The phenomenon of papal statements on aircrafts has quickly become a provocative, revelatory, and apparently now regular ministry of the vicar of Christ. Pope Francis’ knack for making statements that tend to shock people both inside and outside the walls of the Church could be taken as an invitation to all “people of good will” to, rather than praise or condemn his papacy, venture beneath the surface of these statement and engage in a serious work of self-examination (in the spirit of the first Jesuit papacy) and further their growth in personal holiness and in turn to grow in solidarity with the universal human family. Because of his insistent tendency to express himself using colloquial jargon (often without clarity in regards to what exactly he is implying), the need for delving deeper into his comments proves itself necessary, lest we become further polarized within the Church and in society at large. His informal exhortation to Catholics to consider “apologizing to gay people” serves as an epitomic example, considering the radically divergent responses he has provoked. Since this is the case, it would be worthwhile to look further into his statement in order to develop a more full evaluation of what he meant and how it can become an opportunity for mutual understanding rather than polarization.
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Pope Francis had acknowledged before making this rather blunt and simplistic statement that the members of the Church ought to consider apologizing to those whose marginalization and mistreatment they have contributed. His statement about people with same sex attractions was prompted by a question that referenced a recent statement by Cardinal Marx regarding the mistreatment of the LGBT community by the Church. Francis affirmed that many people in the Church have indeed contributed to the marginalization of gay people, in addition to other disadvantaged communities, especially the poor and exploited women.
Some lauded him for the tone of inclusivity and progressiveness, which diverges from the “typical” condemnatory one touted by his predecessors. Others were outraged and feared that he was capitulating further to the progressive agenda that seeks to silence those who uphold traditional morals. So to transcend these reductive and unimaginative responses, it would be valuable to look at the concrete circumstances that may have led him to proposing these apologies, and how his proposal might manifest in the life of the Church and in society. To do this, I will refer to the experiences of two dear friends of mine: Anthony and Julian (they asked that I not use their real names).
Anthony was born to the children of Polish Catholic immigrants in the Midwest. They raised him and his three siblings in the Church, attending Mass regularly and participating often in parish ministries. His parents were political conservatives who fostered in their children a strong moral conscience rooted in Church teaching, as well as emphasizing the need to defend said moral truths in the public sphere. Growing up, Anthony was encouraged to participate in “boy” activities, and was reprimanded for expressing interest in activities that did not conform to socially constructed gender norms. He was also warned of the dangerous consequences of a homosexual lifestyle both in this world and in the afterlife. After starting his undergraduate career at a Jesuit university in New York City, he came to terms with his homoerotic desires and started to seek out sexual encounters with other men. A regular in the gay club scene, he had become rather “experienced” sexually and decided to adopt an “out and proud” gay identity. After being encouraged by his friends to be open with his family, he hocked up the courage to “come out” to his parents during the Christmas break of his sophomore year. Just as he had expected, they were very concerned about his lifestyle choice and started to treat him differently. While they did not reject him as a son, they did start to include him less in family gatherings, and when they did, they spoke to him in such a distant and cold tone that he began to feel that he wasn’t truly part of his own family anymore. When he returned to New York, he became more politically active in the gay rights movement and joined the Human Rights Campaign, often canvassing for marriage equality in his neighborhood. He has not attended Mass ever since that last Christmas vacation, except for the few times that he attended an Episcopal service with a few friends. He has been in a relationship with another man for about a year and a half, and is settled into his lifestyle choice. He claims to be happy now that he has accepted himself for who he is, though he wonders where his relationship with his partner will go in the near future, and is unsure of what he is looking for in the long run.
