“Seeing the Person”: More on Pastoral Care of Same-Sex Couples

A few weeks ago a friend of mine posted a beautiful video on Facebook about a couple that have been married for 50 years. The wife has Alzheimer’s Disease, so the husband also needs to be her permanent caregiver. “From the moment she gets up to the moment she goes to bed, I have to do everything,” he says: “clean her teeth, shower, dress her.” However, he tells us: “I don’t count it as a burden to have to care for her … I count it as a great privilege to care for this woman that I’ve loved all of these years and continue to love … She has done so much for me, over all of these years; now she can’t, but I can, and I can return her love.”

 

When I first saw it I was struck because it reminded me of another video that I’d seen several years previously, about a same-sex couple who had been together for 54 years. Bill was in the early stages of Parkinson’s Disease, and had to be cared for by his partner, John. “He needs a little more help and I’m glad I can do it,” John says. “It’s a real privilege. I call it payback time. I’m paying him back for all he did for me from day one.”

 

It was the word privilege in both stories that caught my attention. Some single people worry about who will look after them as they grow old. But, for these couples, the highest value was placed on having the opportunity of caring for someone else. “It is more blessed to give than to receive,” as Scripture says (Acts 20:35). As I said recently, “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.”

“Every one living on the face of the earth has personal problems and difficulties, but challenges to growth, strengths, talents and gifts as well,” said Cardinal Ratzinger in his Letter on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons. Sadly, very few same-sex couples seem to feel welcome in our churches, or feel that the good aspects of their lives and relationships are appreciated. Their “problems and difficulties” and their “challenges to growth” are continually assumed and highlighted, but the “strengths, talents and gifts” with which they enrich the life of the Church are often not even acknowledged at all.

I don’t think this is simply because the Church’s teaching on Christian marriage is difficult or unpopular, although, admittedly, it is. But the same degree of alienation from the Church does not seem to happen, for example, to many divorced and remarried couples, heterosexual couples living together outside of marriage, married couples who practice birth control, and so on. Above and beyond the difficulty and unpopularity of traditional moral teaching, there is a particular problem that churches have with welcoming LGBT members as persons. Same-sex couples simply experience this refusal to see the person more acutely because their situation as a couple makes their sexuality more obviously apparent to those around them.

Some Christians even give the distinct impression that they would not want same-sex couples in their churches at all. “It would cause a ‘scandal’,” “how would we explain it to the children?,” and so on. But if we applied this logic to everyone there would simply be no people in our churches at all. No-one, for example, says that we should not have a businessman driving a Lexus attending our church because it might make it more difficult to pass on to younger Christians Jesus’s teachings about the dangers of wealth.

Pope Francis has recently emphasized the importance of those who have a responsibility for pastoral care “seeing the person” in their interactions with LGBT members of their churches:

The most important thing is the first proclamation: Jesus Christ has saved you. And the ministers of the church must be ministers of mercy above all. The confessor, for example, is always in danger of being either too much of a rigorist or too lax. Neither is merciful, because neither of them really takes responsibility for the person. The rigorist washes his hands so that he leaves it to the commandment. The loose minister washes his hands by simply saying, ‘This is not a sin’ … A person once asked me, in a provocative manner, if I approved of homosexuality. I replied with another question: ‘Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?’ We must always consider the person. Here we enter into the mystery of the human being. In life, God accompanies persons, and we must accompany them, starting from their situation. It is necessary to accompany them with mercy … This is also the great benefit of confession as a sacrament: evaluating case by case and discerning what is the best thing to do for a person who seeks God and grace.

The first step in seeing a person is obviously getting to know them as a person, not excluding the aspects of their lives that might challenge some in our churches or make them feel uncomfortable. As Fr. James Martin recently said, “for the church to love gays and lesbians more deeply,” the first step would be “listening to their experiences—all their experiences, what their lives are like as a whole.”

The LGBT population may be a fairly small minority, and same-sex couples may only be a sub-section of this minority, but for those who believe that Jesus died for all people, and wishes to draw each and every individual soul into communion with his Father through the communion of the Church, his Body, our heart should break at the fact that many same-sex couples do not feel welcome in our churches.

aarontaylor50Aaron 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.

13 thoughts on ““Seeing the Person”: More on Pastoral Care of Same-Sex Couples

  1. Aaron, I agree with this compassionate view on pastoral care. Some questions I have are: How does a non-affirming church make room for same sex couples without causing a scandal or changing the doctrine on marriage? Why would a same sex couple want to attend a church that does not affirm gay unions? Do you have any thoughts on how it would be possible?

