The experiences of LGBTQ+ people in the Catholic Church were the focus of an academic conference sponsored by and for graduate students at the School of Theology and Ministry (STM) at Boston College in April.
This second annual conference was organized by members of Gaudete, the school’s LGBTQ+ support group. ”Gaudete” is a Latin term that connotes rejoicing and celebration, reflecting the group’s purpose of celebrating LGBTQ+ presence in the Catholic Church. The conference was held on Saturday, April 14th, and was entitled “Why Stay? Gender, Sexuality, and Catholic Theology.”
The goal of the conference was to start a discussion on a variety of topics: why marginalized groups, primarily members of the LGBTQ+ community, choose to stay in the Church; what resources they have that help them stay; and why staying could be harmful for some. The day centered around 18 graduate student presenters, most from the STM and a few from the Divinity schools at Harvard and Yale.
Dr. Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza of Harvard Divinity, a noted Catholic feminist theologian, served as the keynote speaker. Although she has never explicitly written about LGBTQ+ issues, her extensive and groundbreaking work in feminist biblical scholarship offered an insightful critical perspective of a Church that is deeply rooted in patriarchal and heteronormative ideals.
Following Schüssler Fiorenza’s talk, graduate students presented throughout the day on a wide range of topics such as coming out, pastoral care for LGBTQ+ students at Catholic universities, suicide ideation in LGBTQ+ people, and viewing Mary as a model of courage for gay men in the Catholic faith.
Gabbriella Carroll, second-year Masters of Theological Studies student, presented a paper on queerness and liturgy that drew from her own personal experience of the Mass. She ended her paper in a powerful statement:
“Now, I have to be honest: the Eucharist never used to be a huge part of my faith. I do not know a lot about Eucharistic theology. But the Catechism states that ‘in the blessed Eucharist is contained the whole spiritual good of the Church, namely Christ himself.’ It is the source and summit of our ecclesial life. If Christ is in the Eucharist, and if we are never apart from Christ, then who I am, without exception, has a rightful place in this story. Receiving Eucharist at Mass for me is an act of holy resistance: each time I respond ‘Amen’ to that raised bread before me, I am shouting ‘Yes, let it be done, let it be recognized that I am indeed part of the body of Christ, in all my queer love.’ I do not know where I stand in relationship with my Mother Church: some days I feel her embrace more than others. Some days I feel pushed away. Some days I wonder if I should run toward something different. I do not know whether I have left or chosen to stay, but I do know this: I was not created to be an apology. The divine presses in on us and seeks to enter our lives. In the words of Teilhard de Chardin, God awaits us ‘every instant of our action, in the work of the moment.’ We cannot escape the divine milieu. God is love, and love knows no bounds. And most of all, love never fails.”
Ariell Watson, a third-year Masters of Divinity student and conference organizer, explained why the planning team chose the theme of “Why Stay?” for the conference day. She said:
“The conference theme was a gripping topic because of its frankness. Most Catholics who have experienced marginalization in the Church have been asked “why stay?”, or have asked it of themselves. It’s a question that underpins our very presence in the community, and yet we rarely discuss it publicly. The planning team found inspiration in the Lady Gaga song ‘A Million Reasons,’ which powerfully asserts ‘you’re giving me a million reasons to let you go…but, baby, I just need one good one to stay.’ What is that one good reason that outweighs the million reasons to leave? This theme allowed us to really explore our love for the Church, while still wrestling with the pain it causes. I think ‘Why Stay?’ (instead of ‘Why Leave?’ for example) allowed us to focus on the hope we have for the Catholic Church. The prevailing tone of the day was the sincere love we share for this community, even in struggle and imperfection.”
For both years that the conference has been held, the organizers have chosen to end the day in a rather unconventional way for an academic conference: in liturgy. This year, the conference organizers used Lady Gaga’s song “A Million Reasons” during the liturgy celebration while participants processed up to a bowl of coals and sprinkled incense on them to offer intentions. Closing the day in prayer proved to be meaningful for many conference participants, including Justin Hoch, first-year MA/MSW and paper presenter:
“I appreciated how the conference seemed to develop a real sense of community, focused on academic dialogue, fellowship, and prayer together. I think one of the strengths of the conference was the closing liturgy in which many people gathered to pray for inclusion, healing, and courage. No matter one’s identity or beliefs, everyone seemed to relate to the the theme of Why Stay. The question is a real challenge, but a great question to ask as many seem to be leaving the Church. It is easy to see and be critical of the negative things happening in the Church with a sense of despair; yet, this conference offered hope.”
We applaud the STM and Gaudete for their courage and energy in taking up this issue in the academic setting. We invite you to continue the conversation. If you identify as an LGBTQ+ Catholic, share with us in the comments section why you stay in the Church!
–Lizzie Sextro, New Ways Ministry, May 5, 2018