A Catholic friend of mine is divorced. He has not sought—and does not believe he could obtain—an annulment. His ex-wife is still living and in good health, so he expects to remain single for the rest of his life.
Moody Radio recently asked the question, “Is it OK for Christians to identify as gay and celibate?” The host’s answer seemed to be no. It would seem, if we follow her logic—and the logic of other critics like her—that it would also be wrong for my friend to ever say, “I am divorced.” Doing so would involve defining himself based on something evil: “I hate divorce,” God says (Malachi 2:16).
For obvious reasons, I don’t follow Christian debates about remarriage and divorce nearly as closely as I follow debates about homosexuality. But I am not ignorant of them, either. And so far as I know, nobody—no matter where they lie on the spectrum of Christian beliefs about divorce and remarriage—has ever argued that people who have been divorced should not say, “I’m divorced.” Most people recognize that there are lots of practical reasons why someone would sometimes want to say that, why saying it would be relevant.
The pastoral care of divorced people raises a number of difficult problems, whether we are talking about my friend trying to be faithful to his own convictions as a divorced Catholic, or the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops in Rome trying to figure out how to provide pastoral care to more than a billion souls, many millions of whom are divorced, or are the children of divorce.
But one thing that is encouraging about the debates surrounding divorce is that you don’t have prominent voices wasting a lot of time trying to keep divorced people from talking about being divorced. The focus of the debate at the Synod was on how to provide care. That raised enough difficult pastoral and theological problems. Nobody borrowed trouble by getting worked up over whether divorced people should be allowed to say, “I’m divorced.”
It should be obvious why I draw this parallel. My interest is providing pastoral care to people who struggle with same-sex attraction, to the LGBT community—however you want to phrase it. In an interview published in America Magazine last year, Pope Francis said:
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. When that happens, the Holy Spirit inspires the priest to say the right thing.
The overwhelming majority of people I talk to feel more comfortable describing themselves as “gay” than as “same-sex attracted.” This is why I agree with the Pope’s choice to meet them where they are at with the language they understand.
I’m interested in reaching out to gay and lesbian people, and have been doing it for nearly two decades. I have always been clear that I believe that gay sex is contrary to God’s plan for human sexuality. I don’t think being gay defines who I am or is something to be “proud” of. It’s connected with a temptation to serious sin. But I think my experience is valuable to the Church’s outreach to the LGBT community, and I don’t want to artificially distance myself by choosing unfamiliar and alienating language.
Like the Pope, I meet people where they’re at by using the language they understand. If I’m talking with someone who’s more comfortable talking about being same-sex attracted, I talk about my experiences that way. I don’t insist on calling myself “gay.”
For example, earlier this year, I was invited to speak to a group of Lutheran Church Missouri Synod pastors. In that setting, I talked about same-sex attraction, because I knew that language would be more familiar to them. In the question and answer session, the question of using the word “gay” came up, and I explained why I thought it could be useful in some cases and result in mis-communication in others. I explained how the word can have different meanings to different groups of people. I pointed out that there was a big generation gap here—the word “gay” has different connotations for those who came of age in the 60s and 70s than it has for their children or grandchildren. The pastors found this helpful, and thought it gave them insights into some of the difficulties they had had in communicating church teaching to the youth in their own parishes.
So I have reservations about the word “gay” myself. But I think that there are situations where it helps to use it and that those who rule it out are really making it more difficult to reach gay and lesbian people with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
I am celibate. I speak about being gay and celibate to defend traditional Christian teaching and to support others in following it. My strategy has therefore been very different from the strategy I could have learned in the Southern Baptist church I grew up in. There, the hard teaching of the New Testament on divorce and remarriage was ignored, and the pastors “met people where they were at” by accepting the standards of the surrounding secular culture, rather than the standards of Christ.
However, I speak up because I don’t want to ignore the hard teaching: I want to help people to learn to obey it.
My friend is divorced, and that shapes many of the challenges he faces in day-to-day life in one way or another. When he looks to his friends for support and to his Church for pastoral guidance, it’s important to be able to talk about his situation, for his friends and his pastors to meet him where he is at. It’s also important for the Church to hear from Christians, like him, who are divorced and striving to follow the orthodox teaching.
If, whenever anyone in his situation tried to contribute to the public discussion, Christian magazines and radio programs attacked him for “identifying” as divorced, and a bunch of Christian bloggers piled on, the pastoral care of divorced people would be in an even sorrier state than it is now.
It would, in fact, look pretty much like a lot of the present pastoral care of gays and lesbians who want to obey Biblical teaching.