Review: New Book on Sin in the Catholic Church Has Lessons for LGBTQ Catholics

Today’s post is from guest blogger Jason Steidl, a Lecturer in the Religious Studies Department at St. Joseph’s College, Brooklyn and Long Island. He is a member of the ministry team for Out at St. Paul, the LGBTQ ministry of St. Paul the Apostle Church in Manhattan.

Part of being both LGBTQ and Catholic is grappling with sin in the church. While the church calls itself the “sacrament of salvation,” we see its faults first hand: teaching that describes queer desire as intrinsically disordered; schoolteachers fired from their jobs for marrying their same-gender partners; clericalism that keeps healthy gay priests closeted as it promotes the self-loathing ones. Most recently LGBTQ Catholics have been scandalized by the hypocrisy of Church leadership condemning our intimate relationships, even though they have facilitated the sexual abuse of children and vulnerable adults.

Given these and many of the church’s other failures, how can Catholics balance their belief in “one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic Church” with the reality of sin in the Body of Christ? Brian Flanagan, an Associate Professor of Theology at Marymount University, Virginia, provides direction for our reflection in his recent book, Stumbling in Holiness (Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press Academic, 2018).

Flanagan, an ecclesiologist (someone who studies the church), is a careful theologian and, as such, concludes that there are no easy answers. The mystery of the church’s sinfulness and sanctity, he offers, is a “paradoxical tension – a reality to be believed and prayed rather than fully understood.” This claim is especially clear in the first chapter, where he reflects on the ways that communal prayers at Mass affirm both our propensity to sin and our hope for salvation.

Although his theology often speaks more to the limits of what we can say about God than to what we can assert, Flanagan proposes guidelines that help us to ask better questions as we engage in the difficult but necessary conversations about how God is at work among us. Like the bumpers in kids’ bowling that keep the ball from drifting into the gutter, Flanagan’s thought steers us toward what he calls “less inadequate” ways of orthodox thinking that run down the center of the lane.

Time is a consistent theme that helpfully grounds Flanagan’s work in human history. The book’s greatest strength is that it weighs the ramifications of various streams of Christian thought while it considers the mystery of sin and holiness in the church. These two parts of this mystery cannot be separated in our current age, described by Flanagan as the “sluggish inbetween… the ‘already’ of Christ’s saving work and the ‘not yet’ of that work’s consummation in the reign of God.” (30)

Throughout the book, Flanagan calls for radical honesty as we reckon with individual and collective sin from the church’s past and present. Such honesty is a breath of fresh air within a community and tradition that are so quick to focus on the church’s divine foundation rather than its human limitations. He reminds those of us who are overly pessimistic that “the Christian Church is a uniquely constituted holy community of encounter with God.” Indeed, the third chapter assures us that the church’s redemption at the end of time is secure because God’s promises will not fail us.

For those more prone to optimistic idealism, Flanagan’s fourth chapter calls attention to the very real ways that sin affects the church in its individual members, leaders, and as a collective body.

Each chapter weaves together sources from thousands of years of Hebrew and Christian thought. Flanagan shows us that we are not the first Christians to wrestle with sin in the church, and we will not be the last. This sense of belonging to a community of struggle locates our experiences in solidarity with Catholics of all ages. The second chapter, which examines Christian understandings of sanctity, sin, and the church, stands well on its own as a textbook-quality consideration of these three complex doctrinal topics.

For the most part, the sources Flanagan consults derive from the western theological canon, which is both a strength and a weakness. As a thorough and well-researched analysis (at times critical) of Catholic thought, the book is an invaluable resource, yet it does not take full advantage of the contextual and world ecclesiologies that have emerged over the last half century to counterbalance the largely white male North American and European enterprise that has dominated for so long.

LGBTQ-specific theologies are absent, as are mentions of the injustices committed against LGBTQ Catholics. This is noteworthy because, with a few exceptions, Flanagan seems to take for granted that Catholics have a shared understanding what is sinful and what is not. Although he is correct that most of us recognize and wrestle with sin the Church, he doesn’t consider the ways that categories of sin have themselves been weaponized to exclude and do violence against vulnerable believers. Church leaders have long used the category of homosexuality, for example, to single out lesbian and gay Catholics for maltreatment. Likewise, prior to the Civil War, it was an excommunicable offense for Catholics in some dioceses to justify the abolition of slavery using scripture. Who gets to define what is and what is not a sin in the concrete is a very real question that we cannot take for granted.

