DDF Prefect Cardinal Victor Fernández’s response to Brazilian Bishop José Negri’s dubia on transgender and “homoaffective” people, which can be consulted in Italian or Portuguese here, is a massive step in the right direction for the full integration of LGBT Catholics in the Church. This is, or should be, the primary takeaway from the recent response — that LGBT Catholics are here, are already involved in the Church, have a desire to partake in the sacraments both for themselves and as witnesses for others, and that they — that we — ought to be allowed to do so.

LGBT Catholics are imperfect, complicated, prone to mistakes, full of contradictions, prone to moral quandaries, often bad at observing the requirements of the faith, and despite those things determined to try their best anyway — in short, they’re no different from any other Catholic. Their presence in the Church and in Church life is exactly the kind of thing that should be so uncontroversial as to only warrant a short letter. Should be, and yet it’s stunning to see that, finally, it actually is.

In this way the fact that Fernández  downright dismissive of the fourth question, about the baptisms of children being raised by same-sex couples, looks especially heartening. Is the child going to be raised Catholic? Yes? Then fine. It might be difficult to picture the sort of gay couple that would have a child through gestational surrogacy (a possibility Negri’s question explicitly contemplates) and then commit to raising the child in the Church. Such situations do, however, exist, and pastors therefore must have some way to respond to them. Maybe the couple doesn’t understand the moral arguments against surrogacy very well, or maybe they changed their mind on the issue at some point, or maybe they simply want different things for their child than for themselves — again, straight Catholic parents can end up in all of these situations as well. These things are not going to stop happening just because they make some aspects of parish life awkward (as opposed to scandalous).

The differentiation between an awkward or uncomfortable situation and a scandalous one is perhaps the most significant part of this step forward. Historically, nearly all situations in which LGBT parishioners (either single or partnered) have sought an active role in the Church were limited by their ability to “pass” for heterosexual and cisgender, and to downplay their orientation or identity in the name of blending in and accepting their place as an outsider. This DDF document is perhaps the first time the Vatican has acknowledged that parishioners who are different are not inherently scandalous. This acknowledgment is what has been praised by LGBT people both inside and outside the Church.

Cardinal Fernández concedes that genuinely scandalous situations still exist — as of course they do — but the starting position is no longer that the existence of certain types of Catholics, demographically or presentationally, is itself inherently a source of scandal. This is, hopefully, a sign of real change in how individual parishes will respond to the presence of challenging or difficult members.

One of us had a great-uncle who may or may not have been gay but who was definitely a struggling actor; he was in and out of work and in and out of homelessness. He spent much of the later phase of his life sleeping in various churches in the Springfield, Massachusetts area. This was in the mid-twentieth century when Catholic parishes tended to be more active and more easily accessed foci, for better or for worse, of “white ethnic” neighborhoods on the East Coast of the United States; it’s hard to imagine this strategy for coping with homelessness working today. That’s unsurprising, but it is a shame. Regardless of changing policies regarding church access by the needy, however, the principle stands: even if someone is at a point in their life that is awkward, or loudly unconventional, or prone to incite gossip from fellow parishioners, that does not and should not bar them from access to sacred spaces and participation in the sacraments. The Church is called to reach the broken and the suffering and the flawed, and to spread the message of Christ’s love for those who fall short of His glory. This cannot be accomplished by treating some flaws and struggles as significantly more normative than others. We cannot only allow space for certain (more socially acceptable) sins or choices to be tolerated and granted community understanding while the rest are viewed as fundamentally different and uniquely damaging.

This argument is predicated, of course, on the view that existence as a visibly LGBT Catholic is a flaw. We might go further and say that it isn’t necessarily. The Catechism, of course, has clear teachings on the expected standards of behavior for Catholics, and these both prioritize chastity and a lack of scandal and state clearly that simply being a homosexual (or, as can be inferred from this response, being transgender) is neither sinful nor scandalous. LGBT Catholics, therefore, are held to the same expectations as heterosexual ones, which implies that perhaps heterosexual ideas of what is and is not normal and expected in parish life are not necessarily in lockstep with the Church’s conception of the same.

In a larger sense, though, the DDF’s response to Bishop Negri is not “about” LGBT Catholics or issues of personal identity so much as about a true “Eucharistic coherence” that understands sacramental participation as oriented to both unity and healing. As long as appropriate theological guardrails are in place, this is a welcome development in the Church’s approach.

Image: An apparently heterosexual couple having their child baptized in Fr. Harold A. Pfeiffer, SJ’s Catholic Picture Dictionary of 1948. 

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Nathan Turowsky is a native New Englander and now lives in Upstate New York. A lifelong fascination with religious ritual led him into first the Episcopal Church and then the Catholic Church. An alumnus of Boston University School of Theology and one of the relatively few Catholic alumni of that primarily Wesleyan institution, he is unmarried and works in the nonprofit sector. He writes at Silicate Siesta.

Meredith Dawson is a Catholic convert living in the Midwestern United States. She is a Cherokee Native American and an independent Tolkien scholar.

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