“This Month in Catholic LGBT History” is Bondings 2.0’s feature to educate readers of the rich history—positive and negative—that has taken place over the last four decades regarding Catholic LGBT equality issues. We hope it will show people how far our Church has come, ways that it has regressed, and how far we still have to go.
Once a month, Bondings 2.0 staff will produce a post on Catholic LGBT news events from the past 38 years. We will comb through editions of Bondings 2.0’s predecessor: Bondings, New Ways Ministry’s newsletter in paper format. We began publishing Bondings in 1978. Unfortunately, because these newsletters are only archived in hard copies, we cannot link back to the primary sources in most cases.
Cardinal O’Connor Decries Violence Against Lesbian and Gay People
Cardinal John J. O’Connor, who was Archbishop of New York in the 1980s and 1990s had a long history of statements and actions offensive to the LGBT community. Among other things, he supported the ban on Irish LGBT groups in the N.Y. St. Patrick’s Day Parade and he challenged Mayor Ed Koch’s Executive Order 50 which banned sexual orientation discrimination in employment for groups that had contracts with the city. Yet, he was also known to volunteer at a Catholic hospital, tending to patients with HIV/AIDS at a time when many others shunned any physical contact with the syndrome’s victims.
Another lesser known story about O’Connor is that in September 1988, he spoke out to condemn a rash of brutal beatings and stabbings of LGBT people in New York City. On September, 12, 1988, The New York Times reported at the time:
“John Cardinal O’Connor, who is often the target of gay protesters himself, yesterday condemned recent beatings and stabbings of homosexuals as stupid, ignorant and malicious, saying that those who perpetuate violence against homosexuals ‘are doing violence against Christ Himself.’ “
” ‘Anyone who does such a thing thinking it is justified by church teaching about homosexual behavior is grossly ignorant of what the church actually teaches,’ the Cardinal said in a statement he read from the pulpit of St. Patrick’s Cathedral before delivering his homily during Sunday Mass.”
Though protests at St. Patrick’s Cathedral against O’Connor’s anti-LGBT stands were fairly commonplace at this time, at least one prominent LGBT activist spoke out in praise of the cardinal’s condemnation of violence. The Times reported a statement in response to O’Connor:
” ‘This is an important step forward,’ said Thomas B. Stoddard, executive director of the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund. Earlier this month, Mr. Stoddard sent a letter to the Cardinal suggesting that he make a statement condemning anti-gay violence.
” ‘Still,’ Mr. Stoddard added, ‘there is an ambiguity in the message because it does suggest that gay people are inferior, and that is dangerous and troublesome. But I am pleased that he has at least taken this step and has gone further than others who have irresponsibly remained silent.’ “
The news story indicated that these “others” were state politicians who at the time were blocking a bill that would have added sexual orientation to the categories covered under hate crimes laws.
The Times article continued to quote from O’Connor’s homily:
“Since I have been Archbishop of New York, I have tried in every way I know how to make clear the church’s teaching on homosexuality. The church teaches that homosexual behavior is sinful. As in every other situation, however, the church never condemns the sinner, only the sin.
“Some people seem to get this all mixed up. They take it upon themselves to condemn the sinner. In recent weks in New York we have had a series of violent actions against persons perceived to be homosexuals. These actions were so brutal that they could have resulted in murder. As it is, one victim is stilol hospitalized in serious condition as a result of the beatings with a baseball bat and a knife wound in the lung.
“I wish I had language strong enough to condemn this kind of cruelty. Anyone who performs such action in the belief that he or she is in some way helping society is utterly stupid.”
To those who practiced such violence against LGBT people, O’Connor said:
“You do an evil thing. Whatever you pretend to be, do not pretend to be Christians.”
I believe that O’Connor’s good intentions are evident in his talk. His strong language condemning anti-LGBT violence sent a powerful message. I believe that he was probably unaware, though, that some of his language perpetuated negative attitudes which are at the base of so much homophobic violence. By discussing “sin” and referring to gay and lesbian people as “sinners,” he was undermining his efforts to end violence by sending a message that gay and lesbian people were acting against the will of God.
When we compare O’Connor’s language to that of Pope Francis, and some of his newly-appointed bishops, we notice that even though they do not approve of same-gender sexual relationships, they avoid the pitfall of highlighting “sin” and labeling people “sinners.” It has taken too long to get to a point where this language is now being avoided, but I thank God that there is movement in the right direction.
—Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, September 30, 2017