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Back to the Future

Some key steps in LGBT pastoral care from Pope Francis & the Catholic Bishops of England & Wales

by Martin Pendergast STL, MA

Pope Francis is very fond of referring to “time and space”. In his first Apostolic Exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel, he writes,

Time” has to do with fullness as an expression of the horizon which constantly opens before us, while each individual moment (space) has to do with limitation as an expression of enclosure … Here we see a first principle for progress in building a people: time is greater than space. This principle enables us to work slowly but surely, without being obsessed with immediate results. It helps us patiently to endure difficult and adverse situations, or inevitable changes in our plans. It invites us to accept the tension between fullness and limitation, and to give a priority to time … Giving priority to space means madly attempting to keep everything together in the present, trying to possess all the spaces of power … Giving priority to time means being concerned about initiating processes rather than possessing spaces. What we need, then, is to give priority to actions which generate new processes in society and engage other persons and groups who can develop them to the point where they bear fruit in significant historical events. Without anxiety, but with clear convictions and tenacity.1

The close associate of Pope Francis, Cardinal Walter Kasper commented shrewdly that The Joy of Love

doesn’t change anything of Church doctrine or canon law - but it changes everything! 2 Let’s apply this, then, to our reflections on the development of LGBT pastoral practice and the development of theological reflection which can come from this. When we stand in the midst of a particular space such as this today, perhaps as passionate subjects of the concerns before us, it is often hard to recognise all that is going on. I’d like to suggest that recognising past developments can help us move into a time-filled future, hence “back to the future”!

It was in 1979 that the Social Welfare Commission of the Catholic Bishops Conference of England & Wales, in response to a request for such guidance from the then National Conference of Priests, published An Introduction to the Pastoral Care of Homosexual People. 3 This could now be seen as an example of the kind of Synodal Church activity envisioned by Pope Francis, all these years later.The document was produced following consultation with some key moral theologians at the time, as well as a number of lesbian and gay Catholics. It attempted to respond to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s 1976 Declaration on Sexual Ethics within the context and reality of the Church in England & Wales and the experience of LGBT Catholics.Avoiding a head-on collision with the Vatican, it sought to provide the foundation for intelligent and pragmatic pastoral care within the social, cultural, and legal environments of England and Wales. As such it was acclaimed by English-speaking Catholics across the globe and promoted in the United States and Australia, among other places.

Let me say at the outset that I’ll not be discussing trans realities in this presentation. Although we have some Bishops Conference documents which deal respectfully with trans people and their various protective equality legislation, our local magisterium has not adequately reflected upon this.However, I would suggest that some of the principles established in the 1979 document could well be relevant in considering trans situations. It was good news that we heard recently that a listening to trans people is about to be initiated, possibly at a global level. I would hope that this will counter those movements which have invented the concept of so-called ‘gender ideology’, not simply using this to attack trans and intersex people, but also as an excuse to avoid effective LGB pastoral care.

In the light of the 2014 & 2015 Synods, and Pope Francis’ The Joy of Love, the Introduction to Pastoral Care document from England & Wales can be seen as a prophetic, ground-breaking document. So, let’s compare some of its passages with others from the Synods’ Reports and The Joy of Love 7

The 1979 document opens its reflection and bases its pastoral guidelines not in sexual behaviour but in human relationality. Moving on from its consideration of heterosexual marital love, it then considers friendship-love, stating: Friendship between persons of the same sex or different sexes is part of the normal inter-personal relationship within the human race. Within this we can identify the homosexual person and it is important for the pastor to be sensitive to any special features which may be characteristic of the homosexual. 8

Compare this with the Mid-Term Report of the 2014 Synod, where there was some positive acknowledgement: Providing for homosexual persons

50. Homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community. Are we capable of providing for these people, guaranteeing […] them […] a place of fellowship in our communities? Oftentimes, they want to encounter a Church which offers them a welcoming home. Are our communities capable of this, accepting and valuing their sexual orientation, without compromising Catholic doctrine on the family and matrimony?

51. The question of homosexuality requires serious reflection on how to devise realistic approaches to affective growth, human development and maturation in the Gospel, while integrating the sexual aspect, all of which constitute an important educative challenge.

52. Without denying the moral problems associated with homosexual unions, there are instances where mutual assistance to the point of sacrifice is a valuable support in the life of these persons. Furthermore, the Church pays special attention to […] children who live with same-sex couples and stresses that the needs and rights of the little ones must always be given priority.9

Sadly, such positive views did not find their way into the 2014 Final Report but they remain as a formal record of the Synod discussions, at Pope Francis’ insistence. Once again, let’s view these through the lens of time, rather than space! They represent the way in which same-sex concerns have found their way into the Church’s mainstream agenda, even if, in so many ways, its hierarchy has not yet found a way to respond in truth, compassion, and justice.

Other key issues which are central to both the 1979 document, the Synods’ deliberations and Pope Francis formal and informal responses include the role of personal conscience and the use of the ‘internal forum’.10 While not explicit in the England & Wales document, another important consideration for us must be the relationship between the legitimate magisterium of the local Church and that of Vatican Congregations, clarity around the various levels of official teaching and what kind of allegiance is required from the people of God, as well as the de-centralising of decision-making and pastoral strategy decisions at local levels.

 On the role of conscience, the 1979 document states: Of course, pastoral care does not consist simply in the rigid and automatic application of objective moral norms. It considers the individual in his actual situation, with all his strengths and weaknesses. The decision of conscience determining what should be done and what avoided, can only be made after the prudent consideration of the real situation as well as the moral norm.11  It goes on to quote from the CDF’s 1976 Declaration that “homosexuals must certainly be treated with understanding … and their culpability judged with prudence.” 12 A little later the Introduction to Pastoral Care says: An especially delicate situation arises when homosexual persons are convinced that, although they accept that homosexual acts in themselves cannot be justified, it is found impossible in practice to lead a celibate life … Such persons argue that in their particular case the stability of the union outweighs the disorder of the homosexual acts which take place within it … that the goodness or badness of an act can only be judge morally in practice when consideration has been given to intention and circumstances. In assisting such people to apply their conscience to such a situation the accepted principles of morality must be used. While the objective norms are clear-cut the application of such norms may be complicated.13

Pope Francis echoes these principles in Amoris Laetitia: We also find it hard to make room for the consciences of the faithful, who very often respond as best they can to the Gospel amid their limitations, and are capable of carrying out their own discernment in complex situations. We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them. The way of the Church is not to condemn anyone for ever; it is to pour out the balm of God’s mercy on all who ask for it with a sincere heart … Consequently there is a need to avoid judgements which do not take into account the complexity of various situations and to be attentive, by necessity, to how people experience distress because of their condition.14

On the use of the ‘internal forum’ he states: Conversation with the priest, in the internal forum, contributes to the formation of a correct judgement on what hinders the possibility of a fuller participation in the life of the Church and on what steps it can foster it and make it grow … The Church possesses a solid body of reflection concerning mitigating factors and situations. Hence it can no longer simply be said that all those in any ‘irregular’ situation are living in a state of mortal sin … More is involved here than mere ignorance of the rule … Individual conscience needs to be better incorporated into the Church’s praxis in certain situations which do not objectively embody our understanding of marriage.15 Although much of this refers to the marital context, we do well to apply this to questions of same-sex relationship and variant sexual orientation, as well as gender identity.

Coming back to ‘time and space’, we in England & Wales, and indeed in Westminster Diocese can rejoice that since 1979 our pastors have exercised a pragmatic, inclusive ministry towards LGBT Catholics. They stood by the 1979 Guidelines when the CDF would seek to disable them. Unlike some other countries they have not used exclusionary tactics to bar people in civil partnerships from employment in the Catholic sector, nor from exercising lay ministerial roles. They have maintained their non-discriminatory policy regarding the admission of candidates to seminaries. As Pope Francis says again: Since ‘time is greater than space’, I would make it clear that not all discussions of doctrinal, moral or pastoral issues need to be settled by interventions of the magisterium. Unity of teaching and practice is certainly necessary in the Church, but this does not preclude various ways of interpreting some aspects of that teaching or drawing certain consequences from it. This will always be the case as the Spirit guides us towards the entire truth (cf. Jn 16:13), until he leads us fully into themystery of Christ and enables us to see all things as he does. Each country or region, moreover, can seek solutions better suited to its culture and sensitive to its traditions and local needs. For “culturesare in fact quite diverse and every general principle… needs to be inculturated, if it is to be respected and applied”.16

The 1979 Pastoral Care document, Cardinal Hume’s 1997 Note on the teaching of the Catholic Church concerning homosexuality,17 and various other Bishops’ Conference guidance relating to sexuality and gender are genuine expressions of a responsive local expression of the Church’s magisterium, always ‘with and under Peter’, and therefore holding to the communion of one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.


1 The Joy of the Gospel, 222-225.

2 The Tablet, View from Rome, 21 April 2016.                                                                                              

3 Included in Created Design - some pastoral guidelines for the care of lesbian & gay people, LGBT Catholics  Westminster Pastoral  Council, June 2017.

Address on the 50th Anniversary of the Institution of the Synod of Bishops, 17 October 2015

5 Persona Humana, Declaration on Certain Questions Concerning Sexual Ethics, Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, 29 December 1975.

6 Cf. LGBT Catholics Westminster website: www.lgbtcatholicswestminster.org

7 http://www.catholicherald.co.uk/news/2014/10/16/full-text-updated-mid-term-report-on-family-synod/ 50-52; http://www.catholicherald.co.uk/news/2014/10/30/full-text-official-translation-of-final-synod-report/, 19 October 2014; Final Report of the Synod of Bishops, 24 October 2015, http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/synod/documents/rc_synod_doc_20151026_relazione-finale-xiv-assemblea_en.html

8 Op.Cit. Created Design, Pg. 6, Introduction to the Pastoral Care of Homosexual People, Social Welfare Commission, Catholic Bishops Conference of England & Wales 1979.

9 Op.Cit.

10 The Joy of Love, 300

11 Op.Cit. Pg. 11.

12 Persona Humana, op.cit.

13 Op.cit. Pg. 12

14 Op.cit. 37

15 Op.cit. 300

16 Op.cit. 3

17 Created Design, Pg. 18

 

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