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.
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.