The Power of Speaking and the Power of Listening

Three Catholic LGBTQ leaders have proposed “Kick-starting a new Catholic conversation” on sexuality and gender, with the focus of the discussion being the first-hand personal experiences of LGBTQ people instead of church teaching.

Mary Hunt, Marianne Duddy-Burke, and Jamie Manson penned an essay for The National Catholic Reporter (NCR) in which they call for a conversation where LGBTQ people, not church figures, will be the primary authorities.  They write:

“We are Catholic lesbian/queer women who enjoy our sexuality and rejoice in our relationships. We love out loud. It is time to listen to the experiences and expertise of people who speak with integrity rather than authority, whose lives are not circumscribed by clericalism, people who are free to be honest and transparent.

“We need wisdom from many Catholic perspectives, not limiting ‘Catholic’ to institutional church teaching on matters on which the vast majority of Catholics have left the hierarchy behind. It is time to grow up and use ‘I’ statements instead of making pronouncements or pretending to be above the fray.”

Hunt is a feminist theologian who is co-founder and co-director of the Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual (WATER). Duddy-Burke is executive director of DignityUSA.  Manson is NCR books editor and an award-winning columnist, who focuses often on marginalized groups in the Catholic Church.

The authors provide an important rationale for why the perspectives of LGBTQ people are needed in the church discussion:

“Wisdom on sexuality is not found primarily in documents, lectures and books that emanate from the institutional church and its employees. Misogyny and kyriarchy make that impossible. The extent to which women and many people of color are not in the discussion, and the plain fact that our experiences are not reflected in the discourse render those sources moot. Likewise, the interstructured ways in which racism, white supremacy, colonialism, ableism and the like combine with sexism and heterosexism to undergird ecclesial structures mean that we simply do not have the conditions for a useful conversation if churchmen talk with one another and at or about the rest of us.”

The authors offer the church an invitation:

“Let us leave aside the old ecclesial frames and opt for listening to the stories of one another’s lives. Then bring those stories to contemplative prayer and vigorous discussion. Let the best scholarship in the social and biological sciences inform our conversations. Let theological light shine from informed sources both Catholic and beyond. Then, even though we will inevitably disagree on some points, we can get on with the work of being a useful faith community confronting the crying needs of the world — ecocide, violence against women, war, racism and poverty — together.”

A major part of their invitation is for clergy not to speak about LGBTQ issues, but simply to listen:

“We respectfully but insistently ask clerics to please be quiet, listen and learn about some of the issues our children face: the many ways there are to be transgender; how to live in a nonbinary world; how to avoid sexually transmitted diseases; how to date and partner safely and with pleasure; what it means to unexpectedly fall in love with someone of the same sex or to be in love with someone whose gender identity changes; what it means to be asexual; how to cope with the insidious violence too often encountered in intimate relationships.”

Of course, LGBTQ Catholics and their allies have been telling their stories and relating their personal experiences very actively for close to a half-century.  Through books, articles, videos, conferences, organizations, and workshops, they have already been sharing the substance of their lives, including spiritual and sexual aspects.  So much potential good lies in hearing stories of faith.  It is exactly how the Christian church arose in the first place.

While I appreciate the authors see more power in first-hand accounts than in doctrinal statements,  I don’t think that clergy and church leaders necessarily have to be quiet for the LGBTQ conversation to be productive.  The problem with the church’s sexuality and gender conversation is not that clergy speak about these matters, but that church leaders have refused to listen.

If clergy and church leaders simply keep repeating magisterial concepts and categories that have lost their meaning, their messages are destined to fall flat.  They doom themselves as teachers by speaking or writing material that has nothing to do with how people understand their lives.  We don’t need to tell them to be quiet.  With their message, they silence themselves.

I have met and heard many clerics who have offered wonderfully supportive and encouraging messages to LGBTQ people.  I know many priests who have listened and learned, though very few bishops have shown evidence of doing so.

A full discussion needs to attend to all the voices and concerns in the church.  Therefore, I think the authors’ call to “leave aside the old ecclesial frames” and to have clergy be silent on sexuality and gender matters will stifle the discussion, not enhance it. Having a dialogue means that all sides may speak what they want to speak. It means that any side can choose who their spokespersons are.  It does not mean that one side should tell the other side to be quiet or how they should speak.

