Today’s post is a commentary from Brian Flanagan (he/him), a theologian and Senior Fellow at New Ways Ministry, on Pope Francis’ issuance of a document that allows some space for blessing same-gender couples in limited pastoral contexts. More details about the pope’s document and New Ways Ministry’s statement in response are available here.
Much of the news on Monday regarding Pope Francis’s response to five “dubia” or questions focused, rightly, on the opening that response suggested for possibly blessing persons in same-gender relationships. And yet, as important as that opening is for the immediate future of LGBTQ+ Catholics, the most important part of the responses released Monday for the future place of LGBTQ+ people in the Catholic Church doesn’t mention LGBTQ+ issues at all, even if they’re implied: namely, when the pope addresses some key theological and ecclesiological issues about the development of church teaching. Pope Francis strongly emphasizes the possibility of development of doctrine in a way that provides a foundation for further development of church teaching on LGBTQ+ people and our relationships.
As the Cardinals try to trap Pope Francis between two binary options in a question on “the claim that we should reinterpret Divine Revelation according to the cultural and anthropological changes in vogue,” they ask:
“After the statements of some Bishops, which have been neither corrected nor retracted, it is asked whether in the Church Divine Revelation should be reinterpreted according to the cultural changes of our time and according to the new anthropological vision that these changes promote; or whether Divine Revelation is binding forever, immutable and therefore not to be contradicted…”
Phrases like “cultural and anthropological changes in vogue”, “cultural changes of our time”, “new anthropological vision” imply that issues of sexuality and gender are likely at the forefront of the questioners’ minds.
The pope’s response robustly reaffirms the teaching of the Second Vatican Council that the church’s understanding of Divine Revelation in Scripture may “mature” (cf. Dei Verbum 12), that the church may stive “to reach an increasingly more profound understanding of the sacred scriptures” (Dei Verbum 23), and that if the church can mature in its understanding of the Scriptures it can also mature in its understanding of its own magisterial teaching. The Pope writes, “Therefore, while it is true that the Divine Revelation is immutable and always binding, the Church must be humble and recognize that she never exhausts its unfathomable richness and needs to grow in her understanding.”
In this way, the pope emphasizes that while the Word of God found in Scripture and Tradition is divinely revealed, the interpreters of that Word are not divine themselves. And so “both the texts of the Scripture and the testimonies of Tradition require interpretation in order to distinguish their perennial substance from cultural conditioning.” He gives as an example the change in how the church has understood slavery, and how that change has required reinterpretation of both scriptural texts and its own past magisterial statements. “This is not a minor issue,” he writes, “given its intimate connection with the perennial truth of the inalienable dignity of the human person. These texts need interpretation.”
This is where these issues go from being a matter for theoretical speculation among some nerdy theologians (guilty as charged) to having major implications for the life of the church. This is also, in my opinion, at the heart of ecclesial and theological opposition to Pope Francis’ vision for the church, to the Synod on Synodality, and to initiatives to listen better to the experiences of LGBTQ+ Catholics: Can the teaching of the church on a major issue of faith and morals develop and change?
With regard to LGBTQ+ issues, such development might derive not only or even primarily from “cultural and anthropological changes in vogue,” but from a greater understanding of the church’s teaching on “the inalienable dignity of the human person” on the telos of the human person, on the purposes of sexuality, and on the grace of gendered bodies. If the church, within what Pope Francis names “the rich and harmonious context of the entire Revelation,” can radically reinterpret scriptural passages and traditional teaching on the legitimacy of slavery, “not a minor issue,” then the door is open to crucial, careful dialogue on the role of LGBTQ+ in today’s world and church. 
The cardinals who wrote the dubia rightly recognize this, which is why this question is the basis for the further questions on LGBTQ+ people, women’s roles in the church, and synodality more broadly. The pope’s understanding of the teaching office expressed in his answers to this question gives me hope for the Synod on Synodality’s treatment of LGBTQ+ issues and for the long-term acceptance of LGBTQ+ persons and our relationships in the Catholic Church.
—Brian Flanagan (he/him), New Ways Ministry, October 4, 2023