You have read this story before. You can count on reading it again and again.
In recent years, American newsrooms have produced a river of stories about LGBTQ Catholics who have lost their jobs in Catholic schools, parishes or other institutions. In most cases they were fired after announcing a same-sex marriage or taking part in some other public act stating their views on sexuality.
Why did they lose their jobs? There are several possible answers that need to be explored in these stories.
(1) They had signed a doctrinal covenant of some kind (usually in a school) in which they promised to affirm Catholic doctrines or, at the very least, not to openly oppose them.
(2) They faced opposition from conservative Catholics who reject their acts linked to LGBTQ issues. The opposition could be ugly, graceful or some combination of both.
(3) They worked in actual parish ministry or administration positions in which they were expected to teach or, at the very least, affirm Catholic doctrines. This would include leadership roles in worship.
Once again, let me stress that journalists do not need to agree with Catholic doctrines in order to do fair, accurate, balanced coverage of these debates. The key is whether the coverage includes accurate information that allows readers to grasp the beliefs of articulate, honest, qualified people on both sides.
This brings us to the latest New York Times jeremiad on this topic, which ran on the front page with this headline: “He Was a Gay Man on Staff at a Catholic Parish. Then the Threats Began Coming In.” Readers will be hard-pressed to find a single sentence in this story that would be affirmed as accurate or complete by pro-Catechism Catholics. There are entire paragraphs, often without attribution, that provide the talking points of liberal Catholics who want to see their church’s doctrines modernized.
The person described in the headline is Antonio Aaron Bianco, a “gay layman in charge of managing St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church” in San Diego. Right up front, readers learn — as they should — the content of these threats, as described by Bianco. Then there is this summary statement:
Located in the heart of San Diego’s largest gay neighborhood, St. John the Evangelist is one of about 300 Catholic parishes around the country that quietly welcome gay Catholics. Although the Catholic church teaches that same-sex relationships are sinful, growing pockets of the church have accepted openly gay parishioners, staff members and even priests.
But after this summer, when the church faced renewed allegations of clergy sexual abuse, some bishops and conservative Catholic media outlets immediately blamed the crisis on homosexuality. That set off a backlash, fueling a campaign to purge the church of gay clergy members and church workers.
The key word in this passage, of course, is “welcome.” Does that mean being silent on doctrinal issues?
Also note this information: “… growing pockets of the church have accepted openly gay parishioners, staff members and even priests.”
What does “openly gay” mean? Does that mean openly advocating behaviors that violate Catholic doctrines? Here is what readers learn about Bianco, as the story’s crucial case study:
Mr. Bianco, who is married to a man, spent years working to revive the dwindling church. When he started, about two and a half years ago, there were only about 40 people at a weekend Mass, said the pastor at the time, John P. Dolan, who is now an auxiliary bishop in San Diego. Many of the congregants were elderly. There were no weddings or baptisms scheduled, and no religious education classes.
Note the strategic bit of background about the city’s hierarchy. Also, the information about the health and recovery of the parish is, to say the least, not debated. Moving on.
Working at the church was in some ways the perfect challenge for Mr. Bianco, who had studied for the priesthood in Rome for six years, but reconsidered after Pope John Paul II said that gay men should not be priests.
Instead Mr. Bianco took positions open to laypeople: director of religious education, Catholic school teacher, parish administrator. He briefly worked for Call to Action, a church reform group, on a project to help people fired from their jobs as Catholic school teachers, music directors, and pastoral associates because they are gay. At St. John’s, Mr. Bianco became the parish’s pastoral associate, arriving just as the church was being encouraged by Bishop Robert W. McElroy of San Diego to start a ministry for L.G.B.T. people.
Bishop McElroy said in a recent interview that the effort was guided by Pope Francis’ vision. “What the pope wants us to do,” Bishop McElroy said, “is build that person’s relationship to God, with love and mercy and compassion.”
Pope Francis has veered between sounding accepting and critical of L.G.B.T. people, supplying the church’s opposing flanks with plenty of ammunition.
Bishop McElroy said that the pope was steering the church toward a “middle course” between liberals who want the church “to dismantle” its teachings against homosexuality, and conservatives who want to make opposition to homosexuality “a litmus test for what makes one a faithful Catholic.”
Please keep reading, because it’s crucial to consider this story as a whole.
While reading, note the sources that were interviewed by the Times, as opposed to those having their views represented in paraphrases or bites of social media. Yes, note the following, which notes the simple fact that many conservative Catholics no longer trust journalists from many elite publications:
Several parishioners known to be opposed to the L.G.B.T. ministry and to Mr. Bianco did not respond to requests for interviews.
Would it have been possible to interview other Catholic conservatives in this piece?
Meanwhile, let’s consider a few issues that are not considered in this piece, all of which are linked to that crucial word “welcome.”
It is crucial to grasp that the Catholic church views homosexual acts to be sinful, but not the orientation itself. Yes, same-sex orientation is seen as evidence that sin is real and that God’s creation has become broken and fallen. The long, complex Catechism passage that is frequently quoted (often mangled) states:
Homosexuality refers to relations between men or between women who experience an exclusive or predominant sexual attraction toward persons of the same sex. It has taken a great variety of forms through the centuries and in different cultures. Its psychological genesis remains largely unexplained. Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity, tradition has always declared that "homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered." They are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved.
The number of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies is not negligible. This inclination, which is objectively disordered, constitutes for most of them a trial. They must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided. These persons are called to fulfill God's will in their lives and, if they are Christians, to unite to the sacrifice of the Lord's Cross the difficulties they may encounter from their condition.
Homosexual persons are called to chastity. By the virtues of self-mastery that teach them inner freedom, at times by the support of disinterested friendship, by prayer and sacramental grace, they can and should gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection.
Note, again, that “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered." Thus, under “no circumstances can they be approved.”
So what pivotal issues are avoided in this story?
For starters, does anyone see any kind of reference to the sacrament of Confession?
What does the leadership of this parish have to say about the call to chastity? Does this parish make any effort to defend Catholic doctrine that all sex outside of marriage is “sin,” another word that does not appear in the Times article.
Obviously, priests cannot discuss what happens in confession. They could, however, discuss their views of the church’s teachings on sin.
Here’s another important issue on which the article is silent: Are Catholics who are “openly gay” — whatever that means — receiving Holy Communion? This, of course, is linked to the Confession issue.
Would it have helped if the Times team had included the views of prominent Catholics who are gay, yet who affirm and defend their church’s doctrines? Do any such individuals exist in this particular parish or in the San Diego diocese? What local parishes do these Catholics attend?
What are Bianco’s views, as a man living in a same-sex marriage, on his church’s doctrines concerning acts of sex outside of Catholic marriage? What was his answer to that crucial question, during the Times interview? Was this question asked?
Final thought: The problem with this story is not the questions that were asked, the voices that were quoted. The problem is the voices that were not quoted and the questions that appear not to have been asked.
Was the goal of this piece — in terms of journalism basics — to accurately represent the views of Catholics on both sides of this doctrinal divide? Or was the goal advocacy of doctrines affirmed by the leadership of The New York Times?