Theologians Contrast Approach to LGBTQ Rights Between Pope Francis and U.S. Bishops

Michael Lawler, left, and Todd Salzman

Two Catholic theologians have asserted that Pope Francis’ endorsement of same-gender civil unions should be heeded by the U.S. Catholic bishops because their pastoral approach to the LGBTQ community compared to Pope Francis’ approach are worlds apart. 

Writing in Novena News, Todd A. Salzman and Michael G. Lawler, both Catholic theologians at Creighton University, Nebraska, opined that although church doctrine remains unchanged by this profound affirmation, it does frame the stark contrast between the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) and Pope Francis’s pastoral viewpoint towards LGBTQ persons.

Salzman and Lawler assert that the differences between the pope and the USCCB are in three main areas: (1) the bishops’ confusion of civil law with church law, (2) non-discrimination versus unjust discrimination, and (3) the priority of Catholic sexual ethics versus Catholic Social Teaching.

Distinction between Civil Law and Church Law

Lawler and Salzman underscore that while the USCCB can advocate for the influence of Catholic Social Teaching in civil society, the conference should not unilaterally force church doctrine into U.S. culture under the banner of religious liberty. The two Catholic theologians argue:

“Clarion cries from the USCCB for ‘religious freedom’ often ignore [the] distinction [between civil law and church law] and seek to impose Catholic doctrine on civic society.”

For example, the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges, which legalized same-gender marriage in June 2015, was not an affront to religious liberty as the USCCB argued. Rather, the high court concluded that in civil society, a law restricting the marriage of same-gender couples was a “violation of basic legal and human rights.”

Non-Discrimination versus Unjust Discrimination

Pope Francis’s support of civil unions demonstrates his keen appreciation of the violence LGBTQ persons face on the basis of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity. This reality is reflected by the hate crimes legislation enacted in many countries and states, which recognize animus against LGBTQ persons as a motivating factor for engaging in such criminal acts.

These hate crime statutes are examples of non-discrimination protections, in which enacted legislation acknowledges that a vulnerable class of people–the LGBTQ community–are targets of violence, harassment, and prejudice because of who they are and who they love.

The theologians point out that in contrast to the pope’s support of this form of legal advocacy, the USCCB has consistently been hostile to these positive legislative measures vis-a-vis non-discrimination protections in response to cultural, religious, or state-sanctioned homophobia and transphobia in numerous areas of society such as housing, employment, and health care.

Bondings 2.0 has previously reported on the USCCB’s ongoing support for the Trump administration’s targeted efforts to end federal protections for the LGBTQ community in healthcare, in adoption and foster care services, and elsewhere.

Lawler and Salzman assert:

“The USCCB as a body, and many individual bishops, have argued against ‘non-discrimination’ legislation for sexual orientation and gender identity in employment and housing under the principle of not ‘unjust discrimination,’ which advocates for ‘just discrimination.’ Many bishops continue to fire Catholic school employees who they discover are in legal same-sex civil marriages and prohibit Catholic adoption or fostering agencies, who receive state or federal funding, as in the pending SCOTUS case of Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, to allow same-sex couples to adopt or foster.”

Catholic Sexual Ethics versus the Prohibition against Discrimination

Lawler and Salzman point out that the USCCB continues to frame LGBTQ equality through a rigid lens of Catholic sexual ethics rather than through a human rights analysis. To provide basic human rights protections for LGBTQ persons, which Pope Francis’s statement endorses, would acknowledge a coherent identity of a marginalized group not based on sexual activity, but on their personhood as children of God and integral members of the church family:

“That the USCCB would implicitly support discrimination against homosexuals simply because they are homosexual and might engage in prohibited sexual activity is a fundamental violation of their inviolable consciences, human rights, and dignity. Yet the USCCB uses the principle of not ‘unjust discrimination’ to promote discrimination against homosexuals in legislation regulating marriage, adoption, and employment.”

While church teaching dictates that unjust discrimination is never permissible towards LGBTQ people, the USCCB sidesteps this prohibition through its anti-LGBTQ lobbying efforts, amicus briefs, and press releases because sexual orientation and gender identity are not enumerated in the Catechism. As Lawler and Salzman opine:

“The Catechism does not include sexual orientation or gender identity in this list [or protected identity categories] and the USCCB has vehemently resisted employment non-discrimination legislation on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, as is clear in its amicus curiae brief filed with SCOTUS in the case of R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes Inc. v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.”

In their concluding reflections, Salzman and Lawler articulate the numerous inclusive elements of Pope Francis’ statement, emphasizing that the Catholic Church is indeed capable of reform:

“[Pope Francis’] recognition of legal protections for same-sex civil unions makes an important distinction between civil law and Church doctrine, prioritizes Catholic social doctrine over sexual doctrine, recognizes that LGBTQ people are discriminated against and need legal protection, and calls the Church to practice respect, compassion, and hospitality towards all people, especially LGBTQ people.

“To all these opponents of Pope Francis we point out the historically obvious: the Catholic Church has changed often in its long history and it can, and surely will, change again in the future.”

To read Bondings 2.0’s ongoing analysis of Pope Francis’s support of same-gender civil marriages, click here.

Brian William Kaufman, New Ways Ministry, December 2, 2020

3 replies
  1. Dana Prescott
    Dana Prescott says:

    Regretfully, I’ve come to conclude that the majority of American Catholic bishops and archbishops are a lost cause, when it comes to issues of social justice affecting GLBTQ Catholics. So what exactly are we supposed to do? Ignore their appalling ignorance? Attempt to change their retrograde social judgments and attitudes? The floor is open for a meaningful discussion.

    DON E SIEGAL says:

    These theologians are my heroes. They have advocated in many of their writings for the LGBTQ community. Their controversial book, The Sexual Person: Toward a Renewed Catholic Anthropology, is for me a vindication for my life as a gay man.

    All of this has been verified by my acceptance into a varied community of persons that I didn’t think would accept who I am. Yet, to my amazement, they did.


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