Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Shepherds Shouldn't Abandon the Sheep

An integral part of being a shepherd is knowing your sheep and having them know you. I remember one time mentioning the Church's teaching on artificial contraception during a homily. Some weeks later, while having dinner with a married couple, they shared with me that they use artificial contraception and they told me about their struggle. My preaching about it did not get me uninvited from dinner and their sharing their struggle with me did not make me love them less or cause me to go running from their home. The whole thing made me love them more. When shepherds and flocks truly know and love one another, there is a great freedom that arises. For me, this freedom is experienced not simply in being unafraid to preach and to teach, but even more in knowing that the people entrusted to your care earnestly expect and desire you to preach and to teach--even if they do not yet fully accept what the Church teaches.

During the past few days, many bishops and priests have commented upon the Supreme Court's ruling legalizing gay marriage. In many instances, the focus has been almost entirely placed on explaining why Catholics need to be respectful and not engage in hateful behavior. I honestly have to ask, do these shepherds really know their sheep? Maybe they do. But their sheep are vastly different from the people that I know.

Who are the people who have been entrusted to my care? The vast majority of them are not people whose inclination is to resort to hateful language, beliefs, or actions. Many of them actually don't believe the Church's teachings about marriage. Some are far more likely to say something hateful about the Church than they are to say something hateful about somebody who has same sex attractions. 

Some of them have same sex attractions and are opposed to gay marriage. Many of them have children or family members who have same sex attractions. They don't hate their family members. For the most part, many of the people I know do not have this on their priority list. They want to go to work and do their job, come home, and care for their family. But, they are made to feel uncomfortable when they go to work. If they aren't overjoyed at the rainbow flag that appeared in their office, they are made to feel like they are a bigot. They are looking for help from their shepherds on how they are to live and respond in this situation.  

When bishops and priests, however, continually harangue them about not being hateful or oppressive, these people feel abandoned by their shepherds. They are being told everywhere that they are bigoted and hateful. Do they really need to be piled on by their shepherds as well?  These are just good people who, in my experience, love their neighbor. But, when their shepherds continually warn them about "not being hateful," they are actually made to feel and appear like that's exactly what they are. The shepherds of the Church are perpetuating a myth that Catholics are prone towards hating people with same sex attractions. In perpetuating this myth, they are doing a disservice to a lot of good and faithful Catholics.

One of the first calls I received after the Supreme Court ruling was from a friend with same sex attractions. This friend is not in favor of the Supreme Court ruling. What this person really does not need is a lecture from the clergy about not being hateful towards people with same sex attractions. This person needs to know the closeness of the Church and its shepherds. This person needs encouragement to remain firm in heart and needs to know that the shepherds of the Church will not run away and leave this person alone.

When families gather at the Fourth of July party this year, perhaps the whole Supreme Court ruling will come up. In many instances, there will be some poor Catholic man or woman there who will be in the minority. She will be made to feel like her objection to gay marriage is a sign of ignorance or hatred. It can be very lonely for that person. Even though that person loves her friends and family members who have same sex attractions, because she opposes gay marriage, she will be treated poorly. The Church's shepherds should be standing by this person and not throwing her to the lions.

I cannot speak for other shepherds. But, in my experience, I meet very few people who are hateful, bigoted, or mean. Maybe they avoid me. I do meet many people who struggle with the Church's teachings or who struggle to articulate the Church's teachings. I meet many who feel kind of alone. I meet many who are frustrated because they oppose gay marriage, love their friends and family members who have same sex attractions, but are made to feel like they are mean or hateful. Instead of finding shepherds who are protecting them from the wolves of false accusation, they sometimes feel as though their shepherds have run away, leaving them to be devoured.

Most of the Catholics I encounter are people who love one another and strive to grow in that love. They are not bitter ideologues filled with hate. To keep insinuating that they are is to perpetuate a calumny that undermines the Church and disheartens the faithful.  I am grateful that in my priestly life the people whom the Lord has placed in my path are people who abound in charity.  I'm not sure I have met even one person in my priesthood who has said anything hateful about people with same sex attractions.  In fact, it has been just the opposite. 

More often than not, people need encouragement in the Christian life. To my friends who struggle with same sex attractions and who want to be faithful to the Church, keep up the fight! You are an inspiration! To all of you--same sex attracted or not--who feel isolated in the culture right now and who are made to feel like you are being hateful for not supporting gay marriage, you're not alone. Don't get discouraged. Keep on doing what you've been doing. Keep on loving. You're doing great.

After I wrote the paragraph above, I had to go to the hospital to visit a friend. As I was leaving the hospital, a man got on the crowded elevator with me. I don't know why, but I sensed that he was suffering. I said a prayer for him. At some point during the long elevator ride down ten floors, I noticed him glance at me. When we got to the First Floor, we got separated in the crowd, but I  caught up to him and said, "I just prayed for you." He thanked me and we conversed for a few moments. He said, "My husband is very sick." I asked for both of their names and said that I would pray for them both. (Maybe you could offer a prayer for both of them as well). It was one of those great moments where you know that God was at work. The experience drew both of us closer to Christ and His Church.

My guess is that is exactly how 99% of the Catholics I know would have reacted in that situation. Let's stop addressing the very small percentage of Catholics who are nasty as though they are representative of the vast majority. Instead, let the shepherds of the Church encourage Catholics to remain faithful to the truth and to do what they do so well already--love their neighbor. 


  1. I was feeling like you described--a lone Catholic whose objection to gay marriage is viewed as bigoted. Then I realized what the problem is. The problem is in the definition of marriage. Same sex unions are looking for legitimacy, which they just received thanks to SCOTUS. To same sex couples, marriage is a legal contract. But to me as a Catholic, marriage is a sacred covenant in which my husband and I vowed to work towards the salvation of each other's souls and be open to procreation. These two objectives of a Catholic marriage are purposes that same sex marriage can never be. I've explained this to a couple of other people, and they seemed relieved to be able to understand and express this understanding, themselves.

  2. Thank you for this, Father. I hope (and do think) you are right about the majority of Catholic people. Perhaps our bishops are being confused (or at least distracted) by the negative tones of so much of the media/internet chatter? They may well feel they have to respond to others' reactions to the negative voices. But it has been discouraging to read, over and over, that stress on our not behaving badly, as if they are so afraid that that will be our first impulse.

    I wish we were getting more support from our bishops, in just the way you suggest, about how to live with the new situation. Perhaps they will get to that, as the situation unfolds and they have time to reflect more. I'm a college teacher, and almost dread the start of the new academic year, as the school authorities will have completely bought into the politically correct view. I do and will treat everyone with respect and courtesy, but I would appreciate some help, also in knowing how to counsel students who may struggle with how to grow in and defend their Catholic identity when strong voices in their surroundings demonize it.

    Your academic community, students, faculty and staff, are lucky to have you.