ROUNDTABLE: Has Church Made a “Decisive Shift” on LGBTQ Issues? — Part I

Christopher Lamb, The Tablet’s Vatican correspondent, recently suggested that, in light of recent actions, the Catholic Church had begun to “decisively shift its approach on LGBTQ matters.”

Acknowledging that no change in official teaching has happened, Lamb highlighted numerous positive incidents the past months: personnel changes in the Curia, Pope Francis’ laudatory letter to Sr. Jeannine Gramick, and the posting of New Ways Ministry’s materials on the Synod office’s website following an apology from that office for initially removing said materials. In Lamb’s estimation, these happenings are significant, and he concludes that, “When it comes to LGBT Catholics, the tree is slowly being pruned and starting to bear new fruit.”

Is Lamb’s view shared by others? Bondings 2.0 asked ten leading voices in the LGBTQ Catholic world to respond to Lamb’s suggestion. We asked them to answer either or both of the following questions:

  1. Do you agree that there is significant change happening in the church in regard to LGBTQ issues?  Why or why not?
  2. Whether or not you believe that change is happening, do you have hope for change or further change in the near future?

Today, we offer the first five responses of this virtual “roundtable”. Tomorrow, we will post the second five responses. We have listed the respondents in alphabetical order according to last name. Each writer was given a 350-word limit.

After reading the Lamb article and the responses, we invite you to offer your own thoughts on these questions in the “Comments” section of this blog post.  To read Part II of this Roundtable, click here

Fr. James Alison

James Alison is a priest and theologian living in Spain.

I agree that significant change is happening in the Church in regard to LGBTQ issues. It’s easier to see this change outside the English-speaking world, because so much of the US hierarchy is in paralysis owing to that change. In the Spanish-speaking world the greater relaxedness of high-ranking clergy about the realisation that the old definitions just don’t work, and that solutions like conversion therapy, or twelve-step abstinence groups, are not the way ahead, is ever more evident.

Just recently the conservative Bishop of Tenerife apologised to LGBTI people (using those initials rather than “homosexuals”) for his ill thought-through characterisation of us, a first. The President of the Mexican Bishops is an open ally among several other bishops in that country.

More broadly, in continental Europe things are obviously shifting, not only in Germany, with its synodal process, but also in countries like Belgium, Austria, Switzerland, Malta. In Italy, LGBT communities of believers are flourishing, with considerable Episcopal backing. The President of the European Bishops, Cardinal Hollerich, made some remarkably sensible comments in a recent interview in La Croix. Fear, which has been at the heart of the Church’s approach to LGBTQ issues since Pope Paul VI, is clearly subsiding.

So yes, I do have hope for further change in the near future. Pope Francis understands very clearly that relationality is prior to reason: it is through knowing each other, not abstract ideas, that we can move on. The first thing is to allow the fear to subside, allow some of the more ostentatious and cruel closeted prelates to retire, appoint generally sensible successors and encourage accompaniment and listening. Thus reality continues to break through the abstract scheme that treated us as defective heterosexuals.

There is a genuine recognition that the failure to get real about matters gay has cost the Church a generation of young people. So, the adjustment to the reality of people who simply will not accept false premises about their LGBT friends has to be done sooner rather than later. And yes, I will be keeping my eye out for the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith being invited to change their tune.

Ruby Almeida

Ruby Almeida, United Kingdom, is the co-chair of the Global Network of Rainbow Catholics.

The many, sometimes small, positive statements that Pope Francis has uttered about LGBT+ people have created a positive and fertile ground for beginning to address the marginalised and much maligned LGBT+ person of faith. Sometimes, the Pope has been exasperating with his one step forward and two steps back style of some of his statements. But I do believe that even this method has raised the complex, and urgent needs of the LGBT+ persons, and kept our realities and desires as faithful people in the forefront of the public’s consciousness.

Before Pope Francis, we were kept at arm’s length or were made invisible from Church life. Now I feel the ripples of the waves emanating from the Pope’s statements, amplified each time there is another mention of an LGBT+ person.  Today, hostile utterances against us as a community are met with derision and disdain by society at large. The old ways of demonising, ostracising and victimising and seeing the LGBT+ person as a one dimensional person focused on sexual predation are dying, and now, quite rightly, the LGBT+ person is being seen as a person just like anyone else who deserves a place at the table as one of God’s own children.

The drip, drip effect of positivity about the LGBT+ person that is steadily coming out of the Vatican is what most people have always known about their gay uncle, dad, sister, son, neighbour, whom they love and who they know are good, ordinary people just like them. The judgements of a person purely on the basis of sexuality is prurient and ‘God awful’. It is gratifying to see that the Church hierarchy is being forced to learn from the many honest to goodness, ordinary people. Long may it continue.

Michael Brinkschröder

Dr. Michael Brinkschröder is a theologian and sociologist, and co-chair of the Catholic LGBT+ Committee in Germany.

The pastoral needs of LGBTIQ people have been a relevant issue for Pope Francis from the beginning of his pontificate. Knowing well how divisive the moral and theological questions related to it could become in the global church, he started by giving lots of examples of pastoral care for individual LGBTIQ people. Only recently, he has added to this his explicit personal support for such organisations like New Ways Ministry and high-profiled religious like James Martin and Jeannine Gramick in the US or Mónica Astorga Cremona in Argentina who are committed to such pastoral ministry on the ground.

His personal example as a role-model and his official recommendations to become a welcoming church have paved the way in many dioceses to set up LGBTIQ pastoral outreach. In Germany alone, the number of such pastoral outreach programs has tripled during his pontificate and is still growing.

All this is already a change in itself, because it signals welcoming, inclusion, and non-discrimination instead of exclusion, rejection and discrimination. But is it significant? As long as the traditional doctrine as it is summarized in the Catechism is still valid, the pastoral outreach can only try to heal some of the wounds that the church herself has struck. As long as the Vatican’s Curial congregations interdict blessing liturgies for same-sex couples or reject the transition of trans people and demand genital surgery for intersex children, I don’t think that the personal role-model of Pope Francis alone can bring significant change.

As long as the Ghanaian Catholic Bishops’ Conference pushes a bill that tramples down the human rights of LGBTIQ people in their country and no high-ranking Vatican official speaks out against this criminalization in the name of Catholic social ethics, I don’t see significant change.

An understanding of LGBTIQ pastoral care as limited to providing a place at the table and healing wounds, is not enough in the long run. What is needed is a critical, radical understanding of pastoral which challenges and overcomes those doctrines that stand against the inclusive gospel of Jesus. The global Synod which our church is currently undergoing. opens the space to raise such questions.

Marianne Duddy-Burke

Marianne Duddy-Burke is the executive director of DignityUSA. 

Let’s be clear: changes in how the Catholic Church deals with LGBTQ people have been underway for decades. These changes have been driven by courageous and generous LGBTQ people, family members, friends, and frontline ministers.

These people have also challenged the harmful teachings and discriminatory practices that characterize institutional Roman Catholicism. Some church leaders have long helped to foster these changes, but only a few among the hierarchy. Efforts by some hierarchical leaders are certainly welcome, but we must acknowledge that the people of the church have been driving moves towards greater justice, equality, and inclusion–and church leaders have lots of catching up to do.

Pope Francis has made some positive contribution by creating a climate that has encouraged debate and diversity, and decreasing the threats of punishment against those who question or disagree with official teaching. His positive personal recognition of some engaged in what many LGBTQ people find to be supportive ministry, his willingness to engage with LGBTQ individuals, and his use of colloquial terms for gay people are notable changes from prior popes.

Yet, he continues to use pejorative language about transgender and nonbinary people, and he has yet to change any of the teachings that demean LGBTQ people’s dignity and contribute to the violence, discrimination, and systemic oppression we face to differing degrees worldwide.

As long as church teaching indicates that LGBTQ people fall short of God’s plan if they lead full, rich lives, we will continue to face religiously sanctioned discrimination, such as: hearing sermons depicting us as depraved sinners, being banned from sacraments in some places, getting fired or stripped of ministerial roles, being denied affirming medical care and social services from some Catholic providers, experiencing repression at some Catholic schools, being prevented from forming families, being refused attempts to change our identities or from entering into intimate relationships, seeing governments implement laws that limit our human rights, and not being fully welcomed or affirmed in our faith communities.

But brave, generous, loving and faith-filled people will continue to work for all of this to change, as they always have.

Craig Ford

Craig A. Ford, Jr. is an assistant professor of theology and religious studies at St. Norbert College, DePere, Wisconsin.

It is difficult to disagree with Christopher Lamb’s analysis of Pope Francis’ ministry to LGBTQ people. Lamb accurately locates the central engine room by which Francis seeks to implement change: conversation. The pope wants us to think not primarily via doctrines, but via relationships. He wants us to tone down rhetoric and postures that are alienating, and, in their place, issue invitations to accompany one another across the vastly different experiences we have in this difficult world. Indeed, as Francis has said in so many other contexts, we must seek to build bridges, not walls. Lamb captures all of this well, and his examples—everything from the pope’s letters to Fr. James Martin and Sister Jeannine Gramick to the Vatican’s inclusion of New Ways Ministry in the Synod process to Francis’s reassignment of Archbishop Giacomo Morandi—are helpful in persuading us.

One slight change of emphasis I would suggest is that Francis‘ pastoral approach to LGBTQ people does not leave doctrine unaffected. He is not that short-sighted. Instead, Francis is seeking to forge at the highest level of church authority a new ecclesial identity. We should recognize this move for exactly what Francis’s detractors take it to be: the beginning of substantive change that will eventually lead to shifts in doctrine. Pope Francis, in other words, is playing the long game. That’s why so many people with their cries of “doctrinal confusion” and “heresy” want to shut this process down before it has the opportunity to gain momentum.

But Pope Francis is not the Church, and he cannot do this alone. And at the venerable age of 85, Francis won’t be able to continue this work for too much longer. These realities press us to ask discomforting questions: Has Francis laid a solid enough foundation so that other leaders can build upon it, or will it simply be taken down in a new papacy? And, most importantly, will we—the rest of the Church— not lose faith in Pope Francis’s vision and work in our parishes and dioceses to bring it about? Who will play the long game with Francis? What shape doctrinal change will take in our Church in a very real way depends on us.

Tomorrow, Bondings 2.0 will feature responses from five more leaders. To receive the latest in Catholic LGBTQ news, opinion, and spirituality delivered daily to your email, subscribe to the blog by clicking here.

Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, February 1, 2022

5 replies
  1. Thomas Ellison
    Thomas Ellison says:

    Perhaps there is a shift toward being more engaging, thoughtful and inclusive regarding the LGBT population,but it is coming from entities other than the USCCB.

  2. Susan M. Grimes
    Susan M. Grimes says:

    I find it comforting that Fr. Alison reports a more progressive mind-set in Europe; with the awful performance of the USCCB and the actions of some African nations, it is sometimes difficult to remain hopeful. I just hope that Pope Francis lives a long time yet and continues to “play the long game” as Prof. Ford says.

  3. John Hilgeman
    John Hilgeman says:

    Francis needs to continue putting into place bishops and cardinals whose minds are open enough to LGBTQ people, to not only keep the gains made during his papacy, but to expand the gains so they are not lost with a new pope or hierarchy.

    Meanwhile, the main changes are taking place on the ground level with the openness of LGBTQ people and allies. I don’t see pressure from the bulk of the church waning. Ideally, new priests, bishops and cardinals will rise from the community as a whole.

    There is another matter that needs to evolve. And that is a clearer understanding of gender, and an integration of women and transgender people at all levels of the church. There should be no ministries in the church that are automatically out of reach for or forbidden to anyone solely on the basis of gender.

    Nor should marital status be a bar to ministry in any capacity.

  4. Duane Sherry
    Duane Sherry says:

    I’m encouraged by some of the slow progress being made, but not convinced things will change in the near future.

    With that being said, I’m confident with the long run, because the current hierarchy is getting older, retiring, passing away–and Generation Y and Z are on the sidelines.

    They will change the game for two reasons: (A) Their generation is not hung up on gender identity or sexual orientation, and (B) They aren’t going to tolerate this stuff anymore!

  5. Fr. James Piszker
    Fr. James Piszker says:

    While I appreciate the small but steady inroads that Pope Francis has made during his tenure, bear in mind that they are all pastorally based. He has done nothing as far as doctrine and frankly I don’t see him doing anything which would only create a firestorm within conservative quarters of the Church. That being said, I believe he is “seed planting” with the hope for more significant change by his successors. Also, people have to appreciate that this is as much a moral challenge as it is a doctrinal one. Rule one is that the Church cannot live one’s life for them. At some point, people have to choose to live a life of authenticity and not wait for the Church to “okay” their choices. Deep down, I believe, reasoned members of the hierarchy know this. They just won’t say it publicly because it smacks of “relativism.” What is ironic is that Catholic moral theology is relative and it always has been.


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