Can Encounter Be a Way for Conservatives to Go Forward on LGBT Equality?

Conservative Christians have lost the battle over marriage equality, said Religion Dispatches blogger Kaya Oakes in a recent post entitled, “Out of Options: Christians’ Losing Battle Over Equality.”  But how they will respond to this loss may take a variety of different responses.

Kaya Oakes

Oakes noted that, since the Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefall v. Hodges, the responses of conservative Christian thinkers have generally taken two tacks.  The first tack– retrenchment–calls for returning to the biblical view of marriage and sexuality in order to steer Christianity back toward a central place in American culture and morality.  This tack also views “affirming homosexuality” as denying a truth about human nature.  The alternative tack calls for “a compassionate model of engagement” on issues of sexuality and gender in order to “create a more attractive model of Christian life than retrenchment[.]”

According to Oakes, the equality gains for women and LGBT persons puts Catholic and conservative Christian churches in a bind.  “Should they welcome women as leaders and same-sex families and trans individuals, they risk alienating some of their most committed members (and donors).  Should they reject those same notions of parity, they risk losing (and in many cases have already lost!) the majority of Gen X folks and Millennials, who have grown up with feminism as a given notion and LBGTQ equality as the civil rights issue of their generations.”

These same churches also risk losing “the notion of a single, defined sense of a Truth that cannot change,” according to Oakes.  “What we see in their writing of late is the shattering of that notion.  It’s emotionally difficult to witness.  The defensiveness, finger-pointing and circular arguments amount to the same thing: a sense of fear, devolving into resignation over the loss, shifting into ad hominem attacks[.]”

Oakes compared the fear expressed by some conservative Christian writers to the experiences of fundamentalist or orthodox Christians who lost their faith when they were had to face the idea that women were equal to men, or that some people loved people of the same gender, or that dressing in gender “inappropriate” way could be accepted.  Oakes stated:

“[Y]ou will hear much the same pattern.  Anger, rejection, fear.  And then gradually, if they are lucky: acceptance, tolerance, welcome.  The latter things usually came from individuals, not institutions.  They came from encounter.”

While Oakes does not say so explicitly, encounter is the way forward.  This is the example of Jesus.

Jesus’ ministry was characterized by acts of encountering and engaging persons, often the marginalized of his day.  In the words of Pope Francis on the gospel story of Jesus’ encounter with the blind Bartimaeus:

“Jesus has just left Jericho. Even though he has only begun his most important journey, which will take him to Jerusalem, he still stops to respond to Bartimaeus’ cry. Jesus is moved by his request and becomes involved in his situation. He is not content to offer him alms, but rather wants to personally encounter him. He does not give him any instruction or response, but asks him: ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ (Mk 10:51). It might seem a senseless question: what could a blind man wish for if not his sight? Yet, with this question made face to face, direct but respectful, Jesus shows that he wants to hear our needs. He wants to talk with each of us about our lives, our real situations, so that nothing is kept from him.”

Encounter is also the way forward as a church.  Pope Francis stressed this point to Catholic leaders recently.  Speaking to a group of Italian Catholic leaders in Florence in November, he said:

“May the Church be fermented by dialogue, encounter, unity. After all, our own formulations of faith are the fruit of dialogue and encounter among cultures, communities and various situations. We must not fear dialogue: on the contrary it is precisely confrontation and criticism that help us to preserve theology from being transformed into ideology.

“Remember moreover that the best way to dialogue is not that of speaking and debating but that of doing something together, of making plans: not alone, among Catholics, but together with all those who are of good will. Do not be afraid to engage in the exodus necessary for every authentic dialogue. Otherwise it is not possible to comprehend the reasons of the other, nor to completely understand that a brother is worth more than the positions that we judge as far from our own authentic certitudes. He is a brother.”

I agree with Oakes that a form of Christianity whose members preach “a Gospel of intractability and exclusion” probably should die “because it has very little to do with the person who started it,” but I am hopeful for Catholicism that is renewed through encounter and engagement.

