This is the first article in a series reflecting on the gender and sexuality sections of the Synod report.
The experience of reflecting on sections 15 and 16 in the Synod report, “A Synodal Church in Mission,” was an emotional roller coaster for me. Initially, I felt gratitude at evidence of honest and illuminating conversations that dignified the lives of LGBTQ Catholics. Then, I was discouraged at its oblique reference to us, as if that courageous speaking and listening had not occurred.
Next, elation surged over the proposal for urgent, interdisciplinary reflection on what it means to be an embodied person in relationship to God, only to be dashed by dejection from lingering hierarchical ethos that continues to marginalize the people it aims to “accompany”—an ethos that has little to offer beyond platitudes about wisdom born of the suffering it has caused us.
This leaves LGBTQ Catholics and allies wondering whether we are seen merely as beggars who ought to be grateful for crumbs that fall from the master’s table. But in the end, my hope is not in the church as a human institution, but in the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
First, the gratitude. I can’t avoid the feeling that the closed-door conversations of last month’s Synod nurtured something momentous, something historic, as if they had been protecting a precious seed during its fragile stage of germination and rooting. After all, who had ever seen an Instrumentum Laboris as a workbook, rather than a nearly complete draft of the document to be approved at the end? Or a Synod of Bishops whose full participants included lay people, even women?
Participants seemed almost giddy with excitement at the depth and candor of the discussions. Leaks even suggested—and reports from Outreach editor James Martin, S.J., confirmed—that LGBTQ Catholics’ experiences were shared frequently both at tables and in the full assembly.
Still, it is discouraging that the English version of the final document only euphemistically alludes to “matters of identity and sexuality” (15g) and enjoins listening to “those who have suffered forms of marginalization in the Church or in society” without naming those “forms” (16b). (The Italian version, however, uses the terms identità di genere and orientamento sessuale.) This is despite the fact that the report explicitly encourages some African bishops to “promote a theological and pastoral discernment on question[s] of polygamy,” surely a highly controversial exception to Catholic teaching on sexuality (16q).
The contrast tempted me to think that, by promoting a pastoral approach to polygamy and while treating LGBTQ Catholics as unmentionable, the synthesis authors were returning to a traditionalist ethic in which same-sex relations are inherently more sinful than even heterosexual rape, because the latter retains the potential for procreation. For a feminist theologian, this would be a disheartening regression.
Yet, as Father Martin argues, we can also read the omission as a desire not to alienate participants who see LGBTQ arguments as ideological, without reasserting the sexual binary “confirmed by the constant teaching of the Magisterium.” Instead, the synthesis calls for “greater precision and further study” to develop new “anthropological categories” robust enough to address sexuality, gender, artificial intelligence and many other challenges (15g).
As soon as possible, “experts with diverse skills and backgrounds,” including “people directly affected,” should begin to hold “in-depth discussions” in confidential settings (15k) where they can “grasp the complexity of the elements emerging from experience or knowledge in the sciences” (15g).
In other words, instead of cherry-picking data that happen to support existing teaching, we (as the Roman Catholic theological method insists) should reflect afresh upon first-person accounts of experience and the most current scientific research “in the light of the Word of God and Church teaching” (15c).
This is the best possible news: the Synod has sent all of us back to our desks, our students, our books and our Bible studies to build a credible theological anthropology before next fall. There is no time to waste!
Fortunately, we’re not starting from scratch. The Holy Spirit did not wait for the Synod to inspire collaborators in this work. For decades, theologians have been developing new theological anthropologies by reflecting on personal experiences and contemporary science in light of the Gospel and tradition. Here’s hoping that these candid, high-stakes conversations will draw upon the wisdom already circulating in the academy, much of it produced by LGBTQ scholars and allies.
Amid this hope and optimism, though, I still feel deep sadness tinged with anger. First, distilling the authentic Christian life to love, listening and accompaniment does not erase the harm that centuries of condemnation and exclusion, no matter how well intentioned, have done to millions of people: LGBTQ people, divorced people, enslaved and indigenous people and many others. It is not enough to say, “Let’s all listen now!”
