On Holy Family Sunday, A Father’s Plea to Church Leaders

Brian Cahill

Today’s post, on the Feast of the Holy Family, is from guest blogger, Brian Cahill,  former executive director of San Francisco Catholic Charities and the author of Cops, Cons and Grace, A Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Suicide.

I am the father of a gay son, and I was slow to learn how painful, denigrating, and debilitating were the constant legal, social, and religious reminders that he and those like him were not fully accepted members of the human community. In his memoir, Hidden, Richard Giannone writes about his experience as a young gay Catholic: “The lesson of alienation comes easily to a malleable young consciousness and stays. The cumulative effect is toxic. The pain is insupportable.”

My son also experienced this toxic effect and insupportable pain. He knew he was different, and he was frightened that others would discover he was different, He felt isolated even in his own family, with a father who, at the time, could not make him feel loved and safe, who could not tell him that being gay was not relevant in the eyes of a loving God. I thought as long as I loved him he would be okay. But I didn’t have a clue how to talk to him about it. I didn’t have a clue how much he would be on the receiving end of hate and ignorance in the world, hate and ignorance that continues to this day, hate and ignorance that for the most part derives from organized religion, hate and ignorance that is still virally present in the Catholic Church.

Today I am no longer groveling in guilt. I love my son and he knows it. I respect his intellect, his integrity, his endurance, his professional accomplishments, and his long- term committed relationship with his husband. However, I know the impact of my failure at a key time in his life. I also know that I am not alone, that my son is not alone, that there are thousands of families who have experienced the pain of this issue and thousands more who are currently experiencing it. So speaking for all of them on this feast day of The Holy Family, I want to shout to our Church leaders to review the viability of Church teaching when it comes to same-sex activity, to own at least partial responsibility for the hate and ignorance and pain that my son and countless others have had to overcome, and to examine whether this teaching is enhancing souls and is consistent with Jesus’ message of love and inclusiveness.

In some ways the refusal of church leaders to tackle this issue is understandable. For one thing, many bishops do not seem to be bothered when LGBT individuals are on the receiving end of hate and discrimination. Moreover, discussions about LGBT issues can become instantly overheated. Just look at some of the negative responses to Jesuit Fr. James Martin’s bridge building efforts. While some conservative Catholics have respectfully objected to Fr. Martin’s approach, other Catholic voices, hiding under the banner of orthodoxy, have viciously attacked him, making it clear that they refuse to even approach his bridge. Their responses reveal the homophobia that is at the core of their advocacy for current church teaching on sexuality. But I refuse to give up hope that the Spirit can figure out a way to make our church strong enough to hold all the baggage both sides will have to carry over it.

The bottom line is that while Catholic leaders have to address all of the issues affecting the institutional church, including clericalism, the cover up of abuse, the diminishment of women, and insensitivity to LGBT issues, sooner or later they will also have to address the destructive, divisive reality of an outdated theology of sexuality.

The resistance of bishops to review church teaching on sexuality is not based on the absence of thoughtful theological proposals. In Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics, Mercy Sister Margaret Farley, a moral theologian at Yale Divinity School, argues that a review of sexual ethics is required because of major advances in psychology, gender and human behavior. She presents a detailed analysis of the justice norms that are required for morally accepted sexual relationships: do no harm, free consent, mutuality, equality, commitment, fruitfulness, and social justice.

In Sexual Ethics: A Theological Introduction, Creighton University moral theologians Todd Salzman and Michael Lawler build on Farley’s work. They argue it is impossible and irresponsible to ignore how experience and culture inform and influence responsible thinking about sexual behavior.

And finally, in God and the Gay Christian, Matthew Vines, a young gay evangelical, makes a biblical case for affirming committed same sex relationships. Vines declares, “When we tell people that their every desire for intimate, sexual bonding is shameful and disordered, we encourage them to hate a core part of who they are.  And when we reject the desire of gay Christians to express their sexuality within a lifelong covenant, we separate them from our covenantal God, and we tarnish their ability to bear his image.”

Revising church teaching is nothing new. Changes in the church’s moral teaching are well documented in John Noonan’s A Church That Can Change and Cannot Change. Noonan makes clear how the church changed its moral theology regarding slavery, usury and freedom of conscience without any retreat from the Gospel message of Jesus Christ.

