In early 2020, Fr. James Martin, SJ, was finalizing plans for a major conference event: a conference on LGBTQ Catholic ministry put on by Outreach, an organization that Martin founded under the umbrella of America Media to provide pastoral and spiritual resources for LGBTQ Catholics and their friends, family, and pastors. That first conference did not happen because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and a 2021 conference was held online. But this past June, at the beginning of Pride Weekend in New York City, the Outreach conference finally took place in person, bringing together priests, religious brothers and sisters, theologians, lay ministers, parish workers, parents, students, and ordinary interested Catholics for an afternoon and a day of happy socializing and serious conversation about the state of LGBTQ people in the Catholic Church.
I attended the conference as a writer who writes about Catholic spirituality and theology for a general audience and also as a gay Catholic whose Catholic life consists mostly of going to Mass slightly more often than I’m obliged to and going to Confession far less often than I should. I’m interested in LGBTQ ministry primarily as someone who feels alienated from most of it: I wanted to know what conversations were happening, what kinds of challenges such ministries were facing, and how they might thrive even in the kind of hostile climate that is quickly becoming common in U.S. dioceses. Perhaps more than any of this, I wanted to be in the same place as other queer Catholics asserting our presence, our needs, and our importance at a conference closer to the heart of the institutional Church than any before it.
The point about the conference’s unprecedented institutional endorsement was made by Brian Flanagan during the theology panel session, and it bears underscoring. Never before has a conference for and about LGBTQ Catholics had a keynote address from a sitting bishop, and Bishop John Stowe’s opening talk on Friday night about the particular and unique loves that Christ had for his disciples during his ministry was a fitting beginning to a conference aimed at the needs of people to whom the Church’s professions of love have often felt generic, distant, and far removed from the indifference, cruelty, and abuse that many of us have faced from people who claimed to speak on behalf of that very Church. God’s love, Stowe reminded us, is not that: it comprehends us fully, knows us down to our innermost depths, and loves all that it beholds. God delights that we are and in what we are.
Indeed, it was hard not to feel something of that delight later in the evening as attendants adjourned for drinks and desserts. There are very few spaces in the Church where queer Catholics can be fully ourselves—spaces where we can speak the shared languages of both queer people and Catholics with no seam or boundary between them, expressing the fullness of our communal belongings without reservation. Even casual conversation at a wine bar or over lunch became something marvelous, a small and temporary community that offered us, for the moment, a kind of freedom that we could experience hardly anywhere else. These were not official conference proceedings and so are not fit for detailed discussion, but I cannot overstate the importance of such casual occasions of solidarity.
Saturday morning began with a short prayer service with music at the Church of St. Paul the Apostle, and while it wasn’t precisely to my taste—I’m an old-fashioned smells-and-bells liturgy queen—it was nonetheless very well executed by Meredith Augustin and a volunteer choir of conference attendants. The service transitioned immediately into another keynote talk, this time from Fr. Bryan Massingale, on “Intersectionality and LGBTQ Ministry.” The dry title belied an engaging and moving discussion on the need for any LGBTQ ministry to be aimed at entire persons, following Audre Lorde: we do not live single-issue lives. Massingale began by contending—quite correctly, I think—that the biggest threat to queer people in America right now is the same as the biggest threat to Black people and all other people of color: what threatens us all is white nationalism, because it hates people of color and queer people both separately and intersectionally. Because it regards American territory and American institutions as parts of an entailed estate heritable only by white people, white nationalism sees nonwhite people and queer people both as surplus population. Our own ministry, Massingale explained, must answer this compounded hatred with a love that welcomes people not only as LGBTQ people but as Black people, as Indigenous people, as disabled people—as any and all of the things that we bring with us wherever we go. His address was a timely reminder that Christ took on the fullness of our humanity and brings all that we are into the fullness of everlasting life, and our evangelism and pastoral care would do well to follow his example.
Lunch followed the keynote, and after lunch came the variable portion of the conference. There were two afternoon panel sessions and four different panels during each. During the first session, the panel titled “Who Am I to Judge? Theological Insights for LGBTQ Catholics” drew a large crowd, presumably because in addition to the long-distinguished James Alison, Lisa Fullam, and Brian Flanagan, and the up-and-coming Jason Steidl, the panel also included Fr. Philip Bochanski, the current executive director of Courage International, whose apostolate ministers to “Catholics with same-sex attraction,” in its own words. Alison chaired the panel, and for the most part the participants offered excellent presentations and collegial discussion. Steidl sought to outline the basis for a queer liberation theology; I didn’t entirely agree with his argument, but it raised several worthwhile questions. Fullam offered what I thought was the most intriguing and provocative argument: that LGBTQ people ought to embrace natural law as a mode of moral reasoning, because any change in the Church’s judgment of LGBTQ lives and relationships will come about through taking natural law seriously. Alison asked us to think about Christ’s sacrifice not as a propitiatory offering made to God but as God’s total self-giving to humanity, our murderous response to that, and Christ’s final unmasking of the empty logic of sacrifice. Flanagan asked us to view the Outreach conference itself through Pope Francis’s invitation to synodality, as one expression of the Church’s ongoing conversation. It was Flanagan who observed, as I noted earlier, that the Outreach conference was closer to the institutional center of the Church than any such conference before it. The discussion among these panelists was both intellectually and spiritually edifying.
