Lesbian Catholic Reviews Fr. James Martin’s New Book on LGBT Issues

As Jesuit Father James Martin launches his new book, Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity,” he explained in a Washington Post essay why he wrote the book in the first place. Also published in the Post a few days later was lesbian Catholic writer Eve Tushnet’s review of the book.

y450-293Martin began his essay by noting that, after 49 people were killed at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando last year, there was near silence from the United States’ 250 or so bishops about the victims’ LGBT identities. Martin said this silence was “revelatory,” continuing:

“The fact that only a few Catholic bishops acknowledged the LGBT community or even used the word gay at such a time showed that the LGBT community is still invisible in many quarters of the church. Even in tragedy its members are invisible.”

Martin lamented the “great divide” he witnesses in the church between LGBT Catholics and institutions, suggesting his ministry has included ways to heal the divide. He continued:

“But after the shooting in Orlando, my desire to do so intensified. . .So when New Ways Ministry, a group that ministers to and advocates for LGBT Catholics, asked just a few weeks after the Orlando tragedy if I would accept its ‘Bridge Building Award’ and give a talk at the time of the award ceremony, I agreed. The name of the award, as it turned out, inspired me to sketch out an idea for a ‘two-way bridge’ that might help bring together the institutional church and the LGBT community.

“My aim is to urge the church to treat the LGBT community with “respect, compassion, and sensitivity” (a phrase from the Catechism of the Catholic Church) and encourage the LGBT community to reciprocate, reflecting those virtues in its own relationship with the institutional church.”

To read about Fr. Martin receiving New Ways Ministry’s Bridge-Building Award last October, where he spoke first about this latest LGBT venture, click here. You can also watch Fr. Martin’s video explanation of why he wrote Building a Bridge below or by clicking here.

But Eve Tushnet, in her review for the Post, says Martin’s work “is not the book I’ve longed for” on Catholic LGBT issues. Her main criticism is that Building a Bridge never addresses sexual ethics, and a corollary critique that there is no mention of lesbian and gay Christians who are celibate. Tushnet wrote:

“For example, why is this conversation so hard in the first place? ‘Building a Bridge’ doesn’t raise the question of why LGBT people and the Catholic Church so often seem like two separate, hostile camps. The Catholic sexual ethic is this book’s embarrassing secret. It’s never mentioned, and so the difficulties the teaching itself poses for gay Catholics in our culture are never addressed.

“I’m deeply sympathetic to the attempt to have a conversation about gay people and the church that never mentions sex or chastity; too often even the most “respectful” statements from the Catholic Church hierarchy have a strong flavor of “Jesus loves you, but here’s how you’ve got to behave.” But I’m not sure it’s wise to write as if all the church is asking is for gay people simply to be nicer.”

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Eve Tushnet

While Tushnet may have wanted a book that dealt with sexual ethics and celibacy, that is not the intended scope of Martin’s book. His focus is on the process of dialogue, not theological questions. The relationship needs to improve to even begin to address the thornier questions.

Tushnet does rightly point out that more should be asked of church leaders than just respect and sensitivity. They should offer as well, “repentance and amends for the ways in which they’ve made so many churches hostile to gay members, treating us as problems to be fixed or silenced.”

Having stated these criticisms, Tushnet also acknowledged the value Building a Bridge has for the church. The priest’s “Prayer for When I Feel Rejected,” based on Psalm 139, is very moving for her, and she believes it can help LGBT Christians know God’s love for them more deeply. Tushnet concluded her review:

“If Martin’s book, with its biblical reflections on God’s loving creation of us and Jesus’ unconditional welcome, can help LGBT people and our families experience and trust God’s tenderness, he will have laid the foundation stone for social change and spiritual renewal.”

For more information about Building a Bridge, or if you would like to order a copy, visit Fr. Martin’s website by clicking here.

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, June 6, 2017

Sr. Jeannine Gramick Asks, “What Can We Do to Lessen Anti-LGBT Prejudice?”

