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

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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

‘Pope Francis’ Bishop Calls for Inclusive Church that Lives Out Vatican II

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Bishop Vincent Long

An Australian bishop appointed by Pope Francis has powerfully called on the church to make space for lesbian, bisexual, and gay people, and to examine how it handles homosexuality, as part of his larger call for the church to press on in the work set forth by Vatican II.

Bishop Vincent Long, OFM Conv., of Parramatta offered his remarks during the Ann D. Clark Lecture last week.  His talk was titled, “Pope Francis and the Challenge of Being Church Today.” Long said that among the church’s “greatest challenges” today is being inclusive, to be a church where, in Pope Francis’ vision, all are radically welcome. The bishop explained his definition of real ecclesial inclusiveness:

“By that I mean there must be space for everyone, especially those who have been hurt, excluded or alienated, be they abuse victims, survivors, divorcees, gays, lesbians, women, disaffected members. The church will be less than what Christ intends it to be when issues of inclusion and equality are not fully addressed. That is why you heard me say that I am guided by the radical vision of Christ. I am committed to make the church in Parramatta the house for all peoples, a church where there is less an experience of exclusion but more an encounter of radical love, inclusiveness and solidarity.”

In an extended section on inclusion, Long continued by saying the parable of the Good Samaritan is “an incisive lesson that cuts our prejudices to the quick” because through it Jesus redefined what goodness means and collapsed human boundaries. It is Jesus’ “vision of love, inclusion and human flourishing that ought to guide our pastoral response. ” The bishop pointedly added, “. . . it is the holders of the tradition who are often guilty of prejudice, discrimination and oppressive stereotype.” Because of these biases, Long said the church must look inward at its own response to people it has harmed:

“We cannot be a strong moral force and an effective prophetic voice in society if we are simply defensive, inconsistent and divisive with regards to certain social issues. We cannot talk about the integrity of creation, the universal and inclusive love of God, while at the same time colluding with the forces of oppression in the ill-treatment of racial minorities, women and homosexual persons. It won’t wash with young people especially when we purport to treat gay people with love and compassion and yet define their sexuality as ‘intrinsically disordered’. This is particularly true when the Church has not been a shining beacon and a trail-blazer in the fight against inequality and intolerance. Rather, it has been driven involuntarily into a new world where many of the old stereotypes have been put to rest and the identities and rights of the marginalised are accorded justice, acceptance, affirmation and protection in our secular and egalitarian society.”

Addressing the impact Pope Francis should have on Catholic engagement of homosexuality, Bishop Long commented:

“In one of his interviews on a rather thorny issue of homosexuality, Pope Francis says that we must always consider the person, because – I quote ‘when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?’ It seems to me that the Pope has more than moved away from the approach of condemnation and judgement. He has refocused on the proclamation of God’s love for the poor, the vulnerable and the marginalised; he has firmly placed the pastoral emphasis on the dignity of every person; he has committed the Church to the way of engagement, affirmation and compassion which is at the heart of the Gospel.”

Long’s call for the church to reform and renew its engagement of gender and sexuality issues was set within broader remarks about recapturing the vision set forth by the spirit of Vatican II. He said the church in Australia was at “a critical juncture” with declining numbers and public scandals rocking the institutional church. But with God there can be “unexpected outcomes of the most crushing defeats,” and he added:

“I believe that we are living in a watershed and a privileged moment in the history of the church. Just as the biblical exile brought about the most transforming experience that profoundly shaped the faith of Israel, this transition time can potentially launch the Church into a new era of hope, engagement and solidarity that the Second Vatican Council beckoned us with great foresight. From where I stand, the arrival of Pope Francis and his emphasis on servant leadership have unambiguously signaled this new era. He himself said poignantly that we are not living in an era of change but change of era. By this, he means that it is the church that needs to live up to its fundamental call to be ‘ecclesia semper reformanda’ or the church always in need of reform to be in sync with the movement of the Holy Spirit and direction of the Kingdom.”

