A recent Religion News Service essay identified a new trend in churches in the U.S. Jacob Lupfer’s thesis is summed up in the essay’s title: “LGBT-affirming Christians are more emboldened than ever.” His essay has some important lessons for Catholic advocates of LGBT equality.
Lupfer, a visiting professor of government at American University, Washington, D.C., notes:
A spate of recent events suggests that LGBT-affirming voices within religious communities are more emboldened and confident than ever.
He points to the fact that conservative U.S. Senator Orrin Hatch, a Mormon, recently met with LGBT advocates, and when asked if he thought being gay was a sin, he responded:
“No, I don’t. How could anything that God gives you be a sin — especially something you are born with?”
Lupfer’s preliminary conclusion drawn from this episode:
“Two decades ago, it was a major achievement for LGBT-affirming Christians to make inroads even in mainline denominations. Today, they are touting their shared values with Republican politicians.”
The scholar goes on to point to other such examples of acceptance, including the publication of Fr. James Martin’s Building a Bridge, to illustrate this trend. But the reason I described his conclusion above as “preliminary” is that in the middle of his essay, he also offers some caution about putting too much hope in the possibility that the tide is changing. For one thing, Lupfer says he notices more “position-taking, but I notice fewer and fewer actual arguments.”
His best insight, though, was this:
“. . . [R]eligious conflicts over human sexuality look circular, not linear. Anyone hoping for quick resolutions to intractable debates will be disappointed.”
Anyone who has been involved in Catholic LGBT work knows the truth of the second sentence of that statement only too well. What I find insightful about his thought, though, is the geometric analogy that he offers in the first sentence. That description fits my experience in my almost three decades of involvement in this ministry. We take a few steps forward, and then at least one back. We argue the same arguments time and again. Sometimes, “circular” is not the most accurate description: it sometimes feels like we are simply spinning around and around in the same place.
That’s one of the reasons, I think, that I have patience with Pope Francis, while others may think he is not doing any good. The way I see it, for decades, church leaders have painted themselves into such a tight corner about issues of sexuality and gender that they have ended up becoming stuck. While Francis is not a revolutionary, he is at least trying to show the institutional church how it can get out of the corner it is trapped in. He is telling them to stop hiding in the corner and to get out into the world.
I’ve come to recognize that real change is going to be slow. We will move in fits and starts, and sometimes we will end up moving backwards. My expectations for church leaders are low. That statement should not be interpreted as a snide remark. It simply reflects the thought that institutions move slowly and that they respond to so many different forces within in it. In an institution as large and diverse as the Catholic Church, things will take time.
I’m not a particularly patient person. I generally want things done yesterday. But my patience on this issue comes from from the recognition that change on LGBT issues will be slow because of demographics. The most generous estimates say that 10% of the population is lesbian or gay, and that less than 1% of the population is transgender. Because LGBT people will always be a minority, it means that great swaths of the population will have less exposure to such people than they will to heterosexual and cisgender persons. This phenomenon will be especially true in particularly homophobic and transphobic regions, from which many LGBT people move to find a safer home. So despite political and legal advances in equality, which are certainly wonderful, LGBT people will still face ignorance and fear. So, we move circularly, not linearly.
I don’t see this as a gloomy picture, though. Anyone who lives in circles of Catholic LGBT people and allies know the real joy that exists in these communities, despite the challenges they sometimes face. I often feel rather sad for people who don’t accept LGBT folk because by excluding themselves they are missing out on a wonderful community of courage and celebration, of faith, hope, and love. Despite oppression and injustice from outside forces, LGBT Catholics and allies are not defeated. In fact, they continue forward, living in the knowledge that God’s reign is available to all who choose to love God and one another.
—Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, November 22, 2017