Bishop Urges Church to Find “New Language” and “New Ways” on LGBT Issues, Listen to Young People’s Questions

Bishop Mark O’Connell

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

10 replies
  1. John Hilgeman
    John Hilgeman says:

    One thing that can be done is to stop the term “struggling with same sex attractions.” Sexual orientation is a gift, something to be accepted and treasured and expressed. Not a curse to be struggled with.

    Nor is being transgender some kind of false social choice to turn against one’s biological gender. There are more dimensions to gender than the binary categories of male and female.

    Reply
  2. Friends
    Friends says:

    As I believe I mentioned elsewhere, Bishop O’Connell’s boss, Boston’s Cardinal O’Malley, was a very close runner-up to [the now] Pope Francis, whose parents originally emigrated from Italy to Argentina. So we may yet (at long last) have an American-born Pope, at the next Conclave. But I wouldn’t hold my breath. The political machinations leading to the election of a new Pope seem to be more infernal than inspiring.

    Reply
  3. Paula Ruddy
    Paula Ruddy says:

    It is a good thing the Bishop wants to be kind, and finding new language may be helpful. But aren’t there a couple of other evident problems? Equating faith with the right answers on sexual ethics is one. Bishops having the right answers on sexual ethics is another. After the bishops have listened to the people, then what? Are they willing to join the people, theologians and ethicists among them, to find new answers?

    Reply
  4. Charles Niblick
    Charles Niblick says:

    It would be important for “the soundness” of their teaching to be open to research, debate, and questions. So called Catholic Universities evade their mission by giving the bishops a pass on the “soundness” of their teachings.

    Reply
  5. Deacon Thomas Smith
    Deacon Thomas Smith says:

    Ironically, listening should not be a “new way”, but a basic Christian practice in what Francis calls a “culture of encounter.” The antidote to the old, destructive paradigm of DADT is “Ask & Tell”.

    Reply
  6. William J. Freeman
    William J. Freeman says:

    One thing would solve this very easily — have every gay cardinal, bishops, and priest announce they are gay. See how quickly everything changes.

    Reply
  7. Max Price
    Max Price says:

    let alone pursuing or fulfilling their inherent desires and dreams, makes them less truly human and less pleasing to God.

    At some point, we Catholics have to acknowledge that the problem with the traditional teaching is not the language in which it is expressed, nor the animosity with which it is sometimes weaponized to alienate and belittle others, but that it is simply too wrong to be massaged and tweaked until it becomes good news.

    Reply
  8. Max Price
    Max Price says:

    Certainly it’s good advice to listen before you speak, but the bishop (perhaps wisely) doesn’t attempt to answer the headline question.

    I find it impossible to imagine any world in which it’s ‘beautiful’ to teach a young person that joyfully accepting the way they’re made, let alone pursuing or fulfilling their inherent desires and dreams, makes them less truly human and less pleasing to God.

    At some point, we Catholics have to acknowledge that the problem with the traditional teaching is not the language in which it is expressed, nor the animosity with which it is sometimes weaponized to alienate and belittle others, but that it is simply too wrong to be massaged and tweaked until it becomes good news.
    U

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.