Long said that, as part of this reform and renewal, there must be a “prophetic reframing” by properly interpreting the signs of the times “in a way that offers fresh and hopeful vision for the future.”

Long predominantly cited women as exemplars of faith, a notable point for church leaders who often condemn feminism. He cited the story of Puah and Shiphrah, Hebrew midwives at the beginning of the book of Exodus who rejected the Pharaoh’s desire that all young boys be killed.  He also mentioned the life of Mary MacKillop, founder of the Josephite Sisters in Oceania who was once silenced by church authorities but whose prophetic witness since been reclaimed. Remarking on the model of Christian leadership these women offer, the bishop said:

“It is a vocation of the Christian leader to be with his people in their hopes and struggles, anxieties and fears. He/she is to be ‘a Malcolm in the middle’ who occupies in betwixt and between, liminal, peripheral and precarious places. It is not easy to be in the middle, and to be loyal to both ends of the spectrum, to belong to the Church of orthodoxy and yet also to minister in the world of the unorthodox. That is really between the rock and the hard place as they call it. Yet, that is the calling of the leader, because we are meant to be in the coal face, in the messiness of it all and at the same time in fidelity to the Gospel. . .

“Being merciful is at the heart of Catholic identity. It is not simply a matter of acting with mercy and compassion to those in need with our position of power and privilege intact. Rather, it is a radical discipleship of vulnerability and powerlessness in the footsteps of the humble servant of God.”

Long ended his remarks by listing ways of being church that he believes must be reclaimed for this renewed and reformed vision to be built up, including:

  • “Less a role of power, dominance and privilege but more a position of vulnerability and powerlessness. . .
  • “Less an experience of exclusion and elitism but more an encounter of radical love, inclusiveness and solidarity. . .
  • “Less a language of condemnation but more a language of affirmation and compassion.”

This is not Bishop Long’s first time speaking inclusively about LGBT issues. During the homily at his Installation Mass earlier this year, Long offered similar outreach to communities including LGB people hurt by the church. According to Tim Smyth of Acceptance, an Australian LGBT Catholics group, Long’s Installation Mass remark was “the first public statement by an Australian Bishop calling for spaces in our church for gay and lesbian Catholics.” Hopefully, the bishop will build on these remarks, and his pastoral leadership will help grow structural outreach to LGBT communities and their loved ones.

Worth noting, too, is that another Conventual Franciscan bishop appointed by Pope Francis recently made positive comments about LGBT issues. Bishop John Stowe, OFM Conv., of Lexington, Kentucky offered the reflections at this year’s conference for the Conference of Major Superiors of Men, and in the first of these remarks he addressed LGBT issues in a positive light. You can find out more about his remarks by clicking here.

To close this post, it is best to quote Bishop Long once again, who offered this prayer at the Lecture’s end, a prayer which seems fitting for LGBT advocates in the church in this critical historical moment:

“May we be like the prophets for our people during this our contemporary exile. May we be strengthened to walk the journey of faith with them, proclaim the message of hope, the signs of the new Kairos and lead them in the direction of the kingdom. May all of us enact the rhythm of the paschal mystery of dying and rising in the pattern of our Lord who is the Alpha and the Omega.”

Amen. To read Bishop Long’s full remarks, which I highly recommend, click here.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

Papal Canonizations, Part 1: Pope John XXIII’s Influence on LGBT Equality

On Sunday, April 27th, two recent popes, John XXIII and John Paul II, will be canonized as saints in the Catholic Church.  For many Catholics who support LGBT issues, this double canonization is an occasion of mixed emotions. Though many are happy with the canonization of John XXIII, their joy is tempered by the fact that John Paul II, who was responsible for instituting many anti-LGBT policies and teachings, is being similarly honored.

Pope John XXIII

Today, I’ll review the contribution of John XXIII on LGBT issues in the church. Tomorrow, I’ll take a look at John Paul II’s influence on these matters.  On Monday, we will provide a review of some of the wealth of commentary written recently about these two men.

