On March 15, the Vatican announced that it won’t bless same-sex unions, because, as they say “God does not and cannot bless sin”. (Quick aside: It’s interesting to consider that, after all, there is one thing the [allegedly] omnipotent creator of the universe cannot do.) This statement should have surprised no one. But it did. Because even though Cannon Law has never wavered in its commitment to identify LGBTQAI+ persons as unrepentant sinners, Pope Francis softened the edges just a bit. Regarding me, and people like me, he once said, Who am I to judge? In those gentle words, many of us found hope. Some conservatives, however, grew concerned, because they felt that this theological division regarding the state of the souls of LGBTQAI+ persons – more than anything else, even rampant abuse and corruption – had the capacity to destroy the Roman Catholic Church.
I confess, the announcement caught me unawares. In part, because my attention has not been on matters of the global church, but rather, on the state of souls in my local parish. I serve as a United Methodist pastor in Sonoma County, and do much of my ministry among homeless folks. Frustrated again (and still) by our county’s (excruciatingly) slow development of affordable housing, I have taken to rehashing our foiled attempts to develop safe places for unsheltered people to camp in the meantime. In particular, I have been reminiscing about a night some years back when my church held a community meeting to discuss our plans to develop safe camping on our (privately-held) property.
The church has 8 acres at its disposal, and believed that, in partnership with a social service agency, we could feasibly provide a spot for 20 people to camp safely while they were on a wait list for shelter. Knowing that there might be some concern in the neighborhood, we thought we would begin the progam with just six people, so that our neighbors would see how well we could manage. Additionally, we decided to hold a community meeting to alleviate the neighbors’ concerns.
It did not go well. In retrospect, there were all sorts of things we should have done differently. And also, there was little we could do to curb the outright hatred and animosity of those in the crowd who came with proverbial pitchforks. At some point, the social service director who was sitting up on the dais, tried to bring everyone onto the same page. (I was relieved that I was simply in charge of running the microphone around the sanctuary.)
Can we agree that homeless people need a safe place to live? she asked feebly.
The room could not agree. A few men hissed at her. One cursed at her. And the room exploded. For years after, I thought those men were the greatest obstacle we faced in creating safe camping.
But I was wrong. The biggest obstacle was the woman who stood up immediately after. She was a mild-mannered older white woman, who waved at me to get the microphone. Just seeing her pleasant face caused the room to calm down by a full degree. And into the relative silence she said, Of course, homeless people need a safe place to live. But that place isn’t here. And the room agreed.
This is the quiet curse of NIMBYism – the seemingly polite word that hides discrimination in a spoonful of vanilla yogurt. It’s not hateful, it’s sensible. They should live somewhere, but not here. Or, It’s not my place to judge them, but nor will I bless them. While the statement regarding same-sex unions came from the Vatican, Pope Francis personally approved the note. No doubt he did so as a matter of political calculation. And, honestly, this only makes the statement more hurtful. Because I, like many others, believe that deep down Pope Francis value the lives of LGBTQAI+ people. He has said as much. But at the end of the day, there is something he deems of higher value. LGBTQAI+ people matter to him like homeless people matter to the woman at the public meeting: Sure, they have value, but not enough value to disrupt my church.
I am reminded, again, of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s word from a Birmingham jail, in particular his disgust for white moderates, who “advise (Black people) to wait for a ‘more convenient’ season”. Regrettably, he writes, it is moderates, even more so than the KKK, who are the stumbling block to the work for justice and equity. Regrettably, it is the soft-spoken white woman, not the angry men, who undid our plans to provide a safe place for people to camp. Regrettably, it is kindhearted Pope Francis himself, not the faceless Vatican conservatives, who curses LGBTQAI+ people.
This “not at my church”/”not in my neighborhood” mentality is the most insidious form of cruelty, because it places the status quo above above any kind of conviction. It is bad enough when someone says that the lives of BIPOC, homeless, LGBTQAI+, or any kind of marginalized people do not matter. But it is worse when someone says, I believe your life matters, but not enough to disrupt mine in anyway whatsoever. How many LGBTQAI+ found hope in Pope Francis’ earlier words? How many now have been pushed to the edge by his bait and switch? He is not just someone’s homophobic uncle spouting off at the kitchen table. Because of his power, his calculated indifference is nothing less than a curse.
In the face of such harm, what are we mere Christians, queers, and concerned citizens to do? Still technically a Catholic (they just don’t have the funds to excommunicate like they used to!), it is easy for me to a lob theological critique at an old man in a dress in Italy. But as an ordained, housed (white) clergy person in The United Methodist Church, I am called to the more difficult task of self-examination. Because this calculated indifference that has been a curse from the pope is also a curse on the pope. Complacency can tempt anyone of us in the places where we hold power. It starts as we sit in the pews through the sermons or homilies that dehumanizing the other. It dwells with in failure to address a veiled racist aside in a casual conversation. It grows when we fail to advocate for more low-income housing to be built in our neighborhood.
It can be difficult to resist, so I ask God to help keep me vigilant to the needs of the people on the margins of society. I ask God to help us speak truth to the powers-that-be with the power that comes from beyond. I ask God to give us the strength to resist this curse of calculated indifference, and to align our very lives with those who society has cast to the margins. And I ask God give us the conviction to reject the heretical notion that there is anyone beyond God’s blessing.
I ask this, because I, like you, am created in the image of God, and so, not only am I blessed: I was made to be a blessing to others.