Recently Notre Dame partnered with some of the writers from Spiritual Friendship to hold an academic conference titled Gay In Christ: Dimensions of Fidelity, which was primarily concerned with helping Roman Catholics model a theologically sound and pastorally compassionate response to the needs of LGBT+ people in their parishes.
Like any conscientious graduate student would do during midterms, I ignored all my responsibilities and jumped on a plane to Indiana. Though it was more of an “in-house” conversation there were a number of different views represented in the audience, which led to some pushback and dialogue during the Q&A sessions. Here are three brief observations as an attendee:
It matters who is speaking
A large majority of the presenters were themselves queer, so when they spoke about anything that would impact LGBT people’s lives they did so from a position of deep personal investment; they all obviously cared about how the Church talks and behaves toward sexual minorities because they have all suffered from the far-too-prevalent ignorance and bigotry that has already done so much damage.
For instance, having the person presenting on trans issues actually be somewhere on the trans spectrum makes an enormous difference. I know, wild. As bad as many Christian conferences have been about addressing LGB concerns, they have been unequivocally worse when it comes to respecting and learning from trans people. Melinda Selmys’ talk was thus a remarkable breath of fresh air, and future conferences must take note.
Rhetoric and posture are close to the heart of the gospel
Let me keep picking on Melinda for a bit. As important as it was that she was speaking on trans issues while being on the spectrum herself, it was equally important how she adamantly made it impossible to universalize her story. She spoke openly not so that the audience members would think they had a firm grasp on trans experience but rather so that they would become more aware of just how little they knew and thus be more capable of (and passionate about!) learning from trans people.*
Melinda typified the posture of all the speakers, who proved that how we speak about these topics truly reflects our commitment to the gospel. Language of the “culture war” was absent, along with any alarmism or arrogance. Although the church was called to greater unity and public witness, this was done not by suggesting it become some inward-turning enclave but rather by urging it to conform more into the body of Christ who is and always has been for the world. I see countless people trying to defend “truth” with language and rhetoric that seem entirely uninterested in communicating the reality of Christ’s love (and thus in all actuality abandoning the truth they’re trying so desperately to defend), so to witness presentation after presentation that spoke truth in a way that encouraged the audience toward more profound displays of openness and service was a revelation.
Beauty thrives when bigotry is absent
Even as someone who spends a decent chunk of time thinking about and living into the goodness of a traditional sexual ethic, I have to admit that the fever-pitch yelling of the broader “conservative” Christian demographic sometimes makes me doubt there actually is an abundant yes somewhere beyond the cacophony of no. The visions cast by the various speakers powerfully testified to that yes and called the Church to repentance for shackling it to suffocating millstones of legalism and hypocrisy. (As Ron Belgau said in his talk, “Most Christians’ sexual ethic is neither Christian nor ethical.”) It has been a long time since I’ve been so concretely hopeful, and many of the attendees (and speakers) voiced a similar joy.
To catch such a clear glimpse of the beauty that can be found in the traditional ethic made the prevailing homophobia and self-protecting laziness that so often “passes” for it immensely more grotesque and upsetting (as if the devaluing and endangering of sexual minorities wasn’t already enough). As the ideas from the conference begin to disseminate and find a wider audience, I pray people’s hearts would be changed.
The conference wasn’t perfect,** of course, and everyone involved would agree there is much room to grow, but it was certainly a move in the right direction toward a more faithful witness of Christ’s hope for the world.
* I say this as someone who has much to learn, myself.
** For instance, the speakers were (with one exception) all caucasian. This is a problem with the LGBTQ conversation as a whole, but the Church should ideally be working ahead of the curve on this one.