News Analysis

A Vatican opening on sexuality worries conservatives — and cheers reformers

The Vatican City flag, left, and a pride flag. Images courtesy of Creative Commons

VATICAN CITY (RNS) — Did a just-concluded meeting of Catholic bishops here open the door to rethinking Catholic teaching on homosexuality?

The question was unexpectedly left hanging in the wake of the final report of the Vatican’s synod on young people, which ended Sunday (Oct. 28). Produced in a unique collaboration between 249 bishops and some three dozen young adults, the approved summary of the proceedings nonetheless had offered a rather diluted and uninspiring welcome to LGBT Catholics.

But as happened in the previous two synods called by Pope Francis to promote a more consultative form of Catholic governance, sex – in particular homosexuality – became a flashpoint.

In fact, conservatives inside the synod hall, aided by conservative Catholic media outlets that amplified their views, waged an intense campaign to excise any mention of the acronym “LGBT” or the word “gay” from the final document. The traditionalists, who ultimately succeeded, argued that both terms would have effectively validated homosexuality and thus could undermine Catholic teaching against same-sex relationships.

Yet their victory may prove to be more semantic than substantive. The problem for the conservatives lies in the first line of the relevant section of the final document. It reads:

“There are questions related to the body, to affectivity and to sexuality that require a deeper anthropological, theological and pastoral exploration, which should be done in the most appropriate way, whether on a global or local level. Among these, those that stand out in particular are those relative to the difference and harmony between male and female identities and sexual inclinations.”

Translation: The Catholic hierarchy is acknowledging that the church needs to update its understanding of the science of sex and gender, and that also means updating the church’s theology on sexuality and its ministry to gay people.

The rest of the passage on homosexuality did seek to reassure traditionalists by reaffirming the “determinative” church view on “the difference and reciprocity between man and woman,” and the passage said it was “reductive to define a person’s identity solely on the basis of their sexual orientation.”

But that first line, inviting “a deeper anthropological, theological and pastoral exploration,” worried enough bishops that the section on sexuality passed by just two votes out of 230 cast.

“This document opens up so many minefields,” the conservative website, LifeSiteNews, quoted a synod source saying.

Afterward, the opponents’ worries only grew.

Archbishop of Philadelphia Charles Chaput at the Vatican on Sept. 16, 2014. Photo by Tony Gentile/Reuters

This section is one of the most “subtle and concerning” problems in the entire document, Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput, a member of the U.S. delegation and a leader of the conservative faction, told the National Catholic Register.

The Catholic Church “already has a clear, rich, and articulate Christian anthropology,” Chaput told the Register. “It’s unhelpful to create doubt or ambiguity around issues of human identity, purpose, and sexuality, unless one is setting the stage to change what the church believes and teaches about all three, starting with sexuality.”

Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, which advocates for LGBT Catholics, rarely agrees with churchmen like Chaput. But on this point they were in sync:

“The statement acknowledges that the church still has a lot to learn about sexuality,” DeBernardo, wrote in a blog post after the synod.

Certainly, the Catholic research on homosexuality could use an update.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church, the official compendium of church doctrine developed during the 1980s, refers to homosexuality as a “psychological” condition whose “genesis remains largely unexplained.” But explanations of the origins of homosexual orientation – as well as gender dysphoria – have advanced quite a bit in the intervening years. And though the roots of sexual identity are complex, reducing them to a purely psychological cause is considered obsolete and, advocates say, dangerous.

Ignoring biological and other factors can, for example, depict sexual orientation as a matter of willpower or a form of mental illness that can be addressed by gay “conversion” or “reparative” therapies aimed at turning homosexuals into heterosexuals, advocates and health researchers say. That practice is considered so harmful – as well as ineffective and ethically wrong – that many states are banning it.

But while the leading official Catholic ministry to gay people, the Courage apostolate, has largely moved away from reparative therapy language – it promotes a chaste life as the only virtuous option for gay people – Catholic terminology on sexual identity remains confusing and often contradictory.

A 2005 Vatican document, for example, calls on bishops to bar men from the priesthood if they have “deep-seated homosexual tendencies,” a vague phrase that provides no guidance on what “deep-seated” or “tendency” means.

