Monday, June 22, 2009

Preparing to Claim Our Place at the Table

In the local church of St. Paul-Minneapolis
an intentional and coordinated effort
to initiate dialogue
and discern recommendations for reform
is underway

As I reported recently over at the Progressive Catholic Voice, across the Twin Cities metro area small groups of Catholics are currently gathering in “work/study groups” to discuss a range of issues crucial to the local church.

It’s an intentional and coordinated effort set in motion by the April 18 prayer breakfast (left) that heralded the launching of the Catholic Coalition for Church Reform (CCCR), and which began preparing local Catholics to participate in a September 2010 synod entitled “Claiming Our Place at the Table.” In many ways this synod will explore the role of baptized Catholics within the institutional church in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.

The numerous work/study groups that have begun meeting on a regular basis throughout the Twin Cities metro area are a key part of the preparations for CCCR’s 2010 Synod. Their purpose is to gather people together who share a passion for reforming certain areas of church life. These areas are ones that many have long recognized as being at odds with the Gospel message of love proclaimed by Jesus. They include clericalism, the selection of bishops, official teaching on sexuality and gender, and church authority and governance. Other areas are less controversial though still crucial when discussing renewal of the Church – Catholic spirituality; Catholic identity/Christian identity; social justice; and children, youth, and church.

My friend and fellow Coalition member Paula Ruddy (right) explains the rationale for the work/study groups as follows: “We identify with the tradition of baptismal responsibility for creating an institution that supports the human development of all its members. We also believe that grace builds upon nature. Accordingly, when institutional teachings and practices undermine full adult human development they hinder participation in the Church’s mission to bring the Gospel message to the world. Such teachings and practices must be identified and reformed.”

The plan that’s underway is that for the next sixteen months leading up to the 2010 Synod, each work/study group will prepare to present questions and recommendations for the Synod’s input and approval. The questions will be focused on the ways the local church does and does not manifest the Gospel message through its culture and practices. The Synod will then produce concrete recommendations for accentuating the positive and eliminating the negative in the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis.

I’m honored to be serving as the facilitator of the work/study group that’s focusing on sexual orientation and gender identity. There are fourteen people committed to being part of this particular work/study group, and we had our first meeting at my home this past Saturday. Following is how we’ve begun to understand our purpose and direction for the next sixteen months.

Is it consistent with the Gospel message of transforming love and abundant life to construct and promote a theology that justifies denying lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) persons full expression of their sexuality and the human good of partnering? What might an alternative theology, one informed by the findings of science and the experiences and insights of LGBT people, look like?

The Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Work/Study Group of the 2010 Synod will explore the historical, biological, and psycho/social aspects of human sexuality – with particular emphasis on homosexuality. It will also make recommendations for the adoption of a theology that values and celebrates the lives and relationships of LGBT people.

In light of this purpose and direction, we have four specific goals:

1. To gain a comprehensive overview of the scope of our subject matter (sexual orientation and gender identity) with particular attention to the U.S. church and the specifics of the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis.

2. To produce a written report of our study with concrete recommendations for change in the practices and culture of the local church.

3. To present this report at the 2010 Synod, “Claiming Our Place at the Table” (September 18, 2010).

4. To select one or more members to represent our group on a Post Synod Coordinating Council whose job it will be to determine priorities and to communicate the recommendations within the local church for implementation.

Those of us who comprise the work/study group on sexual orientation and gender identity had a very productive and enjoyable gathering on Saturday. We started by sharing what drew us to be part of this particular group. A range of feelings were expressed: frustration and anger at the hierarchical church’s position on issues of sexuality and gender, and its refusal to listen to the Spirit within the experiences and insights of the faithful; sadness at how younger generations view the church as irrelevant; determination to work for reform and renewal; and trust that the Spirit is inspiring and sustaining such efforts.

We also talked about the importance of prayer in our reforming and renewing efforts, and how in many ways we are attempting to work toward establishing a healthy sexual culture within the Church. And as one member of the group noted, in such an endeavor we have reason and the sciences on our side. The hierarchy of the Church, on the other hand, is “fighting biology,” - a fight it can’t win. It must know this, and yet it refuses to lead the way in constructing a sexual theology that is informed and reasonable, let alone acknowledge and support those efforts within and beyond the Roman Catholic Church that are attentive to the Spirit and thus working to develop a responsible sexual theology that, as author Christine E. Gudolf notes, “not only accords with our scientific and experiential insights into sexuality, but which better accords with our understanding of the central revelations of the gospel.”

An initial task we’ve set ourselves is deciding upon the first of no doubt a number of scholarly books that we will study and discuss together in the lead-up to the 2010 Synod. Two possible titles are: The Sexual Person: Toward a Renewed Catholic Anthropology by Todd A. Salzman and Michael G. Lawler, and Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics by Margaret Farley.

Does what we’re doing fire-up something within you? It’s certainly not too late to become involved in this or any one of CCCR’s twelve other work/study groups. To find out more information about the groups, click here. To sign-up, call Paula Ruddy at 612-379-1043.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Many Voices, One Church
“Something Exciting and Joyful”
The Catholic Coalition for Church Reform
A Declaration for Reform and Renewal
What It Means to Be Catholic
A Brave Hope
Of Mustard Seeds and Walled Gardens
The Emerging Church
How Times Have Changed
The Call to Be Dialogical Catholics


Fran said...

Reading this gives me so much hope! Prayers for your journey and thanks for all that you do.

Liam said...

One question that I believe merits inclusion in your reflections, deliberations and recommendations: what if we are wrong? Or, if your paradigm is that no one gets to be wrong (in which case, that would also mean the current authority-wielders in the Church, right?), then what are our limiting assumptions, beliefs and values?

If we wish the bishops to ask these questions of themselves, we must model it first for them....

kevin57 said...

I believe that Canon Law recommends the calling of Synods on diocesan and even national levels. It is one way to respect the priesthood of all the laity. Interestingly, very few dioceses have held a synod. I wonder why.

Liam said...

Canon 439 treats councils at the national level; Canon 440 treats provincial councils at the level of metropolitan provinces. Diocesan councils are not the same - they refer to a kind of curial arm not a deliberative body summoned on occasion.

Paula said...

Liam, what do you mean by the question: What if we are wrong?

Wrong about what? Wrong to study a theology of human sexuality? Wrong to question church authority?

Certainly everyone can be wrong, but the only way to know it is to keep learning, thinking, and reasoning together. Why are you against that?

Liam said...


I did not say I was against that. But it should be done in a way that transparently incorporates a sense of epistemological and rhetorical limits. One of the sweeter temptations for Catholic progressives is aping the certainty of the bishops and presenting our conclusions as if they bind (or ought to bind) others.

Anonymous said...

I believe the Catholic Church has always taught homophilia is a grave moral disorder. Always. NT, Didache, and for 2,000 years. If anyone thinks the church hierarchy of self-loathing androphiles is going to forfeit the power and clandestine relations, perhaps the Prayer of Saint Francis is not heard, nor understood.

Donna said...

Liam, I for one have no issue with "certainty" if it's based on the reality of people's lives. Yet I wonder what the certainty of the hierarchy's teaching on, say, homosexuality is based upon. Definitely not the lives of the gay people I know. The type of exploration and discussion that's taking place in the church of the Twin Cities area is long overdue. It should be being initiated by our so-called leaders. In reality, I think what this lay coalition is doing is modeling a model of healthy leadership to the hierarchy. Let's hope they're watching and taking note.

Liam said...


My issue is that it's often almost too easy to toggle the Catholic pontificating switch. That is, instead of offering particular truths from experience, to be considered inductively, Catholic have an almost genetic pre-disposition to resist staying in that mode and want to flip immediately to deductive principles that are binding universally. This is just as true of us progressives on our justice issues as the bishops on their obedience issues, just in different ways - in the end, both can converge in the realm of moralism. And that virtually guarantees a stillborn conversation. It's more radical, I propose, to resist that temptation to say that the truth [insert first person singular or plural as one likes] discern is a truth that ought to bind [insert second or third person singular or plural as one likes].

And one might wonder why this is so when it was not so with the issue of racial civil rights, the model of which is also appealing. Partly this is because the issue of racial discrimination and oppression was predominantly a civic conversation based on civil law and the failures to live up to the post-Civil War covenant. This conversation, however, is more intramural on Church turf, and the discerning of consensus around co-existing inductive and deductive truths is not something that will succeed if anathemas from bishops are met with what appear to be counter-anathemas (even if not worded as such) from segments of the faithful.

For example, what would it be like if a consensus approached to develop "magisterial" teaching on homosexual activity to place greater weight on the internal forum and subjective circumstances of people with so-called "deep seated homosexual tendencies" who only engage in that activity with permanent monogamous relationships? (This might be akin to the development of the teaching on usury, where the definition of usury evolved to take into account historical developments that rendered the previous definition overbroad.)

I am not recommending that approach, but as things stand it would not shock me if that was a result in 100 years time.

The deeper, less discussed, issue is that the morality of sexual acts is almost uniquely evaluated in exclusively objective terms as compared to other moral actions. (I could offer speculations about why that is so, but that's going far afield here.) People who really want to grapple with this issue at the level of bishops are going to have to be prepared to engage with the systematic philosophical issue that raises (I readily confess it's above my pay grade, but I am well aware it looms out there like the underside of the tip of the iceberg).