Speak the Truth in Love: Write Your Bishop.

The Lord Jesus promised, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free” (Jn. 8:32). Scripture bids us speak the truth in love (cf. Eph. 4:15). The God who is at once truth and love calls the Church to minister to every man, woman and child with the pastoral solicitude of our compassionate Lord.

-CDF, “Homosexualitatis Problema”

“Speak the truth in love”, advice which the institutional church singularly fails to follow itself. (See “Excluded From God’s People”, for a description of this failure). The advice, however, remains sound. Vatican teaching on sexuality has the remarkable characteristic of being distantly removed from any grounding in the facts of real human lives. This is especially so for gay, lesbian and trans lives, but is hardly surprising, given the ivory tower manner in which Catholic theology is developed and preserved. Yet it should not be so. The Church claims to be a listening church, and pays at least lip service to the place of reason, science, and the continuing revelation by the Holy Spirit, speaking to us through experience, in developing Church teaching. But this of little value unless there are voices speaking from that real experience to which the Church may listen.


The Road to Emmaus

The gay Catholic theologian Michael B Kelly has argued convincingly that for many, possibly most, lesbian or gay Catholics it may be necessary to leave the church, literally, or figuratively, for a time. Thereafter, he says, we need to return and speak to the church in prophetic witness to the truth of our lives. We must, he says, take the road to Emmaus, away from the established rulers, but after meeting the risen Christ take the road back again. (One of the ways he is doing this himself by conducting research on gay men’s erotic experience as a path to spirituality, and writing about what this experience can teach the wider church about spirituality.)

However, as Michael has noted himself, the Catholic does not have the necessary structures for us to speak to the church as a whole. Yet, our voices matter. The conservative evangelical theologian Dr Mark Achtemeier has described how his own conversion from opposition to advocacy for full inclusion came after he started listening gay people themselves, and heard their stories. (Ironically, one of the voices that strongly influenced him was that of the Catholic writer Andrew Sullivan, through his book, “Virtually Normal”).

If we lack the formal structures to speak to the institutional Church, we must create our own. One American Catholic, Joseph Gentilini, has found a way to do so himself, which all of us can follow. He simply writes to the bishops. This is the opening of his letter (For the full text of the letter, see the next post).

Dear Bishop __________:

I hope that you are able to read this letter, even though I am not living in your Diocese. Several years ago a Catholic Bishop encouraged gay and lesbian persons to write the United States Bishops and just tell our stories.

My goal is not to embarrass you or the Church, to militantly disagree with Church teachings, or to “demand” anything of the Church. My goal is to share my own experiences of growing up Gay and Catholic so that you will have a better understanding of who we are, why some gay persons are angry and frustrated and why they sometimes act in ways that seem counter-productive. I love my Catholic faith and only wish to deepen it but I also feel called to encourage the Church to show more compassion and sensitivity.

(Thanks, here to the theologian John McNeill for telling me about Joseph and his letters, and for putting us in touch).

What I like about this, is the complete absence of confrontation. This is indeed, speaking the truth in love, in terms that the Church can understand. For all the hostility and lack of compassion from the Church as an institution, individual clergy are overwhelmingly compassionate, good people, trying to provide the best pastoral care they can. I expect that most would at least read such a letter, and think about it. What I also like about it, is that he is not content with just one letter to his own bishop, but is writing regularly to all of them. This is what Joseph wrote to me:

Anyway, I am putting the letter I send to the Active American Bishops below. The letter includes two journal entries I made about my gay life at the end of the letter. I am sending about 3 or 4 letters a month and will do so until I have sent one to every Bishop. I am also putting down a recent 2010 journal entry about this “ministry.”

Yes, you may publish any or all of it as long as you use my name and let people know that I am a real person, a gay Catholic man in relationship with God and with my partner Leo Radel.

A single letter to any one bishop though, is unlikely to change anybody’s mind.

What if there were more? What if a single letter was followed by dozens, hundreds, thousands? What if they were to receive continuous evidence, by way of personal testimony, that contradicts one of the underlying arguments in Homosexualitatis Problema, that “homosexual activity” leads us away from God? My own experience certainly contradicts it. It was while attempting to live in full compliance with sexual teaching, in a conventional family, that I drifted steadily away from the Church, and to nearly complete agnosticism. It was only after I started to live more honestly as an openly gay man, in a committed and loving partnership, that I was led back to the church, and a deepening relationship with God.

Joseph Gentilini’s letter is an excellent example of one way to take the road back from Emmaus, to bear prophetic witness to the Church. It is an example I urge you to follow, and to promote to your friends.

(Joseph has also very generously shared with me some extracts from his spiritual journals, which provide a lot of further useful material for reflection. I will come back to these later).



