Fr. James Martin Responds to Critics of New Book on LGBT Issues

Amid the flurry of reviews and interviews surrounding his new book, Building a Bridge, Fr. James Martin, S.J. has responded to critics as a way to create greater dialogue. Today’s post features one review along with Martin’s responses. To read Bondings 2.0’s coverage of previous reviews by David Cloutier and Eve Tushnet, click here and here respectively.

y450-293Martin responded to Cloutier’s review in America by addressing the three problems which Cloutier believed makes the proposed bridge “shaky.”

First, Martin argues against Cloutier’s critique that LGBT people are problematically lumped together as a singular group in the book. Cloutier claimed that, in reality, there is tremendous difference among LGBT persons. He also stated that LGBT people differ from other groups in the church because their identities directly challenge church teaching. Martin replied:

“[M]y point was not that L.G.B.T. Catholics are all the same (or that that label is comprehensive) but that many have faced similar problems in the church: prejudice and exclusion based on sexual orientation and identity. . .

“We have an unfortunate tendency to view L.G.B.T. issues purely through the prism of only one of the Catechism’s teachings on homosexuality—its prohibition on sexual expression—rather than through the experiences of L.G.B.T. people as human beings. We tend to view them as a category of people who present a theological problem rather than as individuals with a graced history. I know that Prof. Cloutier does not wish to negate their pain, but it is important to see them as not inherently presenting a ‘problem.'”

Second, against Cloutier’s claim that the book seems more fitting for the LGBT conversation of the 1990s than the 21st century discussion, Martin said what has changed in the church is the number of LGBT Catholics who have come out:

“As more Catholics are affected, more parishes will be. As more parishes are, more priests will be. As more priests are, more bishops will be. And so on. I believe the explosion of L.G.B.T. Catholics ‘coming out’ and claiming their identities will lead to a growing desire among the entire People of God for welcome, and for what Pope Francis calls ‘encounter.'”

Encounter, Martin explained, is the work of the Holy Spirit and has no expiration date. Widespread social acceptance of LGBT persons “has been drive largely by encounter,” and within the church coming out “would still be quite novel, even radical in some circles.”

Third, Martin tackles Cloutier’s critique that the book never addresses sexual ethics. Martin said the omission was “intentional” because church teaching is already quite clear, but:

“At the same time, the L.G.B.T. community’s stance on the matter is clear: Same-sex relations are part and parcel of their lives. (I am leaving out the relatively small portion of the L.G.B.T. community that thinks otherwise.) Theologically speaking, you could say that this teaching has not been ‘received’ by the L.G.B.T. community, to whom it was directed.

“So I intentionally decided not to discuss that question, since it was an area on which the two sides are too far apart.”

Another review came from Sally Kohn, a lesbian essayist writing in The Washington Post, who offered an outsider perspective on the book. A secular Jew, Kohn said the book was “a lovely glimpse at church-community relations buttressed by an enlightening collection of uplifting scripture.” But, she continued:

“The problem is that Martin doesn’t adequately address the deep ecclesiastical and theological roots of the Catholic Church’s anti-gay antagonism. And so his book reads like a solution to a problem he fundamentally misunderstands.”

Kohn also questioned whether the question of homophobia in the Catholic Church could be adequately dealt with if not also addressing misogyny in the church. She added:

“Beyond the most superficial gestures and rhetoric of respect, compassion and sensitivity, Martin doesn’t address the sorts of lives he envisions for LGBT Catholics. Should they be celibate? Not marry? Exactly how welcome does Martin think they should be? Absent these details, Martin risks promising merely the illusion of equal dignity. LGBT Catholics don’t just want the lip service of respect, they want actual equal treatment.”

Martin responded to Kohn on the America website, saying her review “downplays [LGBT Catholics’] religious convictions and the mystical nature of the church.” He continued:

“To be sure, the onus is on the institutional church to reach out, to take risks and to take the first steps along the bridge of reconciliation. Why? Because it is members of the hierarchy who have marginalized the L.G.B.T. community, not the other way around. . .

“Moreover, the question of dialogue between L.G.B.T. Catholics and the institutional church cannot be seen strictly in ‘political’ terms, as Ms. Kohn seems to do in her piece. Granted, our ‘intrachurch’ discussion has ramifications beyond the Catholic world, but the discussion cannot be separated from questions of faith in God, companionship with Jesus Christ and trust in the Holy Spirit. A critique that does not work within this framework is going to come up short.”

