Sunday, January 29, 2023

Ditching the Crime, Keeping the Sin: Thoughts on the Pope’s Call to Decriminalize Homosexuality

I was heartened to see my friends Brian McNeill and Paula Ruddy quoted in an article in yesterday’s Star Tribune.

Entitled, “Pope’s Support Lifts LGBTQ Community,” this article highlighted the reactions of local reform-minded Catholics to Pope Francis’ recent statement that “homosexuality is not a crime.” The Pope went on to call on Catholic bishops in countries with anti-gay laws to stand against these “unjust” laws and to recognize all people’s dignity.

It seems praise-worthy enough, but let’s just be very clear here: the supreme overlord of a feudal monarchical system to whom the vast majority of his “subjects” (straight and gay) do not listen when he speaks on matters of sex and sexuality, is being roundly applauded for stating that while “homosexual activity” is still a “sin,” it should not be considered a “crime.”

Ditching the crime, keeping the sin

For reasons that I’ll go into shortly, I’m not particularly impressed with the Pope’s attempts to ditch the crime / keep the sin. Others, however, are impressed, and believe the Pope's words are going to make a real difference in the world. My friend Brian McNeill states in yesterday’s Star Tribune article that, “We here in the U.S. can advocate and lobby the church on improving their position on LGBTQ issues without any consequences. In 67 countries in the world, it’s illegal to be LGBTQ and in 11 countries, it merits the death penalty under certain circumstances.” Building on such an observation, James Martin, SJ contends that the Pope’s call to decriminalize homosexuality will save lives.

I have two thoughts about this. First, I question Brian’s assertion that advocating and lobbying the church to “improv[e] their position on LGBTQ issues” is without consequence in the United States. True, no one’s going to be jailed or executed for being gay, but a Catholic high school teacher, for instance, could not do the advocacy work that I did 10 years ago, and which Brian continues to do today, without fear of losing their job.

Second, to Fr. James Martin’s point, one has to ask: How many of the governments that criminalize homosexuality are open to being influenced by the Roman Catholic Church? I also find myself wondering how serious world governments actually take the church on matters of sexuality and justice given the scope, gravity and, yes, criminality of the church’s own clergy sex abuse scandal.

Regardless, Pope Francis urges bishops, other clergy members, and lay Catholics (the entire church, in other words) to actively work for the abolition of laws that criminalize homosexuality. This call is, without doubt, historic. So for that reason alone it is a step forward, and I can understand why many are praising and celebrating it.

Making the connections

Yet in the midst of this celebration, my heart compels me to ask: Why can’t we all get past needing to rely on the words of any type of overlord, including the benevolent Pope Francis, to recognize – and do – the right thing by ourselves and others when it comes to important issues relating to human experience, relating to our experience?

And let’s go even deeper. Regardless of the good and positive things Pope Francis may say about, well, anything, they all could be denounced and reversed by the next pope. That’s the problem with feudal monarchies like the Vatican; everything is dependent on the will of the overlord. Also, while it’s true that Pope Francis chooses not to emphasize troubling terms such as “intrinsically disordered” to describe the homosexual orientation, that language and understanding is still part of official church teaching on morality. It’s there ready to be emphasized and extolled by the next (and less pastorally-sensitive) overlord. Can you see the problem here?

So here’s what I’m waiting to celebrate: the abolition of Roman Catholicism’s clerical caste and the complete transformation of the papacy as we know it. (And, yes, there are non-overlord models of the papacy out there.*). Only with such radical transformation will we see the establishment in the church of a way of talking about sexual matters that is open to and shaped by all people’s experience of God in their sexual lives and relationships.

The Roman Catholic Church does not have such an inclusive and reality-based way of talking about sex and sexuality; it does not have, in other words, an actual sexual theology, i.e., a way of talking about God in relation to human sexuality. It has instead a marriage theology, one that posits that it is only within a church-approved marriage (i.e., one man and one woman, with every sex act open to procreation) where sex is “godly,” not sinful.

Gay people, of course, don’t fit into such an understanding of marriage. How could they when this understanding does not reflect the diversity of human sexuality? Instead, human sexuality and the meaning and sacredness of sex are all narrowly reduced to – and defined by – the church-approved understanding of marriage. Said another way, a definition of marriage is defining acceptable sexuality and its expression. The Pope recently reinforced this when he offered a “clarification” of his remarks on homosexuality and sin. “When I said [homosexuality] is a sin,” the Pope wrote, “I was simply referring to Catholic moral teaching, which says that every sexual act outside of marriage is a sin.”

In an interview I did with him back in 2005, “modern mystic” Chuck Lofy highlighted the problem with this limited way of thinking about sexuality.

Human experience of God within the full range of human sexuality has not been recognized or valued [by the Vatican]. What’s valued is a system of logic. So for the pope it is logical that when you think of the penis and the vagina, the point of sexuality is to procreate within the framework of heterosexual marriage. It’s a logical, intellectually-based paradigm. But it doesn’t align with human experience in the real world.

And speaking of the church’s moral teaching, here’s something else that’s a reality for many LGBTQ Catholics: It is very difficult to separate the anti-gay behavior of individuals and governments from the anti-gay teaching of the Roman Catholic Church. When the church hierarchy labels LGBTQ people’s longing for relational intimacy as “intrinsically evil” and “objectively disordered,” it gives subtle permission for anti-gay behavior. If such behavior – on the part of either individuals or governments – is going to be denounced by the church as “unjust” then so too should the church’s language and theology that fuel and justify it. The church, and, yes, that includes Pope Francis, needs to recognize the connection between its own anti-gay language and how the internalization of this language leads to anti-gay behavior and actions, including the passing of anti-gay laws.

Moving on

For many years I dedicated my time and energy to educating Catholics about the need for radical change within the church. I did so as the executive director of both the Catholic Pastoral Committee on Sexual Minorities (CPCSM) and Catholics for Marriage Equality MN, as editor of The Progressive Catholic Voice, as a board member of the Catholic Coalition for Church Reform (CCCR), and as the author of Creating Safe Environments for LGBT Students: A Catholic Schools Perspective (Haworth Press, 2007).

I don’t regret my time working for church reform, renewal and transformation – nor my reasons at the time for doing so. But after a good twelve years of such work there came a time when I no longer felt called to continue it. I did what I did, and I did it well. I came to a point, however, when I needed to focus on my own transformation and journey, and leave the transformation and journey of the Roman Catholic Church to those who still felt motivated and inspired to engage in such important work.

I realized that, for me, life is way too short to take on, long-term, an institution like Roman Catholicism. Plus, on a practical level, such work was not financially sustaining. Also, we have the ability to walk away from this particular feudal system and not have it impact us in any kind of retaliatory way. We can move on with our lives, and that’s exactly what I did. And I have to say that my life is all the more satisfying and richer for it.

Of course, not everyone has to “move on” from Roman Catholicism to experience a satisfying and rich life. Many have this experience while staying within the church and working for change. I continue to have great admiration and respect for such individuals – locally and nationally. I’m thinking not only of my friends Brian and Paula but also Marianne Duddy-Burke, Mary Hunt, Jeannine Gramick, Francis DeBernardo, Bob Shine, Joan Chittister, Margaret Farley, Jamie Manson, Ilia Delio, Paul Lakeland and many others. May their work help transform the church.

For more on my journey, see the introduction to this Wild Reed post.

* One Catholic theologian who advocates for a team model for the papacy is theologian Mary Hunt. Speaking on Pacific Radio’s Democracy Now! program shortly after the selection of Cardinal Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI in April 2005, Hunt said:

I still favor and put out to your listeners, a possibility: the notion of an international team for the papacy. If the papacy is supposed to be a symbol of unity and not a person with authority, then it makes much more sense in a post-modern time to think not about one person . . . but in fact to think about an intergenerational, international team of men and women who could in fact meet and lead a billion people using technology and travel as a way to bring many voices into the discussion. So we’re really pushing for a horizontal model of church, not the vertical one that Cardinal Ratzinger represents.

For more discussion on non-overlord models of the papacy, click here and here.

Related Off-site Links:
The AP Interview: Pope Says Homosexuality Not a Crime – Nicole Winfield (AP News, January 25, 2023).
In Papal First, Francis Backs Decriminalization of Homosexuality – Christopher White (National Catholic Reporter, January 25, 2023).
Pope Francis’s Call to Decriminalize Homosexuality Worldwide Will Save Lives – James Martin, S.J. (Outreach, January 25, 2023).
Pope Francis’ LGBTQ Comments Are Not Surprising But Sincere, Gay Vatican Adviser Says – Leila Fadel and Jan Johnson (National Catholic Reporter, January 26, 2023).
Pope Clarifies Homosexuality and Sin Comments in Note – Nicole Winfield (AP News via ABC News, January 28, 2023).

UPDATE: What Lasting Impact Will Pope Francis’ Condemnation of Criminalization Laws Have? – Robert Shine (, February 8, 2023).

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Catholic Church Can Overcome Fear of LGBT People
A Catholic’s Prayer for his Fellow Pilgrim, Benedict XVI
Vatican Stance on Gay Priests Signals Urgent Need for Renewal and Reform
It’s Time We Evolved Beyond Theological Imperialism
Getting It Right
Progressive Catholic Perspectives on the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2015 Marriage Equality Ruling
Progressive Thoughts on Recent Developments in Ireland, El Salvador and the U.S.
More Progressive Catholic Perspectives on Ireland’s Historic Gay Marriage Vote
Progressive Catholic Perspectives on the Legacy of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI
LGBT Catholics Respond to Synod 2014’s Final Report
Beyond the Hierarchy: The Blossoming of Liberating Catholic Insights on Sexuality – Part I | II | III | IV | V | VI | VII | VIII
Hans Küng: “The Gospel of Jesus Christ is Stronger Than the Hierarchy”
Mary Hunt: Quote of the Day – April 17, 2013
Beyond Papalism
Progressive Perspectives of the Papacy – Part I | II | III | IV | V
No Patriarchal Hierarchy, No Rigid Conformity
Rome Falling
Re-Forming “the Vatican” Doesn't Mean Destroying the Church
Pan’s Labyrinth: Critiquing the Cult of Unquestioning Obedience
What the Vatican Can Learn from the X-Men
Roger Haight on the Church We Need

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