This article is part of our coverage of the Synod on Synodality.

James F. Keenan, S.J.: The Synod should embrace the “radically inclusive friendship” of the LGBTQ community

Views James F. Keenan, S.J. / February 2, 2024 Print this:
Father Keenan, whose work has focused on Catholic bioethics and H.I.V./AIDS, was ordained a priest in 1982. He previously taught at Fordham University. (Photo courtesy of Boston College)

Philosophers from the 19th century like Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, to contemporary figures like Axel Honneth, Paul Ricœur, Charles Taylor, Nancy Fraser and Judith Butler have made it clear: Recognition is a basic social and human need. They argue that societies need to guide their members into the practice of recognition. Conversely, they also acknowledge how hurtful and damaging the withholding of recognition is to people and groups.

The importance of recognition

For LGBTQ communities, recognition is the quintessential response sought through the act of coming out. Though there are many other reasons for coming out (conquering fear, positive self-acceptance, being true to oneself and others), the immediate response that anyone coming out seeks is simple recognition. One socially discloses precisely to begin being truly recognized.

In her very helpful Outreach essay, “LGBTQ People, the Synod and Blessing Same-Sex Couples,” the theologian Lisa Sowle Cahill highlights the conflicting issues at stake in developing a synodal pathway to recognize and receive the LGBTQ community. Indeed, when the Synod closed, not only were there no determinations about the LGBTQ community, there was no direct mention of “LGBTQ people” in the synod report.

For LGBTQ communities, recognition is the quintessential response sought through the act of coming out.

Throughout her essay, Cahill helps us to remain synodal—that is, to not walk away from the table and to remain engaged in creative conversations of mutual respect and understanding precisely when there are moral disagreements.

She realistically acknowledges, for instance, that some members of the LGBTQ community find their own well-being, their personal freedom and even their lives threatened in a variety of places around the world, such that many do not dare come out and ask for recognition in the first place. 

Cahill also helps us to see how the church’s own lack of recognition of the LGBTQ community remains as an enduring experience for that community. Indeed, she notes that large percentages of Catholics still see homosexuality as “disordered,” even though they may accept the Catechism’s directive to respect and legally protect “these” people.

My essay follows Cahill’s. She provides us with an appreciation for understanding where the church presently stands precisely so that we understand from where we are each coming. But as we sit there patiently with one another, I want to take this to the next level by asking how we can prompt better dialogue.

If the church wants to dialogue with the LGBTQ community, she needs to move beyond the stigmatizing and isolating language of “disorder.”

Toward this end, I propose that we abandon two present practices and instead borrow from the LGBTQ community a practice of their own for the upcoming Synodal session this October.

Two preliminary proposals

I propose two simple moratoria that already many bishops around the world practice so as to further facilitate the possibility of listening well.  

First, we should stop referring to members of the LGBTQ community as “disordered.” If the church wants to dialogue with the LGBTQ community, she needs to move beyond the stigmatizing and isolating language of “disorder” that brands members as unlike other Roman Catholics. Cardinal Robert W. McElroy of San Diego, among other church leaders, has recognized this problem and similarly proposed moving beyond this nomenclature.

Indeed, many more bishops and cardinals today recognize that this language is not helpful and is most often a barrier to genuine dialogue. Notably, these bishops avoid its usage. They effectively do not address the language and simply abandon it as unhelpful.

Like them, I am not entering into a dispute about whether the terminology is legitimate or not. I am simply saying it is not helpful and that if we are interested in a dialogue, the language of “disorder” seems a form of name-calling and distorts the hopes of many people. I suggest that in preparing for the Synod, we practice a moratorium on the descriptive of “disorder” when recognizing members of the LGBTQ community.  

If we are interested in a dialogue, the language of “disorder” seems a form of name-calling and distorts the hopes of many.

Think here, for instance, of one spouse turning to another before arriving at another family’s home for dinner and asking, “Please, will you promise not to bring this up?” I am suggesting that we ask the same of one another. Generally speaking, these prudential interventions allow for more conversation.

Secondly, there is the particularly disturbing “recognition” that has occurred in recent times, when Catholics educators are fired simply for being identified as part of the LGBTQ community. There have been dozens of such instances recorded in the United States. Many theologians, in fact, have argued these actions are scandalous, a point well made by the theologian Ish Ruiz.

Again, I am not contesting whether there is a legal or even an ethical right to these practices. I am suggesting that rather than have another argument on this topic, we have a moratorium on the practice because prudence dictates that its harms far outweigh any real benefits, especially as we prepare for a Synod that looks to make discourse in the church more of a reality. 

I would like to add that I do not think either proposal is terribly problematic (or even bold). It seems to me that several American bishops, for the sake of prudential leadership, already refrain from the language of disorder and the practice of firing LGBTQ educators.

Radically inclusive friendship

In light of these two moratoria, I propose that if we want to prepare for the next Synod, we should look to articulate a theological anthropology that can assist us in understanding one another. In fact, so as to propose a bridge between the church and its LGBTQ community, I urge raising up a value that is paramount within the gay community: radically inclusive friendship. 

I urge raising up a value that is paramount within the gay community: radically inclusive friendship. 

Radically inclusive friendship is seen by the very way the community carefully names or identifies itself as LGBTQ. As the years go by, more letters are added to its name as a sign of the overall willingness and intention of the entire community to recognize, welcome and include the wide array of persons with diverse sexual identities. It seeks to hospitably include a wide variety of persons. And the plus sign—as in LGBTQ+—represents an added gesture of welcome to all who want to join the community. Its name is its advertisement of radically inclusive friendship.