–Cynthia Nordone, New Ways Ministry

7 replies
  1. lynne miller
    lynne miller says:

    Agreed! You can’t cater to and accommodate everyone just to avoid losing them. If they aren’t believers and practitioners of the word of Jesus, how can they even want to be part of a church that is living a way that they are unable to accept? Jesus opens His arms to everyone, but not everyone chooses to follow Him. If they want to follow Him, the church will accept and teach them. But we can’t keep everyone just because they are donors. The conservative fear of losing the truth they have always known is unreal when one realizes that the truth that Jesus was actually teaching is the truth of acceptance and encounter, not judgement and rejection.

  2. lsdiscenza
    lsdiscenza says:

    Excellent commentary. You summarized and highlighted the crux of the matter concerning women and LGBT persons treatment and dilemma regarding their relationship to the Catholic Hierarchy and all Christians. Thank you.

  3. Bishop Carlos Florido, osf
    Bishop Carlos Florido, osf says:

    I wish that when talking about LGBT issues, referral to positions and attitudes of the RC were clarified as Roman Church ones. Not all Catholics are Roman!

  4. ermadurk
    ermadurk says:

    Especially liked this encouragement from Pope Francis: Do not be afraid to engage in the exodus necessary for every authentic dialogue. Otherwise it is not possible to comprehend the reasons of the other, nor to completely understand that a brother is worth more than the positions that we judge as far from our own authentic certitudes. He is a brother.”

  5. Loretta Fitzgerald
    Loretta Fitzgerald says:

    I appreciate the duo connection of women and LGBTQ people. Personally, until women are no longer feared and are truly accepted for all their gifts, seeing a LGBTQ person and a gay couple as sacrament won’t be possible. A fundamental question for me is to ask myself when confronted with discerning a person, situation, ideology is this: is my judgment based in fear or in faith? Unless we ask “what is your fear?” and then really listen to their response effective encounter won’t occur. If the fears are acknowledged, it may allow for the challenge of change…on both sides.

  6. r.wilson
    r.wilson says:

    We often hear that there are many types of families and this is so. What we do not understand what this really means. Today, in the United States, only 25 percent of children are raised in nuclear families led by a married male and female. We have grandparents raising children, widows and widowers, older siblings running households. The variations of families is mindboggling. Among this 65% are those led by same-sex couples. Between the 65% of non-traditional families they all understand what it means to be different in a land where only one-type of family is respected. The LGBT are not the only families to feel alienated, unwanted or the realities of their families minimalized or marginalized. I have read the churches are empty not because people have lost spirituality but rather Christian churches have failed to recognize many of their families have been alienated and have left because they feel attacked, downgraded and that the church has nothing to offer for them. The single divorced father well knows the discrimination he faces in raising a child. Yes, LGBT families are particularly centred-out, attacked and denied their rights. But in the vast 65% of families that are also considered second class, they stand with LGBT families gobsmacked and fearing the Christian mob will soon be coming for them. Let’s face it…..the churches do seem to have a very shallow and uninformed understanding of the mission field to which they are called and their rulings have alienated 65% of families. When one analyzes the sociological data, we see Christian families have exactly the same types of problems, dysfunctions, viewpoints, attitudes and values held by the rest of society. There is no data to suggest traditional Christian families are happier or have less dysfunction. What is apparent is that when second class families bang at the door demanding to be let into the church, nobody inside wants to open the door. Even amongst evangelicals 65% of their youth leave the church never return and feeling very bruised. How loud must reality scream at the church. Do they not see the vast exodus from the churches and ask what is wrong, is their no reflection on these issues. What will make the churches sit down and take a moral and ethical period of reflection and confession for it is their own wounded that are leaving. They have hurt many. We are told, “they will know we are christians by our love.” Love it is both simple and yet a profound Christological mystery that can change, mold, and transform the human person. When people perceive and experience no presence of love in a church, they leave and depart. In essence, when the churches scream, judge, demean, and alienate…….they fail. When they love, encourage, include, and enhance the dignity of others, the churches flourish.


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