Sr. Jeannine Gramick, co-founder of New Ways Ministry, marked the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia, and Transphobia (IDAHOBIT) earlier this month with a reflection on her ministry in an international context.

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IDAHOBIT poster from Italy

Writing for The National Catholic Reporter’s “Global Sisters Report, Gramick suggested, “perhaps the tide is turning for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people.” Gramick wrote:

 

“The International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia is particularly strong in Europe and Latin America, where it is commemorated with public events such as marches, parades and festivals. In Cuba, Mariela Castro [niece of Fidel Castro] has led massive street parades on May 17 for the past three years. The day can also include arts and culture-based events, such as a music festival called “Love Music – Hate Homophobia” in Bangladesh. Albanian activists arrange an annual bike ride through the streets of the capital on May 17.”

She also saw hope in the number of religious services held to mark IDAHOBIT, including several Catholic vigils. You can find out more information about these services by clicking here.

Still, while the tide may be turning in favor of LGBT equality, it has definitely not turned fully. IDAHOBIT celebrates the day–May 17, 1990–when the World Health Organization removed homosexuality as a mental illness. But in today’s world, Gramick explained, “the erroneous diagnosis of mental disorder persists, causing much fear and confusion about lesbian and gay people, with often tragic results.” IDAHOBIT then is not only a celebration of the past but a time for action towards a more just future, especially against transphobia.

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Sr. Jeannine Gramick, center, with Polish LGBT activists and journalists

To highlight the “already/not yet” reality of LGBT rights today, Sr. Gramick discussed her trip to Poland at the end of 2016. (You can read more details about the trip by clicking here.) She struck a hopeful note, despite the country’s strong opposition to LGBT issues from Catholic leaders and many politicians:

“I was surprised by the degree of openness and acceptance I found among the Polish people for their lesbian and gay sisters and brothers. Polish Catholics are emerging not only from the political stranglehold of communism, but also from the grip of their authoritarian and traditionalist religious culture. From them I learned that I, too, need to emerge from the iron grip of my own prejudices, my blind spots, and the beams in my own eye. I want to be more open to those who ‘rub me the wrong way’ and to be more welcoming to those with whom I disagree. My visit to the Polish people filled me with hope that homophobia is gradually decreasing in unexpected places.”

Gramick asked, “What can we do to lessen the homophobia and transphobia that engulfs those who are different?” She concluded:

“In my decades of ministry with LGBT people, I continue to be astounded and inspired by the example of those who remain in a church that has so miserably failed to nourish their faith life. In a spirit of non-violence, these LGBT Christian groups are now calling us to stand with them. We may not understand different sexual orientations or gender identities, but we do believe that each person should be treated with dignity and respect because each of us has been made in the image and likeness of God.”

Though IDAHOBIT has come and gone, the need to struggle against prejudices and biases that denigrate another person’s dignity or their love is always present.

How would you answer Sr. Jeannine’s question above? Leave your thoughts in the “Comments” section below.

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, May 29, 2017

 

 

 

Fr. Bryan Massingale to LGBT Catholics: “Refuse to Be Silenced. Continue to Speak Our Truth.”

“We ain’t what we oughta be. We ain’t what we want to be. We ain’t what we gonna be. But, thank God, we ain’t what we was.”

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Fr. Bryan Massingale

Fr. Bryan Massingale began his talk on “Pope Francis, Social Ethics, and LGBT People” with these words of an unknown Black preacher, which were often quoted by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Massingale, a theologian at Fordham University, New York, addressed participants at New Ways Ministry’s 8th National Symposium, and asked them this key question:

“What does it mean to be an LGBT Catholic in an age of Pope Francis?”

The National Catholic Reporter offered further details on his talk:

“Those who came to the Chicago symposium brought with them both ‘hope and frustration,’ Massingale said: hope that more understanding and acceptance of gays and lesbians was on its way into the church and frustration because that time has not yet arrived.

“The priest, who left Marquette last year to teach theology at Fordham University, pointed to a new tone in the church toward gays, a tone he characterized as ‘cautious, tentative, tense, at times ambiguous and contradictory, and yet nevertheless real.'”

