The Synod on the Family and the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons

As many of our readers know, the Catholic Church’s Synod on the Family has been meeting in Rome for the last several weeks. The pastoral care of homosexual persons was among the most contentious issues at the Extraordinary Synod on the Family last year, and got a lot of attention in the lead-up to this year’s Synod. There was thus a great deal of anticipation—and even outright anxiety—regarding the final result.

Dome of St. Peter's

The final report has now been released (in Italian).  There was only one paragraph dealing with the pastoral care of homosexual persons. Here is an unofficial English translation of that paragraph (courtesy of Aleteia):

76. The Church conforms her attitude to the Lord Jesus who in a limitless love offered himself for every person without exception (MV, 12). Regarding families who live the experience of having within their family persons with homosexual tendencies, the Church repeats that every person, independently of his sexual tendency, is to be respected in his dignity and welcomed with respect, careful to avoid “every sign of unjust discrimination” (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Considerations regarding proposals to give legal recognition to unions between homosexual persons, 4). May special attention be reserved also for the accompaniment of families in which persons with homosexual tendencies live. Regarding proposals to equate unions between homosexual persons with marriage, “there are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family. Marriage is holy, while homosexual acts go against the natural moral law. Homosexual acts “close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved” (ibid.). The synod holds that it is entirely unacceptable that local churches suffer pressure on this matter and that international organizations make financial help to poor countries conditioned on the introduction of laws that institute “marriage” between persons of the same sex.

Over the last couple of days, several people have reached out to me to express frustration with how little the Synod said on the topic of homosexuality. Others were frustrated that the final report focused primarily on the pastoral care of families of homosexual persons, rather than addressing the pastoral needs of homosexual persons themselves. This is an understandable concern, especially in light of the amount of focus on homosexuality in the reaction to last year’s Synod, and in discussions leading up to the Synod this Fall. However, it’s worth emphasizing that this was the Synod on the Family, not a synod on sexuality more generally.

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Rowan Willliams: Pope Francis and the Danger of “Package Deal” Ethics

Pope Francis

In the New Statesman, Rowan Williams—the former Archbishop of Canterbury—reviews two new biographies of Pope Francis: Paul Vallely’s Pope Francis: Untying the Knots and Francis: Pope of Good Promise by Jimmy Burns. One of the interesting points in the review concerns the difficulty of classifying Francis according to the usual American political labels:

Conservative or liberal? The Pope’s record might prompt us to ask whether these categories are as obvious or as useful as we assume. As various commentators have astutely noticed, the Pope is a Catholic. That is, he thinks and argues from a foundational set of principles that are not dictated by the shape of political conflict in other areas. It is difficult for some to recognise that his reasons for taking the moral positions he does on abortion or euthanasia are intimately connected with the reasons for his stance on capitalism or climate change.

The Catholic conservative who has unthinkingly rolled up the pro-life agenda with support for the death penalty, the National Rifle Association, US foreign policy and the uncontrolled global market finds this as shocking as the Catholic (or, indeed, non-Catholic) liberal who thinks in terms of a single “progressive” or emancipatory agenda that the Pope is failing to support consistently. But “conservative” and “progressive” imply that we all know there is one road for everyone on which we may move forward or backwards, rapidly or slowly. It doesn’t hurt to be reminded from time to time that this assumption can be an alibi for lazy thinking. The Catholic tradition of ethics and theology sets out a model of what is abidingly good and life-giving for human beings which does not depend on this model of a single road towards a given future. It is about making choices that bring you closer or otherwise to a particular vision of human well-being; and those choices do not necessarily map directly on to other, familiar taxonomies.

This is a point that has relevance well beyond the limits of the Church. We are all easily lured into what might be called “package deal” ethics: if you are committed to one cause you will probably be committed to a particular set of causes, even if there is no clear logical connection. The danger then is of reducing ethics to style, to a set of superficially matching accessories. It is an important jolt for us to have to come to terms with those who look for a deeper kind of consistency – whether they are radical libertarians uniting a pro-choice position with a deeply individualist social morality, or Catholics uniting an orthodox sexual ethic with root-and-branch hostility to market economics or nuclear arms. It was one of the choice ironies of the era of the Second Vatican Council that the stoutest defender of the inherited position on birth control – Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani – was also one of the fiercest advocates of nuclear disarmament. Having to think through the connections between our moral perspectives so that we can have intelligent arguments about them is a rather urgent need in the current climate, where policy and principle are so often created reactively and opportunistically. (Do I have any political party especially in mind? Perish the thought.)

In other words, it is futile to expect this pope or any other simply to fit the ready-made stereotypes. Pope Benedict “looked” conservative; Pope Francis “looks” liberal. Yet that tells you nothing at all of interest about them. And it obscures a simple fact: Benedict’s theology, though cast in a different and less accessible idiom, is entirely of a piece with all that Francis has said in his major public essays about evangelism and now about ecology. Even the contrast in style between them can be exaggerated a little. Paul Vallely notes that Francis has chosen to sit on the same level as his guests on formal occasions. Benedict did the same at the interfaith event in Assisi some years ago; he was also the first to break the taboo on the Pope eating in public with others.

