Kenyans celebrate with rainbow flags during an event for LGBT rights in Nairobi, June 2023 (OSV News photo/Monicah Mwangi, Reuters).

Last February, a sixteen-year-old nonbinary student named Nex Benedict died after an altercation with three other students in a women’s bathroom at Owasso High School in Oklahoma. The tragedy generated national attention as well as an outcry from LGBTQ+ rights groups. Benedict, whose death was later ruled a suicide, had been bullied for more than a year before the incident. Many blamed their death (Benedict used they/them pronouns) in part on a recently passed Oklahoma policy requiring students to use the bathroom corresponding to the sex listed on their birth certificate. 

The federal Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights later opened an investigation into whether the public school district in Owasso had failed to respond adequately to complaints of harassment. President Joe Biden issued a statement saying he and his wife were “heartbroken,” and called on Americans to address the suicide crisis affecting transgender and nonbinary children. Benedict’s death also received attention from religious leaders. Though Benedict was not Episcopalian, Bishop Poulson Reed of the Episcopalian Diocese of Oklahoma issued a statement following their death, acknowledging Benedict’s nonbinary identity and reaffirming the diocese’s “respect for the dignity of every human being.” Like Biden, Reed also offered a prayer for Benedict’s family and friends. 

If only Bishop David Konderla of the Diocese of Tulsa had done the same. About ten days after Benedict’s death, the Diocese of Tulsa released an episode of its podcast, Tulsa Time with Bishop Konderla. In an episode titled “What does the Church say about Transgenderism and Sexual Identity?,” host Derek Lyssy spent nearly an hour with Bishop Konderla and another guest, attorney Dr. Mary Rice-Hasson, cofounder and director of the Person and Identity Project, dismissing the legitimacy of gender-affirming care. Calling the science behind it “corrupt,” they characterized the medically-recognized DSM-V diagnosis of gender dysphoria as a “false answer” and “insidious evil.” The Church, they argued, must fight back against “an activist community” that exists “online” and “exploits vulnerable young people.”

Konderla’s remarks were repugnant but hardly surprising. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has faced scrutiny for its responses to national instances of anti-LGBTQ+ hatred, which some argue lacks the “respect, compassion, and sensitivity” called for by the Catechism. Recall the bishops’ response to the 2016 massacre at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub. They condemned the horrific violence that claimed the lives of 49 people and injured 53 more, yet failed to note that the victims had been targeted simply for being LGBTQ+. 


Many Catholics, energized by Francis’s papacy, are animated by the hope that the Vatican will institute sweeping changes to Church teaching about diversity of sexuality and gender. But history demonstrates that change starts small, often beginning with the movement of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of local churches. Over the past few decades, more Catholics have taken up the baptismal call of all Christians to exercise the priestly, prophetic, and political dimensions of their vocations. And the Church has slowly become more inclusive. From the Second Vatican Council to the Synod on Synodality, it has created pathways—however slowly—for LGBTQ+ persons to journey together with the rest of the Catholic community. At last the Spirit is being heard.

It’s impossible to overstate the importance of Vatican II as a pivot point for Catholicism. For the first time in history, the Church convened a council not to combat a potential heresy or correct a practical problem, but instead to rearticulate and renew tradition by fusing it with an active engagement in the world—“scrutinizing the signs of the times” and “interpreting them in the light of the Gospel.” Key to this effort was the council’s recognition that ordained clergy and laity are united as one People of God. This challenged old ideas about lay inferiority; clergy were now to respect and even rely on lay expertise.  

The Church has struggled for nearly sixty years to take this message to heart. Soon after the Covid lockdowns began in 2020, Pope Francis introduced the Synod on Synodality in hopes that it would move the entire Church closer to the renewal called for by Vatican II. The Synod on Synodality was not to reach a conclusion for the Church, but to nurture a way of being Church. Francis thus encouraged prayerful listening to the voices of all Catholics. This process of “journeying together” explicitly includes the laity as active participants and meaningful agents in reform.

How can Francis openly tell worshipers at World Youth Day that “in the Church, there is room for everyone,” and yet repeatedly use an anti-gay slur while speaking behind closed doors in Rome?

By all accounts, this really did happen. Present at the Global Synodal Assembly in Rome were 365 voting participants; 295 were bishops, and seventy were not, including priests, women religious, and laypeople. These members were advised by eighty-five non-voting theologians. There were no openly LGBTQ+ members at the Assembly.

Before the Assembly began, Francis appointed Fr. Timothy Radcliffe, OP, to lead participants in a three-day retreat. “Conversation needs an imaginative leap into the experience of the other person…[t]o see with their eyes, and hear with their ears,” Radcliffe noted. To facilitate this, the Synod altered its usual seating arrangements based on episcopal authority and filled the Synod Hall with round tables, meant to promote conversation and symbolize the future of the Church. 