Massingale affirmed that beneath the rhetorical shifts, there is genuine doctrinal development happening. Church officials’ “hesitant, resistant and even hostile stance” to LGBT rights comes from their fear that legal protections would lead to approval of sexual behavior they deem immoral. Their deeper fear is the impact such acceptance would have on youth. NCR reported:

“The situation leaves the church in an often contradictory corridor or ‘open closet,’ Massingale said, one in which gays ‘are to be accepted sensitively and compassionately, as long as there is little or no public acknowledgment of their sexual identity, “lifestyle” or “culture.”‘. . .

“Massingale, a priest of the Milwaukee archdiocese, shared a note he had received in 2002 from Rembert Weakland, who earlier that year had resigned as archbishop of Milwaukee after a man he’d had an affair with two decades earlier and he had paid to $450,000 to keep it quiet made the relationship public. Weakland wrote: ‘On the gay issue, the level of fears is so high that the official teaching of the church skates so very close to the edge of a new ‘theology of contempt.'”

Biden - Human DignityAgainst the “open closet” and Magisterium’s troubled approach to lesbian and gay people, Massingale said Pope Francis was focusing on LGBT people’s personhood, not their sexual conduct.  Massingale added his own commentary, saying, “[LGBT people] are equally redeemed by Christ and radically loved by God.”

As an ethicist, Massingale affirmed the right LGBT people have to participate fully in society in and the church, and the necessity for the Magisterium to extend its existing support for human rights to include LGBT communities:

“To insist on private acceptance and compassion for LGBT persons – that is, saying “I love the sinner” – without a commitment to defending LGBT human rights and creating a society of equal justice for all, is not only contradictory; it is inherently incomprehensible and ultimately unsustainable.”

A vibrant question and answer period followed Massingale’s address, during which he shared a story from his own life. After the U.S. bishops released “Always Our Children,” he called his mother. She asked Massingale for his thoughts on the document, and he replied by asking her what she thought, as it was addressed to her. She answered quickly, “I don’t need permission to love my child.”

Massingale closed with a powerful call for LGBT Catholics and their families to keep working for equality:

“Refuse the refusal. Refuse to be silenced. Continue to speak our truth even when we know it’s not going to be welcome.”

Fr. Massingale has himself been increasingly outspoken for LGBT inclusion and human rights. While at Marquette University, he celebrated monthly Masses for members of the LGBTQ communities on campus because, he says, it is important they “have a Mass where they feel welcome and that God does love them.” He challenged Pax Christi USA members at their 2013 annual conference to increase the organization’s defense of LGBT rights, as both a human rights concern and a necessary part of attracting younger Catholics. Massingale also joined other Catholic theologians and officials in condemning proposed anti-gay legislation in Uganda. Most recently, he has said the church cannot abandon transgender Catholics.

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, May 24, 2017

 

 

Ten Years Later, Sr. Margaret Farley’s “Just Love” Is Still a Most Radical Book

This weekend, Catholics are gathering in Chicago for New Ways Ministry’s 8th National Symposium, “Justice and Mercy Shall Kiss: LGBT Catholics in the Age of Pope Francis.” Today’s post reflects on Sister Margaret Farley’s groundbreaking work, Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics. Farley, whose justice-oriented sexual ethic has greatly advanced the conversation on LGBT issues in the church, addressed Symposia in 1992, 1997, and 2007. She also received New Ways Ministry’s Bridge Building Award in 2002.

justloveUnsurprisingly, the 2010 Notification that Margaret Farley received from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith about her book, Just Love, missed not only the forest for the trees; it missed the trees for the minutiae of their bark.

Far from engaging Farley’s vision, intentionally laid out as she weaves tradition with contemporary knowledge, the Notification issued is a poor, proof-texted engagement. But a reader more receptive to Farley’s work easily sees not only the forest, but the horizon to which this theological giant is leading, and gratefully joins the path towards it.

Questions of sexuality and gender have progressed rapidly in the decade or so since Just Love was published. Yet Farley’s insights, deeply drawn from her first section on traditions, still speak to new and emerging issues. [To read a summary of Just Love’s ethical principles, click here.]

One example of these issues is the Synod on the Family. The synod process made clear how inexperienced many Catholic bishops are at negotiating cross-cultural ethics.The Synod also raised an old question in a new way: In a truly global church, can the Vatican really pronounce on universal norms beyond the most fundamental of principles? In other words, are issues of family life, sexuality, and society today too complex and diverse for a one-size-fits-all approach?

Emerging churches, particularly in Africa, have resisted more permissive stances on sexuality with claims of “ideological colonization,” a term notably used by Francis, the church’s first pope from the Global South. Farley identifies the troubling dynamic driving many such claims: sexual control has been central to Western colonization and postcolonial regions are still grappling with this damaging legacy. Acknowledging these traumas is absent from magisterial discourse today, even as theologians have welcomed such necessary dialogue through international conferences such as Catholic Theological Ethics in the World Church.

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Sister Margaret Farley

Another emerging issue is gender and its relation to sexuality, now hotly contested in many contexts due to the expansion of transgender rights. Farley’s technical treatment of intersex and trans identities needs some updating given new research in this area, but, more significantly, she remains open to the realities of such persons, writing that “[n]o one ought to pass judgement on any configurations of gender [emphasis added].” This outward-looking stance paired with compassion means her larger points retain their integrity.

No statement of Farley’s is more relevant for today, when “gender wars” are rapidly and harmfully intensifying,  than when she observes that “[g]ender wars would cease if we saw that we are not ‘opposite’ sexes but persons with somewhat different (but, in fact, very similar!) bodies.” Farley’s sexual ethic, with its roots in justice, is wonderful for slowly shifting the conversation beyond a primary concern with whom one has physical intimacy (raising questions of sexual and/or gender identity) to a primary concern about how one has sexual intimacy (raising questions of bodies, abilities, pleasures, and participants).

Finally, though Just Love can and should speak to many emerging questions, conversations about consent could benefit greatly from her just sex framework. To the detriment of healthy sexual relationships, consent has been reduced to saying “no,” or under affirmative consent thinking, the absence of an active and enthusiastic “yes.”  While such models are being used to educate youth and young adults, particularly in higher education, as correctives against society’s historical failure to address sexual violence, they are not adequate.

Despite their good intent, such models are actually doing harm because they employ a mechanical understanding of sexual acts that excludes context and relationality. Farley is clear that free consent and respect for bodily autonomy are minimal norms for just sex, but she is equally clear that sexual justice means more. She insists that sexual acts cannot be separated from the contexts in which they happen, and the foremost context is relationality. Incorporating Farley’s theory of sexual justice into understandings of consent would both help curb sexual violence and promote healthier relationships.

Ten years on, it is clear that Just Love’s relevance has only grown, and that Christian ethical reflection has yet to receive fully its wisdom. Farley’s writing is precise and thorough, reflecting the years she spent laying the foundations for her sexual ethic. Behind her clear argumentation are complex layers of meaning with which the reader must repeatedly grapple. Her closing section on contexts for just love, addressing matters like same-gender relationships and persons who are divorced and/or remarried, is really the springboard Farley provides for Christians to employ her framework in their own research, contexts, and lives.

But what may be most clear of all is that Vatican’s fears were, in one way, fully warranted. Just Love is a truly radical text, which, received more and more fully by Christians, has and will continue to alter radically our lives and the life of our churches. It lays before us a road to full equality for LGBT people, one recognizing the beauty of diverse sexual and gender identities, the goodness of same-gender sexual intimacy, and the gift that every family is to our church.

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, April 28, 2017

Malta’s Rapid Shift on LGBT Rights Is Case Study for Other Catholic Nations

Malta has elected the nation’s first transgender politician, a sign of just how far on LGBT rights a country where Roman Catholicism remains the state religion has come. A closer analysis of this shift could help Catholics in other regions in their own journeys towards equality.