Cardinals, top with red caps, and bishops attend a Mass celebrated by Pope Francis for the closing of the monthlong synod of bishops, inside St. Peter’s Basilica, at the Vatican, on Oct. 28, 2018. (Claudio Peri/Pool Photo via AP)

To see how tortured the discourse has become, it’s enough to watch Catholic leaders struggle when referring to gay people at all. “Same-sex attracted” is one option, though not among gay people themselves. Many Catholic leaders still talk about homosexuality as a choice or a lifestyle and – as conservatives at this recent synod argued – they reject the very concept of a “sexual orientation” as an ideological construct that has no basis in biology or God’s plan for complementary sexes.

“There is no such thing as an ‘LGBTQ Catholic’ or a ‘transgender Catholic’ or a ‘heterosexual Catholic,’ as if our sexual appetites defined who we are,” Chaput declared in a controversial speech to the synod. “It follows that ‘LGBTQ’ and similar language should not be used in church documents, because using it suggests that these are real, autonomous groups, and the church simply doesn’t categorize people that way.”

Gay, transgender and even most straight Catholics would disagree. So would more bishops than one might suspect. Which is why the opening provided by the synod document is potentially momentous.

“The fact is that there are many voices on issues of sexuality present in the magisterium (official church teaching) and among the bishops themselves,” the Rev. Bryan Massingale, a theologian at Fordham University in New York, wrote in an email. “That is what this synod and those of 2014 and 2015 revealed – that the magisterium is no longer of one mind when it comes to the official teachings on human sexuality in general, and same-sex morality in particular.”

The Rev. Bryan Massingale at Fordham University. Photo by Bruce Gilbert, courtesy of Fordham University

“The great contribution of these synods is that the bishops, who previously had been chosen in large part for their ability to stifle dissent, are now being given permission – and even encouragement – to enter into the discussion and debate on human sexuality that the rest of the church has been having for the past 50 years,” said Massingale, who specializes in theological ethics.

Massingale said it is clear that the bishops know something needs to change, but he said it is equally clear that they are not sure “what that change would or should entail; that is, they are uncertain about what should be the new shape of Catholic teaching on sexuality.”

This doesn’t necessarily mean the church would change its doctrine in a radical way; it’s unlikely you’ll be seeing priests presiding over gay marriages anytime soon.

But it could help the church develop a more coherent and convincing theology for speaking about gay and transgender people, as well as more pastoral approach in ministering to them – an approach that might appeal to LGBT and young Catholics in particular rather than alienating them.

What will happen now is uncertain, as even Pope Francis admitted in his remarks to the synod on Saturday evening.

“I don’t know if this document will do something, but it should work in us,” the pontiff told the gathering. “We have studied and approved this document. Now, the Holy Spirit gives us this document to work on it in our hearts.”

(David Gibson, a former national reporter for Religion News Service, is director of Fordham University’s Center on Religion and Culture.)

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David Gibson

44 Comments

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  • The real struggle for the RCC is to find some relevancy in the 21st century and so far, they are failing, badly. News flash: LGBTQ and their allies have given up on organized religion as anything but an obstacle to achieving full human rights for every person, everywhere.

  • “Translation: The Catholic hierarchy is acknowledging that the church needs to update its understanding of the science of sex and gender, and that also means updating the church’s theology on sexuality and its ministry to gay people.”

    In a word, “no”.

    The use of the sexual faculties is restricted to married people, marriage is restricted to two people – one of each sex, and that’s de fide.

    It was de fide when Jesus walked the earth.

    However, you can’t evangelize, counsel, or advise people without availing yourself of thinking which may not have been formulated before, or that might impact advising a person how to comply with the moral law most effectively, or that might elucidate, refine, or nuance the faith once delivered.

    An example of this would be the use of psychology in considering the validity of a putative marriage contract in the latter 20th century, which brought to bear insights into the capacity of individuals to actually enter into and keep vows.

  • The loudest protesters of conquer and divide are married to the technique. The lgbt are masters at it and have avowed theirs is an all or nothing scorched earth policy. The Church does not avoid the fires of its’ inquisition; neither does the immutable Word of God. The Word cannot be changed and God is the consummation of the scorched earth policy. Perhaps if the Church would teach what time this is, the lgbt might come to the table; before it burst into flames.

    Jonah and I have been investing in marshmallows.

