I will admit to being heartbroken to find that some of my Catholic brothers and sisters are unwilling to say, in the wake of the Orlando tragedy, that they extend their condolences specifically toward the LGBTQ community. Fr. James Martin has been one of the prominent exceptions. I have been blessed to spend a lot of time talking to and working with folks who identify with the LGBTQ community, and my willingness to try to love and extend myself has been a transformative and graced part of my ministry. I am writing to my fellow Catholics in the hopes that I can encourage them to follow a similar path, especially in this urgent moment.
I’ll start here: I think every single person in the world has a deep-seated desire to know that they are loved and cherished by human beings, sure, but also, deep down, by God. So, start from that premise– that every person, deep down, wants to know that love, a love that flows from God and draws one back to God. So, before you are anything else, male or female, Gentile or Jew, slave or free, as Paul says, you are a person created by and for love. Now, let’s say that your best understanding of yourself is that you are, for reasons that we will bracket for now, a person whose primary human dimension of that love is experienced in people of the same sex. Before you are in any meaningful sense political– really, before you are any other thing– you experience yourself as desiring this love from others and from God, because you experience yourself as being incomplete, even as being unworthy, in a sense (because you– we– are).
What I want to identify as the basic Catholic theological impulse is the idea that God is saying, “Yes” to each person at this fundamental level of being, OK? Every time– and I mean EVERY time– a gay or lesbian person has come to me to talk, there has been this most fundamental human question: Do you, Mark, cherish me? Are you open to the possibility of genuine, real, human encounter? What are the terms of that encounter? Can I reveal this thing that’s hard and awkward to talk about in the context of the Church? Will you still smile at me and hug me after you know? If I come to receive communion from you, will i somehow see Jesus in your face?
So, when more conservative Catholics say something like, “I don’t want to reduce a person to a slogan,” guess what? They absolutely, positively do NOT want to be reduced to a slogan, either. This is where I think the conservatives are right. We agree on that. But then this is where I think it goes off the rails: If you love someone, you have to encounter them where they are, love them as they identify themselves, really grind out that sort of love that only the Holy Spirit gives.
Labels and communities are, in a sense, badges we wear. I’m a Yankees fan. I’m Pennsylvanian by birth. I’m Catholic. But under all those labels, the real and fundamental identity that I claim is that I am a child of God and an heir to the Kingdom of Heaven. and this is actually what I am, all the way down. However, if (God forbid) a bomb went off in Pennsylvania or in my high school in particular, my Pennsylvanian identity would come right to the fore even though I haven’t lived there for 30 years. When Prince died, the fact that I’ve loved and listened to Prince since I was a kid shaped my whole experience of his death and shaped my grieving for him in a profound way. I don’t consider being a Prince fan some sort of fundamental anthropological characteristic of my being, but in that moment if someone had said, “You’re a child of God, and the Prince thing is not really important,” I’d have been irritated.
This is why I think that James Martin was right to call Catholics to expressions of sympathy for the LGBTQ community in the wake of the Orlando shootings, and this is the argument I’d make to those to the “right” of me on this issue: The way to get past the labels and on the path of redemptive love is not to reject labels people give themselves, but rather to say, “I love you and acknowledge you as worthy of my love and God’s love exactly where you are.” That is the love that comes from God. That’s the basic Christian theological anthropological assertion, so radical and so overwhelming that most of us can’t deal with it at all, even over a life time: I stand right now, exactly the person I am, a sinner, a broken person, a failure, an outcast, gifted, called, bearing the divine nature– that person stands right now before a God who knows all of that, every last bit of it, more than I could imagine, and nevertheless says, whole-heartedly and from the very heights of heaven: “I love you, Mark.” That unconditional “yes” is what actually begins to change us! That’s the glory of grace. To encounter God is, inevitably, to change, in the most fruitful and often unexpected ways!
The complicated thing about using language like, “The XXXXX community” is that, sociologically, most of those “communities” are not tangible, permanent things. It’s not like they’re monasteries or something. The word “community” implies a sort of grounded-ness and unity that doesn’t exist most of the time but that come out in times of crisis or celebration. I am surrounded by Yankees fans a lot of the time, but we only really become the community of Yankees fans at games, online in Yankees forums or Facebook pages, when we see each others’ jerseys at a bar, whatever. And with the LGBTQ community, one of the fundamental things that brings folks together is the experience of being ostracized, disowned, separated, mocked, or whatever. That’s not true of all LGBTQ-identified people, but it’s sure true of a lot. And there’s also this sense, in so many people, of sexual orientation as a given, as a sort of rock-solid fact of their identity, as something that could never be negotiated, but only lived out or hidden, with potentially dire consequences from either decision. And it’s the love of TRUTH that brings them to live it out rather than to hide it. It’s always conscience and a desire to be truthful, in my experience. And you only need to look at a situation like Orlando to see why the sense of one’s orientation would be unifying. The one thing we know that most of the victims had in common was their self-identified sexual orientation. So, seeing that a dude could choose to gun you down for exactly one reason is a pretty harrowing and darkly unifying thing. At that moment, you are a queer person because man, people like us are in trouble and we need to know that not everyone is out to get us and that most decent people think that stuff like this absolutely should not be going down.
So, this is why I think James Martin was right: The basic information that really needed to get out last week as a sort of fundamental expression of solidarity was this: The Catholic Church can look and see that these people with whom you are identified were targeted for this reason, and that is not acceptable. We stand by you and, despite whatever awkwardness this might entail for some of us and whatever disagreements we have, we are not OK with you being treated like this for any reason. Our faith teaches us to love you, and we will do that now and endure the requisite awkwardness of that encounter including your anger and skepticism. We can argue anthropology later if we need to and if we get there, after we are extremely sure that you know you are loved, after we’ve done or attended your funerals and walked with you through your grief.
That’s some top-level brave, going-out-on-a-limb kinda stuff. That’s saying that their lives really, really matter and that you accept that loving them means letting go of your control of the narrative. “Change is not a pre-condition for God to love you, and it’s not a pre-condition for us to love you.” Love, after all, changes both the lover and the beloved. What incredible changes might God have in store for US when we choose to love? That’s the glory, as Pascal says, of the spiritual gifts: Unlike growing in material wealth, growing in spiritual wealth benefits everyone.