John XXIII’s greatest achievement in his papacy was convening the Second Vatican Council, which opened up a new era of theological reform in the Church.  Most importantly, for LGBT issues, the theological reform included an important development in the Church’s sexual teaching.  Theologian Lisa Fullam recently offered a succinct description of Vatican II’s development of sexual theology in her essay, “Civil Same-Sex Marriage: A Catholic Affirmation.”  Fullam states:

“The Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes identified two ends of marriage: the procreation and education of children, and the intimate union of husband and wife through which ‘they experience the meaning of their oneness and attain to it with growing perfection day by day.’ (GS 48) Gaudium et Spes eliminated the long-held idea that procreation was seen as the primary end of marriage while the union of the partners was deemed secondary or instrumental to that primary end. The Council insisted that  ‘[m]arriage to be sure is not instituted solely for procreation’ (GS 50). Instead, it ‘maintains its value and indissolubility, even when despite the often intense desire of the couple, offspring are lacking’ (GS 50). Departing from most previous teaching in which the procreative end of marriage was elevated over the unitive end, the Council refused to prioritize either. However, the Council insisted that childless marriages are still truly marriages, not some lesser partnership, while no such contrary affirmation is made—loveless but procreative unions are not affirmed (or rejected) as true marriage by the Council.”

By displacing procreation from its position of primacy in sexual theology, and by raising the unitive function to a higher status, Vatican II opened the way for theologians to explore the unitive function more deeeply, which allowed them to consider the moral status of relationships which were not biologically procreative, especially gay and lesbian relationships.  So, John XXIII’s Vatican II  opened the way for a new discussion of sexuality in theology, which paved the way for the growing field of lesbian and gay theology.

Vatican II’s emphasis on justice being a constitutive part of the preaching of the gospel also had an effect on the development of LGBT ministry.  Fullam points out that John XXIII’s emphasis on human rights in his encyclical Pacem in Terris provided a new perspective for Catholics:

“The language of rights, then, is how Catholics take our religiously grounded understanding of the common good out into public discourse. With the humility appropriate to fallible human beings, we seek input from all people of good will as we do so. We don’t seek to legislate the whole moral law, but only those rights and duties by which the flourishing of all people is made possible. Our deep commitment to human dignity and the equality of all human persons is the bedrock on which Catholic teaching grounds its social message.”

John’s writings opened the path a more justice-oriented church.  One other outcome of this pope’s approach was the development following Vatican II of liberation theology, which would eventually be applied to the LGBT experience.

Immediately following Vatican II was when Catholics first started taking the human rights and liberation of LGBT people more seriously.  As this blog stated on October 11, 2012, the 50th anniversary of the opening of Vatican II:

“In one respect,  the movement for LGBT liberation, equality, and justice in the Catholic Church is a direct result of Vatican II.    The Council’s reform of theology, its updating of scriptural interpretations, its openness to scientific knowledge, its invitation for participation by the laity, its clarion call to work for justice in the world and the church–all these things were part of the 1960s Catholic zeitgeist which resulted in a burgeoning movement to be involved with, and work for justice for, LGBT people.

“It’s no accident that both two of the oldest Catholic ministries to LGBT people–Dignity and New Ways Ministry–emerged from this era and as a direct result of priests and religious following the call of Vatican II.  Similarly, it would have been unimaginable that John McNeill’s theological groundbreaking work, The Church and the Homosexual, could have been written before the Council.”

It is no overstatement to say that without John XXIII, the movement in the Church for LGBT equality would have been much delayed and much diminished.  For this contribution of his, and for the many other ways that he ushered in a more compassionate, just, and socially involved church, Catholics who support LGBT equality are rejoicing at his canonization.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

Australian Bishop Calls for Vatican III Council on Sexuality

Bishop Geoffrey Robinson
Bishop Geoffrey Robinson

Bishop Geoffrey Robinson, a retired auxiliary bishop of Sydney, Australia, has published a new book in which he calls for the Catholic church to institute a Third Vatican Council to discuss how to prevent sexual abuse in the church, which he proposes would also include re-examining a number of other sexual and gender-oriented topics, as well.  And he is starting a global movement to get Catholics to call for such an event.

