Thursday, March 6, 2014

Changing the Stance Toward Gays: What the Mormon Community Could Learn From Pope Francis

"If someone is gay ... who am I to judge?"

~ Francis

Pope Francis has made some remarkable statements about gay people - remarkable in the sense that his voice is much more compassionate than those of his immediate predecessors. (See, for example, this most recent statement here.) Yet, he has indicated that he does not intend to change the Catholic Church's doctrine concerning homosexuality, which is very similar to that of the LDS Church, i.e., it's ok if you're gay, but not okay if you physically express your sexuality.

The Catholic position is also similar to that of the Mormon one in that the doctrine of both churches is deeply, some might say implacably, grounded: the Catholic position is based not only on its understanding of certain biblical passages but also on centuries of moral philosophy; the Mormon position is based not only on its understanding of certain biblical passages but also on latter-day revelation.

The Historical Stance

But, writes Jesuit priest John P. Langan, who is the Cardinal Bernardin Professor of Catholic Social Thought at Georgetown University, this grounded doctrinal position doesn't necessarily mean the Catholic Church cannot alter its stance toward gay people. Writing in the current issue of America Magazine, Langan leads his essay with these words which I hope would give any Mormon reader food for thought:
"The stance of the [Catholic] church toward gays and lesbians and their distinctive activities was seen as negative, leading to judgments and condemnations. Of decisive importance was the negative moral judgment on homosexual acts as intrinsically evil. Even though the magisterium [the authority that lays down what is the authentic teaching of the Church] had distinguished between homosexual acts and a homosexual inclination, the intrinsic moral evil of the acts meant that while the sexual orientation was not sinful in itself, it represented an inclination to do sinful things and so had to be resisted [emphasis added]."
I think it is fair to say that Father Langan could have been describing the "Mormon Magisterium," i.e., the First Presidency of the Church and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, in the above passage. The Mormon Magisterium has only relatively recently made the the step of distinguishing homosexual inclination from homosexual acts, but I think it is fair to say that the Mormon Magisterium as well as most lower-level leaders in the LDS Church would agree that while the sexual orientation is not sinful in itself, "it [still] represent[s] an inclination to do sinful things and so [has] to be resisted."

What Father Langan suggests Pope Francis is doing is "prodding us to think about what the stance of the church toward homosexuality should be, rather than what it generally has been" [emphasis added]. He writes:
"A 'stance,' as contrasted with beliefs or theoretical positions, normally brings with it a realization that other factors are at work. It involves a response to positions or movements in the broader social and intellectual world ... Adopting or modifying a stance provides an opportunity to weigh other factors beyond a specific judgment on the moral rightness or wrongness of an act ... One can acknowledge the limits to knowledge and arguments once found persuasive. There are signs that Pope Francis is in the process of thinking along some of these lines."
In other words, there are concrete signs that Francis, while not rethinking doctrine, is and will be encouraging the Catholic Church to accept reality. Gay people exist. They are children of God. The Church needs to reach out to them.

Unfortunately, there are no such signs emanating from the Mormon Magisterium.

Changing the Stance

Father Langan goes on in his article to suggest that there are four elements that should mark a new stance within the Catholic church toward homosexuals and homosexuality.

The first is humility. "We must acknowledge," Langan writes, "what we do not know and what we do not understand about the contemporary situation of homosexuals."

Second, Langan asserts that "we must show respect for the dignity of homosexual persons as creatures of the one God and Father of us all, as members of the community of the redeemed and as fellow citizens of the city and the world ... Desires that homosexuals should cease to exist, or that they should disappear from public space, or that laws should be enacted that would deny their human rights are simply not acceptable."

Third - and here I'll quote more extensively:
"[A]ll parties need to show realism in acknowledging the problems of perception and trust that complicate our efforts to understand and collaborate with one another ... There is a profound need for realism in acknowledging the ambiguities that mark our histories, both personal and social ... Expulsion of those with sexual differences from the sacred precincts of the church and expunging their acts and gifts from our institutional memory may express a detestation of intrinsic evil, but it also carries with it an effective denial of common humanity ... Looking seriously at the communities in which we participate will disclose a complex tapestry in which the multicolored threads of the rainbow catch and reflect light, increase splendor and range, and are to be gratefully received."
Fourth, "during this period of scrutiny and reassessment, we must be patient with ourselves, with each other and with the friends and allies of the contesting groups both in the public arena and in the life of the church."

A Pastoral Ministry

What I personally see as the most noteworthy change in the stance towards homosexuals by the Catholic Church is the growing recognition, spearheaded by Francis, that the Church needs to accept the reality of gay people and minister to them. "The new stance on the subject of homosexuality," writes Langan, "should open up possibilities for affirming the human dignity of homosexuals. It should also acknowledge their need for an appropriate form of pastoral ministry ... " [emphasis added]. Langan further writes:
"The principal change would not be in the teaching of the church on the moral acceptability of homosexual activity, but in affirming and practicing pastoral ministry for persons engaged in irregular or questionable unions. Ministry would be carried on in a more tentative, inquiring spirit; it would be more intent on providing care and encouraging growth for persons, many of whom have known many sorrows, than in implementing policies within bureaucratic and legal frameworks."
Similar thoughts were recently echoed by Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri who is the general secretary of the Synod on the Family that will be held in Rome in October. The Vatican has been collecting responses from bishops around the world to a survey that was sent out last fall. Baldisseri told the Vatican newspaper that the responses received to date show "much suffering, especially by those who feel excluded or abandoned by the Church because they find themselves in a state of life that does not correspond to the Church’s doctrine and discipline." [Is this sounding familiar?] Quoting from the above-linked article:
"The results compiled by the bishops’ conferences, [Baldisseri] said, show 'the urgency of recognising the lived reality of the people and of beginning a pastoral dialogue with those who have distanced themselves from the Church for various reasons ...' Pope Francis, he said, 'shows, day after day, a new human and Christian approach that stimulates people and prepares them to listen and to accept what is good for them, even if there is suffering'."
Changing the Mormon Stance

In light of the foregoing, I offer the following thoughts:

A Pastoral Ministry. There is no pastoral ministry within the Mormon Church to its LGBT members, unless you consider a website and a couple of manuals a "ministry." There is no central place within the Church where leaders of all levels can turn for resources; no program of training a lay ministry how to minister to gays and lesbians; no leadership from the highest levels of the Magisterium; no statements of a positive nature emanating out of General Conference or from Church magazines. 

In short, there is virtually nothing that the LDS Church as an institution is doing to minister to its LGBT community. Just imagine how fantastic it would be if the Church had an outreach program that featured a "tentative, inquiring spirit" that was "more intent on providing care and encouraging growth for persons, many of whom have known many sorrows, than in implementing policies within bureaucratic and legal frameworks."

All of these things could be done by the hierarchy. But it would require a change in stance by the Mormon Magisterium.

The Role of the Mormon Laity. In the Catholic Church, it is a well-known fact that the vast majority of American Catholics (the "laity") hold views on many social issues that are widely divergent from that of the hierarchy. Mormons don't usually think in terms of "laity" and "hierarchy," but I would suggest that the Mormon Church, even though it has a lay ministry (below the general authority level), has a laity, consisting of rank and file Mormons, the overwhelming majority of which are in no position to effect Mormon doctrine, policy or practice.

Just as in the Catholic Church, it has been the laity of the Mormon Church that has been on the vanguard of change when it comes to the LDS stance towards homosexuality. Through Facebook groups, conferences, and informal exchanges in ward and stake houses across the country (and perhaps in other countries?), hearts and minds are being opened. People are stepping forward to be the ministry that the institutional church does not provide. The stance of the Mormon laity toward homosexuality is gradually being changed from the ground up. Increasingly, families are rallying - or as Carol Lynn Pearson so beautifully put it, circling the wagons - around their LGBT loved ones.

The question remains, will the Mormon Magisterium look to Francis' example and acknowledge the reality that exists among its members? Will it minister? Will a leader emerge who will lead? Will the Church as an institution change its stance?

I suppose one can always hope.

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