In the wake of the sex-abuse scandals that continue to rock the Catholic Church, conversations about staying or leaving it are more prevalent than ever. Those who lived through earlier waves of the crisis find themselves struggling yet again with what to do, while many younger Catholics are experiencing this shock and betrayal for the first time. Still others have suffered frustration and marginalization in the church for ages, their voices silenced and their vocations to ministry, marriage, and family stifled. Catholics from all these groups are understandably wondering if they’ve finally reached the breaking point. But as I listen to them and reflect on my own faith, I have come to wonder if the language of staying or leaving, of being inside or outside the church, is failing to capture the experiences of many people who live with these tensions.
In almost every aspect of my life as a theologian and ethicist, spouse and parent, friend and colleague, I have been challenged to think beyond binary categories to imagine new ways of understanding our identities, relationships, and responsibilities. Feminist theologians have long been disrupting dualisms that enable patriarchy: body/mind, spirit/flesh, sacred/profane, private/public. Queer theorists have pressed further to challenge essentializing categories that serve heteronormativity: male/female, masculine/feminine, and gay/straight. But it’s been the time I’ve spent thinking and praying with LGBTQ young people that has prompted me to explore another dichotomy: in/out. Are you in the closet or out? Have you disclosed your gender identity or sexual orientation? The answer is rarely a simple yes or no. People come out to different people at different times and in different spaces. LGBTQ young people also challenge the simple claim that being “out” is morally superior or necessarily truer to self. Living safely and well is much more complicated than that. So too is navigating membership in the church.