Readers of Bondings 2.0 may remember that Bishop Robinson made headlines back in March of 2012 when he spoke at New Ways Ministry’s Seventh National Symposium in Baltimore and called for a total re-thinking of Catholic sexual morality.  He had previously been prominent because of his role as the Australian bishops’ representative to handle that country’s clerical sexual abuse crisis.  That experience helped him see the church and sexuality in a different light, and he wrote a book of his new insights, Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church.

Australia’s The Age newspaper reports on his new initiative to seek a Vatican III Council. which Robinson calls “a Catholic spring”:

“Retired Sydney bishop Geoffrey Robinson has launched a petition for ordinary Catholics to seek another global church council like the 1960s reforming Vatican II council. But at ”Vatican III,’ he says, there must be as many lay people as bishops to make sure the hard questions get asked.

“He believes that only a ”Catholic spring’ like the revolutions that ended the Marcos regime in the Philippines, totalitarian governments in the Arab world and communism in eastern Europe will move the Vatican to make the changes that are needed.”

For Christ's SakeRobinson lays out his call for a new council in his new book, For Christ’s Sake: End Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church … for Good, which will be published in Australia on Tuesday, June 4th.  The Age describes the publication:

“The book is about the powerful cultural factors that block the church from attacking the causes of abuse, rather than merely responding afterwards. Bishop Robinson believes the church is still trying to ‘manage’ the problem rather than confront it.

” ‘Ultimately the only way to deal with abuse is prevent it. Once it’s happened, anything you do is second-rate – you can’t cure it or restore people to the way they were before,’ Bishop Robinson said.

“The biggest obstacles he identifies are papal infallibility, obligatory celibacy, the professional priestly caste, the absence of the feminine throughout the church, and an immature morality based on authority rather than people taking responsibility.”

Bishop Robinson’s efforts toward a Vatican III are supported by two other Australian prelates: Bishops Pat Power of Canberra and Bill Morris of Toowoomba. A change.org petition has already been launched in Australia for lay people to endorse the need for a Council. With no publicity it has received 10,000 signatures in about two weeks.  U.S. and European versions of the petition will be launched this summer, and Bondings 2.0 will let you know about these developments as soon as they are announced.

You can learn more about Bishop Robinson and his ministry byvisiting his website.

New Ways Ministry supports Bishop Robinson’s call for a new Council with lay participation.  The only way that our church can heal is if all the voices on the many diverse forms of sexuality are heard and considered.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

Related articles:

March 28, 2012: NCR Editorial and Columnist Support Bishop Robinson’s Symposium Call to Re-think Sexuality

March 22: Symposium Provides “Shot in the Arm” for Participants

March 17, 2012: Bishop, Governor, and Theologian Highlight Symposium’s Second Day

 

 

 

LGBT Advocates React to Election of Pope Francis

Bishop Thomas Gumbleton
Bishop Thomas Gumbleton

Seemingly everyone has posted their thoughts about Pope Francis since his election last Wednesday evening, discussing everything from his country of origin, how the conclave played out, and where he may lead the Church. Prominently featured in these discussions is the new pope’s previous views on Catholic LGBT issues, sparking reactions from relevant organizations and commentators. Bondings 2.0 provides a sampling below.

Outspoken LGBT advocate and New Ways Ministry friend, Bishop Thomas Gumbleton told the Detroit Free Press that Pope Francis seems promising:

“‘It sounds like to me he’ll be open to the dialogue. He seems to have rapport with the people in his diocese…It seems to be the right direction.’

“Gumbleton said Argentine Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio brings to mind the papacy of John XXIII, which ushered in the Second Vatican Council, modernizing Catholic services and promoting the use of more laypeople in parish life…

“’St. Francis tried to live the radical gospel view of Jesus — simplicity, poverty — and he didn’t want a hierarchy. All of those signs look very promising,’ he said.”

