Being Mercy: Mercy, Faith and Sexual Orientation

Author: Father Joseph V. Corpora, CSC, ’76, ’83M.Div.

In every age the Church finds herself asking very important moral questions. At one and the same time, the Church cannot change and the Church has to change. We can see examples of this throughout the Church’s history. For the better part of 19 centuries, the Church condoned slavery, or turned a blind eye to the bishops and religious communities who held slaves and spoke out on the institution’s behalf. It is only in the past century and a half that the Church has unequivocally condemned slavery as evil and immoral.

In our own day the landscape of sexual orientation and of gender identity is changing faster than a three-year-old falls asleep at a Sunday homily. While the Church does not have to jump on every bandwagon that passes by, it must listen to and read the signs of the times.

Sexual orientation and all it entails must be faced and thought about. Questions have to be asked. Answers must be sought. Conversations have to be had. The Church cannot be absent from the conversation about sexual orientation. If the Church is absent, it is at its own peril.

Part of my job description in campus ministry at Notre Dame is to serve lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning students. A few weeks ago I set out to meet individually with as many as I could. I wanted to talk with them one by one, to hear their stories if they wished to share them, and to ask who might be willing to come to a gathering one afternoon to talk about how campus ministry might better serve their needs. What is the intersection of spirituality and sexuality? I wanted to ask that question with students who are trying to figure out how to make these two things intersect. I explained that the purpose of the group meeting would not be to talk about policies or that sort of thing. Rather I would listen to what these beautiful children of God want of the Church — what they want of campus ministry at Notre Dame — and I would try to respond with mercy, to lead with mercy.

I learned so much from those meetings.

One student sat in my office and said to me, “I am 100 percent Catholic and I am 100 percent lesbian. I am both these things to the core. I cannot imagine not being both.” Her words touched my heart and soul.

A young man sat very comfortably, looked at me, and said, “I’m somewhere on the scale between gay and bi. I have known this since I was in grade school. I am also Catholic. I am proud to be a Catholic. I will always be Catholic. Even if the Church tells me that who I am sexually is somehow wrong, I know that before God, I am not. I want to be both. And I will be both.” His words pierced my heart and soul.

This is a conflict in search of resolution and it has implications for all of us sinners in need of mercy.

How can Helen be both 100 percent lesbian and 100 percent Catholic? How can Bill be Catholic to the core and yet very open about being bisexual? How can our students be who they are and practice their faith? I think it’s impossible to listen to the painful stories of gay and lesbian people without being moved. And in truly listening to these stories, we have to think differently.

The LGBTQ community at Notre Dame, like in so many places, is a shadow community. It has to hide itself. It doesn’t reveal itself. By and large it cannot express itself as it might want to. It has been forced to go into hiding. Its members want to live in the light. Easier said than done.

I believe this group of students might be as large or larger as many of the other minority communities on campus. It certainly cuts across culture, ethnicity, race, economics and other categories. It is its own form of diversity.

I am interested in this ministry for many reasons. If our LGBTQ students of faith do not find a home in the Church or, worse, feel disrespected by the Church, they will leave it. Sadly this happens all too often, and nobody wins. These young people lose and the Church loses. They leave the Church and live without the sacraments and the life of the Church. And the Church is weakened by their departure. A feature of the face of Christ is absent from the Church. A part of the Body of Christ is missing. No one wins.

In paragraph 2358 of the Catechism, the Church says that “there are many men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies.” To me this is the Church punting on the question of nature versus nurture. It seems to put the experience of same-sex attraction prior to choice. The Catechism goes on to say that “this inclination . . . constitutes for most of them a trial.” In my view, if it is a trial, then it is not a choice.

The world is getting better at showing respect for people of various orientations and identities. But I don’t think the world can understand why religious faith might be so important to them, or why they would want to be part of a church that has often not understood them, that has treated them unfairly and even shunned them.

The pastoral approach must change. The Church must make every effort to understand what it means to be LGBTQ and Catholic. And the first step is to talk with and listen to LGBTQ Catholics.

I was not surprised to find students who genuinely want to live their faith and want to be Catholic while not having to deny who God created them to be. How to be Catholic and how to live one’s sexuality and gender identity is a big question. But answers can be found if we listen to each other and commit to really working at it.

I love the Church. I love the Church with all my heart and soul. I am a son of the Church. I want to die in the arms of the Church. I have hoped for a long time that the Church might take the lead on understanding and accepting and explaining what it is to be gay and Catholic. This is a conflict in search of resolution and it has implications for all of us sinners in need of mercy.

Jesus invites us, regardless of sexual orientation, to love one another. And there are many ways to love and to give ourselves to one another, to sacrifice for one another, to help each other build up the Body of Christ. No one gets a pass from the Lord’s invitation to love one another. That we love may be more important than how we love.

The mercy of God invites us to listen, to hear each other’s stories, to share each other’s joys and sorrows. We are all children of God. We all need the mercy of God and are called to extend that mercy. As Pope Francis said so often during the Year of Mercy, “No one is excluded from the mercy of God.” No one has to be other than who they are to receive it; it is available to all of us as we are.

Father Joe Corpora, CSC, is the director of the Catholic School Advantage campaign within Notre Dame’s Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE) program and associate director, pastoral care of students, in the Office of Campus Ministry. He is one of 700 priests whom Pope Francis appointed in February 2016 to serve as Missionaries of Mercy and his book, The Relentless Mercy of God is forthcoming from Corby Books.