According to L’Avvenire, the pope met with Italian LGBTQ+ Catholic group The Tent of Jonathon in a Wednesday (21 September) conference to discuss the organisation’s plan to build a hospitable church that would cater to LGBTQ+ people.
The group, which was founded in 2018, works with various religious organisations to provide “sanctuaries of welcome and support for LGBT people and for every person affected by discrimination.”
In an effort to convince Pope Francis, organisation members gave him a collection of letters from the parents of LGBTQ+ children who have faced “isolation and suspicious within the Christian community.”
Having urged religious parents to “never condemn your children” in a 26 January address, adding that parents should “not hide behind an attitude of condemnation,” the conferences appeared to convince him as he told the organisation to continue with the church’s construction.
Despite upholding traditional church teachings that claim homosexuality is “intrinsically disordered,” the pontiff has been surprisingly forthcoming about introducing LGBTQ+ members into Catholic proceedings.
In 2013, he famously said: “If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge?”
But there is still a long way to go for LGBTQ+ acceptance in the Vatican. During the same address, he condemned what was cryptically described as lobbying by the LGBTQ+ community.
“The problem is not having this orientation,” he claimed. “We must be brothers. The problem is lobbying by this orientation, or lobbies of greedy people, political lobbies, Masonic lobbies, so many lobbies. This is the worse problem.”
Pope Francis has also repeatedly shut down any hope of same-sex marriage in the Catholic Church, most recently in 2021 when he said he “doesn’t have the power to change sacraments.”
“I have spoken clearly about this, no? Marriage is a sacrament. Marriage is a sacrament. The church doesn’t have the power to change sacraments. It’s as our Lord established.”
Excommunications for LGBTQ+ positive paraphenalia is still incredibly common in local Catholic communities. In June, a middle school was kicked out of the Catholic fold after officials refused to remove Pride and Black Lives Matter flags from school grounds.
In a statement, Massachusetts bishop Robert J. McManus, who chose to excommunicate the Nativity School of Worcester, said: “I publicly stated in an open letter…that ‘these symbols (flags) embody specific agendas or ideologies (that) contradict Catholic social and moral teaching
“It is my contention that the ‘Gay Pride’ flag represents support of gay marriage and actively living a LGBTQ+ lifestyle.”
In response, school president Thomas McKenney said that the flags “represent the inclusion and respect of all people” and that they simply state “that all are welcome at Nativity and this value of inclusion is rooted in Catholic teaching.”
Liberal Catholic bishops in Germany failed to approve a document changing the Church’s teachings on sex and sexuality.
The 30-page document, entitled “Life in succeeding relationships – The principles of renewed sexual ethics,” was brought to a vote at a meeting of the German Bishops’ Conference’s “Synodal Way” in Frankfurt Thursday. The resolution to approve needed a two-thirds majority to be adopted, but it did not meet that threshold. The document would have radically reformed the Church’s teachings around same-sex relationships, gender identity, and masturbation, among others.
“We are convinced that it will not be possible to re-orientate pastoral care without re-defining the emphasis of the Church’s sexual teaching to a significant degree,” the preamble to the document stated. “This is why we are suggesting such a major re-emphasis, as we consider it urgently necessary to overcome some of the restrictions in questions of sexuality, for reasons of sexual science as well as theology. In particular, the teaching that sexual intercourse is only ethically legitimate in the context of a lawful marriage, and only with a permanent openness to the transmission of life, has caused a wide rift to open up between the Magisterium and the faithful. This threatens to completely obscure other important aspects of God’s Good News which could have a liberating effect on shaping dignified sexuality.”
A total of 33 bishops voted to approve the document; 21 voted against it. Three bishops abstained from voting, The Pillar reported.
The leaders of the conference expressed outrage at the result. Delegates took the floor for two hours after the vote concluded, blasting those who voted to disapprove, and claiming that the move would foment division in the Church.
Bishop Georg Bätzing, the president of the bishops’ conference, threatened to take the document to Pope Francis’ worldwide bishops’ synod in 2023, despite failing to approve it. “We will take it to the level of the universal church when we are in Rome in November for the ad limina visit when we go about preparing the World Synod with the continental bishops’ conferences in January,” he said, via Fox News.
The first reform the German bishops pushed was for the Church to honor all forms of personal sexual identity, including gender identity. The German bishops’ document also affirms non-binary and so-called “intersex” identities: “[b]iological gender cannot be clearly determined in binary terms in some cases,” the document states, noting that intersex people have physical and chromosomal variance, while transgender people have a difference of “gender perception” from their biological sex. “As a Church, we must respect the individual self-perception of the sexual identity of any person as an inviolable part of their uniqueness as made in God’s image,” the document says.
The document went on to call for a radical reform of the teaching on homosexuality. Church doctrine declares homosexual acts as a mortal sin that completely separates the individual from God. The document called on the Church to reject that. “Same-sex sexuality – also expressed in sexual acts – is therefore not a sin that causes separation from God, and it is not to be judged as intrinsically bad,” the document declared.
The document would also have radically altered Church teachings on masturbation, which is also a mortal sin under Church doctrine. “Experiencing one’s own body through self-stimulation in a pleasurable way can be an important building block of self-acceptance for everyone,” the document declares instead.
Lisa Amman is a cradle Catholic who attended parish schools through 12th grade and then worked at her St. Paul, Minnesota, church for 15 years.
She would likely never have learned about St. Phoebe, however, had her then-6-year-old daughter, Evelyn, not begun asking questions at Mass one Sunday three years ago.
At one point in the service, Evelyn turned to her and asked, “Why are we here?” Amman recalled.
“I said, ‘We’re here to learn about Jesus and pray to God.’ And she said, ‘No, why are we here? This is for boys,’” Amman said.
On Saturday (Sept. 3) Amman and 55 other pilgrims from four countries gather in Mexico City at the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe to celebrate St. Phoebe’s feast day. In the presence of an archbishop, several priests and nuns and a host of Catholic lay women, the pilgrims will honor the little-known saint who makes a solitary appearance in the New Testament’s Letter to the Romans as an associate of St. Paul and a female deacon of the early church.
Deacons in today’s Catholic Church are ordained clergy who preach and minister in the community but can’t celebrate Mass. Like priests and bishops, they are always men. But Amman, a stay-at-home mother of Evelyn and her sister and now the deputy director of engagement for a group called Discerning Deacons, plans to pray for Phoebe’s intercession to restore Catholic women to the diaconate.
“Phoebe represents hope and evidence that women have been in service to the church since the beginning,” said Amman. “This isn’t new. It makes me feel that it can happen in the future.”
The prayer service, which will be streamed live, will open what Discerning Deacons calls the “Year of St. Phoebe,” part of a churchwide consultation process known as the Synod on Synodality. The three-year synod process began last fall as dioceses around the world collected responses from their individual congregations on how to better structure church life. The bishops of each country are now reporting back to Rome on what they are hearing.
Discerning Deacons are hoping the synod, which concludes with a summit of bishops in 2023, might lead to reforms that will welcome women as deacons.
A groundbreaking study by Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, or CARA, confirms that more than 70% of young women in the United States were drifting away from the Catholic Church, a much higher rate than men.
Seeing her daughter’s crisis of faith, Amman at first considered leaving the Catholic Church. Then she learned about Synod on Synodality and saw in it hope that the church might discern a way forward for women who feel called to leadership positions in the church.
Canon law defines deacons as clergy who minister to the people of God in “word, liturgy and charity.” To some extent, women fulfill those roles already but without the ability to minister to people in places, such as immigrant detention centers, hospitals and prisons, that don’t allow unordained people to serve. Joining the diaconate would also allow women to proclaim the Gospel and preach during Mass.
As Amman recently learned, until the 12th century, the Catholic Church ordained women deacons. In his Letter to the Romans, Paul introduces Phoebe as a “deacon of the church” and entrusts her to deliver his letter to the Romans.
“I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchreae,” Paul writes in Romans, chapter 16. “I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of his people and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been the benefactor of many people, including me.”
She is the only woman in the New Testament with that title.
While the Catholic Church has not ordained women in 800 years, it has made exceptions where male priests are in short supply. In the Amazon region of northwestern Brazil, Dorismeire Almeida de Vasconcelos, who lives in Altamira, has been the mainstay of the church’s social outreach, working with indigenous peoples to help them fight against the deforestation and destructive mining of the Amazon.
“To me, women are already doing the work of deacons,” she said. “Can the church recognize the work they are already doing?”
Many of the Pan-Amazonian bishops agree. In 2019, they asked the Vatican for a permanent diaconate for women. One of them, Archbishop Roque Paloschi of Porto Velho, Brazil, will be among the seven-member Brazilian delegation to Mexico City for the St. Phoebe prayer service.
The five-day pilgrimage sponsored by Discerning Deacons includes Mass at the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe and visits to the birthplace of Juan Diego and the Mayan pyramids at Teotihuacan.
The pilgrimage will also carve out time for testimonies and conversations about how the group might continue to engage with bishops, priests and laity as the synod process unfolds.
“The first step is listening well,” said Casey Stanton of Durham, North Carolina, the group’s co-director. “It’s a new discipline for us — the art of listening well to another and setting aside agendas.”
Discerning Deacons formed on Feast of St. Phoebe two years ago. It has since attracted a cadre of Catholic women who have served as Hispanic ministry leaders, youth and young adult ministers, religious sisters, diocesan pastoral staff and community organizers.
Last October, several in the group traveled to Rome for the opening Mass of the Synod on Synodality.
Since then, the group held listening sessions as part of the synodal process, drawing some 9,000 Catholics. In June, it issued a 38-page report reflecting on what it heard — a desire for a female diaconate that works with people on the margins.
Whether that recommendation gains traction is in question. In the U.S., Catholic bishops are more focused on a three-year Eucharistic revival, trying to reignite Catholics’ interest in the rite following the failed effort among some of their number to deny President Biden Communion over his support of abortion rights.
Ellie Hidalgo, who is the co-director of Discerning Deacons and is in Mexico City this week as a pilgrim, said she was realistic about the prospects that the church would change its position on women deacons.
“We realize the restoration of the diaconate is an uphill climb,” Hidalgo said. “It’s not an easy thing.”
But if nothing else, the group wants to lift up the example of St. Phoebe.
“I see elements of myself in her,” said Anne Attea, a pastoral associate at Church of the Ascension in North Minneapolis who traveled to Mexico City. “I see her in some of my colleagues. I see her in every mother and grandmother who has helped to pass on the faith.”
On Monday, leaders of two Catholic groups dedicated to women’s ordination in the church reminded Catholic cardinals not to ignore their “sisters outside,” as the cardinals met to discuss church reforms.
Earlier this year, Pope Francis named two women to a dicastery, or papal committee, that selects new bishops in the church. However, Monday’s closed-door gathering of cardinals excluded women.
While cardinals met inside, a small group of women from the U.S.-based Women’s Ordination Conference and Women’s Ordination Worldwide stood at an entrance with bright red umbrellas bearing messages that included “ordain women” and “more than half the church.” They spoke with entering cardinals and handed them a letter explaining their efforts for recognition. Within 10 minutes, police detained the group, holding them for about four hours. Officially, the group was held on grounds of protesting without a permit.
Kate McElwee, the executive director of the Women’s Ordination Conference and one of the women at the protest, spoke with Sojourners’ Mitchell Atencio hours after being released. She discussed her hope for women’s ordination, Francis’ attitude toward reforms, and the symbolic nature of their activism.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Mitchell Atencio, Sojourners: What were the cardinals meeting to discuss?
Kate McElwee: Pope Francis called a consistory and on Saturday, he created 20 new cardinals and [on Monday and Tuesday] he’s calling the world’s cardinals together for meetings. There are 197 prelates [church officials] who are in Rome particularly to discuss the reforms of the new apostolic constitution that was promulgated on Pentecost.
One of the significant reforms of that constitution is that he has opened the possibility for women, or any layperson, to lead dicasteries in the Vatican — this is a role that traditionally had been reserved for bishops and cardinals, so this is a significant move.
I’ve heard the intention [for these meetings is] to have the cardinals meet one another, practice and model synodality, and then get to know the constitutional reforms. But, of course, there are no women in this meeting.
We wanted to witness and just draw attention to the fact that this is a closed-door session where no women are present, ironically, when one of the biggest changes of the constitution is that women can now lead dicasteries
And how did your action go? You and your colleagues were detained for about four hours, what were interactions with police like, why did they say they detained you?
We had a prayer and an intention that our voices would carry through these closed-door sessions and provoke the conscience of the prelates meeting to know that their sisters are waiting outside. We opened bright red parasols with our messages written on them; everything from “reform means women,” “it’s reigning men,” “sexism is a cardinal sin,” and other messages. We processed down Via della Conciliazione till we reached the gates of the piazza, and then continued on to the dicastery for the doctrine of faith, where it’s a major entry point for the Vatican and we thought we could greet cardinals as they entered in.
We had a letter that said, “don’t forget your sisters outside,” but we greeted them very respectfully and were able to interact with a handful of cardinals who were going into their meetings. Some were more supportive than others. But in about 10 minutes various levels police came towards us and asked us to close our umbrellas and provide our identification documents. We complied after a short time, and they penned us into a small [space] between the colonnades. We were there for an hour, and their main complaint was that we didn’t have a permit — I lived in Rome for eight years, it’s very hard to get a permit for women’s ordination next to the Vatican. After an hour they escorted us to the closest police station where we were held for another three hours or so. It was a lot of waiting for them to process us for protesting without a permit, particularly at the Vatican. It was very, very Italian experience. We stopped for coffee before they brought us to the police station. I think they didn’t believe we were dangerous, but it was a matter of bureaucracy and formalities for them.
Why is women’s ordination important in the Catholic church?
It is a matter of justice for most Catholic women. Our calls are not heard. Many women feel like they have no voice or vote in the Catholic church. And there’s layers and layers of sexism that marginalize women from important leadership positions, both ministerial and administrative.
And like me, for so many Catholic women, this is our home. This is our identity and our tradition, and through the sacraments is how we navigate the world. To be considered second tier, or to not have our voices heard, is deeply painful. And we see the effects of this exclusion throughout the world.
One of the most important things about our work is to recognize that women’s ordination isn’t just about women priests. The Catholic church has 1.36 billion members. More than half of those people are women, and they have no representation within the church. That kind of exclusion and subordination is replicated through culture, education, and all the ways the Catholic church has power in the world — including having a seat at the United Nations and working to subvert policies on gender equality.
There’s also a deep pain. In my work, I get to hear the stories and the testimonies of women called to priesthood. You hear their vocational stories and they’re not dissimilar to male priests in any way.
I’m a very hopeful person. I believe that the church can actually be this incredible force for good and justice in the world, if it opened its doors to women.
How would you describe Pope Francis’ relationship to the movement for women’s ordination?
I think Pope Francis has done quite a bit to encourage greater dialogue around the question of women in the church, particularly through his Synod on Synodality and engaging all Catholics, to be involved in this collective discernment. In the United States [this] has inspired a lot of these diocese and synod reports to include mentions of the urgent calls for women’s ordination and women in ministry. In that sense, he’s really changed the culture. Because women’s ordination to the priesthood is a taboo in a lot of ways. And through synodality and dialogue that we’re engaging in together, he has opened up that conversation in bigger ways.
Unfortunately, when it comes to women’s ordination, specifically throughout his pontificate, he has repeated the logic and thinking of his predecessors. Although he has convened two commissions on women deacons, [and] that is still an evolving question in the Catholic church, on priesthood I think Francis hasn’t moved much, [even though] he has encouraged greater dialogue and called for greater inclusion of women in the life of the church.
What gives you hope that this is possible?
When I think about Pope Francis, he is a man who has changed his mind. He is leading the global church in collective discernment, which is so messy, but it means this is all in play, this is all in conversation. There’s a great opening for the church leaders to really listen to Catholics on the ground. The majority of Catholics are calling for women’s ordination and greater leadership roles in the church. That gives me a lot of hope.
As part of the synod on synodality, the Vatican’s Synod office listed the Women’s Ordination Conference’s resources on their official website, which, would be unthinkable in a different pontificate. That means that this is part of the conversation, the elephant in the room is on the table up for discussion. As long as we’re still talking about this — and we are because this question has not gone away in so many decades — that there’s still hope.
We’ve seen Pope Francis really model what a pastor is. I believe Francis is a quite a pastoral person. So part of my work is to create opportunities where he can hear the testimonies and vocations of women. He formalized the ministry of catechists recently and has opened the role of acolyte and lector to women, and that language really identifies discerning a vocation. When I read that language, I think that’s the same spirit that calls women to ordained ministry. I just hope that he’s open to hearing the calls of women to ordination. Unfortunately, when you’re surrounded by the architecture of the Vatican, interaction with women — particularly if you call these meetings of only men — can be quite limited.
What has it meant to you to do this work internationally and across cultures?
It’s absolutely essential. When you get to meet women in different cultures and listen to the language that they use to describe their longing for leadership and ministerial roles, there are nuances, but women around the world are just longing for equality for their voices to be heard.
The particularities of circumstances make priorities different, but at the core it’s that women are longing to be equal and to be embraced in by their own church. It’s very powerful to work alongside international women and leaders who are coming with their own context and their own stories. This can’t come from one place. This is a universal church. It’s part of that discernment that Francis is trying to model and lead us through. Listening to the voices and the context of all of women in different places is really important to what we do.
Father James Martin has taken his message of prayer and inclusivity everywhere, from “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” to the halls of the Vatican. In May, he wrote to Pope Francis with a few questions.
“I just wanted to give him a time to briefly talk to LGBTQ Catholics,” Martin said.
Francis has extended apologies to the abused and a welcome to the historically rejected. According to the Vatican News, he recently met with transgender people near Rome, Italy.
So Martin’s questions aren’t so random.
“I asked him, ‘What would you most like them to know about the church?'” Martin said. “He said, ‘Read Acts of the Apostles,’ which was really interesting because there’s a church that’s kind of mixing it up. Then also, ‘What would you say to an LGBTQ Catholic who felt rejected by the church?’ And he said very interestingly to remember that it’s not the church that rejects you, the church loves you, but it might be individual people in the church.”
It isn’t the first time Francis has corresponded directly with Martin on LGBTQ relations or the first time he has spoken up about their place within the Catholic church.
In 2016, Francis agreed the church should apologize to not only gay people but other marginalized groups, like the poor. He’s also called for parents to accept their LGBTQ children.
Francis’ gestures are one thing; changing church doctrine, which teaches that the act of homosexuality is sinful, is another.
“What would have happened really, in a sense, is for theologians working together, along with church officials, to come to some newer understanding of how they can accommodate for older church teaching on these issues, to show that the church evolves rather than dramatically changing,” said Michele Dillon, professor of sociology at the University of New Hampshire. “Because the church is not going to say, ‘Oh, we were wrong.’ It’s very rare.”
“If he were to do that, which I don’t think Pope Francis will, but if he were to do that, he would not want to do it without support from the Curia and the College of Cardinals,” said Cristina Traina, professor of Catholic theology at Fordham University. “He would not want to do it without tracing a pathway theologically.”
Instead, Francis has gone another direction: one met with both criticism and praise, uplifting LGBTQ Catholics while simultaneously reiterating church doctrine.
NEWSY’S AMBER STRONG: Is he sort of riding the line between saying that this is doctrine and doctrines not going to change? But, we also still need to love and affirm people as well.
FATHER JAMES MARTIN: I think that’s a good question, and I think he is kind of trying to straddle that line. But I think one thing to remember is that what seems very bland and tepid in the United States — overseas is a big deal. In the U.S., we might say, ‘Oh, big deal. Of course, you should welcome your kids.’ If you’re in Eastern Europe or sub-Saharan Africa or Latin America or India, that’s a big deal. So, we have to remember that he’s speaking to the whole church.”
According to Pew Research, 76% of U.S. Catholics say society should be accepting of homosexuality. That’s below the rate of Catholic support in countries like Spain and the Netherlands but far higher than places like Lebanon and Nigeria.
Some theologians argue that Francis’ support could have a trickle-down impact on individual Catholics and parishes.
“These things can do a lot to encourage Catholics to embrace LGBTQ people with love and compassion and mercy and not to see them as the Antichrist, the anathema, the enemy of salvation,” Traina said.
In 2021, a group of Catholic leaders, including a cardinal and archbishop, signed a statement calling for widespread support of at-risk LGBTQ youth. According to an NCR analysis of recent listening sessions among U.S. Catholics, there was a growing call for LGBTQ inclusion and more opportunities for women.
“To me, there’s no such thing as an empty gesture because, yes, many times people want to see more clear-cut evidence of change and of their acceptance within the church, but sometimes it’s in small steps,” Dillon said.
In 2021, Martin, a Vatican appointee under Francis, launched Outreach: a website that provides resources to LGBTQ Catholics and leaders. It’s an effort Pope Francis has encouraged.
“He hasn’t changed any church teaching,” Martin said. “I’m not advocating for any church teaching, but he’s advocated a more pastoral response, listening to them, welcoming them, treating them with respect.