Monday, June 30, 2014

Queer Catholics

In my continuing efforts to blog about things that none of my readers care about, today I bring you my thoughts on a 75-page document recently issued by the Vatican, The Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization

Wait, come back! It's all about gender and sexuality and stuff!

Last fall, Pope Francis announced that he was convening an extraordinary meeting of the synod of bishops to consider the state of marriage and family life. Francis asked every diocese in the world to study the issue, survey the laity, and weigh in on where Catholics stand on various issues affecting family life. (I participated in my diocese's survey, which I'll say more about below.) The resulting document, known as an "instrumentum laboris," or "working instrument," contains a preliminary report on those findings, and it's meant to be the starting point for the work of the synod, whose first meeting will be in October.

Francis's initial announcement of the synod got some coverage in the mainstream press--in part because of the short timeline and in part because of the sweeping scope of the project: this is the first time that ordinary Catholics have been asked for their feedback. There has been speculation, at least in the American press, that the conference might be the occasion for major changes in the church's positions on such things as divorce, birth control, and same-sex marriage. But despite that initial coverage, as far as I can tell, last week's release of the instrumentum has received zero attention outside of Catholic circles (that last link is to Rocco Palmo, always the best source for news on the global church).

I'm not an expert Vatican-watcher and there are a lot of basic things I don't know about the synod or its mandate. And though I've read the instrumentum, at times I have trouble deciphering its "voice"--that is, whether a statement is merely descriptive (this is what the church has said on this subject in recent decades) or prescriptive (this is the church's teaching, which is not up for debate). Nevertheless, some things are pretty obvious. Issues surrounding divorce and remarriage get more attention in the document than any of the other subjects that preoccupy American and European Catholics, which leads me to suspect that there could be some real changes there. I also believe that changes around the edges of birth-control policies are likely, and though I'd be surprised to see major changes on same-sex marriage, I wouldn't rule out the possibility of some conciliatory gestures (for example, the document spends some time discussing how to welcome same-sex couples who wish to raise their children Catholic).

But really, what will strike any Western reader of the document is all the other problems facing families that the bishops are interested in--and the global perspective that those concerns reflect. Serious attention is given to domestic violence, incest, human trafficking, polygamy, poverty, and families separated by political unrest or forced migration. The other thing that will strike readers is how generous and compassionate the document can be toward both families and individuals. It waxes indignant about the ostracism and shame some people (single mothers, victims of abuse) are subjected to, and it's critical of clerics who don't fulfill their pastoral duties. The influence of Francis is clear in such moments.

There are less generous moments sprinkled throughout, though, and while I imagine that some of the oscillation between more compassionate and more condemnatory language reflects the conflicts and compromises inherent in a preliminary document written by a 15-person team, it's still a little disappointing. I'm also disappointed, though not surprised, that the instrumentum's discussion of the laity's attitudes is mostly couched in terms of what they "understand" about the church's teachings. Although each diocese apparently had some leeway in how it surveyed its laity, the form I got was focused on its respondents' level of engagement in Catholic life and familiarity with church teachings. And, dudes: I understand, with great clarity, the intricacies of the church's teachings on homosexuality. I've heard the best and most compelling arguments for natural family planning. That's not the same thing as agreeing with those teachings. What I wanted and did not get was a chance to say, "yes, I'm a Catholic who has received all the sacraments, who attends mass weekly and volunteers at her parish, and I don't agree with you on X or Y."

Most surprising to me is the document's near obsession with what it calls "the ideology of gender theory" (12)--a term that comes up at least half a dozen times. Although the bishops barely define it (and it's not clear that their familiarity with gender theory is at anything closer than third or fourth hand), they're plainly troubled by the idea that gender might be disconnected from biological sexuality. Throughout, there's an essentialist attitude toward gender and sexuality, and a suspicion of anything that might be considered non-normative.

And. . . it's at this point that I say, OH, COME ON! The Catholic Church has been celebrating non-normative sexualities for centuries. We're talking about an institution that has a celibate priesthood and celibate male and female religious. We're talking about a religious tradition that involves ecstatic, eroticized mysticism, that uses sexualized language to talk about everything from the Creation, the Incarnation, and the Eucharist to prayer and the operations of the Holy Spirit. I mean, I'm not calling the church freaky, but its attitudes toward sexuality are rich, interesting, and go beyond either the procreative or the ascetic.

Cosimo has remarked that female religious (whom he knew from childhood, thanks to his beloved aunt, a Sister of St. Joseph) were his first introduction to queer women: not because of anything he knew or presumed about their sexual orientation, but because of the palpable otherness of a community of women who lived entirely outside of the imperatives of heterosexuality. Indeed, celibacy is about as counter-cultural as you can get in the modern age.

I understand that the mandate of the synod is to deal with the changing shape of the family, not with vowed celibates or those leading a single life; I also have no desire to return to the centuries in which the church valorized celibacy and slighted marriage and procreation. But there's something exasperating about the refusal to consider love, marriage, and family life within the larger and more radical context of the church's history and teachings. As many people before me have pointed out, Jesus himself shows no interest in the traditional family. Not only was his own family nontraditional (and non-procreative), he himself never married and repeatedly tells his followers that to proclaim his kingdom they need to leave their families behind--not even pausing to bury their dead.

According to the instrumentum laboris, many bishops are calling for "theological study in dialogue with the human sciences" to better understand sexual orientation, homosexuality, and the differences between the sexes (52). I'm glad of that, and I think it's a hopeful sign. But I'd like for them also to wrestle with--or simply acknowledge!--the non-normative and non-procreative forms of gender, sexuality, and eroticism that have always been central to the Catholic tradition.


Miss Self-Important said...

"The Catholic Church has been celebrating non-normative sexualities for centuries." But has it been celebrating them in the terms of "gender theory"? Or has its approach been different, if in some instances parallel to some of the arguments of contemporary gender theory?

What Now? said...

I'm interested! I appreciate your blogging about this, not least because it's the first I'd heard of it.

Fie upon this quiet life! said...

First I heard of it too, so thanks for writing about it. As a former Catholic, I'm always interested in hearing what's up with ye olde church. I really like the new pope. If he had been around earlier, I might not have been a "former Catholic." A lot would have to change for me to come back, though, including my own cynicism. Still, I hope the church joins the 21st century and if anyone could do it, Francis could.

Flavia said...


No, of course not--and neither do I necessarily think that gender theory always has the tools or the terms to deal with gender and sexuality in ways that are sensitive to the religious and spiritual contexts in question.

I do think it's silly of the instrumentum to dismiss the tools offered by gender theory as if they're totally alien or unuseful--in the right hands, they're extremely useful--but my point isn't that the bishops should totally be reading them some Judith Butler; my point is that, whatever the discourse within which they're operating, the bishops are assuredly familiar with lifestyles and experiences that are in many ways at odds with "the traditional family." And I'd like to see those two things discussed together in mutually enriching ways.

Contingent Cassandra said...

I'm interested, too (mainline Protestant, watching my own denomination inch forward on same-sex marriage -- it's now up to individual pastors whether they perform such ceremonies or not in states where it's legal, and up to individual governing boards whether such ceremonies can take place on church property, which isn't as far as I'd like to see us eventually go, but strikes me as a decent compromise for the moment. At least pastors are no longer faced with the dilemma of being un-pastoral to gay parishioners or being subject to discipline for going beyond the heretofore-official definition of marriage (which is also being revised; that requires a vote in the local governing bodies). The denomination already leaves both birth control and abortion up to the conscience of individual members -- which results in pretty universal embrace of birth control, and varying approaches to abortion -- and doesn't consider divorce a bar to remarriage, the sacraments, or ordination).

Are you familiar with these folks: ? Their main concern is women's ordination in the Catholic church, but they're also concerned with the other issues you mention. I'm aware of them because the alto section leader in my church choir is active in the movement (she continues to very strongly identify as Catholic, but/and worships almost exclusively with our congregation -- which happens to be led at the moment by two female pastors -- as well as, when she gets the chance, in small gatherings led by Catholic women clergy, who are, of course, unrecognized by the Vatican, but struck me as pretty recognizably pastoral when I attended a panel on which they spoke. As they themselves will say, they have a tradition of strong, independent Catholic women on which to build).

Miss Self-Important said...

So I'm no expert on gender theory OR Catholicism, but I don't recall much discussion of celibacy in my passing reading of gender theory. Isn't that a particularly Catholic contribution to the West's understanding of eros? I read your post as suggesting that Judith Butler can help the Church understand eros better, but it seems that this an example of where the Church and gender theory would offer competing accounts and the Church would be right to distinguish and distance itself from Butler?

But there are laymen who do try to do what you propose, for example, at First Things, where there has been a distinct turn towards applying critical theory of all kinds to theology.

Flavia said...


I'm not really familiar with WOW as an organization, but I'm familiar with some of its activities (like Pink Smoke Over the Conclave), as well as their arguments for female ordination more generally.


I guess what I'd say is that I think gender theory and Catholic teachings about celibacy (and other matters of gender & sexuality) have a lot to teach each other; like you, most of the gender theory I've read isn't concerned with celibacy (though I'm pretty sure it exists!), and the Foucauldian underpinnings of a lot of critical theory means it hasn't always taken religion seriously except as a proxy for something else--state power, e.g.

That's changed a lot in the past 10-15 years (as you note, it's pretty common for theologians and especially for people in Religious Studies to use critical theory), but I get why people who have only a slim acquaintance with gender theory might think it would be hostile to a religious worldview. I don't think it is, but it does require people well-versed--and sincerely interested--in both fields.

Historiann said...

Medieval European historians have written about sexuality and celibacy (as a part of, not opposed to, sexuality) in innovative ways that make use of modern gender and queer theory. See for example Lisa Weston, “Queering Virginity,” Medieval Feminist Forum 36:1 (2003), 22-24. This view is aligned with Ruth Mazo Karras’s argument that prostitutes were a third sexual identity in medieval Europe in “Prostitution as Sexual Identity in Medieval Europe,” Journal of Women’s History 11:2 (Summer 1999), 159-77, with two Comments and Response, 178-98.

I've thought for a long time that celibacy is perhaps the queerest sexuality of all in our modern terms, and that thinking about it this way can open new doors of perception. (In short, I'm with Flavia on the "teaching things to teach other" concept.)

Flavia said...


Thank you! I know that a lot of work had been done on medieval female religious from a feminist perspective (and can name some of the scholars working generally in that area)--but though I've had the vague conviction that some of this work involved considering celibacy in terms of queer theory, I haven't read it and couldn't point anyone to the relevant articles and books.

Comradde PhysioProffe said...

It is mind-boggling that you could write an entire post about the church's "evolving" views on family and sexuality without mentioning or even alluding to their grotesquely misogynist stance on forced childbirth. The Catholic church is murdering women over this, and it doesn't even merit a passing comment?

Flavia said...

Ah, yes: here comes CPP, right on cue. Never let it be said that he allows any post on organized religion to pass without some hysterical, barely-on-topic fulmination.

Look, CPP: I value you as a reader, and I really appreciate your comments on other posts. But it's been clear for eleventy billion years that you have no interest in religion--even from a distant, intellectual or anthropological standpoint--and that the subject outrages you so much that you can't read any posts on the subject clearly or contribute to them in productive ways.

I think your real question is how any otherwise sane person (assuming you consider me to be otherwise sane!) can be a theist, or how she can belong to an organization with which she has some real disagreements. But if you can't wrap your head around that possibility on your own, I'm afraid I can't help you.

abrahamandsarah said...

Conservative Catholic readings of queer theory are fascinating. This article (infamously) affirms Foucault et al:

Flavia said...


Thanks for the link--and for stopping by!