Read the whole article at the New Statesman.

Coming Out Orthodox, Revisited*

Holy Cross Chapel

Copyright 2012, Gregg Webb

I don’t know what to do about homosexuality. What I do know, however, is that what I have written here is my understanding of what God and Christ would have us do, according to the scriptures, sacraments, and saints of the Orthodox Church. Perhaps I am wrong in my understanding of Christianity and Orthodoxy. Perhaps Orthodoxy is wrong in its understanding of God, Christ, and humanity. Millions of people, heterosexual and homosexual, certainly think so. Whatever the truth, and whatever God’s will for us creatures, I live with the constant awareness that I will answer for what I have written here. I will answer before God. And, in a sense even more terrifying, I will answer before Sharon Underwood and her son, and my friend, and all who try to make sense of life in this world, and to do what is good and right for everyone.

I ask all people’s friendship and forgiveness.

–Fr. Thomas Hopko, from the original forward to Christian Faith and Same Sex Attraction: Eastern Orthodox Reflections recently published in Ancient Faith Publishing’s updated edition of his book.

As I think about what an Eastern Orthodox discussion of homosexuality and gay marriage should look like, this forward by the late Fr. Thomas Hopko comes to mind. Fr. Thomas speaks with both humility and with confidence in his words, but more importantly he speaks knowing that he is talking about an issue that impacts real men and women who are trying to live their lives as best they know how. Recently the Eastern Orthodox Church has had a surge in official statements on gay marriage as a result of the Obergefell v. Hodges decision by the US Supreme Court.

While all of these statements were theologically accurate, most seem to be written with only a passing nod to pastoral care for the sexual minorities within their communities. Rather than engaging in the difficult conversation of what effective pastoral care for sexual minorities within the Orthodox Church could look like, I feel that they took the easy road and restated the same, already published, views again. The last thing I want is for the theology and tradition of the Church to change regarding the issue of same-sex erotic relationships, but the time has come to look at how the Church practically ministers to its LGBT members.

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When Friendships Fail

One of the things I’ve often hoped we here at SF would write more about is disappointment and failure—disappointment and failure, specifically, in spiritual friendship. It’s very easy to want to clean up one’s stories of friendship, not only for oneself but also for the sake of the hope we’re trying to instill in our churches. Those of us who write here want to see our churches change and become more committed to friendship, and many of us want to find places to belong and love and serve, so it’s always tempting, for me at least, to let the positive rhetoric overwhelm the actual lived experience of friendship, which often is more ambiguous and complicated than my publicly hopeful statements would suggest.

I want to try to say more about this soon—especially in relation to Tim Otto’s poignant review of my book about friendship—but for now I thought I would simply point to a wonderful essay by Laura Turner on grieving the loss of a friendship.

What I love about this piece is that it limns the experience of “falling in friendship” (“I covered my desire for deep connection with a thin layer of nonchalance, taking what I could get and never expressing that I wanted more”) and then losing it with such recognizable honesty, but it also does what so many of us have trouble doing: it turns the spotlight back on oneself, on our tendency to blame and paper over our part in a friendship’s demise.

Here’s Turner:

“Only the hand that erases can write the true thing,” wrote the German mystic Meister Eckhart. I think what he meant is that in order to construct something good, you need to be able to deconstruct what came before it. This applies generally: In order to create just societies, we need to be able to dismantle injustice; in order to cook a good omelet, we need to be willing to crack a few eggs, and so on.

It also applies on the personal level. In order for me to be the person I want to be, I need to be able to deconstruct the myths I’ve written about myself. When my friendship with M ended, my myth was that I was the victim. I was hurt, nursing wounds, feeling self-righteous and angry, and so I believed that the end of our friendship had been all her fault. More than wanting to examine my own intentions, I wanted to be able to place the blame squarely on her shoulders. I wanted to write the story without ever having to erase. There was too much satisfaction in refusing to revisit the story; too much sadness to get into it all over again.

A lot of us tend to imagine friendship, I think, on the analogy of other kinds of love. Our friends are like a brother or a sister, we say. Or our friends are such a permanent part of our lives, they’re like a spouse. Maybe better than a spouse, we think (and maybe we think that especially if we’re gay and celibate, like I am). For those of us who think that way, Turner’s essay leaves us asking what we do when those analogies break down, when friendships collapse. It’s a question I, for one, would like to read and write more about.

Asking for Submissions for a Possible Book

Hey y’all. I’m talking with a publisher about doing a book of essays by Catholics who were badly mistreated by their churches or by Catholic communities or institutions, but who continue to practice the faith. My working title is Wounded in the House of a Friend, so that gives you sort of the idea. I’m looking for a wide range of experiences–there are so many different sorrows–and a wide range of genres, from personal memoir to hagiography, poetry, practical guidance, theological reflection, Scriptural reflection, and gallows humor.

What this is not is an argument, “I stuck it out with the Catholic Church and you should too!” The target audience of the book is fellow Catholics who are in parallel situations and who have already decided to stay in the Church—I’m hoping this book can be a companion on their journey. Outer rings of the target would be pastors and laypeople who want to know how better to accompany people in their churches who have been wounded within specifically Catholic settings.