  • These full human rights that you speak of come from where exactly? Rights are legal entitlements. What is this law that governs all humans that has somehow bestowed rights upon them that you claim religion is only an obstacle to? I don’t believe there is some mysterious universal law that applies to all humans every place and everywhere. There are no more human rights than there are spider rights. Unless, of course, we are talking about rights that come from the laws of God–rights (and duties) that we learn about from religion? I think we need to use religion to help us learn and abide by the laws of God. That is part of the relevance of religion. But I cannot believe in some contrived system of demands and wants imagined up by a species of high-grade apes found on a tiny little world that somehow apply to every person, everywhere. Nope, there has to be some universal legal system–Nature and Nature’s God–if we are to start talking about universal human rights being violated. Organized religion is like organized airports, courts, or businesses. There is a reason for organization.

  • I suppose this Church and all Churches know they are losing environmentalism for every person on earth because they think perpetual foot-dragging on sexual issues is more important. Allowing this petty nonsense to elect Putin, then Trump, are big dang deals. You can always normalize same-sex marriage later, but you can’t put a lid on the meanness which was ginned up because the churches did not do it sooner and take it off the table as the hot-button which energizes idiots.

  • And all of this is, of course, the perennial problem of our friends here who reject both natural law and God’s law as the source of minority rights — there remains no other source for them except for majority vote, which may be one thing today and something else tomorrow.

  • Money! That is the reason for organization. Organizations exist to collect or make money. Everyone’s money posseses the same spending power, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

  • Both crazy and dishonest. How does an official statement that ““There are questions … relative to the difference and harmony between male and female identities and sexual inclinations” become “Translation: updating the church’s theology on sexuality and its ministry to gay people”? Only in the mind of the slanted pro-Francis media still hiding after five and half years that this pope barred homosexuals from the seminary, held an anti-LGBTQ conference and calls for prohibitions to gay marriage and transgender human rights as against God’s plan for humanity.

  • Thousands of lives have been harmed and even destroyed by the sexual abominations of pedophile clergy since the Catholic church was established almost 2000 years ago. Christ, Mary, and the apostle Peter had nothing to do with it’s formation. Satan rejoices as people become LGBTQ’s now as a result of these sexual abominations. NO amount of Vatican non-sense can save this church now. WAIT FOR IT. Read Revelations 16 & 17. Christ says “…surely, I come quickly. AMEN.” Rev. 22:20

  • Human rights are what you exercise when you drink water, eat food, breathe air and go to the bathroom. Same with spiders.

  • Perhaps they can get around to condemning conversion therapy as the torture it is? That would be doable even if you stick with the belief that sex is only for making babies.

  • Yeah “normalize same-sex marriage later”…right after we OK abortion, infanticide, and bestiality.

  • The Word Of God and the Teachings of Jesus Christ are not to be “taken off the table.”

  • Well, please inform the liberal degenerates in the global and U.S. church so they can get busy defending the Faith and worrying about those of us who actually care about being Catholic, not left-wing phonies.

    We can also start worrying about the enemies of the Catholic Church and Catholics, including liberals, the Democratic Party, and the black political establishment. Plus frauds and phonies like Massingale.

  • Your opinion has been noted and flushed down the toilet. Some people have benefitted from conversion therapy, so who are you to say it should not be allowed ?

    And the brilliance of Humane Vitae going on 50 years continues to this day.

    You’re probably not even Catholic. You sound like a secularist or a feminst, neither of which is compatible with Catholicism.

  • Feel free to rant to anyone else. I did not make it through your first illiterate sentence before stopping. Your rant is as irrelevant as your religion.

  • where, StarshipEnterpriseE, do the teachings of jesus christ refer to issues of lgbt people ? why would you think that revisiting our cultural understanding of non-traditional relationships are taking “the Teachings of Jesus Christ…off the table ?

  • i would trust that you realize that with friends such as trump, the traditionalist need no enemies .

    and yet you trash so many with so little care or concern .

  • god’s law comes from the bible as the jews and the christians understand it . natural law comes from the understanding of human philosophers, beginning (as far as history allows us to know) from the greeks . the laws overlap a great deal, but not always . the overlap often is seen from the work of the great medieval philosophers who tried to harmonize god’s revelation and man’s wisdom . but still they are not the same and with different philosophers different natural laws can be reasonably arrived at .

    and yes, the laws that are used by humans are those that, literally or implicitly, are voted on by the people affected .

