An Australian bishop appointed by Pope Francis has powerfully called on the church to make space for lesbian, bisexual, and gay people, and to examine how it handles homosexuality, as part of his larger call for the church to press on in the work set forth by Vatican II.
Bishop Vincent Long, OFM Conv., of Parramatta offered his remarks during the Ann D. Clark Lecture last week. His talk was titled, “Pope Francis and the Challenge of Being Church Today.” Long said that among the church’s “greatest challenges” today is being inclusive, to be a church where, in Pope Francis’ vision, all are radically welcome. The bishop explained his definition of real ecclesial inclusiveness:
“By that I mean there must be space for everyone, especially those who have been hurt, excluded or alienated, be they abuse victims, survivors, divorcees, gays, lesbians, women, disaffected members. The church will be less than what Christ intends it to be when issues of inclusion and equality are not fully addressed. That is why you heard me say that I am guided by the radical vision of Christ. I am committed to make the church in Parramatta the house for all peoples, a church where there is less an experience of exclusion but more an encounter of radical love, inclusiveness and solidarity.”
In an extended section on inclusion, Long continued by saying the parable of the Good Samaritan is “an incisive lesson that cuts our prejudices to the quick” because through it Jesus redefined what goodness means and collapsed human boundaries. It is Jesus’ “vision of love, inclusion and human flourishing that ought to guide our pastoral response. ” The bishop pointedly added, “. . . it is the holders of the tradition who are often guilty of prejudice, discrimination and oppressive stereotype.” Because of these biases, Long said the church must look inward at its own response to people it has harmed:
“We cannot be a strong moral force and an effective prophetic voice in society if we are simply defensive, inconsistent and divisive with regards to certain social issues. We cannot talk about the integrity of creation, the universal and inclusive love of God, while at the same time colluding with the forces of oppression in the ill-treatment of racial minorities, women and homosexual persons. It won’t wash with young people especially when we purport to treat gay people with love and compassion and yet define their sexuality as ‘intrinsically disordered’. This is particularly true when the Church has not been a shining beacon and a trail-blazer in the fight against inequality and intolerance. Rather, it has been driven involuntarily into a new world where many of the old stereotypes have been put to rest and the identities and rights of the marginalised are accorded justice, acceptance, affirmation and protection in our secular and egalitarian society.”
Addressing the impact Pope Francis should have on Catholic engagement of homosexuality, Bishop Long commented:
“In one of his interviews on a rather thorny issue of homosexuality, Pope Francis says that we must always consider the person, because – I quote ‘when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?’ It seems to me that the Pope has more than moved away from the approach of condemnation and judgement. He has refocused on the proclamation of God’s love for the poor, the vulnerable and the marginalised; he has firmly placed the pastoral emphasis on the dignity of every person; he has committed the Church to the way of engagement, affirmation and compassion which is at the heart of the Gospel.”
Long’s call for the church to reform and renew its engagement of gender and sexuality issues was set within broader remarks about recapturing the vision set forth by the spirit of Vatican II. He said the church in Australia was at “a critical juncture” with declining numbers and public scandals rocking the institutional church. But with God there can be “unexpected outcomes of the most crushing defeats,” and he added:
“I believe that we are living in a watershed and a privileged moment in the history of the church. Just as the biblical exile brought about the most transforming experience that profoundly shaped the faith of Israel, this transition time can potentially launch the Church into a new era of hope, engagement and solidarity that the Second Vatican Council beckoned us with great foresight. From where I stand, the arrival of Pope Francis and his emphasis on servant leadership have unambiguously signaled this new era. He himself said poignantly that we are not living in an era of change but change of era. By this, he means that it is the church that needs to live up to its fundamental call to be ‘ecclesia semper reformanda’ or the church always in need of reform to be in sync with the movement of the Holy Spirit and direction of the Kingdom.”
Long said that, as part of this reform and renewal, there must be a “prophetic reframing” by properly interpreting the signs of the times “in a way that offers fresh and hopeful vision for the future.”
Long predominantly cited women as exemplars of faith, a notable point for church leaders who often condemn feminism. He cited the story of Puah and Shiphrah, Hebrew midwives at the beginning of the book of Exodus who rejected the Pharaoh’s desire that all young boys be killed. He also mentioned the life of Mary MacKillop, founder of the Josephite Sisters in Oceania who was once silenced by church authorities but whose prophetic witness since been reclaimed. Remarking on the model of Christian leadership these women offer, the bishop said:
“It is a vocation of the Christian leader to be with his people in their hopes and struggles, anxieties and fears. He/she is to be ‘a Malcolm in the middle’ who occupies in betwixt and between, liminal, peripheral and precarious places. It is not easy to be in the middle, and to be loyal to both ends of the spectrum, to belong to the Church of orthodoxy and yet also to minister in the world of the unorthodox. That is really between the rock and the hard place as they call it. Yet, that is the calling of the leader, because we are meant to be in the coal face, in the messiness of it all and at the same time in fidelity to the Gospel. . .
“Being merciful is at the heart of Catholic identity. It is not simply a matter of acting with mercy and compassion to those in need with our position of power and privilege intact. Rather, it is a radical discipleship of vulnerability and powerlessness in the footsteps of the humble servant of God.”
Long ended his remarks by listing ways of being church that he believes must be reclaimed for this renewed and reformed vision to be built up, including:
- “Less a role of power, dominance and privilege but more a position of vulnerability and powerlessness. . .
- “Less an experience of exclusion and elitism but more an encounter of radical love, inclusiveness and solidarity. . .
- “Less a language of condemnation but more a language of affirmation and compassion.”
This is not Bishop Long’s first time speaking inclusively about LGBT issues. During the homily at his Installation Mass earlier this year, Long offered similar outreach to communities including LGB people hurt by the church. According to Tim Smyth of Acceptance, an Australian LGBT Catholics group, Long’s Installation Mass remark was “the first public statement by an Australian Bishop calling for spaces in our church for gay and lesbian Catholics.” Hopefully, the bishop will build on these remarks, and his pastoral leadership will help grow structural outreach to LGBT communities and their loved ones.
Worth noting, too, is that another Conventual Franciscan bishop appointed by Pope Francis recently made positive comments about LGBT issues. Bishop John Stowe, OFM Conv., of Lexington, Kentucky offered the reflections at this year’s conference for the Conference of Major Superiors of Men, and in the first of these remarks he addressed LGBT issues in a positive light. You can find out more about his remarks by clicking here.
To close this post, it is best to quote Bishop Long once again, who offered this prayer at the Lecture’s end, a prayer which seems fitting for LGBT advocates in the church in this critical historical moment:
“May we be like the prophets for our people during this our contemporary exile. May we be strengthened to walk the journey of faith with them, proclaim the message of hope, the signs of the new Kairos and lead them in the direction of the kingdom. May all of us enact the rhythm of the paschal mystery of dying and rising in the pattern of our Lord who is the Alpha and the Omega.”
Amen. To read Bishop Long’s full remarks, which I highly recommend, click here.
–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry