As noted often on Bondings 2.0, Pope Francis’s declarations on LGBTQ issues have been producing spiritual whiplash. On one hand we have “Who am I to judge?” and “God made you like this. God loves you like this.” On the other, we have a reaffirmation that seminaries should not admit gay men, and no indication that Francis plans to alter basic church teaching on sexuality.
Should we simply conclude, as CNN’s Delia Gallagher has, that “his words and the teaching of his Church are an ‘and/and’ proposition: God loves you, the Church welcomes you AND we think [celibacy and heterosexual marriage are] the best way to live”?
That’s the most common read. People on the theological “left” distrust “and/and” because they are skeptical that the pastoral can survive the doctrinal. People on the “right” distrust it for the opposite reason. Ross Douthat’s new book To Change the Church: Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism worries that doctrine will give way to the pastoral whims of (post) modernity.
“the Catholic Church’s ideal of being unchanging with its historic expression. ‘The papacy’s claim to be a rock of unchanging teaching,’ as Douthat puts it, has more often than not been just a claim.
“For most of the church’s history, both doctrine and practice have been in flux.”
“Francis is not a vandal within the church …. he retains a perspective of the broader world and its current ills that is far wider and calmer and saner than those who obsess over internecine church warfare.”
Still, they agree with Douthat that the pastoral/doctrinal clash—which often stands in for the clash between uncritical modernism and uncritical traditionalism—is the open question of the Francis papacy.
This question leaves all Catholic parties to LGBTQ questions feeling partly vindicated and partly dissatisfied, which gives us something important in common! But it does not provide anything very satisfying to sustain the current lives of LGBTQ Catholics and allies.
What if we viewed Francis as not primarily a keeper of doctrine, or a compassionate pastor, but as a spiritual director in the mode of the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises that form him as a Jesuit? This role may be the greatest resource that Francis provides all Christians who see life as a journey toward deeper union with God and closer alignment with God’s call, whether they are LGBTQ or not.
The clues are everywhere. Francis constantly says that God meets people wherever they happen to be and invites them on a path toward greater intimacy with the divine. No starting point is disqualified. Francis always encourages people to move forward in faith from wherever they are, in whatever state of life, with whatever identity, job, orientation, or relationship status.
In the Ignatian view, the process of knowing and following Jesus is the process of discerning how we’re to follow. This discernment involves identifying the deep desires that God has implanted in each of us. As Jesuit author James Martin, S.J., has written:
“The deep longings of our hearts are our holy desires. Not only desires for physical healing, but also the desires for change, for growth, for a fuller life. Our deepest desires, those desires that lead us to become who we are, are God’s desires for us. They are ways that God speaks to you directly.
“Desire gets a bad rap in many spiritual circles– because desires are often confused with selfish wants. But our selfish wants … are different than our deep, heartfelt longings, which lead us to God.”
This perspective is not uniformity masquerading as inclusiveness. One of the premises of Ignatian spirituality is that the answer to the question, “where is God calling me?” is different for each of us and is not given in advance. Church history is littered with evidence that although those genuine answers always do involve loving, compassionate, gutsy ways of responding to God’s love for us, they don’t always cohere with dominant interpretations of tradition or the current style of thinking in the Vatican.
As Martin also acknowledges, “it takes time to be able to discern between the two kinds of desires.” It requires a lifelong practice of prayer, reflection on experience, consultation with people we trust, and cold, hard, self-questioning reasoning. Alongside these practices, spiritual consolation and desolation—moments of grace that confirm good directions and warn us away from harmful ones—are terrific guides in this process.
Through his embrace of Ignatian spirituality, Francis’s most important message for LGBTQ folks and everyone else may just be his simple reminder to listen for God’s call in our lives: we should cultivate holy desire and follow whatever fruitful, surprising directions it may lead. As Martin writes,
“Desire is a key part of spirituality because desire is a key way that God’s voice is heard in our lives. And our deepest desire, planted within us, is our desire for God.”
What’s most remarkable about Francis is that his most profound questions are not about doctrine or pastoral care. Whatever else he says, Francis reminds us of what God asks everyone: What are the deepest desires of your heart? In what surprising directions do they lead you, as you keep company with Me?
As Ignatius also says, the path of love that holy desire blazes is inevitably strewn with obstacles and heartache; some of these, in LGBTQ experience anyway, are even put there by the Church. But it is God’s path. This, we can work with.
—Cristina Traina, New Ways Ministry, May 30, 2018 (Cristina Traina is a Professor of Religious Studies at Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois, and a member of New Ways Ministry’s Advisory Borad.)