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For 17 years, Ken Bencomo taught English at a Catholic school in California. He also taught dance and worked with students on their yearbook. And Ken’s partner was part of his school community. Ken’s students knew he was gay. Ken’s administration knew he was gay. But last week – the very same week that the pope asked “who am I to judge?” in response to a question about gay Catholic leadership –Ken was fired for legally marrying his partner of 10 years.
In 2006, when his partner had surgery, Ken was not allowed in the hospital room. His partner had to bring a co-worker instead. When Prop 8 was overturned, there’s no doubt they knew what they had to do to secure their rights. And it was because Ken’s husband Christopher told the local newspaper why it mattered for them to legally wed that the school said they fired him.
To be clear, it was an act that contradicted their mission statement’s call to respond compassionately to the needs of the community. Ken’s officials hid behind their “Catholic faith” to justify their position. But there isn’t one way to be Catholic. As the director of the Human Rights Campaign’s Religion and Faith Program, I can attest to this truth.
Ask the faithful Catholics — who organized as Catholics — in every state where marriage equality had a possibility of passing. Ask my friend Rosa Manriquez, who proudly raised two lesbian daughters and two grandchildren according to the core tenets of Catholic social teaching — to love God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind and love your neighbor as yourself. Ask the countless Catholics living with the pain of exile but holding a deep longing for the church, as the Catholic hierarchy routinely denies their humanity.
And while the true intent of his Pope Francis’ words this week remains unclear, we were offered a morsel of hope. We were offered the possibility of a world where claims of a singular “Catholic faith” aren’t used as an excuse for judgment, shaming and injustice.
“Do not judge” is a mantra for us all to embrace, regardless of our faiths. But especially for my Catholic friends who hold St. Francis and Pope Francis so dear, now is the time for a real commitment to these words. We must all do better.
Whether Catholic or not, people around the globe look to the church for guidance on the many justice issues we face – whether committing to end homelessness, enact humane immigration reform, stop racial profiling or, yes, even ensuring full LGBT participation in our congregations and schools. “Do not judge” are words that keep us in dialogue with each other and they ground our conversations in the principles of the Gospel.
St. Francis was legendary for his humility. And only with humility, is it really possible to change. For it is our humility that enables us to truly see the wondrous humanity of one another. With the Pope’s words, people of faith in pews across the globe saw a glimmer of possibility that they may one day be a welcomed as a part of the Catholic family. That their sons, their daughters, their teachers and students may one day be a celebrated part of our wondrous humanity. All of us would be better for it.
Image courtesy of Matt Buck.