Martin has a bigger message beyond answering the specific objections of this first round of reviewers:

“I hope the book shows how much in our Catholic tradition, particularly the Gospels, points us forward to a culture of radical welcome. The central assertion of the book—that for Jesus is there is no us and them, there is only us—does not need approval.

“My overall goal was not to win an argument but to help start a conversation and create a space for church officials who want to reach out to L.G.B.T. people, and for L.G.B.T. Catholics who want to know that they have a place in the church.”

Given the book’s high profile, and how contentious LGBT issues in the church can be, the conversation over Fr. Martin’s work will  surely continue, just as he intended.

Have you read Building a Bridge? What did you think? Leave your thoughts in the ‘Comments’ section below. To read Bondings 2.0’s full coverage about Fr. James Martin’s involvement on LGBT issues, click here. You can order Fr. Martin’s book by clicking here.

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, July 12, 2017

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Reviewing Fr. James Martin’s “Building a Bridge,” Part I

Fr. James Martin’s new book on LGBT issues, Building a Bridge, has created quite a buzz in the Catholic Church.  It is currently the #1 bestseller in the category of Gender & Sexuality in Religious Studies category on Amazon.com.  The book is based on an address Martin gave upon receiving New Ways Ministry’s Bridge Building Award last fall. With the current buzz has come many reviews, three of which Bondings 2.0 will feature this week.

Today’s post engages theologian David Cloutier’s review in Commonweal. His piece is titled “The Ignatian Option,” a reference to Rod Dreher’s “Benedict Option” that proposed opponents of LGBT equality begin to remove themselves from the secular world as equal rights expand.

Cloutier applauded Martin as someone who has “consistently sought to convey the riches of Catholic Christianity in both a style and a language that is as accessible as possible in a pluralist, post-Christian culture.” In doing so, Martin “does not sacrifice sophistication in aiming at accessibility.” About Building a Bridge specifically, Cloutier commented:

“Lest this approach be taken as a mere plea for more civility, Martin insists that the greater end is that each group will actually get to know the other. ‘You can’t be sensitive to the LGBT community if you only issue documents about them, preach about them, or tweet about them, without knowing them,’ he writes. Similarly, Martin insists on prayer from the LGBT community for the bishops. His book is not meant to outline where the conversation might go but to set the necessary conditions for a conversation. This seems a reasonable initial goal of ‘accompaniment,’ allowing for an ecclesial practice that is faithful to the church’s basic claim that gays and lesbians are ‘always our children’—and always children of God.”

David Cloutier

Cloutier also named three ways by which, in his words, the bridge was “shaky.” First, he disagrees with “Martin’s initial characterization of the LGBT community as a ‘group,'” given the problems which arise in generalizing discussions and the differing issues facing transgender people. Cloutier continued:

“This overly tidy solution about naming leads to the second concern, which is whether this book is written for a socio-political context that no longer exists. At times, I imagined myself reading Building a Bridge in the early 1990s, when as a young Catholic at a very secular liberal arts college, I was learning to negotiate (hopefully with respect, compassion, and sensitivity!) LGBT issues for the first time. But on this issue, the early 1990s seem like ancient history. The idea of generous bridge-building is more difficult when anti-discrimination lawsuits lurk in the wings. Moreover, Catholics have observed decades of church-dividing strife among Protestant churches unable to make this sort of a bridge work, and Martin never hints at why Catholic bridge-building won’t end up in the same place.”

Finally, Cloutier criticized Martin for not forthrightly addressing sexual ethics, writing:

“[H]e elides the fact that the issue at the core of the LGBT community is the challenge to church teaching. I presume this omission of the question of sex is intentional, but there is a sense of ‘let’s pretend’ that seems bothersome. . .Proponents of both sides might point out that the core problem is not how to bring together a marginalized group and an awkward church leadership. It’s really about two clashing views on the fundamental truths of justice and love. Each side has core beliefs about what these claims should mean, and we need to confront why those claims are at odds.”

