Triage in Francis’ Field Hospital: Room for Sarah?

Image courtesy of

Antonio Spadaro, SJ is one of the nicest, most humbly centered and joyful men I have ever met, and his remarkable interview with Pope Francis is, almost a week after its publishing, still dominating conversations among Catholics and even non-Catholics. Bravo, Antonio!

The talks that are happening are remarkable, even among people who we may presume have discussed an issue many times, and perhaps have reached an impasse, or simply not known where else to go with it. Check out this affecting video of Father Jonathan Morris reading a letter from his gay, civilly wed sister, who writes of the Spadaro interview that its validation for her human dignity and God belovedness was only a small part of what moved her in Francis’ message. She wrote:

I would have been disappointed if after reading the whole interview–12,000 words–it did not include anything more than what the news cycle has been talking about (gay marriage, etc) it was filled with radical empathy, radical love, radical humanity while not at any point watering down the pope’s understanding of objective truth. The news clippings conveniently left out the parts about moral consequences flowing from the simple, profound, radiant message of the Gospel.

Morris added, sounding both proud and chagrined, “This is my sister, legally married to another woman, experiencing Jesus in a way that I haven’t been able to communicate to her, as well as I should have.”

Well, Father Morris, welcome to the club. Lots of us have fallen short of communicating Jesus to others as we have wished to; sometimes it has seemed as though there was a weakness within our spiritual vocabulary, keeping us tongue-tied. Or perhaps we simply needed to let out a breath, take in a breath and allow the Holy Spirit to move on the air, a little.

Cardinal Timothy Dolan, responding to the Spadaro interview said, “[the pope] is a great relief to all of us.” Well, what happens when you are relieved? You exhale; you let out a big, cleansing sigh.

I write about that relief over at First Things today, as I let out a sigh for Sarah, whom some of you might remember from combox days of yore:

I never met Sarah; ours was one of those modern online friendships defined by two people who never reside in the same time zone, yet–thanks to the combox and email–become intimate, devoted friends. She was a Lutheran, a scholar, a veteran who served twenty years in the military and then took up accounting, and she wrote the most fascinating, informative missives. When I mentioned that I was considering purchasing a handgun, Sarah gave me serious advice about what weapon might best suit me and also sent along images of handbags suitable for gun-carrying. When I was slow to make my purchase she hectored me about it, because, in her considered opinion, self-sufficient, firearms-proficient women could civilize the whole world in a week.

I loved her. She was kind and funny, and generous; the sort of person who is aware of her own shortcomings and therefore quick to give everyone else the benefit of a doubt. Although a Lutheran, she loved the Rosary and prayed the beads every night along with a podcast recording I had made of each mystery. She read, and loved, Saint Teresa of Avila, Saint Edith Stein, and also Pope Benedict XVI, with whom she identified, calling him “undervalued.” Still, she declared she could never convert because “the church wouldn’t have me, as I am.”

I always believed the church would. Sarah, as she was, something else. You can read the rest of it, here.


1) Why yes, Benedict and Francis have said many similar things, but Francis gets the tone just right.

2) I really loved the little primer of Ignatian Spirituality that the Pope provided in the interview, as well as his references to high art as a means of describing what the life of faith is, and also is not.

3) Eve Tushnet on Francis’ “sort of” Conservatism

4) Melinda Selmys with a well-done piece on the field hospital for the wounded. That would be all of us, in truth.

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • RelapsedCatholic

    If there isn’t room for Sarah in our church then we should pack it all up and go home. I pray she is OK, I pray she has found peace, and I pray you to shall meet.

