Every year as we cycle through the calendar, the apologists at Catholic Answers can count on having to answer certain questions. From May through October, we get the wedding questions, at Lent we get the fasting and abstinence questions, at Christmas we get questions about non-practicing Catholics who show up to Mass once or twice a year.
Even secular holidays, such as the North American harvest festival of Thanksgiving, bring apologetics questions. Once in a while, the questions are about whether or not those who abstain from meat on Fridays outside of Lent can eat their leftover turkey on Black Friday (yes). Usually though, Catholics are more interested in who is being invited to share in the big meal.
A few years ago, this question came into the apologetics department a few days before Thanksgiving:
My sister-in-law invited [to Thanksgiving dinner] her gay brother and his "husband" who are "married"—as defined by our judicial system here in Massachusetts. There will be about twelve adults and ten children attending, children ages 13–19. I have a big problem with this being forced on me and [because of the situation] am not going to be with my family this Thanksgiving.
I feel that it is thrust upon me and confusing the children about what we believe as Catholics. I'd like to do the charitable route and go, but I feel I must stand up for what we believe and be a witness of our faith to both the adults and the kids. What do you think?
Thanksgiving is a family holiday, one at which one household often is thrown open to accept the far-flung relations. It is hardly surprising that a woman who is hosting Thanksgiving for over twenty relatives would want to invite her own brother to the event. She may even consider it rude not to invite her brother and his "husband," if for no other reason than that her brother and his partner might not otherwise have a place to celebrate a day on which it seems that everyone is with family.
Guidance from the Church
During the recent Synod on the Family an Australian couple made a presentation to the Synod fathers, in which they shared their opinion that a gay son and his partner should be welcomed to holiday gatherings, even though grandchildren would be present. American Cardinal Raymond Burke responded:
If homosexual relations are intrinsically disordered, which indeed they are—reason teaches us that and also our faith—then, what would it mean to grandchildren to have present at a family gathering a family member who is living [in] a disordered relationship with another person?
Cardinal Burke evidently fears that exposing children to a same-sex couple at a holiday dinner would risk that the children would be led to condone the couple's life choices. He concluded:
Families have to find a way to stay close to a child in this situation—to a son or grandson, or whatever it may be—in order to try to draw the person away from a relationship which is disordered.
Unfortunately, Cardinal Burke did not really answer the question about what families should do about a relative and his or her same-sex partner who need a place to go on major family holidays. In fact, if you take his statement in isolation, it could be used to argue that homosexuals should be ostracized altogether from family holiday get-togethers. Perhaps the cardinal did not intend such an interpretation of his comments, and simply was not in a position to offer more than general thoughts on the matter. While we cannot neglect to take his concerns into consideration, we do have to think about how to apply the principles in concrete circumstances.
Alone at the holidays
It is all very well to assume that it is no big deal to tell someone he cannot join family for Thanksgiving, especially when the announcement of persona non grata does not apply to you. But, speaking as a single person with very little family, I have sympathy for people on the outside, looking in, at holiday time. I also have sympathy for those who love lonely people and want to include them, even when the cause of the loneliness is partly the fault of the individual. On the other hand, I do not have a lot of sympathy for people who will not suffer loneliness at holiday time; and, from within the security of a loving family, seek to ostracize the lonely.
That said, not everyone is in a position to throw open their doors at Thanksgiving. The moral formation of children is indeed a necessary consideration for parents. There is an obligation to avoid giving the appearance of condoning immorality. So, what can be done?
First of all, we have to remember that each family situation is unique. The circumstances and dynamics will change from family to family, and a course of action appropriate to one set of circumstances would not be appropriate in another set of circumstances. When controversy flared following my answer to the inquirer's question, copied above, I pointed out the unique set of circumstances this family was dealing with:
The inquirer [in the question posed] was dealing with, (a) a family holiday, in which, (b) a relative by marriage, (c) was presenting as a fait accompli the invitation of, (d) a gay "married" couple to, (e) an occasion at which children would be present.
