Called to Care

Brian Riedel, CSWGS

I believe that care – whether the act of providing care or the simpler act of giving a damn – is at its best an act of unconditional love. This last October, news from two fronts, the Vatican and Austin, provided a study in contrast that shows exactly what I mean.

In the context of a documentary interview about his philosophy of pastoral care, Pope Francis announced that he believes in extending civil unions to same-sex couples. That stark departure from Church doctrine was real news. I hesitate to call it substantive, however. From where I sit, a call for civil unions is but a thin slice of the fuller loaf of legally recognized marriage that my husband and I now enjoy, courtesy of the 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges decision.

The timing of this Papal opinion was also remarkable. On the one hand, as Amy Coney Barrett was completing the rituals that would install her as the newest Supreme Court Justice, Justices Thomas and Alito had recently opined that Obergefell might need to be revisited. Though the interview appearing in the documentary must have been filmed long before Barrett’s confirmation hearings, its public release rang loudly as both she and another Catholic – now President-Elect Joe Biden – auditioned for new to them jobs.

Pope Francis blesses a group of people with raised hands, some holding cameras and phones, in front of a stone fountain.

To be clear, the Pope’s interview in a documentary does not carry the weight of a formal doctrinal document. His words did not rise to the level of an exhortation, encyclical, or bull, let alone an apostolic constitution. And yet, the power of his opinion should not be underestimated. His message emphasized growing the flock, expanding the circle of care the Catholic church might engage, bringing ever more people closer to a state of grace, even if incrementally.

Just prior to that Papal opinion, the news from Austin, Texas was quite different. The body overseeing Texas social workers removed key protections from its code of conduct. With evident direction from Governor Abbott’s office, the Texas Board of Social Work Examiners rescinded language that barred social workers in Texas from using sexual orientation, gender expression, gender identity or disability as a reason not to work with a potential client. That decision weaponized the provision of care. It also placed the Texas Board of Social Work Examiners in direct conflict with the National Association of Social Workers’ ethics policy.

As a gay man in the urban core of Houston with the privilege of well-funded health care and a circle of friends savvy to which social workers are gay-friendly and which are not, I could have chosen not to care about that weaponization. It did not affect me directly. But for queer folk without such resources, or queer folk who live in parts of Texas where such resources are thin on the ground in an already underfunded system of social services, these decisions presented a stunning contradiction. The Pope would embrace them, even as social workers tasked with helping people in crisis could exercise a new right to refuse them.

Fortunately, a well-coordinated response from social workers and advocates within Texas and beyond succeeded. Within weeks the Board unanimously reversed its decision and reinstated the protections. This fight is by no means over, however. The Board also recommended that Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton review the decision. To prevent future attempts to strip protections through policy adjustments, state legislators Jose Menéndez and Jessica González plan to introduce bills securing these protections in the 2021 legislative session.

Again, I believe that care – whether the act of providing care or the simpler act of giving a damn – is at its best an act of unconditional love. That is the core of the Pope’s message of pastoral care. His announcement chips away at the assertion that religious belief entails a right of refusal. Indeed, the political maneuvering around the Texas Board of Social Work Examiners had little to do with defending those of faith, and much more to do with placing conditions on who is deserving of care.