A somewhat unexpected yet serendipitous bit of news caught my eye as I was scrolling down the newsfeed on Facebook today. It really took me by surprise. In fact, it took my breath away. I can’t remember whose timeline I saw it on first, but here it was – a posting from the website of the National Catholic Register entitled “Confidential Meeting Seeks to Sway Synod to Accept Same-Sex Unions.” Apparently, a group of Roman Catholic clergypersons, and theological experts, as well as prominent media representatives, had gathered at the Pontifical Gregorian University on May 26, 2015 to discuss the issue of same-sex marriage. Issues of homosexuality and same-sex marriages have, of course, been discussed and summarily condemned by various ecclesiastical pronouncements over the years. What makes this gathering different is that it is approaching these issues from a surprisingly positive angle.
There were so many points of view and remarks in this news item that I find exhilarating. First, there was the claim that no one in the gathering objected to committed relationships among couples of the same gender. Second, there was a call to advance the teachings of the Roman Catholic hierarchy on sexuality in order to develop a “theology of love.” Third, there was an acknowledgement that non-heteronormative persons were sexual persons in their own right. Fourth, there was an interrogation of the administration of the sacraments as a reward for the compliant, and a deprivation of these same sacraments as an act of punishment for the “dissenters.” These “dissenters,” of course, include remarried divorcees, sexually active LGBT persons, people who knowingly persist in the use of contraception and seek to terminate pregnancies … the list goes on.
These points of view and remarks are mind-blowing, to say the least. They are a far cry from official declarations that same-sex activities are “acts of grave depravity,” “intrinsically disordered,” “contrary to natural law,” closed to “the gift of life,” prohibitive of “genuine affective and sexual complementarity” … again, the list goes on. Roman Catholics who consider themselves heterosexual will probably never fully understand how damaging, hurtful, destructive and dehumanising these official pronouncements of the Church have been and continue to be for non-heteronormative Roman Catholics. I’m not indulging in Roman Catholic hierarchy-bashing here. Really. As one who’s officially (and extensively) walked in these circles, but who’s since transitioned to an alternative paradigm of holy orders, I am not about to besmirch my former colleagues. But let’s call a spade a spade. People have been emotionally scarred by an institution that they hold dear to their hearts. I don’t think this is right.
Yet, the fact that there are clergypersons who are willing to take considerable risks by discussing “taboo” issues at the Pontifical Gregorian University denounces a generalisation that the Roman Catholic church—in its entirety—is against non-heteronormative persons. Official statements remain insensitive, dismissive and arrogant, but there are segments within the official hierarchy that offer the voice of reason, inclusion and courage. This is nothing new. Groups such as the New Ways Ministry and Dignity have always been fighting for the recognition and full inclusion of non-heteronormative persons. Yet this advocacy for inclusiveness at the Pontifical Gregorian University comes from the ranks of those who are neither deemed objectionable nor viewed with suspicion. We’re talking about people securely within the system who are challenging the system.
I admit, I am a little excited. I mean, who wouldn’t be. I’ve come to a stage in my life where I no longer look to the Roman Catholic hierarchy to validate me as a non-heteronormative person. In fact, I refuse to look to an institution to tell me if I’m “normal” or acceptable in the eyes of God. My own experiences of God, faith and sexuality, which resonate with the experiences of countless other non-heteronormative persons, suffice as validation. Yet, I do keep tabs on what’s going on in the Roman Catholic hierarchy on non-heteronormative issues. I do this, because I am disappointed by the inability of this gargantuan spiritual leader to provide meaningful discourses for non-heteronormative persons. I do this, because so many parts of this hierarchy continue to act as bullies and abusive guardians. I do this, because so many Roman Catholic leaders choose to denounce non-heteronormative persons in the strongest terms, despite the fact that so many of them are non-heteronormative persons themselves.
Yes, I am a little excited. In fact, I’m so excited that I’ve decided to stay up and finish this reflection tonight. At the same time, I’m a little wary. I realise that Roman Catholic representatives from Asia, Africa, and North and Latin America are not included in this gathering. Perhaps it is still early days. More importantly, I am also keenly aware that non-heteronormative persons who are open about their gender variance and sexual diversity are not consulted in this gathering. The absence of people who are life experts in the field worries me, because it suggests that non-heteronormative persons will again be talked about and talked at, rather than talked with on a level-playing field. Lastly, I’m wary because I don’t know how effective such a gathering will be. There may be many good intentions in that gathering, but the Roman Catholic hierarchy is not a democracy. All it takes is an imposition of “holy obedience,” and the entire thread of progressive theological and pastoral thought will be vetoed away. That, for me, is a frightening (and distasteful) thought.
I am, without a doubt, keeping close tabs on the developments of this gathering. Miracles do happen, even in a homophobic, biphobic, transphobic and queerphobic environment. I’m not holding my breath, and I’m not expecting any great change, but I think I’ll take the risk of hope. Hope springs eternal, God-willing. My hope is for a Roman Spring, though not in the Vivien Leigh and Warren Beatty sense. Perhaps there will be another Aggiornamento. Perhaps the great veil that divides the hierarchy from the real world will finally be torn, and the Spirit of God will be let in and unleashed. Perhaps then, diversity will truly be celebrated as a gift of God, not as an awkward inconvenience that unsettles the neat categories of theology and pastoral ministry. Perhaps the time has finally arrived for a concrete “theology of love” that responds to a “reality check.” Perhaps it is time for a “theology of love” that is based on real people with real lives, a “theology of love” that will unfold in unprecedented splendour.
. Edward Pentin, “Confidential Meeting Seeks to Sway Synod to Accept Same-Sex Unions,” National Catholic Register, May 26, 2015, accessed May 28, 2015, http://m.ncregister.com/daily-news/confidential-meeting-seeks-to-sway-synod-to-accept-same-sex-unions/#.VWcbeUYuKez.
. I use the term “non-heteronormative” in reference to people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer, and many others who don’t use labels but whose expressions of gender and sexuality go against the norm.
. See John Paul II, Catechism of the Catholic Church, sec. 2357.
. BBC News, “Church in Ireland Needs ‘Reality Check’ After Gay Marriage Vote,” BBC News, May 24, 2015, accessed May 28, 2015, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-32862824.
© Joseph N. Goh | josephgoh [at] josephgoh [dot] org