Recognition is very much integral to the LGBTQ community, as I wrote for Outreach on its first anniversary. The community so identifies itself with the importance of recognition and acceptance that it labels itself according to these identities. The LGBTQ community affirms, honors and befriends its members precisely in their self-identification. 

It is radically non-judgmental—something that others might find unacceptable. Indeed, while some dispute who can enter what public restrooms and debate the use of pronouns, this community accepts others as they present themselves first. They offer a lesson: Accept a person’s self-presentation as the first gesture of genuine hospitality. I think this is worthy of consideration.

In a way, what it offers is a sociotheological anthropology to the church itself, and in particular, to the Synod of Bishops. 

A history of note

In 1969, the Stonewall riots marked a new moment in the public recognition and development of the LGBTQ community in the United States. Because of Stonewall, the gay community would no longer be hidden. It began, instead, to develop a new anthropology based not on fear, but on friendship. The building of that community was remarkable because of its hospitality to one another by promoting radically inclusive friendship as an anthropological goal.

The LGBTQ community affirms, honors and befriends their members precisely in its self-identification. 

It is also noteworthy that the living fiber of this anthropological community has had multiple epiphanies, a curious term, for a people who have been sought simply to be recognized instead of assiduously ignored or outright rejected. 

A major epiphany involving radically inclusive friendship was recorded in Washington, D.C., on October 11, 1987, when the AIDS Memorial Quilt was displayed at the National Mall for the first time, covering a space larger than a football field and including 1,920 panels.

Six years after the initial emergence of H.I.V., the quilt stood as an extraordinarily beautiful contradiction to the ostracizing and shaming that so many gay people experienced during the early years of the crisis. The quilt recorded not only the names of those who died, but also those who remained with them in radically inclusive friendship. Their hospitable friendship for one another was inescapably disclosed by sewing together each part of the quilt.

Indeed, the quilt highlighted not only the LGBTQ community’s acceptance of one another, but their friendship. As they died, many people found in these communities the friendship and love that their families did not offer. The original acceptance they encountered in the community eventually became friendship.

I see friendship as the fundamental relationship that all in the LGBTQ community esteem. Many people, having been shut out by their families, found themselves embraced by friendship. It became the primary relationship for many members of the LGBTQ community. Indeed, it is hard to think of any value more prized than friendship.

I see friendship as the fundamental relationship that all in the LGBTQ community esteem. 

Today, the 54-ton quilt includes some 50,000 panels naming 110,000 people. The largest community arts project in history, it helps us remember not only the unique lives and stories of those who once belonged to the community, but also the friends who cared for them.

The quilt could have included stories of families abandoning their loved ones, of neighbors harassing gay couples or of clergy shaming the LGBTQ community. But the community brilliantly looks for the light received, not the darkness. Thus, thousands of people labored to be participants of a celebration of friendship. This radically inclusive friendship is what I see the LGBTQ community propose.

An epiphany like the AIDS Memorial Quilt made possible other ways of revealing the incredible depth of friendship within the LGBTQ community. In his extraordinary book, Hidden Mercy: AIDS, Catholics, and the Untold Stories of Compassion in the Face of Fear, Michael J. O’Loughlin, the national correspondent for America magazine, raises up the stories of many who accompanied those suffering from AIDS. 

After he sent a copy of his book to Pope Francis, the pope wrote back and recognized these agents of mercy: “Instead of indifference, distancing, and even condemnation, these people let themselves be moved by the mercy of the Father.” Mercy is very much the glue that binds together the radically inclusive friendship of the LGBTQ community. 

Mercy is very much the glue that binds together the radically inclusive friendship of the LGBTQ community. 

Before concluding, I would like to return to the notion of coming out. During the Stonewall riots, members of New York City’s gay community went from seeking a private, non-threatening environment in which they could meet and socialize, to fighting for their collective right not to be harassed and victimized. They understood that only together could they claim these rights.

As with the AIDS crisis, participants in the Stonewall riots learned lessons of survival under difficult circumstances. And instead of developing suspicion, they developed what they needed most: trust. They started communities of radically inclusive friendship and learned never to question another’s identity. Rather, they accepted each person as they presented themselves. 

Another example

This radically inclusive friendship has, I believe, already had an impact on the Catholic Church, particularly during the papacy of Pope Francis, who insists that all are welcomed by the message of Jesus Christ. 

For instance, throughout the United States, there are more and more parishes that promote practices of radical welcome at Mass and in church bulletins. At St. Peter Parish in Cambridge, Mass., where I have assisted as a priest for 30 years, a lector reads these words on the first Sunday of every month.

No matter what your present status in the Catholic Church; no matter what your current family or marital situation or sexual orientation, no matter what your current personal history, age, background, race; no matter what your own self image: You are invited, welcomed, accepted, loved and respected here at Saint Peter Parish. We are here to welcome and serve you. 

In a way, I believe this is effectively the same unconditional message that the LGBTQ community promotes. I suggest that we start the next Synod session with the same announcement, accepting all as they present themselves. And, hopefully, in that acceptance, we may learn from the LGBTQ community how to become friends with all whom we welcome. If we, as the church, appropriate this practice of radically inclusive friendship, we may find that we all share common hopes, regardless of our differences. 

James F. Keenan, S.J.

Father Keenan is the Peter Canisius Professor of Theology at Boston College. He is both the vice provost for global engagement and the director of the Jesuit Institute. His most recent books are "A History of Catholic Theological Ethics"(Paulist Press, 2022) and "The Moral Life: Eight Lectures" (Georgetown University, 2024).

All articles by James F. Keenan, S.J.

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1 Comment
  1. A beautiful perspective. I keep seeing people, even well-intentioned, who wonder why God created LGBTQ+ people, what’s His plan when it relates to us, our contribution in it. Maybe we’re starting to see an answer emerge.

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