What does it mean to welcome LGBTQ people into Catholic communities?

Views Craig A. Ford, Jr. / June 19, 2022 Print this:
(Photo courtesy of Pexels)

Dialogue becomes necessary when one realizes that it is the responsibility of the church to be a voice that echoes God’s love in a world torn apart by political polarization and strife over issues of gender and sexuality.

For Catholic parishes and institutions, especially our schools, welcoming LGBTQ+ persons into Catholic spaces is a matter of deep theological and pastoral contention.

It’s also a question that we need to answer with extraordinary urgency, as the number of those who are religiously unaffiliated continues to rise and as a growing number of our religious communities (in the United States, at least) continue to fracture along the fault lines often dictated by our political polarizations.

Indeed, this question is one that we frequently return to in OUT|LOUD, the ministry that I helped found at St. Norbert College Parish, which cultivates solidarity with those who are discriminated against on the basis of their race, gender or sexual orientation.

Does “welcoming” LGBTQ+ people entail capitulating to a cultural vision that is contrary to the Gospel? At what point do certain actions putatively regarded as showing “welcome” to LGBTQ+ people end up causing doctrinal confusion, perhaps even scandal?

I want to make some progress towards responding to this question, in the hope that it may be helpful to the many people that the Outreach conference calls together: LGBTQ+ Catholics, their families and pastoral ministers. A robust theology of welcome, at this point in time, extends thoughtfully from Pope Francis’s pastoral logic of integration, articulated in the eighth chapter of his 2016 apostolic exhortation “Amoris Laetitia.”

This theology extend in two directions: the first prohibits any sort of action or policy (either at the parish or diocesan levels) that makes the fatal pastoral mistake of prioritizing doctrinal conformity over interpersonal encounter. The second path actively promotes any sort of action or policy that cultivates a deeper sense of belonging on the part of LGBTQ+ persons in Catholic institutions. 

Before we get there, though, it’s important to discuss the facts on the ground as they relate to welcoming LGBTQ+ people within our American ecclesial climate. Catholic teaching, as outlined in the catechism, finds both homosexuality as well as transgender identity problematic because of the actions that these dispositions may lead to—specifically same-sex sexual activity and gender transition.

These teachings have led to a number of political advocacy positions including, but certainly not limited to: (1) opposition to same-sex marriage and, in many cases, to civil unions between same-sex partners; (2) opposition to adoption by same-sex couples, especially adoptions facilitated by Catholic Charities; (3) opposition to the extension of nondiscrimination protection—employment and otherwise—to LGBTQ+ people (as seen, for example, in the USCCB opposition to the Equality Act); and (4) a lukewarm embrace of therapies or other interventions aimed at either moderating or eliminating homosexual desire or resolving gender dysphoria.

Does “welcoming” LGBTQ+ people entail capitulating to a cultural vision that is contrary to the Gospel?

In both the Archdiocese of Milwaukee and in the Diocese of Green Bay (where I currently reside), transgender persons in Catholic institutions are forbidden from, among other things, being addressed by their chosen pronouns and using bathrooms that correspond to their chosen gender. Perhaps one of the most strident positions, though, has come out of the Diocese of Marquette, which has prohibited offering baptism and the Eucharist both to transgender persons and to persons in same-sex relationships—unless they agree to abide by official church teaching. 

Justifications for policies like these are various, but frequently mentioned is the dual desire for clarity in church teaching alongside the intention of enacting “authentic” or “genuine” pastoral care for LGBTQ+ people. The desired effect of these interventions, both political and doctrinal, is to provide substantive context for what it means for Catholic parishes and institutions to welcome LGBTQ people.

It is a welcome, in other words, with a normative horizon: anyone may come, but people must embrace, or at least respect, current teachings.

Doctrinal confusion and scandal

What does it mean to respect official Catholic teachings related to homosexuality and transgender identity, thereby enabling one to welcome “in the right way”? Over the last 40 years or so, two kinds of answers have been given to this question. One answer has been to enact specific prohibitions or issue regulations on how LGBTQ+ people can participate in the larger ecclesial body.

The other answer—admittedly more theoretical— is at the same time less specific and more theological: It maintains that official church teaching addressing gender and sexuality is respected so long as no Catholic entity engages in actions that lead either to “doctrinal confusion” or “scandal.”

These two terms are as consequential as they are flexible—so consequential and flexible, in fact, that one can probably predict whether one’s Catholic community is friendly to LGBTQ people, knowing only how often these terms are brought up in in reference to LGBTQ Catholic initiatives. This means that there is a remarkable variance with respect to how these terms are used.

In some Catholic communities, an initiative might be critiqued as leading to “doctrinal confusion” or “scandal,” while in another community, the same initiative would be regarded as theologically unproblematic. It is often this variance that determines if a Catholic community welcomes LGBTQ people.

Photo courtesy of Reuters

When respect for official church teaching is parsed out in terms of avoiding both doctrinal confusion and scandal, it becomes extremely important to understand what doctrinal confusion and scandal are. But providing such a definition is often elusive.

Take doctrinal confusion, for example. If one judges that doctrine cannot be confused, but rather people that can be confused about the meaning or the interpretation of doctrine, then two questions come to mind immediately. What sort of person do we have in mind here and what do we mean by “confusion”?

The answer to the first question is vital because it asks what sort of person counts as reasonably positioned to make assessments about what practices are compatible with doctrine. Here a number of criteria could be invoked: Some might be cognitive, whereby only persons above a certain threshold of cognitive functioning might be suitable to make this judgment; others might be ecclesiological, whereby only persons who are Christians count; and others might be educational, where only persons who have undergone theological training or religious formation count.

My present point, though, is not to generate an exhaustive list as much as it is to say that there are some sensible lower and upper limits to these criteria. To identify the reasonable person as a moral theologian might be too demanding of a standard for reasonableness. After all, they are experts in questions of moral doctrine. But to identify the reasonable person as Catholic, who hasn’t received religious education in decades, might be too lenient.

After all, if a person’s religious literacy is not very high, then there’s a considerable probability that moral doctrines may be difficult to comprehend.

“When respect for official church teaching is parsed out in terms of avoiding both doctrinal confusion and scandal, it becomes extremely important to understand what doctrinal confusion and scandal are. But providing such a definition is often elusive.”

But let’s assume that we do have such a reasonable person. What then would it mean for such a person to be confused about the compatibility of certain practices with moral teaching? I don’t think easy answers can be given here. As anyone who has worked in group environments will know, what is considered confusing often depends on the particular disposition of the confused person. In other words, confusion is a subjective reality that is not easily generalized.

Sometimes a simple clarification is needed, at other times a more detailed one is required, at still other times the person might understand the matter while the ‘experts’ have actually erred. If confusion is properly understood as a subjective reality, then a generalized notion of what is confusing is going to be difficult to arrive at in the abstract. Therefore, in my view, what exactly causes doctrinal confusion is therefore opaque. 

Take an example that may be a reality in at least some of our parishes. Let’s say that there are two couples presenting the gifts to the celebrant at the altar. The first couple consists of two men known to be in a committed same-sex relationship, and the other couple consists of a married man and woman widely known to use artificial contraceptives. Does the fact that it is widely known that, according to official church teaching, both couples may be gravely sinning lead to “confusion” about the doctrine prohibiting same-sex sexual acts or the use of artificial contraceptives?

By my reading, the answer is either “no,” or one needs to enter into dialogue with the persons reporting confusion to learn more about their concerns. What seems clearly off the table is a generalized judgment that such actions lead, by definition, to doctrinal confusion. 

But doctrinal confusion is not the only theological concern. There is also the matter of scandal.

For our purposes, there are two critical differences between doctrinal confusion and scandal. First, whereas the notion of doctrinal confusion does not appear in the catechism at all, scandal does. Scandal, as defined in the catechism, is “an attitude or behavior which leads another to do evil” (2284). It can be provoked “by laws or institutions, by fashion or opinion” (2286), and [lead] “to the decline of morals and the corruption of religious practice,” making “Christian conduct and obedience to the Commandments difficult and practically impossible” (2286).

Further, what provokes scandal could lead people “weak” in the faith to experience adverse effects in their relationship with God (2285). This latter specification of the “weak believer” harkens back to admonitions made by St. Paul, writing in the midst of a controversy about whether Christians could eat foods that had previously been sacrificed to idols.

