I was tremendously impressed by Pope Francis’ recent interview. It’s so full of wonderful insights. Here I’m going to expand on his idea that if, as a Church, we focus excessively on a small handful of sins then the moral edifice will fail, and that the Church should be a field hospital for the wounded.
The difficulty is not with telling the truth about sexuality, it’s with telling that truth in a way that hurts and alienates people. There are two things that I’ve heard repeatedly from other Christians that I think, to a certain extent, illustrate the problem with a lot of the “truth-telling” that goes on in the Culture Wars. The first is the assumption that when I go to speak I must meet with a lot of resistance and persecution from the LGBTQ community. I’ve had a number of Americans suggest that, living as I do in ultra-liberal Canada, I must be on the verge of being jailed for hate crimes. This is untrue. There have been situations where I’ve faced resistance but on the whole I’ve found those situations to be fruitful and instructive. Those are the situations that have taught me how to listen and how to present what I have to say in a constructive and respectful way. Generally once I actually start talking a lot of the anger goes away — and in the cases where it hasn’t, I can see what I did wrong.
The second, related, phenomenon is that of well-meaning straight Christians who have the experience of bringing up homosexuality—perhaps while teaching in the classroom, or in Catechism class, or in Bible study—and who find that they are accused of being homophobic and bigoted. This reaction is often presented as evidence that gay people and their supporters just aren’t willing to listen, that dialogue has been completely and summarily shut down by the word “homophobia.”
Let’s contextualize this second experience in terms of Francis’ notion of the Church as field hospital. I happen to have handy a little text-book on military triage, and I find in it two principles that I think are relevant. The first is that if you don’t know what you’re doing and the patient is badly injured but not at the point of death you should do nothing. Hold the person’s hand, talk nicely to them, reassure them until the doctor gets there. The second is that there are some kinds of wounds that can be treated by anyone who knows first aid, but many can only be treated by a specialist. Even if the wound is potentially life-threatening an unskilled medic may do more harm than good and they may make it difficult, or even impossible, for effective treatment to be applied once the patient receives more qualified medical care. Note that this is a book on military medicine: these caveats are addressed to people who are trained to work in field hospitals.
Relations between the Church and the gay community involve a lot of very old, very deep wounds—some of them infected, most of them involving severe complications. Someone with a superficial knowledge of the subject matter cannot address it effectively, particularly in a single presentation. Words like “bigot” and “homophobe” are the gay community’s way of saying “Ow! You’re hurting me. You don’t know what you’re doing. Just leave me alone.” Nor is this an irrational response. We all have the right to insist that amateur medics not attempt emergency surgery on us, particularly without anaesthetic.
The anger that Christians so often seem to feel when they receive this rebuke is, I think, instructive in telling us part of what’s wrong with the approach that tends to be taken. If I go to help someone, and they refuse my help, I shouldn’t be mad. In so far as their refusal makes me angry, that anger is evidence that my help is in some way self-serving. Maybe I’m helping because I want to feel like a good person. Maybe I’m sick of hearing the other person groan and I want to help them to be quiet so that I can have some peace. Maybe I’m worried that if I don’t do something and they get worse, I’m going to be blamed for it later. Their refusal to accept my help then becomes, by extension, a denial of whatever good I hoped to gain for myself.
A lot of Christian outreach to the LGBTQ community is ineffectual because it is coloured more by concern for the Church than by love for gay people. Christians are afraid that acceptance of gays and lesbians will further undermine faith in the church. They’re afraid that their own kids might become gay, or might lose their faith. They’re afraid that they might end up being persecuted or suffering for their convictions.
The irony is, that by addressing homosexuality for the sake of the church or the culture, rather than addressing homosexuals out of a genuine and heart-felt love, Christians end up bringing about the very problems that they most fear. People are not scandalized so much by the church’s teaching on homosexuality as they are scandalized by the attitudes that people who believe in that teaching display towards homosexual people. In so far as the church’s position on homosexuality is motivated by a concern for the needs of straight Christians, the church will be seen as a group of self-serving hypocrites hiding its homophobia behind a very thin veneer of cold moral solicitude.
In order to be effective in outreach, we have to concentrate on healing—and on healing first the wounds that have been inflicted on others in the name of Christ. The Pope is calling us to do this. To sincerely listen, to understand why people have fallen away, to enter into their pain with them, to lead them back to the Church by walking alongside them over the long journey of reconciliation. Those Christians who are willing to commit to doing that work for the LGBTQ community must start by learning, by listening, and by purifying their own hearts of selfish motivation. Those who aren’t willing to commit a lot of time, and love, and tears to this project are best to do nothing. Step back. Focus on something else. Let the wounds heal.
Melinda Selmys is a Catholic writer, blogger, and speaker. She is the author of Sexual Authenticity: An Intimate Reflection on Homosexuality and Catholicism and she blogs at Sexual Authenticity. Melinda can be followed on Twitter: @melindaselmys.