On June 26, while flying back from a trip to Armenia, Pope Francis told a reporter that he agreed with Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Germany: The Catholic Church owes an apology to gay people.
The pope’s comments were short but rambling — not as deft and pithy as his well-known statement from an earlier airplane interview, “If [gay people] accept the Lord and have goodwill, who am I to judge them?” — but even the best apology is only a beginning. Good apologies allow us to live together instead of separately, and therefore they challenge us to live in new ways we couldn’t have come up with on our own. So here are a few thoughts on how Catholics can begin to walk through the door our pope has opened.
First, a caveat: I’m a lesbian convert to Catholicism who accepts the church’s teaching on sexuality — so I’m not seeking any kind of sexual relationship. (This is often loosely referred to as “celibacy.”) I’m a minority within a minority within a minority. (It’s an increasingly open sub-sub-subcommunity, but still a tiny one.)
And my own experience in the church has been unusually gentle — partly because I didn’t grow up Catholic, so I escaped a lot of the suffering and confusion of people who grow up gay in the church.
Good apologies allow us to live together instead of separately, and therefore they challenge us to live in new ways we couldn’t have come up with on our own
Can I underline how shocking we should find it that it’s harder for gay people to know that God loves and cherishes us if we grew up Christian? We all nod along when I say, “I didn’t grow up Catholic, so I don’t have a lot of that baggage” — but what that statement means is that gay Christian children are often less prepared to accept God’s love and mercy for them than gay children in secular families. That alone should suggest the need for apology.
So let me walk with Pope Francis through a standard Catholic prayer of confession, or act of contrition. These prayers exist to teach us the nature of penitence, and to guide us when we aren’t sure how to show sincere contrition.
The act of contrition is said after we confess our sins. The sins of Catholic communities against gay people are widely varied (and not unique, as the pope points out), but here is a list of some of the things that have been done to friends of mine by fellow Christians: They’ve been kicked out of their homes for being gay, threatened with expulsion from school, forced into harmful forms of therapy, told that when others assaulted them it was their own fault, harassed and bullied in Catholic schools, and fired or denied a job because of their sexual orientation.
They’ve been the subject of degrading gossip in church, and when they’ve tried to receive spiritual guidance, they’ve been treated as if lust is their biggest and even only spiritual concern. They’ve been given guidance that focused solely on avoiding sin, never on expressing love: a catechism of “no.”
It may be worth noting that all of these things happened both to gay people who dissent from Catholic teaching — who seek same-sex marriage, for example — and to gay people who accept church teaching. People who want nothing more than to be faithful children of the church, following the guidance She has given them, are treated in ways that discredit and witness against the Gospel.
And this isn’t even mentioning the countries where Christian leaders push laws calling for violent reprisal against advocates for gay people or people who have gay sex.
In the words of the Elder Zosima in The Brothers Karamazov, “[E]ach of us is guilty before everyone and for everyone.” For these, and for all our sins, we as a church must share our sorrow. So let us make our act of contrition.
Oh, my God, I am sorry for my sins with all my heart
Apologies have a lot of uses. Some people (this is me) shoot out apologies like a Pez dispenser, hoping to disarm critics or win reassurance. Some people use apologies to gain the upper hand: “I’ve said I’m sorry!” Some people are just Canadian.
The pope’s comments suggest a deeper contrition. He says we must ask forgiveness, that we too often forget to ask pardon. He uses the term “gay” instead of restricting himself to careful phrases like “same-sex-attracted.” This is a man who knows that gay people are Christians, members of his flock.
In choosing to do wrong and failing to do good, I have sinned against you, whom I should love above all else
Christians always face the temptation of turning our faith into a rulebook: collapsing the faith into a mere morality. This gets us focused on our own actions — or, worse, our neighbors’ — instead of on God’s actions. And it makes it hard to understand why we should bother listening to self-admitted sinners. What could they possibly teach us? (Those pronouns are wrong, because they’re always wrong.)
