We Ought to Be Able to Count on the Bishops


No one who has spent any time participating in the life of the Catholic Church in the United States has any illusion that all Catholics are united in how to live a Catholic life, or even what it means to be Catholic. This applies especially to what Catholics believe. Yes, the Church is one and apostolic in her teaching, but Catholics are hardly one or apostolic in their faith. Many Catholics, frankly, place greater premium on their own personal preferences than on the universal and unchanging teaching of the Church. No one expects the phenomenon of “cafeteria Catholicism” or “supermarket Catholicism,” lamented and condemned by innumerable laypersons, priests, bishops and even popes over the decades, to disappear anytime soon.

Still, we ought to be able to count on the bishops. There are three traditional roles of a Catholic bishop: to sanctify, to teach, and to govern. When a Catholic bishop ceases to fulfill one of these functions according to the tradition of the Church, Catholics who are committed to the fullness of God’s revelation in the Church can be expected to lose confidence in that bishop.

By choosing to align himself with New Ways Ministry and their goals, Bishop John Stowe of Lexington, KY, (pictured above at the New Ways Ministry symposium with Sr. Jeannine Gramick behind him) has caused confusion among Catholics. Catholics, at least those who are committed to the fulness of God’s revelation in the Church, are wont to respect their bishops. This becomes difficult when a bishop traverses so far and so grievously from Catholic tradition, as I believe Bishop Stowe has done.

There are some significant problems with Bishop Stowe’s decision to participate in the New Ways Ministry’s symposium. New Ways Ministry has been repeatedly condemned by the Church, including by once Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, for dissenting on Catholic teaching and confusing Catholics by promulgating the homosexual lifestyle, including same-sex marriage, as a legitimate alternative lifestyle. As well. Sr. Jeannine Gramick, co-founder of New Ways Ministry, has been instructed by her legitimate superiors in the Church, to no longer minister to LGBT persons. She has consistently defied these instructions and continues in her disobedience to this day. I am amazed that Bishop Stowe would associate himself with an organization that has been regularly condemned by the Church over the years, and with a person who is living in disobedience to her religious superiors.

In his own statements, Bishop Stowe makes some significant errors. First, he says the Church “has always opposed discrimination of any sort.” This is patently false. The Church has always opposed unjust discrimination. It is not unjust discrimination to deny to a man the privilege of marrying another man, or a woman the privilege of marrying another woman.

Bishop Stowe hopes the Church can find a way to “defend our religious liberty without violating anyone’s human rights.” But, the Church’s first responsibility is not to protect religious liberty, but to faithfully proclaim the Gospel. Often, the Church suffers a loss of religious liberty when she does so. But, she never, or ought never, surrender her responsibility to faithfully proclaim the Gospel in order to enjoy religious liberty. As well. Bishop Stowe seems to imply that same-sex marriage, or at least a recognition of the legitimacy of a homosexual lifestyle, is a human right. This is absurd. Human rights are given by God, not by the state. God has made clear His divine purpose for marriage, and it does not include men marrying men or women marrying women, or the Church giving her blessing to a lifestyle in contradiction to the moral teachings of Christ.

Bishop Stowe says the Church needs to listen to young people. Agreed. But, Bishop Stowe wants the Church to listen to those young people who have rejected her teaching on sexuality. Listening to young people ought never mean abandoning God’s revelation in favor of the latest political, social, or even moral trend. When there is discord or rejection of Church teaching by young people, the thing to do is not to discard Church teaching in favor of what young people have to say, but to challenge young people to conform their will to the will of God.

No where in Bishop Stowe’s remarks, at least as quoted in this article, does he take the time to make the necessary distinction between respecting person who have a homosexual orientation, which is morally neutral, and rejecting the notion of a homosexual lifestyle as a legitimate expression of God’s will for human sexuality. All persons demand our respect.  But, the choices people make often do not. Bishop Stowe is remiss in making this distinction and I can only wonder if he fails to do so because he rejects the distinction, as New Ways Ministry certainly does.

We ought to be able to count on the bishops. Bishop Stowe has done the faithful of his diocese, and of the entire Church, a grave dis-service in associating himself with an organization that publicly rejects Church teaching and, in doing so, causing confusion among his confreres.