Cloutier, who trends conservative, called for a conversation on the bridge that would involve chastity and involuntary celibacy, to “come to discern it as a potential gift, rather than an obvious curse.” Interestingly, he wondered whether church leaders should ‘come out,’ but do so only towards the end of “communicating the possibilities of holiness in following the path of Christ” because of their celibate state. He concluded:

“Again, [the clash between Catholics] is no different from what Catholics should expect from tough conversations on issues like economics and the environment: there is a clash of fundamental moral visions that must be engaged. If we’re going to have a conversation, we might not start with that clash. But any bridge is going to have to cross these troubled waters at some point. And perhaps then we’ll see if we need a new St. Ignatius or a new St. Benedict.”

You can read coverage of lesbian Catholic author Eve Tushnet’s review by clicking here. To read Bondings 2.0’s full coverage about Fr. James Martin’s involvement on LGBT issues, click here.   You can order Fr. Martin’s book by clicking here.

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, July 3, 2017

Related Articles

Publisher’s Weekly, In New Book, Priest Urges Church to Welcome LGBTQ Catholics

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The Church and Transgender Identity, Part 2

Yesterday, Bondings 2.0 began a two-part series about Commonweal magazine’s paired feature articles about “The Church and Transgender Identity: Some Cautions, Some Possibilities.”  The two Catholic theologians who penned the articles are David Cloutier, associate professor of theology at the Catholic University of America and the author of Walking God’s Earth: The Environment and Catholic Faith (Liturgical Press); and Luke Timothy Johnson, emeritus Woodruff Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at Emory University and the author of The Revelatory Body: Theology as Inductive Art (Eerdmans).

Yesterday, we reviewed and evaluated Cloutier’s article, which took a more negative view of current transgender discourse on identity and legal rights.  Today we will look at Johnson’s argument which takes a more positive approach. Johnson is not a newcomer to Catholic LGBT issues.  He spoke at New Ways Ministry’s 2007 and 2012 national symposiums, and his ideas were very positively received by the participants.

It’s first important to point out that though Cloutier and Johnson have opposing positions, they do share some ideas in common.  Just as Cloutier took a negative position, but also expressed sympathy and respect fo transgender people, Johnson takes a positive position but also turns a critical eye to some of what he sees as excesses of the pro-trans camp. Both lament the speed with which decisions on transgender issues are being made and both decry the hardening of polarized camps which the discussion seems to have fostered.  Johnson describes the contemporary situation:

“. . . [T]he pace of social change, or at least the agitation for it, is drastically accelerated by social media and the 24/7 news cycle, and that for users of Facebook and Twitter, immediacy is all.

“. . .[L]iberals are not simply wrong, they are demonic; conservatives are not merely in error, they are evil. In a paradoxical twist, agitators for the recognition of sexual difference in the name of diversity demonize any appeal to norm or nature as oppressive; they seem unaware of the way in which ‘diversity’ easily becomes an equally hegemonic norm.”

In his essay, Johnson sets out to examine “whether Christian theology has anything to offer our present situation. My effort focuses on gender, identity, and the body, and begins by addressing a theological tendency I regard as profoundly unhelpful, precisely to the degree that it pays no attention to actual human experience—and thus, in fact, fails to ‘respond’ at all.”

Luke Timothy Johnson

Before presenting Johnson’s theological critique, I want to point out that his preference to pay “attention to actual human experience” is exactly the point where he and Cloutier diverge.  Although Cloutier does not discuss human testimony, I pointed out in yesterday’s post that his writing exhibited a lack of knowledge about transgender personal experience.  Johnson’s approach, on the other hand, values human experience as an important source of theological reflection.

Johnson critiques the heavy emphasis on gender division and gender roles expounded in the writings of Catholic theologians like Hans von Balthasar, John Paul II, and Angelo Scola, as well as Protestant theologians Karl Barth and Stanley Grenz.  He provides a succinct and careful analysis of the main trends in their theologies and concludes that their approach is

“. . . based neither on observation of human behavior, nor on genuine philosophical reflection on the behavior of real people in conversation with all the texts of Scripture, but rather on elevating selected texts of Scripture perceived as possessing a distinct and absolute revelatory character.”

Johnson, who is primarily a Scripture scholar, takes a more dynamic view of Scripture than these traditionalist theologians:

“However important Scripture is as a witness to God’s activity in the world, and however truly Scripture participates in divine revelation, it is wrong to proceed as though revelation were contained in it alone. If theology has to do with the Living God, then it must pay attention to the ways in which God continuously manifests his power and presence in the world. Catholics have always regarded tradition as a second source of witness to God’s work—in liturgy and Creed, to be sure, but above all also in the living testimony of the saints. For where holiness speaks, the church must pay attention.

“. . . . Regarding subjects like sex and gender, theologians risk seeming deaf to the voice of the living God if they do not listen carefully to what God might be up to in the sexual experience of actual humans and in the study of sexuality and gender offered by philosophy, anthropology, psychology, and—for goodness sake!—biology.”

Unlike traditional theologians who have clear definitions of gender and gendered bodies, Johnson believes that “bodily expression is always ambiguous, always difficult to decipher. If we believe, however, that God lives and continues to touch us, then we must learn something of the grammar and syntax of real bodies.”  This awareness is especially true because human beings reveal  “a variety of ways in which “male” and “female” can be individually embodied and expressed.”  He proceeds into an informative discussion of people who are intersex, meaning that they may have been born with ambiguous genitalia or other hormonal or secondary sex characteristics that can not easily be classified as male or female.

Most important to the Catholic discussion of transgender issues, Johnson asserts that gender is not a moral or religious classification, but a biological and social one.  As such, he says it is a relative, not an absolute, good, “not constitutive of humans but is rather an accidental (if extremely important) dimension of being human.”   He continues:

” . . . [T]he desire to change one’s gender is not itself a moral issue. It is not in itself a disordered drive, or a form of rebellion against the creator. It could be, to be sure, but it need not be; like the discovery of one’s sexual attraction to persons of the same gender, it may in fact be a recognition of oneself that is deeply respectful of the Creator.”

Similarly, he notes that gender change is not a religious issue per se, but can be considered such only on the basis of an individual’s motivation for change:

“. . . [I]f I make gender change an absolute good (I cannot be myself in this body) rather than a relative one (what counts is serving God and others in any body), I may in fact reveal a disordered desire, a form of idolatrous impulse. The moral or religious issue is not our gender, in other words, but what we make of it.”

And while it is sad that Johnson has to highlight the following idea, the tenor of the current political debate on transgender issues does make it necessary to do so:

“Openness to gender change does not equal openness to sexual vice.”

Johnson concludes with a hope for a process of Christian discernment about transgender identity, noting that what is needed is “face-to-face conversation; rather than the glare of publicity, intimate and honest exchange.”  And the Chuch can and should be the place where such a discernment takes place, as well as being, Johnson’s words, “the place where openness to change is a corollary of belief in the new creation and its endless inventiveness, even as it remains the place where the goal of change is greater than the discovery of the autonomous self.”

The discussion on transgender identity in the Catholic Church is just beginning.  Both Cloutier’s and Johnson’s articles are important reading for those who want to look at this issue through theological lenses.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, April 5, 2017

Lexi Dever, a young transgender Catholic woman, and Deacon Ray Dever, her father, will be speaking at New Ways Ministry’s Eighth National Symposium, Justice and Mercy Shall Kiss: LGBT Catholics in the Age of Pope Francis, scheduled for April 28-30, 2017, Chicago, Illinois. They will join Nicole Santamaria, an intersex advocate, in a focus session on transgender and intersex family issues.  For more information and to register, visit www.Symposium2017.org.

 

 

 

 

 

The Church and Transgender Identity, Part 1

Last month, one of Commonweal magazine’s cover features was a pair of articles from two theologians on the topic “The Church and Transgender Identity:  Some Cautions, Some Possibilities.” The theologians were David Cloutier, associate professor of theology at the Catholic University of America and the author of Walking God’s Earth: The Environment and Catholic Faith (Liturgical Press); and Luke Timothy Johnson, emeritus Woodruff Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at Emory University and the author of The Revelatory Body: Theology as Inductive Art (Eerdmans).

In today’s post, Bondings 2.0 will present Cloutier’s argument, and tomorrow we will present Johnson’s perspective.

If we think of the pairing of these two articles as representing a pro and con position, Cloutier’s essay would have to be put into the con column.  I’m not sure that this is a totally fair assessment, though, for while Cloutier clearly questions a lot of transgender discourse, another dimension that comes through his essay is some sensitivity to people who identify as transgender.  He seems interested in finding a way that understands and respects them, even though it is obvious that he does not approve of what he sees as underlying assumptions of a lot of transgender equality rationales.

