After her gay son died by suicide in 2010, Jane Clementi made it her mission to stop the bullying of queer youth. So when an opportunity arose to work with bishops in the U.S. Roman Catholic Church ― which has long considered queer love to be sinful ― the grieving mother took it.
The result of this unique collaboration was a statement signed by 10 bishops, including a cardinal and an archbishop, that called on “all people of good will” to “help, support, and defend” queer youth.
“The Catholic Church values the God-given dignity of all human life and we take this opportunity to say to our LGBT friends, especially young people, that we stand with you and oppose any form of violence, bullying or harassment directed at you,” the bishops wrote in the statement, published Monday on a website for the Tyler Clementi Foundation, the charity honoring Clementi’s son.
“Most of all, know that God created you, God loves you and God is on your side,” the bishops added.
The signatories include Newark, New Jersey’s Cardinal Joseph Tobin; Santa Fe, New Mexico’s Archbishop John Wester; and Lexington, Kentucky’s Bishop John Stowe.
Jane Clementi, a former Catholic herself, told HuffPost that the support of these church leaders feels “huge” to her.
“It is a historical step forward in the ministry and outreach to LGBT people,” she told HuffPost.
Queer Catholic advocates have welcomed the bishops’ efforts. At the same time, they’ve pointed out that only a small fraction of American Catholic bishops have signed the letter so far. Furthermore, the statement doesn’t acknowledge the religious roots of the bullying that LGBTQ kids face ― and how the American Catholic church may have actively contributed to these youths’ marginalization.
Those omissions have left some queer Catholics longing for much, much more.
Patrick Flores, co-founder of Vine & Fig, an affirming community for queer Catholics, said that without concrete commitments to stopping the bullying, harassment and discrimination that LGBTQ people face, the bishops’ statement is “absolutely toothless.” Queer Catholics expect more from their leaders, he said.
“We are here in their pews, teaching in their classrooms, singing in their choirs, donating to their capital campaigns, and even joining their seminaries and convents, all waiting to be seen for who we really are,” he told HuffPost.
Religious leaders’ words can have a positive impact on youth and their families, said Robert Shine, associate director of the LGBTQ Catholic advocacy group New Ways Ministry. But young people deserve action, too, he said.
“Proactive steps will make real the bishops’ message to LGBTQ youth that God is indeed on their side,” he said.
Monday’s statement acknowledges several chilling facts: that LGBTQ youth attempt suicide at much higher rates than their straight, cisgender counterparts, that they are often bullied and targeted by violence, and that they are often homeless because of families who reject them.
Tyler Clementi, a student at New Jersey’s Rutgers University, took his own life when he was 18 years old after a roommate used a webcam to spy on Clementi’s romantic encounter with another man. The teen’s death drew national attention to the bullying of LGBTQ youth.
At the time, the Clementis were attending an evangelical Christian church, which they later left because of its conservative views on homosexuality.
The bishops’ statement affirmed longstanding Catholic doctrine that calls for gay and lesbian people to “be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity” and that “every sign of unjust discrimination” against them should be avoided. But the church also teaches that queer sex is “intrinsically disordered” and can’t be approved under any circumstances.
When applied, this doctrine can have serious consequences for queer people’s mental health, livelihoods and families. At Catholic schools, queer and questioning kids may be exposed to non-aversive forms of conversion therapy, which experts say can be harmful. Catholic institutions have fired or dismissed gay teachers, administrators, musicians and volunteers who married their partners. Queer Catholics have been denied Communion, and Catholic adoption agencies are fighting in the courts to maintain their ability to turn away queer couples.
Through all of this, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, a group that represents all members of the American Catholic hierarchy, has repeatedly thrown its weight behind efforts to undermine LGBTQ equality.
More recently, top leaders at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops slammed President Joe Biden’s executive order extending federal nondiscrimination protections to LGBTQ people in a statement, declaring that it infringes on religious liberty and demonstrates “new attitudes and false theories on human sexuality which can produce social harms.”
If the bishops who called for the protection of queer teens this week want to know why queer people experience violence, bullying and harassment, they need look no further than their peers’ response to Biden’s executive order, said Flores.
“Are we grateful that a handful of bishops have reaffirmed the clear teachings of the Catechism regarding how LGBTQ people are to be treated? Absolutely,” he said. “Do we think it is a step forward? Not as long as the left arm is pretending not to know that the right arm is grabbing us by the neck.”
Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of the advocacy group DignityUSA, said she hopes the statement leads to conversations about what it actually means to protect LGBTQ youth. That could mean ensuring that Catholic schools are “safe and affirming” places, or making sure that queer kids and their families can attend Mass without hearing homilies that condemn gay and transgender people.
“I would urge LGBTQ youth, their family members, their teachers, and church ministers who work with them to write to bishops — those who signed the statement and those who didn’t — about what these words mean to them, and what their expectations are,” Duddy-Burke said. “I urge our church leaders to really listen to what is said.”
“This is for many an issue of whether they can graduate from school, whether they have safe housing, even whether they live or die,” she added.
Clementi said she thinks of the collaboration with the bishops as a “beginning.”
“We need to begin someplace. We need to find common ground, agreeing on the essentials of the Catholic faith, which is as I see it, loving God and our neighbors, and then thinking about how we can put that love into action,” she said.
“I am hopeful that this will be the beginning of many more conversations and that one day we will not need to have these conversations at all.”
If you or someone you know needs help, call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also text HOME to 741-741 for free, 24-hour support from the Crisis Text Line. Outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of resources.