Lessons from Fr. Richard Rohr on Sexual and Gender Diversity

“While younger generations are more comfortable talking about a spectrum of gender identities and sexual orientations, most of us born before 1960 were taught that there were only two genders, male and female, and only one acceptable sexual orientation: ‘straight.’ So, I want to start by inviting you to receive these reflections through the lens of contemplation. This week is a good test case for one’s ability to think in a nondual way.

“Contemplation is a kind of seeing that is much more than mere looking because it also includes recognizing and thus appreciating. The contemplative mind does not tell us what to see but teaches us how to see what we behold.”

Fr. Richard Rohr, OFM

Franciscan Father Richard Rohr’s recent online reflections about gender and sexuality provide a powerful way to re-frame our approach to these topics as Catholics and Christians. To understand this re-framing, it is first important to understand what Rohr means by contemplation. Rohr’s idea of contemplation is grounded in historical and cultural change.  In other words, theological principles are influenced and shaped by the political and social developments of the contemporary world.  Catholic theology is not a fixed, predetermined series of rules and guidelines forever frozen in time, but a multidimensional system that evolves from an interconnected social, political, and theological process.  Essentially, we are all part of a beautiful community of God’s creation — the Church — that has, can, and does change in response to society’s evolving knowledge and awareness of gender and sexual identity.

Rohr further underscores how contemplation empowers us to see the complexity of life’s experiences as they unfold, moving away from a rigid classification of dualism:

“Contemplation allows us to see the truth of things in their wholeness. It is a mental discipline and gift that detaches us, even neurologically, from our addiction to our habitual ways of thinking and from our left brain, which likes to think it is in control. We stop believing our little binary mind—which strips things down to two choices and then usually identifies with one of them—and begin to recognize the inadequacy of that limited way of knowing reality. Relying solely on the binary mind is a recipe for superficiality. Only the contemplative, or the deeply intuitive, can start venturing out into much broader and more open-ended horizons…

“The most common human responses to a new moment, or something that does not fit neatly into one of our dualistic categories such as male or female, gay or straight, are mistrust, cynicism, fear, knee-jerk reactions, a spirit of dismissal, and overriding judgmentalism. It is so discouraging when we have the courage to finally see that these habits are the common ways that the ego tries to be in control of the data instead of allowing the moment to get some control over us—and teach us something new!

What new “moments” come to mind from an LGBTQ perspective?  Concerning gender identity, this could mean that we relinquish our preoccupation with rigid gender categories. Instead of policing gender presentation, we can be open to the lived experiences of those who identify as transgender. Appreciating this new “moment” however presumes that we allow individuals to express who they are, as they are, which again, evolves through time (as it does for all of us!).  This possibility is particularly a challenge for LGBTQ youth because of educational and institutional barriers as well as societal obstacles and prejudice that can dismiss a child’s authentic expression and developmental growth beyond a narrow vision of gender norms and expectations.

As a society, we are generally more comfortable with the idea of an adult gay or lesbian couple than we are with a 10-year-old child assigned as a male at birth who expresses their genuine desire to dress and present themselves as female.  What other “moments” might we experience as LGBTQ children come to us with their hopes and fears as they explore, develop, and mature into their bodies, their sexualities, and their gender identities?

Rohr’s robust contemplative framework helps us to better appreciate the richness and beauty found in unique experiences when we detach ourselves and our ego from the pattern of binary classifications and reactionary dualism.  Through Rohr’s spiritual practice of contemplation, we become more receptive to what God has to offer us through the experiences of LGBTQ people, which may challenge our preconceived notions of sexual and gender identity, love, and companionship.

Our sexuality and gender —in all its diverse forms —are gifts from God that should be celebrated, rather than classed as sinful or shameful things that detract from our holiness or spiritual growth.  Instead of seeing LGBTQ individuals pejoratively  as “other,” or worse, as “sexual deviants,” we can experience them as equally loved by God, and capable of rich, full lives in communion with the Divine in all its forms.

LGBTQ people’s desire to create a families is an example of how Rohr’s contemplative framework dispels the notion that the only blueprint for a family is a female mother, a male father, and a child biologically born from that heterosexual relationship.  By accepting LGBTQ models of family, we make room for new “moments” and unique pathways of creating family. We can learn new qualities for being a loving parent

Children of LGBT parents are brought into being and loved through a variety of avenues including surrogacy and adoption, processes that are very intentional, deliberate, and time consuming, both legally and financially.  In some situations, the most potential adoptive parents for abused and neglected children in the foster care system are committed same-sex couples.  This fact should speak volumes about the loving goodness and nurturing qualities of prospective LGBT parents who want to create a family.

These LGBTQ examples help illuminate Rohr’s broad vision gained through the practice of contemplation by juxtaposing our often limited vision of our reality with that of God’s:

“With all the changing ways of understanding gender and sexuality, most of us truly need contemplative eyes and the guidance of the Holy Spirit to ‘rupture simplistic binaries’ and be compassionate and respectful of difference and diversity. It clearly seems that God is quite comfortable with immense diversity.  We have a much harder time with it, preferring uniformity and conformity instead.”

If we ponder that the participation and lived experience of LGBTQ people in the Church — like all of God’s creation — is ever-expanding in its discovery, then our compassion for those who are different from us and for the “other” knows no bounds.  Although Rohr’s reflections focus on expanding our understanding of LGBTQ people, it’s easy to comprehend how his contemplative practice of eroding our pattern of dualistic thinking can apply to other marginalized communities such as immigrants or persecuted religious minorities.

Moreover, Rohr’s premise that “God is quite comfortable with immense diversity” isn’t just a lofty, contemporary ideal, but is grounded in the life of Jesus.  Jesus’ transgression of the cultural, religious, and political norms that separated individuals and communities into a dualistic binary good versus bad, clean versus unclean, for example, is echoed by Rohr’s framework of contemplation.  Untangling the divisive nature of our binary thought process  and advocating for compassion and understanding is a powerful starting point for the full inclusion of LGBTQ individuals in our local communities as well as in the Church.

–Brian William Kaufman, New Ways Ministry, December 14, 2019

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Vatican Official Criticizes ‘Ultraconservatives’ for Linking Gay Priests to Sexual Abuse

Fr. Jordi Bertomeu Farnós

Two prominent church officials have rejected the myth that there is a link between homosexuality and child abuse, and they criticized right wing groups that advance such falsehoods.

Fr. Jordi Bertomeu Farnós of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) challenged the idea that being gay makes a priest more likely to abuse a child. Novena News reported that the priest, named by Pope Francis to be a special investigator into the sexual abuse crisis that rocked the church in Chile, wrote an article about his conclusions derived from a study of 6,000 cases of priests abusing children that have been handled by the CDF since 2001.

In the Spanish journal Palabra, Bertomeu addressed data, which he described as “still very partial and scientifically weak,” that a disproportionate number of children abused by priests were male. Some quarters have used this to argue being gay makes one more likely to abuse, but the CDF official refutes such claims:

“In this regard, given some interested positions and strongly marked by a certain ultraconservative ideological position, it must be said that there is no direct relationship between homosexuality and pedophilia or between the latter and a ‘progressive style’ of clergy. . .affirming the direct connection of homosexuality with pedophilia from the data outlined above, not only involves the commission of a great injustice, but also the criminalization of a certain sexual identity.

“Rather, it is only possible to affirm that a certain homosexual subculture typical of some clerical groups and present in certain seminaries or novitiates, with the consequent tolerance towards active homosexual behaviors, can lead to pedophilia. These are situations that deserve greater attention from the pastors, who have the pastoral and disciplinary means to invite by example, the word and even coercion to a chaste life that does not pose a danger or scandal for the priest himself and for the Church.”

Fr. Ansgar Wucherpfennig, SJ

Also recently condemning any correlation between homosexuality and child abuse is theologian Fr. Ansgar Wucherpfennig of Frankfurt. He offered comments on the issue during a lecture to the Faculty of Catholic Theology in Vienna. Katholisch.de reported:

“Wucherpfennig turned against the common thesis in ‘right wing Catholic’ circles and in the Vatican that the homosexual orientation of priests was significantly responsible for church abuse cases. Rather, he pointed to an intra-church pressure that the priest deny their sexuality and thus leave them immature in this area. In the Catholic clergy, many who had agreed “not to be themselves” become “terrifyingly dark and impersonal.” If they came into positions of responsibility, they would do anything to uphold traditional Catholic sexual morality. Pedophiliac-exercised power was disproportionately common among such persons.”

The theologian, who serves as rector of the Jesuit Sankt-Georgen Graduate School of Philosophy and Theology in Frankfurt, also called for the church to rethink its approach to LGBTQ issues taking into account modern sciences. Novena News reported:

“Wucherpfenning insisted it is a mistake to quote the Bible to condemn homosexuality.

“That’s because the Sacred Scriptures only contain a few ambiguous references to same-sex activity and, in any case, don’t establish by any means a link between any particular sexual orientation and sexualised violence, the Jesuit said.

“The Bible can only be read in any age in dialogue with lived reality, the academic added, urging the Church to a revision of its sexual morality in the light of both the modern human sciences and the experiences of the faithful.”

Earlier this year, Wucherpfennig joined a letter signed by top German Catholics calling for a “new start on sexual morality” that includes a rethinking of the Catholic approach to homosexuality. But the priest’s outspokenness has not been trouble-free. In 2018, Wucherpfennig was temporarily sanctioned by the Vatican for his outspoken views on LGBTQ topics when he was denied a credential needed to be Sankt-Georgen’s rector. That denial was reversed after widespread support for the priest was voiced by bishops, his religious provincial, fellow academics, and Sankt-Georgen’s alumni and donors.

For Bondings 2.0’s full coverage of gay men and priesthood, click here.

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, December 13, 2019

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German Bishops Affirm Homosexuality as “Normal,” Acknowledge Queer Relationships as “Hot Topic”

Archbishop Heiner Koch of Berlin, chair of Commission on Marriage and Family of the German Bishops’ Conference

At the conclusion of a consultation they sponsored on human sexuality, Germany’s bishops issued a statement in which they   affirmed homosexuality as a “normal” part of human development, and they labeled church teaching against same-gender sexual activity a “hot topic”.

The Commission for Marriage and Family of the German Bishops’ Conference held the consultation, “Human Sexuality – how to discuss scientifically-theologically and judge ecclesiastically?”, in early December and included several outside experts in its deliberations. In a concluding statement, the Commission summarized the consultation’s discussion of homosexuality:

“[T]here was agreement that the sexual preference of humans is expressed during puberty and assumes a heterosexual or homosexual orientation. Both belong to the normal forms of a sexual predisposition that can not be changed or changed by any specific socialization. In the Church’s thinking, this means that any form of discrimination against homosexuals must be rejected, as has long been demanded by the Magisterium, and is also explicitly emphasized by Pope Francis in the Post-Synodal letter Amoris laetitia. However, the question of whether the magisterial ban on practiced homosexuality is still timely has been a hot topic, just like the question of the legitimacy of using artificial contraceptives in marriage and unmarried couples.”

This consultation is part of the German church’s Synodal Way that kicked off this Advent, which includes a working group on sexual morality that will include the consultation’s results in its deliberations set to begin next February. Berlin’s Archbishop Heiner Koch connected the December sexuality consultation to this wider process, as revealed in the public statement:

“[Koch] emphasized that the synodal path should be started without prejudice and without already fixed positions, but by no means without knowledge of the state of the sciences. There was a consensus that human sexuality encompasses a dimension of pleasure, reproduction and relationship. . .Two members of the German language group of the Roman Synod of Bishops of October 2015, Archbishop Koch and Bishop [Franz-Josef] Bode, underlined the importance of a solid discussion supported by humanities and theology and emphasized the developments that can already be observed in Amoris laetitia.”

Significantly, the bishops’ statement also suggested that a sexual relationship by a Catholic who is divorced and civilly remarried is “not now qualified as a serious sin” and therefore there is “no general exclusion from the reception of the Eucharist” for such people.

In addition to outside experts, Novena News reported that a number of bishops participated in the consultation , including Archbishop Koch, Osnabrück’s Bishop  Bode, Görlitz’s Bishop Wolfgang Ipolt, and Mainz’s Bishop Peter Kohlgraf, some of who serve on other committees for the nation’s episcopal conference. Several auxiliary bishops also participated.

Beginning with a January plenary, the Synodal Way process, which is binding, will take up issues under four working groups, according to a German Bishops’ Conference spokesperson, Matthias Kopp. In addition to the group on sexuality, the other working groups will be “Power, Participation, Separation of Powers,” “Priestly Existence,” and “Women in Services and Offices of the Church.” The bishops have admitted that the genesis of this process was the “dissatisfaction of many believers,” according to a statement on the Conference website.

The Synodal Way could have ramifications not only for the German church, but for the universal one. While the outcomes of this two-year process cannot, and according to Archbishop Koch, should not be pre-determined, German Catholics could see significant developments. If those participating truly listen to and learn from how the sciences understand human sexuality and relationships today, they can then incorporate such findings into theological reflection and pastoral practice, what could emerge as a groundbreaking moment for Catholic LGBTQ issues.

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, December 12, 2019

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In New Index, Several Catholic Countries Are Among Safest for LGBTQ Tourists

Included in a newly formed list of the safest places for LGBTQ people to visit are a number of predominantly Catholic countries, showing Catholics are more supportive of LGBTQ equality than they are resistant to it.

Popular online travel journalists and researchers Asher and Lyric Fergusson recently ranked 150 countries from most dangerous to safest for LGBTQ tourists to visit. The ranking was determined by an eight-point LGBTQ Danger Index that included research on the legal standing of LGBTQ folks in the countries polled. Within that research, Asher and Lyric considered legal protections for LGBTQ individuals, workers, and parents, as well as public sentiment toward the queer community.

In their findings, Sweden, Canada, and Norway are the top three safest countries for LGBTQ tourists, while Nigeria, Qatar, and Yemen remain the most dangerous.

Among the remaining top ten safest countries are a number of traditionally Catholic countries, including Spain, France, Malta, and Belgium. Each one has exceptionally high rankings for the categories of recognition of same-sex marriages, constitutional or broad protections for LGBTQ individuals, and criminalization of hate crimes committed against LGBTQ folks.  While there have been many surveys which show that U.S. Catholics overwhelmingly support LGBTQ equality, this latest international report also shows that such support is present in other nations with large Catholic populations. Catholic tradition is not only part of the personal identity of the population, but is also part of the social fabric of the countries.

A particularly interesting study is the case of Malta, where 95% of the population identifies as Catholic and whose constitution recognizes the Catholic Church as the official religion of the nation, giving the Catholic Church the right and duty to “teach which principles are right and wrong.” This same country ranked first for LGBTQ rights among the 49 European countries in 2018.

Malta has passed a number of LGBTQ affirming laws in recent years. The nation has recognized same-sex civil unions since 2014 and same-sex marriages since 2017, banned conversion therapy in 2015, added the gender-neutral “X” category to IDs and passports, and recently opened a gender clinic with the expectation of making gender confirmation surgery free for all trans citizens.

As Bondings 2.0 previously reported, Malta represents a microcosm of the evolution toward LGBTQ equality that should be mirrored in other Catholic countries. Rather than being an impediment to LGBTQ recognition, Malta’s Catholic identity, with its focus on the respect for human dignity, equality, and the common good, has contributed to the full inclusion of LGBTQ Maltese citizens.  With 95% of the population identifying as Catholic, it would be hard to argue that Maltese Catholics did not contribute to the nation being identified as one of the safest for LGBTQ folks.

In addition, Maltese Catholic bishops sought greater inclusion for LGBTQ community, with one bishop winning an award from the Malta Gay Rights Movement in 2014.

Similarly, in Spain and France, the LGBTQ community has made advances in recent years. The Church in both of those countries have made strides in providing pastoral care to the LGBTQ community as their rights expand. For instance, in Spain, a Catholic diocese has provided guidelines for baptizing children of same-sex couples, and French Catholic bishops have made real efforts to include LGBTQ folks in Catholic communities after the legalization of same-gender marriage in France.

The progress of Catholic countries such as Spain, France, and Malta, all with their own limitations and nuances prove that Catholics, Catholic countries, and Catholic bishops themselves can effectively flourish while also caring for and supporting the LGBTQ community. In the U.S., the debate is often presented as an either/or: We can either uphold our Catholic identity and tradition or we can work for LGBTQ equality. Malta, Spain, and France show that the Church can and should do both. In fact, the flourishing of the whole church requires the flourishing of all people, including the LGBTQ community. The Church and the LGBTQ community flourish together. In order for the Church to be true to its universal mission of love and inclusion, we must work in solidarity with and for the LGBTQ community for their full equality.

–Kevin Molloy, New Ways Ministry, December 11, 2019

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