His introductory summary of the national transgender debate shows that he recognizes excesses on both sides of the discussion:

“One side views accepting an individual’s chosen identity as paramount and resistance not as simply erroneous, but downright offensive. Moreover, there is a (correct) recognition of the real struggle and suffering experienced by trans people. Yet the other side views the plain reality of male and female biology as so obvious (and often as a matter of religious truth) that it can envision no possibility of acceptance. What has increasingly resulted from this opposition are not reasoned arguments, but acts of coercion—whether in the Obama administration’s well-publicized anti-discrimination directives compelling schools and hospitals to accommodate “an individual’s internal sense of gender,” or in such backlash responses as North Carolina’s infamous ‘bathroom bill.’ “

Cloutier recognizes that the debate has revealed that “important things are at stake,” and so he sets out to examine two questions:  “What does a claim to transgender identity mean?” and “How does the debate over transgender identity and rights impact the common good?”

David Cloutier

To answer the first question, Cloutier examines some of the varying definitions of gender identity currently being used.  Unfortunately, he tends to focus on some of the extremes of this discussion, such as:

“. . . Facebook now offers fifty-six gender options. We seem to be rushing to embrace an ethic that dismisses the need to posit a real self, in favor of exploring the possibilities as they come.”

While some people may believe everything that is on Facebook, I don’t think many serious-minded people use that social media platform as the standard of legitimate evidence.

Cloutier is suspicious of transgender people’s personal testimonies that the body does not reflect “who I really am.”  He evaluates this kind of thinking negatively:

“. . . [W]e are essentially saying identity is a matter of free expression of an internal sense, and therefore what we are supposed to respect is the individual’s choice of the expression of identity feelings, regardless of his or her embodiment. . . . Both liberal and conservative Catholics have spent decades trying to rehabilitate the goodness of embodiment from problematic spiritualizations that understood our sexual bodies in particular as suspect sites of corruption requiring rigid regimes of mastery. We are committed to an ultimately sacramental worldview where the body and soul are a unity. From this perspective, an immaterial sense that one’s body is the ‘wrong’ one seems like a pretty big problem.”

Here’s one spot that I think that Cloutier is wrong.  From the many transgender people that I have encountered, I have not met many (maybe any) who said, in a totally serious way, that their bodies were wrong.  More accurately, they say that their bodies do not express their gender.  For those who seek some sort of biological modification, I have often understood that their decision to do so was because they appreciate and reverence their bodies and want them to be made whole, not because they saw them as wrong.

Cloutier’s line of thinking misleads him to inaccurately describe the goal of many transgender advocates:

“What I suspect is that the subjective sense of one’s own gender and sexual identity has become so important in our society that we are willing to sacrifice the body to it. In other words, the sense of gender identity being invoked here is construed as sacred. And the particular sense of the sacred has to do with a kind of radical self-determination. To stretch the metaphor, advocates of alternative gender paradigms are making a kind of ‘religious freedom’ argument for having their sacred sense of identity accepted.”

This characterization of gender identity as sacred seems to me to be in the mind of Cloutier, not in the minds of transgender advocates.  While many transgender people do acknowledge the spiritual dimension of their identity journeys, I don’t see them arguing in the public sphere for their equality on religious grounds.

In answering his second question, concerning transgender equality and the public good, Cloutier reveals a fear which was expressed many times during the struggle for lesbian and gay equality: What about the children?

In one spot, he states:

“. . . [W]hile it is reasonable for the state to tolerate, if not endorse, the wide exercise of individual autonomy, we also have a responsibility to ask questions about any potential damage done to our understanding of the common good, which also has real costs for individuals, especially children.”

And in another spot, he opines:

“. . . [W]hile it is reasonable for the state to tolerate, if not endorse, the wide exercise of individual autonomy, we also have a responsibility to ask questions about any potential damage done to our understanding of the common good, which also has real costs for individuals, especially children.”