I’m posting here because I know a lot of our readers—gay, straight, and otherwise—come to SF because we talk honestly about the challenges of church membership.

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Are Evangelicals More Revisionist on Marriage than We Think?

Wedding Rings

Over at the Gospel Coalition, Trevin Wax asks whether Evangelicals are more revisionist on marriage than we think?

Catholics, of course, have our own problems; if we have not altered our teaching on sexual ethics, few in the pews take it seriously. And so there is substantial pressure on the Synod Fathers from within the Church to alter teaching on remarriage after divorce, as well as pressure to alter the teaching on same-sex unions. In highlighting Evangelical discussions of inconsistency in sexual ethics, I’m not trying to cast stones at other Christians, but simply drawing attention to an important discussion of the need for greater consistency in discussions of marriage.

After discussing several ways that Evangelicals have adopted the view of marriage held the surrounding culture, Wax concludes:

When we share the same undergirding ideas about marriage as the culture, the Christian’s “no” to same-sex marriage looks arbitrary and motivated by animus toward our LGBT neighbors rather than being a part of a comprehensive vision of marriage that counteracts our culture in multiple ways.

We are not called merely to reject wrong views of marriage; we are called to build a marriage culture where the glorious vision of complementarity, permanence, and life-giving union of a man and woman, for the good of their society, can flourish. Rebuilding a marriage culture must be more than lamenting the current state of the world at multiple conferences a year. It must include the strengthening of all our marriages within the body of Christ: from the truck driver, to the police officer, to the teacher, and the stay-at-home mom.

Success is not having church members say gay marriage “is wrong.” Success is when the Christian vision of marriage is so beautiful that revisionist definitions of marriage “make no sense.”

For more on these themes, see my Ethika Politika article on The Abolition of Marriage, and this discussion of a First Things article, What Is Marriage to Evangelical Millennials?

And, of course, be sure to check out Trevin Wax’s full article at the Gospel Coalition.

Reflections on the Feast of St. Francis

Today is the feast of St. Francis of Assisi, whom I chose as my confirmation saint when I was received into the Catholic Church in 1999.


G. K. Chesterton’s biography of St. Francis was one of many books that helped introduce me to the truth and beauty of the Catholic faith. But Francis himself stuck with me in a special way.

I was particularly drawn by the powerful combination of joy and asceticism in his personality.

Asceticism was not new to me. I had grown up Southern Baptist, and joined the Presbyterian Church in America in college. I had been profoundly moved by Bonhoeffer’s Cost of Discipleship. I had also been committed to celibacy since my late teens. So though I have learned more of asceticism and the cross since becoming Catholic, I already knew about the cost and sacrifice involved in responding to Christ’s call to come and follow.

What I did not realize, until I encountered St. Francis, was the deeper “Yes!” that made sense of and gave life in the midst of the many things I had to say “no” to in order to remain faithful to Christ. Continue reading

Always Consider the Person

World Meeting of Families Transcript

This is a transcript of my presentation with my mother, Beverley Belgau, at the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia, in conjunction with Pope Francis’s first pastoral visit to the United States. The World Meeting of Families is a global Catholic event, like World Youth Day. The first World Meeting of Families was called together by Pope St. John Paul II in 1994 to celebrate the International Year of the Family. It has grown into the largest gathering of families in the world, and this year’s meeting in Philadelphia beat all previous attendance records.

This was also the first time in the history of the World Meeting that an openly gay—and celibate—Catholic was invited to speak about his experiences in the Church and in his family. 

Because of a room scheduling snafu, we started late (the room was filled to overflowing and hundreds of people were reportedly turned away). To make up, we cut some material on the fly. This reflects the original transcript, not the presentation as delivered. Because this talk highlights a lot of points we have made at Spiritual Friendship over the years, I’ve included links to other posts, if you want to learn more. 

After the formal presentation, we answered audience questions for over two hours; even then, we only left because the Convention Center staff said we had to leave; there were still dozens of people in the room listening, and people in line waiting to ask questions. This speaks to just how important it is for the Church to take more time to talk about how families and parishes can respond to their lesbian and gay members with Christ-like love.

Given the length of the presentation, I have added numbered paragraphs to help locate material within the text.  
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Prayers for World Meeting of Families and Pope Francis Visit

Ron and Beverley Belgau

This Thursday, my mother, Beverley, and I will give a talk at the World Meeting  of Families in Philadelphia“Always Consider the Person”: Homosexuality in the Family.

What are some ways that Catholic families can respond to a family member’s disclosure that they are same sex attracted, or the announcement that they are gay or lesbian? Ron Belgau, a celibate gay Catholic who embraces and Church teaching, and his mother, Beverley Belgau, will share their own stories as a way of highlighting some of the challenges faced by same sex attracted Catholics and their families. They will also talk about how Catholics should respond with both grace and truth to gay or lesbian friends or family members who struggle with or reject Catholic teaching on chastity.

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