Ever since his 2013 remarks aboard the papal plane (“Who am I to judge?”), Pope Francis has had a mixed reception among LGBTQ+ Catholics. Some welcomed his remarks as gestures of mercy and compassion; others noticed that they didn’t necessarily support or welcome LGBTQ+ persons in the Church. Francis has taken other positive steps since then, including befriending an openly gay man, Juan Carlos Cruz Chellew, also a survivor of clerical abuse. In 2021, Francis appointed Cruz to the Pontifical Council for the Protection of Minors, making him the first openly LGBTQ+ person to serve at such a prominent level at the Vatican. He was instrumental in Francis’s announcement that “being homosexual is not a crime.” The announcement isn’t trivial, as several countries still have laws making homosexuality illegal; some, as Dignitas Infinita notes, even punish it with execution. 

But at the same time, Francis has repeatedly signaled that he may still regard LGBTQ+ persons as second-class Catholics. How else could the pope welcome transgender women to the Vatican and call them “children of God” while also qualifying his support for baptizing transgender people if doing so could “cause scandal?” How can Francis openly tell worshipers at World Youth Day that “in the Church, there is room for everyone” (“todos, todos, todos”), and yet repeatedly use an anti-gay slur while speaking behind closed doors in Rome? 

Some of Francis’s vacillation is reflected in the proceedings of the Synod on Synodality. While the gatherings raised hopes in some quarters of a breakthrough regarding LGBTQ+ people, the synthesis document, A Synodal Church in Mission, disappointed many. To start, it only mentions LGBTQ+ people tangentially, listing “issues” of “sexuality and identity” among those requiring more reflection, specifically in the realm of theological anthropology. The prior Instrumentum laboris had used the term “LGBTQ” instead of “homosexual,” which many saw as a sign of the Church’s growth. But there was real disagreement with such terminology among the Synod delegates. After the conclusion of the October Assembly, Fr. James Martin described how Synod participants wrestled with the issues concerning LGBTQ+ Catholics: 

[T]he approaches fell along two lines: First, there were people, like myself, who shared stories of LGBTQ Catholics struggling to find their place in their own church, along with calls for the church to reach out more to this community. On the other hand, many delegates objected even to using the term “LGBTQ,” seeing it more reflective of an “ideology” foisted upon countries by the West or a form of “neo-colonialism,” and focusing more on homosexual acts as “intrinsically evil.” From my point of view, I wish that the synthesis was more reflective of the rich conversation around the topic and admitted our divergences, as was done in other controversial areas.

Martin is not alone in his ambivalence and disappointment. Journalists covering the Synod reported a troubling lack of information provided by Vatican officials. From the start, the Vatican framed this as a media “fast” designed to protect the freedom of participants to speak without fear. But in the end, it may have proved counterproductive. At a minimum, it’s puzzling that an event championing openness and accountability would so strictly limit participants’ freedom to speak to journalists, even after the conclusion of the Assembly. And while Pope Francis has repeatedly stressed listening and consultation, especially around controversial issues, he and the Vatican Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith nevertheless issued two doctrinal declarations that concern LGBTQ+ people, Fiducia supplicans and Dignitas infinita, that show little (if any) evidence of consultation of those actually affected by the documents.

It’s puzzling that an event championing openness and accountability would so strictly limit participants’ freedom to speak to journalists, even after the conclusion of the Assembly.

Instead of fostering consensus and unity, these actions have exacerbated existing differences. While many liberal Catholics, especially in the West, took Fiducia supplicans as a step toward greater inclusivity, some African bishops pointedly rejected it. Other, more progressive critics have highlighted the fact that Fiducia pointedly denies the possibility of sacramental same-gender marriages and explicitly bars the blessings from resembling a marriage ceremony in any way. In the end the document, meant to demonstrate greater inclusivity, has partly had the opposite effect, further alienating LBGTQ+ Catholics who already feel that the Church does not want them. 

Near the midpoint of the October Assembly, Fr. Radcliffe gave a “spiritual reflection” that was later made public. He reminded Synod participants that they had heard from a guest speaker about a young woman who died by suicide “because she was bisexual and did not feel welcomed” by the Church. Radcliffe’s focus on the young woman and his use of the word “feel” is revealing—both call attention to the distress of the victim at the margins of the Church, rather than the culpability of the clerics whose very suspicion of her sexuality had placed her in that position. What if Radcliffe had instead challenged his listeners to ponder why the young woman wasn’t being welcomed? What if he had asked them what they were doing to ensure that their LGBTQ+ parishioners really were welcomed? 

Radcliffe continued sharing about the bisexual young woman, “Many of us wept when we heard the story. I hope it changed us.” Radcliffe never defines the change he hopes for, but there is a note of presumption in his remarks, as if LGBTQ+ Catholics need the Church’s pity, as if they should be content with assimilation into a Church that has always viewed them with suspicion, if not outright hostility. 

