2012 marked the 50th anniversary of the opening of Vatican II. As we’ve noted before, the Second Vatican Council was instrumental in laying the groundwork that allowed a discussion of LGBT issues in the church to develop.
Earlier this year, theologian Richard Gaillardetz wrote an insightful essay in America magazine marking this important anniversary. Gaillardetz identified three crucial dynamics at the Council that allowed it to emerge as the transformative experience it was for the church. In three separate posts, I’d like to examine those three dynamics and reflect on how they apply to LGBT issues in the church today. (The next two posts will appear here in the coming week.)
The first dynamic Gaillardetz idenitifies is “the catholicity of dialogue.” He observes:
“During the four sessions of the council, bishops were introduced to other prelates from diverse countries and continents, who looked at key pastoral and theological issues from strikingly different perspectives. One of the more felicitous decisions of the council concerned the seating of bishops in the aula (the nave of St. Peter’s Basilica where the main meetings of the council were conducted). The bishops were seated in order according to episcopal seniority rather than by region. This created the circumstances in which an Italian bishop, for example, might sit next to a bishop from Africa.
“This arrangement made possible a fruitful exchange of diverse perspectives and insights. Indeed, some of the most important work of the council was accomplished at the coffee bars (nicknamed after two Gospel characters, Bar-Jonah and Bar-Abbas) kept open behind the bleachers in the aula. Bishops, after struggling to stay awake during one mind-numbing Latin speech after another, found respite at these coffee bars and often engaged in frank conversation about a variety of topics. It was the sustained, face-to-face conversation and sharing of diverse experiences that opened episcopal eyes to new possibilities. These conversations were further facilitated by informal gatherings of bishops like the 22 bishops who met regularly at the Domus Mariae hotel and were committed to encouraging a more wide-ranging deliberation than was possible within the aula. These bishops met weekly to discuss topics being considered by the council. . . .
“It was the many opportunities for discussion and debate, both formal and informal, that allowed the bishops to discern the impulse of the Spirit.”
What a remarkable opportunity for the church! Bishops actually had the opportunity to dialogue with one another, to share perspectives and test their ideas against what others think.
From so many hierarchical statements today on LGBT issues, one gets the idea that the bishops are not talking even with one another. Instead, they seem to be listening to and repeating only statements that come from the Vatican. Our church is clearly the poorer for this situation.
Bishops–and our entire church–need more opportunities like Vatican II to dialogue, particularly in the area of LGBT issues. LGBT topics are a relatively new topic for examination and discussion in both society and the world. It was only after the mid-point of the 20th century that even secular society began to slowly discuss these topics. Clearly, LGBT topics are among those that needed the fresh air that Pope John XXIII discussed when he announced the Council as an opportunity to open the windows of the church.
Several bishops have told me personally that these days bishops rarely discuss ideas with one another in informal settings. They, sadly, have few opportunities to test out ideas and theories with one another in free and open situations. Only staleness could thrive in such a context.
For LGBT issues, and for all issues related to sexuality, bishops need to dialogue with more than one another. Since all bishops are vowed celibates, if they only speak with one another, they will only hear part of the necessary conversation. They need to hear the lived faith experiences of people involved in public and loving sexual relationships.
While it may take a long time to end the culture of silence and non-discussion that infects our current hierarchy, we can foster that spirit of dialogue by starting conversations on LGBT issues on the grassroots level. Start programs of dialogue and education on LGBT issues in your parish or faith community if you can. If you are unable to do that, then raise LGBT issues whenever possible: in social justice committee meetings, education committee meetings, pastoral outreach meetings, evangelization meetings–wherever there is an opportunity to do so.
I know that in many quarters in the church there is an unhealthy silence about LGBT issues. We need to end that silence by addressing these issues whenever and wherever we can in ways that will not alienate those we are trying to engage in dialogue. If we begin the dialogue in small ways in our home communities, then the larger dialogue that is needed in our church, and that Vatican II modeled for us, can become a reality.
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry