A Pastoral Approach to the Celibacy vs. Relationship Debate

In London’s Catholic Herald, Msgr. Keith Barltrop offers sound advice to pastoral ministers working with lesbian and gay people, particularly in the area of the celibacy vs. relationship debate.

Barltrop, who is Cardinal Vincent Nichols’ representative to the LGBT Catholics Westminster group which meets at the Farm Street Jesuit parish in the Mayfair section of London, is also a chaplain to the Courage group in that city.  He is thus in a unique position of participating in a parish-based ministry which welcomes all, and a one-on-one spiritual direction ministry which aims at helping lesbian and gay people lead chaste lives.

Msgr. Keith Barltrop

Barltrop begins by observing that lesbian and gay ministry is not different from other forms of ministry in the church:

“Pastoral care of homosexual people is essentially the same as all ministry: seeking to communicate the unconditional love of Christ and his Church, and to accompany people on their journey towards holiness. But in practice this particular ministry encounters powerful feelings of pain and anger which can cause difficulties.”

[Barltrop, who in the past has advocated that the Church accompany transgender people through their processes of transition, mostly limits the discussion in this article to lesbian and gay people.]

Yet, he does observe some important distinctions:

“LGBT people often feel hurt by the Church, either because of the way its teaching comes across, or through concrete experiences of rejection, or both. Those from non-Western cultures are sometimes even in danger of their lives, while some other Catholics seem threatened by the very existence of gay people and react angrily towards attempts to accommodate them within the Church.”

Barltrop also makes the important distinction that a wide variety of opinions and attitudes about personal sexual involvement exists among lesbian and gay Catholics.  Some seek intimate, committeed sexual relationships, some seek casual sexual involvement, others seek to lead chaste lives.    Despite these different perspectives, Barltrop finds a common thread:

“. . . [O]ne thing is common to virtually all LGBT Catholics today: they will not take the Church’s teaching on trust, but must learn from experience. Even those who hold a very traditional attitude have likely arrived at it through many experiences.

“This being so, ministers to gay Catholics need two main resources: a moral theology that can face the critical scrutiny of life experience; and a well-grounded spirituality of discernment. These can help LGBT Catholics look honestly at their behaviour, see where it is leading them and discover alternatives where indicated.”

Barltrop’s recommendation is a holistic moral theology that, like Pope Francis, emphasizes discernment over rules:

Fr. Servais Pinckaers, OP

“The moral theology I have found most helpful in this ministry is that of the Belgian Dominican Servais Pinckaers, who shows that from biblical times to St Thomas Aquinas, Catholic moral theology was essentially based on the search for true happiness, on earth and in heaven, and on the cultivation of virtues leading to it – a happiness deeper than mere pleasure, and consisting above all in communion with God and his holy people.

“A theology based on observing rules was a later distortion, and led by reaction in the 1960s to an equally unhelpful liberalism.

“In Pinckaers’ perspective, moral theology does not just define what one is allowed to do, or the minimum one must do, but joins hands with spirituality in promoting the search for holiness through loving God and neighbour to the uttermost. Ignatian discernment of spirits is the obvious spiritual partner for such a theology.”

I could quibble with some items in Barltrop’s argument, such as when he says that lesbian and gay people feel rejected by the church  “because of the way its teaching comes across.”  While that may be true for some,  I think there are two things amiss in that statement:  1) It’s not just the way the “teaching comes across,” but the substance of the teaching itself which causes feelings of rejection; 2) Many gay and lesbian people feel rejected because, well, they have been rejected directly by messages that they are not welcome.

But, generally, I find his argument, and especially his conclusion, to be very helpful.  Indeed, I think that many lesbian and gay Catholics have already gone through such a moral/spiritual process as they navigated and negotiated their seemingly conflicting identities of being Catholic and homosexual.  Unfortunately, many of these Catholics have had to go through that process without the support of pastoral ministers because for too long, too many pastoral ministers had subscribed to the distorted theology of observing rules.  Barltrop’s alternative is one of accompanying instead of dictating.

Conservative Catholics will probably not like Barltrop’s proposal because it doesn’t provide an answer that can be applied in all situations.  While I am not familiar with Pinckaers’ writing, it seems that by focusing on the goal–happiness through “the search for holiness through loving God and neighbour to the utmost”–he puts the discussion of morality in a different context, one that mirrors more the ministry of Jesus, who addressed people’s individual needs and situations rather than focusing on whatever the current interpretations of the Law were.

To read the entire text of Baltrop’s commentary, click here.

Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, July 11, 2017