I don’t believe that he intends simply to scare people. I think Cloutier is genuinely afraid that children will be easily influenced by encountering transgender people and issues. At one point, he writes:

“. . . [I]f we grant the persuasiveness of the ‘gender possibility’ argument in explaining the trans phenomenon, then it seems necessary to acknowledge that affirming and accommodating the transgender identity of one child will affect other children, in much the same way that gender stereotypes about alpha males and compliant females affect them.”

But his fear is unwarranted and the result of a faulty assumption. What’s wrong with this type of thinking is that Cloutier assumes that the idea of changing one’s gender identity is something contagious, attractive to others.  This kind of thinking seems to imagine gender identity as something easily manipulated.  It is the same kind of argument used in the discussion of gay and lesbian sexual orientation: the thinking ran that if a person, particularly a young person, became aware of gay and lesbian people or identities, then they would quickly abandon their heterosexual orientations to become gay and lesbian.  It was a ludicrous argument then, as it is now in the case of transgender people.

Cloutier concludes by advising caution (but not opposition) in discussing transgender topics in society:

“Given the conceptual difficulties involved in discerning the gender implications of ‘who I really am,’ plus the longstanding preference in both Christianity and in the general society for a unified body-soul anthropology, and the significant capacity for human folly and self-deception in these matters, at the very least we would seem to need a yellow light, not a green one.”

I will only remark here on the phrase about “significant capacity for human folly and self-deception in these matters.”  As the influence or contagion model of gender identity mentioned above in regard to children, this kind of thinking presumes that decisions about gender identity are matters of whim.  They are not.  For many people, they are the result of long, often painful, but sometimes joyful, discernments involving spirituality, personality, and relationships.

The remark about human folly and self-deception show a weakness evident throughout Cloutier’s essay:  he shows no evidence that he has seriously considered any transgender person’s testimony seriously, other than, perhaps, the wildly sensational story of Caitlyn Jenner.

As for Cloutier’s remark about the “longstanding preference in both Christianity and in the general society for a unified body-soul anthropology,”   I will make no comment.  I will it to Luke Timothy Johnson to answer that assertion as he does a much better and more erudite job than I could ever hope to do.   Tune into tomorrow’s post for a summary and evaluation of his Commonweal essay, which is the pro side of the Catholic transgender identity discussion.

Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, April 4, 2017

Lexi Dever, a young transgender Catholic woman, and Deacon Ray Dever, her father, will be speaking at New Ways Ministry’s Eighth National Symposium, Justice and Mercy Shall Kiss: LGBT Catholics in the Age of Pope Francis, scheduled for April 28-30, 2017, Chicago, Illinois. They will join Nicole Santamaria, an intersex advocate, in a focus session on transgender and intersex family issues.  For more information and to register, visit www.Symposium2017.org.

Pope Francis Calling on African Bishops to Oppose LGBT Discrimination, Says Theologian

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Fr. Agbonkhianmeghe Orobator

More than a week after Pope Francis released Amoris Laetitia, his apostolic exhortation on family, new insights and analyses continue to be published.

Today, Bondings 2.o highlights several noteworthy contributions from theologians. Foremost among these is a Jesuit priest’s assertion that the document calls for change from African bishops who may support, or at least do not oppose, the criminalization of homosexuality.

Fr. Agbonkhianmeghe Orobator, S.J., a theologian based in Kenya, told the National Catholic Reporter  that the document was neither revolutionary nor disappointing. Applying Amoris Laetitia to an African context, Orobator said the document forcefully rejected LGBT discrimination, and should shake up the continent’s sometimes prejudiced episcopacy:

“Furthermore, on a continent where at least 38 countries criminalize homosexuality, the pope’s trenchant call for respect for human dignity, avoidance of unjust discrimination, aggression, and violence, and respectful pastoral guidance [paragraph 250], should galvanize the church in Africa to embrace wholeheartedly African families and their LGBT members who have been stigmatized, marginalized, and excluded from the life of the church. Church leaders need to dissociate themselves from governments and politicians who persecute gay people, and show example of respect for their dignity. In Africa, we say the church is “family of God,” implying that it welcomes all without discrimination. The preeminent mark of this church and the world church is hospitality. Clearly, Francis is calling the church in Africa to practice what it preaches by becoming a church that welcomes all into the family without discrimination.”

