Can LGBTQ Catholics Point the Church Toward Unity?
October 8, 2023
Today the Catholic Church embarks upon a worldwide synodal journey. Around the world, synodal reports have revealed a desire among Catholics to extend greater welcome and acceptance to LGBTQ persons within the Church. The working document for the Synod lists LGBTQ Catholics among those who “do not feel accepted in the Church” and asked participants to propose “concrete steps” that can be taken to welcome LGBTQ persons.
Despite these widespread sentiments, others in Church express a sense of unease, tension, and even anger. They warn that an acceptance of LGBTQ Catholics will generate confusion and create an irreparable fracture with those Catholics who insist that LGBTQ relationships and identities are always and everywhere unnatural and immoral. These expressions of fear might lead Catholics to an honest examination of the disunity already experienced within the Church.
Scores of LGBTQ people who were baptized and confirmed Catholics no longer belong to Catholic parishes, receive the sacraments, or otherwise participate in the visible life of the Church. Other LGBTQ Catholics remain committed to the Church, often at a great personal cost. Many Catholics today speak about LGBTQ persons as they might speak about political adversaries, rather than siblings in Christ. Some assume that LGBTQ persons subsist in a permanent state of mortal sin or dissent. In a clear reference to LGBTQ Catholics, Archbishop Samuel Aquila of Denver concluded, “...someone who lives in a particular way, whether it be in willing violation of the natural law or some other moral category, is not in communion with the Church.” Categorical judgments such as these carry in themselves serious implications for the Church’s unity.
Cardinal Robert McElroy of San Diego pointed out what LGBTQ Catholics intuitively know: that there exists a “profound and visceral animus” toward them.
LGBTQ Catholics know intimately the cost of disunity in the Church because they experience its effects in a profound, damaging, and immediate way. The wider Church too bears this cost in the loss of spiritual gifts that LGBTQ Catholics offer. Those who wish to continue on the current course in service of the Church’s unity would do well to recognize that the disunity they fear already exists widely. The message that LGBTQ Catholics so often receive from other members of our Church echoes the tragic words against which St. Paul cautioned: “I have no need of you” (1 Cor. 12:21).
But even in the midst of disunity, the ongoing presence of LGBTQ Catholics in the life of the Church opens a surprising door for strengthening the Church’s unity in our own era.
It goes without saying that LGBTQ Catholics are members of the Body of Christ–and have been from the Church’s earliest days. There are endless examples of LGBTQ Catholics who serve the Church and their communities selflessly. The relationships of countless same-sex couples and their families reflect the values of sacramentality and Christian family living. LGBTQ Catholics around the world have sought to know and follow the call of Christ in their lives. In their synodal report, members of the Global Network of Rainbow Catholics wrote: “We express deep love for the church’s sacraments, find inspiration in the lives of saints who persisted in faith despite extraordinary trials, and have great respect for the priests, women religious, and lay leaders of the church.” Already, LGBTQ Catholics seek to maintain their membership in the Body of Christ and serve Christ in the world. Even the Church’s own teaching office notes in same-sex couples the presence of “positive elements, which are in themselves to be valued and appreciated.”
The enduring presence and loyalty of LGBTQ Catholics in the Church, even in the face of rejection, is surely remarkable and certainly the work of the Holy Spirit. Early in his pontificate, Pope Francis reflected, “the unity brought by the Spirit can harmonize very diversity. It overcomes every conflict by creating a new and surprising synthesis” (EG, 230). The path to unity is already open for the Church.
The teaching of the Second Vatican Council urged: “Christ summons the Church to continual reformation as she sojourns here on earth” (UR, 6). Through their synodal contributions, Catholics from around the world have called for greater inclusivity of LGBTQ Catholics. Can the bishops detect in these calls the need for an examination of conscience and a call to conversion?
The Synod of Bishops is unlikely to settle every question related to LGBTQ Catholics in the next two years. However, the Synod could reasonably recommend several steps toward welcoming LGBTQ Catholics, which would open doors to further discernment and a strengthening of the Church’s unity.
The Synod could begin by acknowledging that most bishops and priests have much to learn about the spiritual, sexual, and moral lives of LGBTQ Catholics. The Synod might expand previous reflections on the personal dignity of LGBTQ persons to include an affirmation of the particular dignity of Christian baptism that is theirs. The Synod might express a sense of sorrow at the fact that many LGBTQ Catholics remain estranged from the Church. It can acknowledge the absence of the spiritual gifts these Catholics would otherwise bring to the whole Church. The Synod could also affirm the recent magisterium of Pope Francis, which opposes criminalizing the relationships and identities of LGBTQ persons. None of these steps ought to be particularly controversial.
Going forward, the Synod of Bishops could recommend a targeted, organized, and transparent process for LGBTQ Catholics to be heard by local bishops and by officials in Rome in the years ahead. The Synod might acknowledge that the LGBTQ community can be of service to the Church in its learning and discernment. We know that the Holy Spirit knows no bounds.
For dialogue with LGBTQ Catholics to occur freely, Rome will need be to be clear that Catholics are free to express their thoughts on this topic without fear of punishment when those thoughts are offered sincerely in service of the Church. LGBTQ Catholics must also be free of discrimination in Catholic parishes, schools, and other institutions. The absence of LGBTQ Catholics from these spaces prevents members of the Church from encountering and knowing one another as siblings in Christ.
It is also possible for the Synod to suggest updates to the universal catechism. For the time being, the catechism might humbly confess that the Church has more questions than it does answers on topics of sexuality and gender–and that it is on a path of discernment with its LGBTQ members. Should such a step seem too bold, we might consider that the catechism already admits a dearth of knowledge on the topic of sexual orientation. We might also recognize that the catechism was already once revised on this exact topic in 1997.
These proposals would serve to encourage a true and ongoing synodal journey on the important topics of gender and sexual orientation. For many decades LGBTQ Catholics have been discerning their spiritual, sexual, and moral lives–both individually and in community. The bishops and the wider Church are now invited to join this pathway of discernment. While no one person or group can fully represent the voice of the Holy Spirit, we do know that “each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Cor. 12:7). This includes millions of LGBTQ Catholics.
In any event, the bishops should be reminded that the concerns of LGBTQ Catholics are not ideological, theoretical, or peripheral. They impact millions of Catholics and their families in a way that is personal, immediate, and of daily consequence. And perhaps more importantly, these concerns strike at the very heart of what it means to be a Church that is one and catholic.
As LGBTQ Catholics and our bishops walk together on the path of discernment ahead, we might be cautioned that discernment is not to be mistaken for inaction or idle delay. And admittedly, a true openness to the movement of the Holy Spirit may also yield further developments that no one can anticipate or propose now.
Truly the uneasy relationship between LGBTQ Catholics and others within the Church represents a painful fracture within the Body of Christ today. But already, we witness the seeds of consensus and unity, even if a clearer vision has yet to emerge. A reading of the national and continental syntheses reveals the presence of Catholics on every continent who seek to welcome and include LGBTQ persons in the life of the Church. LGBTQ Catholics themselves testify to the work of the Holy Spirit already present in their lives. Could it be the Holy Spirit’s great surprise that LGBTQ Catholics become a sign and instrument of the Church’s unity in this century?