The reality is that a church discussion on sexuality and gender is by definition already involved in an ‘ecclesiastical frame.’ That frame cannot be changed or altered unless we understand it by listening to it, too.  New ideas can’t renew or change the frame unless they address the questions and concerns that are inherent in the frame. The old frames can’t simply be tossed out.  They must be persuaded out of existence.  Telling stories is one way of helping to change the frames, though the stories must also respond to the questions of the frame.  Otherwise, LGBTQ people will be talking at church leaders in the same very meaningless way that church leaders talk at or about LGBTQ people.

I think we also have to realize that the Catholic Church is a wide arena, with many different voices and many different audiences.  For some audiences, hearing a cleric’s voice is important.  I think, for example, of Fr. James Martin’s book, Building a Bridge, which made such a sensation this summer.  The book did not please all audiences in the church, being criticized by both the right and the left on various issues. But one important audience that it reaches is people in diocesan offices, who have never given any serious thought to LGBTQ church issues, sad as that reality is. Fr. Martin’s book is helping to change the frame.

No one voice is effective for all audiences. No one story, however compelling, will change the church.

Let’s have a church conversation with lots of different voices.  Let’s not exclude anyone.  Let’s listen attentively to LGBTQ people–or, perhaps I should say, “Clerics need to listen attentively to LGBTQ people” since so many others in the church have, in fact, been listening.  Let’s hear the first-person stories.  Let’s hear the ideas of our tradition. Let’s hear the voices of a renewed tradition.  Only when all voices are allowed to speak and only when all parties attentively listen will we be able to discern the work of the Spirit.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, October 8, 2017


10 replies
  1. Friends
    Friends says:

    An absolutely brilliant and eloquent essay, Frank. I agree with virtually everything you wrote — and I believe the vast majority of our readers will respond in a similar manner. Emotionally-stunted, sexually-repressed and often painfully-closeted gay clerics, especially those bishops and cardinals who wield extreme power and control in the governance of the Catholic Church, have built themselves into a walled-off echo chamber. The prior gestures toward collegiality and open community conversation, which began with great promise under Pope John XXIII, have been stomped upon ruthlessly by Pope Ratzinger (“Benedict XVI”) and Pope Wytola (“John Paul II”). Pope Francis is clearly not a “stomper” — but he is what I would call a “wobbler”. His leadership is very weak and equivocal. He needs to begin taking some firm positions in defense of the inherent priority of Freedom Of Conscience for all professing and practicing Catholics. If this development is not forthcoming, I expect the Roman Catholic Church to be reduced to the status of a vastly diminished religious cult, before the end of this present century. A sad fate — but also a self-created failure of essential courage and vision.

  2. Terry Weldon
    Terry Weldon says:

    Well said, Frank. The call to tell our stories is sound – I think it was the theologian Alain Thomasett who described it as a form of “narrative theology”. The Catholic writer Dugan McGinley called his account of published gay Catholic stories, “Acts of faith, acts of love”. Indeed, telling our stories do amount to acts of faith – testimony. What surprises me with this call, is that it described as “kick-starting a new conversation”. In fact, we’ve been telling our stories for decades. The problem as you point out, is that for too long, not enough senior Catholic leaders have listened. Thankfully, there are now signs that this is finally starting to change.

    DON E SIEGAL says:

    Power of Speaking and Power of Listening

    “LGBTQ people will be talking at church leaders in the same very meaningless way that church leaders talk at or about LGBTQ people.”

    That is precisely the form of communication that Fr. Martin’s essay cautions not to do. He elegantly stresses that building a bridge is a two-way responsibility. He binds his essay (part one of the book) to three words taken directly from the Catechism of the Catholic Church on the treatment of homosexual persons—respect, compassion, and sensitivity—no more, no less.

    LGBT persons, no matter how frustrated we feel, need to be involved in active listening. Having said that, the institutional church also has to listen to what the experts on sexuality, sociology, and philosophy have to say in the conversation. Doctrine and dogma can and have changed in the past and it can do so again. This is especially true of dogma, which relies on its truth because it says it is true.

  4. Bishop Carlos A Florido, osf
    Bishop Carlos A Florido, osf says:

    An excellent suggestion! I wish I were able to participate as a supporter of LGBT individuals. My epiphany in relation to homosexuality occurred when I became involved in the ministry to those affected by AIDS in San Francisco. What an epiphany that was!

  5. Marion Flynn
    Marion Flynn says:

    I most often love what you write and love your thinking, but I need to disagree with you here. A conversation is only helpful if there has been some real listening and understanding – and here we are talking about the experience of women in the church, which male clerics know none of.


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