I offer below a summary of the Church’s teaching on homosexuality and some reflections of my own on the impact of same-sex marriage and other matters on the lives of Catholics.

The Catholic Church’s teaching on homosexuality

The Catholic Church’s position on homosexuality is not as black and white as many political pundits, and even many Catholics, might think. The Church has reflected much on the matter in recent years, even decades, and is summarized well in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC).

Chastity and homosexuality

2357 Homosexuality refers to relations between men or between women who experience an exclusive or predominant sexual attraction toward persons of the same sex. It has taken a great variety of forms through the centuries and in different cultures. Its psychological genesis remains largely unexplained. Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity,141 tradition has always declared that “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered.”142 They are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved.

2358 The number of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies is not negligible. This inclination, which is objectively disordered, constitutes for most of them a trial. They must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided. These persons are called to fulfill God’s will in their lives and, if they are Christians, to unite to the sacrifice of the Lord’s Cross the difficulties they may encounter from their condition.

2359 Homosexual persons are called to chastity. By the virtues of self-mastery that teach them inner freedom, at times by the support of disinterested friendship, by prayer and sacramental grace, they can and should gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection.

One might take note of a number of things from these paragraphs. First is that the “psychological genesis” of a homosexual orientation “remains largely unexplained.” This is still true today. Contrary to what is often assumed (largely as a result of poor reporting on the matter), the science of genetics has yet to discover a “gay gene.” Genetic studies have produced decidedly mixed results, and it’s difficult to determine on which studies one can rely, since journalists who report on such studies generally editorialize based on their personal views.* It’s essential to remember, however, that even if no genetic origin for a homosexual orientation is found, or even if it were confirmed that genetics has little or nothing to do with the development of a homosexual orientation, such would not imply that homosexual orientation is a choice. Indeed, the consensus seems to be that a variety of factors, perhaps genetic, certainly social, contribute to a homosexual orientation. We’ve come a long way from the thinking that held sway even into the middle 20th century that if a father held his infant son too many times the child would become homosexual. The origins of a homosexual orientation are still a mystery. Regardless of origin, possessing a homosexual orientation in no way imputes sin or guilt of any kind on the individual. To be clear: possessing a homosexual orientation, as much as possessing a heterosexual orientation, is morally neutral.

(*A somewhat humorous example: Damien Thompson, columnist for The Spectator, blasts Dr. Neil Whitehead, PhD in biochemistry and statistics, as a junk scientist. Whitehead published in 2013 the results of eight studies done in Australia, the U. S. and Scandinavia over twenty years that purport to show that the correlation of homosexuality among identical twins – people who share the exact same DNA – is only 11% for men and 14% for women, which would indicate little to no genetic etiology for homosexuality. But, Thompson bases his negative assessment of Whitehead on information garnered from a transgender website! Thompson is critical, too, of the fact that Whitehead’s paper can only be found on Christian, Jewish or Muslim news sources. But, this may be because the mainline media isn’t reporting on it at all. Instead, the mainline media is focused on a study led by Alan Sanders of the Northshore Research Institute in Evanston, IL, and published in 2014, of pairs of gay brothers, some of whom are non-identical twins, which purports to show that genetics does contribute to, though does not determine, homosexual orientation.)

Nevertheless, while the American Psychiatric Association now regards homosexuality as a normal variant of human sexuality, the Church still regards homosexual orientation as objectively disordered and homosexual acts as gravely immoral and contrary to natural law. Despite greater acceptance of a homosexual lifestyle in Western culture, that is not going to change. After all, despite wide acceptance of sex outside of marriage, contraception, co-habitation, divorce and even adultery on the part of heterosexuals, the Church’s condemnation of these as contrary to God’s moral law has not changed and is not going to. What would it take for the Catholic Church to officially accept homosexual acts and same-sex marriage as consistent with God’s will for human sexuality? Frankly, it would take a revelation from God on the matter that contradicts everything He has revealed to the Church on sexuality prior to this time. So, those who think that Church teaching on homosexual acts is going to change, anymore than her teachings on sex outside marriage, contraception, divorce or adultery are going to change, are fooling themselves. Whether one regards this as good or ill is another matter altogether. The point is: there is nothing on which to ground any expectation that the Church will change her teachings on these matters.

