Christians must bring encounter with Christ to those with sexuality or gender troubles, Marquette bishop says

Kevin J. Jones   By Kevin J. Jones for CNA


LGBT flag / / nito Shutterstock/CNA

Marquette, Mich., Dec 10, 2021 / 14:00 pm (CNA).

In matters of sexuality and gender identity, Christians must first help others hear the Gospel, encounter Jesus, and know God’s love, Bishop John Doerfler of Marquette has said. Accompaniment must come before addressing any apparently sinful behavior.

“To accompany others, it is insufficient merely to state the Church’s teaching. In addition, we must strive to meet people and lead them, step‐by‐step, as we all walk toward the fullness of truth,” Doerfler said in his July 29 pastoral instruction “Created in the Image and Likeness of God”.

The document addresses some aspects of pastoral care for people with same-sex attraction or gender dysphoria. While some media headlines focused on the bishop’s concerns that self-identified transgender people not be baptized without repentance, the bulk of the document focuses the need for Christians to proclaim the gospel and show patience in accompanying others.

“Accompaniment does not dilute the teachings of the Church, but rather, animated by charity, we are to proclaim the Gospel in its fullness,” Doerfler said. Accompanying someone leads “first to a deeper encounter with Jesus” and a proclamation of the message of the Gospel.

“In light of the experience of God’s love and with the strength of his grace, people are then able to address sinful behavior,” said the bishop. “To address the behavior apart from fostering a personal encounter with Jesus and his love is likely to harm the other person.”

“The grace of God makes conversion possible. Thus, we must begin the journey of pastoral accompaniment by striving to foster a personal encounter with Jesus Christ. Only then, can we shepherd people step‐by‐step to embrace and live the fullness of truth,” Doerfler said.

Doerfler’s 15-page document is now gaining media attention some four months after its release, when it went out to clergy of the diocese and was posted on the bishop’s webpage. A press release about the instruction was erroneously delayed until Dec. 8, John Fee, the diocese’s executive director of communications, told CNA.

“Observe that conversion, faith, and discipleship arise from the encounter with Jesus,” Doerfler wrote.

He invoked the example of St. Augustine, whose conversion took many years as his mother St. Monica accompanied and prayed for him. Zacchaeus, the wealthy man in the gospels who announced he would repay anything he has extorted, only desired to change his behavior after his personal encounter with Jesus.

Church teaching is supposed to be “good news to a broken world,” the bishop said. It “fosters steadfast love, fidelity, unity, and fruitfulness.”

“The way to healing is embracing Jesus and his teaching,” he said, adding, “In general, conversion and a change of behavior seldom happen in an instant.”

Jesus responded to people differently, as seen in his response to the woman caught in adultery and his response to the scribes and Pharisees. Christians should show wisdom “depending on the pastoral situation, sometimes we need to be gentle and sometimes we need to be more direct.”

Bishop Doerfler cited Pope Francis’ words from his 2013 apostolic exhortation Evangelii gaudium:

“The Gospel tells us to correct others and to help them to grow on the basis of a recognition of the objective evil of their actions but without making judgments about their responsibility and culpability. Someone good at such accompaniment does not give in to frustrations or fears. He or she invites others to let themselves be healed, to take up their mat, embrace the cross, leave all behind and go forth ever anew to proclaim the Gospel.”

Doerfler reiterated Catholic teaching on marriage and sexuality, adding that the approach to people with same-sex attraction or gender dysphoria must be one of “pastoral accompaniment” and “a loving, interpersonal encounter along the road to deeper faith in Jesus Christ.”

“Human persons are created in the image and likeness of God. We are beloved sons and daughters of the Father. Jesus Christ died for us, which shows the depths of our human dignity,” the bishop said. “Thus, we are to treat persons with same‐sex attraction and gender dysphoria with dignity and respect and all unjust discrimination is to be avoided.”

“We are not defined or identified by our sexual attractions or conflicts about sexual identity. Our fundamental identity is as a beloved son or daughter of God,” said Doerfler, who advised against identifying people with labels like “gay” or “transgender.”

