Today’s post is from guest contributor David Palmieri, a theology teacher at Xaverian Brothers High School in Westwood, MA. He is the founder of Without Exception, a grassroots network of secondary educators dedicated to discerning the art of accompaniment for LGBTQ+ students in Catholic high schools, and received an award from the National Catholic Educational Association in 2021.
I hear stories like this one again and again as I network with Catholic high schools around the country about LGBTQ+ ministry:
“I realized I was gay in 7th grade. Junior high is hard enough as it is. It’s hard before you have to weigh your sexuality against your spirituality, before you’re sick with worry about whether or not your parents will disown you, and before you start wondering if you’ll even live through high school.”
I get messages from families, too. “I am the bereaved Mom of a young person who happened to be transgender,” wrote one parent. Past tense.
And then another family wrote to me that they lost a 15-year-old boy to suicide because he “was being bullied so badly at school that he started homeschooling, but that just left him feeling isolated.”
This year, data from Springtide Research Institute suggests 48% of LGBTQ+ young persons feel lonely at school. Additionally, 53% say their families don’t take their mental health concerns seriously. These numbers are supported by similar data from The Trevor Project, indicating that 61% of LGBTQ+ youth are experiencing symptoms of depression. More concerning are statistics from the Centers for Disease Control showing that lesbian, gay, and bisexual students were 4.5 times more likely to attempt suicide in 2015 compared with heterosexual peers, while transgender youth in 2017 were 4 times more likely to attempt suicide compared with cisgender females and 6 times more likely than cisgender males.
Plain and simple: this is an issue of life and death.
Young people on the whole are at risk for serious mental health strifes in the post-pandemic world, but LGBTQ+ youth are particularly at risk. Time after time, in mutually exclusive peer-reviewed studies the evidence shows that LGBTQ+ young persons are disproportionately wounded by external and internal forces compared to their peers.
The external forces present a litany of harms: humiliation, discrimination, abandonment, isolation, exclusion, harassment, threats, and assault. The internal forces are equally serious: loneliness, anxiety, depression, anger, fear, guilt, loss, and shame. The net effect is dis-integration and a trajectory toward negative life outcomes. LGBTQ+ youth are more likely to earn lower grades, miss or drop out of school, abuse drugs and alcohol, and die by suicide.
The first entry in the Catechism of the Catholic Church presents the beginning and end of Catholic faith. In sum, draw close to God through Christ and with Christ, in union with the Holy Spirit, to become heirs of his blessed life. This journeying unveils the meaning of the Mass—in both the Word and the Eucharist: we are made for communion, which St. Augustine expressed when he wrote, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”
But this communion is jeopardized when Catholic school policies are implemented that restrict LGBTQ+ students. We learned about an example of this recently in the Archdiocese of Denver. When we treat LGBTQ+ persons as objects of wanton ideology, when we purposely strategize to maintain distance and silence, and when we deliberately ignore the empirical and anecdotal evidence that provides a window to their lived experience, we break communion with the LGBTQ+ community. These policies do not lead people to God, nor do they help people step back from the ledge of despair. Instead, by stoking the fires of sin and blame, they make us complicit in a culture of death.
In 1995, Pope John Paul II defined a culture of death in his encyclical Evangelium Vitae. He wrote:
“It is possible to speak in a certain sense of a war of the powerful against the weak: a life which would require greater acceptance, love, and care is considered useless, or held to be an intolerable burden, and is therefore rejected in one way or another. A person who . . . just by existing, compromises the well-being or lifestyle of those who are more favored tends to be looked upon as an enemy to be resisted or eliminated. In this way a kind of ‘conspiracy against life’ is unleashed.”
In contrast, John Paul II wrote that an embrace of a culture of life “will be able to confront and solve today’s unprecedented problems affecting human life . . . because it will be capable of bringing about a serious and courageous cultural dialogue among all parties.” For LGBTQ+ students, such a commitment will require the creation of ministries that embrace the fullness of Catholic faith—both the intellectual and the social traditions, both the spiritual and the corporal works of mercy.
In her book LGBTQ Catholics: A Guide to Inclusive Ministry, Yunuen Trujillo writes that “the creation of these ministries is a life issue in that it prevents suicides.” The Trevor Project echoes that point: “LGBTQ youth who live in a community that is accepting of LGBTQ people reported significantly lower rates of attempting suicide compared to those who do not.” These claims are validated by the research-based information published by the Family Acceptance Project, which has been promoting data-informed family care for LGBTQ+ youth for over 20 years.
In their new 2022 report on the State of Religion and Young People, Springtide shows a correlation between religious identity and mental health flourishing. The report also argues that “religious spaces are among the best suited to help support the mental health of young people.” Pope Francis, in Amoris Laetitia, concludes that this kind of “logic of integration is the key to . . . pastoral care, a care which would allow [persons] not only to realize they belong to the Church as the body of Christ, but also to know that they can have a joyful and fruitful experience in it.”
No kid should ever worry about family acceptance or living through high school. What we need in our homes, schools, and churches are ministries of presence that accept recommendations to build healthy futures for LGBTQ+ youth.
Perhaps we can learn patience and humility from the children themselves:
“As a member of the LGBTQ+ community, the two things I want are to be understood and accepted.
“My hope is that our school becomes a more accepting community through our words and actions, not just for people like me but also for anyone who is unique.
“Surprise, that’s all of you.”
Let us pray for all of our LGBTQ+ young people, that they may have life and have it more abundantly (Jn 10:10).
—David Palmieri, November 22, 2022