institutions. The decision was announced in a letter to parents of students, which, after describing the teacher’s situation, stated:
“This afternoon, we informed students, faculty and staff about our resolve to support the dignity of each person—regardless of race, religion, sexual orientation or gender identification.”
We applaud, too, the courage of English Department chair and teacher Gabriel Stein-Bodenheimer for honoring his gender identity, as well to his commitment to educate students in the Mercy tradition. His personal example will be a most powerful lesson to all in the school’s community, especially because his decision involved a large degree of risk.
This story reflects a true Catholic commitment to respecting the dignity of LGBT people—a principle which is shared by millions of Catholics across the U.S. The experience of this school will help our Church to heal from the pain of too many past negative decisions regarding LGBT people. Our Catholic Church will only be strengthened by this decision.
The Sisters of Mercy offer a courageous example of inclusion and equality that could be replicated by so many other Catholic schools, parishes, and social service agencies when they learn of an employee’s gender identity, sexual orientation, or marital status. This example can be a turning point in what has been a dark chapter of the U.S. Catholic Church, when over 60 faithful employees have lost their church jobs because of LGBT issues.
Their process included wide consultation, reflection, and prayer. As the letter described:
“. . . we collaborated with the Board Chair Diane Lawrence and a team of key administrators while we studied how to respond in a manner consistent with Mercy and Gospel values and your School’s Catholic Identity. We prayed for guidance. We also consulted trusted advisors as we applied these principles to this circumstance.”
Furthermore, the Sisters showed their commitment to caring for the entire school community by having counselors available for anyone–student, parent, staff–to discuss their questions and concerns.
The Sisters of Mercy grounded their decision in the principles of Mercy which form the charism of their community. These same principles of mercy are promoted by Pope Francis, particularly in this year which he declared as a Jubilee of Mercy. Pope Francis’ message of acceptance and encounter with the LGBT community have been given flesh and blood by the Sisters’ decision to continue the teacher’s employment.
New Ways Ministry calls on other Catholic religious communities of Fathers, Brothers, and Sisters–and indeed, all Catholic administrators—to rejoice in the Sisters of Mercy’s example, and to honor it by following it as a way to end employment discrimination against LGBT church employees.