Monday, September 21, 2020

Truth and Tenderness

Balancing marriage and care for LGBTQ persons


Today we continue with the third homily in a series of homilies to help you vote with a clearer Catholic conscience this Nov. 3. The first homily was on abortion and prolife, the second one was on racism, and today’s topic is marriage and caring for LGBTQ persons. For those who are unfamiliar with the acronym LGBTQ, it stands for “lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and either queer or questioning.” You can find the text and audio of these homilies at the church website, under “Fr. John’s Voting Guide.” Just to reiterate: I am not here to talk about candidates; I am here to talk about Catholicism. The Church’s teaching refines our conscience, like calibrating an inner compass, to point true north. Spiritual true north, of course, is Jesus Christ.

Before diving head first into these deep waters, let’s dip our toes in by looking at love through the eyes of a child. Someone sent me these “definitions” of love by children. One small child wrote: “When my grandmother got arthritis she couldn’t bend over and paint her toenails anymore. So, my grandfather does it for her all the time, even when he got arthritis, too. That’s love.” Another one mused: “When a girl puts on perfume and a boy puts on shaving cologne and they go out and smell each other. That’s love.” Another remarked: “When my mommy makes coffee for my daddy and she takes a sip before giving it to him, to make sure it tastes OK. That’s love.” Lastly: “When you go out to eat and you give somebody most of your French fries without making them give you any of theirs. That’s love.” Seeing love through the eyes of a child may be the closest approximation to how God sees love, too.

I believe the beauty of Church teaching lies in the balance it strikes between truth on the one hand and tenderness on the other hand. Have you ever seen someone walking a tightrope with a long pole to keep their balance? The long balancing pole is the Church’s teaching that keeps us from falling, beautifully balancing both truth and tenderness. In their document “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” the U.S bishops insist (on the one hand): “Marriage must be defended, recognized and protected as a lifelong exclusive commitment between a man and a woman, as the source of the next generation, and the protective haven for children” (no. 70). That’s the “truth end” of the balancing pole of Church teaching.

In the same paragraph, however, they likewise maintain: “This affirmation in no way compromises the Church’s opposition to unjust discrimination against those who experience ‘deep-seated homosexual tendencies,’ who ‘must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity’ (Catechism, no. 2358).” This is the other end, the “tenderness end,” of the balancing pole. If we tip the pole too far to the truth side, we lose tenderness and fall off. If we tip the pole too far to the tenderness end and forget truth, we also fall off the tightrope. The beauty of Catholicism is the balance.

Let me share three real-life examples where I found it tough to balance truth and tenderness regarding marriage and LGBTQ persons, and see what you think. Many years ago, I was pastor in another parish and a lesbian couple invited me to their home for supper. I happily accepted. Incidentally, this was before same-sex marriage was legal. They were two lovely ladies, very kind and generous, attended Mass faithfully and even taught in the parish religious education program. At one point in the evening I needed to ask an awkward and uncomfortable question, namely, if a student asked about the Church’s teaching about marriage, could they answer with what the Church teaches? They both replied that they could, and I breathed a sigh of relief. Dessert tasted a lot better!

Now, notice I did not demand that they separate (they may be living chastely), nor did I refuse to give them Holy Communion at Mass (that's not the time for tug of war with Communion), nor did I excommunicate them from the Church (that's above my pay-grade), and finally I did not tell them they are going to hell (God alone decides that). Of course, if that dinner had happened today when same-sex marriage exists, and if they had taken the public step of civil marriage, diocesan policy would prohibit them from any formal teaching ministry. So, let me ask you: did I balance truth and tenderness, or did I tumble off the tightrope?

The second situation was a conversation I had with a mother and father whose daughter had declared that she was gay and intended to marry her same-sex partner. The parents were devout Catholics – obviously, since they were asking advice from their pastor! – and they wanted to know if they should attend the wedding. The parents felt like George Clooney in the movie “Oh, Brother Where Art Thou,” when he said, “Dang, we’re in a tight spot!” The parents deeply loved their Catholic Church and wanted to be good Catholics, but they also desperately loved their baby girl and wanted to be good parents. They didn’t want to turn their back on their faith or on their family.

My advice to them was to first and foremost assure their daughter that they loved her and that their love would never change, no matter what she did. They would always love her. However, that did not mean that they would always agree with her choices or decisions. Then, I added: if you can make it clear to your daughter that you are being present at the wedding to support HER, but also that you disapprove of the marriage itself, then I believe it is okay for you to attend the wedding. So, let me ask you again: did I balance truth and tenderness, or did I tumble off the tightrope?

The third scenario is the most complicated and controversial. A family came to seek my counsel because their teenage son was exploring his sexuality and felt more comfortable somewhere along the LGBTQ spectrum. I shared two thoughts with them. First, I said that in Gen. 1:27 God created each human person in his “image and likeness…male and female he created them.” In other words, the One who knows you best (better than you know yourself) is the One who created you, namely, God. As you explore your sexuality, don’t forget to ask God who he thinks you are. You are a child of God because God is your Father, and you are destined to be a child of God forever in heaven.

The second thing I mention to the parents is “don’t burn bridges.” That is, maintain a supportive, loving and open relationship with your children. Let them know that they can always come and talk to you about anything and you will listen and love them. Children grow, mature and change, and they need to know you are patiently waiting for them. Remember the “father figure” in the parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15? He never stopped loving his son, no matter how far he wandered away and no matter how he lived his life. The father welcomed him home with open arms: no twenty questions, no recriminations. You cannot control the behavior of your children, but you can control your own behavior, and imitate the actions and attitude of God. So, again, let me ask you: did I balance truth and tenderness, or tumble off the tightrope?

Some of you may be sitting there thinking: “Fr. John, that homily was perfectly useless in telling me how to vote in November.” And you would be perfectly right. This homily was not designed to tell you how to vote; it was designed to help you think more deeply about difficult issues, to calibrate your conscience with Catholicism, so YOU might decide how best to vote in November. Let me end with a quotation from Josef Pieper: “Well, the considerations put forward in this essay were not designed to give advice or draw up a line of action; they were meant to make men think” (Leisure the Basis of Culture, 71). And if, by chance, this homily did not help you think, just think about girls putting on perfume and boys putting on cologne and going out to smell each other.

Praised be Jesus Christ!

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