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Crowds in Malta celebrating Pride Week

Alex Mangion became Malta’s first transgender politician when he won a local election as the Partit Nazzjonalista (Nationalist Party) candidate, reported The Independent. But support for LGBT rights in the conservative party that had controlled Malta’s government since the late 1990s is a recent development, and came only after its 2013 defeat to the Partit Laburista (Labor Party) who had made LGBT rights a major platform item.

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Alex Mangion

Though the Nationalist Party had abstained from a successful vote on civil unions in 2014, Mangion said that presently “having a transgender person in the party made people realize it’s not conservative.” And by 2015, the Nationalist Party had joined the Labor Party in passing a groundbreaking transgender rights law. (It is worth noting that, under that very law, Mangion became “the first person in this tiny nation to be able to update the gender on his official documents without undergoing surgery or hormone treatment.”)

The Independent noted that this shift in a political party is “a microcosm of the evolution underway in Malta,” a traditional Catholic country which outlawed divorce as late as 2011. But where LGBT people once hid, rejected by church leaders and stigmatizing social norms, a married same-gender couple, Steve and Manuel Aquilina, now hosts and produces a leading cooking show. A colleague of theirs, Victor Anastasi, said:

“‘They’re accepted like everyone else. . .We’re a Catholic country. But eventually the church has to come to terms [with society changing].”

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Joseanne Peregin

Joseanne Peregin, the Catholic mother of a gay son, recalled a bishop once saying, “If you’re gay, excommunicate yourself. Go, there is no place for you in the church.” But then in 2011, she said, the Catholic Church’s control over Maltese politics was undercut sharply when divorce was legalized through a popular referendum.

Now it must be acknowledged,, said Fr. Rene Camilleri, that Catholics in Malta “are not taking a package deal.” Camilleri, who is Episcopal Vicar for Evangelization for the Archdiocese of Malta and a lecturer at the University of Malta, has previously described church teaching on homosexuality as “nonsensical.” He also said Catholic ministers “cannot deprive [same-gender couples] of the blessing for which they ask.”

Today, other nations seek to learn from and even copy Malta’s LGBT laws. Minister for Social Dialogue, Consumer Affairs, and Civil Liberties Helena Dalli said that “what we have done here is serving as a model to other countries, and, in a good way, because more people are leading better lives.” And The Independent continued:

“Kyle Knight, a New York-based researcher for Human Rights Watch, said that what’s particularly admirable about Malta’s LGBT rights laws is ‘not just the result as much as the process’ that led to their creation.

“Members of the LGBT community, other advocates and a local human rights group served on a council set up in 2013 to advise the government. Legislation was accompanied by directives that covered how LGBT people in prison should be treated and how schools should deal with bullying of transgender or gay students.

“When Knight was recently asked in Japan how schools should handle anti-LGBT bullying, ‘We copied and pasted these (Maltese) guidance documents and we said, “Look, this is how you do it,”‘ he recalled.”

While marriage equality is not legal yet in Malta, same-gender couples are recognized through civil unions, there are extensive non-discrimination protections, so-called “conversion therapy” is banned with harsh penalties in place, and a 2015 law on transgender and intersex persons is considered the gold standard in Europe.

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The island nation of Malta

How does a country where Roman Catholicism is named in the constitution as the state’s religion and where 95% of its citizens identify as Catholic become so progressive in a short time? Some observers might consider Malta a paradox, understanding LGBT equality and the Catholic Church to be opposites. Yet, there is a very plausible explanation for what has happened.

First, it is an oft-repeated but worth reiterating truism: Catholics support LGBT equality because of, not in spite of their faith. Key tenets like social justice, human dignity, and non-discrimination have informed the faithful’s engagement in civic matters, and this includes working for the rights of sexual and gender minorities. It makes sense the citizens of Malta who practice, or even are simply informed by, Catholic faith would vote for equality.

Second, it has to be admitted that there are non-ecclesial matters influencing this shift. In Western contexts, homosexuality has been largely de-stigmatized and neighboring countries in Europe have been moving forward on LGBT rights. Some have credited Malta joining the European Union as an impetus for catching up to their neighbors, and now taking the lead. As in other Western contexts, Mass attendance and the moral authority of bishops have declined in recent years. Some people leave, or are pushed out of, the church, and there is a certain amount of secularizing that happens. These factors and more, as in other regions, contribute to the rapid pace of the shift.

2b5de-drachmabloglogoBut third, many Maltese remain practicing Catholics and this has made the biggest difference. A few weeks ago, I highlighted the positive outreach of the country’s bishops to LGBT communities . In fact, Malta’s leading gay rights group gave the bishops an award in 2014. Here are other important examples of positive Catholic moments on LGBT issues:

  • Drachma and Drachma Parents are both Catholic organizations engaging LGBT issues in the church, and they have made an impact. They helped consult on the civil unions law, pushing back against a bishop’s criticism, They hosted Sr. Jeannine Gramick in 2011 to educate about LGBT equality in the church. They also hosted theologians Sr. Margaret Farley, RSM, and James Alison.) They were credited by Bishop Mario Grech as helping him to understand the need and urgency for new pastoral care of LGBT people;
  • A priest who blessed a same-gender couple’s rings was not punished by the bishop; indeed, Archbishop Charles Scicluna affirmed the priest’s outreach efforts to LGBT people;
  • After releasing a harsh position paper opposing the government’s efforts to ban “conversion therapy,” a paper in which homosexuality was compared to pedophilia, Archbishop Charles Scicluna listened to Catholics’ criticism and then apologizedsaying the church was “dead set” against such programs.

Though I have never experienced the Church of Malta firsthand, I sense a serious Christian community of mature and critically engaged Catholics. Lay Catholics, and clergy like Fr. Camilleri, have grappled with not only church teaching, but the realities of their context.And, quite notably, the country’s bishops have been willing to affirm LGBT people as beloved by God and to listen to their people. They have even been willing to acknowledge where the hierarchy had it wrong, and to apologize to those whom they have harmed.

In under a decade, Malta went from being socially conservative to a world leader on LGBT rights. Maltese Catholics are a shining example of what can happen when the faithful really listen to the Gospel and live their faith in public life. Let us hope more and more historically-Catholic regions follow this path, especially in areas like Latin America and Africa where the church is rapidly growing and yet LGBT rights remain limited.

If you would like to read reflections from members of Drachma Parents, you can find Louise Laferia’s reflection on the call of being a parent to an LGBT person here and Joseanne and Joseph Peregin’s reflection on what makes a family holy here. For Bondings 2.0’s full coverage of LGBT Catholic issues in Malta, click here.

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, February 13, 2017

 

Malawi Bishops Lead March Against LGBT Rights

Catholic bishops in Malawi joined other religious leaders last month in a protest march against LGBT rights, an issue on which the nation’s Catholic officials have already opined quite negatively.

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Marchers in Malawi

The Citizens’ March for Life and Family was actually a series of smaller marches throughout the country, reported The Tablet. In addition to protesting homosexuality, these marches, which involved some 60 denominations and more than 50 Christian organizations, also included protests against expanded abortion rights.

Organizers said the Citizens’ March for Life and Family urged Malawians to oppose legalizing homosexuality, an act they referred to as “a direct attack” on family life. Catholics played a leading role in the March, which was sponsored in part by the (Catholic) Episcopal Conference of Malawi (ECM) and chaired by Martin Chiphwanya, the National Secretary for the Catholic Commission for Justice, reported Nyasa Times.

Catholic church leaders were also active locally. According to MalayMail OnlineFr. Francis Tambala told marchers in the major city of Blantyre, “We say no to gay and lesbian unions. (Lawmakers) must vote no to homosexuality as history will judge us harshly if we don’t stand against abortion and same-sex marriages.”

LGBT advocates have pushed back against the church-backed protests, questioning why religious leaders were focused on condemning LGBT people when real issues needed attention. Gift Trapence, an advocate who leads the Centre for Development of People, said such protests shifted the focus of “suffering Malawians away from real issues of power blackouts, crumbled economy and corruption.”

It is also noteworthy, too, that following the protests in December, a senior member of the Malawi Law Commission chided religious leaders behind the March, reported the Maravi Post. Mike Chinoko, the deputy chief law reform officer for the Commission, said, “What the men or women of God should know is that there is a big difference between the church and the state.”

Actions by Catholic officials come about nine months after Malawi’s bishops called for the government to begin enforcing the nation’s ban on homosexuality. In its pastoral letter for the Year of Mercy, “Mercy of God as a Path to Hope,” the ECM called for the government to begin enforcing the nation’s law against homosexuality and stop bowing down “to pressure from donor community, international bodies and local human rights campaigners.”

The bishops’ lengthy support for LGBT criminalization is well-documented and has been strongly condemned by LGBT advocates. Last year, Malawi’s bishops also made false claims about alleged foreign aid pressure during U.S. Special Envoy for the Human Rights of LGBT People Randy Berry’s visit to their nation.  Berry categorically refuted their claims. Individual bishops from this African country have made other troubling remarks about homosexuality, too.

Malawi’s bishops have significant influence in the country, despite Catholics composing just 20% of the population. Catholic leaders played a key role in the country’s 1992 transition to democracy and have been described by some as the conscience of their nation. In a nation where LGBT people remain illegal and marginalized, the bishops should be using their moral authority to foster greater respect and equality for all persons.

–Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, January 4, 2017

 

Conscience, Yes. But a Common Understanding of It in the Age of Pope Francis? Not Yet.

Be sure to vote for the Best and Worst Catholic LGBT News of 2016. You can vote by clicking here. Voting closes at 5:00 p.m. Eastern U.S. Time on Thursday, December 29th.

A bedrock principle in Catholic morality is the primacy of conscience, a teaching recovered by Vatican II and now being further advanced by Pope Francis. But disputes about what conscience means and how it should be applied have intensified after the release of the pope’s apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia, this past April.

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Pope Francis

Theologians Michael G. Lawler and Todd A. Salzman offered their reflection on conscience in the National Catholic Reporter. They called the pope’s thoughts on conscience “one of the most important teachings in the apostolic exhortation.” In one paragraph they sketched the main question on conscience in Catholic thought:

“Stated succinctly, is conscience subjective and internal and truth objective and external, whereby the subjective and internal conscience must obey and conform to the objective and external truth? Or does conscience include both the objective and subjective realms, whereby conscience discerns and interprets its understanding of objective truth and exercises that understanding in the subjective judgment of conscience?”

Salzman and Lawler stated the question even more simply, citing theologian Fr. Joseph Fuchs: “Does a truth exist ‘in itself’ or ‘in myself’?” Their analysis is far longer than can be described here, but for anyone inclined to read more, which I highly recommend, you can find it here.

What I will highlight here is their commentary on Pope Francis and his teaching on conscience not only in Amoris Laetitia, but in his earlier exhortation Evangelii Gaudium. Salzman and Lawler said the pope’s “model of conscience. . .provides a faithful and merciful guide for couples who are in irregular situations and empowers them to follow their inviolable conscience on this important issue.”

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Todd A. Salzman

Pope Francis, they noted, has said “realities are more important than ideas,” and that ideas cannot be separated from reality but rather the two must be dialectically related.This approach contrasts sharply with some bishops’ interpretation and implementation of Amoris Laetitia. The theologians identified specifically the restrictive pastoral guidelines of Philadelphia’s Archbishop Charles Chaput, which, among other sanctions, bar people in same-gender relationships from parish and liturgical ministries.

Salzman and Lawler proceeded by pointing out the “vast disconnect” between the ideas informing the Magisterium’s teaching on sexual ethics and the realities of Catholics’ lives whereby:

“[T]he majority of educated Catholics judge these norms are detached from reality, and Catholics are following their consciences to make practical judgments on these and other moral matters.”

