As Australia’s Plenary Council Meets, the Role of LGBTQ People Is in Question

LGBTQ Catholics and allies in Australia are questioning whether their participation will be welcome in the country’s plenary council that held its first assembly this month.

To start, a bit of background. The Australian church is holding what is known as a plenary council. There are two different–and quite significant–aspects about a plenary council that make Australia worth watching. First, a plenary council’s participants include laity, as well as bishops, priests, and religious. Second, the decisions a plenary council makes are binding on Catholics once the Vatican approves of them. The first assembly took place October 3-10 after a multi-year consultation process with some 220,000 Catholics, and it will end in November 2022.

Gender and sexuality were two of the issues raised during the consultation. In an op-ed essay for ABC, Fr. Kevin McGovern, a priest involved with LGBTQ ministry for two decades, analyzed the plenary council’s approach thus far:

“Fear. Fear of being judged. Fear of rejection. Feelings of great vulnerability, of hanging onto their faith by a thread. These are very familiar emotions for LGBTIQA+ Catholics. But will the Plenary Council respond to their situation with understanding and mercy? I am sorry to report that, based on the Working Document for the Council, there is little to suggest that it will. This is particularly surprising because in the Listening and Dialogue Sessions which began the journey to the Plenary Council, ‘ending discrimination against LGBTI’ was a prominent issue.

“By the time the Working Document was released, however, this topic had all but disappeared. In this 69-page document, I can find only passing references to the issue. Paragraph 166 states, ‘Within the Catholic community, many voices call for [a] pastoral response of listening and dialogue … some Catholics call for greater inclusion of people of minority sexual orientations or racial identities.’ However, this call was interpreted as opposition to Church teaching. . .

“It is difficult not to feel that the expectations of so many Catholics who contributed to the Listening and Dialogue sessions have been betrayed.”

Despite his disappointment, McGovern does offer some possibilities for a course correction, including reflection on what the Catechism’s call to treat LGBTQ people with respect, compassion, and sensitivity means and what genuine listening and dialogue could do. He continues with an examination of how Australian Catholics could work within existing church teaching to ensure LGBTQ people have access to the sacraments, largely based on a respect for people’s consciences, though framed under the theological topic of ignorance. (For McGovern’s full analysis of this point which is too extended to include in this post, click here.) He concludes:

“I am disheartened by the limitations of the Working Document for the Plenary Council in its response to LGBTIQA+ Catholics. But I am not without hope. There is a mysterious energy which can transform synods and Plenary Councils. It is the Holy Spirit. May the Spirit inspire the Plenary Council to respect, compassion, and sensitivity to LGBTIQA+ Catholics. And may the concerns of all those who raised this issue in the Listening and Dialogue Sessions finally be heard.”

For further insights into the Plenary Council and LGBTQ issues, the Plenary Tracker series by Garratt Publishing hosted a conversation with Claire Victory, the national president of the St. Vincent de Paul Society; Benjamin Oh, founder and co-chair of Rainbow Catholics InterAgency; and Dr. Judith Norris, an LGBTQ scholar at Australian Catholic University. Their conversation is available here.

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, October 14, 2021

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