Next Steps: Catholic Church Teaching About LGBTQ Pastoral Ministry

Today’s post is the fourth installment of New Ways Ministry’s online series, “Next Steps: Developing Catholic LGBTQ Ministry.” To find out more information and a registration form for this multi-part series, please click here.  To find the first three installments, please click here. All of the resources in this series are copyrighted to New Ways Ministry. Permission is granted to use them for educational and ministerial purposes provided that you cite New Ways Ministry as the source.

Is LGBTQ pastoral ministry really needed and necessary in the Catholic Church?  If LGBTQ people want to be treated equally, why do we have to provide them with a special welcome?  Since Catholic doctrine opposes same-sex marriage, is it really authentically Catholic to develop LGBTQ ministry?

These are some of the questions that parishioners and pastoral staff may have if you begin explaining that you want to develop LGBTQ ministry in your parish community.  In this installment of the Next Steps series, we are going to present you with Catholic teaching about LGBTQ ministry as a way to help you not only answer some of those objections, but also to give you a firm grounding in Catholic teaching and identity to develop an LGBTQ ministry initiative.

As we saw in the second installment of this series, as far back as 1975, the Vatican issued a call for lesbian and gay people to receive pastoral care from the Church.  In the Vatican Declaration of Sexual Ethics, it states:

“In the pastoral field, . . . homosexuals must certainly be treated with understanding and sustained in the hope of overcoming their personal difficulties and their inability to fit into society.”

While this quotation may sound condescending to 21st century minds, it’s important to remember that it was written when the modern gay rights movement was still young, and LGBTQ people faced an intense amount of discrimination and ostracization everywhere (and, sadly, in many places, they still do).

It is significant that even though the same document morally condemned lesbian/gay sexual expression, the Vatican suggests that the starting point for pastoral ministry is not a focus on a person’s sexuality, but with the emotional challenges and social position of lesbian and gay people.

Of course, that makes perfect sense.  ALL ministry begins with the individual’s feelings about self and how the individual relates to others in society, both of which have a strong impact on that person’s most important connection: a relationship with God.  Even when someone approaches the church who has committed grave crimes, as is the case with incarcerated people who call on a prison chaplain, the minister does not begin by focusing on what the person may have done to result in a prison sentence.  As Pope Francis has been teaching the church, pastoral ministry is about so much more than reciting, or even explaining, doctrine to people.

So, sexual behavior should not be the focus of LGBTQ ministry, as some in the church advocate.  Sexuality is a part of every human being’s life. Almost all people struggle with it at some point in their lives.  Yet, sexuality is not considered a starting point or focus for any ministry in the church—even ministry for engaged couples, young adults, and youth: all groups where sexuality plays a significant role in their lives—so it would be inappropriate for it to be the starting point or focus for LGBTQ ministry either.

Since 1975, church leaders have provided more specific guidance about pastoral ministry to lesbian and gay people.  Through documents, guidelines, and pastoral plans, bishops have offered suggestions to pastoral ministers about what focuses this ministry should have.  The following are some highlights from the hierarchy’s advice.

The U.S. Catholic bishops conference made a call for pastoral ministry in 1976, the year following the Vatican’s document.  In the pastoral letter, To Live in Christ Jesus, they stated:

“…the Christian community should offer [homosexual people] a special degree of pastoral understanding and care.”

(They also reaffirmed this statement in the 1991 document, Human Sexuality: A Catholic Perspective for Education and Lifelong Learning.)

In 1981, the Archdiocese of Baltimore issued a pastoral plan entitled, A Ministry to Leabian and Gay Catholic Persons, in which they stated:

“The ministry of the Roman Catholic Church to gays and lesbians…is not content to merely to repeat the challenge Christ sets before each generation; it seeks to work with each individual, taking into account that person’s particular strengths and weaknesses, and helping that person make the fullest response at this moment in his or her life.”

This advice was a forerunner of Pope Francis’ approach to all pastoral ministry, emphasizing encounter and accompaniment.  This guidance stresses that church ministers should treat each person as unique, with a unique calling, and a unique life situation.  Such an approach leaves no room for judgment and condemnation.

In 1983, the Archdiocese of San Francisco put out a similar pastoral plan entitled, Ministry and Homosexuality in the Archdiocese of San Francisco.  The document asked an important question and gave a complete answer to it:

“What then are homosexual Catholics looking for from the Church’s ministry?  As all Catholics, they look to the Church for a community in which the Gospel can be lived and their spiritual lives can be enriched.  The look to the Church for support for their Christian faith and their Catholic heritage.  They seek an understanding Church , a community where they can be accepted as men and women who are Catholic and who also happen to be homosexual.  They look to the Church as a community of faith, a place where they may responsibly and sensitively understand the interplay between their religious faith and their human sexuality, and to live the sacramental life of the Church in all of its rich meanings.”

