On Sept. 16, Fordham University kicked off the "More Than a Monologue" series on Catholic responses to homosexuality and to other sexual minorities, such as transgender and intersexed people.The title of Fordham's daylong public conference -- "Learning to Listen: Voices of Sexual Diversity and the Catholic Church" -- points to the aim of the series. Since the Vatican's 1968 letter on contraception, the Catholic discussion of sex has more and more resembled a determined monologue, in which Church officials speak and Catholics in the pews see no good reason to listen.
As African-American Catholic theologian Fr. Bryan Massingale (one of the conference speakers) suggested, most Catholics retain a strong sense of sexual morality and sin. For example, most Catholics are clear that spouses cheating on their partners, or priests molesting children, are both very seriously wrong. What is collapsing is the sense that the Pope and his bishops are interpreting the Catholic ethical tradition in authentic or relevant ways. Whether the topic is married people's use of condoms, or same-sex marriage and attraction, or even the mortal dangers of masturbation and women priests, the faithful are not convinced.
The conference series brings together two leading universities and two academically prominent seminaries. Fordham in New York and Fairfield in Connecticut are both run by the famously free-thinking Jesuit fathers; Union Theological Seminary in New York and Yale's Divinity School are both liberal and non-denominational (though traditionally and still largely Protestant).
In the US today, the two biggest denominational groupings are Roman Catholics (about 24 percent of the US population) and former Catholics (about 10 percent) according to a recent Pew report. As a collaboration between progressive Catholics, former Catholics and liberal Protestants, the series hints at the transformative power that might be tapped if Catholic-minded people start talking about sexual diversity in considered ways with their pastors, their bishops and their fellow citizens.
The story of one panelist's grass-roots ministry demonstrates how difficult it may be to get the current Catholic leaders to listen. Faced with a growing number of homeless LGBT youth in her community, this woman and her husband began taking these young people into their home. They coordinated with social workers from local LGBT services agencies; they raised money and collected clothes from their church group and their wider circle of friends; when possible, they held reconciliation meetings with the young people's parents; when not, they helped these kids to find a job -- away from hustling, off the street, onto a path of independent life. The message they received from the lieutenant of their local bishop? "Help these kids in any way that you like. Just make sure you never describe it as a ministry of the Catholic Church."
On the neuralgic topic of sexual diversity, the Catholic Church appears to be a community dramatically out of synch. Its impetus towards Jesus-like ministry is matched with a powerful political fear of moral contagion. Fear was a recurring theme during the Fordham conference. Are bishops and Vatican officials afraid of moral relativism, or of the growing demand that they engage their followers in thoughtful and adult-like conversation? Meanwhile, activists, scholars and many clergy themselves are afraid: for some, of talking back to the honored authorities of their childhood; for others, of the career-ending persecution that can come from taking too public a stand in support of LGBT people and their relationships.
As sociologist Jerome Baggett, another conference participant, pointed out, Catholic church-goers, whether "conservative" or "liberal," are equally adept at engaging their Catholic tradition. They both strive to select and interpret scriptures and teachings to help them make sense of their lives: to help them become better Catholics and holier human beings. Liberals and conservatives may have different pieces of the tradition on their trays, but both are essentially "cafeteria Catholics," picking and choosing from their Church's offerings to create what -- by their own lights -- will be a nourishing spiritual meal. With upcoming conferences on gay teen suicide, same sex marriage, and sexual diversity and celibacy in ministry, organizers hope that the conversation at the Catholic lunch line becomes both more attentive, and more intense.
The next conference in the More than a Monologue series, "Pro-Queer Life" is scheduled for October 1st at Union Theological Seminary in NYC. Inspired by concern over bullying and teen suicides, Union Theological Seminary poses hard questions: What has church teaching got to do with it? How can things get better for Queer youth.