If you are looking for a book to save your faith in the church, Flanagan’s thought may not cajole you into staying. The author doesn’t apologize for Catholic doctrine. As he admits in his introduction, he is a Roman Catholic theologian writing for a Roman Catholic audience using Roman Catholic theology. He also challenged me, however, to reflect on the ways that my own sinfulness and holiness contribute, for better or worse, to the faith community of which I still count myself a part.

In that way, Flanagan’s work offers two valuable insights for the LGBTQ Catholic community. First, even though we have suffered tremendously from sin in the church, we also are sinners in need of redemption ourselves. This fact does not excuse or justify the homo/transphobia we face, but it should propel us into a more meaningful relationship with the God who brings all of us new life.

Second, Flanagan encourages us not to give up on our Catholic community because God has not given up on us either. LGBTQ liberation may take generations to achieve. Patterns of sin, whether individual or communal, are stubborn. But our triumph, by God’s grace, is secure. This is the heart of the Gospel message, and it is good news.

Stumbling in Holiness invited me to enter more deeply into the mystery of salvation that God is working in and through me and others. We are a pilgrim people who often fail, but there is hope. I jumped from my seat and shouted “Amen!” when Flanagan wrote that we ought to celebrate honesty and vulnerability as we grapple with our ambiguous and often-afflicted condition because these virtues indicate that grace is impelling our hearts toward repentance, reconciliation, and healing. If God is in the business of saving the Church, as Flanagan contends, I can have hope that God is in the business of saving me, too. Maybe, just maybe, as a gay man I belong in this church with everyone else.

[Editor’s Note: Brian Flanagan serves on New Ways Ministry’s Advisory Board]

Jason Steidl, August 27, 2019

3 replies
  1. Kris
    Kris says:

    Wouldn’t it be so much easier, and honest, to drop the word ‘holy’ from any description of the Church? Calling something, or someone, ‘holy’ does not, by virtue of this adjective, make either so.

    There is also the fog of semantics to stumble in, never mind stumbling in holiness itself (whatever this is). And that’s the problem: what IS holiness? You might as well ask: what, or who, is God?

    How can a faith-community call itself ‘holy’ when probably there are as many definitions of the word, and none, as there are faith-members? How can we be what we do not know? The question’s as philosophical as it is theological and, like many questions in either discipline, it will forever remain in the intellectual in-tray.

    Some might say that the Magisterium defines holiness. But if you study magisterial history (and are courageous enough to be honest about it), you’ll find not a few shockingly unholy things there, at least by today’s standards.

    If we must (by tradition if nothing else) call ourselves ‘holy’, then couldn’t we at least be humble enough to add the parenthetical qualifier (‘aspiring to be what we aspire first to know’)?

    Humility begins with the ability to laugh at oneself, doesn’t it? That qualifier would at least show the Church has humility, a quality that doesn’t first come to my mind when thinking about the Church. And what is humility but the ability to look from the ground up (or from the gutter to the stars, as Oscar Wilde might have put it) rather than the customary position of the Church, that of looking down from some nameless ontological high.

  2. Don E Siegal
    Don E Siegal says:

    Stumbling in Holiness
    By Brien P. Flanagan

    As a gay Catholic man Jason Steidl’s review of this book does not encourage or comfort to me. I know one cannot necessarily evaluate a book by a review of another. This review in no way encourages me to consider reading the book. Rather, it is a discouragement.

    The line in the review “one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic Church” (quotes in the original) is grammatically incorrect. Neither catholic nor church should be capitalized. When they are, the reference by default is to the Roman Catholic Church. Written in the lower case the reference is to the universal church to which all Christians belong. Inclusive theologians expand the universal church to include all people.

    As to sinfulness, I am not a groveling sinner hoping for redemption unless one means hope as in faith, hope, and charity. My certain hope is that I am a redeemed sinner by the pascal mystery of Jesus. I am fully invited into the church by God’s unconditional love. God is not a revengeful God out to catch Christians in sin. It is true that all persons have both light (holiness) and darkness (evil). As the Church is human it likewise is a mix of light and darkness. Therefore, it is important that neither we nor the Church ignore the darkness. The Church is capable of institutional sin (Social Sin) and has done so before and will continue to do so.

    I am not burdened by self-loathing because of my sexual acts. My conscience is formed by the principles of Christian sexual ethics as espoused by Margaret A. Farley, R.S.M. for my comfort and my guide in the goodness in my sexuality. They are worth naming: Do No Unjust Harm; Free Consent; Mutuality; Equality; Commitment; Fruitfulness; and Social Justice.


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