Orobator added that the document showed there was “long way to go before we actually make the bold steps that are long overdue” when it comes to sexual ethics and gender justice. But it is a “pastoral turn” and “much needed guide for the African church.” Orobator explained:

“In other words, the realization that the first task of the church is not merely to squabble over contested moral issues. . .We need to respect the diverse and complex reality of people’s situation — and avoid sweeping generalizations, hasty judgments, and damming labels.”

Many theologians did not comment specifically on LGBT issues, which received scant attention in the document, but these scholars’ insights about how Amoris Laetitia affects theology and pastoral praxis are easily applicable to LGBT issues despite Pope Francis’ omission of providing such applications.

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Massimo Faggioli

Massimo Faggioli of the University of St. Thomas, in St. Paul, Minnesota, wrote in Commonweal, that the pope offered “almost complete silence” on homosexuality. Critical of the distance which has developed between the hierarchy’s teachings and theologians’ contributions, Faggioli suggested a manner by which Amoris Laetitia will impact the church, and help LGBT issues to move forward:

“Pope Francis has issued an exhortation that represents the first attempt by a pope to demonstrate how the episcopal collegiality of Vatican II is supposed to work. Relying heavily on the final synod reports of 2014 and 2015, the document takes into account the real and divisive debates that took place at the synod on the issues of family, marriage and divorce, and homosexuality.”

There were no clear victories on controversial issues, said Faggioli, but Pope Francis’ pastoral and practical way of engaging such issues is an “undeniable” change. In a separate article on Il Sismografo Faggioli, noted that part of this change was the pope’s contributions to building “a very inclusive ecclesiology.” This ecclesiology, or theology of the church, echoes Vatican II and Francis’ Latin American context in seeking a church which is synodal, collegial, and humble.

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Emily Reimer-Barry

Calling the document “wonderfully complicated,” Emily Reimer-Barry of the University of San Diego, writing at Catholic Moral Theology, said Amoris Laetitia was Pope Francis’ invitation to Catholics to live an adult faith:

“My overall take-away is that Pope Francis is saying it is time for lay people to discern their deepest values and take responsibility for living them out; we need to see church teaching for what it is—a complicated messy (even imperfect) tradition trying to form people to make healthy choices that are good for society. So this document becomes a celebration of conscience and a rejection of a legalistic paradigm.”

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Fr. James Bretzke

Instead of a church imposing laws, people of faith are asked to first know God’s love and then figure out how God invites them to respond in authentic ways. How one responds to God’s love is directly related one of the document’s foremost themes: conscience. Fr. James Bretzke, S.J. of Boston College noted in America that references to conscience doubled from the Synod’s 2015 final report. He continued:

“Though the word ‘conscience’ appears only 20 times in the Italian version of the exhortation, what the pope has given us is what I would call a “thick description” of what following a formed and informed conscience looks like in the concrete. While Pope Francis clearly believes there are few, if any, simple ‘recipes’ or ‘one-size-fits-all’ concrete, absolute norms, neither does he fear that the attempt to discern what God is asking of us is impossible to find and put into practice.”

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David Cloutier

David Cloutier of Mount St. Mary’s University also commented on Amoris Laetitia‘s complexity, asking readers to engage these complexities rather than being satisfied with easy answers. He wrote in Commonweal:

“Yes, this document is ambiguous. Perhaps we as a Church can sense the opportunities possible if we live into that ambiguity, rather than prematurely close it down in one direction or the other.”

Cloutier’s call for the church to engage ambiguity, if applied to the lives, needs, and gifts of LGBT people, could be quite an opening. This insight is particularly true in regions where being openly gay or transgender still endangers one’s life. But since Catholic bishops sometimes support laws for LGBT people to be excluded and even jailed, the ambiguity could be used to continue church oppression of LGBT people.  For example, bishops in Malawi used a pastoral letter on mercy to call for LGBT people to be jailed. Such oppression will happen if bishops and pastoral agents reject Pope Francis’ wider call for mercy and  inclusion.  As general as this call is in the document, it could advance equality in the church.

How this document will be used to shape theology and pastoral practice around issues of sexual and gender identity remains uncertain. Despite initial disappointments, theologians seem to suggest there could be positive results if Catholics engage the text and set out to help transform their own lives and local communities.

You can read previous Amoris Laetitia reaction posts herehere,  and here. You can read New Ways Ministry’s response to the document by clicking here.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry