Giant Step for Transgender Welcome, But Not As Far for Gay & Lesbian People

In a wide-ranging interview with Vermont Public Radio, Bishop Christopher Coyne, installed as the tenth bishop of the Diocese of Burlington, Vermont, last week,  stated: “I see no reason why transgender people would not be welcome in church.”

Bishop Christopher Coyne at his installation Mass.

While this statement, probably the most direct and open welcome to transgender people by a Catholic leader, seems to indicate a new approach to LGBT issues, his message about lesbian and gay people was somewhat more ambiguous. [No written transcript of the interview is yet available, but you can listen to the audio by clicking here.  The segment on LGBT issues begins around the 10:45 minute mark.]

On the Vermont Edition show, interviewer Jane Lindholm asked the bishop a question sent by a listener: “You say you’re going to reach out to Catholics who no longer attend Mass.  Is there any plan to reach out to transgender persons who no longer feel welcomed at church?”

Coyne’s response was:

“Well, I’m sorry that’s happened.  I see no reason why transgender people would not be welcome in church. There is more and more evidence coming forward that a lot of this is biological, that it’s not just something that a person just makes as a kind of fashionable choice or cultural choice, but that these transgender people are really struggling with the idea of gender identity and that they’ve struggled with it for years, and that’s through no fault of their own.  So there’s no fault to be made, actually. This is who they are . .  . everyone is God’s creatures, and I would invite anyone to come to the table. And I would hope that none of my priests, most especially myself, would ever say anything that would be hurtful or harmful to transgender folk.”

There’s a lot that is good in that answer:

  • a direct welcome to transgender people;
  • an acknowledgement of scientific research;
  • a statement of the moral neutrality of transgender people;
  • a directive to priests not to make harmful statements about transgender people.

But when Coyne also added some comments which make it clear that he is not affirming of gay and lesbian relationships.  When asked to confirm if he would welcome transgender people, he answered:

“Absolutely. In the same way that I would welcome people who identify as gay, lesbian, bi, but also all folks, to come to the church to try to grown in their love for the Lord God and Jesus Christ.  You know it’s not easy being a Catholic.  Our faith is a very demanding faith. The starting point must be that relationship with Jesus, and once you begin to get that into place, you begin to work on the other parts of your life that need a little order, that need a little change.”

The interviewer asked him to expand upon what he meant by people who need more order in their life, specifically asking if the bishop meant “people who are gay and who have what often the church calls ‘a gay lifestyle.’ ”  Coyne’s answer was yes, but that he also intended it to mean people such as divorced/remarried people, and those who live in excessive wealth with no concern for the poor.

Coyne’s pastoral advice for such people who are not living in accordance with official church teaching was to recommend first developing faith in Jesus, and then seeking how to align one’s life with the church’s teachings.  He explained what this meant in the context of the church’s sexual teaching:

“Our church believes that the perfection of the expression of human sexuality is between a man and a woman in a committed, fruitful relationship open to children.  That’s the paradigm.  Most of us struggle with getting there.  Even those who are married may say there are times when I’m not all that committed to because I’m human.  But the paradigm is still there.

“In any kind of expression that doesn’t match that, that doesn’t necessarily mean that what I’m striving at is wrong. . . . but am I a bad person or a bad Catholic? No, I’m someone who’s on the road who’s trying to find my way to live in this world to live in this life and in this world even if I don’t quite match up to what the church is calling me to do.”

These recommendations may be the most complete illustration of the undefined pastoral approach to gay and lesbian people that Pope Francis has been hinting it.   What is good about it is that it reduces the stigma associated with lesbian and gay people.  No longer are they to be summarily ostracized from the church community.  It does not put adherence to church teaching as a litmus test for being part of the parish community.

The negative side of this approach, however, is that it still considers gay and lesbian relationships “less than.”  Moreover, the welcome this approach offers, while not conditional from the outset, still has the expectation that once welcomed, gay and lesbian people will work towards renouncing responsible sexual expressions of their love and commitment.  Although this expectation is not stated outright, it seems to be the logical extension of such an approach.  There is no recognition of the authority of conscience that may be directing a gay and lesbian couple to live together and to seek a life of faith in community.

