Talking About Sexual Diversity and the Catholic Church

When the series of college seminars on sexual diversity and the Catholic Church were first announced, there were predictable howls of outrage from certain quarters. The objections were essentially twofold: there was an assumption that these meetings were expressly designed to challenge church teaching, and another that any such challenge, or even discussion, is inherently wrong.

On the second point, I must disagree fundamentally. More important than the Vatican rules has got to be the example of Jesus Christ, whom we as Christians supposedly follow. His way was not to create elaborate rules. Instead, he insisted that there are only two rules that really matter – to love God, and to love one’s neighbour as oneself. When challenged on his own apparent disregard of Jewish religious rules, he consistently responded by discussion, and characteristically told stories that illustrated the value of living out the principle of unbounding love as more important than simply following a detailed set of rules with no regard to context. More generally, his standard method of engaging with his followers was in discussion. Talking about issues, thinking about them, and praying about them in the light of experience, is how theology is done.

In this context, the response of Vienna’s Cardinal Schonborn to the dissident priests who have challenged Church rules is instructive. He could have simply parroted out the rules about priestly obedience. Instead, this is what he wrote, (in his original German, and in my own poor translation):

Es ist nicht überraschend, dass über Erneuerung kontrovers diskutiert wird; es ist notwendig. Denn nur im Austausch, im Gespräch, im Aufeinander-Hören und im gemeinsamen Suchen nach dem Willen Gottes kann das Anliegen der Reform der Kirche zu einem gemeinsamen Weg werden.

(It is not surprising that there is controversy and discussion about renewal. This is necessary. For it is only in the exchange of views, in conversation, in listening to each other in the common search for the will of God that the cause of reform of the church can become a shared community path).

-Cardinal Schönborn’s careful, measured response to dissident Austrian priests

Canon law in fact requires us to speak up when we believe the leaders of the church are acting incorrectly, Pope Benedict himself has written that the demands of conscience must take precedence even over obedience to the pope, Cardinal Schonborn has responded to the priests’ initiative by stressing the importance of reform and of achieving it by a process of communication – and some notable saints and doctors of the church owe their honoured place to having spoken out and denounced bad practice by the leaders of the Church.  The Austrian priests who have allied themselves with this initiative are in good company.As Bart has pointed out (in the comments thread to his post on this yesterday), that company includes

St Catherine (of Siena), St Bridget (of Sweden), St Francis, St Dominic … need I mention other saints who came out strongly for reform in the Church?

So, I take it as axiomatic that we as queer Catholics have not only a right, but an obligation to discuss and even challenge Church teaching where it is deficient or obviously flawed.

However, this particular series in fact is explicitly not intended t0 challenge church teaching, but to explore the gaps that the teaching does not cover, and the real life difficulties faced by gay and lesbian people as a result of that teaching.

Hearing the words “sexual diversity” and “Catholic Church” in the same phrase, it would be easy to write off such a conference as another attempt to challenge the church’s teaching on homosexuality.

Not so, says Paul Lakeland, professor of theology at Fairfield University and one of the key organizers of the entire “More than a Monologue” series. As one of Lakeland’s colleagues at Fairfield this semester, I had the opportunity to chat with him about the impetus for the conferences.

For Lakeland, none of these conferences has as its agenda to attack the church’s teaching on homosexuality.

“All of these conferences are addressing issues that are left open by the church teaching,” he said. Though the hierarchy is explicit in its understanding of same-sex relations, he said there are questions that arise out of its teaching that have not and will not go away.

-Jamie L. Manson, National Catholic Reporter

Quite. In my view, for instance, one major problem is how to square the implacable opposition of some bishops to civil unions or civil partnerships (which seems to require gay Catholics to lives which are not merely celibate, but also solitary), with Pope Benedict’s own recognition that celibacy is difficult – but made easier when one lives in community. Another is the empirically observed  fact that religious opposition to homosexuals is one of the factors that contributes directly to bullying of LGBT youngsters – and so to the high incidence of queer youth suicide. Yet, instead of actively working to combat such bullying, too often the bishops actively attempt to circumvent proposals to combat homophobic bullying, for fear of being seen to approve of homosexuality. These things need discussion.

The series has begun – the first conference took place last Friday, at the (Catholic) Fordham University. Are the intentions being met? Sadly, I have not yet been able to track down any report on the content of the conference proceedings, but I thought this reflection at Commonweal, from Peter Steinfels who chaired one of the sessions, was encouraging. After describing the varied ways in which gay men and lesbians in practice can choose to respond to Church doctrine, by falling into line, by simply leaving the church, or by trying to find some accomodation within it, he continues:

As far as I can see, different pieces of the “More Than a Monologue” series seem to shine light on these and other possible responses, some more favorably than others, but all with the primary purpose of simply making the problematic aspects of the status quo visible. The Fordham program, in my opinion, did this admirably. Can this be done honestly without raising questions about changing church teaching itself among many other possible responses? I don’t think so. Yet the Fordham program refused any temptation to promote such change by stealth or misrepresentation. Both the daytime and evening sessions were introduced by a thoughtful, extended statement about authoritatively stated church teaching.

He does find some fault though, with the program. Notably, he says there is not enough representation of the forces allied to orthodoxy (but is this the fault of the organizers, for not trying hard enough to be even-handed, or of the forces for orthodoxy, for declining to participate? I do not know). He also has concerns about some of the headline speakers, especially Dan Savage, who will be participating in the discussion on youth suicide at Union Theological Seminary. Suicide however is a major issue that needs serious attention (see above), and Savage is the person most closely identified with important strategies to deal with it.

The one criticism that I would whole-heartedly endorse, is his observation that the organizers have interpreted “sexual diversity” far too narrowly. By focussing exclusively on the issue of sexual orientation and the Church’s response to gay men and lesbians, they have missed a valuable opportunity.

 …..the discussion was curiously isolated from the larger context of sexual change—diversity, if you will—within the Catholic church. Only in the final panel discussion did Father Massingale remind everyone that a struggle over sexual morality has been going on for over four decades. At the leadership level, the last “more than a monologue” took place in the 1960s within the commission on birth control appointed by John XXIII and Paul VI—and was closed down by Humanae Vitae. Since then, contracepting Catholics, the vast majority of Catholics of reproductive age in many parts of the world, have sought ways to live their faith under a cloud of official opprobrium and condemnations closely related to those extended to same-sex intimacy. Likewise, for great numbers of divorced and remarried Catholics. Unlike gay and lesbian Catholics, these Catholics have not had to work out their modus vivendi with the church in the teeth of stigma from the larger society, but that is quickly changing for gays and lesbians, too.

As queer Catholics, we make a mistake in restricting our discussion of the weaknesses in Church doctrine only to matters of orientation and gender. I use “queer” to refer to any sexual minority. Inside the Catholic church, where the majority of married Catholics dissent in conscience from the doctrines on contraception, where engaged couples ignore the prohibition on sex before marriage, where hardly anyone still takes seriously the idea that masturbation is sinful, we are all members of one minority or another – and the most notable minority of all, statistically speaking, is the tiny group who attempt to comply with the Catechism on every element of sexual doctrine.

There are profound weaknesses in the Church teaching and pastoral response to homoerotic orientation – but that applies also to every other element of sexual doctrine. How could it not, when it has been formulated by men in ivory towers with no personal experience of loving sexual relationships? We should be allying ourselves with the other (hetero-) sexual minorities inside the Catholic Church, making common cause with them to demonstrate to the oligarchs that it is they, not us, who are out of step with the Church as a whole.

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