Ministry to LGBT Catholics and their families must balance a “life-giving” tension between showing love and a genuine sense of welcome to all while also faithfully teaching the truth about human sexuality revealed by God in creation, Scripture and tradition.
That is the core message that runs throughout Archbishop William E. Lori’s “Like Every Disciple,” a 14-page document released July 20 that offers guidelines for parish ministries involved in the pastoral accompaniment of LGBT parishioners and their families in the Archdiocese of Baltimore.
“Persons who may identify as LGBT are daughters and sons of God, they are our brothers and sisters in Christ, they are members of the Body of Christ, they are our family members and friends,” Archbishop Lori wrote. “Like every human person, they were created with a desire for intimacy with Jesus Christ. Like every disciple, LGBT persons are called to a lifelong journey of turning toward the Lord, receiving his love, and, in turn, seeking to know and love him more and more deeply every day.”
The experience of LGBT persons means they approach the journey of discipleship within a particular context, Archbishop Lori said, yet the “deepest needs of their heart” are the same.
“The church, with a mother’s tenderness, never forsakes or abandons any of her children, but seeks to draw them close and lead them to Christ, who fulfills their heart’s desire,” he said.
Archbishop Lori noted that no matter a person’s gender or sexual orientation, “God loves us where we are, as we are.”
“But God is always inviting us to a more abundant life,” he said. “God loves us too much to leave us as we are. He calls each and every one of us to a lifelong journey of growing closer to him, in a word: discipleship.”
Archbishop Lori said the desire for charity, the desire to “truly welcome and embrace” sexual minorities, to hear their stories and to walk with them in their struggles is essential. Otherwise, accompaniment isn’t possible.
“We should not presume to understand what each person has gone through or is going through,” he said. “Openness to the lived experience of LGBT persons and a desire to walk with them is essential. We also recognize the feelings of hurt and rejection that many LGBT persons may have felt from those who should care most deeply for them: family members, clergy and members of their parish community. The response of the church must always be the response of Christ, which is love.”
At the same time, Archbishop Lori said, the response of the church must “always be one of truth.”
“If we are to love people, in the truest and deepest way, we must desire their good,” he wrote. “To love is to desire the good of the other. This requires us to ask questions about what is truly good: What are we made for? What does it mean to be a human person? What is the meaning of human sexuality? What is sacred about our embodied nature?”
Without facing those questions in light of “revealed truth,” Archbishop Lori said, ministries to LGBT persons cannot bear fruit.
“This teaching is not an obstacle to human flourishing around which we navigate,” he said, “but rather is an invitation to the abundant life that God promises. The truth is not something we create, but something we receive as a gift.”
While the archbishop acknowledged the tension between balancing charity and truth, he noted that in Jesus, they are one. In the past, various parish ministries to LGBT people have tended to emphasize one or the other.
“We need both,” said Archbishop Lori, whose episcopal motto is “Charity in Truth.”
The pastoral guidelines note that those who lead ministries to LGBT persons must be disciples of Christ. They must treat all people with respect, compassion and sensitivity, helping the church witness to the fact that LGBT persons are valued members and that they belong.
“Every parish should extend to LGBT persons the radical hospitality of Christ,” the document said.
Ministry to LGBT people must be a “safe place” where people are free to share their stories and know they will be welcomed and heard without condemnation. Like every ministry, the document added, the goal of reaching out to LGBT persons is to form missionary disciples.
The guidelines noted that all Catholics are called to chastity – a calling that can be a “great struggle” in today’s culture. Those who are engaged in that struggle may fail time and again, the document said, “but their striving deserves our deepest respect, admiration and support.”
“While it is important that those involved are able to grapple with church teaching, these ministries cannot be aimed at changing the teaching of the church,” the guidelines said. “The teaching of the church is not merely a set of policies, but the handing on of revealed truth. As such, church teaching should not be reduced to worldly or political categories.”
Any ministry involving minors must be “family-based, carefully considered, age-appropriate and distinct from ministry with adults,” according to the guidelines.
“In a particular way, pastoral accompaniment of minors experiencing gender nonconformity must be in accordance with the teaching of the church,” the document said.
The archbishop said he hoped the guidelines will encourage a “holistic approach” to LGBT ministry. He noted that any parish engaging in any form of ministry with LGBT persons and their families must share with him its plans for ministry and receive his approval.
Pastors and leadership of LGBT ministries must be in ongoing conversation with their regional vicar, Emmaus Team members in the archdiocesan Institute for Evangelization and the archdiocesan coordinator of LGBT ministry, the document said.
Pastoral leaders respond
Father Matthew Buening, coordinator of LGBT ministry for the Archdiocese of Baltimore, said he is encouraged by the “pastoral tone” of Archbishop Lori’s “Like Every Disciple” document. The archbishop appointed Father Buening to the newly created archdiocesan post in LGBT ministry in 2021. The priest also serves as pastor of two Baltimore parishes, St. Matthew and Blessed Sacrament.
“(‘Like Every Disciple’) is meant to encourage and support this kind of growing ministry in the church today,” Father Buening said.
The pastor said many people misconstrue church teachings on sexuality as “mean” and “unwelcoming” rather than viewing them as a “beautiful truth.”
