John Gehring: Bishops Need a “Year of Abstinence” from Preaching on Sexuality and Gender

John Gehring

Catholic bishops have an authority crisis that seemingly intensifies daily as more LGBTQ church workers are fired and new cover ups of clergy sexual abuse are revealed. One lay Catholic leader has a suggestion for them: stop preaching about sexuality and gender for a year.

John Gehring of Faith in Public Life offered his advice to the bishops in a column for the National Catholic Reporter. He notes the many ways just in the month of June that bishops kept undermining their credibility: Bishop Thomas Tobin’s tweet that Pride is “especially harmful for children,” the Vatican’s Congregation for Catholic Education releasing a document targeting transgender and intersex people, and Archbishop Charles Thompson’s crusade against LGBTQ church workers in Indianapolis. Gehring pointedly comments:

“It might seem obvious that a church facing a crisis of legitimacy caused by clergy raping children would show more humility when claiming to hold ultimate truths about human sexuality. . .

“There is an unmistakable hubris displayed when some in the church are determined to make sexuality the lynchpin of Catholic identity at a time when bishops have failed to convince their flock that they are prepared to police predators in their own parishes. . .

“This isn’t simply a matter of the church’s image, however. When the Catholic Church describes sexual intimacy between gay people as ‘intrinsically disordered,’ it fails to take into account how this degrading language contributes to higher rates of suicide among LGBTQ people; when it condemns even civil recognition of same-sex unions that don’t impede the church’s ability to define marriage sacramentally, bishops appear indifferent to the roadblocks committed couples without marriage licenses face in hospitals and other settings.”

Gehring describes the bishops’ actions as “self-inflicted wounds” which drive away an entire generation of young people, particularly due to the mistreatment of LGBTQ people. Narrowing Catholic identity to “a ‘pelvic theology’ hyperfocused on human sexuality” distorts what Christian discipleship is all about, namely the social teachings of the church. Gehring concludes:

“A year of abstinence for church leaders preaching about sex would demonstrate a symbolic posture of humility that could substantively show those of us still left in the pews that the hierarchy isn’t completely clueless to the stark reality of the present moment.

“During their silence on sex and gender, Vatican and local Catholic leaders should get out of their comfort zones and conduct listening sessions with married, divorced, gay, straight and transgender people. They should step away from the microphone and take notes. There would be disagreement, but the simple act of flipping the script — priests and bishops quietly in the back instead of holding forth up front — might help clergy recognize there is a wisdom in lived reality and truth not found solely in dusty church documents.

“Taking risks and sitting with discomfort is part of a healthy faith. It’s time for our bishops to lead by taking a step back.”

Rather than stepping back, certain bishops seem to be doubling down with their hyper-focus on gender and sexuality. Archbishop Thompson has not only prompted Catholic schools to fire LGBTQ educators, he stripped Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School of its “Catholic” designation when school administrators refused to fire a gay teacher. Bishop Joseph Strickland of Tyler tweeted out a right wing piece against Pride, commenting:

“I encourage every faithful Catholic to read this and pray for all who are caught up in the culture of lies. As a bishop I will do my best to ‘guard the deposit of faith, entire & incorrupt’ from the wolves who attack it. Mercy abhors bigotry AND sin.”

Hyperbolic, nasty rhetoric like Strickland’s tweet has no place in respectful discourse, never mind the pastorally-oriented episcopal leadership sought by Pope Francis. While there are exceptions among bishops, like Lexington’s Bishop John Stowe, they are few. Gehring’s proposal for the bishops to take a “year of abstinence” on gender and sexuality is wise, and they would do well to heed him. But that course sadly seems unlikely in the U.S.

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, July 17, 2019

6 replies
  1. Duane S Sherry
    Duane S Sherry says:

    Re: “It might seem obvious that a church facing a crisis of legitimacy caused by clergy raping children would show more humility when claiming to hold ultimate truths about human sexuality.”


  2. Anton
    Anton says:

    People who don’t play the game should not be the ones who make the rules, telling others how to play. “The guru speaks with authority of what he himself has experienced. He quotes no books.” “Vital religion is like good music: it needs no defense, only rendition. A wrangling controversy in support of religion is as if the members of the orchestra should beat the folks over the head with their violins to prove that the music is beautiful.” HARRY EMERSON FOSDICK – This holds true, I believe, not only about religion.

  3. Anton
    Anton says:

    Bishop Strickland is “guarding the deposit of faith.” Is the word “deposit” metaphorical?
    As Pope Francis reminds us: “Tradition is not worshiping ashes, but passing the light/the flame.” Time to dump the ashes.

  4. Don E Siegal
    Don E Siegal says:

    “There is an unmistakable hubris displayed when some in the church are determined to make sexuality the lynchpin of Catholic identity…”

    Wanting a comprehensive definition of hubris, I found this interesting origin of the word. Hubris comes from Ancient Greece. “English picked up both the concept of hubris and the term for that particular brand of cockiness from the ancient Greeks, who considered hubris a dangerous character flaw capable of provoking the wrath of the gods. In classical Greek tragedy, hubris was often a fatal shortcoming that brought about the fall of the tragic hero. Typically, overconfidence led the hero to attempt to overstep the boundaries of human limitations and assume a godlike status, and the gods inevitably humbled the offender with a sharp reminder of his or her mortality.”

    Go figure!

  5. Joseph Sankovich
    Joseph Sankovich says:

    Gerhring’s comments would be a welcome first step and provide some respite. However, until and unless Catholic bishops fully step into and embrace the psychosexual research of the past 75 years, and integrate that research into their teaching, they continue to speak to an audience of people well over 60, most of whom no longer need any futher misguidance on the church’s crotch morality. If evangelization is ever to take root and be fruitful, then those from 12 to 40 need to be met where they are. And the first significant change would best take place in The Catechism of the Catholic Church which still teaches that “fecundity” is the foundation upon which all sexual expression is built and evaluated. If theologians cannot even speak a contemporary language, how could they possibly ever understand, communicate, teach and relate to today’s reality. Of course, reading Inside the Closet of the Vatican, one certainly needs to wonder if bishop-speak is nothing other than obfuscation to keep a spotlight out of deep and dark closets. We desperately need more than a year’s respite!


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