On this feast day that focuses on family life, I plead with our church leaders to look at LGBT issues.  On behalf of my son and all his contemporaries, and on behalf of those who came before them and after them, please look at look at how doctrine keeps people in suffocating closets.  On behalf of all the parents of gay, lesbian and trans children, please look at how doctrine is splitting apart families.  On behalf of all nineteen-year old college students who are struggling with the decision to come out, and on behalf of all fourteen year olds who are feeling frightened, isolated, confused and threatened, please look at how doctrine is causing psychological and physical harm.

If our church leaders don’t review their theology of sexuality, they will continue to unintentionally, but effectively, fuel the flames of hate and ignorance in the world. If they don’t, they will continue to be burdened with an untenable teaching that mouths love and respect for gays and lesbians while at the same time it condemns them for acting on their natural gift to share love. If they don’t, they will be actively encouraging the rapidly growing movement of young Catholics–and some not-so-young– giving up on the Church they have loved.

The teaching is toxic. The teaching causes real pain. The teaching is not consistent with Jesus’ message of love and inclusiveness.

–Brian Cahill, December 29, 2019

Related posts:

For previous Bondings 2.0 posts concerning Brian Cahill, click here



11 replies
  1. Mary Jo
    Mary Jo says:

    Excellent article especially on a day when the church loves to praise the nuclear heterosexual family unit. It’s good to envision something more inclusive.

  2. Fran Gorsuch
    Fran Gorsuch says:

    Thank you Brian for a thoughtful and challenging reflection! I join my efforts, voice and prayer with you and so many others believing that the institutional church must either change or become even less relevant.

  3. patrick nugent
    patrick nugent says:

    As father of a gay son, and grandfather of three girls who are either lesbian or questioning their gender identity, I thank Brian for his message and support. I have passed it on to our bishop, Fran Malooly of Wilmington, DE. The bishops were so offensive toward LGBTQ folks in their closing document, one wonders if there is any hope for them. That process caused my wife and me to finally disavow the Catholic hierarchy and all their silly rules and proclamations. But we’ll never leave our Catholic community, even though many still have a long way to go in being open and supportive of our own LGBTQ family.
    And thanks to New Ways Ministry for all your good work.

  4. Scott Hill
    Scott Hill says:

    Thank you. You spoke from a father’s heart. From personal experience the isolation and walls of silence about ones gender identity/sexual orientation damages a person’s belief in self, becoming toxic shame and a serious interference in ones relationship with the Divine. As you noted the judgments of culture and religion continue to burden so many lives in the LGBTQAI+ community; relegating women, men, Trans or the questioning to the margins of society and church. Yet, it is the people on the margins of culture and religion the Jesus sought out (think Zacchaeus). This is the message of Pope Francis: to be a church of the shamed and the marginalized. Sadly too many church leaders (Bishops and Priests) fail to hear the message of compassion and have closed their hearts to the suffering of those who live in the the darkness of the closet. I join you in prayer, prayer of the heart that mercy will bring down the walls of judgment, rejection and ignorance within the church and churches. Let the trumpets of Jericho bellow!

  5. Loras J Michel
    Loras J Michel says:

    Wow — what a joy it is to me, Brian, when just one parent becomes aware and is free of the brainwashing of the church which in no way represents the heart of Jesus. When that breakthrough occurs, and that lightbulb flashes brightly, the gift that comes from all this is the ability to shine that truth to others still living in unconsciousness. Just a few years ago, Bishops actually encouraged parents to abandon their children if gay unless they “changed”. There were no role models years back and religious who tried to be that light were investigated and asked to discontinue their ministry. Oh — does New Ways Ministry identify with that past and present. In the last few years, the church again is going backwards and we are asked to “act” straight and not acknowledge the pink elephant in the room. Oh fear and ignorance is very much alive and well in the Catholic Church.

    Individual fathers like you, Brian, no longer live the lie and are embracing the heart of Jesus which is only love and compassion for every person just as they were created. Same sex love we all know was a mainstay within the followers of Jesus in his time and Jesus never mentioned this other than to say we are to love one another. Jesus had no secret life, but many of our church leaders past and present do. Thus the silent and inhuman treatment we see regarding men who truly attempt to practice in the flesh what Jesus preached. Every person is called to shout the truth, live in the light, and never give in to oppression whose theology was written by men long ago who were unhealthy souls tormented and afraid themselves. Now healthy and aware men and woman are called to review such teachings and work for change. We are all challenged to love ourselves just as we are created, to love who we choose, and to let no man come between that. In being real and genuine, we reveal God in human form in the same manner that Jesus revealed the truth, the way and the life. Thank you Brian for having the courage to speak out about the love that dares not speak its name, first mentioned in 1894, and still quite alive today as 2020 approaches.


Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *