Harm, Needs, and Responsibility: Why Restorative Justice is Good News for LGBTQ Catholics

Allison Connelly

Today’s post is from Allison Connelly. Allison is a graduate student at Union Theological Seminary studying liberatory approaches to disability theology. She identifies as queer, disabled, Catholic, and United Church of Christ, and is a co-author of Dear Joan Chittister: Conversations with Women in the Church. To read Allison’s previous writings for Bondings 2.0, click here.

To read the scriptures for today, please click here.

Today’s liturgical readings prompted me to think about restorative justice, which is a response to harm, crime, or violence of any kind that focuses on reconciliation and repairing the harm done instead of seeking punitive action. It is a form of communal accountability and reconciliation rooted in communities that have never been protected by the police. The restorative justice movement is led especially by Black, Brown, Indigenous, immigrant, queer, transgender folks, and sex workers.  As we shall learn, the process of restorative justice can be very helpful in healing the relationship between LGBTQ people and the Catholic Church. Restorative justice asks three primary questions:

  1. Who was harmed?
  2. What are their needs?
  3. Who has the responsibility to meet those needs?

We notice restorative justice, and the lack thereof, in the parable Jesus shares in today’s Gospel. At the parable’s beginning, we hear of a king forgiving a servant’s debt after initially threatening to enslave him. This sounds like restorative justice, so we ask the three questions above and get the following answers:

  1. We see that the king thought he was harmed: he was owed a debt that was not paid.
  2. But after he reflected, he realized that he did not actually have a need to have that debt paid, because he had plenty of money without it.
  3. And so, he leans into the opportunity for restorative justice by relieving the servant of his debt.

Restorative justice works. But it is not a given. We see how easily restorative justice can be put aside in a few moments when the now-forgiven servant seeks repayment of the debts he is owed. But when the servant’s debtor cannot pay, he servant has the debtor imprisoned. The servant’s recourse is punitive, and it only perpetuates harm.

There is a message for LGBTQ Catholics in this interpretation, both in the possibilities for restorative justice in the church and for the general failure to employ such processes. As a lesbian Catholic, the three questions restorative justice asks resonated with me very deeply, and I imagine they resonate with many other marginalized Catholics, too. How often have I been harmed by a homily, a papal statement, or news of yet another church worker firing? How often have I had deep theological, pastoral, and spiritual needs for healing that went unmet? And how often have I longed to hold those who harmed me responsible for the pain they caused? I reflected on our readings today with these questions in mind, and it led me to experience Good News.

If the parishes I grew up in had practiced a restorative justice model, my pastors might have been more alert to the hurt I’ve experienced, the needs I have, and who I believe is responsible for meeting my needs. I wish, so fiercely, that somebody—anybody!—in the church leadership had asked me the three questions, because I, and every queer or trans Catholic I know, have stories of harm and needs for healing—more than we care to tell. But nobody ever asked me. My needs for queer-celebratory theology, for institutional and personal apologies for homophobia, and for a Catholic church to host my wedding have never been met by the Catholic Church writ large. The people and offices responsible for causing the harm have never experienced the sacramental opportunity for accountability.

My dream for the church is that we live into restorative justice with each other. We should ask the questions of who was harmed, what are their needs, and who is responsible not only of our queer siblings, but of our Black siblings, our Indigenous siblings, our siblings of color, our disabled siblings, our elder siblings, our trans siblings, our immigrant siblings, and all of our siblings who have experienced harm from the church.

This dream church rooted in restorative justice, can be realized in our lifetime, and it wouldn’t take a miracle to do so. It would just take committed congregations and church leaders to ask people the three questions about harm, needs, and responsibility. As an example, we could replace our post-confession rosaries with the penance of paying reparations to the descendants of slaves who were bought and sold by Catholic institutions. Restorative justice is only a dream until we make it happen. If we are called to make our church “on Earth as it is in Heaven,” then, surely, we are called to live into the salvific blessings of restorative justice.

–Allison Connelly, September 13, 2020

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