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A Letter to Cardinal Dolan -- About Washing Our Hands

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The Most Reverend Timothy Dolan
Archbishop of New York
1011 First Avenue
New York, NY 10022

Your Eminence,

I owe you a long overdue "Thank You." Three years ago, a number of us at the Gay and Lesbian ministries at St. Francis Xavier wrote to you with explanations for our decision to march in the LGBT Pride Parade under our parish banner. I started my letter by expressing my gratitude for the warmth you had shown just a few weeks before the parade, when you came to consecrate the altar at our church. I still tell that story to anyone who will listen.

There we were, the entire parish gathered together. One by one, the various ministries of our community stood up to be introduced to you. Finally, the emcee asked all the members of the parish who were involved with or supported the Lesbian and Gay ministries in our parish to stand up and be recognized. I would guess that two thirds of the congregation rose. You did not flinch or frown. You did not tear your vestments or storm away. You were our archbishop. You applauded us. As someone who had once been alienated from the Church, your warmth meant a great deal to me.

While other participants in the LGBT ministries at Xavier complained that they only received a form letter in response to their missives, it was clear that you had written to me personally, and your letter showed the same warmth I had seen at your visit. I should have thanked you for that letter. I still have it. I know that you got a lot of flack from more conservative Catholics who were scandalized at your visit to Francis Xavier. I know that you have to be their archbishop as well. And I have to tell you that I get a little flack myself from LGBTQ people, Catholics and non-Catholics, because I make a concerted effort to speak of church hierarchy with respect -- even when their actions are painful and insulting to me.

So I have to say, Your Eminence, with all love and respect, that your blog entry of April 25 was another painful, insulting failure at ministering to LGBT Catholics. I really do believe (and I know that some of my friends do not) that you sincerely struggle with the problem of serving us in a church that has traditionally failed in that task. But if you want to love us, you have to do better than telling us, as you do in your blog, to "wash your hands", as if they were dirtier than the hands of any other Christian.

If I say all this in a public forum, as opposed to a private letter, it's because of the spiritual damage that seems to happen whenever the Catholic hierarchy speaks publicly about LGBTQ people. I recently made the acquaintance of Mrs. Trixie Cane, spokesperson for the "Withdrawing Awesome Feminist Affection and Homosexual and Trans Assistance, Support, Love and Labour From Awful Religious Relatives" campaign. (That's WAFA AHATA SLAL FARR for short.) Trixie is a bit of performance art, obviously, but the angry messages that she advocates are no joke. I recognize them as exactly the way I felt just a few years ago, when I wouldn't set foot in a church. In your blog, you noted that speaking the truth to people will make them uncomfortable. I urge you to watch her video to the end. It will make you uncomfortable, because behind the joke, it speaks a great truth. The Church is filling us with pain and rage.

And when Trixie calls out people who support oppressive organizations, by which she means the Catholic Church, I have to pay attention. I'm one of those people. I didn't go back to church in order to pick sides. I can't tell people to love the bishops without telling my bishop- you still don't know us. You have not been listening to us. You are driving us away.

I agree with you that ours is not a Church in which anything goes. Like every other human appetite, sex disconnected from the love of God becomes sinful. The rape of the planet, the exploitation of workers, the culture of death -- all of these are just the outward symptoms of the inner sickness we experience when we are alienated from God. But when Catholics gay and lesbian, bisexual and transgendered, intersexed and uncertain are all approaching the altar, reading from the pulpit and -- dare I say it? -- offering mass, everyone, including you, should pay attention. Is this really the end of the Church? Or is it a sign of the times that God is doing something wonderful with queer people in the Church? Isn't this the day the Lord has made?
Of course we should wash our hands of sin before we receive communion. So should everyone. The water in which we dip those hands before entering the church is a reminder of the grace we received in baptism, the grace to which we entrust our entire life. It's the grace of married heterosexual Catholics, who might have the potential to produce new human beings, baptized into Christ Jesus, and living the life eternal, but who are certainly not thinking about all of that when they are having sex. Nor do they need to. As Augustine explained in the Good of Marriage, it is not their efforts, but the grace of God in whom they put their faith that accomplishes these things. What sanctifies their sex is not a marriage license, but the love of God and of each other for which marriage is the outward sign. Failures in that love happen every day. Married people, wash your hands.

Celibates don't get a free pass either. Any pagan philosopher can forego sex with enough will power -- or I should say, with enough egoism. As Augustine says in Holy Virginity, a celibate who takes personal pride in his or her chastity is the worst sexual sinner of all. True celibacy is spiritual marriage to Christ, as Bernard of Clairvaux pointed out in his Sermons on the Song of Songs. Anything less is either the result of a low sex-drive -- which is neither a pathology nor a virtue - or a self-imposed loneliness that bears no more fruit than does a completely loveless sexual self-indulgence. In either event, the celibate forgets to love God and neighbor. Celibates, wash your hands.

So what about queer Catholics? From what should they wash their hands? Your Eminence, I can't answer that question without looking closely at the lives of each and everyone one of them. Neither can you. They are so varied, and have been so long ignored by the Church hierarchy, that there is no one place in the Tradition to which I can point and say, "Look there." The one thing I can say is that Nature -- which might be the God of some atheists, but is certainly not our God -- is not the standard by which to understand the lives of LGBT Catholics. Look for grace instead. If you want to see what God is making with our lives and our loves, if you want to help us grow further in that love, you need to spend more time listening to us. A lot more time. -

And you need to share what you hear with our brothers and sisters across the globe. Because the real challenge we face as a Church is not an attitude of "anything goes." Our real problem is that, like the resentful brother in the parable of the Prodigal Son, we are all afraid that someone is getting away with something while we are being good. Till he comes again, Jesus has placed you and your brother bishops, our elder siblings, in the role of the Father, who needs to tell us all, "Rejoice! Your brothers and sisters, married, celibate, and queer, were all dead, and now they are all alive!"

Praying for you, as always,
Michael F. Pettinger