What else does the CCC say? Homosexuals must be treated with respect, compassion and sensitivity, and any unjust discrimination against them is immoral. Any vitriol aimed at homosexuals is immoral. The fact that in many states it is still legal to fire someone for being homosexual is immoral. Refusing to hire or promote a person at work, or refusing to rent an apartment, or refusing someone an opportunity for ministry in the Church are all immoral if done so on the basis of a person’s homosexual orientation.

Homosexual persons, just as anyone else, are called to fulfill God’s will for them and, with self-mastery, support, prayer and sacramental grace can attain Christian perfection. Hmmm … sounds like the same goal for anyone else who desires salvation in Christ. When Pope Francis was asked if it was possible for a homosexual person to be a good priest, for instance, he answered honestly that, if one desires to live by the will of God, “who am I to judge?” The idea that a homosexual orientation, in and of itself, is a barrier to the Kingdom of God is contrary to Church teaching, to what God has revealed to us about His desire and power to save us. We are all saved by the grace of God. Just as heterosexuals must master sexual orientation and are called to chastity according to one’s state in life, married, single or celibate, so are homosexuals. It’s not easy for anyone. But, the same skills and gifts of self-mastery, support, prayer and sacramental grace that makes it possible for anyone to attain Christian perfection makes it possible for all to do so.

Why does the Catholic Church condemn homosexual acts and same-sex marriage?

There is a great deal of tension between our contemporary Western culture and the Church. It’s often been so, of course, but it seems especially true today. Why is this? Western culture and Catholic teaching are in direct opposition to each other along two critical fronts.

First, Western culture today holds to the notion that there is no objective truth or, if there is, it can’t be known. Truth is largely the purview of the individual. This was no where made more clear than in the statement of Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy in the 1992 case of Planned Parenthood v. Casey, where he wrote: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and the mystery of human life…” Liberty means defining reality on your terms. Essentially, there is no such thing as truth. There is only your truth, my truth, his truth, or her truth. Contrary to this, the Judeo-Christian tradition has always held that truth is objective, that the truth can be known, and that it makes most sense for the community to create and enforce laws and mores based on the truth that can be known. Otherwise, natural consequences will follow, as sure as building a house on the principle that 2+2=3 will be followed by that house falling.

The Catholic Church is convinced that God has revealed to us His will for married love, and that His will for married love is found in a perpetual, exclusive commitment between one man and one woman. Yes, in the Old Testament we find multiple examples of polygamy. But, this eventually came to be rejected by God’s people in favor of monogamy. The Song of Songs and the Book of the Prophet Hosea reveal and affirm God’s will that marriage is between one man and one woman, as a symbol of the love shared between God and His people, Israel. In the New Testament, marriage is seen as a symbol of the love between Christ and His Church. There is only one Church. Christ has only one bride. As well, the Church is revealed as the bride of Christ, not the groom, or even some gender-undefined being. She is a bride, and Christ is her groom. There is one groom and one bride. There is one man and one woman.

The second critical front on which the Church and Western culture collide is the proper balance between the moral poles of the dignity of the individual human person and the social nature of human life. Western culture has reached a point of almost supreme ascendency of the individual over the community. Just as National Socialism and Communism emphasized one’s responsibility to the community to the point of neglecting or even rejecting the dignity of the individual, Western culture so emphasizes the rights of the individual that we lose sight of our responsibility to the larger community. For the Catholic Church, however, the two poles of moral integrity remain the intrinsic dignity of the human person and the social nature of human life. These two poles stand in constant tension with each other, and the effort to balance them is the whole point of moral theology and moral integrity. Just as National Socialism and Communism rejected the pole of the intrinsic dignity of the human person and leaned too heavily toward the social nature of human life, the West has leaned so heavily toward respecting the intrinsic dignity of the human person (though erroneously interpreted to mean the extension of individual rights) that we have largely rejected the social nature of human life. In fact, we’ve leaned so heavily this way that many are so impressed with their own dignity that the dignity of anyone else matters little to them. Our rejection of the social nature of human life translates even into the diminishment or outright rejection of anyone else’s life. It’s all about me! Abortion is only the most obvious and horrifying manifestation of this.

