A new report from the Roman Catholic Church's two-week long Synod on the Family has left LGBT+ groups cheering and conservative Catholic commentators upset. The Church recognises the "gifts and qualities" of gay people, and asks if the Church can "accept and value" the orientation of lesbians and gays.
The report, as released by the Vatican News Service, shows that Pope Francis and the Synod Fathers considered a variety of issues, including those of divorced and co-habitating Catholics, issues of local marriage customs in areas of conversion and evangelism (such as on the African continent), and the recognition of gay Catholics as part of the Body of Christ.
Homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community: are we capable of welcoming these people, guaranteeing to them a fraternal space in our communities? Often they wish to encounter a Church that offers them a welcoming home. Are our communities capable of providing that, accepting and valuing their sexual orientation, without compromising Catholic doctrine on the family and matrimony?
At first glance, this would seem to be merely asking questions of the Synod. Questions which could be answered with, "No." As in, "no, we are not capable of welcoming these people" and "no, we are not capable of accepting and valuing their sexual orientation." However, as someone who has read an awful lot of Catholic communications in her life (I was raised Catholic, went to Catholic schools, and was confirmed in the Church by my own choice, only leaving it when Benedict XVI called same-sex marriage the present largest threat to western civilisation), I can assure you these are rhetorical questions. The very fact they are asked means they will be seriously discussed.
How did we get here? Pope Francis is a very different pope from his predecessor. While there has always been speculation that Benedict XVI was a transitional pope, which is what I certainly suspected at his election, we'll probably never know. What we do know is that he was a transitional pope, and a rocky transition it has been. In direct contrast to his immediate successor, but far more in line with progress made by Pope John Paul II, Pope Francis has made his vision for the pastoral care of lesbians and gays clear in other comments, and the bishops are answering with, "Okay, let's figure out how we can do this."
This is huge. I know it seems like not enough. Like too little too late. But recall it took the Church 400 years to accept as scientific fact the Copernican model of the universe. This is a Church still struggling to catch up with issues of technology in reproduction and family planning. This is a Church whose leader only two years ago gave a foaming at the mouth speech claiming "people dispute the idea that they have a nature, given to them by their bodily identity, that serves as a defining element of the human being" which claims that non-heterosexual orientations essentially do not exist, and that they are unnatural and therefore selfish choices. And here we have the leaders of this Church saying, "lesbians and gays have valuable contributions, how do we accept and value them for who they are?" This implies that the Church now recognises that homosexuality is not a choice, but rather represents a fundamental part of a human being.
Although the report also reaffirms the Church's position that same-sex unions are not the equal of different-sex unions, it makes two major admissions which are also quite surprising. The first is that it recognises that same-sex unions provide "precious support" to partners, and that partners willingly offer mutual aid and sacrifice which constitutes such support. It also seems to recognise the potential benefits to children raised in same-sex union households. The language suggests, at least to me, that the Church recognises extreme interference in the households of same-sex partners could serve to harm children of those partners, and the "needs and rights" of children "must always be given priority."
Without denying the moral problems connected to homosexual unions it has to be noted that there are cases in which mutual aid to the point of sacrifice constitutes a precious support in the life of the partners. Furthermore, the Church pays special attention to the children who live with couples of the same sex, emphasizing that the needs and rights of the little ones must always be given priority.
Clearly this language is still problematic. It seems hard to find that the Church can "accept and value" the internal nature of sexual orientation, recognise the benefits of partnership to gays and lesbians, and recognise that the stable homes of children trump the Church's desire to interfere, and yet still come to the conclusion that such partnerships are less than. This is an internal struggle that I know which side I want the Church to fall on as they discuss these issues. I have more hope that we'll get there than I did a year ago. I had no hope at all two years ago.
Two major glaring oversights, even within the problematic nature of the struggle over lesbian and gay inclusion: no mention of bisexuals and no mention of transgender persons, regardless of sexual orientation.
I imagine, given the way the Church is playing catch-up, that it is guilty here of bi-erasure. As Catholic doctrine has always recognised that homosexual tendencies (and I now predict "tendencies" will be changed to "orientation" going forward) are not sinful, but homosexual acts are, there is no room in the doctrine for bisexuals to exist as bisexuals. Either they are engaged in a recognised relationship with a different-sex partner and are therefore heterosexual to the Church, or they are in engaged in an unrecognised relationship with a same-sex partner and are therefore homosexual to the Church. Bisexuality as a state of being either doesn't exist, or is folded under "homosexual tendencies." This is not an unsurprising oversight, as the Church continues to struggle with the difference between acts and internal identity.
The issue on the existence of transgender people is a bit more complex. Despite claims by some conservative Catholic commentators that the Church does not recognise or overtly condemns transgender identities, in fact, there seems to be very little if any direction on this issue for both clergy and laypeople alike. In March of last year, I spoke to the priest who led my confirmation classes for the first time in years. He was a fundamental part of my reasoning for not breaking with the Church earlier than I did. His only comment was, "I suspected you were, and frankly, you shouldn't give a crap what other people think about this." He certainly made his views clear.
Trans* Catholic blogger Anna Magdalena breaks down some of the major examples of how conservative Catholic commentators often cherry pick and twist Vatican communications and Catechist doctrine for their own purposes. They use this twisting of Catholic commentary to promote the false assertion there is a definitive teaching on being transgender (Note: I use the asterisk, because she does, she also uses "transgenderism," which some in the trans community find problematic, which includes myself).
It's obvious that there's a long dialog before us. No one in the Church knows quite what to make of transsexed individuals, and the jury is still out regarding how the Magesterium's views will develop.
According to the Catholic World Report, the Catholic Church "allows for the acknowledgment that there can be a biological reason for gender-identity disorder." Rumor has it that the Church is waiting for science to further study the causes of transsexualism before it will make a decision. If this is true, it proves very hopeful for transsexed people since every year the biological/brain-sex theory of transsexualism seems to gain more support.
In the meantime transsexed Catholics must follow their consciences while navigating a social world in which almost no one has a place for them.
As disagreements between my view of gender and my choice of terminology vs Magdalena show, one of the biggest issues with how the Church will handle the issue of transgender persons is one of terminology. If Pope Francis is the "listening pope" as Magdalena claims, to whom and to what terms is he and the Church listening? And what of the issue of orientation? If transgender persons are recognised, will we be expected to conform to heterosexuality, and what does heterosexuality even mean in this context? Will it be a case of, "Sure you're a trans woman, but that means you have to marry a man" or does it mean, "Sure you're a trans woman, but you still have to a marry a woman"? Or vice versa for trans men? Or worse will we be called to some sort of self-imposed celibacy, like the "eunichs" of old? There's really no telling, and I think we're far from hearing a report even touching this issue. The Church doesn't even really want to talk about clearly intersexed individuals, let alone seemingly "dimorphic" trans people (some of which are definitely not-dimorphic, and others who identify as both intersexed and transgender for this reason).
There was also a noticeable lack of discussion on contraception, family planning, and abortion, but on that front at least, I'm not surprised. Sadly but realistically, you shouldn't be either.
Image via AP.