If you’re a regular in the Catholic blogosphere, you’re probably familiar with Ron and Mavis Pirola, the devout Australian couple who spoke at October’s Synod of Bishops on the family on the subject of “God’s plan for marriage and the family.” Married 55 years, the couple made headlines for, among other things, referring to marriage as a “sexual sacrament with its fullest expression in sexual intercourse” and suggesting church documents meant to give guidance to the faithful are often “not terribly relevant to our own experiences” and “from another planet with difficult language.” But what got the most press (in a synod in which many predicted LGBT issues would be avoided) was a question brimming with practicality, particularly for this time of year: They asked the 200 assembled bishops, “Should parents welcome their gay son and his partner home for Christmas?”
The Pirolas offered a real-life example of friends who discerned this question and chose to welcome their son and his partner: “They fully believed in the church’s teachings and they knew their grandchildren would see them welcome the son and his partner into the family. Their response to the situation could be summed up in three words, ‘He’s our son.’ “
Those three words can stand up against any lengthy theological summation because they derive from what NCR columnist Eugene Cullen Kennedy called the biggest synod influence: “that sacramental element of ordinary life and ordinary time, the critical baseline for the reception of belief: human experience.”
Kennedy wrote: “The power in many of the synodal statements as well as in most of the pope’s actions and statements issues not from their getting good grades in abstract theological theses, but from what we might term their confessor’s grasp of gritty human experience.” The Pirolas urged the bishops to reflect on this story as a model for parishes to welcome gay couples and truly “let the world know of God’s love.”
“If homosexual relations are intrinsically disordered, which indeed they are — reason teaches us that and also our faith — then, what would it mean to grandchildren to have present at a family gathering a family member who is living [in] a disordered relationship with another person?”
Burke added: “We wouldn’t, if it were another kind of relationship — something that was profoundly disordered and harmful — we wouldn’t expose our children to that relationship, to the direct experience of it. And neither should we do it in the context of a family member who not only suffers from same-sex attraction, but who has chosen to live out that attraction, to act upon it, committing acts which are always and everywhere wrong, evil.”
In the spirit of Pope Francis’ invitation to speak freely about these issues, I have to say I just don’t understand a response like that. I think of the young people who’ve come to me over the years struggling with their sexual orientation — some terrified of themselves, some filled with shame and self-hatred, others in dark, depressive states (need we mention the very real risk of LGBT youth suicide?). I think of the parents who’ve confided in me. Some felt betrayed by their church defining their children as “intrinsically disordered,” while others worried greatly about the spiritual ramifications of their children falling in love with someone of the same gender. A few of these parents weren’t speaking with their sons and daughters.
I’d listen to these individuals share their truths and try to be open to “the movement of spirits,” to locate God in these encounters. (In conversations like these, I find it wise to take a read of the Holy Spirit instead of going it alone with a quick response.) There’s no doubt that God wants us to resist, denounce, and name evil. But I never felt God wanted me to use words like “evil” and “disordered” when talking to these people. It felt like language more apt to divide these vulnerable apart than join them together. So I tried to talk about God’s unfathomable love, how he doesn’t make mistakes — even in the gift of sexuality — and how he never wants us to treat ourselves or anyone else as less than children of God.
My words didn’t go against teaching,
but I’m aware some in the church might consider it the wrong response, a deviation from “the party line.” But that’s the risky reality of discernment — it might not always agree with the messages of the authority of the day. Thankfully, the pope is a firm believer in discernment, regardless of its reluctance to adhere to a top-down power structure. Do I even need to mention how often Jesus found a contradiction between God’s will and the Pharisees’ take on things? That’s the same God we look for when we discern. It’s not about disregarding church teaching or embracing relativism. Rather, it’s proof our relationship with God isn’t static; all of us are constantly challenged to go deeper in our partial-understanding of God, to love him and his children more profoundly, and to notice the Holy Spirit working through the people around us.
So, Christmas is coming. Some of you may be asking the same question the Pirolas asked the bishops. The video below, made as part of our pilot “Gay Catholics” series, tells the “gritty, human” stories of the parents of two gay men. Like the Pirolas’ friends, these parents came to understand the power and completeness of the three words, “He’s our son.” It’s worth watching for anyone struggling with family division (not just relating to sexuality). Try to take note of what resonates inside and try “hear the things of God from God’s point of view.”
With the amount of division that exists in the world, I pray this holiday season that the messiness of being a human and having a family is something we can find grace in, not judgment and isolation. I pray that if we have the opportunity to welcome someone or turn them away, we choose to welcome. Finally, I pray we remember God doesn’t make mistakes when he creates and nothing can take away our innate dignity — even if we don’t always recognize it.
 And one nun.
 The catechism states homosexuals should be welcomed with “respect, sensitivity and compassion.” It also states that gay people are capable of “Christian perfection” — admittedly somewhat confusing in light of all the “intrinsically disordered” talk.
Editor’s note: Because of inappropriate comments in the Disqus thread on this blog post, we have shuttered the comments section.