  • BHappy

    Well…. I, like many other parents, I assume, am very confused. Although we love our daughter very much, we did not attend her “wedding” to her female partner. We felt we were trying to be obedient to our church and faithful to God.
    We did not throw them out of our life, we suffered greatly through that day of her wedding and so did she. Our relationship is rocky, but we try to be kind and loving.
    Now, I feel totally confused. Was all that hurt on both sides for nothing? Is it suddenly anything goes? How about plural marriage? How about marriage to minors as in other cultures? When and where do we say in love, I can’t in good conscience participate?
    My husband and I prayed, pondered, talked about & cried about our decision not to participate. We made a very difficult decision and acted in obedience to what we felt God and our church would ask of us.
    This is so hard for Catholic parents. We sought out priests and spiritual directors and no one really knew what to tell us. Most looked at us like they had no idea how to direct us.
    Now my daughter is expecting a child, and that adds a whole new dimension to our confusion. We have decided, of course, to embrace and love this new grandchild as we do all our others. But, we aren’t even sure they will allow us to be a part of the child’s life.
    Please, all, be kind to us parents, that are struggling with these issues. The culture tell us we are bigots. Our extended families take sides, for and against us. We just want to live in peace with everyone and avoid drama. At this point we have a live and let live attitude toward them and we interact with them as fully and lovinglyas possible.
    Pray for us.

  • Mandy P.

    I think one of the most beautiful, and most terrifying aspects of the Church is that she always has room for everyone as they are, BUT once you step into the Barque of Peter it becomes very clear that you simply cannot remain exactly as you are if you are going to progress spiritually. And I think that is what most often frightens people away from the Church, that knowledge that you must necessarily change. We are all very comfortable in our ways, be they sinful or not, and don’t like change but everyone who enters the Church must change to grow closer to The Lord.

    And I say all that from personal experience as a convert of two years. I came into the Church feeling like I was at an advantage because I already accepted the big doctrinal statements and was in line on various social issues, etc and so on. But what I found out was that did not preclude me from having to change and grow as well (and yes, it is a struggle every single day). The only difference is that I didn’t know what I would have to change up front, as people who are currently opposed to various Church teachings do. Thinking and living in union with Christ and His Church requires a huge shift both internally and externally and it is required of all.

  • Francis

    I will pray for you and for Sarah, too.

  • Inge Loots

    I don’t know Sarah, but if she really believed she was a woman and she was happy with her new gender, there wouldn’t be room in the church, since she wouldn’t be allowed to tell in public that she was a transgender and the ultimate goal would be reversing back to what she was.

    Theoretically there would be room for her, but in reality entering the Catholic Church would be accompanied by pressure to renounce her gender and basically who she feels she is. When you are different, when you don’t fit in the rules, you won’t feel welcome in a parish. I have first hand experience of that being gay. When some people found out, they didn’t want to talk to me anymore because ‘I didn’t belong here’. FYI: I live a celibate life. But that clearly isn’t enough to some people.

    In order for Sarah to feel really at home a lot of things need to change. People need to open their hearts to the world and live the Gospel like the pope does. And that’s tough. It’s much easier to formulate the faith as a set of rules and regulations and point at others when they trespass against a rule.

  • MeanLizzie

    Inge, have you checked out the comments at FT? Some interesting ones there.

  • Manny

    I think the name Sarah does ring a bell. May she rest in peace if she has passed away. I was going to say that I see no reason for her not being allowed into the Church, but then i realized that a transgender operation does alter one’s reproduction capabilities, and getting “fixed” reproduction-wise I believe is against Church law. She could confess it as a sin and be absolved, but then “the church wouldn’t have me, as I am.”
    On the other subject, as much as I’ve complained about the chaos Pope Francis seems to create, he is definitely doing something right!

  • Brian English

    “This is my sister, legally married to another woman, experiencing Jesus in a way that I haven’t been able to communicate to her, as well as I should have.”
    But unless his sister is led to reform her life, what has been accomplished? If Francis merely affirms her in her current lifestyle, isn’t that a defeat? The Church exists to save souls, not obtain high approval poll ratings for the Pope.
    Go over to The Catholic Thing and take a look at Hadley Arkes’ article today, where he has a picture of the ad in the NYT by NARAL, thanking Francis. Do you remember NARAL taking out ads thanking B16 or JPII? Isn’t this evidence that Francis should probably rethink his approach?

  • MeanLizzie

    You gotta start somewhere, Brian. If you have someone who won’t even open scripture, you have to START SOMEWHERE. As a former prostitute wrote to me, “first I had to fall in love with Jesus. Everything else came from there.”

