Two recent events have crystallized in my own mind a fundamental problem with the Church’s approach to ministering to gay and lesbian Catholics – and I am thinking here of ministry specifically, not to doctrine. These two events were the recent publicity about Rainbow Sash, and also the return to the news of the saga of the gay Canadian altar server.
Church doctrine is clear. Homosexual people are welcome, homosexual acts are not. I want to consider today only the question of the people, and the church’s ministry to them. For some gay Catholics, the wearers of the Rainbow Sash are taking a courageous stand in prophetic witness, to others they are a sacrilegious and irresponsible bunch who are hurting our cause by turning the sacred Eucharist into a political protest. This is highly charged and emotive territory. To step outside of the emotion, I want to avoid all use of the charged words like protest and demonstration and even to turn away, briefly from the wearing of the sash. Instead, I want to consider first, NOT wearing it, and its implications.
To understand why not wearing a sash has implications of its own, I want to go back to an academic article I discussed once before, and one element of that specifically, which has left me distinctly uncomfortable ever since I first read it. In this article, Lisa considers the difficulties around the question of inclusion in church. One simple answer of course is simply to ensure acceptance by not disclosing anything – by remaining fully closeted in church, while being fully out elsewhere. This amounts to “passing” for straight- but is it ethical? Personally, I find offensive any suggestion that I am welcome only as long as I hide my sexuality. However, if one takes the view that it is important to be honest about one’s life in church, as elsewhere, how far can or should one go? Then, if outright hostility is encountered, how should one respond?
Now, before getting back to the Rainbow Sash, I want to consider again that Canadian altar server. After a small band of parishioners protested to the parish priest that he was supposedly contravening church law because he was openly living with a man, he was suspended from altar service. After the man took the matter to a legal tribunal, the case was eventually resolved with the bishop preaching a sermon of “tolerance ” – but he has not been returned to altar service duty. Note though, that he insists that he and his partner have a celibate relationship.
There is absolutely no actual evidence that he is in any way contravening Vatican rules, beyond a simple assumption that two gay men living together cannot possibly be celibate. It would seem that to satisfy Church authorities that he is living within Church sexual norms, a gay man must not only be celibate, he must demonstrate it by living alone. What other groups of Catholics are expected not only to live in accordance with church teaching, say on contraception, or on masturbation, but also to demonstrate it? For them, it appears to be innocent, unless proved guilty. For us, it is guilty unless we can demonstrate (or feign) innocence.
Now, I return to the Rainbow Sash,but consider not the wearers, but the celebrants. If the celebrant refuses to administer the sacrament, precisely what is he objecting to? We assume it is not simply to the wearer being gay: Vatican rules are clear that homosexual persons are to be accepted, only the acts are wrong. Is the celebrant making an assumption, without any evidence that the wearer is sexually active? That too, should surely be wrong in terms of standard rules. Perhaps the objection, shared by many gay Catholics, is that the Sash is an obvious political statement, and so is defiling a sacrament. That is a reasonable objection – which I would find more acceptable if the same standard were applied to the many bishops who make their own political statements in publicly withholding the sacrament from pro-life politicians. The entire political element of the problem could be easily defused, as the Dutch bishop did a few months ago, be publicly stating in advance church teaching on sexual ethics (including heterosexual activity), reminding people that to be admitted to the sacrament, people need to be in a “state of grace”, and to leave the decision on that state to personal conscience, not public judgement.
I fear that the real problem is much simpler. The lesson from the Canadian altar server, as it is from Catholic responses to the Rainbow Sash, is that it is not enough, for gay Catholics, just to refrain from sexual acts. They must also hide any evidence of their sexuality. As long as you don’t disclose, the bishops appear to be saying, and we will look the other way.
Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.