Professor Tina Beattie

Joshua McElwee at National Catholic Reporter provides insights from leading Catholic theologians across the world on the election, with many perceiving a willingness to listen to and respect the laity’s role in the Church. From Tina Beattie, a professor at the University of Roehampton:

“For me this morning, if this man remains as attentive as he has been to the voice of the poor, if he makes it a listening as well as a teaching Church, a Church of the people rather than of the Curia, then I for one will keep quietly cheering and thanking God.”

Fr. Agbonkhianmeghe Orobator

From Fr. Agbonkhianmeghe Orobator, a Jesuit provincial in East Africa and theologian, believes that this new papacy will be marked by a refocusing on the People of God and not just the pope as those responsible for the well-being and growth of the Church:

“I want to believe that considering the humble and down-to-earth background of Pope Francis I the church is in capable hands — not just the pope’s alone, but the hands of the entire people of God across the globe.

“Francis’s first gesture of asking the people to pray to God for him may signal the beginning of a more authentic and humble recognition of the priesthood of the people of God and the responsibility we all bear for the church of God in the world.”

Many organizations released statements as well in the wake of Pope Francis’ election, which were compiled by Windy City Times. DignityUSA released a statement by Executive Director Marianne Duddy-Burke expressing cautious encouragement given the cardinals’ choice:

Marianne Duddy-Burke

“‘We recognize that sometimes this new job on which he embarks can change the man called to it…We invite him to take the time to learn about our lives [of LGBT individuals, their loved ones, and families], our faith, and our families before he makes any papal pronouncements about us, and we stand ready to enter into dialogue with him at any time.’”

The Human Rights Campaign called for the new pope to join the existing reality of American Catholics’ efforts for LGBT equality:

“’We hope the new Pope understands the time for religious-based bigotry is not only over, but must be denounced. Demonizing LGBT people and their families from this powerful platform not only fails to keep faith…but it does real psychological damage to millions of LGBT people around the world.’”

Francis DeBernardo, Executive Director of New Ways Ministry, was quoted in The Baltimore Sun:

Francis DeBernardo
Francis DeBernardo

“[Francis DeBernardo] said in a statement that he hopes the change in the church’s leadership will bring about a change in approach. Many have left the church over its harsh rhetoric toward gays and lesbians…

“‘Pope Francis has the opportunity to repair much of this hurt and alienation by offering sincere pastoral outreach to LGBT people and their families,’ DeBernardo, who was traveling in El Salvador, said in a prepared statement. ‘A welcoming gesture from the new pope in the first month of his papacy can go a long way to express God’s love for all humanity.’”

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

QUOTE TO NOTE: Assuming Responsibility for a Vatican II Ecclesiology

computer_key_Quotation_MarksWith Pope Benedict XVI now formally resigned, this act is viewed by many as an act of personal humility that broke with a centuries-old tradition of popes dying in office and overcame a stigma against stepping down. Fr. Joseph Komonchak writing in Commonweal shifts attention from papal politics to the failings of every other Catholic since Vatican II to implement a more positive ecclesiology. In conclusion, he writes instructive words for the coming days:

“A certain paradox is visible in the events now unfolding. The very act that humanizes the papacy also produces the hullabaloo over the upcoming conclave, which tends to reconfirm the inflated notion of the Petrine office that has developed over the past two hundred and fifty years, and the impression is given, once again, that the future of the church hinges on the choice of a successor to the See of Peter. One can hear it from both sides: from traditionalists who want still-tighter disciplinary control over doctrine, worship, and practice; and from progressives who want a pope who will loosen things up in all those areas. They both want something from Rome; they want the new pope to do something about what they each perceive as critical points. But the church is not the pope, and the pope is not the church, and perhaps what we most need is a pope who will encourage and allow the laity, the religious, the clergy, and the hierarchy to assume their responsibilities for the difference the church is supposed to make in the world. Benedict’s resignation was a self-denying act of personal humility. What we need now in Rome are acts of institutional humility and self-denial.”

