LGBTQ issues today are raising hopes for some Christians as well as anguish, confusion, and anger for others.
The Presbyterian Church (USA) has voted, in the past decade, to allow the ordination of LGBTQ people, to permit the performing of same-sex marriages in church buildings by Presbyterian ministers, and to advocate for equal rights in church and society for people of all sexual orientations and gender identities.
The Episcopal Church in the United States has allowed gay marriage since 2015 and is open and welcoming to the LGBTQ community.
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has passed repeated resolutions to welcome LGBTQ people since 1991.
In fact, a growing number of organized religious groups in the United States have issued statements officially welcoming LGBTQ people as members and extending marriage rites to them.
In my Catholic tradition, there is now a mixed LGBTQ message for sure. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, promulgated in 1992, characterizes homosexual acts as “intrinsically disordered” and “acts of grave depravity” contrary to natural law. In March 2021 the Vatican’s orthodoxy office, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), stressed again that Catholic clergy may not bless same-sex unions because God “cannot bless sin.” The CDF statement was approved by Pope Francis.
Bryan Massingale, an openly gay Catholic priest and professor of theology and social ethics at Fordham University, said priests who want to engage in pastoral outreach to the gay and lesbian community “will continue to do so, except that it will be even more under the table … than it was before.”
Pope Francis, over the years, has sent ambivalent LGBTQ messages. In July 2013, on his flight back from Brazil, when asked about gay priests during a spontaneous exchange with the press, he responded, “If they [gay priests] accept the Lord and have goodwill, who am I to judge them?” Nevertheless, a Vatican decree on training for Roman Catholic priests in 2016 stressed the obligation of sexual abstinence, as well as barring gay men and those who support “gay culture” from holy orders. In May 2018 Pope Francis told the Italian bishops to carefully evaluate priesthood applicants and to reject anyone suspected of being homosexual.
In December 2018, Pope Francis expressed his deep concern about what he described as the “serious issue” of homosexuality, saying that being gay is a “fashion” to which the clergy is susceptible. Speaking about candidates for priesthood, he said: “The issue of homosexuality is a very serious issue that must be adequately discerned from the beginning with the candidates….In our societies it even seems that homosexuality is fashionable and that mentality, in some way, also influences the life of the church.”
In the 2018 book The Strength of a Vocation, by Pope Francis and Fernando Prado, Francis considers gay clergy “a very serious issue.” He further emphasizes: “In consecrated and priestly life, there is no room for that kind of affection. Therefore, the church recommends that people with that kind of ingrained tendency should not be accepted into the ministry or consecrated life.” Nevertheless, in a handwritten letter dated June 21, 2021, Pope Francis praised and thanked the Rev. James Martin — Jesuit priest and author, and high-profile LGBTQ advocate – for reaching out to LGBTQ Catholics.
As a positive development, in July 2021, one of Germany’s most senior Catholic bishops, Bishop Felix Genn of Münster, has called for an official Catholic Church apology for the way its pronouncements “over years and decades” have deeply hurt homosexuals.
When asked recently about gay priests in the United States, Fr. James Martin, replied: “I think that if you had suddenly all the gay priests in the United States come out, I think the Church would be forced to look at the question of homosexuality in a very different light.” When asked how many priests are gay, he replied “I’m guessing maybe 40 percent. Who knows?….If it was 40%, I wouldn’t be surprised; if it was 80%, I wouldn’t be surprised.” Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, a retired Catholic bishop in the Archdiocese of Detroit, has consistently been a supporter of New Ways Ministry for LGBTQ Catholics and has also called for homosexual priests and bishops to “come out” and be truthful to themselves and others.
A friend reprimanded me recently for being LGBTQ supportive, stressing that I apparently ignore “the clear condemnations of homosexual behavior in the Old Testament and in the New Testament.” I suggested to him that I am not ignoring Sacred Scripture and that historical consciousness is particularly important in drawing biblical conclusions. I find it impossible to agree that the texts so often used to assert the immorality of homosexual acts are unambiguous and provide solid foundations for condemning same-sex behavior.
In determining contemporary moral values and behavior, a realistic understanding of human life requires an historically conscious worldview, because human reality is dynamic, evolving, and changing. We certainly see this when it comes to medical science. People do not always apply this to moral values. As our human understanding develops and changes, so too do our human concepts, theories, and courses of action. This is not a matter of relativism but of changing human perspectives. There is indeed a human thread from generation to generation that links faith and moral values. People in every age reflect, evaluate, and interpret that faith and moral values tradition in terms of their contemporary culture and understanding.
When people determine moral obligations from “nature,” they are really deriving them from their human interpretation of “nature.” The challenge with “natural law”and “human nature” is that our understanding of human sexuality – with its biological, emotional, psychological, relational, and spiritual dimensions — has developed historically and it continues to develop. I learned this years ago from my Louvain (Leuven) professor, Louis Janssens (1908 – 2001), founder of the Louvain tradition of personalism. Janssens made an original contribution to the study of the human person through the approach which he coined as “the human person adequately considered.”
Personalist moral philosophers and theologians stress that the old “traditional” biological and strictly physicalist understanding of traditional natural law and human “nature” must be transformed into a contemporary personalist, relational understanding. The former defines the morality of acts based only on the physical, biological structure of those acts. The latter defines the morality of acts based on the meaning of those acts for persons and relationships. Marital sexuality in a personalist relational understanding, for example, is about much more than simply linking genitalia to produce progeny.
The ethical criterion for human choices and actions therefore is the extent to which these choices and actions respect and enhance a person’s living together in time and space, in all the many different dimensions of a person’s life world and life history: familial, social, material, environmental, spiritual, physical, and psychological. The human person adequately considered.
What did the historical Jesus say about sex? A strong case can be made that Jesus did not directly discuss sexual activity at all. The biblical record is totally silent about his attitudes towards the sexually-related religious controversies of the present day: equal rights for homosexuals, same-sex marriage, transgender, etc. Jesus did stress the fundamental moral principle of loving God and loving your neighbor as yourself. That really covers ALL human actions.
Now, I return again to those “homosexuality texts” in the Bible. The context in which both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament condemn homosexual acts is shaped by the socio-historical conditions of the times in which they were written. Probably the most influential Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) text leading to the condemnation of homosexual acts is the interpretation given to the biblical story of Sodom in the Book of Genesis. Scholars agree that contextual exegesis shows that the homosexual interpretation of the Sodom story is not accurate and that the sin in both the Hebrew text and its literary context is the sin of inhospitality.
As far as the New Testament is concerned, the first chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans has been seen traditionally as the New Testament’s clearest condemnation of same-sex relations – both male and female. Recent scholarship, however, suggests a different interpretation. Paul, the religious Hebrew, is looking at life in the capital of Greco-Roman culture. Homosexuality itself is not the focus of his condemnation. Rather, Paul’s criticism falls upon paganism’s refusal to acknowledge the true God. Paul, actually, probably did not understand a homosexual orientation. A number of contemporary highly respected biblical scholars suggest in fact that Paul struggled personally with his own “thorn in the flesh” — his own same-sex desires.
I strongly resonate with those moral theologians who state very simply that homosexual sexual acts are “natural” for people with a homosexual orientation, just as heterosexual sexual acts are “natural” for people with a heterosexual orientation. Sexual acts are moral when they are natural, reasonable, and expressed in a truly human, just, and loving manner. In today’s churches we need to sit down face-to-face and dialogue about this.
To some extent we are all involved in what I call a process of moral conversion: progressively understanding the present situation, exposing and eradicating our individual and societal biases, constantly evaluating our scales of preferred values, paying attention to criticism, and listening to others.
Human change and growth can and do happen for the human person adequately considered.