Paul’s answer is that while it is permissible for Christians to eat foods sacrificed to idols, since such idols don’t actually exist, it would nevertheless be wrong to eat such foods if there are believers in the community who, witnessing the act, would encounter a “stumbling block” thrown in their relationship with God. Paul writes,

Let us therefore no longer pass judgment on one another, but resolve instead never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of another. I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean. If your brother or sister is being injured by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. Do not let what you eat cause the ruin of one for whom Christ died. 

(Rom. 14:13-15)

Let’s return then to the example of the two couples presenting the gifts at the altar. This time, the question is not whether such behavior generates doctrinal confusion, but rather whether such behavior constitutes a scandal. If the answer is yes, the behavior would have to be scandalous because either witnessing or coming to knowledge of such an act would lead to one or more of the following outcomes: (a) to the decline of morals; (b) to the corruption of religious practice; or (c) to social conditions that render Christian conduct practically impossible. 

The category of scandal is undoubtedly a theologically productive category, if for no other reason than it offers a more helpful and concrete vision of potentially problematic behavior. For example, in our current context, I do not think it can be doubted that certain aspects of our contemporary church have given scandal. The mishandling of the sex abuse crisis among the Church’s leaders comes to mind—an especially relatable example given that many of us know someone who has turned their back on Roman Catholicism (and potentially all of Christianity) because of the institutional church’s response to abuse cases. 

Moreover, some Christians may find the restriction of ordination to men alone to be scandalous, just as others may find scandalous the practice of publicly prohibiting pro-choice politicians from receiving Communion. 

Scandal is also a theologically helpful and productive category for another reason, though this one is frequently overlooked. As noted by the Jesuit moral theologian Jack Mahoney in his influential 1987 text “The Making of Moral Theology,” the notion of scandal applies not only to those who are weak in the faith, but also to those who are comparatively stronger. In other words, there is not only a scandal of the weak, but a scandal of the strong as well. Mahoney writes:

Moreover, in any concentration on care for the “weaker brethren” there is a presumption that they can be identified within the community, but this can be done only by selecting and concentrating on certain features within a situation of controversy.

For there can also be, paradoxically, a “scandal of the strong” a weakening of the faith and adherence of even the “knowledgeable” and the “mature” as a consequence of uncompromising and insensitive insistence on the universal applicability of traditional teaching. All believers are vulnerable and ‘weak’ in some sense, whether in their ignorance or credulity or in their erudition and self-confidence. 

(The Making of Moral Theology, 298-299)

The point of Mahoney’s intervention here is to not so much to try and distinguish what is truly scandalous from what is not. It is to draw attention to the overarching goal of engaging the theological notion of scandal in the first place: the goal of building up mutual tolerance and respect within the Christian community.

Indeed, as Paul writes in the same passage quoted above, “For the kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. […] Let us then pursue what makes for peace and mutual upbuilding. Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God” (Rom. 14:17, 19-20). 

When theologically considered, then, invocation of scandal is supposed to be done with an attention to the entire Christian community and to the overarching goal of promoting peace within the Christian community. This brings us once again to the need for dialogue about scandal within a given Christian community. Such dialogue would need to address two specific questions: The first asks how we come to know what does or does not constitute scandal, and the second asks how we can engage this potentially scandalous behavior in a way that leads to peace, joy, and mutual respect.

The answer to the first requires the presence of robust structures within our Catholic communities in order to facilitate discussion of what would constitute putatively scandalous behavior. It also requires the presence of persons adept at making use of those same structures.

In parish communities, an obvious entity to discharge such a responsibility would be members of the parish council. In schools, such entities could be organizations involving both faculty, administrators and representatives of student government, as appropriate. The answer to the second requires the presence of persons with the spiritual gifts of knowledge, wisdom and conflict negotiation skills. The goal of our deliberations is not only to try and make correct determinations, but to do so in the spirit of oneness for which Jesus prays. “The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one” (Jn. 17:22). 

One can then believe, with very good reason, that there are behaviors and policies either in the church or society that are scandalous, but this admission in no way undermines the importance of wide engagement with, and conversation about, these behaviors or the need to discern how best to respond to them. Indeed, such an approach becomes all the more vital when discussing issues of gender identity and sexuality, where there is such a diversity of views.

Dialogue becomes necessary when one realizes that it is the responsibility of the church to be a voice that echoes God’s love in a world torn apart by political polarization and strife over issues of gender and sexuality.

