Jesuit Scholar Assesses Pope Francis' Approach to LGBT Issues

John Langan, S.J.

Jesuit Professor John Langan has published an article in America magazine which examines the significance of  Pope Francis’ several positive statements about LGBT issues in 2013.  The article’s title “See the Person,” which references one of the pope’s remarks, sets out to answer the question, as the author phrases it: “So, what is the pope up to?”

Langan, who is a world-respected scholar and is the Joseph Cardinal Bernardin Professor of Catholic Social Thought at Georgetown University,  is positive about the pope’s comments, but cautions several times that while Pope Francis has made some remarkable statements, the pontiff has also noted that he is not changing church teaching and does not intend to.  Langan writes:

“Francis has declared on several occasions that he has no desire to challenge or change Catholic moral teaching on sexual matters or to innovate in church doctrine.”

Instead of changing church teaching, Langan states, Francis is changing the church’s “stance” or method of approaching the topic of homosexuality.   While Langan believes that church teaching should not change simply because social acceptance of lesbian and gay people is increasing, he does recognize that society is at a new juncture in regard to homosexuality, and the church needs to adapt to this new moment.  Instead of change, Langan calls for dialogue and reflection:

“What seems to be called for is a time of critical reflection on the tradition to clarify what strengths are to be preserved and what continuities are to be affirmed even while searching for the sources of limitations in the teaching and acknowledging the development of new questions and problems. Critical reflection also needs to be directed to public opinion and to those who would mold it in a new direction, who often harbor naïve, incoherent and immature views, even while they think of themselves as knowledgeable and progressive. Both kinds of critical reflection require time and support for research and careful dialogue that will assess what is known and what is not known, what is hoped and what is feared. There is an ongoing need to coordinate research and information across the fields of biology, medicine, social science and ethics as well as to look seriously at the development of Christian and other religious teaching on this topic down through the centuries.”

Langan sets out four guideposts for the kind of reflection that is needed on this topic that he has discerned in the pope’s new stance.  They are:

1. Humility:  “We must acknowledge what we do not know and what we do not understand about the contemporary situation of homosexuals.”

2. Respect: ” . . . we must show respect for the dignity of homosexual persons as creatures of the one God and Father of us all, as members of the community of the redeemed and as fellow citizens of the city and the world.”

3. Realism: “. . . all parties need to show realism in acknowledging the problems of perception and trust that complicate our efforts to understand and collaborate with one another.”

4. Patience: “. . . during this period of scrutiny and reassessment, we must be patient with ourselves, with each other and with the friends and allies of the contesting groups both in the public arena and in the life of the church.”

Langan concludes by looking at what might be possible if such a period of reflection took place.  He sees the greatest change not being doctrinal development, but a different approach toward pastoral care and outreach:

“Ministry would be carried on in a more tentative, inquiring spirit; it would be more intent on providing care and encouraging growth for persons, many of whom have known many sorrows, than in implementing policies within bureaucratic and legal frameworks.”

He offers the following guidance for pastoral ministers:

“They [pastoral ministers] would proceed from a genuine desire to understand the personal and spiritual aspirations of the persons in their care instead of simply repeating the equivalent of a fatal diagnosis, which is how repeated reliance on the notion of “intrinsic evil” will likely be perceived. This is not a proposal for adjudicating the numerous issues now under dispute, nor is it a theological program for resolving the problems of implementing change in this troubled area of the church’s theology and practice. But it may serve as a partial model for addressing similar problems in areas where Catholic Christians have been putting more energy into denunciation than into dialogue, where disjunctions and fractures have been growing in scale and lethality.”

Langan’s essay is worth reading in its entirety and can be accessed here.  I think his assessment of Pope Francis’ comments on homosexuality is an accurate one.  As I’ve said before, I think that the pope’s greatest contributions to LGBT issues in the church will be indirect ones, that he is paving the way for future change rather than making the innovations himself.  Langan provides a very commonsense assessment of what effects Francis’ words can realistically have in the coming months and years.

I, however, may be more optimistic than Langan about the possibility of doctrinal change.  While he suggests that the hierarchy should not change the teaching simply because public opinion on lesbian and gay people has shifted, I think he misses the point that, at least for Catholics who support LGBT issues, the shift has occurred not because, as Cardinal Dolan once suggested, that pro-gay advocates have better marketing, but because they have applied their faith to this new reality, have prayed and examined their consciences, and they have discerned that LGBT equality is consonant with how they understand the Gospel.

I fear that Langan may be too cautious about the possibility for change. In noting the pope’s new stance vis-a-vis his two most recent predecessors, Langan states: “In taking a critical view of the previous stance, one need not abandon it.”  While that may be true, I don’t think that he recognizes that a change in stance can produce some unforeseen results.  As has happened so often in church history, practice often precedes a change in teaching.

