Why doesn’t Pope Francis seem to fully “get it” when it comes to LGBT issues?
Kaya Oakes, writing at Religion Dispatches, tried to answer this knotty question. She believes that those who hoped the pope would become a “staunch LGBTQ ally in three years of papacy were probably setting their sights too high.” Instead, she has a theory to explain his contradictory messages:
“The pope and the Catholic church are both on a learning curve, scrambling to keep up with the larger social acceptance of LGBTQ people in many Western nations. Francis is, after all, a 79-year-old Argentine, and sometimes his ideas about gender reflect his complexresponses to the pervasive machismo of the Latin American culture in which he was raised. . . .
“As with many members of his generation, his struggle to understand the realities of LGBTQ life has been one of small steps forward, large steps back.”
Oakes also attributes the pope’s more open, dialogic style to his training as a Jesuit:
“. . . [Many Jesuits also train in spiritual direction, which is a guided one-on-one conversation about faith. Jesuits often teach and write in addition to working in pastoral ministry during their formation, all practices that involve a fair amount of back and forth with people from all over the Catholic spectrum. Rather than ‘either/or,’ Jesuits like to talk about ‘both/and,’ another invitation to dialogue.
“With that background as a Jesuit, it’s no wonder that the pope often follows broader sweeping statements about gender and sexuality with pastoral stories.”
This dichotomy of being socially/sexually conservative on one hand, and open to discussion and dialogue on the other creates confusion when trying to figure out where the pope stands on LGBT issues. Oakes used the recent example of the pope’s remarks about “gender ideology” in a speech, which were followed up two days later by a call for more pastoral understanding for LGBT people. She commented:
“. . .[I]t would seem that Pope Francis was trying to have it both ways: condemning the ‘ideological colonization’ of children supposedly being taught they can choose their gender (rather than trying to understand how some people are born feeling trapped in the wrong one), and also putting the emphasis yet again on the Jesuitical notions of dialogue and accompaniment.”
Oakes also cites Fr. James Martin, SJ, who explained Pope Francis’ comments from a non-USA perspective:
“Martin . . . emphasized how much Francis is trying to speak to a global church. ‘Imagine reading this [in the Global South] and even parts of Europe where a bishop or a priest may be antipathetic to LGBT people,’ where for more conservative clergy, this emphasis on walking with LGBTQ people ‘is quite a challenge.’ “
But Oakes comes down on the side of cutting the pope some slack, noting that he is way ahead of his predecessors on LGBT issues. She concludes her essay by positing a very important choice fo our church has to make:
“We will either learn to walk with one another, or we will be forced by dogma to condemn one another. That is the choice both we and the pope have to make.”
Oakes’ essay is a good reminder that we can’t just take Pope Francis’ message from the surface of his words, but there is a need to look at context, influences, and even intended audiences.
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, October 24, 2016
By Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, October 7, 2016
Catholic writer Kaya Oakes has done a wonderful service to the readers of U.S. Catholic in her recent article on women authors who are not often recognized for their Catholic identity. What caught my eye was that one of those authors happens to be one of my all-time favorites: Toni Morrison, the Nobel Prize winner. Though it has been years since I read her astonishing Song of Solomon and her monumental Beloved, I still gasp when I pick up my well-worn copies of both books and read selected passages. Though I have read a lot about Morrison, until Oakes’ article, I had not known she was Catholic, and a convert to the faith, to boot.
But Oakes’ article also introduced me to someone I had never heard of before: Rebecca Brown, a novelist and essayist who happens not only to be a Catholic and a convert, like Morrison, but a lesbian, too. Brown’s personal story is a powerful one, especially since she joined the Catholic Church as an adult, well after she had recognized herself as a lesbian. Oakes’ article quotes other interviews with Brown, in which the author describes some of her faith journey:
“Brown was received into the Catholic Church in 2012. In an interview with Moss magazine in 2015, she reflected that there had always been “a real sense of dark and light” in her writing. ‘There’s a real sense of someone dying, and then getting to live again,’ she said. Prior to becoming Catholic, because of the sex abuse scandal and the church’s historical treatment of women, Brown had a sense of Catholicism as ‘the worst.’ But ‘something drew me—and keeps me drawn to it. Some longing, hunger, draw, whatever, to the mystery of incarnation, redemption, mercy.’ She adds, as many Catholics would, ‘I can’t explain or justify it.’
It is ironic that Catholic teaching frowns upon the physical love of lesbian, gay, and bisexual people, because it is often Catholicism’s valuing of the physical, through its incarnational theology, that draws people, including LGBT people, to the faith. Brown explains her own attraction:
“As an out lesbian, Brown would seem to occupy a marginalized place in the church, but, as she told Fact/Simile magazine in 2012, her Catholicism, like much of her writing, is embodied. ‘I’m drawn to passion and to the elemental physicality of it—the rituals of standing, kneeling, sitting, the laying on of hands, the bending of the head in prayer, the baptism by water, making the sign of the cross, the Sacraments as signs of divine presence.’ In her most recent book of essays, American Romances, her essay ‘Priests’ describes childhood reenactments of communion using Necco wafers.”
Perhaps it is no surprise that Brown’s best-known work is entitled The Gifts of the Body, a novel about caring for people with HIV/AIDS, which won the 1995 Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Fiction.
Brown also is aware that Catholic means ‘universal,’ which in a big sense, means diversity:
“In 2013, Brown wrote an essay for the Stranger about her hopes for Pope Francis as a ‘super-feminist, gay, lefty Catholic.’ A friend’s question about what kind of Catholic she wanted to be helped Brown understand that there was no such thing as a Catholic. ‘There were,’ she writes, ‘as there are in most large groups of people, clueless, terrified fundamentalists, but there are also struggling, hopeful, trying-to-be-decent slobs like me.’ “
And Brown also seems to have gotten to the heart of Pope Francis’ message about the gospel, inferring a message of welcome and new life:
“As she parsed the complexities of Pope Francis’ journey and his attitudes toward LGBT people, Brown also came to understand that ‘Jesus didn’t come here to condemn us human lumps; he came to show us mercy and forgiveness and the goodness of the just and loving heart. He came to show there can be life even after you feel like you’ve been dead, and that even after someone’s been horrible or had horrible things done to them, they can have another chance.’ “
Brown’s musings are perfect answers for LGBT people when they are asked why they remain in the Catholic Church. They describe sentiments I have heard over my two decades working with LGBT Catholics. As marginalized people in the institution, LGBT Catholics are often made to feel second-class, but Oakes points out that the writers she profiled, while on the margins of the Church, have embodied the message of the faith. Oakes concludes her article:
“Brown, Morrison, and [Fanny] Howe are all risk takers. They write books that challenge readers intellectually and emotionally, that center marginalized characters—people like women, single mothers, people of color, or LGBT people. The Catholicism that runs through their work is one of deep empathy for the struggle of others, of ritual, and of redemption. But it is also countercultural, in the manner of Dorothy Day or mystics like Hildegard and Julian of Norwich: It pushes back against the dominant structures of greed, the refutation of mystery, and the insistence that being Catholic simply means following a set of rules. For all three of these authors, Catholicism is an intellectual negotiation as much as it is a spiritual one. It is, in many ways, the Catholicism of our time: a faith of heart and mind, but also of gut instinct.”
I know I want to run out and read one of Brown’s novels and essays right away! Does anyone have any recommendations?
Conservative Christians have lost the battle over marriage equality, said Religion Dispatches blogger Kaya Oakes in a recent post entitled, “Out of Options: Christians’ Losing Battle Over Equality.” But how they will respond to this loss may take a variety of different responses.
Oakes noted that, since the Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefall v. Hodges, the responses of conservative Christian thinkers have generally taken two tacks. The first tack– retrenchment–calls for returning to the biblical view of marriage and sexuality in order to steer Christianity back toward a central place in American culture and morality. This tack also views “affirming homosexuality” as denying a truth about human nature. The alternative tack calls for “a compassionate model of engagement” on issues of sexuality and gender in order to “create a more attractive model of Christian life than retrenchment[.]”
According to Oakes, the equality gains for women and LGBT persons puts Catholic and conservative Christian churches in a bind. “Should they welcome women as leaders and same-sex families and trans individuals, they risk alienating some of their most committed members (and donors). Should they reject those same notions of parity, they risk losing (and in many cases have already lost!) the majority of Gen X folks and Millennials, who have grown up with feminism as a given notion and LBGTQ equality as the civil rights issue of their generations.”
These same churches also risk losing “the notion of a single, defined sense of a Truth that cannot change,” according to Oakes. “What we see in their writing of late is the shattering of that notion. It’s emotionally difficult to witness. The defensiveness, finger-pointing and circular arguments amount to the same thing: a sense of fear, devolving into resignation over the loss, shifting into ad hominem attacks[.]”
Oakes compared the fear expressed by some conservative Christian writers to the experiences of fundamentalist or orthodox Christians who lost their faith when they were had to face the idea that women were equal to men, or that some people loved people of the same gender, or that dressing in gender “inappropriate” way could be accepted. Oakes stated:
“[Y]ou will hear much the same pattern. Anger, rejection, fear. And then gradually, if they are lucky: acceptance, tolerance, welcome. The latter things usually came from individuals, not institutions. They came from encounter.”
While Oakes does not say so explicitly, encounter is the way forward. This is the example of Jesus.
Jesus’ ministry was characterized by acts of encountering and engaging persons, often the marginalized of his day. In the words of Pope Francis on the gospel story of Jesus’ encounter with the blind Bartimaeus:
“Jesus has just left Jericho. Even though he has only begun his most important journey, which will take him to Jerusalem, he still stops to respond to Bartimaeus’ cry. Jesus is moved by his request and becomes involved in his situation. He is not content to offer him alms, but rather wants to personally encounter him. He does not give him any instruction or response, but asks him: ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ (Mk 10:51). It might seem a senseless question: what could a blind man wish for if not his sight? Yet, with this question made face to face, direct but respectful, Jesus shows that he wants to hear our needs. He wants to talk with each of us about our lives, our real situations, so that nothing is kept from him.”
Encounter is also the way forward as a church. Pope Francis stressed this point to Catholic leaders recently. Speaking to a group of Italian Catholic leaders in Florence in November, he said:
“May the Church be fermented by dialogue, encounter, unity. After all, our own formulations of faith are the fruit of dialogue and encounter among cultures, communities and various situations. We must not fear dialogue: on the contrary it is precisely confrontation and criticism that help us to preserve theology from being transformed into ideology.
“Remember moreover that the best way to dialogue is not that of speaking and debating but that of doing something together, of making plans: not alone, among Catholics, but together with all those who are of good will. Do not be afraid to engage in the exodus necessary for every authentic dialogue. Otherwise it is not possible to comprehend the reasons of the other, nor to completely understand that a brother is worth more than the positions that we judge as far from our own authentic certitudes. He is a brother.”
I agree with Oakes that a form of Christianity whose members preach “a Gospel of intractability and exclusion” probably should die “because it has very little to do with the person who started it,” but I am hopeful for Catholicism that is renewed through encounter and engagement.
Today’s compilation of Catholic responses to the Supreme Court’s ruling on marriage equality begins with an interesting hypothetical response, written one day before the decision was issued. Also included in today’s list are further comments from New Ways Ministry’s Francis DeBernardo, three bishops, and others.
Reverend Tom Washburn, OFM, Executive Secretary of the English Speaking Conference of Franciscan Provincial Ministers, who blogs at AFriarsLife.blogspot.com:
After reviewing Dublin Archbishop Diarmuid Martin’s statement that the Catholic Church needs to do a “reality check” on same-gender marriage, Fr. Washburn proposed, on the day before the Supreme Court ruled on marriage, a possible statement for the U.S. bishops to issue (the boldfaceemphases are Washburn’s):
“A possible response of the U.S. Bishops: ‘Today, in a truly landmark decision, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a decision, the result of which makes it legal for people of the same-sex to contract a legal marriage in the United States. To the extent that this decision represents the end of discrimination and oppression of our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters as a group of people, we rejoice with them. The Catholic Church has long opposed discrimination under the law in all of its forms and we rejoice whenever such legal discrimination is cast aside in favor of progress toward the recognition of the equality of all people. We rejoice with those who welcome this movement of liberation. We understand that civil law is different than church law or theology, and our tradition as well as current and long-held theological understanding of the sacrament of marriage continues to be that sacramental marriage is a union between a man and a woman. But, we also understand the desire of our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters to find long term, lasting, loving and committed relationships. The Church in recent years has struggled in its attempts to reconcile all of these positions in a coherent way that leads all her children to Christ without making some feel as though they are not welcome within our walls and our communities, or that we desire anything less than a full, happy and fulfilled life for them. What we ask of our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters today is this: please, keep struggling with us; let’s continue to dialogue together. We need you and hopefully, you need us too. Please continue to be active members of our parishes and communities and help us understand one another better and figure out how we all walk to Jesus together.’ “
“. . . [T]he United States Supreme Court has ruled that two persons of the same sex have a constitutional right to marry each other. In doing so, the Court has re-defined civil marriage. The proposed reason for the ruling is the protection of equal rights for all citizens, including those who identify themselves as gay. The rapid social changes signaled by the Court ruling call us to mature and serene reflections as we move forward together. In that process, the Catholic Church will stand ready to offer a wisdom rooted in faith and a wide range of human experience.
“It is important to note that the Catholic Church has an abiding concern for the dignity of gay persons. In fact, the Catechism of the Catholic Church says: ‘They must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided.’ (n. 2358). This respect must be real, not rhetorical, and ever reflective of the Church’s commitment to accompanying all people. For this reason, the Church must extend support to all families, no matter their circumstances, recognizing that we are all relatives, journeying through life under the careful watch of a loving God.” (From a statement)
Kaya Oakes, Author, The Nones Are Alright (Orbis Books: October, 2015):
Noting that church leaders risk alienating the whole generation of younger Catholics if their responses to marriage equality are “defensive and strident,” Oakes stated:
“Catholics under 50 were brought up in a time when same-sex relationships were more and more accepted and presented to them in media, so they’re acclimated to that as a fairly normal thing. When they hear the opposite message coming from faith leaders, it’s alienating. . . . Even just a change of tone would be a step in the right direction.” (From a news article on Crux)
Bishop Michael Jarrell, Diocese of Lafayette in Louisiana:
“I realize that this ruling will create conscience problems for many Catholics, especially those in public office. In some cases civil disobedience may be a proper response. No priest or deacon of this Diocese may participate in the civil solemnization of celebration of same-sex marriage. All Catholics are urged not to attend same-sex marriage ceremonies. No Catholic facility or property, including but not limited to parishes, missions, chapels, meeting halls, Catholic educational, health or charitable institutions, or facilities belonging to benevolent orders may be used for the solemnization of same sex marriage.” (From a statement)
Ish Ruiz, a Catholic school teacher in San Francisco, will begin doctoral studies in the fall at the Graduate Theological Union,Berkeley:
“The Church has always taught that the Holy Spirit speaks through the laity as well as the hierarchy. I hope the decision from the Supreme court, combined with polls that show that the majority of Catholics support same-sex marriage, encourages the hierarchy to be more in touch with the people, the sense of the faithful.
“[Ruiz] wondered if Church leaders might ‘challenge themselves’ to listen to those with different opinions about marriage and relationships, asking themselves, ‘Hey maybe we don’t have all the answers, maybe there’s more to this issue than we’ve been teaching so far.’ ” (From an interview and a news article on Crux)
“Pope Francis encouraged bishops to allow themselves “to be surprised by God, the God of surprises.” I pray the Church continues to engage with the sense of the faithful, especially those that are LGBTQ+, through dialogue. That door must always remain open.”
Cardinal Donald Wuerl, Archdiocese of Washington, D.C.:
Cardinal Wuerl issued a public statement on the Supreme Court ruling, and he also sent a four-page letter to the archdiocese’s priests, giving directions on their pastoral response in light of the new reality of marriage equality.
The National Catholic Reporter quoted from this letter in a news article by Tom Roberts, Editor-At-Large:
” ‘Are people who share our faith but struggle with the church’s understanding about marriage still welcome at church?’ And he answers, ‘Because Jesus came to save all people, all are invited to be a part of god’s family – his church.’
“The welcome, he said, ‘is extended to everyone: married couples with children, unwed mothers and fathers, the single unmarried, couples who struggle with infertility, men and women with same-sex attraction, individuals facing gender issues, those whose marriages have broken down and suffered the trauma of divorce, people with special needs, immigrants, children born and unborn, the young, seniors, and the terminally ill, sinners and saints alike. If the church were to welcome only those without sin, it would be empty.’
“Accepting the person, however, doesn’t mean accepting everything one does. ‘Church teaching and common sense make a distinction between who a person is and what that person does.’ Condemnation of sin doesn’t mean condemnation of the person, writes Wuerl. ‘The church has and always will meet people where they are to bring them closer to Christ. . . .’
“The practical challenge for the church and its agencies, he said, is the need ‘to balance two important values, the provision of appropriate health care benefits for all church personnel including their spouses, and the avoidance of the perception that by doing so we accept a definition of marriage and spouse contrary to faith and revealed truth.’ (From a news article in The National Catholic Reporter)
Francis DeBernardo, Executive Director, New Ways Ministry:
In addition to issuing New Ways Ministry’s official statement on June 26, 2015, DeBernardo also penned an essay on Crux and commented to The National Catholic Reporter on the significance of the decision.
Instead of continuing to fight political and legal battles, creating bigger and stronger walls against American society, the U.S. bishops should follow instead the way of reconciliation with the larger culture, and with their Church’s own alienated members.
DeBernardo offered the following suggestions for the bishops:
Initiate a dialogue with the vast majority of US Catholics who support marriage equality and LGBT issues.
Institute a moratorium on firing employees from Catholic institutions because of marriage equality.
Give up their campaign for religious liberty they have been waging to oppose marriage equality.
Work toward reconciling Catholics who have been on opposite sides of this issue.
Educate themselves about LGBT people and issues in two ways:
Open dialogues with LGBT Catholics and their family members to learn about the everyday reality of their lives and their faith.
Avail themselves of the wealth of Catholic theological writing which for the past 40 years has been calling on the Church to recognize the goodness and holiness of gay and lesbian relationships. (From an op-ed on Crux.)
“I think that while the law has changed, people’s hearts and minds are not going to change until they see same-sex marriage in practice. That is the significance of this. It paves the way for people in parts of the country where marriage equality doesn’t exist to see the benefits of same-sex marriage and that it’s nothing to fear. . . .
“There are still a lot of places in the United States where that education and familiarization still has to happen. One of them being the U.S. Catholic bishops. They have shielded themselves from knowledge of the reality of lesbian and gay couples.” (From a news article in The National Catholic Reporter)