    • Most Catholic Churches have straight couples attending who use contraception, or who are divorced and remarried without an annulment, or who are having sex outside of marriage. Catholic teaching does not affirm any of these practices, but lots of couples who engage in them still come to Catholic Churches, and nobody says that letting them come to Church causes scandal. There is lots of discussion among Catholic leaders about how to provide appropriate pastoral care to such couples.

      If an unmarried man and woman come to Church together, I don’t know one way or the other if they’re having sex. And if two men come to Church together, I also don’t know if they’re having sex. As a different example, the Church allows divorced and remarried couples to choose to live as brother and sister, in which case they can receive communion in accordance with Church teaching. I might know that someone is in a second marriage, and see them go up to communion. But if they’re living as brother and sister, they’re not doing anything wrong and it’s not appropriate for me to walk up to them and ask invasive questions about their sex life.

      In each of the heterosexual cases, there’s a lot of variation about how much might be know by other parishioners, and how widely the knowledge is spread in the parish. And it isn’t possible for most parishioners to know the details of a couple’s sex life or what they may have disclosed to the priest and what pastoral advice he may have given.

      If a gay couple is attending parish and receiving the Eucharist, that information is not enough for me to conclude that there is anything scandalous. It may be that they understand the Church’s teaching and have chosen to refrain from sinful sexual activity. But it is none of my business to walk up and ask them invasive questions about this.

      I think a lot of the material at Spiritual Friendship addresses positive pastoral advice that could be given to same-sex couples that were striving to be chaste and to grow in their relationship with Christ while holding to a traditional understanding of Christian sexual ethics. But the starting point is not to view all same-sex couples as if the most important thing about them was the sexual sins that they may be committing. We should see them, as we see all people, primarily as persons–persons who may have problems and difficulties, but who have challenges to growth, strengths, talents and gifts as well.

      • Ron, I agree with what you are describing that is good news. I have just never heard it before. Are you saying that there are examples of same sex couples who are married in your church and they are welcomed without question? Here in Canada the Anglican church divided over this issue and I have heard of someone who was refused communion because they were in a same sex marriage. So this is why I am asking questions. Maybe I missed something along the way.

    • Good questions, Kathy! I may try and deal with some of them in a follow-up post. I don’t think I can solve all the problems but at least offer some ideas for first steps.

  2. I agree that our hearts should ache at the fact that many same-sex couples don’t feel welcome in some non-affirming churches. But I have a question: Is it unfair to put the onus on such same-sex couples to find other churches that affirm them and see what they can offer?

    • Thanks for your comment.

      Yes, I think it would be unfair, and profoundly un-Christian. I know plenty of celibate gay Christians who are members of churches with a traditional sexual ethic, who follow their churches’ teachings, and who are still made to feel unwelcome in their churches, which suggests that we have a real problem with churches recognizing and dealing with LGBT people as *people*. Dealing with same-sex couples puts the spotlight on this problem but it is by no means limited to same-sex couples. Given that the problem exists, I’d say we have a Christian duty to try and address it. Simply telling those who affected by the problem to go and find another church is not an acceptable solution.

      • Thanks, for your answer, Aaron. I asked this question because I always encounter a simplistic and rather annoying question about being gay + Christian and that is, “Why do you stay with a church that persecute you?” People who ask this question are often unchurched and views the whole church experience through the lens of what the media tells them. Sad really. However, going back to the issue you pointed out in this post, I agree that the church, non-affirming or not, should do a better job in caring for its LGBT population. I know an Anglican church here in Toronto who has an LGBT group/ministry even though the church itself is still split on holding same-sex weddings (for now it’s just a “blessing” that they offer). Maybe the same type of ministry will exist in Catholic churches? Here’s to hoping. 🙂

  3. I find that many parishes have active gays who are living with partners and are active in ministry. Studies show that Catholics are pretty liberal despite church teaching. In my experience gays have a strong lobby in many diocese. My diocese’s chancery is loaded with gays and I’d say most don’t affirm church teaching and a good deal have partners and while everyone knows they all look the other way. I find that Catholic teaching is undermined when such a large percentage of priests, liturgical leaders, and other people in ministry are blatantly gay and dismissive of church teaching. Gays are celebrated and welcomed in many parishes, in fact many times more so than Catholics who are more traditional.

    • Jose. The phenomenon you are describing has a name–“mokita”. It is a word in the language spoken by the Kivila in New Guinea. It means “a truth we all know, but agree not to talk about.”

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