Lessons from Fr. Richard Rohr on Sexual and Gender Diversity

“While younger generations are more comfortable talking about a spectrum of gender identities and sexual orientations, most of us born before 1960 were taught that there were only two genders, male and female, and only one acceptable sexual orientation: ‘straight.’ So, I want to start by inviting you to receive these reflections through the lens of contemplation. This week is a good test case for one’s ability to think in a nondual way.

“Contemplation is a kind of seeing that is much more than mere looking because it also includes recognizing and thus appreciating. The contemplative mind does not tell us what to see but teaches us how to see what we behold.”

Fr. Richard Rohr, OFM

Franciscan Father Richard Rohr’s recent online reflections about gender and sexuality provide a powerful way to re-frame our approach to these topics as Catholics and Christians. To understand this re-framing, it is first important to understand what Rohr means by contemplation. Rohr’s idea of contemplation is grounded in historical and cultural change.  In other words, theological principles are influenced and shaped by the political and social developments of the contemporary world.  Catholic theology is not a fixed, predetermined series of rules and guidelines forever frozen in time, but a multidimensional system that evolves from an interconnected social, political, and theological process.  Essentially, we are all part of a beautiful community of God’s creation — the Church — that has, can, and does change in response to society’s evolving knowledge and awareness of gender and sexual identity.

Rohr further underscores how contemplation empowers us to see the complexity of life’s experiences as they unfold, moving away from a rigid classification of dualism:

“Contemplation allows us to see the truth of things in their wholeness. It is a mental discipline and gift that detaches us, even neurologically, from our addiction to our habitual ways of thinking and from our left brain, which likes to think it is in control. We stop believing our little binary mind—which strips things down to two choices and then usually identifies with one of them—and begin to recognize the inadequacy of that limited way of knowing reality. Relying solely on the binary mind is a recipe for superficiality. Only the contemplative, or the deeply intuitive, can start venturing out into much broader and more open-ended horizons…

“The most common human responses to a new moment, or something that does not fit neatly into one of our dualistic categories such as male or female, gay or straight, are mistrust, cynicism, fear, knee-jerk reactions, a spirit of dismissal, and overriding judgmentalism. It is so discouraging when we have the courage to finally see that these habits are the common ways that the ego tries to be in control of the data instead of allowing the moment to get some control over us—and teach us something new!

What new “moments” come to mind from an LGBTQ perspective?  Concerning gender identity, this could mean that we relinquish our preoccupation with rigid gender categories. Instead of policing gender presentation, we can be open to the lived experiences of those who identify as transgender. Appreciating this new “moment” however presumes that we allow individuals to express who they are, as they are, which again, evolves through time (as it does for all of us!).  This possibility is particularly a challenge for LGBTQ youth because of educational and institutional barriers as well as societal obstacles and prejudice that can dismiss a child’s authentic expression and developmental growth beyond a narrow vision of gender norms and expectations.

As a society, we are generally more comfortable with the idea of an adult gay or lesbian couple than we are with a 10-year-old child assigned as a male at birth who expresses their genuine desire to dress and present themselves as female.  What other “moments” might we experience as LGBTQ children come to us with their hopes and fears as they explore, develop, and mature into their bodies, their sexualities, and their gender identities?

Rohr’s robust contemplative framework helps us to better appreciate the richness and beauty found in unique experiences when we detach ourselves and our ego from the pattern of binary classifications and reactionary dualism.  Through Rohr’s spiritual practice of contemplation, we become more receptive to what God has to offer us through the experiences of LGBTQ people, which may challenge our preconceived notions of sexual and gender identity, love, and companionship.

Our sexuality and gender —in all its diverse forms —are gifts from God that should be celebrated, rather than classed as sinful or shameful things that detract from our holiness or spiritual growth.  Instead of seeing LGBTQ individuals pejoratively  as “other,” or worse, as “sexual deviants,” we can experience them as equally loved by God, and capable of rich, full lives in communion with the Divine in all its forms.

LGBTQ people’s desire to create a families is an example of how Rohr’s contemplative framework dispels the notion that the only blueprint for a family is a female mother, a male father, and a child biologically born from that heterosexual relationship.  By accepting LGBTQ models of family, we make room for new “moments” and unique pathways of creating family. We can learn new qualities for being a loving parent

Children of LGBT parents are brought into being and loved through a variety of avenues including surrogacy and adoption, processes that are very intentional, deliberate, and time consuming, both legally and financially.  In some situations, the most potential adoptive parents for abused and neglected children in the foster care system are committed same-sex couples.  This fact should speak volumes about the loving goodness and nurturing qualities of prospective LGBT parents who want to create a family.

These LGBTQ examples help illuminate Rohr’s broad vision gained through the practice of contemplation by juxtaposing our often limited vision of our reality with that of God’s:

“With all the changing ways of understanding gender and sexuality, most of us truly need contemplative eyes and the guidance of the Holy Spirit to ‘rupture simplistic binaries’ and be compassionate and respectful of difference and diversity. It clearly seems that God is quite comfortable with immense diversity.  We have a much harder time with it, preferring uniformity and conformity instead.”

If we ponder that the participation and lived experience of LGBTQ people in the Church — like all of God’s creation — is ever-expanding in its discovery, then our compassion for those who are different from us and for the “other” knows no bounds.  Although Rohr’s reflections focus on expanding our understanding of LGBTQ people, it’s easy to comprehend how his contemplative practice of eroding our pattern of dualistic thinking can apply to other marginalized communities such as immigrants or persecuted religious minorities.

Moreover, Rohr’s premise that “God is quite comfortable with immense diversity” isn’t just a lofty, contemporary ideal, but is grounded in the life of Jesus.  Jesus’ transgression of the cultural, religious, and political norms that separated individuals and communities into a dualistic binary good versus bad, clean versus unclean, for example, is echoed by Rohr’s framework of contemplation.  Untangling the divisive nature of our binary thought process  and advocating for compassion and understanding is a powerful starting point for the full inclusion of LGBTQ individuals in our local communities as well as in the Church.

–Brian William Kaufman, New Ways Ministry, December 14, 2019

2 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.