Theology From Below: Catholic Conference on Sexual Diversity.

I call it “reality-based theology”, theologian Jeff Astley calls it “ordinary theology”, Tom Beaudoin at America magazine calls it “theology from below”. Whatever the words, what they have in common is the idea that theology that matters, is that which connects with their everyday lives – and has some foundation in the reality of those lives, whether based on empirical research, or in simple listening and reflection on lived experience.

On LGBT sexuality specifically, there has been rapid progress towards full LGBT inclusion in recent years, for both  acceptance of openly lesbian or gay clergy, and for same-sex marriages or blessings in church. We have seen this most dramatically in the European and American Mainline Protestant groups, but there has also been some movement in the smaller Protestant denominations, and even among some Evangelicals. An important common thread running through all the breakthrough decisions, is that they have come about after lengthy periods of study, reflection – and listening: “theology from below”, given concrete expression.

Conspicuously missing from the listing above, is the Catholic Church, for which the entire concept seems foreign. In spite of the Vatican II declaration that we should be a listening church, this has simply not happened. The standard procedure of the Vatican (supported by many bishops) is to develop in isolation its own conclusions, usually just reformulating and repackaging the mixture as before,  and then to simply tell the rest of us what we believe. On sexuality, this has completely ignored the findings of the human and natural sciences, and the changing social conditions affecting family and our experience of sexuality in the modern world.

However, there are now signs that things may be changing – albeit not (yet) from the oligarchs who should be leading. Instead, it has become the laity who are leading in the development of a relevant, reality-based theology. Last June, moral theologians from around the world held a major academic conference, independently of the Vatican, on the entire field of Catholic ethics, in all its many branches (of which, sexual ethics is only one).  Later this year, four USA academic institutions will host a smaller, more tightly focussed series of four one-day conferences specifically on sexual diversity and the Catholic Church. When news of this conference series first broke, I remember howls of scandalized outrage from the usual conservative commentators, horrified that the very idea that there could even be anything to discuss. This is entirely misguided.

Leaving aside the specific content of the conference series, the whole concept of talking about theology, instead of simply imposing a set of rules from above, is far more in keeping with Jesus’ own method of teaching, than the rule-book procedures of the CDF. Instead of repeating endlessly the detailed rules and regulations of the Jewish religious establishment, Jesus emphasised the overriding importance of love – and taught by telling stories, and discussing their significance with all, notably including those whom “respectable” society would have preferred to exclude.

The Catholic Church has declared itself to be a listening church, but failed to create structures in which this listening could conceivably take place. The Detroit Conference of Catholics was one example of just such a structure being created, the conference series on Sexuality Diversity and the Catholic Church is another. When the time comes, the proceedings will deserve to be watched with close interest.

Here are some extracts from Tom Beaudoin’s article at America:

There are, in truth, more than a few resources that can inspire Catholicism to take grassroots LGBT theologies more seriously, but one recent book that I hope will inspire a new kind of theology “from below” of Catholic sexual diversity is sociologist Dawne Moon’s book God, Sex and Politics: Homosexuality and Everyday Theologies (Chicago, 2004). Moon looks at how everyday theologies appear in Methodist congregations trying to talk about homosexuality, and she builds a case along the way for everyday theology as the theology that matters most in people’s ordinary lives. It seems to me that Moon agrees with theologian Jeff Astley’s argument about the existence of an “ordinary theology” that motivates people on a day-to-day basis (see his book Ordinary Theology (Ashgate, 2002)).

Moon’s book shares in a more general turn over the last decade to “lived religion,” qualitative approaches to religious research, and a proliferation of practice-based theologies. In Catholic pastoral contexts, we have begun to learn just how great a deceleration of affiliation the Catholic Church is facing. While sexuality is not the only reason, few doubt that it is a contributing factor to the distance between “normative” Catholicism and “lived” Catholicism.

The conference series this fall on LGBT Catholicism, More Than a Monologue: Sexual Diversity and the Catholic Church, is one way to help address this deceleration of affiliation and the distance between normative and everyday theologies.  As America readers may already know, there will be four daylong conferences at Fordham University, Union Theological Seminary, Yale University, and Fairfield University. (Disclosure: I am on the planning committee for the Fordham conference.) Each conference will address the realities of LGBT Catholicism from various angles: How LGBT persons and their allies experience the Catholic environment on homosexuality (Fordham); the crisis of youth suicides in relationship to Catholic education (Union); same-sex marriage (Yale); and sexual diversity in Catholic ministry (Fairfield). 

via America Magazine,  In All Things.

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