A reflection by Sarah
Dear Cardinal Burke,
You probably don’t remember me, but we met once a few years ago when I attended Mass regularly at the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis. I am a former Catholic who is now part of a different Christian tradition. I am also a partnered lesbian. Before I go any further, I want to make clear that my reasons for leaving Catholicism were in no way related to the Catholic Church’s teachings on same-sex relationships or any other aspect of human sexuality. My current Christian tradition also teaches a conservative sexual ethic, and I was aware of that upon entering. I am writing this today in response to your recent commentary on the Extraordinary Synod on the Family, specifically the talk given by the Pirolas of Australia who shared about experiences of inviting their gay son and his partner to family gatherings. But what you’re about to read is likely not what you might expect given the content of my first paragraph.
I’m not going to argue against the Catholic Church’s theological position that “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered.” I received my theological training at a Catholic university, and am aware of the philosophy and theology that undergirds this statement. My personal feelings about its wording are irrelevant. Unlike many Catholics and non-catholics alike (including a large number of priests I’ve met), I do not mistakenly interpret this bit from the Catechism to mean that the Church believes I have a mental disorder or I am a lesser human being than my heterosexual brothers and sisters. I’m not going to tell you that you shouldn’t be defending the teachings of the Catholic faith. As a bishop, this is your job and it would be unreasonable for any person to suggest otherwise. Lastly, I’m not going to complain about how any of your statements — recently or in years previous — have impacted me emotionally as an LGBT person. I don’t intend on giving the reactionary internet trolls yet another reason to dismiss LGBT Christians as crybabies who are only interested in a soft, watered-down version of the historic faith.
Now that I’ve laid out plainly what I’m not going to say, I’ll get directly to the point: I believe your response to the Pirola family fundamentally distorts the conversation about LGBT people in the Church. Anyone with authority to present Church teaching needs to do so clearly and also needs to be careful not to stereotype, caricature, or misrepresent. I don’t see either of these qualities in your response to the Pirolas’ talk. I’ve looked carefully at it over the past couple of days and have engaged in a number of conversations about the issues it raises. I have some questions that I hope you will consider answering.
First, I find it difficult to understand the meaning of your statement that gay relationships, and presumably some other kinds of relationships that you do not specify, are disordered. The Catholic Church makes very clear its teaching about homosexual activity, but I’m curious as to what renders a relationship as a whole disordered from your perspective. My partner and I are intentionally celibate and committed to continuing in celibacy for the rest of our lives together. I experience no sexual or romantic attraction toward Lindsey, though I love Lindsey more than any person in the world. But it’s also true that our relationship is a queer partnership. Having written a number of blog posts about our relationship, I’m well aware that this kind of arrangement is controversial and many people refuse to believe that couples like Lindsey and I exist, but there are many other couples like us. Would you consider our relationship an example of what you refer to as disordered? Furthermore, in the case of a sexually active same-sex relationship, would you assert that there is nothing good, holy, or Christlike about the way two partners interact with and attempt to guide each other through life? Does the presence of sexual activity and romantic attraction in a same-sex relationship automatically render the relationship disordered in its entirety? If sexual and romantic attraction are not present, does this matter at all? Couldn’t it also be argued that every human relationship is partly or at least occasionally disordered, except in rare situations where perfect love is always present? I would be grateful for some clarification on where the line is between a disordered relationship and an ordered relationship, and what makes a relationship so disordered that children should not be exposed to it.
Second, I’m wondering what qualifications you believe that families should impose upon their gay loved ones before permitting them to attend gatherings, especially where children are present. If it is inappropriate to invite one’s gay son and his partner (and family members in other kinds of disordered relationships) to Christmas dinner, what questions should a parent be asking in order to determine who can come? Should every potential attendee of a family function be required to inform the hosts in detail about his or her sex life? Or should it be assumed that if the hosts have any doubts or curiosities about a family member’s morality, sexual or otherwise, said person ought to be crossed off the invitation list without further inquiry? How qualified do you think parents are to determine whether or not their adult children’s souls are in a state of grace? Perhaps I’m wrong, and if so I’m open to being corrected, but to me it seems spiritually detrimental for a person to spend any amount of time speculating about another person’s sins. It also seems to me that your advice regarding parents with gay sons and daughters encourages this unhealthy spiritual practice. I sincerely hope I am reading you incorrectly on this point because it would trouble me greatly to think that a bishop is counseling his faithful to busy their minds with imaging what may or may not be happening in a loved one’s private life.
Third, I would like to know how far along the journey to overcoming a particular sin you believe a person ought to be before he or she is welcomed, not only at family gatherings but also as an active member of a parish. In addition to working toward repentance, what must he or she do? Spiritual fathers cannot break the seal of confession, so it would be impossible for members of the parish to verify without doubt that so-and-so is no longer living in sin. Should it be a requirement that the penitent be completely free from this sin before participating in parish life in any meaningful way? Must the penitent then focus on doing everything possible to prove his or her repentance to every person in the parish? What if doing so becomes more about pandering to the neuroses of the pious than attempting to follow Christ without compromise?
As a celibate gay person, I find that more often than not, people in my parish assume that I’m committing sin regardless of what I do or say. Some would be unsatisfied with anything less than a breakup of my partnership, a firm commitment that we never see one another again in any context other than church, and assurance that both of us will spend the rest of our lives in solitude so as not to risk impropriety with either women or men. There are LGBT members of my Christian tradition and yours who desire the fullness of the historic faith, but are terrified of causing an uproar on Sunday by simply being present. For the past two days, I’ve heard dozens of faithful Catholics asserting that this is as it should be, and drawing their arguments primarily from your statement. There are Christians — both Catholic and non-catholic — who have taken your words to mean that every LGBT person who darkens the doorstep of the church should be subject to an inquisition. As a bishop, you need to be aware of this.
I could continue with more questions, but this is already getting quite lengthy. I’m curious to know your thoughts on the sufferings of children exposed to gay relationships as compared to the sufferings of other family members who would be impacted if gay loved ones were uninvited from gatherings. I’d like to know how you reconcile the fact that in many non-western cultures, people are more affectionate with each other in general. This includes men being affectionate with men, women being affectionate with women, and married people being affectionate with folks other than their spouses. I’d also be interested in knowing exactly how you think the mere presence of a gay couple, sexually active or not, will communicate to children that gay sexual activity is morally good. Presumably, young children don’t know anything about sex, and there’s no reason to believe that a gay couple is any more likely than a straight couple to begin conversing with children about sex.
What I would be most interested in hearing from you is why you have chosen to respond to LGBT issues discussed at the Synod in a way that focuses exclusively on prohibitions against same-sex sexual activity. I’m reasonably confident that you will not understand this, but gay Christians do not define ourselves primarily by our sexual attractions or sexual decisions. When “intrinsically disordered inclinations” becomes “disordered relationships” the speaker distorts the conversation. Questions about whether people should be invited to their families’ Christmas dinner tables distort Christ’s welcome to everyone. If people are expected to answer questions about their sex lives before receiving any degree of welcome, then it’s only natural to assume that the Church is incapable of seeing people fundamentally as beings created in the image of God.
I understand that as a bishop of the Catholic Church, you have a weighty responsibility to present the Gospel in its fullness. A synod on difficult pastoral circumstances will naturally spark conversations where one bishop’s approach differs from another bishop’s approach. I hope that you feel encouraged by your brother bishops while discussing these complex realities. Finding the ideal language to use after such extensive conversations is hard, if not impossible. In a world where people are grappling constantly with new challenges while attempting to avoid misunderstanding, your clarification on these matters would be helpful to Catholics and non-catholics alike. I hope that you will consider responding to at least some of these questions because I am not alone in wondering what your answers would be.
You remain in my prayers, and I would appreciate also your prayers for me.
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