A top cardinal in the U.S. has described Church teaching’s language about homosexuality as “very unfortunate” and said he hopes it will become “a little less hurtful” in the future.
Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark suggested in an interview with NBC’s Today that the Catholic Church was reconsidering “what our faith has us do and say with people in relationships that are same-sex,” even as it is a given they should be welcomed. But the interviewer, Anne Thompson, challenged the cardinal about how people described as “intrinsically disordered” could truly be welcomed, leading to this exchange:
“[Thompson:] ‘But how can you welcome people that you call ‘intrinsically disordered?’
“[Tobin:] ‘Well I don’t call them ‘intrinsically disordered.’
“[Thompson:] ‘But isn’t that the Catechism of the Catholic Church?’
“[Tobin:] ‘That is. It’s very unfortunate language. Let’s hope that eventually that language is a little less hurtful.'”
The cardinal’s desire for a reassessment of how the Church speaks about homosexuality further builds his fairly positive record on LGBTQ issues. Last year, Tobin said the firing of LGBTQ church workers was a “very difficult question.” In 2017, he welcomed a group of LGBT pilgrims to Newark’s cathedral, a moment one participant said “felt like a miracle.” Tobin later explained his decision to provide such a welcome, saying LGBT people were entrusted to his pastoral care just like anyone else. He has endorsed Fr. James Martin, S.J.’s, book, Building a Bridge, saying it was “brave, prophetic, and inspiring.”
Cardinal Tobin’s interview comments add to the growing list of prominent Catholics who have questioned the language used in Church teachings about lesbian and gay people. This issue was prominent during both the Synod on the Family in 2014 and 2015, as well as the Synod on Youth last fall. For example, in 2015, Brisbane, Australia’s Archbishop Mark Coleridge said that the Church needed “new language to speak about homosexuality.” Other voices who have suggested a reevaluation of such language is needed include Fr. James Martin, SJ, Boston’s auxiliary Bishop Mark O’Connell, and Fr. Rene Camilleri, the top catechist in Malta.
Tobin should be applauded for his forthright criticism of “intriniscally disordered.” More Church leaders need to be honest about the harm that is done when people internalize such harsh rhetoric, and also the negative message it gives to church ministers who encounter gay and lesbian people. His pastoral sensitivities mirror the image of Church proposed by Pope Francis. But while such acknowledgement of the damage caused is welcome, the question about Church teaching’s language is ultimately more complex.
It is unclear what Tobin seeks when he appeals for language that is “a little less hurtful.” Would new language be a change in window dressings, repackaging the same condemnatory teachings in less harsh language, or would new language reflect a deeper shift in thinking that actually recognizes lesbian and gay people’s dignity? In other words, are Tobin and other Church officials who have questioned gay-negative language really talking about inconsequential semantics or real substance?
These different voices likely disagree on what the outcome about new language should be. That is why the next step in this conversation is not just pointing out error, it is proposing constructively what new language could be. Tobin is well-suited for this task. Hopefully, the cardinal’s NBC interview is just the start of his advocacy for a shift in language that reflects a change in substance, too.
—Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, May 7, 2019