An auxiliary bishop in Boston has said that the Church must find new language on LGBT issues to address the concerns of Catholics, especially youth and young adults, and that bishops must do more listening about these topics.
In a recent interview with America magazine’s Michael O’Loughlin, Bishop Mark O’Connell urged the Church to find “new language” when speaking about LGBT people that can still “express the beauty of our truth.” Catholics can draw inspiration from Pope Francis in doing so, he said. America reported:
“For his part, Bishop O’Connell said the search for acceptable language is ongoing, noting that even in the L.G.B.T. community, language continues to evolve. ‘We need to work on language that we can all agree on,’ he said.
“The dizzying pace of progress for L.G.B.T. people has also presented the church with new challenges, he said. ‘These are not old issues,’ he said, pointing specifically to the challenges over rights for transgender issues. ‘Jesus did not say, “In 2018, when we speak about transgender people, this is the answer.”‘
“Bishops, he said, are ‘struggling’ with the issue and are considering, ‘How do we really be kind?’ when formulating policies about bathrooms and locker rooms in church-affiliated institutions.”
Explaining that goal is ultimately to “find language we can all agree on,” O’Connell said:
“‘By naming our own weaknesses, we can develop new language, new ways to explain the soundness of our teaching, new ways to show the beauty and authenticity of our faith to the world. . .If we cannot find the new language, at least we can listen.'”
Issues of gender and sexuality have topped the list of Catholics’ concerns at the 22 listening sessions O’Connell has held in the Archdiocese of Boston since he was appointed by Pope Francis in 2016. Beyond creating new language, he said listening to the faithful is a must for bishops: “I would encourage my brother bishops to listen, listen to what they’re saying.” He summarized these points in a tweet posted after one youth event:
“Did a Q&A with 190 High School students last night. Important questions about Catholics and gender identity. My message was that bishops need to hear their powerful voices for real dialog. I’m listening. #BishopHearMe”
Young people in particular, the bishop explained, are at a “critical moment” in their lives. Finding new language on LGBT issues is so important because church leaders must improve their answers to young people. Indeed, he said, “giving them a bad explanation of the truth could cause them to lose their faith forever.” Youth today are “kind-hearted, and they don’t like people being put down, bullied,” he said. But when it comes to the Church, “many young adults who have nothing but skepticism and doubt.” This is particularly true when considering the Church’s treatment of LGBT people.
O’Connell had another suggestion for his fellow bishops in addition to listening, which was to “stop avoiding” LGBT issues and confront them head on. The Church, he said “should be not afraid of questions,” though this fear is a very present reality. “Every bishop,” he claimed, “should be able to answer these questions adequately.”
His own message to young people is, “We’re not against gay people, we have lots of gay members in our church.” And, O’Connell added that if youth and young adults are unsatisfied with that answer or others they hear from church leaders, then they must speak up.
Bishop O’Connell’s challenge to his brother bishops to listen more is an insightful and welcome suggestion. The power of listening to people’s stories should not be underestimated, and has, in many cases, led to progress on LGBT equality in the Church. (Readers can use New Ways Ministry website’s “Contact Your Bishop” feature, available here, to find your local bishop’s contact information and send him a letter or e-mail, and/or schedule a meeting.)
When I have listened to younger Catholics, I hear not only the desire for a change in language, but a desire for a parallel change in pastoral practice. They expect that the Church will live by its own teachings. If this is not the case, younger Catholics generally feel little obligation to stay in the Church. Still, changes in language are important. Bishop O’Connell”s comments echo the words of the late Bishop Francis Mugavero of Brooklyn, N.Y., who nearly forty years ago, in his pastoral letter Sexuality: God’s Gift, wrote, “we pledge our willingness…to try to find new ways to communicate the truth of Christ because we believe it will make you free.” Mugavero’s use of the term “new ways” in that text was the inspiration for Sister Jeannine Gramick and Father Robert Nugent to name the new ministry they founded one year later “New Ways Ministry.
O’Connell, by not only his statements but his actions, has made a similar pledge to find new ways of communicating. I pray he will continue listening to Catholics, especially to youth and to LGBT people, and keep challenging church leaders to do likewise.
—Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, January 24, 2018