  • Brian English

    But if people aren’t led to understand that what they are doing is wrong, how are they supposed to redeem their lives? What motivation do they have?
    The Pharisees, representing the Law, threw the woman caught in adultery at Jesus’ feet, where she was then able to seek forgiveness and redemption. Jesus did not chastise the Pharisees who brought the woman to Him because they were being too dogmatic about adultery; he shamed them (but wait, I thought Jesus didn’t shame people) because they didn’t see that they were also in need of His forgiveness and redemption.

  • Inge Loots

    Yes. It just confirms my observations.

    Yes, the Church disapproves of transgender stuff. But that’s not the starting point for welcoming people in the church. A lot of people in our society don’t make the distinction between a person and his or her behaviour. So, when we disapprove of transgenderism, society thinks the Church rejects transgenders. Transgenders (and gays) know what the church teaches. They need to learn first that they matter as a person and yes, the ideal is that they would feel comfortable with their original identity, but we don’t make it to a lot of our goal in this life. That’s the hospital of sinners. We know that, but a lot of people outside the church don’t. When you start with the transgender stuff, you only reaffirm the ‘museum of saint’ image a lot of peope have from outside the church.

    When I would welcome Sarah in the church, I wouldn’t make a big deal of her transgender identity. I wouldn’t water down the Church’s teachings on it, but I wouldn’t confront her with it from the beginning. If I would do that, I would evangelize backwards and look at her as a transgender, not as a person. Get to know the person first, get the person to trust you, THEN talk about issues. That’s what I meant.

  • TerryC

    I do not see how anything Francis has said should make you feel that the path you have chosen to follow is wrong. My child, a son, moved back in several years ago for a short period of time. Even though I know he is sexually active and unmarried I made it clear to him that he could not bring young women into our home…into his bed. He was unhappy with that rule, but was respectful of it.

    I have a granddaughter who has chosen to live with a man outside the institution of marriage. Every Christmas our large extended family exchanges gifts with all our children, grandchildren and their spouses. We do not exchange presents with whatever young man or woman our unmarried grandchildren might be seeing on any particular Christmas season. We also do not typically include this young man. The point is that married state means something. This is an acknowledgment of that fact. We however, do not exclude them from other family activities to which we also invite friends.

    Love and loving correction does not mean that we support actions we know are wrong. It also does not mean, necessarily, that we should cut off those we love from our lives because of their choices. One can do one without doing the other.

  • Roki

    You’re right that Sarah would have encountered many people in the Catholic Church who would misunderstand her and who would no longer want to associate with her, or who might even condemn her.

    She would also have found some who would support her unconditionally and even encourage her to be “out” about her gender identification.

    What she would not have found is a requirement that she try to reverse her surgery, or a demand that she begin identifying as male, or an expectation that she confess as sin her sense of being a woman. At most she might have had to acknowledge that her surgery was not, strictly speaking, medically necessary; but she would also see that her culpability for any sin in it was minimal.

    She would certainly have met obstacles to certain vocations: she could not be ordained, could not marry a man and probably would face high hurdles to marry a woman, and probably could not find a place in a religious order. But she would have plenty of company among those stuck for whatever reason in the so-called “single vocation.”

    In short, she would have found a human community, most of whom would certainly misunderstand her, and would struggle to relate to her, just as she must have struggled to relate to most of “normal” society.

    The only solution is for each of us and all of us to strive daily to love Jesus Christ, and to love our neighbors as he has loved us, laying down our lives for them. And even He balked at that demand. I pray that, when I encounter a person or a situation that I don’t understand, and that threatens to demand I lay down my life, I will have the faith to answer, “Not my will, but thine, be done.”

  • Inge Loots

    We Catholics are called to be different from normal society. The fact that we have become so similar to the world should be a huge wake up call. We are called to be from another world, other people, with a new vision. When I look at my parish I see none of that. And when I look hard I see it in only a few young people.

