LGBT Catholics’ Prophetic Responsibility

Much has changed for LGBT Catholics since I first began this site, nearly nine years ago. In the institutional church under Pope Francis’ leadership, there’s been a marked shift to a more pastoral tone, to replace the harsh rhetoric under Pope Benedict XVI. At the Bishops’ Synod on Marriage and Family, even some conservative bishops acknowledged that the time has come to discard the “disordered” language in official teaching, some others even expressed apologies for the past harsh treatment of our community. In many Catholic countries, laws have been enacted to recognise same-sex marriage or civil unions. In response, an increasing number of bishops have come to recognise the value of legal recognition and protection for same-sex couples, even if not yet for full marriage. Under the radar, a much smaller number of bishops and other clergy are coming to support church blessings for these couples, to celebrate their civil marriages or civil unions.

Formal doctrine has not yet changed substantially, but there was some welcome movement in in Pope Francis’ “Amoris Laetitia” from the previous hard-line insistence on “objectively sinful” acts, to an emphasis instead on pastoral accompaniment, discernment, the “interior forum”, and respect for personal conscience. There was even some veiled suggestion that for innately homosexual persons, what is “objectively” sinful viewed in the abstract, may well be subjectively good, in the personal context – a point that goes right back to St Thomas Acquinas, as described by the French Dominican theologian Professor Alain Thomasett SJ

I have enthusiastically welcomed this shift in emphasis. In recent years, the tone of my posts here have shifted from what was once white-hot anger at absurd sexual doctrines and harsh rhetoric, to appreciation for the changes we have seen (and which I expect to continue and even accelerate). I have become rather more interested in promoting more sensitive pastoral practice, in parishes and in Catholic schools, than in banging on about the formal Vatican documents.

I was particularly enthused by the talk by Fr James Martin SJ to New Ways some time back, on the importance of “Building a Bridge” between LGBT Catholics and the established church. I accordingly proposed to Quest that this be the theme for its 2018 annual conference – a proposal that has been agreed. I’ve watched with interest the enthusiastic reception that Fr Martin has received for the book he published, based on the same theme and with the same title: “Building a Bridge”.

All this is important. It’s a truism that improvements in pastoral practice will, in time, lead to changes in doctrine.  For most people, its what happens on the ground that matters to them, not obscure details in Vatican documents.

And yet.

Listening to Msgr Krysztof Charamsa earlier this year speaking to a workshop at the 2017 Gdansk conference of the European Forum of LGBT Christian Groups, I realised that there is an important flaw in focusing entirely on improving pastoral practice, while ignoring the problems in doctrine.  While “Amoris Laetitia” has introduced a shift in emphasis, the core problems in specific teaching on sexuality in general, and about lesbian and gay Catholics in particular, remain untouched. Indeed, one of these  issues, on excluding gay men from the priesthood, has even been reinforced in a more recent document published under Pope Francis.

While listening to the talk, I found I was constantly seeing in my mind’s eye James Martin’s image of a bridge. For a real meeting of minds across that bridge, there needs to be real discussion. Fr Martin is correct, I think, in emphasising that such discussion needs to be conducted with “respect, sensitivity and compassion”, as formal teaching insists for the Church in its dealings with lesbian and gay Catholics – and equally, for LGBT Catholics ourselves, in our responses to the Church and its bishops.

However, respect sensitivity and compassion do not exclude the need for honesty, and discussion of difficult issues. One criticism that Fr Martin has received, from people on both sides of the debate, has been that in encouraging dialogue between the Church and its LGBT members, he did not go into issues of sexual ethics. His decision not to do so is fair enough – that was not his aim, with this book. It is, however, a conversation that needs to take place.

An editorial in The National Catholic Reporter recently argued that it is time for frank Catholic discussion of the whole gamut of sexual teaching, and so it is.  LGBT people must be part of such discussions, wherever they take place – and if they are not occurring organically, we need to raise them ourselves. We need to be much more public and upfront in talking about our lives and our concerns, and about how experience has shown just how harmful established doctrine can be.

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