Bishops in Malta have published a document on applying Amoris Laetitia, the apostolic exhortation on family released by Pope Francis last year. The bishops’ document reflects the pope’s call for more mercy and inclusion in the church, all of which is applicable to LGBT issues.
In the document, “Criteria for the Application of Chapter VIII of Amoris Laetitia,” Maltese Bishops Charles Scicluna and Mario Grech primarily addressed the situation of Catholics who are divorced and civilly remarried. Yet the principles they laid out are transferable to LGBT Catholics and their loved ones, too.
Released on the Feast of the Epiphany, the document compares Amoris Laetitia to the star which the Magi followed in their search for Jesus. Those “couples and families who find themselves in complex situations” often make this searching journey, too, but, the bishops say, these Catholics may be like the Magi “who took a different route back home after meeting Jesus.”
(Before proceeding, I acknowledge the limitations and troubling language of this document, similar to Amoris Laetitia’s own limitations. The bishops speak of people in “irregular situations,” and use the concepts of weakness against a heteronormative ideal for marriage. But these problems should not prohibit us from claiming what is good in these writings, and then building upon positive developments.)
Extensively citing the exhortation itself, the bishops identified guiding pastoral principles, foremost being that church ministers should not treat people with “complex family situations” different from other Catholics. Such ministry begins with dialogue in charity, leading to “a serious process of personal discernment about their situation.”
Just as divorced and remarried Catholics, many LGBT Catholics’ have experienced pastoral ministry in a discriminatory way, much different than their heterosexual counterparts. Sacraments have been denied to them and LGBT church workers have been fired, while heterosexual people in similar moral situations have not been held to the same standard. Listening as a starting point is always good, and listening to begin discernment rather than provide an answer is better.
Scicluna and Grech continued by addressing priests about their responsibilities to approach any discernment process with mercy and nuance:
“As priests, we have the duty to enlighten consciences by proclaiming Christ and the full ideal of the Gospel. At the same time, in the footsteps of Christ himself, we have the duty to exercise the ‘art of accompaniment’ and to become a source of trust, hope, and inclusion for those who request to see Jesus (see Jn 12, 21), especially for those persons who are most vulnerable. . .
“Our role is patiently to help them to form and enlighten their own conscience, in order that they themselves may be able to make an honest decision before God and act according to the greatest good possible (see AL 37).”
These words expand on Pope Francis’ insistence that the church is supposed to help form, not replace consciences, and it is to respect people’s conscience decisions once made.
What church leaders need to recognize is that many LGBT Catholics and their families, and in reality many Catholics generally, have already undergone a journey of conscience formation and discernment. They have made an “honest decision before God,” but the church’s leaders and pastoral ministers often reject them because of their decision.
The document’s principle that I consider most relevant for LGBT Catholics is the bishops’ treatment of people who are not sacramentally married, specifically those Catholics who are cohabitating or who have had a civil marriage ceremony, but not a church one. Church ministers owe such people “merciful and helpful” pastoral care, though they would like the care to lead people “‘to the full reality of marriage and family in conformity with the Gospel’ (AL 294).” However, the bishops added:
“In pastoral discernment it is important to distinguish between one situation and another. In some cases, ‘the choice of a civil marriage or, in many cases, of simple cohabitation, is often not motivated by prejudice or resistance to a sacramental union, but by cultural or contingent situations’ (AL 294) and, therefore, the degree of moral responsibility is not the same for all cases. . .
“Throughout the discernment process, we need to weigh the moral responsibility in particular situations, with due consideration to the conditioning restraints and attenuating circumstances.”
Again, the heteronormative ideal proposed by the bishops is not ideal. Yet, their willingness to be nuanced and compassionate when engaging these relationships is noteworthy. What would be even better is an admission that one of the contingent situations keeping same-gender couples from sacramental marriages is the hierarchy’s negative teachings on homosexuality.
Bishops Scicluna and Grech, and the people of the highly Catholic nation of Malta, have fairly good records on LGBT issues. Their words and actions have included the following:
- Bishop Grech sought greater inclusion for LGBT people in the church during his address at the 2014 Extraordinary Assembly of Synod on the Family–an opinion he attributed to his own engagement with the Catholic parents of LGBT children;
- Bishop Scicluna did not punish and even affirmed the LGBT outreach ministry of a priest who blessed a same-gender couples union in 2015. Though he opposed civil unions, Scicluna said the church should apologize to LGBT people, and criticized a right-wing blogger for homophobic language. Just last year, Scicluna became one of the few bishops to condemn the harmful practice of “reparative therapy”;
- Lay Catholics in Malta, specifically through the groups LGBT Christian groups, Drachma and Drachma Parents, have publicly affirmed LGBT people as gifts from God and worked for greater welcome;
- Politically, Malta has banned conversion therapy, passed civil unions, and has implemented what many considered the gold standard in Europe for transgender and intersex protections.
Some might find this latest document from Bishops Scicluna and Grech to be without merit, and readers may think my assessment of it is too generous. But given the bishops’ own more positive records on LGBT issues, and the larger push for equality by Maltese Catholics, I think a generous interpretive lens which admits limitations is warranted.
Into the many disputes over Amoris Laetitia, Malta’s bishops have shown what church leaders can do with the space created by Pope Francis reclaiming forgotten parts of the Catholic tradition. In this new papal era, it is more a matter of episcopal will more than Vatican constraints that dictates how LGBT inclusion will grow and deepen.
—Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, January 22, 2017