  • Inge Loots

    You can’t force people to feel remorse and go to Confession.
    For me it was only after learning about Jesus and how he loves me unconditionally the way I am, that I converted to the Christian faith. Before that happened I thought I never would be one because I didn’t fit in the rules.
    After picturing Jesus on the Cross in excruciating pain bearing my sins and imperfections I broke down and converted. And I changed slowly over time, making it easier to cope with my imperfections and sins.
    So unless that person loves Jesus first, there is no point into pressuring someone to Confess sins they aren’t really sorry of, but only do because of peer pressure.

    You ask what motivation people to have to redeem their lives if we don’t lead them to see that what they do is wrong? The answer is simple. Loving Jesus is all the motivation you need. When you love Him and feel how He loves you, the rest comes naturally. Sinning isn’t that you break a rule. Sinning is that you hurt Jesus. If you love Him, you don’t want to hurt Him. Simple.

  • Heather

    Unless they are encounter Jesus first, telling them “that what they are doing is wrong” is for nothing.

    I know what I’m talking about, because there but for the grace of God go I. I was a typically liberal lapsed-Christian quasi-agnostic university student, living with my boyfriend. My Catholic friend invited me to help with the music at an event at her parish. No judgement, no telling me I was doing anything wrong (frankly if she’d done any such thing I wouldn’t likely have remained friends with her), just an invitation. And to my complete surprise, I encountered the Lord there.

    It was only AFTER I felt Grace starting to stir in my heart that I was able to come to a place where I could start to wrap my head around Catholic moral teachings, and let my heart be changed and conformed to them.

    I’ve now been Catholic for 11 years.

  • kmk1916

    Maybe part of the problem is that unless it’s a small town parish, it is just difficult to meet people to know their vision. For example, the older people who stay and pray afterwards–not much of an opportunity to talk to them after Mass, and sometimes they don’t get out to events or Bible studies, etc.– but maybe they have prayed most of our generations (I think you are probably younger : ) ) back into or actually into church. Their activity is just as vital–perhaps even more–but invisible.
    I am sure that my husband and I look like tired middle aged people with kids, but would happily talk to you if we had a chance. We are just sometimes trying to get through Mass without a run to the bathroom half-way through. People are not what they seem, we all have a depth, and Holy Father Francis is helping us become discontent with the mediocrity in our hearts. We have to give each other the room to change and catch fire, and not put each other in boxes of supposition. (Not saying that you are, just generally.) Come, Holy Spirit!
    God bless you, Inge– Glad to know you’re out there…

  • Brian English

    “I’ve now been Catholic for 11 years.”
    Hold on a second. That means that both you and Inge entered and remained in the Church while those two dogmatic, fire-and-brimstone popes were on St. Peter’s Throne. How is that possible? I thought only Francis had the right “tone” to bring people into the Church, and would wipe away all those years of shaming and scolding emanating from Rome.
    The fact is, this whole change in tone theory is garbage. JPII and B16 both emphasized God’s love and Church doctrine–they are inextricably linked. The MSM ignored the love of God aspect and only reported on the Church doctrine aspect to the extent it could be twisted to use as a club to beat the Church with.
    The only reason Francis’ love tones are being reported is because, integrated into his soothing words, are cryptic statements that can be used to bash his predecessors and to suppor Progresive Catholics’ political agenda, especially here in the US. The fact that the Jesuits, the Champions of Catholic Dissent, are responsible for this interview, should surprise no one.

  • Inge Loots

    I think to phrase it better is that I became a Catholic despite a lot of things.
    I really don’t care who is Pope, as long as he does his job properly as I don’t have to deal with the Pope in my daily life. Rome is far away.
    However, I have to deal on a daily basis with Catholics who always seem to think that the glass is half empty, or who think they know everything better.

    So despite the people who try to be holier than thou in the Church, despite people who think they are better Catholics because they attend Mass in the older rite, despite people who want the Catholic Church to be more a Protestant Church. Despite the people who think I am a liberal, others who think I am conservative and those who think I am a traditionalist. I am none of that. Despite all the infighting I remain a Catholic, not because I want it, but because there is no better alternative.

    If I were really superficial, those things would have mattered to me. But since the real reason I became Catholic was Jesus and the Eucharist, I just decided to live with all those other things that make my life as a Catholic difficult. I’m sorry that I don’t fit in your stereotypes.