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.
Today’s post is from Xavier M. Montecel, a doctoral candidate in theological ethics at Boston College and Visiting Instructor of Religious Ethics at Fairfield University. He has taught courses in theology at Boston College and Salve Regina University.
Amid all the noise of the past year’s Catholic LGBTQ controversies, these simple words from Pope Francis have endured in my heart and mind: “Homosexuals have a right to be a part of the family […] Nobody should be thrown out, or be made miserable because of it.”
To the disappointment of many, the Vatican quickly clarified that these comments, from the now famous Italian documentary Francesco, were meant to affirm the worth of children with same-sex attraction and not to imply that same-sex couples have any kind of “right” to form families of their own. And yet, in the spirit of Amoris laetitia, which embraces the value of gradual progress toward the ideal, I think it is worth celebrating the progress made by the pope’s comments.
At present, we are facing an enormous crisis of LGBTQ youth homelessness. It is a not a new catastrophe, but figures suggest that the situation is not improving. According to recent studies, LGBTQ youth are up to 120% more likely than their non-LGBTQ peers to experience some form of homelessness, and that while only about 7% of young people in the United States are LGBTQ, they make up a staggering 40% of the homeless youth population. Although there is still too little data on the complex role played by religious attitudes in fueling the crisis, research suggests that over two-thirds of LGBTQ homeless youth cite family rejection as the cause of their circumstances and almost half of those identify with a religious background.
Quite in line with his pastoral character, Francis has clearly been moved by the suffering of children rejected by their families for being LGBTQ. In spite of the pope’s pastoral embrace of LGBTQ people, however, progress on the matter of doctrine remains beyond reach and the larger bureaucratic elements of the Church have doubled down in their rejection of LGBTQ equality.
Still, I believe that Francis has sown the seeds of theological renewal, which may yet bear hope for LGBTQ homeless youth. He gestured toward this renewal when he spoke of the “right to family.” It is hard to overstate the impact of that statement. According to Francis, all children possess a fundamental human claim to a place in the family. They have a right to be loved by their parents, their siblings, and the wider community within which their family is enmeshed. They have a right to belong, to be valued, to be protected, and to be educated in a family. This right cannot be abridged by any means, and it is not revoked because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
I think it is helpful to return to those elements of Amoris laetitia which carry this vision of the dignity of LBGTQ youth forward. I don’t deny that the document makes mistakes, but I affirm that, as in our own lives and in the life of the Church, there is grace amid the shortcomings and the possibility of a liberating renewal.
Amoris laetitia addresses the matter of children with same-sex attraction only once, and as one might expect, the document simply reiterates the doctrine of the Church: that such people should be treated with dignity and respect (#250). This affirmation is weakened, of course, by an immediate scramble to assure the reader that any notion of same-sex marriage is impossible. The dignity of LGBTQ children actually therefore must be inferred from other elements of the document.
In AL, Pope Francis insists that children are the supreme gift of family life, and that they themselves are entitled to the total commitment and self-giving that characterizes the family rooted in marriage. Children may arrive unexpectedly, and indeed they may present serious difficulties, as in the case of children with disabilities. Nonetheless, says Francis, “they serve as a test of our commitment to show mercy in welcoming others and to help the vulnerable to be fully a part of our communities” (#47).
To welcome a child into one’s family and to practice that welcome irrevocably over the course of one’s life is a primordial act of hospitality. It is the work of the Spirit of God who binds the family together and, in that same act, binds the whole human community together with special care for those who are most at risk.
In that light, LGBTQ children, too, should be received as a grace and an opportunity. They possess an intrinsic dignity because of their destiny in God (#166). They have an inviolable right to feel wanted (#170) and loved (#240). If anything, this right to a family is intensified by the vulnerability they experience as LGBTQ persons. As such, they should be welcomed as participants in the deepest meaning of the family.
Fidelity, therefore, is not simply a virtue to govern the relationship between spouses. It is a core principle of family life which requires parents to practice radical loyalty to their children, even in the midst of a perceived crisis (#232).
Pope Francis also offers a robust vision of the family as the domestic church. The family never stands alone. Even its most private dimensions are always interwoven with the life of the community. The family contributes to the good of the whole, and the whole should sustain the family in the trials of life (#196). Moreover, as Vatican II attested, the Christian family embodies the mystery of the ecclesial community itself: loving communion, rooted in the very life of God (Lumen gentium #86).
Indeed, the mission of the Church comes alive in the family and it depends on the family. This reality is expressed especially in the work of teaching and learning. Parents teach their children the faith, and they teach them to be good: to use their freedom rightly (chapter 7). Unfortunately, AL‘s nuanced understanding of moral development and good moral pedagogy has limited use unless it is also applied to the life of the Church. So long as the Church and its bishops treat the faithful as infants rather than complex moral subjects, the domestic church will struggle to do any better. So long as the Church uses exclusion as an instrument of moral pedagogy, the family will do the same. This places LGBTQ children at profound risk for exclusion from their homes, and it erodes the ecclesial family as well.
To throw away LGBTQ children or to make their life in the family unendurable is to wound the Body of Christ. Amoris laetitia invites us toward another way: to hold LGBTQ children close to the heart of the Church and to listen to their evangelization.
—Xavier M. Montecel, July 19, 2021