We must model the ecclesiology of the Second Vatican Council. Consequently, determinations about scandalous behavior cannot be made only by those who are ordained. Such a clericalist interpretation flies squarely in the face of church theology as the entire People of God.

“Dialogue becomes necessary when one realizes that it is the responsibility of the church to be a voice that echoes God’s love in a world torn apart by political polarization and strife over issues of gender and sexuality.”

Let’s return then to the case of our two couples presenting the gifts at Communion. To determine if presentation of the gifts on the part of either couple constitutes scandalous behavior does not doubt two crucial facts.

On the doctrinal level, both same-sex sexual acts as well as the use of contraceptives constitute grave matter and can be seriously sinful acts, and that, in any given Catholic community, there may exist members for which the specific behavior of presenting the gifts may pose a stumbling block in their understanding of Catholic sexual ethics. But from here, just as in the doctrinal confusion case, it is imperative that a conversation begin at the very heart of the community.

The goal, in other words, is to use this moment as an occasion to deepen bonds of love within a Christian community in and through the occasion of potentially deep disagreement. This means that the skills of negotiation and compromise become the very markers of progress towards the full realization of Catholic teaching in community life.

Pope Francis’s logic of integration and LGBTQ people

Notions of doctrinal confusion and scandal do not end conversation, but rather hasten the call to deeper conversation and unity, trusting that God’s spirit is operative in the community to help bring it into the fullness of truth. As Jesus says to his followers, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth” (Jn. 16:12-13). Let us, therefore, not suppress the Spirit in our deliberations concerning sexuality and gender identity, just as in the ancient church, Paul admonished his followers not to destroy the work of God.

This is where extending a hearty welcome becomes absolutely imperative, for it is the posture of welcome—of continuing to draw all people more deeply into the community that celebrates being God’s beloved—that helps us sharpen our understanding of the truth that we pray always shines through the Church. What, then, are the theological contours of this welcome? 

Photo courtesy of Pexels

It’s at this point where I think one can fruitfully turn to the moral theology of Pope Francis, particularly as reflected in “Amoris Laetitia,” which directly addresses issues of sexuality, marriage and the family. It is here where I believe we can identify a Franciscan media via, or middle way, that can help guide the Catholic Church in the United States through the contentious doctrinal waters of modern sexual ethics.

The on-ramp to such a media via is to recognize that Francis’s moral and pastoral theology is governed by what he calls the “logic of integration.” As Francis identifies it, this logic is “key” to the pastoral care of people living in “irregular situations”—that is, persons in relationships that don’t resemble the Catholic ideal of a married man and women open to new life.

“Such persons need to feel not as excommunicated members of the Church, but instead as living members, able to live and grow in the Church and experience her as a mother who welcomes them always, who takes core of them with affection and encourages them along the path of life and the Gospel,” explained Pope Francis.

Crucial here is Francis’s prioritization of feelings and the assessment made by the individuals in the irregular situation. It is not so much the canonical status of excommunication that matters as much as the affective state of feeling excommunicated that is called out as unacceptable by Francis. How are such feelings avoided? “It is a matter of reaching out to everyone,” Francis writes. “No one can be condemned forever, because that is not the logic of the Gospel!”

A logic of integration is intrinsically opposed to a logic of condemnation. Francis’s thought here is dialectical, oscillating between two irreconcilable poles and seeking a greater and more fruitful synthesis. But most crucially, Francis’s thinking presents a path and pattern for applying official Church teaching in the mode of welcome. After all, church teachings do not apply themselves.

Consider, for example, Pope Francis’s views on homosexuality in Amoris Laetitia, where he not only finds it “unacceptable that local churches should be subjected to pressure […]to establish ‘marriage’ between persons of the same sex,” but where he also affirms that “there are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family.”

We also see similar alignment with official church teaching on questions related to transgender identity, where Francis, in the same document, criticizes the view that “human identity becomes the choice of the individual” as “gender ideology.”

“Pope Francis’s thinking presents a path and pattern for applying official Church teaching in the mode of welcome. After all, church teachings do not apply themselves.”

It cannot be doubted: these are the teachings in all of their rawness. So, when these teachings are seeking expression within a logic of integration, we must remember that “every person, regardless of sexual orientation, ought to be respected in his or her dignity and treated with consideration,” according to Francis. And while same-sex marriage may not be “even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family,” when it comes to irregular situations, “the Church does not disregard the constructive elements in those situations which do not yet or no longer correspond to her teaching on marriage.”

