July 2023

Calls are growing for a Church more inclusive of the LGBTIQA+ community

My Good Samaritan Sisters and staff were called “dogs”, “witches” and told they were “going to hell”. When I agreed for our chapel to be used as a venue for a special Mass, I did not anticipate the fracas that would ensue, writes Congregational Leader Sister Patty Fawkner.

Twelve months ago, Father Peter Maher, a friend and colleague, asked if LGBTIQA+ Catholics, their friends and supporters, could hold a Eucharist in our Good Samaritan congregational chapel during Sydney WorldPride 2023. I did not hesitate to agree. Sadly, Peter died in November 2022.

On a beautiful evening in February this year, about 70 people gathered for the Eucharist. Mass was about to start when five uninvited protestors arrived. When they were refused admission to the chapel, these members of a Catholic group began verbally abusing attendees and the Sisters and staff who were welcoming registered guests.

We called the police, who managed to encourage the protestors to move on. According to a subsequent posting on social media, the protestors claimed they were the ones badly treated and discriminated against.

To say that LGBTIQA+ people and their supporters, such as Good Samaritan Sisters, are going to hell, akin to severing their relationship with God, reveals a belief in a punishing, vindictive God, unrecognisable from the God of Jesus Christ. 

This disturbing incident reminded me that LGBTIQA+ people, ridiculed as the “alphabet people” by the protestors, continue to experience bullying, harassment and discrimination within the Catholic Church. One cannot help but wonder about the source of this profound hostility.

Around the world, we are witnessing an alarming increase in the suppression of the LGBTIQA+ community, from bans in the US on medical care for trans and gender diverse youth to a new law in Uganda, which some refer to as the ‘Kill the Gays’ bill. This legislation allows severe penalties for homosexuality, including the death penalty or life imprisonment. The Anglican Church in Uganda supports the bill. In that country where nearly 40% of the population identify as Catholics, the Catholic bishops’ deafening silence on the matter serves to legitimise the new law.

In Australia, I have spoken with members of the Church hierarchy who roundly condemn overt discrimination against members of the LGBTIQA+ community and are committed to pastorally caring for all. However, I have heard reports of covert discrimination regarding employment opportunities within Catholic organisations.

It occurs to me that there is a disconnect between the Church’s moral teaching and pastoral practice. Until this disconnect is resolved, some will be emboldened to weaponise Church teaching found in statements in the Catholic Catechism and will continue to use religious language to harass and discriminate against members of the LGBTIQA+ community.

Calls for a Church to be more inclusive of the LGBTIQA+ community are growing. This was evidenced during the Fifth Plenary Council of the Australian Catholic Church and now within all phases of the Synod on Synodality. The October 2022 document, Enlarge the space of your tent, a synthesis of discussions on synodality around the globe, reveals the desire of Catholics world-wide for a more inclusive Church.

This document states:

“The vision of a Church capable of radical inclusion, shared belonging, and deep hospitality according to the teachings of Jesus is at the heart of the synodal process: ‘Instead of behaving like gatekeepers trying to exclude others from the (Eucharistic) table, we need to do more to make sure that people know that everyone can find a place and a home here’”. 

The subsequent Synod document, released within the past few weeks, the Instrumentum Laboris (IL), was hugely significant simply for using the term “LGBTQ+” twice. The Vatican is now respecting the term preferred by the members of the community and also acknowledging various gender and sexual identities.

The IL document is first and foremost about inclusion (regrettably, its language for God is exclusive). Respect for all, pastoral care for all and dialogue runs like a golden thread in every section. Core to the Church’s mission is noted as “walking with people instead of talking about them or solely at them”.

One of Pope Francis’ most cherished terms, “encounter”, is picked up beautifully by the IL: “When we live out a spirituality of drawing nearer to others and seeking their welfare, our hearts are opened wide to the Lord’s greatest and most beautiful gifts. Whenever we encounter another person in love, we learn something new about God.”

In the IL, the pastoral care of all within the Church is paramount, especially for those who “feel” excluded. However any change in the Church’s moral teaching on sexual identity is not on the table, resulting in real and ongoing exclusion. While appreciating much of the IL, one commentator said that this ultimately sets a “tragically low bar” for truly welcoming LGBTIQA+ people.

Early in his pontificate, Pope Francis lamented that many Catholics were “obsessed” with homosexuality, abortion, divorce and contraception. Sexual activity is placed at the pinnacle of reasons for exclusion from the Eucharist. Is it too churlish of me to point out that such Church Law has been created by celibate males?

Recently, in an address to the Pontifical Alphonsian Academy, a graduate institute of moral theology in Rome, Pope Francis lamented the “cold morality, theoretical morality, I would say a ‘casuistic’ morality” he studied as a seminarian.

He went on to say that moral theologians “are required to enter into a living relationship with the People of God, engaging in particular with the cry of the least, to understand their real difficulties, to look at existence from their perspective, and to offer them answers that reflect the light of the eternal love of the Father”.

Our Thanksgiving Mass was a celebration of inclusivity. Each of us present was seen and affirmed just as we were. A few hours later, we received a Facebook message from one of the attendees. The message, full of gratitude and joy, said:

“For a long time I felt disconnected from my church … I stopped attending mass because I felt judged … Tonight at the pride mass I was greeted happily by all members at the church. I felt included and so did my brother. We felt like we were at home … I will never forget the smiles from everyone. Smiles that told me that it was OK for me to be like this and that I was a beating heart too.”

I imagine that this person and other attendees would feel even more included if there was no judgment in the Catholic Catechism about their sexual orientation. To become a truly inclusive, welcoming, synodal Church will require conversion of heart and mind. It will require a conversion of culture and pastoral practice to be sure. It is to be hoped that such conversion will eventually lead to a conversion of structure and law.

The experience of holding the Mass during Sydney WorldPride has strengthened my resolve to support members of the LGBTIQA+ community. It is equally important that I neither vilify nor demonise those who would protest against them. If I were to encounter one of our protestors again, I would like to do so in love. Hopefully, I might also “learn something new about God”.

Patty Fawkner

Sister Patty Fawkner is a former Congregational Leader of the Sisters of the Good Samaritan. She is an adult educator, writer and facilitator with formal tertiary qualifications in arts, education, theology and spirituality. Patty is interested in exploring what wisdom the Christian tradition has for contemporary issues. She has an abiding interest in questions of justice and spirituality.

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