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Sexual Diversity and the Catholic Church: Time for a Serious Conversation?

Posted: 05/10/11 01:10 PM ET

From my position at Fairfield University I have been keeping a close watch on the U.S. Catholic Church for exactly 30 years. In this time I have seen attitudes change among friends, colleagues and students in many ways. One of them is the cultural acceptability of sexual diversity in the Church. Here in the second decade of the 21st century, we seem to be at a turning point. The time has clearly come for a serious conversation. Every year fewer people, especially among the young, are willing to argue for heterosexual normativity, and that speaks loudly for a future without discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Strikingly, of all American Christian groups, Catholics are the most supportive of same-sex marriage and/or civil unions: a whopping 74 percent expressed support in a recent poll from the Public Research Institute. This is despite the strong opposition of their own bishops.

One important step toward a more open conversation will be taken this coming fall, when, under the collective heading of "More Than a Monologue: Sexual Diversity and the Catholic Church," two Jesuit universities and two interdenominational divinity schools will host a series of four day-long conferences open to the public. Fordham University and Fairfield University, Union Theological Seminary and Yale University Divinity School will each create distinct opportunities for all who wish to attend to speak and to listen to the many and varied voices that Catholic have on this issue.

What do you do in the Catholic Church when the bishops and the Catholic population as a whole seem to be so far apart on something that everyone thinks is important? On the part of the bishops, simply speaking louder against equality is no solution. Any good teacher knows that a failure to communicate cannot simply be blamed on the students. Sometimes it is plainly the fault of the teacher, whether poor content or poor presentation. Good bishops, like good teachers, know to examine their methods and maybe even their content when reception of what they have to say is on the wane. And Catholics as a whole need to know why they believe what they say they believe and what are the positions and opinions of their fellow religionists who come to very different conclusions. Perhaps, everyone needs to take a deep breath.

The issue of Church opposition to same-sex marriage or civil union is not the heart of the problem. It is simply a symbol of marginalization. The truth of the matter is that Catholic gays and lesbians, transgendered and bisexual Catholics, live in a Church which they perceive is not welcoming them as the people God made them to be, created surely "in the image and likeness of God." In civil law the struggles against discrimination and the movement for marriage equality may well primarily be issues of civil and human rights. In the Church they are that and much more. To be made in the image and likeness of God, as the Christian tradition sees it, is to be made -- body and soul -- to reflect the Trinity, that is to be made for love and relationality. When the Church requires life-long celibacy of all people who are not heterosexual (the demand it makes of homosexuals who wish to participate fully in Church life), it imposes a sanction which is, in effect, the imposition of a life of less love and human relationship than is available to heterosexual Christians. A call to be less loving, body and soul, is a call to be less in the image and likeness of God.

Bishops have responsibilities to defend law and doctrine, and sometimes that makes it hard for them to hear the voice of the Spirit moving through the body of the baptized. Catholic laypeople, as they exercise their ministry in the secular world, are primarily motivated by their ordinary human experience, living and working alongside their lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender friends and family. Catholic or not, these people have the same human needs and concerns as their heterosexual counterparts, they are often role models of Christian life and love, and they look to the Church for acceptance as the people they are.

The objective of the public conference series, "More Than a Monologue," is to raise awareness and generate vigorous debate on sexual diversity issues within the community of faith and beyond to the broader civic and political worlds that the Catholic Church and the Catholic people inhabit. The doors of the conferences will be open to all, whatever their points of view, in the confident expectation that true dialogue and honest conversation is the way forward. The conference organizers are motivated by a deep love of their Catholic tradition. "More Than a Monologue" is an act of faith and hope that there is a sure and full place in the Church for people of diverse sexual orientation and experience.

Paul Lakeland, one of the "More Than a Monologue" conference organizers, is the Aloysius P. Kelley S.J. Professor of Catholic Studies and Director of the Center for Catholic Studies at Fairfield University.