Holy Envy at Midnight

by Robert A. Rees

I had holy envy1 in the middle of the night! Awakened by a strange dream, I opened my kindle and read a news report in the current New Yorker, “A Bombshell Document at the Vatican Synod.”2 Fascinated, I read on. A draft report from the Synod on the Family (a year-long convocation of top Catholic clergy to deliberate on matters relating to church law, doctrine and practice) announced a significant change in tone and practice, if not in doctrine, regarding divorced, cohabiting, interfaith, and gay couples. Of particular interest to me was the following:
Homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community: are we capable of welcoming these people, guaranteeing to them a fraternal space in our communities? Often they wish to encounter a Church that offers them a welcoming home. Are our communities capable of providing that, accepting and valuing their sexual orientation, without compromising Catholic doctrine on the family and matrimony?

What a set of statements and questions! Interestingly, these are the same questions a number of Mormons have been asking for years. While the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has long had a more flexible practice in regard to the sacrament and in relation to divorced and co-habiting couples, it and the Catholic Church have had near-identical doctrines, policies and practices regarding gays and gay marriage. The result is that a large majority of Catholics and Latter-day Saint LGBT members have either been pushed out of their respective pews or they have simply distanced and even divorced themselves from their religious communities, often finding more accepting faith communities in which to worship. This has resulted in a significant loss for both Catholic and Mormon religious communities. While there are no reliable statistics on the percentage of Mormons (gay and straight) who have left the Church over policies and practices relating to gays and gay marriage, the New Yorker article states, “Lapsed Catholics are the second-largest denomination in the United States”3 (obviously LGBT issues are only one of the causes of this phenomenon).

In some ways, the Mormon Church has been ahead of Catholics in terms of official statements regarding the treatment and fellowship of LGBT individuals. The Church’s official website (www.mormonsandgays.org), while not widely known among either local leaders or members, is in many ways a remarkably enlightened document.4 For example, it states at the outset, “This complex matter [how we relate to those with same-sex sexual identity and orientation] touches on the things we care most about: our basic humanity, our relationship to family, our identity and potential as children of God, how we treat each other, and what it means to be disciples of Christ” (emphasis added).

The new Catholic statement echoes the title of one of the sections on the LDS website: “Love One Another—The Great Christian Imperative.” Speaking of such love as imperative is exactly the message that needs to, but has not yet, reached the Mormon heartland. In this regard, North American Catholics in general have been significantly more enlightened than their Mormon counterparts. That is, in general, Catholic clergy and especially Catholic congregations have been far more welcoming and accepting of their LGBT members than have Latter-day Saint leaders and congregations–and American Catholics seem much more willing to consider the legitimacy of gay marriage, something LDS leaders seem to be consistently adamant against.5 The discussion ensuing among top Catholic leadership, has already proven to be controversial and even divisive, with a group of conservative cardinal pushing back,6 which was probably inevitable given the Church’s world-wide population and the diversity of the members of the synod. Nevertheless, the deliberations will likely lead to some positive changes, especially under the leadership of Pope Francis. Perhaps only a Pope who took the name of St. Francis of Assisi could have shown such bold leadership.

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[I love the symbolism of this photograph: the cardinals in their black and red/fuscia attire with their back to us and looking either on the bias (!) or backward, and Pope Francis, dressed in white walking boldly forward with a large smile, the flowers to his left symbolizing a new flowering for Catholic gays—really, all Catholics!]

In a homily delivered in Saint Peter’s basilica on the eve of the synod, Pope Francis set the tone for the deliberations: “The Lord asks of us a renewed openness. He asks us not to close off dialogue and encounter but to gather everything that is valid and positive, even by those who think differently from ourselves and adopt different positions.”7 That is good counsel for all Christians.

One essential difference between Mormons and Catholics is that when the Mormon prophet announces a new direction for the Church (as was the case with www.mormonsandgays.org), Mormons can be confident that there will not be the kind of open and even at times contentious dialogue that will characterize the deliberations of the Catholic leadership. One could argue that this is a good thing, but one could also be persuaded that such vigorous discussion among top leaders (much of it transparent) could be healthy for the Church and lead to even more significant change.

Since, in spite of their differences, Mormons and Catholics keep an eye on one another, and even, as with the defense of marriage initiatives in Hawaii and California, join forces, my guess is that Salt Lake will be keeping an eye on Rome during the year-long Synod on the Family. If change in Catholic policy leads to the return and retention of significant numbers of Catholics, it could motivate Latter-day Saint leaders to consider similar changes, although this is by no means assured.

My guess is that the Catholic concept of “graduality” being promoted by some cardinals is not considered a legitimate strategy by Latter-day Saint leaders, especially when it comes to openly welcoming cohabiting opposite-sex and married same-sex couples. As the New Yorker article puts it, citing Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Great Britain:The draft report refers directly to gradualness as a key to welcoming those whose lives are imperfect but who wish to be welcomed in the Church. Referring to unmarried couples, the document says: “When a union reaches a notable level of stability through a public bond, is characterized by deep affection, responsibility with regard to offspring, and capacity to withstand tests, it may be seen as a germ to be accompanied in development towards the sacrament of marriage. . . .” What rang out clearly in the Synod was the necessity for courageous pastoral choices.8

To my mind, the most significant change the LDS church could make in light of the proposed Catholic changes is, paraphrasing the language of the Synod, “welcoming Latter-day Saint LGBT members home, guaranteeing to them a fraternal space in our congregations and communities, and accepting and valuing their sexual orientation.” This could be accomplished immediately “without compromising LDS doctrine on the family and matrimony.” I am convinced that such a change in policy would lead to a sea-change in Latter-day Saint family and congregational life, opening the way for gay, lesbian and transgender members to be welcomed back fully into their families and encouraging congregations to be fully welcoming of such individuals, no matter what their sexual orientation or marital status. This would allow, in the language of the synod, “respect for the dignity of every person.”

Another advantage Latter-day Saints have over Catholics is that we believe in continuing revelation, something for which many of my students at GTU and UC Berkeley have “holy envy.” This means that not only practice and policy can be changed, but also, if the Lord so directs, even doctrine.

Both Catholics and Mormons live in the modern world and both live in history (albeit the Catholics have a ten-times longer history than do Latter-day Saints). Reviewing the history of both religions, one can see significant changes that have blessed both churches, moved them forward, and helped them more closely adhere to the gospel of Jesus Christ. In the words of Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, the secretary general of the synod, “The Christian religion is a history, not an ideology … And there is theological development, all theologians say this. All is not static; we walk in history.”9 As we walk, we need to keep in mind both the foundational principles of Christ’s gospel and our call as his followers to work for both peace and justice.

1 “Holy envy” is a term coined by Krister Stendhal (one of his” three rules for religious understanding”) meaning “that you should be willing to recognize elements in another religious tradition or faith, elements you admire and wish might find greater scope in your own religious tradition or faith.” See http://www.religious-diplomacy.org/node/40. Interestingly, Stendhal, who wrote the article on Baptism for the Dead for the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, expressed holy envy for some Mormon doctrines, including elements of Mormon cosmology.

2 http://www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/bombshell-document-vatican-synod.

3 Ibid.

4 See my review, “The Dawning of a Brighter Day: An Analysis of mormonsandgays.org.” www.mormongsandgays.org. Sunstone, 174 (March 2014), 38-40.

5 See Russell Nelson’s 2014 BYU commencement address (http://news.byu.edu/archive14-jul-augustcommencement.aspx) and Dallin H. Oaks’ October 2014 general conferenced address (https://www.lds.org/general-conference/2014/10/loving-others-and-living-with-differences?lang=eng).

6 Delia Gallagher and Daniel Burke, “Under conservative assault, Vatican backtracks on gay comments,” http://www.cnn.com/2014/10/14/world/vatican-backtrack-gays/index.html?hpt=hp_t1

7 http://www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/bombshell-document-vatican-synod.

8 Ibid.

9 Ibid.

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