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Michael G. Lawler

Instead of division, Pope Francis seeks a harmony between ideas and reality. Conscience, the pope says, must be listened to in making up one’s mind about how to act on moral issues and then it must be followed. To not act in accordance with one’s conscience is “a sin.” Without affirming relativism, the pope is offering an “affirmation of objective truth that recognizes plural and partial truths that must be discerned by conscience informed by, among other sources, external, objective norms.”

The theologians cite Pope Francis himself to define the limitations of Amoris Laetitia and affirm the necessary role of conscience to complete its reception. They wrote:

“There is an ‘immense variety of concrete situations’ and situations can be so vastly different that his document, the pope confesses, cannot ‘provide a new set of rules, canonical in nature and applicable to all cases’ (Amoris Laetitia, 300). The only moral solution to any and every situation is a path of careful discernment accompanied by a priest and a final judgment of personal conscience that commands us to do this or not to do that (Amoris Laetitia, 300-305). Only such an informed conscience can make a moral judgment about the details of any and every particular situation.”

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David Cloutier

Another theologian, David Cloutier, responded to Salzman and Lawler in a piece for Commonweal. He objected to certain points in their article, and made a larger point that he believes continuing battles about conscience and church authority d0 not help the church, nor do such battles “address the real substance of the particular issues of Amoris Laetitia or the larger challenges of Catholic morality.”

While I question much of Cloutier’s argument, which seeks to restrict understandings of conscience in moral theology, he made an interesting point about setting conscience within the context of community:

“I personally would like to read Pope Francis’s teaching in the eighth chapter of Amoris Laetitia as about a Church that practices Vatican II’s universal call to holiness, even in very difficult and conflicted situations. . .The pope rightly is pushing for a community that is serious and deep in its encounter with Christ and His call to the Kingdom [sic], but does not confuse that ‘holiness’ with a kind of individual athleticism and perfection. . .It is not about jurisdictional arguments. To the contrary, the universal call to holiness is supposed to liberate us from a legalistic account of the morality of the Catholic laity that hinged on applying and authorizing various rules and exceptions. It does so not by ignoring or pretending away difficulties under the guise of personal autonomy, but by pushing us more deeply into ecclesial community so that we can face them together, honestly.”

I think the challenge of Amoris Laetitia’s reception and the larger question of conscience is not Cloutier’s zero-sum structure where conscience recedes while practice of the virtues in community grows. Rather, it is a question of more fully and comprehensively receiving Vatican II, whose teachings include conscience, the universal call to holiness, and many other connected issues for Christian living. This process of reception today means rethinking existing paradigms, even postconciliar ones, and envisioning new possibilities. This process and its fruits are “both/and” realities.

If Cloutier is correct, then what Pope Francis is affirming in his vision of a more inclusive ecclesial community whose members are mature Christians. This kind of church is already being lived into by LGBT Catholics and other people who have been excluded. Precisely because they have been excluded and condemned, such Catholics have had no choice but to form their consciences and live according to them. this process has often been lived out by others in communities at the church’s peripheries, too. Where the institutional church under Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI looked backwards, advocating regressive ideas about conscience and authority, marginalized Catholics took Vatican II’s teachings to heart and looked forward.

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Bishops gathered in St. Peter’s Basilica at Vatican II

Pope Francis is, if nothing else, very much a priest formed by the Council. His exhortations, along with his other teachings and daily witness, very much incarnate the Christian life Vatican II imagined for the entire faithful. Like all of us, Francis is imperfect and he shows a particular deficit in his knowledge of gender and sexuality. But unlike his predecessors, he is humble enough to admit he is imperfect; his teaching often poses questions rather than providing answers.

This coming week, I will offer a more thorough analysis of Pope Francis’ engagement with LGBT issues in 2016, and I would invite readers’ own thoughts then. For now, I express this hope for the church in 2017:  May the faithful, especially institutional leaders and ministers, be concerned more about questions than answers, respect for conscience than blind obedience, and unity in diversity than purity through division.

–Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, December 27, 2016