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Panel discusses theological interpretation, LGBTQ+ inclusion in the church

Monday night in DeBartolo Hall, PrismND hosted a panel titled “Theology and LGBTQ+ Inclusion.”

The panel featured Baumer Hall rector Fr. Robert Lisowski and Saint Mary’s College assistant professor of religious studies and theology Jessica Coblentz. The panel was followed by a question-and-answer session.

Lisowski opened the discussion by talking about his role in Baumer and his work ministering to the LGBTQ+ community. Lisowski said he became Baumer’s rector in 2020 and was ordained a priest in April 2021.

“During these past three years, it’s really been one of the greatest joys of my priesthood, of my ministry, to accompany our LGBTQ students,” Lisowski said. “I use this phrase of accompaniment because it is one dear to Pope Francis, who has made the reality of accompanying a variety of folks but particularly those who find themselves on the margins, to be the hallmark of his pontificate.”

Lisowski said when he thinks about the reality of pastoral accompaniment, he thinks about stories.

“So often in my ministry, I find myself honored as students begin to share their stories, when they let me learn from their various chapters in life and when they share the ups and downs, the joys and the struggles that brought them to this unique point in life,” he said.

Lisowski said he is honored when students share their hopes and dreams for the future. He said, as a priest, this is when he feels he is on “holy ground,” and that he seeks to make Baumer a welcoming and inclusive community.

“One of my favorite philosophers is a 20th-century French and Christian existentialist named Gabriel Marcel, and he often writes and speaks about how we so often are tempted to see everything, even persons, not as mysteries to be embraced, but as problems to be solved,” Lisowski said. “I think that’s one of the key issues in our world, in our church, today.”

The exile, Lisowski said, represents a moving spiritual symbol and biblical narrative for members of the LGBTQ+ community.

“We all know the important role that exile played in biblical texts, particularly the Babylonian exile, in which the chosen people find themselves far from home,” he said. “They find themselves questioning their previous understanding of God, find themselves wondering if God had abandoned them, if maybe God’s plan did not apply to them any longer.”

He said this reality — a spiritual narrative of searching for a home and belonging and wondering where God is to be found — is one the LGBTQ+ community knows well.

Lisowski said one way he seeks to minister to LGBTQ+ students is by being intentional in using inclusive language in his liturgies.

“After speaking with some students, I started last year to pray explicitly during my Masses for an end to homophobia and transphobia, to pray for a unity in the body of Christ,” he said.

He said when praying or leading prayers, people should speak of “inviting sisters and brothers and siblings in the Lord Jesus” to gather at one table where everyone has a seat.

Saint Mary’s College assistant professor of religious studies and theology Dr. Jessica Coblentz speaks at the “Theology and LGBTQ+ Inclusion” panel at DeBartolo Hall on Monday, Oct. 24.

After Lisowski concluded with a short prayer, it was Coblentz’ turn to speak.

Coblentz — who teaches courses in feminist and queer theology — said some LGBTQ+ Catholics feel excluded by the church’s teachings on sexuality. She said it is important to remember that church teachings on sexuality and LGBTQ+ people are directly tied to its greater teachings on sex and gender.

“The church holds that sexual activity should be confined to heterosexual marriage,” she explained. “The church also teaches that sex in this context should be unitive and procreative.”

She said these teachings can cause LGBTQ+ Catholics to question how they can “be good in the eyes of God and the church when [their] very nature is inherently disordered.”

Coblentz added that her primary area of research is on Christianity and mental health. She said her research has exposed her to studies linking social and religious messages about LGBTQ+ persons to conditions like depression and suicidal ideation.

“Many LGBTQ+ Christians perceive that they are not really wanted for who they are by the church. They perceive that they do not truly belong in God’s eyes and in the church’s,” Coblentz said. “The exclusion experienced by LGBTQ+ Catholics is, therefore, not just about hurt feelings. It is, for many individuals, a matter of life and death. As such, any Catholic or Catholic institution that strives to be pro-life must contend with the role the church plays in LGBTQ+ exclusion.”

Coblentz said it’s important for Catholics to remember that, when it comes to moral issues, they are not called to unthinking submission to church teachings but rather to form their own opinions based on “rigorous and careful discernment.”

“We are called to study Church teaching, to seek wise spiritual counsel about it and, ultimately, to follow the well-informed conscience that results from this even in difficult moments when one’s conscience leads them to disagree with an official moral teaching,” Coblentz said. “With regard to sexual morality, this process is the responsibility of faithful Catholics and one we should engage in as we grapple with the realities of LGBTQ+ inclusion.”

Coblentz said some theologians debate whether church teaching on sexuality needs to be changed or reinterpreted. Some scholars, particularly those in the subset of queer theology, question whether inclusion should be the end goal of Christians who are concerned about the well-being of LGBTQ+ persons, Coblentz said.

“These theologians call for a more radical rethinking: Instead of inclusion, they call for revolution,” she said. “This revolutionary approach … asks not ‘How do we include LGBTQ+ Catholics in the church, but instead, ‘Can we begin to imagine a church where questions of inclusion are entirely irrelevant because our belonging is simply taken for granted?’”

Contact Claire Reid at creid6@nd.edu

By Claire Reid

Claire is a senior at Notre Dame in the Journalism, Ethics and Democracy program. She is from Madison, WI, and has had internships at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the Los Angeles Times and the South Bend Tribune.

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