Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Reflections on the Pope's Christmas Message to LGBT Persons

So, Christmas draws nears. Every other window has a candle burning bright to invite us in from the cold and dark. Churches are spiffing themselves up, putting out crèches, decorating trees, printing bulletins and welcome messages for the Christmas services.

And for this occasion—this homecoming occasion to which many alienated Christians look as the one time in the year when they may feel truly welcome in the church—how does the head of my church, the Catholic church, choose to issue the welcome? He uses his Christmas address to his staff, “on the great Christian celebratory festival of universal love,” to remind LGBT Catholics that we are the enemy (

He speaks of us as a threat to the human ecology of the world—a threat insofar as we do not submit to his biological imperatives for us.

And, in response, the major American Catholic “intellectual” blogs, at America Magazine and Commonweal, drone on and on. When I first added both blogs to my daily online reading list, I did so with some misgiving. I had dropped in on both occasionally and found their discussion turgid and, even worse, inbred. I knew full well that, reading regularly, I'd be tempted to contribute. I also knew that these discussions weren't for the likes of me.

The discussion on these blogs is the discussion of the self-conscious intellectual elite served by these magazines (and yes, journals to which I subscribed faithfully for many years of my own life). These are the movers and shakers of the Catholic journalism world and the Catholic academy.

And they are so far from where I live and move and from my own experience of the church, that they and I might as well be talking about two different churches altogether. Too many of these members of the elite U.S. Catholic intellectual cadre just don’t get it. They still think atrocious statements such as Benedict’s Christmas address to the Curia are redeemable, discussable, capable of being wrested into some logic that disguises the mean, hard heart inside the statements.

Or worse, they think, many of these movers and shakers of the American church, that Benedict is right in what he says about and to their gay brothers and sisters. They think he is, as one blogger at Commonweal recently noted, “brilliant.”

For this blogger, who is responding to a good posting by David Gibson regarding Benedict’s Christmas welcome to gays, the African-American civil rights cause is “clearly righteous,” whereas “gay causes of all kinds” are “much morally murkier.” Where to begin in addressing such an astonishing viewpoint, with its unconsciously gleeful willingness to defend the human rights of one group as a way of bashing another group and denying rights to that group?

I wonder as I read the statement if the poster has any awareness at all of history, of the history of American Catholicism. Does she really not know that slavery was “morally murky” for Christians of all stripes prior to the middle of the 19th century—for American Catholics as well as their evangelical brothers and sisters? Is she unaware that American Catholic religious even owned slaves—that the wealth of the Jesuits who founded my alma mater, Loyola in New Orleans, for instance, rested on the ownership of sugar plantations operated by slaves?

The cause of civil rights for people of color may seem “clearly righteous” to us today. It did not seem so to Christians of previous eras. We were just as convinced in the past, a majority of us, that subjugation of people of color and their enslavement was as biblically warranted and morally acceptable as we are convinced today that the savage exclusion of gay persons from the churches and society is a righteous cause.

Knowledge of history ought to chasten us, to curb our oh-so-certain sense that we have it right now—especially when we use what we believe to wound others. And that is what is going on with these conversations. As David Gibson astutely notes towards the end of this particular thread,

These are tough topics, and I can only imagine what it must be like for GLBT folks who read this, as we put them under a microscope like a frog on a dissecting tray. I think what is lost, from Benedict’s talk to so much of this discussion, is that these are real God-created people, not concepts to fit into categories.

You think?! Why is it, I wonder, that only a smattering of LGBT Catholics ever even try to discuss these issues on forums like the Commonweal blog or the America blog? Why is it that we do not attend and participate in the forums of the Catholic Theological Society?

From my experience, the answer is clear: we have no place in such discussions. We have been told in manifold ways that we are not welcome. These are, for the most part, discussions of our heterosexual brothers and sisters about us—not discussions with us in which we define ourselves and have a voice in deciding who we will be in the church context. I have sat through countless sessions at Catholic Theological Society of America in which one speaker after another speaks about the church’s responsibility to safeguard the human rights of all oppressed minorities, in which those minorities are enumerated, but in which gays and lesbians are never mentioned.

