Q: My wife and I were both raised as Catholics, and we’re raising our two girls in the church now. Our local parish has been completely welcoming to us as lesbians, but last week, the bishop made his annual visit to perform confirmations and used the occasion for a rant against marriage equality. A straight friend of ours said to me later, “Boy, it’s a good thing you weren’t there.”
Our daughter will be confirmed next year, and I’m already thinking about how to handle it if we get a similar speech. I said to my wife that I would have had to walk out, but she told me the polite thing to do is to just to suck it up. I understand that we’re talking about a church — not a town hall — but really . . . we should sit and let our family be insulted? What message does it send to the kids that nobody objects? And don’t you think our friends should have said something to the bishop? — Fuming in the Pews
A: Let me put one thing out there right away: I’m going to keep the focus of my answer where it belongs, which is to say, it will be on what’s right for your family.
That means that I don’t think it’s my role to tell you to leave your church, although many of those posting on Facebook in response to your question echoed one mother who suggested, with the best of intentions, “Go to the Episcopalians!” A Catholic friend reminded me what a “monumental decision” that is, which is to say that I understand the various attachments you have for your church, as well as your understandable preference for helping it advance rather than leaving it behind.
Nor am I going to advise you to “suck it up,” largely because of the message that silence sends to your kids.
“Of course, it’s not acceptable to let this go without response!” Marianne Duddy-Burke, the executive director of DignityUSA, a national organization of LGBT Catholics, said. She added: “I’d bet there were several kids in that church who know themselves to be lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. There were many more who are friends or relatives of those kids. Every one of those people was personally attacked by that bishop.”
I appreciate that Duddy-Burke called out “that bishop” as an individual. He is no doubt one of many Catholic leaders who are homophobic and against same-sex marriage, but there is diversity of opinion even at the highest levels of the church. Pope Francis himself has spoken of more “compassion, respect and sensitivity” toward gays and lesbians, and many LGBT Catholics have found welcoming parishes and have stayed in the church. One of them, Gary Gates, who grew up as a Catholic and attended a Catholic seminary, is well known for his work in advancing LGBT equality. “To this day, my social justice worldview is substantially influenced by my Catholicism,” he says. “My upbringing in the church is no small part responsible for my role in the LGBT movement, so I understand the desire to have your children get those positive experiences from the church.”
What to do? “The most important thing is to do something,” Duddy-Burke says. She suggests having your straight friends contact the bishop, thank him for administering the sacrament and then explain that there are committed LGBT families in the congregation who had been deeply disrespected by his remarks. “Talk about the pastoral damage that was done to people sitting in the community and how painful it was to hear yourselves or the people you love demeaned in this way,” Duddy-Burke says. Make it personal.
The good news is that you have an opportunity — and a year — to discuss it with your daughter. How will she feel hearing a bishop make these remarks?
What response would she be comfortable having you make? How might she raise her own voice? If she is old enough to make the decision to join the church, she is old enough to have this conversation with her moms.
As you plan for next year, make an appointment with your priest and bishop well in advance and tell them that such remarks are inappropriate and hurtful. If you’re unable to have these conversations in person, write them and make clear your objection to this year’s sermon. Remind them of the pope’s message of acceptance. Send copies to your parish’s religious education director and the diocesan newspaper.
Finally, is it acceptable to walk out if this happens again? If the bishop’s remarks are intolerable to you, then yes, do so — quietly but deliberately and only after discussing the possibility in advance with your daughter. More than anything, this is about what you are modeling for her; “suck it up” is no lesson for a child. Kids need to know that there are adults in the church who will stand up for them, their moms and their families. Who better than you to be the first?
Update: I’ve written about Caitlyn Jenner’s transition several times in recent months, including here and here . Last week, she was awarded the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the ESPY Awards, and I was awed and moved to tears by her words, which included these: “If you want to call me names, make jokes, doubt my intentions, go ahead, because the reality is I can take it. But for the thousands of kids out there, coming to terms with being true to who they are, they shouldn’t have to take it.”
Agree or disagree with my advice? Let me know in the comments section below.