Several years ago, an American Archbishop flew me and a handful of prominent gay Christians to his diocese to consult ahead of the World Meeting of Families with Pope Francis. Most of us had done graduate studies in theology or philosophy, and all of us provided perspectives coming out of a “traditional Christian sexual ethic.” At the very least, we affirmed marriage as an institution between a man and a woman and that sexual activity is reserved by God for marriage. Unlike some Catholics affirming such an ethic, however, we also used the words “gay” and “lesbian” when describing our personal experiences.
I didn’t think much of it at the time, but we were asked to keep the meeting confidential. The way in which many Catholic circles discuss homosexuality is carefully circumscribed and heavily scrutinized. All of us knew that if certain influential voices in the diocese discovered our meeting they could derail it. In a controversy between a Bishop’s invitation and a public outcry, we were not confident the invitation would prevail. So few outside of those directly invited knew about the meeting. It has never been publicly acknowledged.
Homosexuality and Catholic Ministry
My understanding is that we were invited because the Archbishop saw a need for Catholic voices outside of those conditioned within the terminology and ideologies offered by organizations such as Courage International. Courage had been the implicitly “official” voice of homosexual ministry in his diocese for some time. In contrast to many of our group’s members, Courage has promoted a “support group” model developed from Alcoholics Anonymous, an anthropology derived from twentieth-century neo-Freudian psychologists, and exclusive use of the term “same sex attracted” rather than “gay” and “lesbian.”
If you have worked in Catholic ministry in this area, it is hard to overstate the organization’s influence or the territorialism of many of its members. I once spoke at a conference on Catholicism and homosexuality, where some Courage members even spent a portion of the Q&A session repeating questions about why Courage hadn’t been invited to present. Some Catholics view Courage as the exclusive ministry for “same-sex-attracted” persons, largely because of an “endorsement” by the Vatican. This endorsement consists of a statement in 1994 by the Pontifical Council for the Family’s President, the deceased Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo.
For some Catholics, the lack of official “endorsement” or “approval” from a magisterial authority invalidates all other ministries for homosexual/same-sex-attracted/LGBTQ persons. This creates a state of confusion for some today, as Trujillo is one of many individuals associated with Courage to be implicated in Catholicism’s abuse crisis (three others being Courage founder John Harvey who advised bishops against a zero tolerance policy and in favor of rehabilitation, interim director and speaker Father Donald Timone who now has two allegations of sexual abuse, and speaker Daniel Mattson who recently disappeared from social media after allegations that he had a three-year online sexual relationship with a teenage boy). Gabriel Martel’s sensational new book Inside the Closet of the Vatican alleges that Trujillo harassed seminarians and engaged in sexual relationships with other men, including male prostitutes.
Setting aside the relationship between Courage as an institution and Catholicism’s current crises, what brings me pause now is the question of episcopal integrity. If this bishop considered us important voices in the conversation about Catholicism and homosexuality, why did our invitation to meet with his diocese need to be kept secret? If a controversy arose, could we not rely on his episcopal authority for defense? I now feel a cognitive dissonance hovering over those diocesan meetings, a dissonance between his perception of opportunities for aiding ministry and the pressures surrounding what is “acceptable” according to his donors and those with greatest influence in his diocese. It is analogous to a bishop who might gather a group of immigrants for a meeting about our border crisis, but keep the meeting secret because he does not want to upset those with money, power, and influence who advocate for a border wall. Thus, the private cares of the bishop divide off from his public voice and image.
Again and again, I have worked with Catholic leaders who privately hope for a more holistic and nuanced conversation about homosexuality in the Church and yet will not speak openly and frankly about these desires. They fear upsetting some influential donor, diocesan staff member, or ministry leader. I had considered this bishop “one of the good ones” because he took the time to listen to our perspectives. But I didn’t take note of the extent to which he held his own more complicated perspectives out of the public light.
In this context, we can see how the Church comes to a crisis fueled by avoided scandal. From one side, we can view the Church’s current crisis as one in which Church leaders have abandoned the integrity of honesty for an image preserved to maintain the approval of various stakeholders: donors, hierarchical leaders, peers, and even those in the pews. Frank conversations about the actual state of the Church stayed behind the closed doors of diocesan offices. And the only conversations permitted in public spaces were those which had gone through a sort of unspoken approval process. In the area of homosexuality, this includes a filtering through various diocesan constituents and influencers, whether they be conservative, liberal, or otherwise ideologically inclined.
This leaves us with a Catholicism where, in the context of SSA/LGBTQ+ ministry, the bishops model a catechesis of consumerism. The lives of actual persons in such a context must be reduced to the language and perspectives of constituencies. My experience is that, by and large, what Catholics want out of gay people is to consume us. They want to mine us for the stories that affirm where they stand, eat up those stories, and then send the rest of us to the garbage heap where ideologues and image-preservers send all the complexities of life. This partly explains the commitment of many Catholics to shoddy research, politicized theology, and decontextualized sound bytes in the area of sexuality.
We are fools if we believe that the dangers of a consumerist culture are limited to retail goods. In such a culture, even persons become manufactured and consumed. Ministry to whole persons thus becomes nearly impossible. Rather, ministry becomes a means by which we gather individuals from a certain walk of life, run them through the manufacturing machine of whatever narrative we deem most appropriate to achieve our ends, and then consume the person-product that we put out on the shelf of our neat pseudo-ecclesiology. To be fair, some persons have such a diminished sense of self that they seek another to manufacture a self for them. But this does not excuse the Church from the harms of this process.
The primary way in which the laity can combat this would involve a refusal to speak other than honestly about the facts of our existence, a refusal to allow our histories to conform to the ideologies of the psychological pyramid schemes peddled by those in positions of influence in the Church. Even if our leaders have failed in modeling honesty and integrity, we ourselves must be models.
But in addressing problems in the Church, we ought to recognize not only where we the laity have failed as Catholics, but also what has been done to us. We must acknowledge how Catholic leaders have failed to look into our lives and minister accordingly. We can no longer seek approval from bishops who may wish to hide us while claiming to hear us, even if we must recognize that they, too, play an indispensable role in the life of the Church.
As a student of Church history, I do not have much hope in a lasting reform of powerful clergy, even as I advocate for reform. But I can issue an exhortation and a warning: I (and many others) will not hide from you or for you any longer. Speak your fears, failures, and uncertainties with honesty. You can bring the truth out into the light, or we will. We will not be your pawns. We want to be your allies. Will you be ours?
Chris Damian is a writer, speaker, attorney, and business professional living in the Twin Cities. He received his B.A. in Philosophy from the University of Notre Dame and his J.D. and M.A. in Catholic Studies from the University of St. Thomas. He is the author of “I Desired You: Intellectual Journals on Faith and (Homo)sexuality” (volumes I and II). He is also the co-founder of YArespond, a group of Catholic young adults seeking informed and holistic responses to the clergy abuse crisis. In his free time, he enjoys hosting dinner parties and creative writing workshops.