I really enjoyed reading Gaudete at Exsultate, perhaps not with the same tears of joy I cried on the day I heard that Francis would be our next pope, but nonetheless, I enjoyed it quite a bit. Today, on Pentecost, I have even more confidence in an ecclesial future full of hope.
Pope Francis reminds us that Jesus encouraged his disciples to pay attention to the details, like the one lost sheep out of a hundred. (144) So after reading the document a few times, I can’t help to notice that there is one significant sheep missing from this exhortation on holiness. Strangely, there is scant mention of sexual holiness.
This seems like an odd thing to overlook, especially given our cultural and ecclesial contexts and his stated intention to “repropose the call to holiness in a practical way for our own time, with all its risks, challenges and opportunities.” (2) Certainly many challenges in our time are in the area of sexual holiness, as the recent summit with the bishops of Chile demonstrate. All 34 of them have offered their resignation in response to their shameful handling of the sexual abuse allegations in their country.
While the document does briefly mention abortion, it does not make reference to sexual abuse, assault or harassment; likewise human trafficking and slavery are mentioned, but without naming them specifically as sexual exploitation. (101) There is also one brief reference to lust (159). On the positive side, there is one sentence in 177 paragraphs which reminds the reader that spouses are often means of sanctification for the other. (141)
Considering that Francis also exhorts the reader to pray the beatitudes by mourning without coving up or hiding painful situations (75) and by being peacemakers who don’t ignore conflict, but face it head on, (89), am I missing something? Or is this omission actually a purposeful admission that our tradition does not currently have a suitable moral framework within which to envision justice in matters of sexual holiness? Given the magnitude of sexual exploitation in our world today, I can only assume this silence must be intentional.
Reading more closely, I consider that Francis is facing the conflict, perhaps not “head on” as he encourages us, but rather by leaving the back door open for real and effective communal discernment on how we do justice in the sexual sphere today.
It appears that he has offered a number of points to consider as we continue down this path to sexual holiness which is not only personal but a journey in community (141) with a complex fabric of interpersonal relationships (6). Within our communal context, each person needs to discern his or her own path (11). Dying with Christ is only part of the paschal mystery; we can rise with him also (20). Because grace builds on nature (50) many things can be integrated into our life in this world (26). Variety and nuance in interpretation expresses immense richness (43). Our expression of doctrine is not closed to questions, doubts or inquires (44). Precepts added to the Gospel should not create a burden to the faithful (59). God is eternal newness, going beyond what is familiar (135) and change is possible (137) because God infinitely transcends us (41). The life of the church is not the possession of a select few (58) and evangelical peace excludes no one (89). This is all very consoling to me.
On a more personal note, as I reflect over the beatitudes, I recall some of my own experiences with spiritual poverty, humility, mourning, thirsting for righteousness, mercy, peace and also suffering persecutions. I want to share with you how profoundly blessed I have been to experience all of these things.
In my mid-thirties, as a graduate student studying sacred Scripture, I was befriended by an African Jesuit who thought I would be a good mistress for him on account of my singleness and also closeted status. According to the Africans clerics, who apparently know all about this from their ecclesial context where the discipline of celibacy is a whitewashed façade of fornication, the trick to finding a good mistress is selecting someone who can be kept silent and not cause problems or expect financial support for her family.
Since I was single, he considered me to be available; and since he thought he could keep me silent with his threats, he figured that he could harass a “friend” relentlessly and that I would have no recourse. After he was ordained a transitional deacon, the manipulation and harassment became more confident and forceful. But fortunately for me [then] Bishop Allen Vigneron considered my allegation of sexual misconduct to be credible and so did the Society of Jesus. His priestly ordination was indefinitely postponed and I spent two years recovering from PTSD. Thankfully, I was also blessed with a great therapist.
So, it is not only the married gay and lesbian Catholics who are vulnerable to discrimination within ecclesial institutions. As a single woman who spent many painful years struggling to be faithful to the church’s teaching on homosexuality which requires genital abstinence, I was also vulnerable to the sexual exploitation of a man ontologically configured to the person of Christ, Servant.
And so, as Francis cites 1 Thess 4:3, “This is the will of God, your sanctification” (19) without making any reference to the next five verses which are clearly about sexual holiness, chastity and marriage and also include a specific prohibition against the sexual exploitation of others, I am more than a little disappointed with his inability to face this question head on.
But, since he also agrees with John of the Cross in preferring “to be taught by all, rather than to desire teaching even the least of all” (117) perhaps his humility, which I hope is not humiliating for him, is an invitation for my boldness and freedom to speak out (129) with apostolic courage (131, 158). Perhaps the Holy Spirit will continue to inspire others to produce important reforms in the Church (12). According to Pope Francis, some figures of prophecy and sanctity do step forth out of the darkest night (8).
Perhaps Pope Francis is also hoping to re-create the conditions in our church which will allow a diversity of people to speak and be heard, even though we do speak many different languages and some of us are still locked in an encyclopedia of abstractions (37) and advocating a disembodied spirituality (40) to strictly supervise the lives of others (43) while ignoring our suffering and struggles (44). Sadly, some people are committed to reject new ideas and approaches while hiding behind rules and regulations (134). On the surface, Gaudete et Exsultate appears to be primarily concerned with matters of social justice, but as I read it closely, I consider that Francis is implying that we can apply this same methodology to matters of sexual justice and holiness as well. I do believe that with God all things are possible (49) and that God is making more things possible right now.
Lord, send out your Spirit, and renew the face of the earth. (Ps 104:30)
Pope Francis is explicitly asking us to rethink our usual way of doing things (137). I am willing to contribute to this effort and with confidence in prayer (154) I truly believe that the Holy Spirit will help us find that lost sheep and together we will all soon be able to Gaudete et Exsutlate.