Our morality should be a form of worship; its purpose is not in itself but in our relationship with our soul’s lover, the Lord. Repentance is not about listing broken rules (in which case it would be tempting to compare our list with our neighbor’s, hoping to see that his is longer) but about restoring relationship — with God above all, and then with one another.
Even attempts to offer nuanced reflections on Christian relationships with gay communities often assume that repentance is the gay person’s role, forgiveness the Christian’s. The pope has overturned this model.
The pope demonstrates that right relationship with God and others requires admitting fault even, and especially, toward those we have been trained to view as less moral. He has taken the lowest place at the banquet and offered his own moral authority as a mantle to cover gay people who have been harmed.
I firmly intend, with your help, to sin no more
An apology is a slender thing. We can’t promise that we will never sin again. Habitual sins distort our thinking, and even sincere contrition is no guarantee of future performance.
What the pope has done is simply to identify an area where Catholics can intend to sin no more: He has asked us to turn our attention to the church’s treatment of gay people, to notice our sins, and to ask God (we could also ask actual gay people, who will see what straight people may miss) to show us where we have failed.
To make amends, and to avoid all that leads me to sin
My friend Leah Libresco notes that confession doesn’t just return us to the status quo ante. The person we were right before we sinned was … a person about to commit mortal sin! Confession brings us into an entirely new, deeper harmony with God.
I can think of three ways the church can grow closer to God than we were before by repenting of Catholic sins against gay people. First, and most obviously, we would ask gay people how we can make amends. Since I’m on both sides of this question I’ll suggest giving up our assumption that we know best; listening; and serving those most in need, like homeless LGBTQ teenagers. Chronologically in that order.
Amends should cost us: our time and money and blood, our comfort and prior assumptions, perhaps our physical safety as we seek to serve LGBTQ people who are targeted for violence. Catholics sometimes worry that supporting gay people in need will be misunderstood as changing church teaching. But what kind of witness does our failure to support God’s LGBTQ children present?
Second, we may learn a new way of approaching the moral life. What if we asked gay people who don’t accept church teaching, “What might make it possible for you to live out this teaching in a way that’s fruitful and not barren? And how can we serve you and welcome you even if our sexual morality never changes?” Those aren’t questions every gay person is interested in answering, obviously, but they’re vastly better ones than the ones we’ve been asking so far.
What if gay people could find more forms of devoted, honored love in the church than outside it?
And third, we may rediscover forms of love we had forgotten. In scripture and Christian history, same-sex love is a vivid reality. Devoted, sacrificial, and committed love between men or between women, adorned by promises and honored by God and community — that’s the story of David and Jonathan, of Ruth and Naomi, and of countless generations of Christians in both the East and the West. This love was expressed in friendship, in shared service, in mystical prayer and in monastic celibacy, but it was no less intimate and intense than the love of married couples.
These models would allow gay and same-sex-attracted people in the church to imagine our futures. Their loss or marginalization has harmed everyone in the church. Even people who never go to a gay club, never endure a crisis of faith, never come out to anybody but their confessor are harmed by the loss of these images of the beauty of celibate and same-sex love.
Catholics used to have a wide range of vocations — forms of love, ways of pouring yourself out in devotion to God and to those you love. We used to have a wide range of ways of caregiving and making kin.
Nowadays, words like “intimacy,” “devotion,” and “family” have been colonized by marriage and romance, to the point that children’s cartoons and gallows-humor comedies take it for granted that there’s only one real form of love. This would be a Procrustean worldview in any religion, but for followers of the virgin Jesus, who used friendship to teach us what truly sacrificial love looks like, it is a betrayal of our God.
What if gay people could find more forms of devoted, honored love in the church than outside it? What if we forged new paths as well as restoring old ones? Can repenting of the harms done to LGBTQ people lead Christians to serve and love others not only more honestly and humbly but in more diverse ways?
Your Son, Jesus Christ, suffered and died for us. In his name, my God, have mercy.
Eve Tushnet is the author of Gay and Catholic: Accepting My Sexuality, Finding Community, Living My Faith and Amends: A Novel. She blogs at Patheos and lives in Washington, DC.