While religious leaders take part in LGBT Pride Month celebrations, a Catholic bishop’s tweet last week provoked contentious social media debates about whether faithful Catholics should attend such events, given the church’s opposition to same-sex marriage and teachings about homosexuality.
As a Catholic who loves both my church and my gay friends and family, I’m sickened by this expression of hypocrisy, homophobia and fearmongering. At a time when the Catholic Church is struggling to reclaim moral credibility after systematically covering up decades of child abuse, the idea that a Catholic leader would declare Pride events “especially harmful for children” reveals a stunning lack of self-awareness.
This is also a particularly tone-deaf and false assertion, given that Bishop Thomas Tobin served as an auxiliary bishop in Pittsburgh in the 1990s, one of several Pennsylvania dioceses included in a devastating grand jury report that found that more than 300 priests were credibly accused of sexually abusing more than 1,000 children over several decades. In an interview last summer, the bishop said that monitoring clergy abuse was outside his scope of responsibility at the time.
Tobin would have been smart to stick with his plans to quit Twitter last summer, when he described the platform as an “obstacle” to his spiritual life and an “occasion of sin for me and others.”
Catholics who attend Pride events are reclaiming their humanity and honoring the basic dignity of those they love in response to a history and culture where gay, lesbian and transgender people have often been discarded by their religiously conservative families and rejected by churches. Those who consider themselves “pro-life” Christians can’t ignore the reality that sexual minorities are disproportionately at risk for self-harm and targeted for violence.
The National Center for Transgender Equality and the National LGBTQ Task Force interviewed more than 6,000 transgender and gender nonconforming people from every state and found that 41 percent reported suicide attempts (compared with 1.6 percent of the general population). High percentages reported bullying in school, harassment on the job, and physical and sexual assault. At least 26 transgender people were killed in the United States last year, according to the Human Rights Campaign. Eighty-two percent of these victims were women of color, and most were younger than 35.
Last Saturday in Dallas, the body of Chynal Lindsey, a black transgender woman, was found by police, at least the fourth black transgender woman killed in that city alone in the past three years.
Any Catholic bishop who doesn’t understand that context, and uses his digital pulpit in ways that wound instead of heal, contributes to a culture where stereotypes are reinforced, discrimination is blessed and extremists feel emboldened to violence.
Catholics who rallied to Tobin’s defense claim he is simply expressing church doctrine. This is a deficient argument that, at best, reveals a limited, mechanical understanding of church teachings and, at worst, distorts it in ways that do real harm.
In his apostolic exhortation, “The Joy of Love,” Pope Francis urges Catholics not to view church doctrine as merely “stones to throw at people’s lives.” This attitude, the pope wrote, reveals “the closed heart of one used to hiding behind the church’s teachings.” While the Catholic Church opposes same-sex marriage and any sexual relations outside of a marriage between a man and a woman, the catechism of the Catholic Church also states that gay people “must be accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity,” and that “every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided.” When a bishop describes a Pride event as dangerous for children, those words threaten to demonize and stigmatize LGBTQ people, a form of unjust discrimination that the catechism forbids.
The good news is that while Tobin received a lot of attention, his views reflect only a vocal minority of church leaders. A developing pastoral theology — modeled by Francis when he meets with transgender individuals and same-sex couples — has encouraged more priests and bishops to build bridges with LGBTQ communities. This requires humility and listening rather than finger wagging.
Cardinal Joseph Tobin, of Newark, two years ago welcomed a pilgrimage of LGBTQ Catholics to the city’s cathedral. “I am Joseph, your brother,” the cardinal told the group. In a 2016 interview with America magazine, a Jesuit publication, San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy described language in the church’s catechism that calls homosexual relations “intrinsically disordered” as “very destructive language that I think we should not use pastorally.”
Catholics from parishes in cities such as Chicago, New York and San Francisco have taken part in Pride rallies over the years. But even in more conservative and rural places, there are Catholics who demonstrate solidarity. Bishop John Stowe of Lexington, Ky., sent a letter to the city’s first Pride Interfaith Service in 2017 that applauded the celebration as “a commendable outreach to people in the community who too often have suffered discrimination from people of faith.”
In the Christian tradition, pride is considered to be one of the “seven deadly sins.” Any follower of Christ should be wary of extreme self-indulgence and excessive individualism. So how can a Christian reconcile that with the libertarian atmosphere at some Pride parades?
Similar to the way that expressions of black pride in the 1960s were in response to the oppressive injustice of white supremacy, LGBTQ Pride events were created as safe spaces for people who have reason to wonder whether their bodily integrity will be respected when they walk down the street in some communities.
As a straight white male, I don’t experience that reality. By judging an expression of liberation and joy at a Pride event that some might consider flamboyant and excessive, I would be castigating from a place of comfort and privilege. In my deficit of empathy, I would not go to the margins, where Jesus spent his time. Being vigilant against the human temptation to be prideful is not the same for me as it is for a black transgender woman who fears being beaten up if she turns the wrong corner or who can be legally fired from her job in more than two dozen states because of her sexuality or gender identity.
Before Catholic leaders stand in judgment of Pride events, they might try a more Christian response and be willing to walk in the discomfort of another’s experience.
Gehring is Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life, and author of “The Francis Effect: A Radical Pope’s Challenge to the American Catholic Church.”