Change these circumstances to a casual family get-together in which a blood relative is asking fellow adults in the family if it is appropriate to ask a same-sex attracted, unattached relative to an occasion at which no children would be present, and you have circumstances in which entirely different approach may be appropriate.
Questions to consider
Once you have identified the unique issues your family is facing, here are some questions you might ask yourself in evaluating your family's circumstances.
Will children be present? This is probably the most important consideration. Parents have an obligation to protect their children from exposure to immoral conduct. But they also have to ask themselves if the conduct at a family holiday dinner really will be a negative influence on the children. Simply sitting down to dinner with two men or two women does not necessarily mean that there will be any inappropriate behavior.
Some men and women who are involved in homosexual relationships are discreet. Even those who are open about their relationships do not necessarily make a spectacle of their personal lives in public. It does have to be acknowledged that some who rightly consider homosexual activity to be immoral wrongly assume automatically, and without just cause, that same-sex attracted persons will act inappropriately in public.
Be honest. Is there really a danger that your relative and his or her "significant other" will act inappropriately? If so, you have just cause to shield your children from that behavior. But if your relative and the partner are not demonstrative in public, or are willing to be discreet while visiting, then there might be no need to shield your children from their company.
Are you the host or the guest? As the host, you have the right to set the house rules. Naturally, this does not give you license to be cruel, but it does give you more freedom to determine who will be invited and who will not. If asked to include family members you feel will be a bad influence, you have the right to decline. It would be kind to do so in such a way that it is not obvious why you are excluding someone. It can be enough to explain that you already have a full house and that there is simply no more room in the inn.
If you are the guest though, you must respect a host's right to set the house rules for his own home. Someone who goes to a lot of trouble to host a dozen or more extended family members for a holiday dinner gets to invite or allow someone else to invite a family member and his "significant other." It would be appropriate for adult family members to be apprised of the situation well in advance and solicited for input, but a guest is going to appear churlish if he makes a fuss that a same-sex couple is being welcomed over to someone else's home for one of the biggest family holidays of the year.
Are there alternatives? If the couple is turned away from your family gathering, will they have another place to go to celebrate Thanksgiving? Or will they be alone on the holiday, with only each other for company? If you were scheduled to go to a family member's house for the holiday, but feel that you cannot because you do not want your children to spend the day with a gay relative and his or her same-sex partner, could you and your spouse stay home and create a nuclear-family celebration for yourselves and your children? Frankly, it would be more charitable for you to freely choose to stay home with your immediate family than to demand that another person not be invited to an extended-family holiday.
Keep in mind that missing the big Thanksgiving feast with your extended family does not mean that you cannot see them at all during the holidays. Children could be taken to visit grandparents over the long Thanksgiving weekend. Extended family could be invited to smaller events during the holiday season. For example: You could plan a cookie exchange with the female relatives in December; you could get the sports fans together to watch football on New Year's Day; you could take presents to family and friends on Boxing Day or on Epiphany. It would be especially nice if you and your spouse engaged a babysitter for your children one evening during the season and invited the same-sex couple to join you for an adults-only get-together, such as for a meal at a restaurant and a holiday show.
Can you just say "Welcome!"? Thanksgiving has traditionally been a holiday for people to set aside their differences and come together in a spirit of mutual help and gratitude. You can be sure that there were among the Pilgrims those who were reluctant to sit down to break bread with the Native Americans who had arrived for the feast. And perhaps the Native Americans were wary about becoming too friendly with these strangers who had settled in their land. But historians report that the two groups managed to set aside their differences for a short time and enjoy each other's company:
Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruits of our labor.
They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which we brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others.
And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty (Edward Winslow, Mourt's Relation).
Home for the holidays
The bottom line, I think, should be that it is the ordinary obligation of Christians at the holidays to offer kindness and hospitality—first and foremost, wherever possible, to those who may otherwise be without companionship. To exclude anyone, whatever the reason for doing so, should be the absolute last resort and undertaken with a broken heart. It should never be the first consideration and should in no way be a cause for satisfaction. Rather, every effort should be made to ensure that everyone, especially those who are family, have a place to call home during the holidays.
Let brotherly love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares (Heb. 13:1–2).