Fr. James Martin – a Jesuit priest who has written quite eloquently on LGBT issues a number of times before – has a column in the latest edition of America magazine, “Simply Loving,” in which he asks why “so many gay people say they feel hatred from members of the church” despite the fact that most Catholics claim not to hate gay and lesbian people.
Fr. Martin suggests that one reason – aside from the obvious fact that a lot of LGBT people don’t agree with Catholic teaching about homosexual acts – is that it is very rare to hear many Catholics “say something positive about gays and lesbians without appending a warning against sin.”
The language surrounding gay and lesbian Catholics is framed primarily, sometimes exclusively, in terms of sin. For example, “We love our gay brothers and sisters—but they must not engage in sexual activity.” Is any other group of Catholics addressed in this fashion? Imagine someone beginning a parish talk on married life by saying, “We love married Catholics – but adultery is a mortal sin.” With no other group does the church so reflexively link the group’s identity to sin.
“What might it mean,” he asks, “for the church to love gays and lesbians more deeply?” Firstly, “it would mean listening to their experiences – all their experiences, what their lives are like as a whole.” For gays and lesbians who are already members of the Church, it would also mean “valuing their contributions to the church” and reminding ourselves that gays and lesbians are “an important part of the body of Christ” without which we as a Church would be poorer.
When thinking about adequate pastoral responses to those LGBT Christians who do not agree with Catholic teaching about homosexual activity, it seems to me that loving gays and lesbians more deeply might also mean a more nuanced appreciation by the Church of the love that exists in many same-sex relationships.
For example, one Catholic priest who advocates the tired “Love the Sinner and Hate the Sin” approach to LGBT issues offers an example of how not to offer pastoral care for same-sex couples, arguing that gays should not “get off the hook” just because “their sin is attached to a political agenda” (N.B. being gay isn’t actually a “sin”), and comparing granting hospital visitation rights to same-sex couples to granting “visiting rights for partners in crime.”
So let’s imagine the scenario. An elderly, disabled lesbian is admitted to a Catholic hospital, and her same-sex partner of perhaps forty or fifty years, who has already been her sole caregiver for some considerable amount of time, is not even allowed to see her because the Catholics in charge at the hospital have decided their relationship is worth nothing more than a criminal pact between two bank robbers. Does such an obstinate refusal to recognize love staring us in the face really further the Church’s claim to be speaking on behalf of a God Who is Love?
Even if the Church’s sole concern were simply about getting across its teaching on homosexual acts (and that shouldn’t be our sole or even primary concern), as I’ve said before, the refusal of Christians to recognize the obvious reality of love where it exists between same-sex couples actually makes the Church’s teachings on sexual behavior less rather than more compelling. It makes the Church appear to be scared of reality, and that makes people less likely to believe that the Church’s teachings about anything at all are grounded in appreciation of the truth.
I generally think it’s disrespectful to start speculating about other people’s sex lives, and I don’t understand why many people apparently do not seem to be able to look at couples (straight or gay) without immediately wondering how much sex they are having. But since the issue of same-sex couples’ sex lives is already out there as a matter of public discussion, let’s assume, for argument’s sake, that the average sexually active same-sex couple has sex about as often as the average married couple – between once per week and a few times per month. Bear in mind this statistical average would include some same-sex couples who have more sex than this, and also some who don’t have any sex at all, just as some heterosexual married couples don’t (particularly after they have already been married some time).
There are 168 hours in a week. So, for the statistically average sexually active gay or lesbian couple, for 167 or more of those 168 hours per week, life must consist of something other than having sex (who knew?). Gay couples share meals together and take care of their home. They mow their lawn. They may be raising children together, along with all of the sacrifices that raising children always entails. They may support and love one another “for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health,” and provide one another with “mutual society, help, and comfort.” In other words, even if their relationships are not marriages from the Church’s perspective because they lack characteristics the Church considers essential to marriage, the relationships of many gay and lesbian couples still embody many of the goods that the Church values as part of marriage, and therefore as goods that make an important contribution to the common good of Church and society as a whole.
Some Catholics think that the reason many LGBT people are alienated from the Church is because the Church just needs to come up with better arguments as to why same-sex couples should not be doing what they are doing that one hour or less per week. I tend to think alienation results more from the fact that this is all the Church ever appears to speak about. Unless we as a Church can start speaking about – and recognizing the potential goods that are embodied in – those other 167 or more hours, many LGBT people will continue to view Catholics as ignorant and homophobic, and not entirely without good reason.
Aaron Taylor is a Ph.D. student in Ethics at Boston College. He previously studied at the Universities of London and Oxford, and worked for a London-based research institute dedicated to raising the quality of thinking about public policy in civil society. He can be followed on Twitter:@AyTay86.