As if we do not even exist. As if we are the unmentionable. As if threats to human rights and human dignity do not concern us, the “murkier” contenders for human status and human rights among all oppressed minorities. As if there are no hidden gay or lesbian persons in the Catholic church, in its leadership structures—and, yes, in CTSA. We do not have a voice at Commonweal or America, any more than we do in CTSA.

Here’s what I wonder, as I scan the comments about Benedict’s Christmas message at Commonweal and America: what do my Catholic brothers and sisters who defend Benedict’s exclusionism want to do with us? What do they want us to do with ourselves? How will they themselves handle Christmas, knowing that outside the church doors which have enfolded them in a warm, welcoming, lit-up space for sacred celebration and communion there stand many LGBT brothers and sisters who are not welcome in that space? In the dark. In the cold.

I raised these questions yesterday in a response to a posting by Michael Sean Winters at America ( The comment has yet to be uploaded to the site.

Winters is impatient with gay anger at the church, and is defensive on behalf of Benedict. He notes (rightly) that we should focus on the Christmas message, rather than picking away at Benedict’s Christmas statement. He says, “This Christmas, like last Christmas and next Christmas, the grace and love of Christ move the hands of His Church to care for all God’s creation . . . .”

And as my yet-to-be-published response says, this is precisely my concern with Benedict’s message. With his unwaveringly negative—his unrelentingly nasty—message to me as a gay believer (on this, see Colleen Baker’s insightful comments at

Who in his or her right mind could hear what Benedict has just said to LGBT human beings—in his remarks commemorating the “great Christian celebratory festival of universal love”—and hear any echo of the “grace and love of Christ moving] the hands of His Church to care”? That is not what Benedict’s statements about LGBT persons are all about.

They are about putting us into our places. They are about slapping and punishing us. They are about excluding us. They are about scapegoating us and eliciting scorn of us—even violence against us.

Care is not what they are about.

I have thought long and hard about these matters, because I have had to do so, as a gay Catholic and a gay theologian. I am not coming only now to the question, What do you want to do with us, as you preach universal love? I have wrestled with that question year after year for some time now.

Christmas after Christmas, as the large family that is church invites all its smaller families to celebrate the birth of the savior. The savior sent to the world by a God who loves everyone. Unreservedly. Who welcomes everyone unreservedly.

Shortly before Christmas, on the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe eleven years ago, I wrote a bishop of one American diocese to ask some questions from the heart, as a gay Catholic who had experienced savage exclusion in his diocese. I said the following:

On this feast of our Lady of Guadalupe, I ask you as one of the wounded members of the flock to remember those of us whom the church has savaged, and who never hear any words of apology from our pastors. As Christmas comes, please remember that many of us will be outside looking in at the light and warmth of your liturgical celebrations, wishing that those celebrations had real meaning for our lives, and that our gifts and talents might be included by a church that truly cherishes the Mother of the Poor, whose face has been made so plain to us in the Guadalupe story and the Christmas narratives, and the poor Son she holds close to her heart.

May our Lady and her Son send the church in Diocese X outspoken truth-tellers and holy trouble-makers, who will continue to call the church to live the gospel it preaches, and to be more concerned with the substance of the message than with its appearance.

I never got any response to this or the several other letters I wrote that gentleman of the cloth. He seemed content with shrugging his shoulders and consigning me to the outer darkness. He has seemed content to go on donning his liturgical vestments for the Christmas feast, knowing as he does so that many of his gay brothers and sisters will not be in the church this Christmas.

Because we are clearly not welcome. And statements like Benedict’s this past week do not make things any better. In fact, they confirm for us who happen to be gay or lesbian that the church does not welcome us—not as we are, not as God has made us.

And that our brothers and sisters celebrating God’s universal love in those warm, brightly lit churches, are happier not to have us in their midst as they celebrate. Since our “murky” presence calls on them to grapple with questions they apparently do not want to entertain. Including questions of what universal love is all about, in this concrete place, in this day and time. And questions of what being a welcoming community are all about.

Questions on which the salvation of the church and its believers ultimately depend.