The Mystery of God, Human Dignity, and Sexuality
Miguel H. Diaz was the ambassador to the Holy See, and holds The John Courtney Murray Chair in Public Service at Loyola University Chicago. This presentation was given to a gathering of the Global Network of Rainbow Catholics at the DignityUSA 50th Anniversary Conference in Chicago, July 4-7, 2019.
The Second Vatican Council (1962-65) invited Catholics to read the signs of the times and to interpret those signs mindful of the “aspirations, the yearnings, and the often dramatic features of the world in which we live” (Gaudium et Spes, n. 4). Following the Council, Catholic theologians in various parts of the world embraced this invitation and gave birth to what has come to be known as contextual theology. Contextual theologians have turned to particular human experiences as a way to engage the world and offer theological readings of the manifold struggles that humans encounter. In particular, contextual liberation theologians have focused on socio-economic poverty and other forms of social and ecclesial oppression, coining the all-important concept of the preferential option for the “poor.” “Poor” in this theological sense refers to a wide range of oppression, often inter-related with respect to causes and effects.
Latin American liberation theology stands among the most well known of these liberating approaches to Christian biblical and theological traditions. The work of Gustavo Gutiérrez, widely recognized as the founder of Latin American liberation theology, has largely become known for its insistence on seeing the preferential option for the poor and marginalized as the quintessential feature of what it means to be a Christian. As Gutiérrez has never tired of arguing, the preferential option for the poor and marginalized is not simply a humane and Christian option for our most vulnerable neighbors.
As Christians we opt for the poor because God takes the side of the poor. The option for the poor is the pre-condition to birth an inclusive Church and society. As Mary’s song proclaims, commonly referred to as the Magnificat, God remains always faithful to the life-giving promises made to our ancestors. God fulfills these promises by continuing to raise the lowly, fill the hungry, and bring down the mighty from their thrones (Luke 1: 46-55).
The election of Pope Francis has brought renewed attention to the preferential option for the poor. The Jesuit and Latin American pope has made the denunciation of human indifference, especially the global indifference we practice toward the socioeconomically poor and toward our endangered planet, his signature papal teaching. In his first Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis made the following argument:
“Each individual Christian and every community is called to be an instrument of God for the liberation and promotion of the poor, and for enabling them to be fully a part of society. This demands that we be docile and attentive to the cry of the poor and come to their aid.” (187)
Francis goes on to point out that :
“The Church has realized that the need to heed this plea is itself born of the liberating action of grace within each of us, and thus it is not a question of a mission reserved only to a few:
‘The Church, guided by the Gospel of mercy and by love for humankind, hears the cry for justice and intends to respond to it with all her might’”(188).
Sadly, when it comes to the issue of gender and sex-based oppression, the Church has yet to fully heed the cry of the poor.
Identifying as an LGBTQ+ person oftentimes comes at a great price. Let it suffice to remind ourselves of the tragic loss of forty-nine lives at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando in 2016 (most of these persons, I may add, were members of Latinx communities), the recent killings in the U.S. of two gay men and a transgendered woman in Detroit, as well as the shooting of a gay man outside Atlanta. On the global stage we recently learned of the attacks suffered by two lesbian women while riding on a bus in London. As has been already observed, these acts of violence underscore “an alarming uptick in attacks against LGBTQ+ persons.” (https://abcnews.go.com/US/recent-lgbtq-attacks-highlight-hate-crimes/story?id=63575407)
And as our Center on Halsted here in Chicago can witness in its service to LGBTQ+ homeless persons, 40% of the homeless in our streets are both young and LGBTQ+ persons, most of them also suffering from race and ethnic based discrimination (African-Americans and documented/undocumented Latinx). It comes as no surprise that psychologists like Alan Downs (author of the The Velvet Rage: Overcoming the Pain of Growing up Gay in a Straight Man’s World) who have researched and widely lectured on the traumatic effects of shame-based trauma continually point out how LBGTQ+ persons are likely to suffer at higher rates from mental illness, including depression and suicide as a result of shame-based trauma and other forms of psychological and physical violence.
Language, as the Judeo-Christian creation narratives teach us, can be a powerful creative force for good in the world. For God said, let there be a rainbow of creatures, and every creature that God brought into being, God recognized as being VERY GOOD (Gen 1:31)! Language, as the creation narratives suggest, does not just describe reality but constitutes reality. But language, and God-talk in particular (what we call theology), has often been misused to belittle and oppress LGBTQ+ persons. How many times have we heard God-talk within Catholic circles used to characterize gay persons as “intrinsically disordered” or heard God-talk used to label homoerotic desires and homosexual acts rooted in those desires as “unnatural” and “sinful?”
We know from experience and from scientific evidence that this theological misuse of language constitutes not simply bad theology, but more dangerously contributes to pathology. Misusing God-talk creates unhealthy and very harmful human contexts that at times threaten the lives of countless human beings worldwide. And let me make this point perfectly clear: there are plenty of psychological studies that attest to the ways that religious beliefs cause, augment, and internalize homophobia and self-loathing, at best prompting LGBTQ+ persons of faith to question their humanity’s capacity to exist in the image of God, at worst contributing to isolation, ideation, and suicide. In a religious tradition, which takes very seriously the relationship between faith and reason, such as the Catholic tradition, it is scandalous for anyone in the Church to ignore scientific facts (from biology and psychology) and the human experience of countless of LGBTQ+ persons.
At the core of the Christian tradition lies the teaching that all human beings, no exception, have been created in God’s image and that we become more authentically human when we exist as God exists. Of course, we might ask what does it mean to say that we exist in God’s image? Throughout the centuries, Christian theologians have consistently argued that to exist in the image of the Triune God necessarily means to and to the rest of creation. The God who perpetually speaks creation into being through the creative expression of the Word and in the power of the Holy Spirit creates and calls each person to exist for and from others. In Christian theology, God cannot be conceived apart from relationship and neither can we conceive human persons apart from relationships. Simply put, God exists for and from another (Mother/Father, Son, Holy Spirit) or God does not exist at all. And this too is our call and our destiny. We become more God-like when we exist for and from others. And as embodied sexual beings, God has created the gift of our bodies and of human sexuality as a powerful reminder of our divine origin and as a way to put into practice the vestige of God that resides in each of us. Indeed, in human sexuality, God has inscribed love, desire, and relationship as ways to help us overcome hatred, apathy, and isolation.1
Catherine M. LaCugna makes the following argument in her groundbreaking book, God For Us: The Trinity and Christian Life: “sexuality broadly defined is the capacity for relationship, for ecstasis, and for self-transcendence...Sexual desire and sexual need are a continual contradiction to the illusion that we can exist by ourselves, entirely for ourselves.”2 Indeed, broadly speaking, our sexuality propels us to encounter, love, and care for our neighbors, and more specifically to love intimately and erotically another human being. When we give ourselves to another as gift and receive another as gift, whether we do so as Abraham and Sarah did by offering hospitality to migrants who came into their in their home (Gen. 18) or when we offer our- selves and our bodies in acts of hospitality in the privacy of our bedrooms, we create spaces for God to encounter us. As David H. Jensen writes,
“The miracle of sex, in other words, is not that in sex we find God, but that God finds us in sex, just as God finds us wherever we are. If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there” (Ps. 139:8).3 Sex, Jensen goes on to argue, is one of the ways that humans respond to the gift and promise of communion: “The God who desires communion with all things creates persons who also desire communion with one another and God.”4 Sex, Jensen argues, is fundamentally an act that involves communicative touch. Sex, “extends the act of touching toward intensification” and can cultivate hospitality as “we accommodate a beloved and are accommodated by our beloved: in tongues, mouths, breasts, and loins.”5
The Catholic analogical imagination that allows for sexuality and for embodied same-sex desire to be considered as vestiges of the life of God leaves no room for comments like the following: “love the intrinsically disordered person but hate the sin of her sexual expression.” This viewpoint only contributes to create a false ideologoical perspective that underminds the true nature and grace-filled objective of human sexuality. Such erroneous conceptions of the sexual subject must be resisted and rejected. As Marcella Alhaus-Reid work in Indecent Theology has made clear, the sexual ideological presuppositions in theology must be dismantled and theologians, especially theologians who identify themselves as straight, must come out of their heteronormative closets and recognize the ways that their theological constructions may contribute to promoting gender and sexbased oppression. Theology today must seek to become truly “catholic,” inclusive with respect to perspectives that emerge from gender and human sexuality.
But to be more theologically precise, that means that God too must come out of the closet of idolatrous and heteronormative constructions that cause narrow-minded understandings of what it means to be human in the image of God. And all theologians regardless of their gender identity or sexual orientation must contribute to the work of dismantling heterodox notions of God. God is not male, no more than God is female; God is not straight, no more than God is gay; God is not white no more than God is black. Of course as St. Thomas Aquinas’ teaching invites us to consider (ST I, q. 13. a. 5), we could say that God is like a Father, like a Mother, like a brother, and like a queer sister. But when we do we use these terms analogically to draw some connection between human and divine life. We must keep in mind that no theological construction based on any human experience can ever speak the last word on God. The mystery of God cannot be confined to any human closet.