Langan’s real contribution is that he has laid out a road map for how we can get to future doctrinal development by providing those four “guideposts” mentioned above.  We’ve seen amazingly rapid change in American society and law over the past 15 years, due mainly to the fact that people started talking with LGBT people about the issues that concern their lives.  Dialogue is a powerful force, and now that Pope Francis has initiated such a period of dialogue in the church, explicated so well by Langan, who knows where the discussion and reflection will lead?

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

0 replies
  1. Benjamin Regotti
    Benjamin Regotti says:

    Frank, your reflections on both the Pope and Langan are right on the money. The professor is being a good Jesuit theologian, talking about taking a kinder, gentler, more “pastoral” approach… to an empty barn. The horses are gone. The truth is out. Church doctrine regarding homosexuality is empty…wrong. Who of us has any time for cautious critical reflection on something so maliciously false as “intrinsically evil”. The abuse has got to stop. Humble, respectful and realistic we are. However, the short, fragile lives of real, flesh and blood folks like ourselves are not served by patience.

  2. tomfluce
    tomfluce says:

    Sorry, Frank, I accept the fact that Bondings/New Ways Ministry and all the Catholic LGBTQI’s and their allies continue to effect change in the Catholic Church regarding sexual orientation, but, this totally, violently constructed institution cannot continue to exist as it is and be a credible spiritual power. Supporting Incremental change over doctrinal dissent that allows, even inspires, violence against the dissenters is immoral through and through. The Catholic Church is not and has not been a church that –as Nicolas Kristof (NYT) said–“Mary could love.” Brother Langan as well as Brother Bergoglio are paying homage to this violent church with their talk about humility, non judgement, without dealing with the immoral authority structures they still inhabit.

    The plight of us LGBTQI’s is no different from that of the persecuted throughout history over totally political, craven power grasps by fundamentalists, using dissent as a ploy. Pope Nicolas V and his “Dum Diversas” decree giving papal authority for the transatlantic slave trade is but one example of this arrogance and absolute denial of any moral case with human slavery, that “changes incrementally”. The countless victims of dissenters on both sides of the reformation are but another result of these evil structures. Incremental change? Infallible doctrine, held come hell or high water by the male power structure and supported by the laity until the change is installed? The fact of change itself is proof of the total lie about infallibility. Galileo got off easily in comparison.

    I called out to my classmates (ordained to the priesthood in Rome 1963) and the active Catholics around me over the last few years to form–challenging the powers that be– The Galileo Reconciliation Commission (TGRC), using sexual orientation as the starting point. Imagine a group of church leaders agreeing to accept the fact that I, a faithful, educated, conscientious person–no more no less than the they–held the opposite opinion about sexual orientation and we set about working out this dissent peacefully. How do we know that we’re dealing with true dissent? Don’t we have clear cases like Galileo of this? And the rule we would abide by is to establish the rule of “Do the least harm” to one another from that point on. This was what Brother Bea along with Brother Roncalli used when they began the ecumenical movement–no more persecution at the least, seeking to find points of unity above all. In our case we would get relief from deadly church doctrine by simply agreeing to suspend any further teaching about intrinsic evil and bending over backwards to “love” the sinner. And we would employ all the power as a church to condemn the killings attached to this teaching.

    I know that the TGRC will never come about. Too many Catholics in spite of the Vat. II’s “priesthood of all believers”, “collegiality” etc. are, especially over the pontificates of Brothers Wojtala and Ratzinger have given in to the old model of governance. I know that strong advocates like New Ways will continue to fight. But I would hope that you will up the stakes. Tell Brother Bergoglio it is not a matter of “who am I to judge?” It is a matter of amassing all the moral authority and financial support to stop the horrors of anti-gay laws in over 76 countries that are still killing people. Last summer there was the murder of Eric Lembembe, gay journalist and advocate in Cameroon. Not one word from the Catholic hierarchy–on the contrary they have continued to condemn homosexuality. If anyone wants to do something practical, think about giving money to my Indiegogo campaign to reopen the CAMEF LGBTQI HIV/AIDS center. CAMEF was destroyed last Christmas by vandals. Our sisters and brothers are willing to put their lives on the line in their home territory of Cameroon to reopen–if we can help them financially and morally. Here’s the URL:

  3. neodecaussade
    neodecaussade says:

    Dear Bondings 2.0,
    Well done synopsis. Thank you for discussing this topic and for bringing the article forward.

    God bless,


Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] From Bondings 2.0, New Ways Ministry’s blog […]

  2. […] From Bondings 2.0, New Ways Ministry’s blog […]

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *