You won’t be surprised to discover that we get all kinds of crazy letters here. And I don’t mean simply letters that seem odd or strange, or even letters that I don't fully understand—I mean crazy. As a Jesuit friend told me last night, “No nut like a religious nut.” One fellow sends me (regularly) a packet of folded-up colored paper with instructions on how this can be used to communicate with angels. Another correspondent mails pages and pages of tiny, mostly illegible, scrawl covering every inch of several pages, with Gospel passages underlined three times. So one learns to discount the nuttier letters. And one learns to accept more easily criticism from "non-nutty" people as well, even when it's delivered with sarcasm and invective. Finally, one learns to accept criticism from intelligent writers who write intelligently and help you see where you are being imprecise, inconsiderate, inaccurate or just plain wrong. Overall, when it comes to criticism, one's skin gets thicker over time.
On the other hand, some letters tend to stick out. This morning I was opening up yesterday’s mail and noticed an envelope without a return address (never a good sign). Inside was a copy of an Of Many Things column I had written about the beatification of John Paul II. In the article I mentioned that Blessed John Paul had, at one point in his papacy, removed Pedro Arrupe, S.J., the superior general of the Jesuits, from his post in 1981, a move that dismayed many Jesuits. The letter-writer had highlighted those few sentences in bright yellow. Next to it was a Post-it that read, in full: “But Jimmy, so many Jesuits were screaming fags that something had to be done, you know, to clean the filth out of the clergy.”
Not the pleasantest thing to read in the morning. And who knows whether this person is a subscriber or not. (He, or she, seems a bit cowardly though: the lack of a return address demonstrated a lack of resolve.) Odds are, though, if he's reading the print version of the magazine, he’s probably Catholic, and even if he's not a subscriber is likely reading it in a parish or a library. (We don’t sell on newsstands.) And he knew enough to quote Pope Benedict XVI on the “filth” in the church-- referring to pedophiles not gays, but no matter.
Homophobia is still out there, no matter how much we would wish to think of ourselves as an enlightened culture, and exists in our church. Thus, the need for June as “LGBT month,” as just proclaimed by President Obama.
On the other side of the coin, however, is a surprising op-ed in a Buffalo newpaper by Bishop Joseph Sullivan, retired auxiliary bishop of Brooklyn (pictured above in a somewhat dated photo). Someone sent me the link to his article just a few hours after I had read the anonymous letter this morning. In his piece, entitled “Catholics are Reaching out to the LGBT Community,” the bishop writes, in part:
Catholics and other religious people who support LGBT rights do so because of their experience of engagement with members of the LGBT community. They are not rebels in their churches, but people who have taken spiritual messages of inclusiveness and welcoming to heart. They are taking the church’s teaching on social justice and applying it to pastoral practice in engaging the LGBT community.
We see these teachings play out as Catholics across the country engage in prayerful and meaningful dialogues about understanding and embracing the LGBT community. This dialogue is happening amongst faithful families, in student groups on the campuses of Catholic universities, and within church congregations. This dialogue is admittedly difficult, at times, but important.
More than a decade ago, the U. S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a graceful message, “Always Our Children,” which reminded us, “For St. Paul love is the greatest of spiritual gifts. St. John considers love to be the most certain sign of God’s presence.” For most Catholics, there can be no statement that better summarizes an attitude of welcoming of our LGBT brothers and sisters than those of Jesus, “love one another as I have loved you.”
In fact, it's a surprise to hear a bishop use the term "LGBT," which stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender. Many Catholic leaders still use "homosexual," a word that the gay community has moved away from. (And shouldn't a group of people be free to call themselves what they want?)
In any event, it’s the classic “on the one hand, on the other hand.” On the one hand, despite warnings against discrimination against gays in the Catechism, which calls for gays and lesbians to be treated with "respect, sensitivity and compassion," there is still homophobia in the church. (The letter I received is only one of many examples that could be adduced.) On the other, there are many Catholics like Bishop Sullivan, who are trying to apply Gospel values to care pastorally for a group of marginalized people. It’s a big church, as one friend likes to say.
And I hope that as our big church moves ahead, it will sound more like Bishop Sullivan and less like my anonymous friend.
James Martin, SJ