“Can the Catholic Church ‘Evolve’ on L.G.B.T. Rights?” That’s the intriguing headline on a recent New York Times op-ed, penned by John Gehring, Catholic Program Director of Faith in Public Life, a U.S. network of faith leaders who work for social justice.
Gehring’s answer seems to be a hopeful, but hesitant “yes.” His essay examines the positive influence that Pope Francis’ welcoming words and actions have had, but Gehring also takes note of the disappointment some people feel with the slow pace of any change. Gehring, who is the author of the book The Francis Effect: A Radical Pope’s Challenge to the American Catholic Church, succinctly sums up Francis’ papacy on LGBT matters:
“Pope Francis has opened space for a deeper, more authentic conversation about how the church can keep one foot planted in Catholic tradition without being afraid to step into the lived experiences of others. When Pope Francis gave the most famous papal sound bite in history five years ago — ‘Who am I to judge?’ — even his colloquial use of the word ‘gay’ caused a stir in traditional Catholic circles. While the pope has strongly defended church teaching on marriage as exclusively between a man and a woman, he prioritizes listening and personal encounter over finger-wagging denunciations. He’s met with transgender people, and when he spoke privately last month with a Chilean clergy sexual abuse survivor, the pope told him that God made him gay and loved him.”
[Editor’s note: For a complete catalog of all Pope Francis’ statements and actions regarding LGBT topics, click here.]
He points out that Francis’ model of pastoral attention is having an effect on bishops:
“The pope’s emphasis on encounter and engagement is trickling down to influence other church leaders. Cardinal Joe Tobin of Newark welcomed a pilgrimage of L.G.B.T. Catholics to the city’s cathedral last spring. In this month’s issue of U.S. Catholic magazine, a deacon in the diocese of St. Petersburg, Fla., wrote movingly about his transgender daughter, and challenged the church’s notion of “gender ideology,” a term that has been used to discredit the push for transgender rights.”
Yet Gehring is also clear-eyed that still more must happen:
“Despite this progress, the Catholic Church must do far more not only to acknowledge the humanity of L.G.B.T. people, but also to recognize most want the same committed, loving relationships as straight couples. “
“The church’s own language toward L.G.B.T. people is a stumbling block to its professed commitment to human dignity. While the Catholic catechism, which details church teaching, forbids any violence or ‘unjust discrimination’ toward people who are gay or lesbian, it also describes sexual intimacy between them as ‘intrinsically disordered.’ Before he became pope, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger wrote in 1986 that homosexuality represents a ‘strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil.’ “
His conclusion is that the church still has a long way to go:
“Five years into the Francis papacy, a pope who emphasizes mercy and strikes a more welcoming tone toward L.G.B.T. people is helping to rescue the church from a culture-war Christianity that drives people away. But until the Catholic hierarchy can find more tangible ways to institutionalize a commitment to the rights of gay, lesbian and transgender people, the exodus of Catholics will continue.”
Gehring’s essay is a great summary of some of the most important positive steps that the Catholic Church has been taking in regard to LGBT issues. The most accurate answer to the essay’s title question is that the Catholic Church already has evolved on LGBT issues. New Ways Ministry’s co-founder, Sister Jeannine Gramick, likes to point out that when she began her ministry to the LGBT community in 1971, there was no church teaching on the moral neutrality of a homosexual orientation (indeed, church teaching didn’t even acknowledge orientation existed). Similarly, the church evolved its teaching to include doctrines about pastoral care of the LGBT community and about moral problems with discriminatory and homophobic attitudes, behavior, and practices.
So, of course, the church can evolve. It has always evolved. And it always will.
To read Gehring’s full essay, click here.
—Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, July 6, 2018