People from around the world mourned the passing of Pope John Paul II. His funeral was one of the largest gatherings of our time, as Catholics and people touched by his life's work gathered for a special last mass with him. Many GLBT Catholics struggle with the strictures of the Catholic institution and yet some have joined together to make their own way with their faith. Bryan Cones from Dignity Chicago joins us to discuss this complicated loss. Much like our biological family, our family of faith brings us sorrow and joy.
A long way to go for GLBT Catholics:
GLBT Catholics, like many other church members, have mixed emotions on the death of Pope John Paul II. On the one hand, he was Catholicism's most recognizable figure, at times prophetic in his call for greater economic and political justice, and personally engaging to a fault. On the other hand, many Catholics — women, Catholics both married and divorced, and many proponents of the reforms initiated in the 1960s by the Second Vatican Council — see John Paul's pontificate as a singular defeat for the changes many hope for, from an inclusive priesthood to increased authority for lay people. And there are, no doubt, some who are simply relieved this long papacy is finally over.
We GLBT Catholics, however, no matter what our personal feelings about the pope as a person, have suffered some of their hardest knocks under John Paul II. Among the earliest was the 1986 'Letter to the bishops of the church on the pastoral care of homosexual persons,' which labeled homosexuality itself — as opposed to same-gender sex acts — as an 'objective disorder' to an 'intrinsic moral evil,' a declaration that resulted in the expulsion of Dignity, a Catholic GLBT advocacy group, from church property. Further statements, from the 1993 Catechism of the Catholic Church to the 2003 Vatican condemnation of same-sex marriage and the adoption of children by same-sex couples, were equally if not more negative. The latter even suggested that placing children with same-sex couples was actually a form of violence against them.
Although it's hard to trace these documents straight to John Paul himself, he certainly did nothing to prevent his administration from upping the ante on gay issues. He did issue one particularly disappointing statement on the occasion of a gay pride festival in 2000. He expressed 'deep bitterness at the affront to the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000 and the offense to Christian values' that the festival represented. That statement could well summarize his administration's general attitude to gay issues as a whole.
Some no doubt wonder why GLBT Catholics bother to continue membership in an institution that seems so dead-set against their interests. Many of us point out the fact that John Paul, as a man of a certain age, simply carried the same visceral prejudice against homosexuality and negativity about the sexual revolution in general as many in his generation. Indeed, no one who questioned the Vatican line on sex, birth control, and marriage fared any better under John Paul II. Besides, there is much more to Catholicism than sexual teaching, and the church, the whole community of baptized people, is a lot bigger than the pope.
Still, it seems unlikely that a new pope, even if he had the inclination, would be able to alter John Paul's 26-year course in any reasonable amount of time. Indeed, few GLBT Catholics hope for much from the next pope on their issues. The first step of reversing the 1986 letter declaring a same-sex orientation a 'disorder' seems far away; gay marriage is a complete non-starter. None of the recognized papal candidates has expressed anything other than the party line regarding sexual matters.
There is a hope, however, that the election of a pope from the developing world, while not resulting in any real change in teaching, may draw attention away from arguments about sexuality to the more pressing global issues of economic justice. [ See related story on the new Pope. ] Removing that pressure would give GLBT Catholics, as well as pastors and theologians who support them, time to find ways to engage the larger church in a more constructive way. Indeed, in many places in the United States, Catholic parishes have quietly accepted GLBT Catholics, their partners, and their families into the community.
In the meantime GLBT Catholics will continue to do what we've always done: Be involved on the local level, in parishes and groups like Dignity, as priests and parish ministers, as teachers, writers and theologians. Change in an ancient, tradition-bound institution like the Roman Catholic Church doesn't often come through democratic action in the political sense but in the progressive change of attitudes at all levels. Few would be surprised if in a number of years some church document began, 'As the church has always taught, homosexual members of the church possess the full dignity of the baptized,' followed by a substantial change in direction. Until that day, we, like most Catholics and other Christians, trust in the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit to guide the church to gospel fullness. In other words, we live in hope.
Bryan Cones holds a master's degree in theology from Catholic Theological Union in Chicago and is a former board member of Dignity/Chicago, a chapter of Dignity/USA ( www.dignityusa.org ) , an advocacy organization for GLBT Roman Catholics founded in 1969.