“The apostolic exhortation is not just the last step of a long process. It is going to be another starting point.”
These words are from Jesuit Fr. Antonio Spadaro, editor of the influential Civiltà Cattolica, commenting on Pope Francis’ exhortation about the family, Amoris Laetitia.
The exhortation has been a disappointment to many in terms of LGBT issues, with some commentators saying that it offers a stale, cursory, and at times condemnatory treatment of these topics. How then, can Amoris Laetitia, become a starting point for LGBT equality that leads to progress and not simply more of the same? I offer two thoughts.
First, the exhortation’s deficiencies must be admitted and addressed. Notably absent in the document, and the Synod deliberations preceding it, are the lives and experiences of LGBT people. Michael Bayly of The Wild Reed, citing the many testimonies which LGBT faithful have offered before, wrote:
“Do I expect the Vatican to share these types of testimonies, word-for-word, in official church documents? No. But I do expect those who claim to be leaders and teachers within our Catholic tradition to be open and responsive to the transforming presence of God within all people’s relational lives (including the lives of LGBTQ people) and to be committed to ensuring that our statements of collective wisdom (i.e., our church teachings) actually reflect the diverse nature of the beautiful gift of sexuality. . .Is that too much to ask?”
Sr. Christine Schenk added similar criticism in the National Catholic Reporter, writing:
“The most distressing aspect of Amoris Laetitia is that it fails to incorporate the experiences of LGBT Catholics who also live deeply loving, holy and committed family lives. . .Instead of pastorally validating that great goodness exists in these relationships, the exhortation simply repeats condemnations of same-sex unions and adoptions by same-sex couples.”
Schenk said LGBT people are “among the most committed of Catholics” and “wrote the book about how to love and stay with a church whose hierarchy would often prefer that they go away.”
Second, LGBT advocates must be wary of how others in the church may use Pope Francis’ emphases on conscience and decentralization. Writer Kaya Oakes suggested in Foreign Policy that these emphases could potentially backfire:
“Handing this measure of flexibility to the clergy is a risky way of bringing about reform. The clergy are, after all, as diverse in their opinions about family life as the people they serve. . .It could, theoretically, also cause local church leaders to act more independently and harshly toward LGBT Catholics as a result of that independence — as the bishops in Malawi recently did when they denounced the government for failing to imprison LGBT citizens.”
More generally, Peter Steinfels wrote in Commonweal about the threat that mercy misused could pose to reform and renewal in the church:
“It is hard to say this, but the availability of mercy can be a tool of the powerful, an excuse for not reforming unjust laws or harsh practices, an alibi for skirting uncomfortable questions, a sop for those injured, a safety valve for discontent. Granting mercy can be an exercise in domination, a means for officeholders to demonstrate their power. This is not the mercy of God, not the mercy of love.”
Many Catholics, myself included, are still undertaking slow and thorough readings of Amoris Laetitia, as Pope Francis has advocated. With time and discussion, its wisdom and its failings will become clearer, as will its implications. But there is one clear starting point from which Catholics can begin right now. It is pointed out by Quest, a UK organization for LGB Catholics, in their statement:
“Everything that Pope Francis has said to change the criteria for moral judgements, and in challenging the competence of others to pass judgement in the first place, our people have been saying, for years. Buried in the lengthy text, are many other details of established but neglected doctrine that too, our people have been saying for years. . .The challenge now, is to continue saying these things, louder and more insistently than ever, but for the first time, with authoritative papal backing.”
Your faithful bloggers have been buried by reactions to and analyses of Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis’ exhortation on family. And they keep coming and we will keep reporting. But what is important for LGBT Catholics and advocates to remember amid this buzz about the exhortation is that our stories, our faith journeys, our witnesses must continue to be shared. There is no starting point from Amoris Laetitia on LGBT issues in the church without all of us contributing to the conversation and keeping institutions accountable.
–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry