On Wednesday, Pope Francis said homosexuality should not be a crime, but he did say it’s still a sin—a theological argument that’s remain unchanged since the 1970s.
Roman Catholicism is the largest branch of Christianity with about 1.2 billion believers around the world. The Catholic church is the oldest continuously running religious institution in the world, and the second-largest religion behind Sunni Islam.
When examining how certain religious teachings affect believers’ perspectives of themselves, God and others, believers should consider the “fruit” of these teachings, said Father Shannon Kearns. He is the first openly transgender priest ordained in the Old Catholic tradition, which traces back to the 1800s.
“The fruit of anti-LGBTQ theology is really clear. It’s fractured families, depression, and shame. The fruit of LGBTQ-affirming theology is also clear. It’s a restoration to community. It’s like coming back home to body,” Kearn said.
The reference to fruit is related to the “fruits of the spirit” outlined in the book of Galatians in the Bible. It goes like this “the fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.”
When examining the “fruit” of homosexual sin theology, Kearns said the narrative falls short of the qualities mentioned in Galatians. A common-sense observation of how LGBTQ have been treated because of this belief makes it clear that the sin narrative is harmful.
Spanish speakers took to Twitter Thursday night to clarify what the Pope, actually said. Twitter user James Alison said the Pope attributed the “but it’s a sin” quote to an “unidentified entity,” not himself. However, Shannon said this clarification doesn’t affirm LGBTQ+ people, even if the clarification does soften the Catholic church’s stance on queer folks.
The Trevor Project addresses the issue of LGBTQ+ sin, particularly the “am I going to hell?” question many queer youth ask when they come out.
“Despite what you may have read on the internet, it’s very important for you to know that there is nothing wrong with being bisexual or a lesbian. Just because you might like girls does not mean you are going to hell,” The Trevor Project said in a post about sexuality and religion. The post also lists resources for religious groups that fully include LGBTQ+ people in their ministries.
Reckon asked Kearns to share his reflections on how this statement was harmful, even if the blow is “softened” by explanations of the specific Spanish words the Pope used.
It makes queerness a behavior, not an identity
The common response to complaints about the homosexual sin theology is “just don’t have sex” or “just don’t act on your homosexual desires or interests.” This “solution” to the “problem” reduces sexuality to a behavior, not a part of someone’s identity, Kearns said. It also requires LGBTQ people to remain celibate for life if they want to follow a Christian sexual ethic, putting people at odds with both their human desire for sexual connection and their faith.
Even the stance that a homosexual relationship is not “God’s best” for believers is harmful, because it creates a shame cycle of feeling like your true, preferred self is not good enough, he said.
The American Psychological Association said the group most likely to experience distress about same-sex attraction is Caucasian males who say their religion is very important to them.
“Our queer and trans identity is intrinsic to who we are. It exists whether or not we date someone, whether or not we have sex, and whether or not we medically transition. These identities don’t have to be at odds, but they actually enrich each other in really powerful and beautiful ways,” Kearns said.
Not just queer folks, but straight cisgender believers can also benefit from viewing sexuality and spirituality as allies, not opponents, he said.
“When I started to preach about it, I watched people’s responses--their minds were blown. And it was not just other trans folks, it was straight and cis folks as well, who had also had uncomfortable experiences with their body growing up who still had scars and shame about their experiences,” he said.
LGBTQ “sin” is linked to dangerous, ineffective conversion therapy
Another common “solution” for homosexual desire, especially for LGBTQ+ youth, is conversion therapy—which is described as an effort to change a person’s sexual orientation from gay to straight through therapy or education. Conversion therapy is grounded in the idea that being LGBTQ is abnormal and a sign of a mental health disorder. Despite decades of research showing it is both harmful and not effective, conversion therapy is still happening.
It’s typically practiced by mental health professionals, clergy or spiritual advisers. The UCLA School of Law Williams Institute estimates about 700,000 American adults have been through conversion therapy, with about half of them doing so when they were adolescents.
Some conversion therapy techniques have used extreme measures like food deprivation and electric shock to change a person’s sexual orientation.
Major medical organizations in the U.S. and around the world have discredited conversion therapy. About 25 states have banned conversion therapy. The American Medical Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics have issued statements opposing the use of conversion therapy, calling it ineffective and harmful, citing studies that have connected conversion therapy with depression, anxiety and sexual dysfunction.
The American Psychological Association advises parents of LGBTQ+ youth to seek out educational resources on sexuality and inclusion instead of trying to change the child’s sexual orientation through conversion therapy.
LGBTQ+ people are also more likely to die from suicide or struggle with substance abuse, a “fruit” of this theology Kearns describes as a coping mechanism for homophobia (both internalized and external).
“It’s not that being queer or trans makes you suicidal or an addict--it’s that trying to deal with the hostile world impacts your mental health in really profound ways,” Kearns said.
It fuels homophobia in secular spaces
When churches reject or outright attack LGBTQ+ people because of who they love, the shunning doesn’t stop at the church doors, Kearns said.
Non-religious anti-LGBTQ sentiments often include narratives around protecting children or addressing mental health concerns. While protecting our children and our mental health is a value held by both secular and religious people alike, the anti-LGBT sentiments in secular spaces are legitimized by the sin theology, he said.
He credits the rise in anti-LGBTQ legislation to the religious right’s efforts to make Christian ethics the law.
“The problem is that a lot of people weren’t paying attention to people who are leaving the evangelical church who are warning that [conservative lawmakers want to make Christian ethics the law],” Kearns said. “These laws are driven both by religious belief, but couched in secular conversations about protecting children, banning porn, and labeling drag as sexually explicit. If you really got under it, you can’t make the argument without religion.”
What happens when you affirm LGBTQ+ believers?
Despite most mainline denominations labeling homosexuality a sin, about 5 million LGBTQ Americans say their religion is very important to them, according to the Williams Institute.
Making the decision to affirm LGBTQ+ believers can have an overwhelmingly positive affect on the mental, physical, and spiritual wellbeing of a congregation, Kearns said.
“This embodiment is all through our Scriptures. Like Jacob wrestling with the angel in Genesis 32, queer and trans folks have had to wrestle to hold on to our faith, and to, to hold on for a blessing like that, to me is such an example of if this faith means anything, it means something because queer and trans folks have persisted in it,” Kearns said.
There are many resources on LGBTQ+-affirming theology available online, including Kearn’s website, queertheology.com. Here are some resources where you can learn more about LGBTQ+-affirming religious communities and what religious texts say about homosexuality:
- The Trevor Project: Navigating LGBTQ Identities and Religion
- QChristian.org: LGBTQ+ Theology 101 (available en Espanol and en Francais)
- UCLA School of Law Williams Institute: independent research on sexual orientation and gender identity law and public policy
- Queertheology: Resources for parents of LGBTQ+ kids
- The Reformation Collective: Resources for LGBTQ+ inclusion in the church
LGBTQ+ Christians have been sharing their experiences and perspectives about why inclusion is important to them through the #FaithfullyLGBT hashtag, created by Matthias Roberts.
Kearns said he encourages churches and pastors to be honest with people about where they are in their LGBTQ+ theology, order to prevent further harm to queer folks who are curious about church.
Some churches may say LGBTQ people are welcome to attend services, but they would not be allowed to volunteer or serve in a leadership position. Affirming LGBTQ+ believers means full inclusion, without restrictions, on how they can serve in the church.
Kearns said he urges pastors who are wrestling with their theology around LGBTQ+ inclusion should be honest with their congregation about who is allowed to serve where. Many queer believers have been harmed in churches who claimed to be affirming, but ultimately restricted their level of involvement in ministry because of their sexuality.