(Originally published on Huffington Post, June 17, 2013)
A new Pew Research Center study provides an abysmal assessment of the Catholic Church for those of us who value LGBT inclusion in our faith communities. In a study of 1,197 LGBT adults released on June 13, 2013, 79 percent of those questioned rated Catholicism as "unfriendly" to LGBT people. Only 4 percent view our church as "friendly."
This is probably not surprising to many, due to the long list of anti-LGBT statements, actions and positions promoted by leaders of the Catholic Church, both here in the U.S. and across the globe in recent decades. Even as the study was being released, word of Pope Francis' acknowledgement of a "gay lobby" within the Vatican and his linkage of that phrase with corruption among church leaders raised anxiety among LGBT Catholics. We wonder what it is we'll be blamed for this time, even as media representatives and others scramble to interpret what the pope meant in his speech.
However, for those of us who identify as Catholic and LGBT, as supportive family members, or simply as ordinary Catholics dismayed by the Pew survey's findings, it raises at least two key challenges. First, it forces us to question how these numbers can coexist with other national surveys that repeatedly demonstrate that U.S. Catholics support civil rights for LGBT people at levels higher than any other denomination, and that relatively few Catholics view same-sex relationships as sinful. For example, in a March 2011 study by Public Religion Research Institute, 71 percent of Catholics supported civil marriage for same-sex couples, and only 39 percent said homosexual behavior was morally wrong.
We've also seen a succession of high-ranking Catholic public officials, including Vice President Biden; Govs. Cuomo, Gregoire, O'Malley, and Quinn; and a host of congressional and state legislative leaders speak out about how their faith has led them to support or even lead efforts to further LGBT equality. Catholics increasingly cite their social justice commitments in Letters to the Editor and other statements supportive of same-sex marriage. Clearly, while Catholics in general are supportive of LGBT people, the church is still perceived as unwelcoming. This seems to indicate that the church is so identified with the positions assumed by its leadership that the reality of support among "rank-and-file" Catholics is rendered essentially meaningless, at least in the religious context.
In addition, we are challenged to revisit episodes like Cardinal Timothy Dolan's Easter statements that the church needs to be more welcoming to lesbian and gay people. Since his statements to that effect on two national television news shows, the cardinal has failed to respond to invitations from several groups of Catholics involved in ministry with LGBT Catholics and our families to talk about what a more welcoming church might look like.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which Cardinal Dolan currently serves as president, recently sent bulletin announcements and preaching points to all the Catholic dioceses across the country, directing them how to use the recent feast of Trinity Sunday to denounce marriage equality. A small group of people attempting to bring attention to the cardinal's blog saying gay people are welcome at the table but must first wash our hands were prohibited by police from entering St. Patrick's Cathedral. A bishop on Long Island under Dolan's supervision who had removed a gay man from volunteer ministry -- after receiving an anonymous letter complaining that this parishioner had legally married another man -- returned 18,000 petitions demanding reinstatement with a brusque, dismissive note.
In essence, Cardinal Dolan, and by extension Catholic leaders across the U.S., may have briefly benefited from some great sound bites but then failed to do anything substantive to improve the real situation of LGBT people and our families. In fact, the Trinity Sunday campaign indicates that the bishops fully intend to continue their efforts to uphold discrimination against LGBT people in church and society, even as their flock grows increasingly angry at this position.
The Pew Survey should serve as a wake-up call to Catholics -- not only those supportive of LGBT equality but all those who in conscience disagree with the bishops on a broad range of issues related to gender and sexuality, from women's ordination to birth control. We need to grapple with the fact that our bishops are defining Catholicism in a way that is directly opposed to what most Catholics believe and want our church to be. We have a worse brand-identity issue than J.C. Penney!
If we want Catholicism to be identified as a hostile institution by four out of five LGBT people, and by many of those who support us, then let the bishops continue to own "Catholic, Inc." However, if we truly believe in the baptismal identity we reaffirm each Easter season and want our church to be seen as a help and haven for those in need, it is time for Catholics to claim a leadership role within our church, much as we have done in the public square. We must begin to take on the bishops when they act in ways that are contrary to our central creed that God is incarnate in all humans, including LGBT people and those who love and support us.
There are many options for Catholics troubled by the findings of the recent Pew survey. Most effective would be ensuring that anytime a church leader says something untrue, unkind or unwarranted about LGBT people; fires someone due to sexual orientation, gender identity, marital status, or an expression of support for LGBT people; or takes a position on a public matter that upholds institutional discrimination, call him out on it. Let him and others know that he is speaking only for a minority of Catholics.
If you know LGBT people in your parish or faith community, tell them you're glad for their presence and gifts. Ask if they find the community supportive, or if they find anything that happens there discomforting. If a priest delivers an anti-gay message, let him know you find it problematic, given Jesus' model of broad inclusion.
I hope the Pew research is repeated, and that action among the members of our faith will lead to a better result in the next report.