Commentary: Politics of Scandal


By Joe McHugh

I was born Catholic and hope to die Catholic.  Despite its scandals, the church still speaks words of healing, hope and freedom to me.  Right now, however, I feel scandalized by how the leadership of the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis, particularly Archbishop John C. Nienstedt, has repeatedly chosen to treat the LGBT community in just the opposite way.

While I disagree with church teaching on this matter on psychological and theological grounds, arguing is futile.  I suspect LGBT issues are this generation’s birth control.  What follow is less an argument than a cry of grief for the lives and loves I see demeaned and deadened.

Church teaching and the gospel are not identical, and all historically conditioned teaching must be judged against the demands of the gospel at a particular time and place—a gospel less about judgment than about love, compassion and inclusion.

Declaring gay sexual orientation objectively disordered and then labeling sexual love and companionship to gay persons as sinful are teachings that demean the divine and human spirit.  These teachings, I am afraid, have less to do with divinely decreed teaching than with social control and institutionalized fear and homophobia.  These are ethical issues I would like to see the church address.

The church has a right to attempt to influence public opinion.  As a result, Catholics last year received DVDs urging them to defend marriage or risk social and moral chaos. As a follow up, the Minnesota Catholic Conference is now mounting a statewide initiative to drum up support for inserting the definition of marriage as the union of one man and one woman into the state constitution.  What I cannot support, however, is making support for the marriage amendment a litmus test for being faithfully Catholic.

On a more personal level, certain of the archbishop’s actions have been embarrassingly callous.  He once refused communion to gay-identified college kids, and he is now asking Catholics to pray his recently written Marriage Prayer.  His decision to include the “one man and one woman” language directly into the prayer strikes me as an exploitation of religious sentiment and practice in the service of political ideology.  Mixing religion and politics is always dangerous, but disguising discrimination as virtue and prayer is particularly perilous.

At the most personal level, I serve as a spiritual director for lots of Catholics and Catholic priests.  In this role I see first hand the destructiveness that can come from automatically imposing abstract principles on real lives.  Church teaching appears increasingly irrelevant to younger LGBT folks, but their parents are sternly warned today about the sinful consequences of expressing any acceptance of the gay identity of their children.  Many priests—especially gay priests—feel particularly compromised, and I talk with Catholic after Catholic looking for convincing reasons to stay in the church.

Invoking their promise of obedience, the archbishop has instructed deacons and priests that they are not to disagree publicly with this stand.  If it becomes an issue of conscience for any of them, the archbishop has asked them to contact him directly.  At least one priest has nonetheless disagreed publicly with this initiative, and his has been advised that his priestly faculties could be in jeopardy.  The archbishop’s stand and instructions were strongly affirmed by the younger priests who are glad to see doctrinal and moral orthodoxy finally being addressed.  In certain circles there is a movement to see the tactics of the archdiocese and the Minnesota Catholic Conference serve as a national model.

Catholic Church teaching on LGBT issues will not change anytime soon.  Given this reality, Archdiocesan leadership can, however, decide to act more compassionately and less judgmentally.  I would invite the archbishop just to listen to LGBT people talk about their lives, loves and faith.  Just listen and at least temporarily hold the impulse to judge in check.

Joe McHugh is a spiritual director and retreat leader based in the Twin Cities.  He can be reached through


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