Recent discussions on Catholic LGBT issues sometimes hinge reform on the election of a more inclusive pope, and while this certainly aids the cause, Fr. Komonchak reminds us that we are church and responsibility for progress exists within each layperson, as well as the bishops and clergy.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

Reflections on Vatican II and LGBT Issues–Part 3: Openness to the World

The third part in a three-part series reflecting on Vatican II and LGBT issues.  For the first part, click here; for the second part, click here

earthThe third dynamic that Richard Gaillardetz identified as instrumental to making Vatican II a success is “openness to the world.”  In his article in America magazine, he discusses this concept:

“The final dynamic evident in the council’s deliberations was its openness to the world. Pope John XXIII himself set the tone for this openness. . . .

“Pope John knew well the evils present in the world, but he was convinced that we must not exaggerate those evils and succumb to a dark apocalypticism. In his many addresses and homilies he evinced an attitude of respectful yet critical engagement with the world. In ‘Humanae Salutis,’ the apostolic constitution with which he formally convoked the council, the pope warned of ‘distrustful souls’ who ‘see only darkness burdening the face of the earth.’ And in his opening address at the council, he noted the advice he sometimes received from ‘prophets of gloom’ who see ‘nothing but prevarication and ruin’ in the world today.

“Pope John XXIII was convinced that Christians must be willing to read ‘the signs of the times’ and enter into a more constructive engagement with the world. . . .

“Here again the council’s conduct and attitude offer insight for our modern church, for we still hear far too many apocalyptic pronouncements regarding ‘a culture of death’ and a ‘toxic secularism.’ The council reminds us that we must not yield in the face of evil, but neither can we close our eyes to the signals of grace always present where humans seek justice and truth and ask the great questions about life’s meaning and ultimate significance.”

In regard to LGBT issues today, the current hierarchy would do well to follow this advice to be more open to the world.  Too often they sound like Pope John’s “prophets of gloom” who “see only darkness burdening the face of the earth.”   The negative attitude of the current hierarchy is doing great harm to their relationship with the world on LGBT issues and other issues as well.

Equally important, this negative attitude harms the hierarchy themselves.  In a sense, they are blinding themselves to all the good and holiness that exists in the LGBT community.  Sadly, they are missing out on the joy of life experienced by many in the Catholic LGBT community, specifically.  The gospel is being lived out in both traditional and new ways in the faith experiences of those involved in the Catholic LGBT community, but the hierarchy’s negativity and closed-mindedness prevents them from seeing this.

By being more open to the world, as the bishops at Vatican II were, the current hierarchy could learn from new advances in science and social science regarding gender and sexuality.  The world outside the church doesn’t have to be treated as the enemy.  God works there, too. Instead of building a fortress around the church to “protect” it from the world, the current hierarchy should be engaging it so that the spirit of the Gospel can inform and enlighten it.

One note of caution:  I don’t mean to imply that LGBT issues are issues of “the world” only.   LGBT people are very much part of the church and its life already and don’t necessarily need to be “reached out” to.  But by being more open to the world, the hierarchy could be establishing better forms of communication with those in the LGBT community who do not share the church’s vision of faith.  Sadly, they have too often painted themselves into a corner where they have no available tools to speak credibly or effectively with those not in the church.

You may have noticed that there is some overlap between the three dynamics which Gaillardetz has identified:  catholicity of dialogue, humble learning, and openness to the world.  These three concepts work with each other;  if one develops one of them, the other two, it seems, would be easy to develop, too.   Openness to the world includes being open to dialogue and being a humble learner, for example.

The most effective way that I see to reclaim the spirit of Vatican II for the church is for lay people to start living out these three dynamics the best ways that we are able to do so.   To paraphrase Gandhi, we must be the change we want to see in the church.  One of the greatest lessons of Vatican II is that lay people are equal partners with the hierarchy in building up the church.   We can’t expect the hierarchy to live the spirit of Vatican II if we don’t live it ourselves.  In doing so, we can help to transform our church on LGBT issues. Indeed, we can help to tranform our church. Period.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry