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Melinda Selmys Replies

Randall Smith asks whether it is possible to create a “safe place” in which “authentic dialogue” can take place. The answer: Not really. Dialogue is rather like sex: It can be safe, or it can be effective. When people dialogue there’s always the risk that one of the parties will have to change his mind or his behavior; apologies may be necessary; feelings might get hurt. The most effective dialogue involves all three of these elements.

Authentic dialogue cannot be safe, but it can be respectful. Respectful dialogue is not castrated dialogue that tiptoes around the truth; it is dialogue that speaks with genuine respect for the personality and free will of the other person. Prof. Smith is absolutely right in pointing out that when Catholics merely keep silent, and especially when priests scandalize their LGBTQ congregants by being “accepting” without being truthful about the Church’s teaching, it leads to misunderstanding and contempt. It is very unpleasant to be around someone who silently disapproves of you, or who paternalistically treats you as though you’re a spiritual infant who is not capable of handling the real demands made by Christian morality. A lot of people who have abandoned a gay identity in order to become Catholic have observed that it is demeaning to the dignity of gay and lesbian people to treat them as if they were slaves to biology, natural-born sex-addicts who are incapable of rational self-determination or responsible moral action.

The caveat is that respectful dialogue can’t just tell the truth; as Prof. Smith acknowledges, it has to tell the truth in charity. This is a principle most everyone is familiar with, but one which hardly anyone implements effectively. It is much easier to come up with an argument to explain why the things we’re already doing really are loving and charitable than it is to do the kind of honest self-examination necessary to understand why they might not be. In the case of the LGBTQ community, a lot of Christian outreach is hamstrung by its overweening concern with fraternal correction. Before we’ve even started to figure out how we’re going to love our neighbor, we’re trying to figure out how we’re going to use that love to convince him of the truth. This is backwards. The truth is an important part of love, but it is subservient. If you first love someone, then telling the truth will happen naturally, and it will happen in a way that will penetrate to the heart. If you only “love” someone in order to teach him that his way of life is sinful, you won’t get very far.

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