More Than A Monologue billed itself as "an unprecedented collaboration--2 Roman Catholic universities and 2 non-denominational divinity schools are coming together to change the conversation about sexual diversity and the Catholic Church. For too long, the conversation on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues in the Roman Catholic Church has been only a monologue--the sole voice being heard is that of the institutional Catholic Church. We must engage in more than a monologue by having a 21st century conversation on sexual diversity, with new and different voices heard from."
The themes of the four conferences seemed courageous in their approach to the frontline issues that separate the average American Roman Catholic (statistics show that most of them are in favor of LGBT equality) from their without-exception homophobic bishops:
Learning to Listen: Voices of Sexual Diversity and the Catholic Church Fordham University, 9/16 Lincoln Center Campus, New York, NY
Pro-Queer Life: Youth Suicide Crisis, Catholic Education, and the Souls of LGBTQ People Union Theological Seminary, 10/1 New York, NY
Same-Sex Marriage and the Catholic Church: Voices from Law, Religion, and the Pews Yale Divinity School, 10/22 New Haven, CT
The Care of Souls: Sexual Diversity, Celibacy, and Ministry Fairfield University, 10/29 Fairfield, CT
The fact that the conferences were generated by two universities that have long been the repositories of Catholic intellectual and progressive thinking represents more of a shaky limb than might be appreciated by non-Catholics who are not yoked to the extreme subscription of papal infallibility and authority. Catholic theologians at work in Catholic universities are constantly scrutinized by Rome for orthodoxy and must not teach or publish thinking on matters of faith or morals that counter the teaching authority of the hierarchy. In other words, a Jesuit scholar teaching at Fordham would get the boot if he published a book proclaiming that Jesus Christ loves same-sex marriage. In the weeks before the conference, a quick review of the listed speakers showed an absence of any active Catholic clergy. This seems to have been modified to include a few well-known priests and nuns who walk the line between LGBT-sympathetic Catholic leader and suspended renegade. No Catholic bishops have agreed to participate. (A retired bishop, Walter Sullivan, attended one of the conferences)
I contacted Dr. Paul Lakeland (pictured) Director of Fairfield University's Center for Catholic Studies and one of the organizers of the conference. I asked him about the pattern repeated in New York, Boston, Maine and California, in which the Roman Catholic bishops directly intervened against same-sex marriage whenever it was on the public agenda. How is this significant, given that polls consistently show Catholic Americans mostly in favor of same-sex marriage and gay rights? He said, "Bishops are more concerned about sacramental marriage rather than civil unions. I think it is true, as far as we can tell, that the Catholic population isn't on board with the bishops. More and more have come to be accepting of marriage or legal partnerships. I think the latest polls show about 74% of them supportive of either same-sex marriage or civil partnership. The response the bishops tend to make is twofold: 'You don't decide what is right or wrong simply by taking a vote, and if you look at the stats quoted, you will see that the more often a Catholic attends church, the less likely they are to support same-sex marriage.' They tend to read this as significant."
I asked how the organizers would achieve the "more than a monologue" goal of the sessions without a single bishop participating. Dr. Lakeland replied, "I want to clarify this dialogue/monologue thing. The monologue is the institutional teaching of the church presented as only what ought to be taught. We are not talking about the challenging of these issues. What we are saying is that there are a whole host of issues that are not being voiced by that one voice. It is important to address the issues of particular challenges, such as teen suicide, same-sex marriage, pastoral care to LGBT people. This set of conferences is much more than another expression of dissatisfaction. Everyone has already staked their territory."
Catholic colleges and hospitals are the front lines of the battleground--or dialogue--about individual rights and dignity versus absolute moral prohibitions. I asked Dr. Lakeland how this dynamic plays out in his classroom in a Catholic university. He replied, "If we are talking about classroom teaching with undergraduates, I usually don't teach LGBT issues, but it is always my responsibility to teach clearly what the church teaches. I am not there to defend that teaching but to explain it and encourage thought. If you are talking about something more public, like these conferences, they are taking place in a Catholic institution where there is freedom of inquiry. That is the approach. We are not doing this to simply present--or trash--the church's teachers."
I wondered if Dr. Lakeland thinks we will live to see women priests, openly gay priests and married priests in the Catholic Church, and does he think that an open, calm and rational dialogue about those issues is possible with the current pope? He replied, "I think whoever the pope is, our responsibility is to move the dialogue along. Many of the great changes in the church have occurred in the body of believers before they were institutionalized. Slavery is a good example. It is only after centuries of usury that lending became an acceptable practice in the institutional church. There is no way in which the conversation isn't going to move forward. Where it ends up will not please everybody, but you can't stop it, and who the pope is at any given moment will not stop that, even if they wanted to. Pope John Paul II tried to close the issue of women's ordination. You can't close any issue by fiat. The notion of the tipping point is important. With all great social issues there comes to be a tipping point when things have not reached the point you think they should reach but you see that it is inevitable. I'll give you an example: I think it is only time before we start ordaining married men. Catholics are not immune to great shifts in culture."
I asked Dr. Lakeland how the ongoing priest pedophilia scandal has impacted the gay rights discussion. He replied, "The biggest impact of the pedophile priest scandal has been in the confidence in the bishop's authority. There is unease that, somehow or other, the response of bishops has been lacking."
To summarize and justify my initial statement and opinion that these four conferences are significant, I would emphasize the fact that they involve the highest level of American Catholic intellectuals with ecumenical cooperation and whose belief is that change involving LGBT issues is inevitable. Even if the American bishops privately and secretly agree with Dr. Lakeland about the "tipping point" of change in issues like the ordination of married men, they will not speak what is in their hearts. Instead, they are acting as papal snipers on a state-by-state basis. The conferences provide for the first time a non-argumentative and highly-educated voice that identifies as inevitable the acceptance of LGBT equality in the Catholic Church.
I asked Dr. Lakeland if he thought that the American Catholic is more American than Roman, and if the pastoral approach of the American clergy since the 1960s and the Second Vatican Council, which emphasized the formation of personal conscience over blind obedience, has not resulted in Catholics in pews who believe in contraception, divorce, remarriage, women priests and gay rights. He replied, "I think I agree. There has been a huge cultural shift. Catholics are largely indistinguishable in American culture where ethical choices are primarily a matter of personal conscience. Catholics mirror that. If you look at the stats on almost any issue, Catholics are pretty much where all other Americans are. Some do make their moral choices by the teaching of the bishops. As far as the pope is concerned, people have noted that while they reserve personal respect for the person of the pope, they don't actually march to what he says. The American Catholic population is quite polarized in many of the issues."
The organizers of the conferences plan to make videos of the sessions available online.
(A version of this report appears at 10thousandcouples.com.)