Honest people should recognize that everyone has desires “to live in a way that is contrary to the true meaning of human sexuality.” Such desires are not necessarily sinful, though acts are. This is true whether in sexual matters, disordered anger, or disordered desire for food, alcohol, or money.

“As we accompany persons with same‐sex attraction, we acknowledge that we too need accompaniment,” the bishop said. “As Catholics, we see in our brother or sister with same‐sex attraction not only someone whom we can help, but also a friend, someone who can help us with our struggles.”

His document considers gender dysphoria somewhat analogous to someone suffering from anorexia. Such a person deserves love and friendship, but could benefit from qualified counseling.

“Those who experience incongruence between their bodily sex and what they perceive their sex to be deserve our love, compassion, and our care,” said Doerfler.

His instruction for the Marquette diocese discussed sacramental care and parish leadership for those in irregular situations. He cited Pope Francis’ 2016 apostolic exhortation Amoris laetitia, which said that someone cannot presume to teach or preach to others if he or she “flaunts an objective sin as if it were part of the Christian ideal” or wants “to impose something other than what the Church teaches.”

However, such a person can still take part in Christian community life, especially with the help of a discerning parish priest. Such a person could be accompanied through invitations to a prayer group, a Bible study, or outreach to the poor, and should be encouraged to attend Mass while refraining from Holy Communion, the bishop said. Allowing such a person to receive the sacraments or exercise leadership could cause scandal in a way that leads others to do evil.

Children cared for by a same-sex couple or with a Catholic parent in a same-sex union may be baptized if there is a “well-founded hope” that they will be raised and educated in the Catholic faith, “including the Church’s teaching on marriage and family.” And “to avoid scandal, the baptism should be celebrated privately, and care should be taken to avoid the impression of accepting the redefinition of marriage and parenthood.”

Those who are publicly living in any sexual relationship outside of a Church-recognized marriage of one man and one woman, including those in a public same-sex sexual relationship, may not be sponsors or a Christian witness for baptism or confirmation. Someone who identifies as a different gender than his or her biological sex similarly should not serve in such roles, unless they have repented. That said, repentance would not require reversing any physical changes made to a person’s body.

“The experience of incongruence in one’s sexual identity is not sinful if it does not arise from the person’s free will, nor would it stand in the way of the person serving as a sponsor or a Christian witness,” said Doerfler. “However, deliberate, freely chosen, and manifest behaviors to redefine one’s sex do constitute such an obstacle.”

Similarly, people in a public same-sex sexual relationship or any other irregular sexual relationship may not be baptized, confirmed, or received into full communion without repentance and withdrawal from the relationship.

“In danger of death, if there is evidence of repentance, these rites may be celebrated without withdrawal from the relationship if formal separation is not possible or is gravely inconvenient,” Doerfler said. Similarly, a person who publicly identifies as a gender different than his or her biological sex may not be baptized, confirmed, or received into full communion with the Church, without repentance.

On the matter of Catholic education, students should not be denied admission to Catholic schools or catechetical programs if their caregivers or a parent is in a same-sex relationship. At the same time, their caregivers or parent should be informed that the children will receive age-appropriate instruction in Catholic teaching. Same-sex relationships must not be presented “in a way that gives semblance to marriage,” and great care should be taken so that other students aren’t lead into error about marriage and parenthood.

Students with same-sex attraction or gender dysphoria should receive compassion, respect, and pastoral accompaniment to help them live consistent Christian lives. Bullying and unjust discrimination should not be tolerated.

Students should live chastely and avoid behaviors associated with putative efforts to change sex. They should be addressed by their legal names and pronouns corresponding to biological sex. They should use bathrooms and locker rooms in accord with their biological sex, though consideration should be given to allowing them to have a unisex bathroom. They should also take part in sports appropriate to their biological sex, the bishop said.

In all these differences and efforts to accompany others, the bishop emphasized the need for the gospel.

Jesus, in his encounter with the Samaritan woman who had five husbands, did not begin his conversation by “pronouncing a moral judgment on her behavior,” said Doerfler. Rather, he offered “living water and eternal life.”

“Only after the woman begins to desire this water does the Lord point out the truth of her irregular situation,” said the bishop. She journeys towards faith, Jesus reveals himself as the Messiah, and she testifies to others who “also come to believe.”

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