Perhaps it is the Church and its ordained ministers, and not LGBTQ+ people as a group, that is called to greater transformation. The grace of Baptism and incorporation into the Body of Christ calls LGBTQ+ Catholics to take on a prophetic role within the People of God. Instead of more tales of suffering, what if, before the next October assembly, Synod participants heard prophetic stories of LGBTQ+ flourishing? The Church is too familiar with our griefs and anxieties. What about our joys and hopes? 


A prayer attributed to the Jesuit paleontologist and cosmologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin advises listeners to “trust in the slow work of God,” to accept the momentary anxiety of feeling “in suspense and incomplete” while God works to bring about “something new.” It isn’t hard to see how such advice could apply to LGBTQ+ Catholics still waiting for the Church to change today. Be patient, don’t rock the boat, have faith in incrementalism, and respect Catholic tradition. 

These sentiments may be well intended, but they can also quickly lead to despair. LGBTQ+ Catholics are often told to hope in the Synod. But “hope” can easily become an excuse for accepting an unjust, intolerable status quo. Worse, it can encourage passivity. Divine grace blossoms through active human participation, and is evidenced by “good works.” If the Church really does believe in the indelible dignity of LGBTQ+ persons, as both Fiducia supplicans and Dignitas infinita emphatically reaffirm, it can’t only express sorrow for past abuses or offer words of welcome. It has to actually do something.

Perhaps it is the Church and its ordained ministers, and not LGBTQ+ people as a group, that is called to greater transformation.

In her book Reset the Heart: Unlearning Violence, Relearning Hope, practical theologian Mai-Anh Le Tran uses the lens of religious educator Thomas Groome to reflect on the parable of the Persistent Widow recounted in the Gospel of Luke. Recall that in the parable, in which Jesus teaches his disciples “to pray always and not lose heart,” a widow repeatedly asks an obstinate judge to do justice for her. Annoyed, the judge eventually relents. Le Tran’s interpretation focuses on the widow’s steadfast pursuit of her cause: 

Refusing to accept what unjust systems dictate as her faith, relentless in the pursuit of a corrective response, she is the example of what it means to pray, a reminder that prayer is an active pursuit of reparation, a model of how tenacious faith is a verb and not a noun.

The faith Jesus intends is indeed a verb, not a noun. As he concludes the parable, he wonders whether “at the end of time” there will be “faith like this on Earth.” What if we took that seriously when we think about the faith of LGBTQ+ Catholics asking for recognition and affirmation, and the work of theologians interpreting Scripture in new ways in light of contemporary realities? 

Tradition roots and guides us, but it is not a prison. As Vatican II affirmed, the Church continues to grow specifically as a response to God’s love for a suffering world. Yet much of the current discourse around LGBTQ+ Catholics is rooted in fear, a fact the synthesis report of the October Assembly explicitly acknowledges in the first section:

Among the fears expressed is that the teaching of the Church will be changed, causing us to depart from the Apostolic faith of our forebears and, in so doing, will fail to respond to the needs of those who hunger and thirst for God today. However, we are confident that synodality is an expression of the dynamic and living Tradition.

In the United States, this fear is often expressed through the language of “scandal.” Diocesan bans on LGBTQ+ self-expression in Catholic schools, bishops withholding the Eucharist from transgender people, or priests questioning the legitimacy of offering blessings to same-gender couples are all justified as a means of “preventing scandal.” What if the Church thought differently about scandal? Christian theologians remind us that salvation history and the Gospel itself is “scandalous”: God enters human history at a particular time and place, in and with and through the particular person of Jesus Christ, whose crucifixion and resurrection likewise “gave scandal”—and gave birth to the Church. 

Francis has been clear that the Synod is not a parliament, that the Church’s doctrine cannot be altered by majority vote. But the mandate to treat LGBTQ+ people with the love of Christ revealed in the Gospel should not need to be a topic of discussion, much less a debate. Yet it has become one, and the Church is at least partly responsible: How can it both communicate “respect, compassion, and sensitivity” for LGBTQ+ persons while at the same time telling transgender people, as it does in Dignitas infinita, that their convictions about who they are amount at best to a kind of illusion, at worst to an “insidious evil”?

It will probably take a long time to repair the harm caused by the Church’s offensive words, and it’s unlikely that we’ll see major changes when the Synod Assembly reconvenes in Rome this October. In the meantime, we LGBTQ+ Catholics can model ourselves on the Persistent Widow, even when it feels like the clergy and Vatican aren’t listening. Our hope for ecclesial justice is a living testament to our faith and our prophetic role within the Body of Christ. Even if others choose to live with scales over their eyes, LGBTQ+ Catholics can see the Spirit creating and renewing. We cannot control how the rest of the Church chooses to see us, but we can choose to live boldly, embodying prophetic love and illuminating our collective journey toward a renewed Church.

Nick Fagnant is a Commonweal Synod Writing Fellow and a doctoral student in the Clough School of Theology and Ministry at Boston College, where he specializes in “queering Ignatian education.”

Also by this author

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

© 2024 Commonweal Magazine. All rights reserved. Design by Point Five. Site by Deck Fifty.