As a church, we must also do penance and make reparations for the lives that these judgments have embittered, driven away and even destroyed. The same goes for all the other people whom we abandoned because we chose to focus our finite energy on enforcement and condemnation rather than on compassionate accompaniment.
In addition, the document implies that “we” at the center of the church need to attend to “them” on its margins, the people whose voices have been neglected and now need to be heard: LGBTQ people, women, migrants, refugees, asylum seekers and many more. To be sure, quite often one person occupies several of these marginal positions, which can intensify their unjust suffering exponentially. In my view, the church needs to update its approach to injustice by embracing intersectional analysis to make this prophetic point.
Even so, the Synod report implies that the vast majority of Catholics are, in some sense, on the church’s margins. Because seating “us” and “them” at round tables leaves power inequalities in place, the resulting document implicitly promotes the hierarchical, insider/outsider model of thinking it is trying to undo. Describing marginalization in passive voice amplifies this. No one can be marginalized unless someone is marginalizing them.
Finally, I feel disheartened at the implicit condescension to LGBTQ Catholics (alongside other marginalized persons) as needy for accompaniment, recognition, listening and inclusion. Like the poor—whom the document broadly equates with the marginalized—we are apparently valuable to the church primarily because our Christ-like suffering makes us “heralds of a salvation received as a gift and witnesses to the joy of the Gospel” (4h).
No doubt, unjust suffering inflicted by one’s siblings in Christ can yield wisdom and compassion when reflected on prayerfully. No doubt, oppressed and marginalized people can rejoice in the good news of salvation. Still, it is a pity that the document does not acknowledge how much the church, in its poverty, also needs LGBTQ Catholics. Despite ongoing judgment and marginalization from the Body of Christ, we nevertheless take our rightful place in the Body of Christ to serve the needs of the community into which we were baptized, doing the work the document enjoins on all Catholics.
Our numbers are sizable. An October 2020 report from Williams Institute shows that nearly one-quarter of LGBT adults in the U.S.—an estimated 1.3 million people—consider themselves Roman Catholics. Nearly one-fourth of LGBT adults call themselves moderately or highly religious, according to the report.
A dear, queer friend of mine sponsored countless queer and questioning teens for confirmation; another shared prophetic and hopeful homilies; and many have simply insisted on doing the quotidian work of raising funds, teaching religious education classes, or simply lending their ears to people. And very many more serve as priests and vowed religious. These LGBTQ Catholics have been called to serve the living Christ joyfully and compassionately.
But no one should assume that LGBTQ Catholics will stick around if our shepherds and siblings in Christ continue to batter us, or make “projects” out of us. I have heard many faithful people describe themselves as having “one foot in the church and another out the door.” It is not enough for Pope Francis to declare that transgender Catholics can in some instances be godparents, for example. All LGBTQ Catholics must be unquestionably welcome in such roles.
In the end, the combination of hope and discouragement I feel is unsurprising. Like any reform effort (just look at any document from the Second Vatican Council), the Synod report is rife with signs of compromise. For every exhortation to “avoid repeating vacuous formulas,” there is a warning that Scripture and tradition must be “properly informed and reflected upon” (15c).
For every admonition that we not “use doctrine harshly and with a judgmental attitude,” there is warning not to “practice mercy ‘on the cheap’” (15f). For every hint that our theological “anthropological categories” are inadequate to the present moment, there is a judgment that Church’s existing “sense of direction” merely “requires translation into pastoral practice” (15g).
Clearly, the report is unafraid of disagreement. By providing a pathway to deeper discernment, and not simply urging consensus, the report signals that the church’s cooperation with the Holy Spirit is ongoing. My hope is in Her. O come, Holy Spirit!
Author’s note: Many thanks to Elsie Miranda, whose suggestions improved this reflection greatly.