Last night I was invited by PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) and Growing American Youth (a local LGBTQ+ youth safe space for the greater St. Louis area) to speak on a panel of religious leaders about our faith tradition’s stance on LGBTQ+ people. In my first post, I confessed my naivety coming to the event hoping to have a thoughtful interchange about LGBTQ+ people and faith among inclusive religious leaders. One leader, a Catholic priest named Fr. Larry Brennan, made that impossible, and reminded me that the majority position in Christianity is still misogynistic, homophobic and trans-phobic. If my first post was “confession,” this second post might be called: “What I wish I’d said to Fr. Brennan.”
To be clear, I spoke a great deal last night, probably too much. I countered Fr. Brennan’s presentation of Paul’s letter to the Romans. I clarified that the majority of US Catholics affirm same-sex marriage. Fr. Brennan said he wished the current pope “wouldn’t talk to reporters,” when asked what he thought of Francis’ words: “who am I to judge?” I said I really valued much of what Pope Francis has to say. What follows are responses I wish I had made to two of his substantial points. Last night was emotional, and I found myself trying to referee this priest. I wish I had slowed down and responded to two points in his argument:
First, Fr. Brennan quoted a letter from Pope Paul the VI, which he said characterized all sexual behavior outside procreative sex within heterosexual marriage as “dishonest.” He made his argument from the Latin word “inhonestum,” (significant because the official English translation does not use “dishonest”).
Those who hear me preach regularly know that I quibble about words and translation. For preachers words are currency. Words matter. This word, “dishonest” was chosen carefully by Fr. Brennan. He called same-gender love “dishonest” because in his mind, it does not fulfill the only true and full intent of sexuality, the procreation of children within a marriage. I, obviously, disagree with his theological position.
“Dishonesty” was the wrong word to choose in that room. In response to his remarks Fr. Brennan heard story after painful story from youth and adults about how much honesty can cost a queer person. Many of them were kicked out of their homes, scolded by their priests, removed from their youth groups. Several had friends who had completed suicide. Honest stories were shared with a priest who called same-sex love “dishonest.”
Engraved over the entrance to the library at my seminary are the words of the Rev. William Sparrow: “Seek the truth, come whence it may, cost what it will.” Last night I heard people share painful truth, and I saw a priest respond with callousness. He characterized their stories as “attacks.”
I wish I had said to Father Brennan:
“I think you have a strange definition of dishonesty. You have heard so many deeply honest stories tonight. If you believe God loves human beings, if you believe that God made these particular human beings in God’s own image, then let them be honest. Let them tell you how their love has been a blessing. Let them tell you how their sexuality has been a blessing. Let them share their truth about their gender identity with you. Encouraging people to deny their truth, THAT is dishonesty.”
The Second point Fr. Brennan made involved a program he is personally involved with called “Courage” for folks who want to lead lives of chastity in response to same-sex attraction. He said that “Courage” models itself on the “twelve steps,” The twelve steps he mentioned are originally of Alcoholics Anonymous, and they are closely related to The Episcopal Church. An Episcopal priest, The Rev. Sam Shoemaker, helped to mentor the founders of A.A. as they worked to develop a program for recovery. The twelve steps assume that a behavior is a problem. Alcoholism is a disease. The first step of AA is: “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.” I wish I had taken him to task on what I believe is an abuse of a life-saving program.
I wish I had said to Fr. Brennan:
“Same-sex attraction and transgender identity are not disorders or diseases. While Courage may not attempt to “pray the gay [orientation] away,” I firmly disagree with a program which treats same-sex love like a disease. I could never call Courage a “ministry.” I hope your program gets sued by AA for abusing their method. For many years the church took the position, “hate the sin, love the sinner.” That position is flawed. Love is not a sin. Gender is not a sin. Sexuality is not inherently sinful. God created us to love one another, and cis-gendered heterosexual married partners avoiding contraception do NOT have a monopoly on love. God’s love is surprisingly big, inclusive, and God challenges us to live truthfully. Your program, in my view, encourages dishonesty.”
I hope I have another chance to meet Fr. Brennan, one where I am more prepared to share across disagreement. I hope he and I both “read the room” a little better before we respond. My colleague, Rabbi Susan Talve demonstrated what pastoral ministry looks like last night, as she closed the panel by responding to pain with compassion. She looked a woman who had spoken through tears in the face and said, “I hear you. I am sorry. You are strong.” Fr. Brennan and I both could learn from the good Rabbi. I hope to meet this priest again, because I believe God’s surprising love includes Fr. Brennan.