When a gay Catholic school teacher explored the Sacrament of Reconciliation through the lens of his childhood, his spiritual reflection became a vehicle for reframing how heterosexual and cisgender privilege operates in hindrance of creating a more inclusive space for LGBTQ Catholics.
In a Medium personal essay entitled, “The Heterosexual Cisgender Catholic Privilege Checklist: An Examination of Collective Conscience,” Tom (he only provided his first name), a social justice educator, articulates how the theological exercise of confession can be applied to excavating the spiritual marginalization experienced by LGBTQ Catholics in the church and our wider society.
He explained that he shifted from focusing on individualized acts of repentance to a more communal examination of conscience:
“That experience [of examining one’s individual sins], with its ritualistic itemization of wrongdoings, reflection and promise of healing, came to mind as I once again utilized a tool that has been successful in my lessons teaching peace and justice issues for many years. Arguably this form of conscience monitoring is more controversial: the ‘Privilege’ checklist.”
Tom then describes his robust understanding of “privilege” as a lived reality experienced by oppressed groups of people rather than a purely theoretical concept. In doing so, he illustrates how privilege intersects with race and social inequality:
“The lived experience of many in oppressed groups, who are in a position to see advantage denied them in daily ways, has long been, out of necessity, all too familiar with privilege, and not just as a concept. And in recent weeks, after the social upheavals provoked by the pandemic, the risks being taken by essential workers who are frequently people of color, and of course the continued systemic racial violence we’ve seen against the black and POC communities, ‘privilege’ is getting a moment. I hear it being talked about in unexpected places and by unexpected people, inside and outside of classrooms, and while a strong streak of deniers continue to resist its validity, a growing number of their neighbors seem to be open to the layers of meaning beneath the term than ever before.”
Tom applied this communal examination of conscience to examine how heterosexual and cisgender privilege has caused spiritual harm and suffering to LGBTQ Catholics. He particularly sees this in educational settings:
“Since I just wrapped a school year in which I continue to hear students talk or write about the pain of discovering their sexual orientation or gender identity is not heteronormative and have heard their fears of church-informed rejection by their communities, the two came together for me. Teaching for as long as I have, I’m well aware that this pain from LGBTQ+ youth and adults, particularly those living within church communities, is not new, and it has resulted in a form of social advantage for the more powerfully dominant group in a way that borders on if not crosses over to pathology. It is very far away from Christ’s teachings.”
The teacher developed a heterosexual, cisgender “Privilege” checklist of 60 different ways that heterosexual and cisgender Catholics are privileged. A few examples highlight how this privilege operates in our church and society. Each of these items begins with the phrase,“As a Heterosexual Cisgender Catholic…”:
“25. I do not internalize the message that God ‘made a mistake’ when God made me. I do not think that my decisions to have gender-affirming surgeries mar the perfect body God gave me.
“26. My sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression are not described in the Catechism of the Church as ‘intrinsically disordered’ or against ‘natural law’, even though I experience them as ordered and natural within myself.
“27. Celibate bishops from different countries speak about my sexual orientation, gender identity and relationships with praise and discussions of ‘sacredness.’
“28. These same bishops do not argue about my sexual orientation or gender identity as dramatic and damning evidence of the ‘secularization of the Church’, the ‘corruptions of the modern world’ or leading catastrophically to the ‘breakdown of the family’, the Church and the world at gatherings and synods.”
To work against privilege, Tom underscores the importance of dialogue and conversation as a starting point to cultivate affirming spiritual spaces for LGBTQ Catholics within the church:
“Looking over my own spiritual journey of several decades as a gay Catholic man, my observations from within my social and ‘identifying’ circles, and consulting with a trusted colleague who identifies with the transgender community, I composed this addition to the canon of checklists. It’s a toss in the pond, another ripple in the many ripples that need to be part of our dialogue today if we are going to wake up to the signs of the times and authentically repent for those who have been left outside orbiting the ‘universal church.’”
Tom’s dynamic reflections on heterosexual cisgender privilege serve as a powerful resource for religious officials at all levels in the church, as well as for local parishioners to address and tackle the systematic oppression faced by LGBTQ Catholics. This non-exhaustive list numbered one through sixty should convey that there is a great deal of work to be done to ensure that LGBTQ Catholics, like all of God’s children, are embraced unconditionally for who they love and for who they are, both in the pews and in our contemporary world.
To find “The Heterosexual Cisgender Catholic Privilege Checklist: An Examination of Collective Conscience,” click here.
—Brian William Kaufman, New Ways Ministry, September 15, 2020