LGBTQ+ issues have featured prominently in synod reports throughout the world. The Vatican’s Working Document for the Continental Stage recognizes the importance of accompanying LGBTQ+ persons and acknowledges the tension resulting from a lack of clarity about what it means to “include” and “accompany” them. The authors of the report fear that because of this and other polarizing tensions, the Church might be facing “an experience of Babel and not Pentecost” (Enlarge the Space in Your Tent, no. 30). I was struck by this Biblical reference and wish to reflect upon it more as it pertains to LGBTQ+ inclusion in the Church.
In both stories, Babel and Pentecost, the characters are attempting to build something (Babel: A tower to reach the heavens; Pentecost: The Church of Jesus Christ). What distinguishes their endeavors—and outcome—is the foundation and structure of what they are building. The Tower of Babel was characterized by a quest for power, fear of the unknown and exclusion of diverse views. The quest for power was seen in the attempt to build a tower to “make a name of ourselves” (Gen 11:4), fear of the unknown was seen in both the fear of being scattered throughout the Earth and the remedy of reaching the heavens to be like God, and the exclusion of diversity was seen in the fragmentation of society due to the different languages.
Pentecost was characterized by a commitment to community, risk-taking in the face of the unknown and celebration of difference as a gift. Community was seen in the commitment to the central message of the Gospels, risk-taking was seen in the departure from the upper room to face an unknown fate and celebration of diversity was seen through the cherishing of the different languages/gifts—each contributing to a common mission. These two stories contain important lessons for a synodal Church on what it means to truly include and accompany LGBTQ+ persons.
While the global Church acknowledges the importance of listening to LGBTQ+ persons, there is a lack of clarity about the scope and impact such listening is meant to have: Does listening to them simply mean offering them a place where they can find comfort amidst their suffering? Or are we actually permitting the Church as a whole to be transformed by their grace-filled life witness? If our goal is simply to be nice and hear about the struggles of LGBTQ+ persons without letting those stories transform us, we are building a synodal Church that resembles Babel: clinging stubbornly to our security, power and fear of difference—all made concrete in the various self-referential exclusionary magisterial documents on human sexuality and reported instances of LGBTQ+ exclusion.
Genuine accompaniment of LGBTQ+ persons must be open to the often-alluded-to “God of surprises,” risk the discomfort of uncertainty about mysterious matters of sexuality and celebrate the diversity of sexual “language” (read: experience/expression) as we continue to build a pluralistic Church where all are welcome. More importantly, it must learn to recognize the grace present in loving same-sex relationships and gender transitions. Such a synodal process goes beyond simply listening and embraces true joint communal discernment that is open to what Grzegorz Strzelczyk refers to as “an epiphany of the Spirit.”
My fear with the current synodal process (which is in its infancy) is precisely that, prior to engaging in dialogue, some sectors of the Church preemptively discredit LGBTQ+ experiences by categorizing them as sinful. Therefore, the dialogue does not reflect genuine communal discernment so much as a listening session on how to support LGBTQ+ persons’ sinful struggles. As an example, the U.S. National Synod Report expresses concerns for those marginalized and underrepresented in the Church, but also expresses that such marginalization happens because “circumstances in their own lives are experienced as impediments to full participation in the life of the Church. Among these are members of the LGBTQ+ community,” (p. 6). What is interesting about this statement is that it holds LGBTQ+ persons responsible for their own marginalization, rather than acknowledging the role of problematic magisterial doctrine in their exclusion. This showcases a preemptive refusal to revisit the structural/doctrinal foundations through synodal discourse.
Pope Francis and some bishops have advocated for accompaniment and inclusion of LGBTQ+ persons but have stopped short of publicly entertaining the possibility of developing these doctrines. Conversely, the German Synodal Way has been very explicit, despite objections from the Vatican, about the importance of these structural doctrinal reforms that would validate and recognize LGBTQ+ experiences as grace-filled.
As a pragmatist, I acknowledge that Catholic development of doctrine takes place over time. It would be unfair to expect this change to happen instantly. Perhaps we first need a new moral framework that tolerates the diversity of theological opinion in our Church on some sexual matters before demanding doctrinal development. Nevertheless, we must ultimately abandon the Babelian quest to protect a structure that falsely promises closeness to God while breeding division and exclusion amongst us. Instead, we must embrace Pentecost and move beyond the doctrinal “security” we experience in the upper room to truly encounter the grace present in our diverse world.
Ish Ruiz is the Provost-Candler Postdoctoral Teaching Fellow in Catholic Studies at Candler School of Theology, Emory University.