LGBTQ Youth as Subjects in Catholic Teaching on Families

In March, the Vatican launched a year of reflection on Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love) about family. To ensure that LGBTQ perspectives and dimensions are included in our church’s discussions of this document, Bondings 2.0 is publishing a series of theological reflections over the year.

This month’s installment is from Julie Hanlon Rubio, a Professor of Social Ethics, and Barbara Anne Kozee, a graduate student, both at the Jesuit School of Theology at Santa Clara University.

Last October, Pope Francis’ comments about civil unions in an Italian documentary became controversial. When he spoke of a “right to a family” was he referring to civil unions or to children in families headed by a same-sex couple? The Vatican issued a clarification suggesting only the latter, disappointing many observers who knew about Francis’ support for same-sex civil unions prior to becoming pope. As theologian Cristina Traina has pointed out on this blog, there are good reasons to believe that Francis is moving the church to greater tolerance of civil unions, yet his words on LGBTQ youth in families are no less significant. Catholic theology is beginning to see queer youth as subjects, opening the door for necessary discussions on what they deserve and how they can thrive.

Julie Hanlon Rubio

Julie: As a theologian who specializes in family ethics, I appreciate how Catholic thinking on families has been enriched by lay people who have shifted the focus from what “the family” is to what families do. They ask questions like, “What does it mean to parent well?” and “What makes a sexual relationship just?” These questions on family life implicitly include a broad range of families.

Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia (AL)shares this inclusive, action-oriented approach. Many commentators focus on how AL includes, via its welcoming tone, a recovery of conscience (#37) and a centering of mercy in complex situations (chapter 8). Also important are insights on fruitfulness (chapter 5) and raising children (chapter 7). These ideas are addressed to parents, but suggest an ethic for youth as well.

Fruitfulness for Francis includes, but is not limited to, procreation. The most compelling image in chapter five is not a couple with their small children gathered around them, but a couple walking together and working for justice (#181). Family is portrayed not as a refuge from a hostile world but as a “hub for integrating persons into society” (#181). Francis encourages families to look critically at their own practices. Do they love the outcast (#182)? Does their lifestyle cause scandal (#187)? Do they take in those who struggle (#197)? By expanding fruitfulness to include the ways families extend loving concern to others, Francis makes space for LGBTQ adults and youth to imagine lives of discipleship in families of their own.

Amoris Laetitia also has some parenting advice, or what I call a virtue ethic for parenting. Concerned that Catholic children have too often felt burdened and judged by their parents’ attempt to control them, Francis counsels “love them first” (#170) and suggests, “It is more important to start processes than to dominate spaces” (#261). Like church leaders, parents are asked to cultivate patience, meeting people where they are (#271). Children, too, need freedom and space to live into their vocation.

Barbara Anne Kozee

Barb: As a queer Catholic, I wonder, what would it mean to consider LGBTQ youth as subjects on the fifth anniversary of Amoris Laetitia, with the field of family ethics more seriously engaging the realities of diverse family situations? A reflection on the gifts and fruitfulness of queer kids in Catholic families cannot look away from the often complex and difficult experiences of these youth. On May 19, The Trevor Project released their 2021 national survey, representing the experiences of 35,000 LGBTQ youth ages 13-24 across the United States. Key findings include: 42% of respondents had seriously considered suicide in the past twelve months, 80% of youth said that Covid-19 had made their living situation more stressful, and only one in three youth considered their home to be LGBTQ affirming.

These housing statistics are troubling, to say the least, and they echo what I heard facilitating virtual reflection space for Catholic college students on faith, family, and sexuality. The late teen years and young adulthood is often a time when queer youth begin to explore what it means to be LGBTQ, but it has been difficult to engage in this freedom while at home during the Covid-19 pandemic. They can’t dress in clothes that make them feel comfortable, to talk at whatever pitch feels natural, to be in queer community.

Especially as we enter Pride month, it can feel like a failure or disappointment to be queer but not to be ready yet for full visibility, either for safety reasons, given the difficult realities facing our community, or for personal reasons. Whatever their decision, I would invite LGBTQ Catholic youth to see themselves in the way that Pope Francis sees them: as gifts deserving of love and important members of your family.

As Catholics, family, faith, and culture are important to us, and it is possible to hold all of these at once. Especially, but not only, for LGBTQ Catholics of color, family can be both a refuge and a source of strength. Often times, it is queer youth who, with an abundance of resilience and compassion, meet parents, siblings, and relatives where they are. We are a creative community who subvert, expand, and imagine new ways of being. We are “artisans of [our] destiny” (Populorum Progressio #65). We are subjects.

If you are in need of immediate support, please call the Trevor Lifeline at 1-866-488-7386.

Julie Hanlon Rubio and Barbara Anne Kozee, May 28, 2021

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