Pope Francis has been vague about his outline for pastoral care for lesbian and gay people.  Bishop Coyne’s statements, though, echo much that was said at the 2014 synod in regards to LGBT pastoral care.  While it may be a step forward, it also highlights how far we yet to have to go as a church.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry








9 replies
  1. Ann
    Ann says:

    I’m not Roman Catholic, but struggle to see how being gay can be seen as a moral choice on a par with lnot looking after the poor (which needs structural change, not just philanthropy).

  2. Friends
    Friends says:

    Glad to see that this story made the Bondings 2.0 news cycle! I tend to see Bishop Coyne as being “on the road to Emmaus”. He is certainly extending good will and warm welcome to the entire GLBT community, but he is making somewhat vague statements about what, in a person’s life, might need to be closely examined for its moral integrity. In the end, deeply-discerned conscience trumps draconian dogma — as our much-admired Pope Francis himself suggested, in his now-famous “Who am I to judge?” remark. Let’s give Bishop Coyne a “C+” as a grade on his first exam. Translation: “It’s a passing grade, but there’s lots of room to improve and become a stellar performer, with particular reference to social justice and psychological science.”

  3. Annette Magjuka
    Annette Magjuka says:

    There is complexity yet there is a better path than we currently have. Bishop Coyne is articulating the pastoral approach. The church has some basic core beliefs, set in stone. People live the best they can, never achieving perfection. We are all on the path of lifelong conscience formation. We do the best we can, and examine our consciences regularly. We listen for the wisdom of the Holy Spirit by daily prayer and an open heart. We do not judge others, also on the path and doing the best they can. I observed the best example of the doctrinal/pastoral roles in the mid 70’s when my Mom developed early onset breast cancer, had chemo and radiation, then thought she was pregnant. Her doctor insisted that if she was pregnant, she must abort since the child would have no chance of being normal. My mom, a devout Catholic, suffered tremendously for the three days it took to find out she was not pregnant (there were no instant pregnancy tests then). The teaching of the church was well known to our family. But during that time, not one priest told my mom that listening to her doctor was sinful, that her considering her options was “a near occasion of sin,” or anything of the kind. Instead, they wrapped her with prayer, a loving embrace, and sat with her while she examined her own conscience. She never had to make the choice. But I am certain that no matter what, those loving and pastoral priests would not brand her a “sinner.” They would not judge. They were real priests as Pope Francis is now modeling. My mom was a good Catholic. She took the responsibility of her immortal soul seriously. She is not the only one. We all have situations, issues, and complexities. Hopefully, we know the teachings of the church. But we must be open to the voice of the Holy Spirit and true to our deepest conscience. That is why, despite the teaching of the church on marriage, many LGBT people in committed relationships KNOW that their spouse and true love is the same sex. They must, in good conscience, proclaim this and step out of the closet. What consequences should they endure? There are bishops out there ready to fire teachers, proclaim people sinners, ban children from baptism, etc. But there is also the pastoral: Who am I to Judge? THESE are the priests the faithful need. We can live with complexity. It is our lot as human beings, and this is why Jesus came to us as a human. He showed time and again that the loving act is the most important–the most Christian–thing to do, not just sometimes, but every time. The loving act! Inclusion, support, and justice! This is what our Catholic faith requires.

  4. zoebrain
    zoebrain says:

    Perhaps I may be of assistance to Bishop Coyne.

    Sexual Hormones and the Brain: An Essential Alliance for Sexual Identity and Sexual Orientation Garcia-Falgueras A, Swaab DF Endocr Dev. 2010;17:22-35

    The fetal brain develops during the intrauterine period in the male direction through a direct action of testosterone on the developing nerve cells, or in the female direction through the absence of this hormone surge. In this way, our gender identity (the conviction of belonging to the male or female gender) and sexual orientation are programmed or organized into our brain structures when we are still in the womb. However, since sexual differentiation of the genitals takes place in the first two months of pregnancy and sexual differentiation of the brain starts in the second half of pregnancy, these two processes can be influenced independently, which may result in extreme cases in trans-sexuality. This also means that in the event of ambiguous sex at birth, the degree of masculinization of the genitals may not reflect the degree of masculinization of the brain. There is no indication that social environment after birth has an effect on gender identity or sexual orientation.

    Sexual orientation is biological too. May I please humbly ask the bishop to consider the evidence there too.


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