This advice seems to suggest that LGBTQ pastoral ministry should not be any different from other forms of ministry.  LGBTQ people want the same things from the Church as heterosexual and cisgender people want.  They are seeking a place to share struggles, joys, needs, and gifts.  The more a parish provides those opportunities for LGBTQ people, the more they are truly offering a welcoming place.

In 1997, the U.S. bishops conference issued Always Our Children, a pastoral message to parents of lesbian and gay people.  While primarily directed to parents, at the end of the letter they included a short section of recommendations to pastoral ministers.  Perhaps their most remarkable recommendation was this one:

“Welcome homosexual persons into the faith community, and seek out those on the margins. Avoid stereotyping and condemning. Strive first to listen. Do not presume that all homosexual persons are sexually active.  Learn more about homosexuality and church teaching so your preaching, teaching, and counseling will be informed and effective.”

“Strive first to listen.”  Those four words are probably the most powerful words in any church document concerning LGBTQ pastoral ministry.  Our church would be a much better place if all pastoral ministers took those word to heart.  It is important again to note that Pope Francis, too, has called church ministers to be listeners.

The Always Our Children quotation also has some other important ideas to note.  Advising ministers not to presume that all lesbian/gay people are sexually active is an important reminder, given the presumption that unfortunately still persists that LGBTQ are primarily focused on sex.

This quotation also begins with a call to be welcoming, and particularly to go out and seek those on the margins.  That is a common theme that appears in many church documents calling for ministry to the LGBTQ community. In 2006, the U.S. bishops conference issued a document entitled Ministry to Persons with a Homosexual Inclination:  Guidelines for Pastoral CareThough many saw this document as scaling back the more positive overtures to the LGBTQ community that bishops made in the past,  especially in referring to sexual orientation as an “inclination”—a decidedly unscientific and ill-informed word. However, the text did include some important instructions, particularly about being welcoming:

“Sad to say, there are many persons with a homosexual inclination who feel alienated from the Church.  Outreach programs and evangelization efforts ought to be mindful of such persons.  In areas where there are larger concentrations of homosexual persons, individuals may profitably be dedicated solely to outreach ministry to them.   In other areas, ministry . . . should be included as part of overall evangelization efforts.”

The same document also highlighted the importance to listen and to dialogue:

“. . . [t]here is a need of a special effort to help persons with a homosexual inclination understand Church teaching.  At the same time, it is important the Church ministers listen to the experiences, needs, and hopes of the persons with a homosexual inclination to whom and with whom they minister.  Dialogue provides an exchange of information, and also communicates a respect for the innate dignity of other persons and a respect for their consciences.”

Along these lines, another element that has appeared in a number of church documents calling for LGBTQ pastoral ministry has been a focus on the teaching of the primacy of conscience.  We will be looking in a more in-depth way at the role of conscience in LGBTQ ministry in a future installment of this series.  At this point, I will quote from two documents which show the importance of this dimension for any ministry with LGBTQ people. In the Archdiocese of Baltimore’s 1981 pastoral plan quoted above, the authors quoted from an earlier pastoral letter of their Ordinary, Archbishop William Borders, who said:

“. . . the role of the conscience is that of a judge, not a teacher; . . . conscience does not teach what is good or evil, nor does it create good or evil. It weighs accumulated data, makes a judgement in very concrete, not theoretical, situations, the concrete situations’ of one’s life.”

And in the 2006 U.S. bishops’ guidelines quoted above, they said:

“Ongoing catechesis and conscience formation for persons who experience same-sex attraction should be an important part of this Catholic ministry, counteracting some prevalent societal mores and providing the basis for making informed moral judgments.”

Finally, even the 1986 Vatican Letter which introduced the term “objective disorder” to describe homosexual orientation, called for the establishment of pastoral care programs for lesbian and gay people:

“…we would ask the Bishops to support with the means at their disposal, the development of appropriate forms of pastoral care for homosexual persons.”

The key word here is “appropriate.”  What does that mean?  What may be appropriate LGBTQ ministry in one country or city may not be appropriate for other places.  National and local cultures vary greatly, and understanding and acceptance of LGBTQ peole and issues also vary greatly from culture to culture.  Our hope is that this “Next Steps” program will help you and your parish community discern what would be most appropriate for the people with whom you live, serve, and pray.

For further reading and writing:

To further your understanding of church teaching on pastoral ministry for LGBTQ people, please click here.

Click here to find some questions to aid your reflection and writing.  You may want to answer one, some, or all of these questions in your journal for this series. This practice is not homework. The purpose is so that you will have some ideas to look back on at the end of this series when you will be encouraged and guided to develop a plan of pastoral action for your parish or faith community.

Next Installment of Next Steps Series: Examining Your Faith Community

To find the first two installments of the “Next Steps” series, as well as more information about the program and a registration form, please click here.

Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, August 14, 2020

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