Can Church Teaching Change? LGBTQ+ Advocates Say Yes

Bishops seated at a session of the Second Vatican Council

“Can the church change?” That question is the headline of a new article in U.S. Catholic. Author Don Clemmer attempts to answer this question, which is often asked by many LGBTQ+ Catholics longing to see the church embrace more inclusive teachings.

Clemmer starts with clarifying definitions. Dogmas are “doctrines about concepts such as the trinity and the immaculate conception that the church has defined as being divinely revealed.” Doctrines outside of the “dogma” category can shift over time, and are “subject to developments in the church’s understanding.” Other teachings, like clerical celibacy, are mere disciplines that can change as needed.

“Perhaps the terminology of evolution is most helpful,” says Bishop John Stowe, OFM Cap., of Lexington, Kentucky. Clemmer quotes the bishop as saying, “We’re living with a 2,000-year-old institution that has to adapt itself to contemporary realities.” He emphasizes that the church evolves as it “responds prayerfully, pastorally, and appropriately” to those realities. Stowe added, “I hope nobody seriously believes that nothing can change.”

Clemmer gives numerous examples of changes in Catholic doctrine. During Francis’ papacy alone, such shifts have included welcoming civilly divorced and remarried Catholics to the Eucharist, updating the Catechism to declare the death penalty “inadmissable,” and, most recently, repudiating the “Doctrine of Discovery” which justified centuries of colonial conquest in the Americas. He says these examples show “a surprising flexibility in how the church relates to itself and its teachings.”

Pope Francis’ tenure has focused on pastoral openness to the experiences of others. Clemmer quotes Dominican Sister of Peace Luisa Derouen, a pioneer in ministry with the transgender community:

“Trans people who still cared about the institutional Catholic Church took courage from his [the pope’s] plea for a culture of encounter—to meet people where they are and recognize the presence of God in them.”

Ministries such as Derouen’s pave the way for the church to consider the needs of LGBTQ+ people, and eventually to reject exclusionary doctrines. Loving people on the margins is the first step in the process of change described by Annie Selak, a theologian and the associate director of the Georgetown University Women’s Center. Selak explains ,“Church teaching and church practice have a cyclical relationship. At its best…church teaching should reflect what is currently happening in the church.”

Of course, this mechanism of change is only effective if the church knows what is currently happening within it. The current Synod on Synodality signals Pope Francis’swillingness to listen to voices of ordinary Catholics, including those on the margins. Nichole Flores, associate professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia, says that for the church to change, “We have to change our horizon. We have to alter where we’re actually looking” to include people at the periphery of the church in our scope of consideration. “The listening actions of the synodal process are one stage, one kind of event that happens in that process. But…listening does not necessarily lead directly to change.”

Clemmer highlights a potential generational shift in the church, too, when it comes to church teaching and LGBTQ+ issues. He writes of Barb Kozee, a doctoral student at Boston College and contributor to Bondings 2.0:

“‘I don’t think I have any negative impressions of Catholicism,’ Kozee says of her personal experiences, which she also sees as nurtured by and contributing to the still-emerging fields of feminist and queer theology.

“‘The ability to embody these different images of what it means to be Catholic is one of the biggest gifts the shifts of Vatican II have given us,’ she says. ‘This new understanding of church is a huge, huge change that young people now are growing up with.’

Throughout history, church teaching has justified mental, emotional, and physical violence against untold numbers of LGBTQ+ people around the world. The church has a responsibility to listen to the cry of those affected, to recognize its role in this damage, and to change its teaching to correct the problems it has caused. History shows that such change is possible. May the church have the humility and openness to conversion to allow it to be so.

Ariell Watson Simon (she/her), New Ways Ministry, October 2, 2023

1 reply
  1. Dr Claire Jenkins
    Dr Claire Jenkins says:

    Having followed Bondings articles on the who’s who of the members of the upcoming Synod, there seems to be a high likelihood of male gay presence and some lesbians, however, there would appear to be no obvious trans presence. As a mature 74 year old well educated trans women I emailed the Pope to ask to be included. I did this so that a single trans voice could be heard from the periphery – no response.


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