The synod on the family and 'the grace of self-doubt'

This story appears in the Synod on the Family feature series. View the full series.

by Jamie Manson

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During the 2013 papal conclave, a cable news channel invited me to be part of a segment about the Catholic church's stance on issues related to women and sexual ethics. On the steps of St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City, I was interviewed alongside a newly minted, popular priest from a neighboring diocese.

The reporter posed the question of the church's treatment of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people to me first.

I expressed my desire for church leaders to recognize that same-sex relationships are as capable of love, commitment, goodness, sacrifice and faithfulness as heterosexual ones and, therefore, are worthy to be called marriage.

"What do you think of that?" the reporter asked the young priest.

"Well, that's her opinion. But the church knows the truth," he responded, then proceeded to restate the church's "one man, one woman" party line on marriage.

(As is typical of television journalism, this section -- and most of the hourlong interview -- was edited out in the final cut.)

Although I'd been engaged in Catholic LGBT issues for years, the priest's response offered me a kind of epiphany. Church leaders were not interested in the lived experiences of LGBT people or in our own theological reflection on our day-to-day lives and loves. Instead, they were convinced that they knew the truth about the realities and mysteries of LGBT people. LGBT people could only claim to have an opinion -- and a thoroughly secular one at that.

The priest's words came back to haunt me earlier this week as I listened to the video of Cardinal Sean O'Malley's comments on the treatment of LGBT people at a panel discussion called "A Pope for the 21st Century," held Sept. 11 in Boston.

In a question submitted by New Ways Ministries' Bob Shine, O'Malley was asked whether Pope Francis' emphasis on mercy and welcome would improve the care of LGBT Catholics who have lost their jobs because of their sexual orientation, gender identity or marital status.

In response, O'Malley insisted that the pope's "notion of mercy and inclusion is going to make a big difference in the way that the church responds to and ministers to people of homosexual orientation."

But before anyone could get excited, the cardinal quickly followed up with this:

"It is not necessarily that the church is going to change doctrine, but, as somebody said, the Holy Father hasn't changed the lyrics, but he's changed the melody. I think the context of love and mercy and community is the context in which all of the church's teachings must be presented, including the more difficult ones."

And then the "melody" turned dissonant:

"It is only when people realize that we love them that they will be open to hear the truth we want to share with them," O'Malley concluded.

I must respectfully disagree with the cardinal. LGBT Catholics will know that we are loved when we are genuinely listened to and when church leaders are willing to trust that we have deep, moral insight into our own lives.

Perhaps I speak only for myself, but it doesn't matter whether church leaders roar like angry parents or coo like kind paternal figures. As long as members of the hierarchy continue to insist that they alone know the truth about who I am and how I love, the harm is the same.

O'Malley's words make me continue to wonder: What good is a loving tone when the only "truth" spoken is the monologue that comes from bishops?

The same arguments, of course, could be made by divorced and remarried Catholics or Catholics who use contraception. Until church leaders are ready to demonstrate the epistemic humility necessary to listen to the concrete, diverse stories of Catholic relationships, it's hard to imagine how any progress can be made in church teaching on marriage, family and sexuality.

In 2002, Catholic theologian and ethicist Mercy Sr. Margaret Farley wrote an essay titled "Ecclesiology, Ethics, and the Grace of Self-Doubt." The piece was a reflection on the contributions of moral theologian Charles Curran, who was fired from The Catholic University of America for challenging the church's teachings on contraception, divorce and remarriage, and same-sex relationships.

Farley coined the phrase "the grace of self-doubt" as a way for religious people to resist the temptations of self-righteousness and certitude. The grace of self-doubt is essential for individual and ethical discernment because it recognizes that our moral theories often prove limited when applied to real-life circumstances.

It is grace, she writes, that "allows us to listen to the experience of others, take seriously reasons that are alternative to our own, rethink our own last word."

Farley believes that the laity, clergy, theologians and church leaders should participate in a shared search for moral insight. "The voice of the church is muted," she explains, when "it does not represent the wisdom of a genuine discerning church."

As we look toward the extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the family, which begins in less than three weeks, it is important to bear in mind whose voices will be represented among those who gather in Rome. Right now, the guest list includes no LGBT Catholics, and the married couples selected to attend seem particularly invested in natural family planning. Is this what Pope Francis' new "notion of inclusion" looks like?

This narrow collection of voices would be forgivable if the challenges related to sexual ethics were uniquely American or European. They are not. The just treatment of LGBT people has even more relevance in African nations than it does in the United States, and the issues related to contraception have life-and-death consequences for the poor of the "global south."

But the synod only begins in October. There will be follow-up events in the year ahead, including the September 2015 World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia.

Will these subsequent sessions demonstrate evidence of "the grace of self-doubt"?

Will they be inclusive enough to allow a diversity of Catholics to speak the truths they have learned in their own moral discernment?

If not, it is difficult to see how this synod can address the concrete needs and emerging moral questions of individuals and families in the 21st century.

[Jamie L. Manson is NCR books editor. She received her Master of Divinity degree from Yale Divinity School, where she studied Catholic theology and sexual ethics. Her NCR columns have won numerous awards, most recently second prize for Commentary of the Year from Religion Newswriters (RNA). Her email address is]

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