This threw Fr. Bochanski’s contribution into sharp relief, and it confirmed my own suspicion that the pastoral approach taken by Courage and other apostolates who emphasize their fidelity to a traditional sexual ethic is not in fact any kind of pastoral approach at all. His presentation attempted to bring the traditional teaching of the Church on same-sex relationships to an audience he knew was hostile, and I do commend his courage in accepting Martin’s invitation. He spoke with what he doubtless imagined was the authority of the Church, armoring his argument with block quotations from encyclicals and the CDF and the occasional papal interview. In almost every respect it was unremarkable, and this was precisely its problem: armed and armored with the language of authority, Bochanski felt no need to give serious thought to the words of his fellow panelists or to the needs of the people to whom he was speaking. Courage seeks to teach, but the posture of authority that it assumes precludes any teaching. It expects an audience to be convinced only by the juridical authority of the Church and has no real interest in cultivating the teaching authority demonstrated by Christ, who “taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” Teaching authority demands not only that teachers speak but that they listen, and an apostolate that continues exactly the same line of argument for forty years, refusing to change course when its serious logical, factual, and pastoral shortcomings are pointed out, cannot be said to be teaching in any serious way. Nowhere was this more evident than in Bochanski’s treatment of concerns addressed to the panel by a trans woman in the audience, who said that she appreciated the theological reflection but that what she needed from the Church was to receive the sacraments and to learn how to pray, and that she needed the Church to teach her these things without pretending she didn’t exist. Bochanski’s calculated reply was that God loves us enough to meet us where we are, but that he also loves us too much to leave us there, and that this woman might be surprised about where God would lead her if she approached him in prayer. One can almost admire the precision with which he avoided her real concerns, bringing himself back to the safety of well-rehearsed platitudes that spare one both the efforts and consequences of compassion or thought. I’m sure he thought he did a very fine job.
Happily, the other panels were by all accounts far more generative. The only other that I had the chance to attend was the panel on “The Catholic Rainbow: Race, Ethnicity, and Intersectionality,” which built on Massingale’s keynote, bringing his argument into conversation with the experiences of both lay and ordained Catholics who ran ministries at the intersection of LGBTQ and nonwhite racial identities. All the panelists agreed that meeting people where they are means, among other things, speaking their spiritual and cultural vernacular, and also that there is no universal “LGBTQ Catholic” vernacular: we speak about our lives in the language of our communities, and an effective LGBTQ ministry must speak and make room for many spiritual vernaculars. Any that fails to do so pitches itself, whatever its intentions, to white Catholics first and foremost, and to everyone else either incidentally or not at all.
After the panel sessions came Mass at St. Paul the Apostle, which graciously welcomed Fr. Martin as the principal celebrant. The contemporary liturgical setting was not quite to my taste, but Martin celebrated a reverent by-the-book Mass with a solid homily. Dinner followed, and then the final keynote by Sr. Jeannine Gramick looking back on the many developments that she’s seen in her more than fifty years of ministry to LGBTQ Catholics. Her long view on practices and attitudes within the Church was a source of tremendous hope, especially because so many positive shifts were driven by precisely the practice and experience of encounter that Pope Francis has put at the center of his ministry. There has been real change in the Church’s understanding of gay and bisexual people, and even of trans people. And we would do well to remember that the episcopal hierarchy is not the Church: Michael O’Loughlin’s excellent book Hidden Mercy, which was given for free to conference attendees, documents the compassionate response of the Church—that is, of both lay and ordained Catholics responding as Catholics, regardless of episcopal approval, to people and communities who needed their help. This may well be the way the Church responds to the escalating campaigns against the rights and dignity of LGBTQ people, and the failure of bishops to lead will not make such a response any less Catholic, or any less the action of the Church.
The conference concluded with two pieces of sacred music sung by cantor Bruce Rameker: a chant composed by St. Hildegard of Bingen and the traditional Gregorian setting of the Litany of the Saints. The litany is frequently modified to include the names of saints who are important to a particular community, and in this case Rameker made sure to include the many saints to which queer Catholics have paid special devotion over the years: St. Joan of Arc, Sts. Sergius and Bacchus, Sts. Perpetua and Felicity, St. John of the Cross, and others have long had special places in our prayers, and to sing the Church’s ancient litany asking for their intercession put us in continuity with so many other communities of the faithful who came before us. After the litany, Fr. Martin dismissed us and brought tears to my eyes.
“Go in peace and glorify God by your life.”
℟: Thanks be to God
“Thanks be to God, and happy Pride!”