5 Responses to “Speak the Truth in Love: Write Your Bishop.”

  1. Etienne Caruana Says:

    What if the gay person is a priest, who still wishes to serve as a priest within in the Catholic Church? This is my dilemma right now. I would like to be open and speak to my bishop in a non-confrontational way, giving him a first-hand account of what it means to be a gay, Catholic priest (though still abiding fully by my promise of celibacy) trying to serve a Church despite such a hostile attitude by the hierarchy. I really cannot predict the outcome, but it seems that one is either condemned to silence, or be open and face the consequences, i.e. leave the active ministry. A very painful decision indeed!

    • Terence@queerchurch Says:

      Painful indeed, and a decision I would not like to face myself, Etienne. In urging people to come out, whether in Church or the secular world, I always respect the obvious fact that our circumstances differ. In recommending Joseph’s letter writing strategy, my unspoken assumption was that I was addressing those who are able to do so. For other people, there are some other strategies again, some of which I hope to discuss within the next few days. But these also do not apply to priests.

      I take issue with the public campaign to out gay priests. Superficially, it would be wonderful if we could have large numbers of priests coming out publicly and getting away with it – but we can’t. I find it significant that the only priests I know of who have come out openly are those not dependent for their livelihood on direct payments (and housing) from the church.

      On the other hand, as you are keeping to the vow of celibacy, perhaps the kind of non-confrontational discussion you describe might not out of the question. Have you sounded out the idea with other gay priests you know and trust? Are you talking to other gay priests? If you are, perhaps you could meet the bishop as a group? A basic principle in discussions between people in unequal power relations, is that it is usually possible to redress the balance by increasing the numbers on the weaker side.

      Thank you for taking the trouble to make this important point.

  2. Sebastian Says:

    I, too, am a gay priest. I am in a religious order that is generally known for being compassionate. I dare not write to bishops, as such correspondence would likely be forwarded to my provincial. My provincial has repeatedly denied that we accept gay men, or that there is an issue or problem with the way the Church deals with homosexual issues. He cannot bring himself to use the word “homosexual,” and “gay” is just beyond him totally.

    I am completely dependent on my order. I have no money of my own, no reasonable job prospects outside priesthood, no retirement, no nothing. And so I am as silent as I need to be, and am as vocal as I dare to be. My confreres know pretty well who is gay and who is straight within the province. We know, but dare not say publicly, that my province and others in the US would have folded years ago were it not for our gay members. We cannot say publicly what we know.

    All this is so sad. I became a religious and a priest to speak the truth, and find myself now hobbled and unable to do so.

    • Terence@queerchurch Says:

      Sebastian, once again I say as I said to Etienne, I most certainly do not expect priests to speak up publicly – or even privately, depending on personal circumstances. I believe that if you can be provide appropriately sympathetic pastoral care to the gay men and women who come to you, that is worthwhile in itself. But that does not resolve the personal dilemma for yourselves. As you say, you took Holy Orders to speak the truth, and that is just what you cannot do – not publicly, and not to religious superiors.

      However, in my post I was thinking of writing to the bishops as just one strand among other paths to speaking the truth. Another that I want to write about soon, is one I am currently engaged in myself: speaking frankly to a small group in my home parish, in a faith-sharing like context.

      It may be that for priests, there are other ways of “speaking the truth”- as well as speaking one to one with those who most need to hear it. If there are any more priest out there with ideas of their own, I would be delighted to hear them.

  3. Etienne Caruana Says:

    Very sad indeed! I appreciated your clarification, Terence, and can identify somewhat with what Sebastian is saying. Even though I am a diocesan priest, it’s somewhat hard to start a new life at 44, when one has to look for housing, with little or no means, and slim chances of finding a reasonable job. What is also very sad is that Canon 212 (3) states that Christ’s faithful “have the right, indeed at times the duty, in keeping with their knowledge, competence and position, to manifest to the sacred Pastors their views on matters which concern the good of the Church. They have the right also to make their views known to others of Christ’s faithful, but in doing so they must always respect the integrity of faith and morals, show due reverence to the Pastors and take into account both the common good and the dignity of individuals.” And yet, on the issue of homosexuality, the Church has never bothered to enter into dialogue with LGBT groups or individuals, even less give space to those from amongst its own (i.e. clergy, nuns, etc.) who can offer both the competence and their personal testimonies to this dialogue. Not that the Church has a good record of dialogue in the field of human sexuality. A celibate (yeah, for argument’s sake) hierarchy that presumes to have the right to speak into the lives of married persons is hardly in the mood to listen to what others have to say regarding homosexuality. It’s nothing less than a tragedy, in the light of the various scandals of clerical abuse that have so undermined the Church’s moral authority, that we have not been able to sit down at table and thoroughly reassess our understanding (consequently our teaching) on a subject that DEFINITELY concerns us all: sexuality. Is it not for “the common good and the dignity of individuals”?

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