It turns out when talking to sexual minorities as a Church, it is very hard to say that “you shouldn’t have sexual relationships or get married” at the same time as “We love you and want to offer a path to personal joy and fulfillment in your life.” Recent Post II described when I stopped believing the second part because the first was so overwhelmingly loud. And Post III described when I willfully ignored the first message, because I bought into an exaggerated, mushy version of the second. Both times were terrible–I did call the posts “The Danger of Extremes”–but I believe one is worse than the other.
In my experience, the sense of rejection by the Church that I internalized for a period was far more damaging than the time I gave myself a pass on the Church’s sexual teachings. Why?
First there’s the simple fact that the former left me more miserable than any other moment in my life. I felt that I would never be accepted for who I am in the Church, that my religious faith was holding me back from living a full, human life, and that a rational and loving God would not have left me in such a frustrating and painful situation.
Furthermore, once I was already in that dark place, there was little that the Church could have done to get me back. I had already found new circles willing to embrace “the real me” who felt so rejected and frustrated in the back pew. My heart had hardened so much that it took what I really consider a divine intervention for me to snap out of it. In contrast, the times I’ve ignored the Church’s moral teachings about sex, I still desired to be close to God, to be part of the Church, to pray, and to approach the sacraments. In contrast with the first scenario, this chapter had a logical and inevitable roadmap out. Remember, sins are sins because they damage our souls and the world around us. The fact that I kept sinning eventually brought me to a point where it was impossible to ignore the associated damage. When I realized how unhappy my sinful choices were making me, it didn’t take much to realize the way back to happiness and health was a return to following God’s (and the Church’s) teachings, because my connection to God and the Church had not completely snapped.
That’s not to say we should tell everyone to ignore moral teachings and figure it out on their own, or stop teaching the truth about God’s design for sex. But let’s imagine two hypothetical Church-goers. One may sit in the pew without embracing the totality of the Church’s sexual ethics, sometimes thinking “if the Church loves me as a gay person then I should pursue whatever sexual relationships I think will satisfy me.” He’s wrong, but I’m less worried about him then a second person who sits there sometimes thinking, “as a gay person I’m harshly judged, and less welcome here than straight people.”
Somewhere in the haystack there’s a perfect response a pastor and the entire Church could offer to help these two feel simultaneously welcomed in their totality and encouraged to follow the Church’s sexual teachings. But since it is clear we haven’t found (let alone threaded) the proverbial needle, I’d much rather see us erring on the side of making certain that person one and two both feel loved and welcomed rather than making certain that we remind them clearly and frequently about the sinfulness of their potential sexual behavior. The first mistake might leave room for sin and damage, but the sinner will know he is welcome to come back, reflect on it in confidence and generous mercy, and keep working to build a whole and healthy life. The second mistake drives people away who will feel no reason to come back.
To conclude, I’m drawn to Pope Francis’ image of the Church as a field hospital. Yes it is important to try to prevent the painful wounds that come from sin. But the Grace of God can heal every kind of wound in our midst… except for one: the one which refuses treatment. Which is why I believe it is MOST important to avoid the impression that we are unable or unwilling to embrace and offer fulfillment to every possible patient. So my prayer is that our leaders might soon make one message much louder and clearer than it has been–the Church, like Christ her spouse, desperately wants LGBT people to participate in her communities, opposes all unjust discrimination, and loves us unconditionally.