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.”
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