While some LGBTQ+ friendly pundits and priest-authors write deliberately about building bridges or working from within the Roman Catholic Church to generate change, the victories are few, the lessons learned from a lack of action on doctrine clear. In America and quite possibly the Roman Catholic world, a narrow, small church is not expanding inclusivity, it is excluding members without pause. While Pride season gives us a time to celebrate the victories of the LGBTQ+ community in the secular world, it is also a time to reflect on the lack of progress made in a church that counts 1.2 billion members worldwide.
The lack of progress and the aging of Pope Francis are ushering in a period of trepidation for LGBTQ+ and progressive Catholics, those who felt, unlike me, that “Tornado Francis” would shake up the church from top down. When Pope Francis was elected I was a Jesuit seminarian, and I cautioned exuberance, reminding peers and loved ones to be discerning, prudent, cautious and to always pray that the pope’s words translated into doctrine. It hasn’t happened (yet).
I reflect on four recent events that have religion reporters typing at a harrowing pace, filling secular and religious papers with opinions and questions about the future of the Catholic Church. First, Pope Francis punted same-sex marriage to the secular world, whereas the church whose theologians created and defend the doctrine of transubstantiation argued that the church cannot pursue religious and theological arguments for same-sex marriage.
Second is the stunt pulled by some gay-friendly German priests and their lay staff to bless some same-sex couples in liberal-leaning parishes. Some is an important word here, as much as Germany is an important location, because not all same-sex couples in Germany received the blessing, and Germany’s Catholic population is dwindling quickly, as is the case in the rest of secular Europe.
Third, Catholic Social Services, a nonprofit organization that receives government funding through contracts with the city of Philadelphia, won its case before the U.S. Supreme Court. The unanimous ruling allows Catholic Social Services to refuse to certify married same-sex couples as foster parents, based on an argument for religious liberty. Of course, one might ask why a same-sex couple would hope that a Roman Catholic social service agency would place a child or children with them in the first place. But of course, the more important argument is, why would the city of Philadelphia, other municipalities, even the federal government continue to contract with Roman Catholic agencies and provide them with taxpayer dollars when they discriminate against LGBTQ+ people?
I also do not understand how “gay-friendly” priests can argue they are “gay-friendly” while being “pro-life” and in support of the SCOTUS ruling. It is, after all, most members of the LGBTQ+ community who require access to reproductive choice to determine how and when to start a family. If you are a pro-life, gay-friendly priest, then the obvious choice is to support adoption rights for LGBTQ+ people as well as reproductive choice for transgender men and women.
The “Catholic Church’s freedom of organization, thought, and speech” argument has made its way to Italy, where the Vatican has urged Italian politicians to vote down a proposed antihomophobia law. Such callousness reminds me of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ quiet, under-the-radar efforts to undermine funding of the National Suicide Prevention Hotline because operators are trained to assist LGBTQ+ youth when they are in crisis, at their most vulnerable. Such anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric and activity suggests that the Vatican remains uncomfortable with one of the most marginalized communities around the world.
Finally, we have the historic vote from the bishops' conference where the most conservative prelates are prepared to deny the Eucharist, also referred to more commonly as Communion, to liberal-leaning politicians like President Joseph R. Biden. In 1905 Pope Pius X, who is remembered as “the Pope of Holy Communion,” emphasized the practice of frequent communion in a decree titled Sacrosancta tridentia synodus. In it Pope Pius X declared, “Plainly enough that the wish of Christ is that all Christians should be daily nourished in the heavenly banquet.” The theologian Marcus Borg wrote in his 1987 text Jesus, A New Vision: Spirit Culture and the Life of Discipleship, “The simple act of sharing a meal had exceptional religious and social significance in the social world of Jesus. It became a vehicle of cultural protest, challenging the ethos and politics of holiness, even as it also painted a different picture of what Israel was to be, an inclusive community reflecting the compassion of God.” Not so in 2021, when and where sharing a meal, the body of Jesus Christ itself is weaponized for control of a narrowing, small church, with diminishing influence on the secular world, if not its own members globally.
To be clear, unfortunately, there is nothing controversial in the bishops reining in their flock, especially since they are using doctrine and dogma to explicate officially accepted religious teaching, e.g., there is no misdirection. For those curious, doctrine is teaching proposed by the Roman Catholic Church, and dogma is divinely revealed truth/the infallible teaching authority of the church. What is unfortunate is that in doing so the Roman Catholic bishops are misleading the faithful, leading them to believe that to be saved (eternally) requires adoption of this system of faith, with its structural sin and systemic evil: antigay theology, denying Communion, not developing or changing doctrine or dogma, and letting urban, liberal parishes and schools run by religious orders follow a subset of their rules and therefore palliate concerns about the lack of progress in the Roman Catholic Church.
Fortunately, there is another way for LGBTQ+ and progressive Catholics, it is based on discernment, something I learned as a Jesuit seminarian and with gratitude to Saint Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Society of Jesus. Discernment is a process through which a change is made in one’s life through acquisition of new knowledge and understanding about the direction of one’s life. In this case, the goal is the greater service of God, human flourishing as a member of full value in one’s religious community. There are many ways to complete a discernment, but it is best completed with a spiritual director or companion. It is not easy, but with a good spiritual companion, the journey over time leads to freedom, e.g., to elect something new, and ends in peace.
Journalists and guest opinion writers concerned about the direction of the Roman Catholic Church are missing an opportunity to direct readers toward discernment because they understand these recent developments as news, therefore fact, or naively want the very church they are covering to welcome all to the communion table. The church already denies Communion to divorced Catholics and LGBTQ+ Catholics who are not celibate. Women have recently been approved for reading and serving at Mass, but this is a far cry from the hopes of many women to be ordained deacons or priests. The Catholic Church is not a democracy, though Pope Francis may be considered a prince; Mother Church is led through time on written laws codified in doctrine and dogma. If those laws do not give life, impinge upon your flourishing, and leave you imbalanced spiritually as you chart your course through our secular age, remember there is another way: to use discernment as a means to go, to find salvation and a religious community, if they are important to you in a system of faith that envisages what Aonio Paleario, an Italian reformer of the church, once wrote in 1542: “Would God it could please all to become one in that one Christ, whose name we all do carry.”
Benjamin Brenkert is the author of A Catechism of the Heart: A Jesuit Missioned to the Laity.