I was a longtime friend and confrere of Cardinal Francis George before I left the Oblates of Mary Immaculate and married my husband, Jeff Jackson. I had sent the cardinal a copy of my book, Confessions of a Gay Married Priest: A Spiritual Journey, and his positive written reaction to that memoir, which explores my integration of sexuality, spirituality, and relationship, has given me hope for the Catholic church.
"It was very kind of you to think of me and send a copy of your autobiographical memoir," he began in a full-page letter dated Dec. 12, 2013, on archdiocesan letterhead. "It has been a long time since we have had a conversation, but I felt as if I were talking to you through your book. The turn of phrases, the method of presentation and of argument, leaves you very alive in your pages."
In the letter Francis sent me, he was following up on our last conversation in 1988 at a sidewalk cafe in Rome. He and I knew each other as professors and priests from the same religious congregation. We shared dinner that evening with another priest who put Francis in his place after he waxed very-informed-Roman about the evil of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. During the same evening, Francis argued that seminaries should be purged of gay men. That night, I decided that there was little space in the church for me.
The rest of Francis' letter surprised me: "It was good to hear the tone of happiness that underlies the presentation of your life. It was good also to get the sense that you have resolved things without bitterness and are free to continue the journey. All this I deeply appreciate."
Francis caught my tone and spirit, a byproduct of 26 years of happy marriage to a wonderful man. But my tone belied my sadness and regret that the doctrinaire rigidity of the 1980s church had never left space for genuine dialogue about the oppression of sexual minorities (my oppression) or that of so many others.
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"As you yourself said in your note to me, my perspective on the path taken is different from yours." That is an understatement. Francis was an outspoken opponent of marriage equality; he called same-sex marriage "something that nature itself tells us is impossible," and he protested LGBT pride parades near places of worship, claiming gays abuse the freedom of speech like the Ku Klux Klan. (He later apologized.)
So it was even more surprising to me that on April 17, the night he died, I found hope in the next words of his letter: "Nonetheless, with you, I agree that we need to keep listening to each other rather than speaking at cross-purposes. The categories of explanation of human experience are many and, as I'm sure you know, I can't fit all your actions into the sense of things that I believe we have been given through Divine Revelation, even as I know that there is development in interpretation of events and of doctrine."
As more courts, legislatures, electorates and religious groups around the world affirm that the civil rights of marriage equality and religious freedom can thrive together, the words of the cardinal offer me hope that leadership in the Catholic church is also moving in the direction of justice and love.
I pray that Francis George died in peace, knowing that his studied perspective is appreciated and his willingness to listen and grow is treasured and needed in today's Catholic church and in other powerful institutions -- and that he died confident in a just and loving God.