Today’s post is from guest contributor Travis LaCouter, a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the College of the Holy Cross. He holds degrees from Holy Cross and the University of Oxford, and his writing can be found in Commonweal, US Catholic Magazine, and the Los Angeles Review of Books.
“There is no such thing as conversation,” declares a bitter lover at the start of a Rebecca West short story, only ever “intersecting monologues.” While we Catholics are obliged to believe that ours is a Church capable of true “conversation,” we also know the frequency with which dialogue can devolve into idle chatter—or worse. At that point, the interlocutors have some decisions to make about how best to proceed.
When it comes to the topic of LGBTQ Catholics, the hierarchical “monologue” has dominated. Since the 1986 CDF instruction “On the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons” – issued at the height of the AIDS crisis – characterized homosexuality as a “more or less strong tendency towards an intrinsic moral evil” (namely, gay sex) any subsequent positive signs from church leaders have most often been met with an understandable degree of suspicion. The (in)famous Catechism pronouncement that such tendencies are “objectively disordered” (CCC 2358) has only solidified this awkwardness. I say “awkwardness” because it is awkward when one party insists on carrying out a conversation using negative language about their interlocutor.
And when, more recently, the Vatican issued a widely rejected responsum denying permission to priests who were administering blessings to same-sex Catholic couples, it really seemed as if the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was talking to itself. Critics focused on the responsum’s harsh language (“[God] does not and cannot bless sin”), but what was more often overlooked was that the document was produced in response to facts on the ground and that open defiance of the order continued after its publication. If anything, the dust-up only served to show how disconnected Rome has become on this issue.
But another monologue exists, as well. It’s the strained monologue of those Catholics who are critical of Church teaching on homosexuality but who have convinced themselves that a sea change is just around the corner. Inspired by various hints and guesses which have been dropped like breadcrumbs since the earliest days of the Francis pontificate, this guileless monologue also seems to be primarily carried on for its own sake.
Francis’ “Who am I to judge?” comment in 2013 kicked things off and set the tone: an offhand remark, germane primarily to another point, and amplified more through the breathless efforts of the secular media than the Vatican itself, it was nevertheless hailed as “revolutionary” and taken as evidence of a “shift,” an “enormous” opening, even a chance for “revitalizing [the] prospects [of] the Church” itself.
Of course, concrete doctrinal reforms were not and are not forthcoming.
Subsequent episodes repeated the pattern: approving comments about civil unions appeared in an independent documentary, only to be quickly walked back by the Vatican; Francis met privately with a gay couple during his trip to the US, and then the next day reportedly told Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who refused to grant marriage licenses to homosexuals, to “stay strong”; Francis’ injunction to “hospitality” in his 2020 encyclical Fratelli Tutti was read by some as an olive branch to LGBTQ Catholics, despite his quite plain insistence not four years earlier (in Amoris Laetitia) that “there are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family” (251, my italics). Again and again, the would-be “dialogue” boils down to coy winks and nods from Rome, but a true conversation remains unforthcoming.
So what might an adult conversation between the institutional Church and LGBTQ Catholics look like? Miranda Fricker, a philosopher who studies the problems of blame and forgiveness, has written about “hermeneutical injustice,” which is a phrase to describe what happens when one party in a dialogue has an important aspect of who they are or how they exist in the world “obscured” from understanding because of the presence of certain “prejudicial flaws” in the shared language being used by both parties. In this case, the language in question could refer to the magisterium’s theology of sex and gender, which, it must be said, has not heretofore been developed with the wellbeing or life experience of LGBTQ Catholics clearly in mind.
Would-be reformers like Fr. James Martin insist that any dialogue on this issue must start with mutual recognition of “respect” and dignity, but this is precisely what so many (I daresay most) gay Catholics feel is being denied them by their own Church. For instance, Fr. Martin has lately supported adjusting the Catechism language from “objectively disordered” to “differently ordered,” but it remains unclear how this change would overcome the existing prejudice or put the “dialogue” partners on an equal footing.
Repairing such hermeneutical injustices requires that the aggrieved party engages in acts of what Fricker calls “corrective self-assertion,” not that they work to justify themselves according to the prejudiced standard in question. This in turn requires recognizing that the preexisting rhetorical categories may be inappropriate both for carrying out the sort of dialogue that one wants to have and for imagining any compelling alternative.
For LGBTQ Catholics, such corrective self-assertion might take the form of an insistent, even dangerous, memory. For example, we remember the millions who have died of AIDS since the 1980s, and the many more stories of sacrifice, mercy, and indeed love that defined the gay experience during that time. Michael O’Loughlin’s upcoming book Hidden Mercy: AIDS, Catholics, and the Untold Stories of Compassion in the Face of Fear carries this dangerous memory beautifully, and for that reason does more to challenge the language of “objectively disordered” than the most subtle theological discourse could ever hope to do.
Corrective self-assertion might also come in the form of bold, first-person speech by those in a position of power or influence—gay priests, nuns, bishops (!), and laypeople who decline to live any longer in disembodied negative space that the Church has carved out for them. Self-outings by clerics remain exceedingly rare, but when they do occur, as in the case of Milwaukee’s Fr. Greg Greiten a few years back, the result is a more honest, more mature Church.
Dialogue without action is chatter; while dialogue without reflection is empty activism. In order for this particular conversation to prove truly transformative, new forms of speech—and new forms of listening—must be put into practice. Otherwise, our “intersecting monologues” will only serve to make us into increasingly bitter lovers, and the much-vaunted “dialogue” will amount to just so much empty noise.
—Travis LaCouter, July 23, 2021