Our key for interpreting church teachings in the mode of welcome, according to the logic of integration, thus involves taking official church teachings related to gender identity and sexuality in all of their rawness and expressing them in a mature and merciful form.

Francis writes compassionately:

I understand those who prefer a more rigorous pastoral care which leaves no room for confusion. But I sincerely believe that Jesus wants a Church attentive to the goodness which the Holy Spirit sows in the midst of human weakness, a Mother who, while clearly expressing her objective teaching, always does what good she can, even if in the process her shoes get soiled by the mud of the street.

I’d like to offer four concrete ideas of what welcoming LGBTQ people should look like in our Catholic communities:

1. The logic of integration affirms a prioritization of the experience of the LGBTQ person as they assess the climate of Catholic communities. As pointed out above, one of Francis’s goals for persons living in “irregular situations” in Catholic communities is that such persons are not even made to feel as if they are excommunicated from Catholic communities. 

This means that, as a general rule, when Catholic community leaders are assessing whether LGBTQ+ people feel exiled from (or even exiled within) in our communities, we should give comparatively greater weight to how they themselves would respond to the question.

2. The logic of integration affirms a continuous discernment of the gifts that LGBTQ+ people bring to Catholic communities and to offer pathways for them to deepen ties with that community. It also means that LGBTQ people should be able to achieve and retain employment in all Catholic environments (educational or otherwise) when they possess the relevant expertise.

3. In the absence of meaningful communal discernment, the logic of integration opposes any charge of “confusion” on the part of believers or of scandal to preclude a given practice or behavior relevant to the participation of LGBTQ people in a Catholic community. As argued above, notions of doctrinal confusion and scandal theologically considered can never be rightly separated from certain subjective considerations, like who is potentially confused or scandalized. 

4. And last, the logic of integration opposes any policies or practices that would make formal affiliation with a given Catholic community (including baptism and Eucharist) contingent upon the foreseen introduction of deep psychological or moral distress on the part of the LGBTQ+ person, especially if such affiliation is made to depend on the dissolution either of central relationships in the LGBTQ+ person’s life or the disintegration of the LGBTQ+ person’s self-concept. The reason for this comes from Francis’s logic of integration: if, in order to achieve the good of full communion with the Catholic Church one has to go through a process that can reasonably be foreseen by the individual to result in severe psychological distress, then we are requiring personal disintegration for the sake of ecclesial integration. This is never a choice that Christ would have us make to embark on the life of discipleship.

Everyone can share in some way in the life of the Church; everyone can be part of the community. No one should ever be barred from the Sacraments. This is especially true of the sacrament which is itself “the door”: baptism. Pope Francis has described the Eucharist not as a prize for the morally superior, but as a balm for the broken.

Everyone is welcome in Catholic spaces, especially LGBTQ people. It is a welcome that errs on the side of preserving the psychological and spiritual wholeness of the people who enter our spaces. It is a welcome that sees disagreement over sexuality and gender identity—issues at the forefront not only of our Church’s consciousness but that of wider society as well—as the catalyst for a deeper unity.

Let us pray that the Spirit, in Her wisdom, will hasten the day when our Catholic communities will be distinguished by this logic of integration, and will thus become safer spaces for all people, but especially LGBTQ people, to hear the voice of God calling them into deeper relationship.  

Craig A. Ford, Jr.

Craig A. Ford, Jr., Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at St. Norbert College, where he also serves as Co-Director of the Peace and Justice Interdisciplinary Minor.

All articles by Craig A. Ford, Jr.

Outreach is part of America Media. To support Outreach you can make a donation or subscribe to America.
  1. Beautiful article! Thank you especially for clarifying the meaning of moral confusion and scandal. Such niche details of moral theology are extremely hard to understand in abstraction, let alone applied to such a contentious issue.

  2. Thank you, Craig. You always teach me so much, and are a gift to our OUT|LOUD Ministry at St. Norbert College Parish!

  3. a thoughtful and loving statement of open nature and welcoming faith. if only Catholics could believe that all are welcome is more than the phrase of a song. it is a walk in life that we choose with compassion and caring.