What Pope Francis can teach US bishops about reaching out to LGBT community

(RNS) An outstretched hand is usually received better than a wagging finger.

Pope Francis leaves at the end of a Mass after he presented palliums to archbishops in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican on June 29, 2016. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Tony Gentile

(RNS) Pope Francis again made an international news splash earlier this week when he said that Catholic leaders should apologize to gay people and seek forgiveness for the way the church has harmed them.

The pope’s welcoming words of healing should not only prompt sober reflection, but tangible action in Catholic dioceses across the country. Words are not enough to heal the wounds many LGBT Catholics have suffered in the face of indifference and exclusion.

His honesty offers a unique opportunity for Catholic clergy in the United States to hit the reset button.

While research shows most Catholics support same-sex marriage, the church does not have to change its teachings on marriage to take immediate steps that would demonstrate a commitment to building bridges with the LGBT community. Some Catholic parishes in San Francisco, Boston and New York have long been welcoming places for gays and lesbians. Still, in many parishes, gays and lesbians are tolerated but not embraced, talked to but not heard.

Catholic clergy can institutionalize the pope’s words of solidarity by creating real opportunities for what Francis calls “accompaniment” and “encounter.”

Pastors in the 195 Catholic dioceses across the country could take a first step by hosting listening sessions with gay Catholics and LGBT leaders. There would be disagreement and room for civil debate, but this posture of humility and respect would send a powerful signal that the nation’s largest church wants to learn from the varied experiences of gay, lesbian and transgendered people.

An outstretched hand is usually received better than a wagging finger. Catholic leaders could also be doing more to speak out against discrimination on the job and in housing. Gays and lesbians can now marry legally, but in more than half the states it’s legal to discriminate against a gay person in the workplace or in housing. A patchwork of laws across the country leaves millions of LGBT citizens with second-class status.

Catholics should be at the forefront of fighting these injustices. When the U.S. Senate passed a bipartisan Employee Nondiscrimination Act in 2013, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said that it wanted to “work with leaders and all people of good will to end all forms of unjust discrimination” but then opposed the legislation on the grounds that it undermined marriage and threatened religious liberty.

Catholic leaders in the U.S. can and must do better.

There are legitimate disagreements between Catholic institutions and the government over how to most appropriately balance religious conscience rights with LGBT equality. But these are often policy debates that arise from the complications of seeking to honor two goods, not fundamental clashes of good and evil.

The U.S. bishops’ conference should lower the rhetorical temperature, and act more like pastors than lawyers. Whether it’s decrying President Obama’s 2014 executive order that prohibited federal contractors from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity as “extreme,” or blasting the U.S. Supreme Court ruling upholding the right to a same-sex civil marriage as a “tragic error,” the bishops’ approach has done little to persuade most people to their side and only pours salt on old wounds.

Francis doesn’t want to uproot the church’s traditional teachings on marriage or sexuality, but he does want to humanize the conversation. And he’s not afraid to shake things up.

“Pope Francis is speaking about gays and lesbians in ways that would have gotten anyone else disciplined, censured or silenced ten years ago,” tweeted the Rev. James Martin, a prominent Jesuit priest who is editor at large at America magazine.

The late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago, pained by the divisions inside the U.S. church, set up a common ground project in the 1990s with the goal of spurring dialogue between Catholic conservatives and progressives on a range of contentious issues. The effort limped along without much success in the years after his death. As new battles rage that pit religious liberty against LGBT rights, a reinvigorated commitment to common ground and the common good is needed now more than ever.

In his headline-grabbing comments, Francis quoted the catechism of the Catholic Church, which teaches that gays and lesbians “must be accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity,” and that “every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided.” Those are unambiguous words. But they are only words on a page unless the church puts them into practice.

(John Gehring is Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life and author of  “The Francis Effect: A Radical Pope’s Challenge to the American Catholic Church”)

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