Click here if you don’t see subscription options
Tom BeaudoinJuly 14, 2011

The recent legislative endorsement of same-sex marriage here in New York, and the tension between the official Catholic opposition to it and what appears to be fairly strong support for it by lay Catholics, has me thinking about what it takes to do theology from non-normative, if you will, perspectives in Catholicism about lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered lives.
Most theology of “homosexuality” in contemporary Catholicism is focused, for good reasons, on interpreting official teaching and its many avowed sources (scripture, natural law, and the like). But Catholicism has very little sexual theology “from below."

There are, in truth, more than a few resources that can inspire Catholicism to take grassroots LGBT theologies more seriously, but one recent book that I hope will inspire a new kind of theology "from below" of Catholic sexual diversity is sociologist Dawne Moon's book God, Sex and Politics: Homosexuality and Everyday Theologies (Chicago, 2004). Moon looks at how everyday theologies appear in Methodist congregations trying to talk about homosexuality, and she builds a case along the way for everyday theology as the theology that matters most in people's ordinary lives. It seems to me that Moon agrees with theologian Jeff Astley's argument about the existence of an "ordinary theology" that motivates people on a day-to-day basis (see his book Ordinary Theology (Ashgate, 2002)).

Both Moon and Astley show that in "real life," theologies come from and return to very personal experiences, and do not change by intellectual force alone, or even foremost. They have to do with the faith-sense people make of what they have endured in their lives. Importantly, Moon devotes an entire chapter to the significant but ambiguous role of emotion in everyday theologies. The importance of feeling and emotional history in the generation of theologies, and in the consideration of the plausibility of officially proffered "normative" theologies, is probably a more important consideration than many theologians or bishops have thus far been able to officially acknowledge. Moon and Astley argue that the emotional lessons and residue from people's significant relationships play a crucial role in everyday theologies.

Moon's book shares in a more general turn over the last decade to "lived religion," qualitative approaches to religious research, and a proliferation of practice-based theologies. In Catholic pastoral contexts, we have begun to learn just how great a deceleration of affiliation the Catholic Church is facing. While sexuality is not the only reason, few doubt that it is a contributing factor to the distance between "normative" Catholicism and "lived" Catholicism.

The conference series this fall on LGBT Catholicism, More Than a Monologue: Sexual Diversity and the Catholic Church, is one way to help address this deceleration of affiliation and the distance between normative and everyday theologies.  As America readers may already know, there will be four daylong conferences at Fordham University, Union Theological Seminary, Yale University, and Fairfield University. (Disclosure: I am on the planning committee for the Fordham conference.) Each conference will address the realities of LGBT Catholicism from various angles: How LGBT persons and their allies experience the Catholic environment on homosexuality (Fordham); the crisis of youth suicides in relationship to Catholic education (Union); same-sex marriage (Yale); and sexual diversity in Catholic ministry (Fairfield).

I hope the conference series will prove even more timely given the news of late, and advance the conversation that a great many of those who have called Catholicism their home, for however long, have already undertaken.

Tom Beaudoin
Hastings-on-Hudson, New York

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
11 years 6 months ago
Would the author care to apply these theologies from below to any other aspect of life and doctrine? How about peace and justice issues for example? Or in a foreign context, might not some indigenous Africa, Asian or European Catholics decide from below to jettison other doctrines and morals because it just doesn't "jive" with their lived experiences and it'd be a-OK?

In other words, if "theologies" are not governed by fidelity to a deposit of faith and an authoritative body from above who guarantee to any future generation an organic link with what revelation and person started the whole 'sheebang' of Christianity, how can there be a 'community of faith' and not anarchy? Who has final say on what the community is or believes if everything is always up for grabs "from below"?

ed gleason
11 years 6 months ago
John Lyon says..."Who has final say on what the community is or believes if everything is always up for grabs "from below"?
Did not Marian devotion  come from 'below' ? If a tree bears good fruit we keep it.

11 years 6 months ago
Pardon my ignorance Ed, but what Marian devotion "from below" challenged the Church's magisterial doctrines on sexual morality or the Church's magisterial understanding of teaching authority? Was Mary saying seers need not obey Church authorities but could become leaders via prophecy alone?

It's not like Catholicism has no 2000 year history of sexual moral teaching, doctrinal statements and councilliar documents related to the proper use of sexuality as Catholics and that thus the laity are free to fill in the blanks with experimentation.

