Black Catholic Theology Can Break Church Impasse on LGBTQ+ Issues

Craig Ford, Jr.

Theologian Craig Ford Jr. has penned an essay on the Catholic Theological Ethics in the World Church website in which he analyzes how LGBTQ+ issues can be viewed through an African-American Catholic lens.

Ford notes in the essay that the Catholic dialogue surrounding LGBTQ+ issues has become less centered on ethical inquiry and more focused upon political divisions within the church: He explains:

“[I]t is becoming increasingly the case that the ethical discourse within our Church is becoming more colonized by the polarized nature of our political discourse. Dialogue is fraught, not least because the definitions we bring to core Gospel values diverge. When we say that we ‘love’ members of the LGBTQ+ community, for example, does this love require acceptance of their own self-understanding and of their families, or does love rather mean something along the lines of ‘loving the sinner, but hating the sin’? . . .

“It’s asking just these sorts of questions that has caused me to shift my attention from thinking only about producing arguments about ethical questions to thinking critically about the circumstances surrounding our ethical discourse itself. What are the facts on the ground that generate the context in which we produce our ethical arguments?”

Ford argues that Black Catholic theology, which understands what it is like for white scholars to comment upon Black lives, sheds light on the way that Christian leaders of past generations were similarly shaped by their lack of engagement with those who did not share their worldviews or experiences. He begins with the example of the current teaching of the institutional church on homosexuality, which is informed by Pope John Paul II’s theology of gender complementarity. This theology, Ford notes, leads to the “…the judgment that homosexual acts are gravely sinful because they offend this complementarity.”

Ford finds this outlook problematic from the lens of Black Catholic thought, and specifically struggles with the way in which a theology of gender complementarity requires that LGBTQ+ people take on a unique form of suffering which is not required of others. He reads both issues of sexuality and gender through this Black Catholic lens, writing first:

“As a moral theologian examining the structure of this discourse through an African American Catholic lens, I find myself very wary of positions taken that provide theological justification for the suffering experienced only by a subset of humankind—not least because such arguments were deployed around the existence of chattel slavery in the United States. Emboldened by specious theological anthropologies (like the one that explained the enslavement of blacks as a consequence of the ‘Curse of Ham’ in Genesis 9), writers like Jemar Tisby explain in devastating detail how white Christian slaveholders defended the practice of slavery on grounds that the dehumanizing experiences the slaves endured would ultimately redound to their moral benefit through their contact with a ‘nobler race.’ I would contend that there is an analogous situation here—not a perfect one, to be sure, but one that I think is illuminating nonetheless.”

The Catechism’s claim that a homosexual orientation is “objectively disordered” contrasts with the reality of many queer people who find this orientation “simply a part of their existence,” and the magisterium’s way of harmonizing the two is to cast gay people as suffering. Ford explains then:

“In other words, the suffering on the part of homosexual persons comes from managing their condition in light of the Gospel truth about who they are. And these sufferings can further united to Christ’s own in a way that gives salvific meaning to that suffering. By analogy, in the white Christian slaveholding imagination, the suffering endured by enslaved Africans comes from ‘managing’ their inferior condition after having come into contact with white evangelizing Christian slaveowners, who in turn help enslaved Africans put their suffering to good (salvific) use. But could it not perhaps be the case that, in both cases, their suffering comes not from their natural conditions but rather from having to endure teachings that are dehumanizing—teachings that anticipate and explain why these groups of people suffer?”

Ford also explores disputed questions over gender identity, drawing a comparison between the theological justifications for racial segregation with how church discussions about transgender people transpire today. In the most extreme cases, such as in the Diocese of Marquette, transgender people are being denied the sacraments entirely. Ford concludes:

“What the policies effectively produce is the segregation of transgender persons from Catholic spaces. And just as in the case of homosexuality considered above, such rules are once again applied to an aspect of their being that they experience as beyond their control. Unlike the state of discourse with respect to homosexuality, however, serious theological engagement with the experience of transgender persons is just emerging. (In fact, the first Vatican document engaging transgender identity was released only in 2019.) What we need to do in order to properly understand transgender experience is time, not separation. In the words of Pope Francis, we must build bridges, not walls.”

Ford ends his essay with a strong forecast. The church must either find a way to experience true relationships, both between ‘traditional’ and ‘progressive’ Catholics, and between Catholics and marginalized communities, or face rupture over LGBTQ+ issues:

“As debates about gender and sexuality continue to divide our Roman Catholic Church, will we find a different way?” 

If Catholics are going to recognize the dignity of LGBTQ+ people, theologians like Craig Ford Jr. will be an important component of the needed dialogue as they contribute to a vision of a church which embodies the universal love of God.

Andru Zodrow (he/him), New Ways Ministry, October 25, 2022

7 replies
    DON E SIEGAL says:

    Critical Thought in Dr. Ford’s Essay.

    “[Dr.] Ford ends his essay with a strong forecast. The church must either find a way to experience true relationships, both between ‘traditional’ and ‘progressive’ Catholics, and between Catholics and marginalized communities, or face rupture over LGBTQ+ issues:
    “‘As debates about gender and sexuality continue to divide our Roman Catholic Church, will we find a different way?’”

    Rupture is already beginning to happen. If the LGBTQ+ community does not get significant change in how the institutional church perceives and treats them as a result of the Synod on Synodality, that rupture is likely to widen.

    Cracks are already appearing in the synodal process as evidenced by the discord of the institutional church with the German conference of bishops over their own synodal process. Pope Francis has extended the Synod by an additional year for among other reasons there was poor participation during the listening sessions. (In the United States only approximately 700,000 Catholics participated out of some 63,000,000 Catholics in the U.S.)

    My Diocese of Fresno only had one sentence of no significant value in their synthesis of the listening sessions concerning the LGBTQ+ community. “In summary, there seems to be two definitions of Church: those who say that the Church does indeed journey together with those present at Mass and who participate in the community, and others who do not feel invited to be part of the community; especially the poor, those who do not speak English, divorced and separated, teens, young adults the elderly, and the LGBTQ+ community.”

    Even though our bishop broadly supported the listening process and gave each parish great supporting resources (Synod resources were available in English and Spanish, and the Synod questions were available in English, Spanish, Vietnamese, and Portuguese), yet most of our parishes did not have listening sessions because the parish pastors did not support them.

  2. Debra Kowalczyk
    Debra Kowalczyk says:

    This was very informative and a great comparison. I agree that these ways of.thinking are similar…great idea to compare. It really brings the message home. Suffering is not ok for anyone for any reason!!

  3. Duane Sherry
    Duane Sherry says:

    This church better get its act together–quickly–or it’s going to undergo a *third* major schism, no less influential than the breaks with the Eastern Church and Protestants.

    Jesus of Nazareth said the “gates of hell” would not prevail against his church. He did not say we humans wouldn’t break it to pieces along the way.

  4. Jim Gerardi
    Jim Gerardi says:

    The most cogent analysis I’ve seen yet of the
    origins and impact of the church’s teaching on homosexuality. The analogy with the church’s take on enslavement is illuminating.


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