Young Catholics understand sexuality is complex and are among the most LGBT-affirming groups in our church. Unfortunately, some of the Catholic schools which they attend are not necessarily up to speed.
This dissonance causes controversy in too many instances. In one case, a Manchester, New Hampshire high school student contested a problematic question on homosexuality marked incorrect on his test. Jake Midura, a gay teen who just finished his junior year at Trinity H.S., posted the multiple choice question, which asked why homosexual acts are immoral. (See the choices in the graphic at the right.)
Midura answered “D. none of these.”
The school, however, said the correct answer was “C. they are not open to life.” A statement from Trinity High School Principal Denis Mailloux confirmed this, saying teachers needed to “teach the truth in love,” reported NH 1. Diocesan School Superintendent Fr. John Fortin admitted homosexuality is more complex than that question, but defended the school’s choice because the test conforms to the bishops’ guidelines.
In another case, a school in Melbourne, Australia suppressed students’ project on same-sex marriage for not being “balanced.” Two high school students were told at the last minute that they could not present their project to students, according to 3AW News Talk. Mark Sheehan, principal of Catholic Regional College (a secondary school) said the decision had little to do with the subject, saying any other unbalanced report would have been suppressed, too. Yet, one local labor leader criticized the decision as “political censorship.” The school also later admitted it did not handle the issue well.
Young people’s support of LGBT issues, which is readily apparent in these stories, is backed by recent data from the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI). Millennials view sexuality and gender as much more complex than older generations do. While only 7% of those surveyed openly identify as LGBT, few of them are ready to condemn this community, reported the National Catholic Reporter:
” ‘Millennials seem reluctant to make blanket black-and-white moral pronouncements about issues they see as complex,’ [PRRI CEO Robert] Jones said. . .So to the extent that religious authorities or doctrines are seen to make black-and-white statements, Jones said, ‘millennials are going to have a problem.’ “
Catholic leaders have not avoided black-and-white statements when it comes to LGBT issues. Indeed, some clergy and bishops have been among the most extreme anti-gay voices in recent years. Catholic education in the United States, though strongly inclusive at the college level, remains impaired by promoting attitudes which students see as anti-LGBT.
Recent data from the Pew Forum showed marked declines in Christian, particularly Catholic, membership in the United States. Some claim this is because Catholicism is anti-LGBT, anti-woman, and anti-modern, and younger people reject these views. I agree with author Kaya Oakes, however, in sensing something different. She wrote at Religious Dispatches:
“Rather than placing mercy and compassion at the forefront of its message, the American Catholic church in particular has become caught up in the culture wars, with a relentless and alienating focus on antiquated notions of sexuality and upholding “traditional marriage” that are deeply unappealing to Millennials and Gen Xers in particular. . .
“[This] may indicate a level of discernment and thoughtfulness about what is non-negotiable in people’s search for a way of believing. The identity of being a seeker is no longer one that might result in a lifelong adherence to a single faith. . .
“Religion for many is becoming a lived and constantly shifting experience rather than a series of handed-down gestures and prayers.”
Younger Catholics understand that homosexuality, and sexuality generally, is not reducible to simple answers circled on a test question. In recognizing the complexity inherent in human lives and experiences, Millennials are doing theology, whether consciously or not. This phenomenon builds upon the long-recognized fact that personal relationships strongly move people towards LGBT acceptance.
Young adults, as well, tire of “balanced” views when they see the “other side” as representing intolerance and prejudice. They have a strong desire, perhaps to a fault at moments, for radical acceptance in their churches and faith-based institutions like their schools. When religious communities fail to live out such acceptance, Millennials are thoughtful and committed enough to Gospel principles to leave in obedience to their consciences, if that is what is demanded.
In their complex views, younger Catholics follow the footsteps of former Sagniaw Bishop Ken Untener. Addressing New Ways Ministry’s 1992 Symposium, he said:
“We need to take seriously the evaluation that homosexuality is a complex question, yet I do not believe we always do. We have to be careful not to make life too simple. The Pharisees made that mistake. . .Jesus did exactly the oppose. . .Jesus treated life as very complex.”
The dissonance today between the Millennials’ more complex understandings of sexuality and gender and the Phariseeism of those charged with guiding them in faith and in education mean church leaders have a choice. Either recognize life’s complexities, by rejecting simple answers, and instead foster honest conversations. If they don’t, they risk becoming entirely irrelevant to young Catholics who really could use the best and truest parts of Catholic tradition to help guide their lives.
–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry