Today’s post is from Bondings 2.0 contributor Lisa Fullam, D.V.M., Th.D., professor emerita, Jesuit School of Theology of Santa Clara University. Lisa’s previous posts on the blog are available here.
Pope Francis has voiced hopeful stances recently regarding the status of LGBTQ+ people in the Church. He must do more.
Among his hope-inspiring acts are these two. First, in a thoughtful response to questions thrown his way by five cardinals, he took up the question of blessing same-sex relationships. He reaffirmed the Church’s definition of marriage and warned against acts that “imply that it is recognizing as a marriage something that is not.” But, he said, “in dealing with people, we must not lose pastoral charity…the defense of objective truth is not the only expression of this charity, which is also made up of kindness, patience, understanding, tenderness, and encouragement.”
The Pope then says that “pastoral prudence must adequately discern whether there are forms of blessing, requested by one or more persons, that do not convey a mistaken concept of marriage.” He spoke of situations that are “not morally acceptable,” but may involve “people whose guilt or responsibility may be mitigated by various factors.” He said “pastoral prudence” might allow blessing people in such circumstances, though it should never be raised to the level of a diocesan norm.
But here’s the problem. “Pastoral prudence” ducks the real question. In his response to the dubia (the Latin word for the questions asked by the five cardinals), Francis reaffirms the theology of marriage that excludes same-gender couples, implicitly affirming the magisterial sexual ethics that declares their intimate relationships to be sinful. Instead of confronting the theology that underlies Church teaching on sex, he portrays LGBTQ+ people as impaired or broken and unable to live up to that teaching. He seems not to be cognizant of a great deal of careful theological work over the last century or so that provides a more humane and scientifically sound approach to human sexuality than current magisterial teaching does. When Francis appeals to “pastoral prudence,” he makes a basic mistake: he leaves unchallenged a theology that justifies the ecclesial cruelty that still rules official magisterial teaching on sexuality.
Then he makes it worse. When Francis explicitly forbids diocesan norms allowing blessings of same-gender couples, he leaves it up to individual priests to decide on their own to bless queer couples or not. Since the Pope refuses to endorse a renewed theology of sexuality (or even a plurality of licit stances on matters of sexual ethics) and prohibits episcopal policies to support blessings of same-gender couples, priests who choose to stand with queer couples are vulnerable to attack from the public (and other priests) and attacks and punishments from their own (or other) bishops. He invites priests to consider that it might be a good idea to bless same-gender couples, then makes it absolutely clear that he does not have their backs and disallows their bishops from standing with them openly, as a matter of diocesan policy.
This “pastoral prudence” stance also would tend to push such blessings underground instead of being public. But isn’t a declaration that, with God’s help, two people pledge to care for each other forever worthy of public celebration? Reform of Church practice should not be accomplished by leaving individual priests in the crosshairs of homophobes armed with a tired, obsolete sexual ethics.
Francis’ second noteworthy act was to meet with Sr. Jeannine Gramick and three staff members of the New Ways Ministry in a cordial and affirming dialogue built on a longer correspondence. Such a meeting—at least such a meeting that didn’t culminate in papal censure, silencing or condemnation–will one day be seen as a watershed moment in the history of LGBTQ+ equality in the Church. Francis would do well to learn from their example. For decades, Sr. Gramick and New Ways Ministry have been clear where they stand, and what they stand for: the equal dignity of all of God’s people in life and in love. They have borne magisterial censure and the disdain of Catholic trolls with equanimity, faithfulness, and joy. Why can’t the Pope take a similar stand?
The silence on issues relating to LGBTQ+ Catholics in the report from the Synod on Synodality, then, is no surprise. The Pope won’t take a stand himself, and forbids dioceses from establishing policies on blessing same-sex couples—why shouldn’t the Synod delegates also maintain a similar delicate silence hiding behind the hurtful and outdated status quo?
—Lisa Fullam, November 7, 2023