Equality in the Church Only Comes When LGBT Communities and Catholic Women Act Together

Jamie Manson

Unless LGBT equality and gender equality occur simultaneously in the Catholic Church, there will be no justice at all, said Jamie Manson in a recent essay for the National Catholic Reporter.

Manson’s latest “Grace on the Margins” column is a call for church reformers to practice intersectional solidarity (for more information on what intersectionality is click here). The problem today, she wrote, was “this enduring sense that the church’s treatment of women and LGBTQ persons are separate issues.” Such thinking has led to a siloing of the issues:

“More than once in progressive circles of Catholics, I’ve heard reformers insist on remaining silent about women’s equality in the church in the hope that it will facilitate them in getting the chance to dialogue with members on the hierarchy about LGBTQ inclusion.

“And, by the same token, I’ve met women who were passionate about a fully inclusive priesthood, but did not invite lesbian voices to speak at their events, for fear it would compromise their chances of being heard by church leaders.

“I’ve met gay men who would be content in a Catholic Church that fully welcomed LGBTQ Catholics, but did not ordain women, and I’ve met activists for women deacons and priests who believe that sacramental marriage for same-sex couples would be asking too much of the church.”

Against these attitudes, Manson criticized forms of comparative suffering about which groups are more marginalized and  the calculations she described about making progress on one form equality at the expense of another. The problem Manson claimed is that both LGBT and women’s equality are at their core about the same thing, “the so-called theology of complementarity.”

In summary, this theology of complementarity, so favored by conservative church leaders, is a form of gender essentialism. It says the biological differences between men and women define an understanding of the human person, from which flows dictates for gender roles, sexuality, and more. Manson explained, “[T]his theological idea is the backbone of the reason why popes, from John Paul II through Francis, believe that women cannot be priests and same-sex couples should not have sex (let alone marry).” (She offered a deeper examination into gender complementarity, which I recommend you read here. You can also reading Bondings 2.0‘s post on the widespread effects of the gender binary in theology by clicking here and  coverage of gender complementarity by clicking here.)

Manson then noted the recent ways in which gender complementarity has been used against LGBTQ people and women, including Pope Francis’ claims that LGBT families are not real families and that gay men should not be accepted to the priesthood. She also cited the attempt by Archbishop Luis Ladaria, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, to make definitive the teaching against ordaining women to the priesthood. About these incidents and others, Manson commented:

“So, women and LGBTQ people are being denied sacramental rites in our church because who we are, in our very beings, does not match God’s plan for humanity. We are all acting in ways that God would deem unnatural because we are not living in accordance with complementarity. . .

“This single notion of complementarity generates so many barriers between God and God’s beloved children. It perpetuates the profoundly unjust message that we are not all equal in the eyes of God. Rather, some of us are intrinsically inferior, ironically, based on our God-given gender or our God-given sexual orientation.”

This common source of oppression is precisely why Manson made a call for solidarity:

“As a queer woman with a vocation to the priesthood, I understand well how demoralizing these teachings are. But rather than despair, perhaps we can see this as invitation for women and LGBTQ persons to deepen our solidarity with one another in our struggles for genuine equality in our church. Complementarity is the point where, together, we can strive for intersectional justice. We are all fighting the same battle against the same teaching.

“It is erroneous to think that LGBTQ people will gain genuine equality in their church before women will, or vice versa, because in order to really achieve justice in our church, the same theological idea must be dismantled.

“It is time to tear down the walls of the silos that separate us as activists because, the doctrinal reality is, we will ultimately achieve equality and justice together, or we won’t achieve it at all.”

Like Manson, though my specific experiences are different and lived from a place of greater privilege, I have witnessed the dynamics among Catholics that she described. Working with groups like New Ways Ministry and the Women’s Ordination Conference (on whose National Advisory board Manson sits), I have experienced with those communities the ways by which Church officials discriminate and exclude. But the exclusion caused by friends and allies in the church reform movement can sometimes be worse. Queer voices have not been welcomed into major projects for Catholic women’s equality until very recently. Some LGBT groups in the church are considered “too radical” to collaborate with. Women’s ordination is not only a third rail in the institutional Church, but in the Church’s margins, too.

In addition to the divisions Manson identified, I would add one more specific trouble spot. Transgender Catholics’ place in not only the Church, but in the reform movement remains precarious. Some lesbian and gay Catholics deny trans identities or diminish their existence in hopes of gaining wider acceptance of homosexuality. Some people who identify as feminist Catholics are likewise skeptical and even condemnatory of trans people, especially trans women. Highlighting this problem does not deny the many Church reform advocates who practice intersectional solidarity, including with trans communities. It is, however, important to track weak spots where improvements need to be made.

Manson’s writing once again challenges not only the institutional Church which she and others seek to reform, but the reform movement itself. Her column is an opportunity for each of us committed to equality in the Catholic Church to reflect on how we are already practicing intersectionality and especially on where we can improve. This second step is and will be challenging because it often means confronting our own biases and acknowledging our indifference about or even our contributions to another’s oppression. This analysis is necessary for organizations and groups, too. Hard as this work may be, if we really want to build up a just and inclusive Church, accountability in being intersectional must be an ongoing process in our work to build a church that is a home where all are welcome.

How do you understand intersectionality and solidarity in the church reform movement? What steps will you take to be more inclusive in working to gain equality for all Catholics? Do you have other responses to Manson’s column? Leave your thoughts in the “Comments” section below.

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, June 26, 2018

1 reply
  1. John Hilgeman
    John Hilgeman says:

    I can’t help but think of Paul VI’s words: “If you want peace, work for justice.” Or the chant of activists today: “No justice, no peace.”

    Justice means justice for all. Otherwise it is only another form of discrimination. And there can never be full peace without justice for all. So I think both Jamie, and you, Robert, touch upon the need for people to work together for justice for all – whether it is women and LGBT people, or black people and Native American people, immigrants, ethnic minorities, refugees, the poor, etc. And indeed I have seen in the groups with which I am involved, an ongoing attempt to grapple with understanding and creating groups and movements that are intersectional.

    There is plenty of work to be done in all communities to achieve working relationships to further justice for all. And when it comes to the Catholic leadership, discrimination against women and sexual and gender minorities are perhaps the greatest challenges and obstacles to justice and peace. The Catholic theology of justice has been an inspiration to many people working for justice. But the message has been muddied and crippled by the internal unjust structure and theology that feeds the cancer of injustice.


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