By Tom Kam
My love for my Church is inspired by people whose lives challenge us to bear witness to God’s truth to our world. As a child, these people were the saints of my Catholic faith–Francis of Assisi and Teresa of Avila– prophets and mystics whose very lives challenged the Church’s hierarchy and inspired thousands to serve God through prayer and ministry to society’s outcasts. As a young man, there were new heroes of faith to admire — the Berrigan brothers, Catholic priests whose Vietnam anti-war actions reflected the extreme convictions of their faith, and Jean Donovan, the young American Catholic lay missionary who was raped and murdered during the 1980 Salvadoran civil war. These men and women were religious leaders who possessed the courage to enter into the lives of everyday people, and in the midst of religious and political turmoil, proclaim God’s unrelenting call of love, truth, and justice.
These voices and lives stand in sharp contrast to the present day leadership of my church. In November, 14 Catholic bishops, along with a group of Evangelical and Orthodox leaders, issued The Manhattan Declaration, in which they announced plans to disobey any civil laws that ensure a women’s right to choose, or provide legal rights to same-sex couples in committed relationships.
That same month, the Archdiocese of Washington let it be known the Church would cease providing shelter to the homeless and care for the sick if the D.C. city council approved the civil law that would provide same-sex couples in committed relations the same legal benefits enjoyed by their heterosexual counterparts (despite this, the D.C. city council approved the civil law). U.S. Catholic bishops spent more than half a million dollars to defeat efforts in the state of Maine that would have ensured the same civil protections for same-sex couples in committed relationships that are enjoyed by their heterosexual counterparts. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a pastoral letter on marriage which began by stating that gays and lesbians should be treated with “respect” and “sensitivity,” then immediately violated that statement by encouraging gays and lesbians to express their attraction to their partners in chaste “friendship,” and finally went on to emphasize that no matter how strong and beautiful their love is, the sexual expression of that love is always sinful.
The ugly truth behind the legislative and theological language of these statements is that the leaders of my church teach that gay people are by their nature morally suspect and incapable of true love. This false teaching denigrates the entire gay and lesbian community as less than fully human. This teaching is used to justify violence, discrimination, and the denial of our basic rights as individuals, committed partners, and parents.
Despite the surge in anti-gay activity by Catholic Bishops, data reveal that the majority of Catholics in the U.S. do not share these views. Research conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2009 shows that 53 percent of Catholics believe homosexuality is either morally acceptable or not a moral issue and 62 percent of Catholics support the recognition of same-sex relationships through civil unions. In 2007, the Pew Research Center found that 58 percent of Catholics believed that homosexuality should be accepted by society. In that same year, research conducted by the Human Rights Campaign found that 58 percent of Catholics believed it should be illegal to discriminate against people in the workplace based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.
From my experience inside the Church and over the past three years of working for greater inclusion of gays and lesbians within our religious communities, I know there are many Catholic Church leaders who do not agree with the recent actions of the bishops and some leaders. It is obvious to them that the Church’s teachings on masturbation, contraception, and homosexuality are based on outdated understandings of human sexuality and reproduction.
Unfortunately, what remains painfully obvious is that in the midst of this very public debate opposing voices within the church’s hierarchy remain silent.
In this vacuum of leadership, and in the tradition of those who came before us who took action in the face of injustice, it is our obligation as Catholics to lead. We must challenge the words and actions of the leadership of our Church and acknowledge the great wrong that is being done. In doing so, we must remember that we speak as good and faithful Catholics bearing witness to God’s call to truth and justice. For those of us who are gay and lesbian, we must also remember that we speak as moral equals, and that we speak with the strength of conviction that comes from our recognition of God’s presence in our lives, in our love, and in the sexual expression of that love.
As we begin the New Year, let us invite the leaders of our Church to join with us as we bear witness to the continued revelation of God—in the lives and love of the gay and lesbian community.
Tom Kam is a former Roman Catholic priest and the deputy program director for LGBT Programs and director of the Religion and Values Program of the Arcus Foundation.