Nor it is the case that "by their fruits" means "subjective admissions only" are to be considered "fruits" - after all, there are plenty of signs that the very "progressive" ideas of sexuality being sought for as the end of this "dialogue" do not lead to Church unity or a thriving church community that is counter cultural in, say, the Anglicans or Episcopalians....why should we accept that 'tinkering' from 'below' will "work" for Catholics when it's absolutely failed for protestants?

Or do only some laity's opinions matter - those opposed to Rome?
Jim McCrea
11 years 6 months ago
Theologians must face the questions people are actually asking rather than relying on unchanged tradition.
Theology, unlike the sciences, may and must learn from the unlearned.  Gregory Baum, "Paradigm Changes in Theology", Crossroad 1989.
 Theologyshould be less a matter of advocating systems of thought than of acquiring a way of life and a lens through which life is perceived.  If theology is not tested in the lives and communities of the faithful, does it not risk becoming a kind of neo-gnostic venture, without incarnational expression.  The community's ways of speaking and acting, its rites and rituals, its patterns of life and behavior shape and make possible certain kinds of experience.   Anthony B. Robinson, Teaching Theology in the Church, "The Christian Century", Nov 1, 1989
Crystal Watson
11 years 6 months ago
The conference sounds like a really good idea.  Lived, experiential, emotion-based belief seems like the quiet voice within, the conscience, the consolation/desolation of Ignatius of Loyola, the interior feeling Kant used for deciding what must be from God.  This is pretty much how I decide what to believe, I guess.  I suspect everyone really lives this way, but it's just that some people justify their feelings with certain church teachings.
Michael Barberi
11 years 6 months ago
What is important with respect to issues of morals is to embrace the idea that our understanding of the truth is progressive. Not the deposit of faith, as in the words of our Lord, but in complex sexual issues that reflect an historical consciousness. The easy answer to to stuff as many doctrines and teachings into the deposit of faith and call it a day. However, when the Magisterium authortatitvely closes debate on sexual ethical issues, we stop becoming a listening and learning Church and do not benefit from the collective and evolving wisdom of Christianity. This is one of the reasons why it takes centuries for change to occur in the Catholic Church. 

If we applied the authoritative and definitive approach of the last 50 years to the past, consider what would have been the case today. Coitus interuptus was consider quasi homicide from ancient times up to at least the 14th century, slavery was permissible, and heritics were tortured and put to death. Sex was only for procreation, sex during mentrual periods was a mortal sin, sex during pregnancy was forbidden and sex had only one lict position. These were once the common opinions of theologians and Church hierarchy for centuries, but have seen been abandoned. Is our undertanding of homosexuality or contraception any more conscious, more universal and more complete than these obsolete principles? If you have at least some doubt, then the conference on sexual diversity is a positive step forward.

11 years 6 months ago
Ah, so in the place of revealed truth about God and man and God's prefered plan for humanity, WE will now just make it up on our own in ignorance of God's word, and the revelation of His will for us?

Rather than try to understand the Gospel and Church teaching that have always been at odds with the larger cultural zeitgheist, we will now just assume that whatever is going on locally, must be "theological" and hence, worthy of a Christian?

And I also note the use of the world "progressive".... unless you have a clear idea of what constitutes the end goal, you cannot possibly know whether this or that change to human habits or inter-personal relations constitute an advance towards that goal or a retreat! But if the Gospel and historical, organic development of Catholic teaching on social, sexual, political and economic realities may be dispensed with in favor of whatever floats our LOCAL boats.... what other Gospel are we following?

Finally, if the Gospel and Magisterium can be dispensed with to allow ourselves to roll with whatever is the fad today, and hence morality is merely the measure of whatever is politicially popular amoung the elites.... then what makes any of you feminists or gays or "liberal progressives" so sure that a generation from now the rise of Chinese, Indian and Muslim hegemony due to sheer demographics won't obliterate the West's legal ethos and institute racism and sexism as "the wave of the future, the measure of 'progress' we all must accept or be crushed by?

Having jettisoned some other-worldly and eternal measure of man and morality in favor of what pleases our habits and vices and happens to be hip and cool today, we surrender ourselves to the spirit of the world and whatever forces are coming from a purely materialistic and might makes it right mindset. The very concept of "inalienable rights" must fall in this scenario because if morals are whatever those in power say they are.... no one has rights.

And if the Gospel and magisterium are powerless and must be discarded because any idea that pops into our minds is superior.... we lose all ability to dialogue and remain a community - we'll all be sheep without a shepherd. Is that your idea of "progress"?

11 years 6 months ago
Michael, your claims are ridiculous.

Slavery was not preached by the magisterium as a Catholic ideal - it was a SOCIAL problem the Church struggled to deal with - as the Church struggles to deal with social ills of our day.

As for sex being bland and boring.... you act as though that is a horrific thing! As though the current status quo is superior whereby we have tens of millions of abortions per year world wide, millions of cases of child abuse, sex trafficking, sex slavery, abuse and HIV/AIDS killed untold millions.

We have divorce and family destruction - all because the world's ways are accepted as 'liberation and fun' as opposed to the Church's ways.

Sexual "diversity" is a given based on original sin, not something to be encouraged and glorified in. You think Contraception is a MODERN issue? Clueless! The Romans had contraceptives! And abortion. And pedastry and homosexuality, and worse.... and the early Christians spoke and wrote copious amounts of materials on why this is all to be rejected in favor of Christ and the power his sacraments give Christians to live pure lives.

Progress? try regress! Moving the goal posts of civil society to where they were in 100 AD is hardly "progress".
Crystal Watson
11 years 6 months ago
"Slavery was not preached by the magisterium as a Catholic ideal - it was a SOCIAL problem the Church struggled to deal with - as the Church struggles to deal with social ills of our day."

Many US churchmen actually owned slaves themselves.  "The Catholic Church and Slavery" ... http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Catholic_Church_and_slavery
Michael Barberi
11 years 6 months ago
You are reading too much into my comments. I never said sex was boring or that abortion was acceptable. Nor was I sserting that Catholics should pick and choose their doctrines and teachings based on their personal and relational circumstances. 

 As such, our understanding of truth does not pertain to the fundamentals of our faith, but to complex ethical issues that only time will help us discern. The word "progressive" was used to connote our evolving wisdom.

There is a sharp disagreement within the Church over sexual ethical issues. If we divide ourselves into those that are faithful and true and those that are dissenters, we lose our perspective and inadvertently create a deeper fissure.

To disagree is not the same thing as being invinciibly ignorance or the victim of the ills of the modern world. If we close debate to complex issues, we stop becoming a listening and learning Church. You may disagree that homosexuality and contraceptin are part of the deposite of faith. However, most theologians and Catholics do not agree. That is why we must continue to search and find the truth, so that the message of God that is writtine on our hearts will be embraced by all who seek His will.  

As for ancient and modern history, I am quite familiar with it. Nothing I said was "clueless" as you assert.
11 years 6 months ago
I'm a philosopher by trade so I don't put too much stock in what 'theologians' have to say when it comes to ethics or 'progessive' understandings of ethics inasmuch as philosophy would hold that human nature is not open to 'evolution' when it comes to what's right and wrong.... now, customs and decorum certain changes but that's a whole nuther ball game.

As for churchmen owning slaves... two things. One, yeah, and 'church'men have done plenty of bad things across the centuries without making it ipso facto 'church teaching'. Two, classical slavery of antiquity into the middle ages and 18th century slavery which had a racist superiority edge to it, were two different animals. The former was premised on the essential equality as human beings of the scenario - which is why slaves could be bought their freedom - it was an economic servitude...whereas the latter was premised on intrinsic inferiority claims, of the africans being sub-human.

And yet even so many churchmen had slaves. Just as today, many churchmen have mistresses. That they ("theologians" among them) are bad examples doesn't make their scandalous ways "the church's view" on the matter.

I go back to the term "progress".... unless you have a good idea of what the end goal is, there's nothing to rest any concept of 'advancement towards' it via a word like "progress". So call your theological musings "change" and that's more accurate, but to call your morphing opinions "progressive" is an exercise in conceit....unless you DO have a good idea of the end goal and can describe it (in which case, I'm all ears).

Next, since the issue is one of morality, and morality talks to the isness of things and people and relationships....what the heck are we doing listening to THEOLOGIANS IN THE FIRST PLACE? Especially "theologians" who pooh pooh the scriptures, the early church fathers, the councils and Papal magisterium....to say nothing of marian aparitions and devotional sytems which all hold to a strict moral life understanding of sexuality? Take away scripture and tradition, magisterium and known sources of the Holy Spirit's guarantee (i.e. bishops) and a "theologian" is left with.....what, exactly? His or her opinion based on the zeitgheist of the world.... in which case their opinion is no better or worse than any others' opinion!

So what gives? Why the glib assertion of authority without any basis on speaking on behalf of the sources of catholic authority? Lived experience at odds with Catholic dogma is just wishful thinking.

Let's say I want to have a 'dialogue' about the rights of non-white men to impose themselves on women in a most patriarchical way - since that's their cultural understanding of things you see. Shall I accept as unchallengable their assertions of right based on their unique "lived experience"? Or challenge it based on what we know about a single human nature we all share which is the same across all cultural divides?

Or some violently homophic character tells me that he was born that way (or all he does is a direct result of his uncle's abusing him as a boy). Shall I just walk away from the man with the "progressive" idea that since he can't help some emotion (hatred) it's OK to indulge in it? According to the unspoken premises of the 'new, progressive' theology I would not be able to gainsay the chap. I'd have to give him all the benefits of doubt and not bring to bear the Gospel, popes, saints, martyrs, doctors, etc. of the church inasmuch as those sources of input are old, dead, and traditional and not new, alive and 'theology from below' (and how much below, hell below or just horizontal materialism below?).

You can see why theologians don't invite me to their coffee lounges. Metaphysicians are just not cool and hip.
Michael Barberi
11 years 6 months ago
Theological ethics is part moral philosophy and theology. The Church basis much of their understanding of morality on the ethics of Thomas Aquinas. This was the case since the 13th century, but not always the case. However, we have seen a renewal and newer interpretations of Aquinas' thinking over the past 25 years.

I could easily discuss the ethics based on Aquinas and have done so in my writings. This includes the moral specification of human acts using end/goal, intention, circumstances, act/object and the deliberation using reason etc. As for your disapproval of theologians and the nature of authority, you make an uninformed judgment. The role of theologians is to search for the truth, to do research involving anthropology, philosophy, theology, ethics, science, etc. in order to help the Church gain new understandings of complex issues. This also means challenging past assumptions about the roots of doctrine. However, back to authority and sexual ethics. Perhaps the following will help.

Our personal and relational experience and anthropology are necessary sources of moral insight, but not a sufficient source of sexual ethics. Underlying all the sources of moral insight is the understanding of reason and authority. It is impossible to separate the issue of authority from the issue of the content and meaning of what is presented as authoritative. When authority affirms a revelation of truth, it must ‘ring true’ to our deepest capacity for truth, goodness and reason. It must not demand blind faithful assent, but the convictions of our minds, hearts and souls.
This does not mean that the informed conscience of the individual cannot err, but neither does it mean that the theology of the Papal Magisterium is always infallible and the absolute moral truth. It also does not mean that Catholics should embrace relativism or individualism or pick and choose the doctrines that fit their personal and relational circumstances. 
Our experience of concrete persons and their relationships play an important part in moral discernment. Like Scripture and tradition, this experience requires analysis, interpretation and decision about its usefulness in determining the morality of attitudes and behaviors. With respect to contraception, resolving theological differences between theologians and the Church hierarchy are critically important when we have a crisis of truth. If these differences are authoritatively closed to debate, we will stop becoming a listening and learning Church and not benefit from the collective and evolving wisdom of Christianity.
I hope this will answer some of your issues.
Michael Barberi
11 years 6 months ago
CORRECTION; "If you think homosexuality and contraception, and other sexual ethical issues are part of the deposit of faith, most theologians and Catholics would disagree."

The latest from america

Pope Benedict XVI is accompanied by Cardinal George Pell of Sydney as he greets World Youth Day pilgrims at a welcoming ceremony at Barangaroo in Sydney, Australia, in this July 17, 2008, file photo. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)
Pope Benedict’s German biographer, Peter Seewald, confirmed that nine weeks before he died, Benedict revealed that insomnia was the “central motive” for his resignation.
Gerard O’ConnellJanuary 27, 2023
Russian recruits called up for military service walk along a platform before boarding a train in Omsk, Russia, on Nov. 27, 2022. (CNS photo/Alexey Malgavko, Reuters)
While representing Ukraine as an ice dancer in the Olympics, I made friends with many Russians. And I hope that one day my daughter can greet them in their own language.
Siobhan Heekin-CanedyJanuary 27, 2023
Should James Cameron have involved more Indigenous creatives in making a movie rooted in Native American history?
Kristin WestonJanuary 27, 2023
People supporting a citizenship law beat a Muslim man during clashes with those opposing the law in New Delhi Feb. 24, 2020. Christian leaders from different denominations in New Delhi condemned the communal violence. (CNS photo/Danish Siddiqui, Reuters) 
Seventy-five years after Gandhi’s death, when Hindu nationalism has risen to the highest echelons of the Indian government, his legacy in the nation he helped liberate is complex and, in some cases, denigrated.
Ryan Di CorpoJanuary 27, 2023