A publication of Sacred Heart University
Catholics, the Supreme Court and Theological Formation
The U.S. Catholic Church Should Embrace the Vision of Laudato Si’

Queering Synodality

Queer theology is not really concerned with LGBTQ+ “representation” in the Church. As a project, queer theology seeks to disrupt, to challenge, to transgress dominant oppressive norms. More than offering apologetics for LGBTQ+ inclusion in the Church (which remain important), queer theology utilizes a different kind of method that posits a challenge to normativity—particularly oppressive ways of thinking.

Is there a place for such a destabilizing transgressive project in a synodal Church that, as Pope Francis envisions, emphasizes unity and togetherness in the journey as a People of God? Would queer theology present an antithesis to that synodal vision?

In response, I argue that queerness should be an essential component of the synodal journey.

Queerness presents a solution to an ecclesiological problem we encounter too often in our Church. While many in our Church have brought forth significant structural reforms and key developments, these advances are often thwarted or delayed by Church leaders who cling to outdated ways of thinking. The phrase “old wine in new wineskins” captures this trend.

I believe that a genuine synodal journey needs to consider and challenge the operating norms underneath any potential structural reform. Queer theology functions in this realm of normative discourse (defined by Foucault as a powerful use of language to produce “knowledge” that generates particular norms). Queer theologizing is not limited to structural reforms, but rather seeks to examine and challenge the operating principles that lie underneath our efforts and the “so called” knowledge that sustains them. It asks: what religious norms do we subscribe to and how was the knowledge that sustains them produced? How does our theological discourse promote such norms? Who is oppressed by those norms? And, crucially, how can we use theological discourse destabilize oppressive norms?

These questions are key for a Church that wishes to usher in reform while also challenging the underlying currents of thought that sustain outdated structures. More importantly, queerness challenges norms in unexpected ways by making us aware of our blind spots. It highlights oppressive normativity in areas of our lives where we don’t suspect it exists. Since many of us walk in lockstep by blindly following norms socialized into our psyche from an early age, encountering queer transgressions may cause a necessary disruption that initiates a process of introspection and transformation.

A synodal Church, while conserving its hierarchical structure that may perpetuate “walking in lockstep” (e.g., the image of a pastor and a flock), should welcome in more queer disruption. I wish Church leaders would implore queer theologians to (1) challenge them in new and unexpected ways, (2) explain how Catholic theological norms discursively enable oppression inside and outside of the Church, and (3) teach them new liberatory forms of discourse.

To make my proposal more concrete—though well intentioned, synodality could fall prey to a bishop who, while singing praises for the synodal journey, continues to fiercely cling to “old wine” ideas of gender and sexuality that ultimately oppress the LGBTQ+ Catholics that synodality hopes to welcome (as evidenced in the majority of synod continental reports throughout the world). Thus, synodality becomes ineffective and self-defeating. Assuming that this bishop is rational and well intentioned (generous as that may be in some cases), it’s obvious that he may not have opened himself up to challenge on matters of sexual normativity. Perhaps he cannot even imagine that such norms can be credibly challenged. Therefore, a genuine spirit of synodality, for this bishop, would make use of a queer methodology that challenges any previously unnoticed oppressive norms still operating underneath the surface of his synodal path.

Crucially, I also argue that, in the same way that synodality needs queer theology, the queer theological project could also benefit from the spirit of synodality. Space does not allow me to develop this idea, so I will simply observe that synodality helps queerness stay close to the ground and connected to the historical experiences of people. Challenging norms for the sake of challenging norms is dangerous. There are many norms in our society (moral and cultural) that I would seek to preserve. A queer project that loses sight of human experiences, historical oppression, the importance of community and a justice-oriented vision of the future could cause serious harm. Synodality provides a potential for a Catholic queer theological project grounded in communal lived experience.

I conclude by reflecting on Pope Francis’ letter to the newly appointed prefect for the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, Archbishop Victor Manuel Fernandez, in which he states his hopes for a Church that increases its understanding of faith instead of focusing on condemning errors. I am cautiously optimistic that such vision would help the DDF open itself up to the movement of the Spirit manifested in queer transgressions rather than seek to rigidly preserve established norms that clearly threaten the dignity of many queer Catholics. Catholic leaders, and the Church as a whole, could significantly benefit from the insights and the challenges presented by queer Catholic theology.


Ish Ruiz is the Provost-Candler Postdoctoral Teaching Fellow in Catholic Studies at Candler School of Theology, Emory University. 

Comments

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Y not

Greed is among the worst “dominant oppressive norms” in the collective West. This is especially true in academia. For example, tuition fees at Emory University are $59,920 per year; estimated total expenses are $83,702 (https://t.ly/zhxjf 2023). Emory puts middle-class students into debt while excluding the poor — it’s an exclusive university that pretends to be “inclusive” (https://t.ly/trUWl 2023). This has become par for the course at universities throughout the collective West, including “Catholic” universities. Sacred Heart University is no exception — it’s all too easy to forget what your name means.

What is the solution? We can spend a long time thinking about “queer theology” and “queer disruption” while turning a blind eye to the schemes of the moneyed class. In fact, the latter thrives on disruption — it keeps the underlings divided and distracted. The virulent attacks against Riley Gaines and Posie Parker are a case in point. All too often there is a profit logic behind disruption, just as there is a profit logic behind “education.” What we need is not “queerness” but a proven antidote for the love of money. Keep your eyes on the real threat.

Ish Ruiz

Dear "Y not,"

I just noticed this post - sorry for my delay in responding.

While I am too new at Emory (and to higher education) to be familiar with the history of these institutions, I do accept your point as valid - especially your argument that greed is a real threat.

Some thoughts:
First, I actually don't categorize "greed" as a "norm" but rather a vice that results from a "norm." The norm is capitalism, which implies an ideology that convinces people that the only way to flourish in this world is by amassing wealth. That is the norm... and it yields habits that cultivate greed, which makes greed a vice born out of capitalism's normativity.

Second, with that understanding, I argue that queer theology is not incompatible with your quest to combat greed because it seeks to disrupt - not as a distraction - but as a way to invoke deeper reflection. A queer theology applied to capitalism would seek to dismantle the normativity that sustains this system, encourages greed, and ultimately oppresses people.

Third, this blog post - and the broader blog - is about ecclesiology, which is why I applied queerness to the synodal process, but it is not exclusive with a quest toward economic justice. Queerness as part of a synodal process would encourage the Church to question the underlying norms that inform their university practices, like, for example, any financially exclusive tuition models.

Thanks for engaging in the conversation.

Best,

Ish Ruiz


Patrick Murphy

Thank you Dr. Ruiz for challenging the dominant culture to be open to how God is working in our midst since we are ALL created in God’s image.

I heard your presentation at Indianapolis Catholic Allies

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