Papal Canonizations, Part 1: Pope John XXIII’s Influence on LGBT Equality

On Sunday, April 27th, two recent popes, John XXIII and John Paul II, will be canonized as saints in the Catholic Church.  For many Catholics who support LGBT issues, this double canonization is an occasion of mixed emotions. Though many are happy with the canonization of John XXIII, their joy is tempered by the fact that John Paul II, who was responsible for instituting many anti-LGBT policies and teachings, is being similarly honored.

Pope John XXIII

Today, I’ll review the contribution of John XXIII on LGBT issues in the church. Tomorrow, I’ll take a look at John Paul II’s influence on these matters.  On Monday, we will provide a review of some of the wealth of commentary written recently about these two men.

John XXIII’s greatest achievement in his papacy was convening the Second Vatican Council, which opened up a new era of theological reform in the Church.  Most importantly, for LGBT issues, the theological reform included an important development in the Church’s sexual teaching.  Theologian Lisa Fullam recently offered a succinct description of Vatican II’s development of sexual theology in her essay, “Civil Same-Sex Marriage: A Catholic Affirmation.”  Fullam states:

“The Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes identified two ends of marriage: the procreation and education of children, and the intimate union of husband and wife through which ‘they experience the meaning of their oneness and attain to it with growing perfection day by day.’ (GS 48) Gaudium et Spes eliminated the long-held idea that procreation was seen as the primary end of marriage while the union of the partners was deemed secondary or instrumental to that primary end. The Council insisted that  ‘[m]arriage to be sure is not instituted solely for procreation’ (GS 50). Instead, it ‘maintains its value and indissolubility, even when despite the often intense desire of the couple, offspring are lacking’ (GS 50). Departing from most previous teaching in which the procreative end of marriage was elevated over the unitive end, the Council refused to prioritize either. However, the Council insisted that childless marriages are still truly marriages, not some lesser partnership, while no such contrary affirmation is made—loveless but procreative unions are not affirmed (or rejected) as true marriage by the Council.”

By displacing procreation from its position of primacy in sexual theology, and by raising the unitive function to a higher status, Vatican II opened the way for theologians to explore the unitive function more deeeply, which allowed them to consider the moral status of relationships which were not biologically procreative, especially gay and lesbian relationships.  So, John XXIII’s Vatican II  opened the way for a new discussion of sexuality in theology, which paved the way for the growing field of lesbian and gay theology.

Vatican II’s emphasis on justice being a constitutive part of the preaching of the gospel also had an effect on the development of LGBT ministry.  Fullam points out that John XXIII’s emphasis on human rights in his encyclical Pacem in Terris provided a new perspective for Catholics:

“The language of rights, then, is how Catholics take our religiously grounded understanding of the common good out into public discourse. With the humility appropriate to fallible human beings, we seek input from all people of good will as we do so. We don’t seek to legislate the whole moral law, but only those rights and duties by which the flourishing of all people is made possible. Our deep commitment to human dignity and the equality of all human persons is the bedrock on which Catholic teaching grounds its social message.”

John’s writings opened the path a more justice-oriented church.  One other outcome of this pope’s approach was the development following Vatican II of liberation theology, which would eventually be applied to the LGBT experience.

Immediately following Vatican II was when Catholics first started taking the human rights and liberation of LGBT people more seriously.  As this blog stated on October 11, 2012, the 50th anniversary of the opening of Vatican II:

“In one respect,  the movement for LGBT liberation, equality, and justice in the Catholic Church is a direct result of Vatican II.    The Council’s reform of theology, its updating of scriptural interpretations, its openness to scientific knowledge, its invitation for participation by the laity, its clarion call to work for justice in the world and the church–all these things were part of the 1960s Catholic zeitgeist which resulted in a burgeoning movement to be involved with, and work for justice for, LGBT people.

“It’s no accident that both two of the oldest Catholic ministries to LGBT people–Dignity and New Ways Ministry–emerged from this era and as a direct result of priests and religious following the call of Vatican II.  Similarly, it would have been unimaginable that John McNeill’s theological groundbreaking work, The Church and the Homosexual, could have been written before the Council.”

It is no overstatement to say that without John XXIII, the movement in the Church for LGBT equality would have been much delayed and much diminished.  For this contribution of his, and for the many other ways that he ushered in a more compassionate, just, and socially involved church, Catholics who support LGBT equality are rejoicing at his canonization.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

2 Responses to Papal Canonizations, Part 1: Pope John XXIII’s Influence on LGBT Equality

  1. Beth says:

    The toughest problem for the hierarchy from the beginning of Roman Catholicism has been letting go of its fruitless attempt at controlling the minds and behavior of human beings. John XXIII, that holy beautiful human being, began that process by opening the window so that fresh air and fresh thinking might come in. Thank God, despite the attempts of small men, it has never been completely closed again.

  2. […] for Vatican II and setting the conditions for greater openness in the Church, which you can read here. On Sunday, we covered the tremendous harm done to LGBT people and their loved ones under John Paul […]

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