Who’s Prodigal Now? Queer People Need to Know

“The Return of the Prodigal Son” by
Vladimir Zunuzin

Today’s reflection is by Bondings 2.0 contributor Allison Connelly, whose bio is available here.

Today’s liturgical readings for the Fourth Sunday of Lent can be found here.

Often, we refer to the main character of this Sunday’s Gospel parable as “the Prodigal Son.” Because I was curious, I looked up the Merriam-Webster dictionary definition of the adjective “prodigal.” The first two definitions made sense to me, at least in the context of this parable: the first definition is “characterized by profuse or wasteful expenditure,” and the second is “recklessly spendthrift.” Both of these definitions fit with the way this parable had been explained to me: as the son being wasteful and reckless with his resources.

A third definition of “prodigal” in the dictionary surprised me: “yielding abundantly: LUXURIANT.” With this definition, my understanding of this story shifted.

As a young, queer, Catholic woman, I am told constantly – explicitly or implicitly – that I am wasteful, or, at least, that I’m a waste. I’m a wasted opportunity for heterosexual marriage. I’m a wasted opportunity for procreation. I’m a wasted vocation to religious life. I’m wasted dollars in the pocket of the archbishop. I’ve wasted my opportunity to be a docile, compliant, and obedient Catholic because I refuse to conform to homophobic, misogynist teachings of the institutional church. Instead, I publicly claim my sacredness, sacramentality, and holiness as a married, lesbian Catholic woman. Queer Catholics, from the perspective some in the hierarchy, are totally prodigal – but only in the first two definitions of that word.

For me, though, I find true queerness not in the first two definitions, but in the third in its reference to abundance and luxury. We, LGBTQ folks of all kinds, KNOW luxury, and not necessarily the kind that requires wealth. We know the luxury of fashion! Music! Art! Creativity! Style! Performance! Ritual! Poetry! Dance! Maybe it’s cliche, but when I think luxury I think drag queens, faces beat for the gods, changing wigs mid-lip sync, choreography filled with death-drops and gown reveals.

Our queer community knows abundance, too: abundance that comes not from financial resources, which we are so often denied, but from loyalty, commitment, passion, solidarity, relationship, collaboration, transformation, accountability, growth, possibility, and the fullest range of human emotion. Rather than being a waste, queer people are resources of brilliance and luxury and abundance.

From that perspective, I read the parable of the prodigal son again. What if, instead of the son representing the fiscally irresponsible, the son represents the pastorally irresponsible? The son demands his inheritance from his father at a young age – the way some church leaders demand compliance and “conversion” from queers at a young age (and at all ages, really). The son wastes his resources recklessly the way the Church wastes the full humanity and participation of queer folk by producing and reifying theology and politics that cause harm and violence to the LGBTQ community. And after the son spends all his resources, he finds himself in a famine. So, too,  does the church as it excludes the LGBTQ community (and other marginalized groups) and then finds that people are leaving the church because of institutional homophobia. The relationship between the institutional hierarchy of the Catholic Church and LGBTQ people is filled with (maybe even defined by) wastefulness and recklessness – but not on the part of the queers. I have to wonder: who’s prodigal now? And by whose definition?

The second part of the parable in today’s Gospel, when the son comes to his senses and returns to his father, also has a lesson. If the leadership of the institutional Church is the prodigal son figure, we have to leave open the possibility of repentance, return, and repair. What would happen if the Church repented of its homophobia? If Church leaders returned, apologizing to those they had harmed, as Cardinal Marx in Germany recently did? If they sought repair, turning to a life of service and witness for those whom they had left behind?

In honesty, I cannot promise that I would greet these Church leaders with love and generosity, with celebration and rejoicing . Perhaps I would be more like the prodigal son’s brother, shocked and bitter at his father’s compassion and relief, wondering why I had not been celebrated for my faithfulness during all these years of theological and pastoral neglect. But this repentance, return, and repair is possible. In fact, it is necessary —not only for the future of the Church, but for its integrity, its authority, and its abundant, luxurious prodigality.

Allison Connelly, March 27, 2022

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