“If we embrace the truth that the church teaches, we’ll find that it’s actually not against anyone,” he said. “It’s meant for our human flourishing. It’s meant for us to live lives that will be a blessing to us. There’s a lot of work to be done on charitably and clearly conveying the church’s teaching. And once that happens, I think a lot of this tension that people feel will kind of dissolve a little bit.”
Father Buening said popular culture encourages a “hook-up” mentality. The call to chastity – for everyone – is countercultural, he said.
“The sexual revolution is more complete and consuming and destructive than I think we realize,” he said. “We’ve kind of given up too much ground in that area and not spoken enough about the importance of chastity for everyone and the beautiful way in which we can love each other without bringing complicating matters such as sexual activity into it.”
While some Catholics object to the “LGBT” terminology employed in the archbishop’s document, Father Buening welcomed the use of that language.
“I think it’s a way in which we can acknowledge that this is an important part of people’s lives and recognize who they are,” he said, “but also keep in mind that we are Catholic first. We might have same-sex orientation, we might have gender incongruence – all those things. But we’re Catholic first.”
Father Buening said there are currently eight parish-based ministries throughout the archdiocese that focus on the accompaniment of LGBT Catholics and their families. Most of these tend to be regionally based, involving several participating parishes.
Outside parish-based ministries, the archdiocese is active in Courage, which helps those with same-sex attraction live according to church teachings. EnCourage, which offers support to family and friends of those with same-sex attraction, is also promoted within the archdiocese.
Noting how challenging it can be to respond to LGBT persons and their families, Father Buening said pastors sometimes shy away from such accompaniment. “This document actually gives them the ability to do that in line with the church and with the guidance from the archbishop.”
Rather than tamping down ministry to LGBT persons, the document will encourage more parishes to reach out – within the parameters set out in “Like Every Disciple,” Father Buening said.
Jennifer, a parent of a child who identifies as transgender who asked that her last name not be used, attended several listening sessions with parish leaders of LGBT ministries leading up to the release of the document. The member of a parish in eastern Baltimore County said the guidelines are a “step in the right direction” toward making all feel welcome.
A lack of a welcoming environment affects an entire family, Jennifer said.
“You can still honor the church’s teachings without rubbing it in and getting sort of hurtful,” she said. “We can focus on God’s love and being with people and showing people forgiveness and compassion.”
Diane Gibbons Lesko facilitates a ministry to LGBT people and their families, based at Church of the Resurrection in Ellicott City.
Lesko, who has a grandchild who identifies as transgender, called the archbishop’s document “bold, extraordinary and hopeful.”
Lesko was also involved in listening sessions leading up to the release of the document.
“I think it’s very positive that the document says no set of guidelines will say all that needs to be said,” Lesko said, expressing her hope for ongoing honest conversation with LGBT persons and their families and friends. “They want to continue to embrace their spiritual home in the Catholic Church.”
Alex Herzberg, a Catholic who experiences same-sex attraction, has been a member of Courage, which helps those with same-sex attraction live according to church teachings. He said he was not Catholic when he joined the group in spring 2021; it was his entry point into the church.
Herzberg had a chance to read “Like Every Disciple,” shortly before it was released, although he had heard last year in a Courage meeting that the guidelines were being developed.
“It’s good,” he said of the document. “I think Archbishop Lori is a good shepherd to us. I’m glad he’s clearly stating that any of these ministries need to uphold church teaching in a loving way.”
He added that he is happy the archbishop “recognizes that people who experience same-sex attraction or gender confusion all have different experiences or backgrounds within the church.”
“I also appreciated the archbishop saying that the role of any of these ministries is not to change church teaching. That’s really important to me, that we have to conform our lives to the way of the church, not the other way around.”
One of the strengths of the Courage meetings is that there is always a priest present to provide spiritual direction grounded in Scripture, accountability, transparency and fellowship with the men and women in the group.
“I’ve made friendships with guys I consider my brothers. We pray for each other and support each other with applying church teaching in our lives,” Herzberg said. “It’s taught me that my identity is not based in my behavior or my past lifestyle, but fundamentally as a beloved son of God.”
He said that with the new guidelines, “I hope parishes are more equipped to direct people who experience these feelings into the proper ministry – such as Courage – instead of ministries that lead them astray, that don’t provide them with the proper Gospel teachings.”
After an initial draft of the guidelines, a wide consultation included pastors in parishes with LGBT ministries, as well as gay and lesbian Catholics, people who identify as transgender, family members and scientific experts. The multiple layers of consultations included group meetings and individuals. Some of those involved in the consultation – including Jennifer and Lesko – voiced criticism of certain aspects of the document.
After listening and receiving this input as part of the discerning process for the document, Archbishop Lori finalized the guidelines – which are primarily addressed to pastoral leaders – to address the pastoral concerns for ministries to LGBT Catholics and their families.
In his letter accompanying the release of the letter, the archbishop said he wanted to provide those who are ministering in our parishes and schools with “a way of approaching this ministry that is rooted in the life-giving tension we often find between charity and truth.”
Father Buening said the document intentionally avoids being a “how-to manual” in the field of parish-based LGBT ministry. Instead, it “sets up the guardrails.”
“It shows the out-of-bounds lines and the playing field,” he said, “and allows the Holy Spirit to guide these many ministries so it can go forward in the best and most effective way it can within those guidelines.”