These two moral poles guide the Church in her thinking on morality, including sexual morality. As such, sexuality has a two-fold purpose: the enjoyment and nourishment of the marital bond, and the procreation of children. Union and procreation. Sex was created by God and given to humanity for the edification of the spouses and the building up of the human community. As such, sex is only properly enjoyed within the context of a marriage between one man and one woman that is open to the procreation of children. To deny or reject one of these purposes, then, is to deny God’s will for sexuality. All of the sexual sins in some way deny this two-fold purpose of sex established by God in His creation. That’s why they’re gravely immoral. To act in a way that denies God’s will for sexual love is to place oneself above God. It is precisely the sin of Adam: to take God out of the center of one’s life and replace Him with one’s self. It is to fall to the temptation to “be like gods” (Genesis 3:5). Same-sex marriage, by definition, cannot fulfill God’s will for married love in nourishing a bond between one man and one woman, or in the procreation of children.

Natural Law and social reasons to oppose same-sex marriage

Okay, but so what? If that’s the Church’s take on the matter, so be it. But, we have separation of Church and State in this country, and it’s wrong to try to shove Church doctrine down the throats of people who don’t believe it by trying to make laws that reflect Church teaching.

Well, first, while it may be wrong to shove, it’s not wrong to try to create laws that reflect Church teaching. Believers are as much a part of Western culture as are anyone. In fact, we made the darn thing! Many would argue, quite reasonably, that the demise of Western culture is largely a consequence of rejecting the Judeo-Christian moral tradition by our cultural contemporaries (like building a house on the notion that 2+2=3). In any case, Christians who are citizens of the United States have as much right as anyone to try to create laws and shape mores that reflect Judeo-Christian principles. We can write our representatives in the state house, the Congress and the White House asking that laws be made that reflect Judeo-Christian principles, just as those who reject those principles can write their representatives demanding that laws be made that do not reflect them. It’s called “the American Way,” and every citizen has a right to participate. The fact that a law reflects Judeo-Christian principles doesn’t automatically mean it is unconstitutional. Judeo-Christian principles and the U. S. Constitution are not mutually exclusive.

Second, there are natural law and social reasons for rejecting same-sex marriage that are universal and not derived directly from Church doctrine. Marriage pre-dates the Judeo-Christian tradition. First and foremost is the bond between marriage and procreation. Do we really want to say that marriage has nothing to do with children? We’re getting close to that point already, with the widespread use of contraception and the epidemic of single motherhood, and we’ve seen the consequences suffered by children, in particular, and society as a whole. The social safety net is crumbling, and much of that is due to the fact that the up-coming generation simply isn’t big enough to support their elders. After WWII, the European nations created a social safety net that attempted to guarantee a minimum standard of living for all citizens. When this safety net was created, there were 7 workers for every 1 person dependent on the safety net. Today, that ratio is 1:1. This is simply unsustainable and is causing huge tension in the European Union. Germany is getting weary of being the only successful economy holding up the entire Union. In the United States, the situation isn’t much better. Is anyone still foolish enough to think that they’ll be able to rely on Social Security after they retire? Honestly, the best retirement plan for workers today is their children. It used to be that your children took care of you when you got old. We’re heading back that way. Those without children, those with few children or those estranged from their children may have a hard row to hoe in the years to come. Personally, I don’t think this is such a bad trend, families taking care of their own. Is it better to rely on the State? There are plenty of reasons to think not.

Is it even necessary to make an argument on why single motherhood is a bad idea? One word: poverty. Single motherhood is, for most of the mothers and children who live it, synonymous with poverty. Also, is anyone left out there trying to make a serious argument that children don’t need a father? Certainly many children are living without a father, but is this a good thing?

To accept same-sex marriage is to certify, once and for all, the idea that marriage has nothing to do with children. It is also to certify the idea that children don’t need both a mother and a father or, for that matter, either a mother or a father. Mothers and fathers are interchangeable. Mothers and fathers, as such, offer nothing unique to the development of a child. A mother provides nothing that a father can’t provide, and vice verse. But, these claims are only that: claims that have no substance and no connection to how things work in nature and in the real world. We are attempting to build a house on a principle that is contrary to the truth. The consequences will be devastating and ugly.   The kids will not be all right. This house will fall.

As well, to accept same-sex marriage is to embrace the notion that the only meaning any particular marriage has is the meaning the individuals involved give to it. Indeed, the meaning given to a particular marriage may be radically different even among the individuals involved. There will be no social meaning to marriage at all. Do we really want to say that society has no investment in marriage beyond recording who happens to be married to whom at any given time? Again, we’re coming close to that with our widespread acceptance of co-habitation and easy, quick divorce. After same-sex marriage is accepted legally, there will be no legitimate legal argument against sibling marriage, polygamy or polyamory. If the only requirement for getting married will be that any two (or three or four or more) people want to get married, there will be no legitimate barrier to them doing so. This will create marriage chaos for our courts and, more importantly, for our children.

The situation is already grim. In the United States, 41% of children today are born outside marriage, and for women under 30 that figure is 53%. A staggering 46% of fathers in the U. S. have fathered at least one child outside of marriage. Marriage has been virtually discarded in many European communities. Co-habitating couples split up at a rate twice that of married couples, and two-thirds of couples who are living together when their child is born split up by the time the child is ten. According to a study in Sweden among legal same-sex couples, gay couples are 35 times more likely and lesbian couples over 200 times more likely to break up than married heterosexual couples. As well, gay relationships are much more likely to struggle with sexual infidelity, depression, domestic abuse and substance abuse.

On the other hand, research on the question testifies consistently that children who grow up in a home with their biological mother and father who are married to each other enjoy a myriad of positive outcomes: they do better in school, experience better emotional health, have more successful adult relationships, are more invested in themselves and their communities, and are at decreased risk of destructive behaviors such as sexual promiscuity, delinquency, drug abuse, and suicide. The near unanimous verdict of the social sciences is that the best environment for raising children is a home occupied by their biological parents who are married to each other.

So, why aren’t we doing everything we can as a society to boost the one institution that has consistently proven to be best for children, in particular, and society at large: marriage between one man and one woman? Instead, we are opening the door wide to any and all relational and familial structures, convincing ourselves that the kids will be okay. Why? Because, it’s not about the children. It’s not about what’s best for society. It’s about what individual adults want. We did the same thing with divorce 30 or 40 years ago: people wanted quick and easy divorces, so the “experts” contrived studies to convince us that divorce had no ill effects on children or society and the legislatures gave us the laws that made divorce quick and easy. We bought it. Now we suffer the consequences.

Impact of same-sex marriage on the Church

It’s difficult to say how large will be the impact of same-sex marriage on the Church. One thing that is almost certain is that it will significantly change the relationship between the Church and the State. It already has. In Massachusetts, Catholic Charities was forced out of the business of arranging adoptions because the Church refused to consider gay couples for adoption. In Illinois, one Catholic adoption agency chose to sever its relationship with the local diocese so they could continue to exist. In Washington, DC, funds provided by the city to the Archdiocese of Washington for services rendered to residents was cut off because the archdiocese refused to accept same-sex marriage.

There has been a concerted effort by the government in recent years to force the Church, as well as individual Christians, to act in ways that are contrary to Christian teaching. The HHS mandate is one example of this. Another is that the U. S. bishops program for assisting those trapped in human trafficking lost its federal funding because of the Church’s opposition to abortion. It’s virtually certain that government funding will be used as a bludgeon against the Church to embrace same-sex marriage. It’s possible, as well, that Christian institutions, such as schools and hospitals, could lose their certification and accreditation if the Church is unwilling to accept same-sex marriage. When arguing before the Supreme Court, proponents of same-sex marriage admitted that losing tax exemption was a possibility for the Church if she did not accept same-sex marriage. Many in the Church are already talking about the Church getting out of the “state marriage” business, and some priests and ministers have said they will no longer sign civil marriage licenses. This would mean that the faithful who want to marry and have their marriages recognized by the Church would be required to have two weddings, one civil and one religious. This is already much the practice in Europe for the remaining few who even bother to get married.

The impact on individual Christians has already been felt. Business owners who would never deny their business to gay and lesbian customers but who, nevertheless, cannot support same-sex marriage by offering their services for gay weddings, have been pilloried in the press, on social media and in the courts. In some cases, such as New Mexico and Oregon, individuals were convicted and fined by the state courts for refusing to service a gay wedding even before the state legally recognized same-sex marriage! The consequences have been fierce, from losing a significant amount of their business, to having to close under death threats, to one 70-year old woman under threat of losing her life savings. Individuals have lost their jobs for the “inappropriate” statements they’ve made on social media, in letters to the editor, or in the classroom that were interpreted as being less than supportive of the gay lifestyle or political/social agenda. When the state of California legalized same-sex marriage, it was made clear by proponents that nothing about the legalization of same-sex marriage would impact the religious freedom of individuals. That promise has not been kept.

There will be a split in the Church, to be sure. There are already plenty of Christian denominations that support same-sex marriage without reservation. Even in the Catholic Church, there are plenty of laypersons, religious, and priests who support same-sex marriage enough to publicly call the Church to task for her teaching, or ignore Church doctrine in the classroom or workshop and teach their own particular take on the matter. The consequences for doing so will likely range from severe to non-existent, depending on the parish, diocese, the bishop and the institution. Fr. Mark Miller is one priest who is often used by Catholic institutions to instruct teachers or health care professionals about ethics, even while his position on homosexuality represents a complete break from Church teaching. The widespread acceptance of same-sex marriage among lay Catholics, especially those under 30, will mean that fidelity to Church doctrine in the classroom will be on a case-by-case basis. We’ve already witnessed the chaos on this issue in San Francisco, with Catholic school employees refusing to support Church teaching and the bizarre spectacle of Dominican Sisters walking out of the Catholic school where they teach in protest of the students staging a demonstration in support of the homosexual lifestyle, with the consent of the school administration.

On a day-to-day basis, however, the impact will probably be small for most people. The numbers of homosexuals in the country represent a small percentage of the overall population, and the numbers of those interested in marrying only a percentage of the homosexual community. While Pew reports in one study that 60% of homosexual couples in the U. S. are or would like to marry, the trend in those countries that have had legal same-sex marriage is the opposite – in Spain, only 3% of the homosexual community has married and in the Netherlands about 8%. Wanting the State to recognize same-sex marriage is not the same as wanting to get married.

We must also be prepared to offer all the support we can to those brothers and sisters in Christ who experience a homosexual orientation while desiring and struggling to be faithful to God’s revelation to us on matters of sexual love. Their numbers, too, are not negligible. We are all struggling to be faithful, and we have the responsibility to support each other in our struggle to be faithful. It is a struggle for all of us, regardless of which temptations pull mostly at our hearts. We can’t turn our backs on each other.

Where will the balance fall? Will it be possible to treat homosexuals and same-sex couples with respect, while at the same time rejecting the morality of the homosexual lifestyle and the idea of same-sex marriage? This will be a challenge for Christians who desire to be faithful to the Judeo-Christian moral tradition. There is at least some reason to think that homosexual co-workers, confreres and even family members will not be interested in offering the opportunity. Loving the sinner while hating the sin (which, really, is part and parcel of every relationship, since we all sin) may not be proffered as an option by family and friends who are gay. It may be presented to us that rejecting the homosexual lifestyle and same-sex marriage is the same as rejecting them. We don’t have to accept that option. Even if they reject us, we don’t have to reject them. We are called to treat all with respect. We are called to treat all as if they are Christ to us. In over two decades as a nurse, I have knowingly taken care of the children of three same-sex couples. I have always treated gay couples and their children with the same care and respect I treat all. The relationship the parents share, or their personal moral choices, has no bearing whatsoever on the care the child merits or the respect accorded to anyone who brings their child to the hospital. The same is true for co-workers who are gay. There is nothing about their personal lives that demands of me less respect than what I would give to any other co-worker. If making wrong or sinful choices was a legitimate reason for denying someone the respect they merit as one made in the image of God, the first person I would have to charge is myself. I may not agree with or respect all of their actions, and will almost certainly not agree with all of their opinions (is there anyone with whom I agree on everything?), but all are made in the image of God. All are Christ to me, and I am called to be Christ to all.

Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.

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