    “…may be one thing today and something else tomorrow.” which is a fair description of the church’s understanding of such things as usury and slavery and whether or not the earth was the center of the universe or should the church be a state sponsored religion .

  • “…are masters at it and have avowed theirs is an all or nothing scorched earth policy.”

    can you show me where the lgbt have avowed what you claim ? jonah was in the belly of the whale because he did the opposite of what god wanted . you might pray some more as to what god wants of you today less you do in fact join him there .

  • “natural law comes from the understanding of human philosophers, beginning (as far as history allows us to know) from the greeks .” Don’t tell me, tell those around here who dismiss natural law as “axiomatic statements that pretend assumptions rise to the level of facts beyond criticism.”

    “but still they are not the same and with different philosophers different natural laws can be reasonably arrived at.” No duh. Without the Imago Dei derived from Judeo-Christian ethics the Greeks saw nothing about slavery that was inconsistent with natural law — for they could plainly see inequality all around them in nature. This is partly why the Enlightenment thinkers, who were all enamored of the classical philosophers, were mostly lukewarm about slavery and dismissed the passionate opposition to it as zealotry beneath the dignity of rational men.

    You need to study the history of usury — for biblical usury that reduces the already poor to beggary is a far cry from modern-day interest that allows two secure entities to both profit from a business deal.

    “and yes, the laws that are used by humans are those that, literally or implicitly, are voted on by the people affected.” Again, don’t tell me, tell our friends who claim that rights (for which they can find no source) are not up for a vote.

  • We are in a period now where the most fervent worshippers of the “Word of God” (whether the Jewish version, the Christian Church version or the Islamic version) only agree on one thing: They think they are all called to oppose LGBT people. This one gut-felt issue is eclipsing absolutely everything else. It is the single reason for Putinism in Russia and Trumpism in America. It is the reason you are being lied to on virtually every subject by your president, and why you neither know nor care that you are.

  • Could you provide peer reviewed studies that confirm your statements on conversion therapy?

  • The oceans covered the continents millions of years ago. Climat change is always happending. Get over it.

  • (1) Trump isn’t lying to anybody, supporters or opponents.

    (2) It’s not about opposing any groups of people, we are all inviduals. You either accept the teachings or you don’t. Don’t want to accept them ? Nobody is forcing you. But the teachings aren’t changing to accomodate the Editorial Page of The New York Times or The Advocate.

  • Trump isn’t hostile to working class and middle class Americans including Catholics, unlike the cabal of liberal elites in metropolitan areas.

  • Because they are all core teachings of the Catholic Church, not promoting a liberal political agenda.

  • The teachings oppose sex outside of marriage and homosexuality. Take it up with the Old Testamant, not me. I didn’t write the Bible, I just read it.

  • The people who count them are reporting 6,420 false and/or misleading claims by the president in 649 days through 10/30/18. This is not news. It is updated continuously every few days. Your Google will find it for you even if your Church won’t.

  • Making it all the more irrelevant to my life. Plenty the world’s worst evils will outlive all of us, so we should find such happiness as we can here and now. That’s leaves no time or money to waste on the con artistry of organized religion.

  • The people who deny the human causes of climate change know that the earth was created approximately 6,000 years ago and that you have dredged up a lie from the pit of hell by referencing millions of years. Do you even know who your team members are and how to be a team player with them?

  • if you read all of it, you know then that a good bit of it are not accepted by christians or jews today as things today that god wants people to follow .

  • as the sea continues to rise because of climate change, “getting over it” is just what we will have to do . hope you don’t live in a coastal area .

  • trump walks over anyone between him and what he wants . that includes the people who signed up for his “trump university” back when . it includes the small contractors who found that trump refused to pay what he agreed in their contracts .

    and it includes you and me as his magical tax bill that gave billions to the cabal of liberal and conservative elite wealth in the metropolitan areas , and little to the rest of us .

    and that little will be taken away as the bill for the tax giveaway comes due .

  • no . that is simply your rhetoric . no one proposes two of them (infanticide? bestiality ? come on, get real) . the other two are the personal agenda of millions of people who are conservative and traditionalists as well as liberal . people’s actual lives and beliefs don’t fit in neat narrow labeled files .

    this is not political fight . it is a moral understanding of many good religious people . they may not tell you fearful of your judgment . yet they support and vote for all to be able to choose who they love and commit to for life .

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