Julian grew up in a nominally Methodist household. His parents were moderate liberals who raised him with an appreciation of different cultures and for the arts. They told him from the age of eight that if he were to come out to them as gay or transgender, they would “have no problem with him”-though they did express some reservations about the dangers of contracting HIV/AIDS and of sex change surgeries. When he was thirteen, he realized that he was increasingly becoming infatuated by the men in Calvin Klein underwear ads, and was developing crushes on several of his male friends. He could not deny his attraction to the male form, which indeed had become sexual at the point that he hit puberty. He decided to come out to his parents and to his proudly progressive school guidance counselors at the age of seventeen. He became the president of the school’s Gay Straight Alliance, as well as being the star soloist of the school choir. His parents expressed how proud they were of his braveness and authenticity. As he prepared for his undergraduate career, also in New York City, he looked forward to the prospect of finding a boyfriend and getting to meet other LGBT people. He also entered undergrad with many questions about the purpose and finality of his life: what am I meant to do with my life, how can I become a good person, what’s the point of life in general, who is God? He soon was surprised that the first thing he fell in love with in his freshman year was his intro to theology class, and not a cute classmate. The class allowed him to ask his questions about life in an even more profound way. He tried attending the meetings of the Rainbow Alliance, but was put off by their militant and at times self-righteous attitude toward gay rights. He was more interested in attending the weekly “faith sharing” meetings put on by Campus Ministry. For the first time, he met people who talked about life in a profoundly beautiful and genuine way. He was enamored by these people and could not wait until the end of each week when he could see them again. When he disclosed his sexual orientation to them, they expressed little concern, but rather encouraged him to come to more of their events and to participate more actively. It was clear that as a group of committed Catholics, they did not promote same sex marriages or intercourse outside of heterosexual marriage. But they spent very little time talking about this; rather, they spent most of their time getting to know Julian and talking about his existential questions with him. After six months he decided to receive Confirmation in the Catholic Church. After “coming out”[again] to his parents, he sheepishly told them that he had decided to stop looking for a boyfriend. Perplexed, they asked him why he would voluntarily deprive himself of romantic relationship. He explained that his desire for Christ was greater than his attraction to males, and that his relationship with these new friends allowed him to understand his desire for male companionship in a more beautiful and fulfilling way than a gay marriage ever could. They agreed to accept his choice, while remaining apprehensive and slightly concerned. Nevertheless, they proudly attended his Confirmation Mass and smiled broadly in the photos that they took with him and his friends at the reception.
What, you may ask, do these two “coming out” stories have to do with the insistence that Catholics apologize to gays? It is indeed important for all people, let alone Catholics, to make amends with someone after having condemned them, judged them, physically abused them, or led them astray from their vocation. It is also important to uphold the truth even when it may not be popular, and when one may be at risk of financial sanctions, to do so. But it might prove more valuable to look at the more concrete and relevant circumstances in which we find ourselves and ask how we might learn to better accompany those who have been entrusted to our care. Apologies should always be given when necessary, but more important than this is learning to live our relationships with intentionality and charitable disinterest. Our witness as Christians depends more so on this than on our willingness to make amends. For Anthony, it would not help him were his parents to “come around” and accept the moral implications of his lifestyle. Though it might help to some extent to apologize for having made him feel judged and less part of the family. Julian might have benefitted from his parents raising him with a stronger moral conscience. But what Julian most benefitted from, and what probably would have helped Anthony immensely, was, primarily, the Christians who patiently accompanied him as he discovered the truth of his identity and vocation, in addition to his parents willingness to allow him the freedom to discover his identity and vocation by his own means. Yes, his friends did affirm that they believed that Julian seeking sexual relationships with other men would be immoral, but they were more concerned about being witnesses to the Truth rather than telling him about moral truths, and letting him discover the implications of their witness out of his own freedom and volition. They also made it their business to accompany him, to continue being witnesses to him, and to become a presence in his life, no matter what turn it took. No, his parents’ openness does not imply that children should be encouraged to “raise themselves,” but it does imply that parents help their children most by raising them with what they hold as true and valuable, and allowing their children to discover the implications of said upbringing on their own and to decide for themselves whether they went to continue following this as they reach young adulthood.
So should Catholics feel obligated to apologize to gay people? If the need presents itself, then they should do so out of a true sense of humility, charity, and justice. But more importantly, Francis’ words should provoke us to ask: how can I offer a more authentic witness of the Truth to those in my life, how can I better accompany them as they seek to discover their own identity and vocation, and how can I become a presence of Christ in the world?