The challenges that I have faced in my own personal faith journey, especially my personal struggles with familial, cultural, and institutional issues as I came out to self and loved ones, largely inspired my decision to expand my theological interests and refocus my energy on researching and writing on queer theory and theology. To be perfectly honest, my humanity seized me, my humanity stopped me, my humanity transformed me, and now propels me to embrace a new and more authentic way of being, thinking, and acting in the world.
As a follower of the Jesuit theologian K. Rahner, I know that this was not simply the work of “my” humanity. I firmly believe that God’s grace has been the source for my personal transformation, experientially and intellectually speaking.
Let me conclude by offering a recipe comprised of five ingredients that we might consider locally and globally as we move for- ward in this work of transforming the Church and society:
First and foremost, we need to continue to educate, educate, educate. The need to educate persons within the Church and society regarding issues of gender and human sexuality continues to be one of the most salient challenges we face. We must be creative in using social media, finding new ways to share personal life stories, increase public awareness of what the fields of psychology, biology, sociology, and theology teach us about gender and sexual orientation. Educate about the ways gender- and sex-based oppression are, more often than not, related other forms of oppression (race, ethnicity, physical ability, immigration status). And we must realize that changing laws is not sufficient. As the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA) state-sponsored report on homophobia points out, “while the trend of decriminalization is encouraging and worth celebrating, decriminalization as a formal legal change does not in and of itself lead necessarily to effective social change. Indeed, the removal of formal legal provisions does not always or immediately translate to improvements in the lived experiences of gender and sexual minorities.”
We might consider exploring options to work with schools and universities to train staff and faculty and promote the establishment of endowed chairs in queer theology at colleges and universities throughout the country.
Second, we need to promote and increase opportunities for networking with all women and men of good will. Transforming minds and hearts within the Church and society is hard work. This work often takes a heavy toll. We need to build communal solidarity with Church leaders, diplomats, government agencies, NGOs, and human rights activists to protect the lives, defend the dignity, and advance the human rights of LGBTQ+ persons.
Third, we need to find ways to deepen our partnerships with other Christian churches on behalf of the common goal of defending the dignity and rights of LBGTQ+ persons.
Fourth, we need to promote inter-religious dialogue and actions on behalf of the LBGTQ+ community, partnering with members of other religious traditions, including our Jewish and Muslim brothers and sisters.
Fifth, we need to continue to engage ecclesial, civic, and political leaders. To change laws and policies that endanger the lives of LGBTQ+ persons, faith must engage the public square. There are numerous human rights organizations like the Atlantic Council or National Democratic Institute in Washington, for example, which defend and promote the human rights of LGBTQ + persons. Many of these organization welcome faith-based human agency because they know that in many parts of the world, partnering with faith leaders can really make a difference.
Nothing of what I have proposed in this talk can be accomplished without the help of God’s Spirit, who invites us to love all our neighbors, even those within our families, the Church, and society who have harmed us. Our Christian faith in the resurrection has assured us already that Love Always Wins: “A new command” says Jesus, “I give you: Love one another... As I have loved you, so must you love one another” (John 13:34). Like Martin Luther King Jr. in this country, we LGBTQ+ Catholics also have a dream that entails ecclesial and social transformation. Like King, we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt within our Church and the communities we serve.
We dream of the day when all LGBTQ+ children of God will not be judged by the “color” of their gender identity or sexual orientation, but by the content of their character, the faith they witness to in the God of life, and the valuable contributions they make to the Church and society.
While we wait for our dream to be realized, we will continue to witness to what our black Catholic brothers and sisters in the U.S. have characterized as an “uncommon faithfulness.” Our uncommon faithfulness stems from our firm belief that in spite of the sexism and heterosexism that we have endured—all tied to the abuse of power—we remain proud, queer, and Catholic members of Christ’s body. As members of this universal body, we will continue to stand for the dignity of all LGBTQ+ persons worldwide. And we will continue to reject all forms of tribalism that privilege the experience of some baptized members of Christ’s body over that of others so that the Church can grow in its Spirit-led mission to become more truly “catholic,” that is, inclusive of every people, tribe, and nation (Acts 2: 1-11).
Thank you for the privilege and honor to address DignityUSA and the Global Network of Rainbow Catholics on this important 50th anniversary of Dignity USA celebrated here in the Windy City.
1. On the following arguments, see my forthcoming book on God, St. John of the Cross, and human sexuality. See also Catherine M. LaCugna, God for Us: The Trinity and Christian Life (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1973), 407.
3. David H. Jensen, God, Desire, and a Theology of Human Sexuality (Westmister John Knox Press, 2013), 37.
4. Ibid., 45.