Second-class Catholics

Bringing LGBT Catholics under the Church’s social contract.

Evan Wells

April 5, 2024

“There is room for everyone in the Church and, whenever there is not, then, please, we must make room, including for those who make mistakes, who fall or struggle.” –Pope Francis

I have always wished that I would feel welcome within the doors of my Catholic Church. My parents raised me in a Catholic household. I attended Catholic schools from preschool through high school. As a student at the University of Notre Dame, it is God and, by extension, Catholicism that take precedence in my school’s central maxim: God, country, Notre Dame. I am, in essence, contractually Catholic: by faith, by heritage, and by obligation. 

The Catholic Church is, like every other social institution, a contract between its members and its authorities. Social contract theory—going back to political theorist John Locke—contends that a government exists by the consent of its people to protect the rights of its citizens and, ideally, to promote the public good. This contract is analogous to the covenant that God strikes with Abraham in Genesis, renews with Moses in Deuteronomy, and recapitulates with Christ in the New Testament. The foundation of the Catholic Church is a covenant, or social contract, between the divine, the Church, and its members. 

Throughout its history, the Church has not simply imitated a political institution; it has been transfigured into one. In the Papal States, the Catholic Church functioned as a theocracy until the late nineteenth century. In modern times, the Church sets the political and religious agenda for millions of Catholic actors—prime ministers, presidents, social activists, and laypeople—around the world. It has assumed the role of political and religious hegemon for a unipolar Catholic world. Like any other government in the social contract tradition, the Catholic Church exists to promote the public good, and secure the (after)life and liberty of its members. 

Catholicism never provided me with a comforting hand or a listening ear. It never gave me the confidence to be myself, perhaps because I was always taught that my sexuality was incompatible with God’s message of love and salvation. The papal exhortation “Amoris Laetitia” paradoxically ensures that “every person, regardless of sexual orientation ought to be respected in his or her dignity” while holding that “there are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions… even remotely analogous to God’s plans for marriage and family.” Trumpeting a minimum of inclusivity for its LGBT members, the Catholic Church merely veils their wider exclusionary social contract.

In October 2023, the papal synod “For a Synodal Church: Communion, Participation, and Mission” reached its conclusion at the Vatican. Pope Francis called this synod to explore how the Church communicates and ministers to all people. Perhaps Pope Francis’s recognition of the Church’s exclusionary social contract prompted his call for institutional reform. But in fact, the synod’s recommendations only continue to ostracize LGBT people from the Catholic Church and the halls of its local parishes. Not only does the recommendation abstain from even using the term LGBT, but it also casts members of the LGBT community as those who maintain an “[in]fidelity to the Church’s tradition… in marriage and sexual ethics.” The Catholic institution furthers its trope of LGBT people as immoral sinners whose loneliness demands the Church’s faceless pity and inaction. 

My ongoing dialogue on how Catholic society accommodates my LGBT identity colors my relationship with the Church. I find God among my biggest advocates and supporters. In 2 Chronicles, the Bible states that “thus saith the Lord unto you, be not afraid nor dismayed by reason of this great multitude; for the battle is not yours, but God’s.” Faith in God directly helps me tackle the battles I face throughout my life. Through religious community and the agents of his voice, God has transformed me into an active believer. However, I believe that only by reconciling Catholic doctrine with the existence of its exclusionary religious social contract can the Church follow Christ’s mission. 

Social contract theory, especially of the type spelled out by John Locke, illuminates the discussion of the Church’s treatment of its LGBT members. Locke grounds his explanation of the social contract in the religious belief that all men are the property of God, and so must form a government for their own protection. The Church resembles this social contract, with all men sacrificing individual freedom for the (moral) protection of the Church. Further, the legitimacy of this social contract rests on and demands the equality of all men under the social contract and, by extension, within religious society. Lastly, God ascribes no divine entitlement that allows certain individuals to exclude others from—or usurp—the social contract’s state of perfect equality. Therefore, excluding LGBT members transgresses the foundational pillars of the religious social contract. 

For Locke, the imperative to join civil society emanates from the condition of men as the property of God. Locke’s Second Treatise of Government clarifies that we are all the property of God, as his creation, and are thereby bound to enter civil society. Since men are the property of God, they are required “to avoid [a] state of war where there is no appeal but to heaven.” The formation of political institutions proceeds from our obligation to God as his property. The currency of the Lockean social contract can only be understood through religion. There is no reason that the construction of the Church, too, does not hinge on man’s role as the property of the divine. Just as we must defend ourselves materially, we must defend ourselves spiritually. Since everyone is the property of the divine, all members should be included in the Church’s social contract. 

Moreover, this Lockean social contract is not only grounded in religion, but demands a state of perfect equality for all of its members, LGBT and straight alike. Locke aspires for a “state of perfect equality, where naturally there is no superiority or jurisdiction of one over another… no absolute or arbitrary” human power. The concept of equality is directly derived from the theistic conception of God as the absolute power over the universe. As God makes all men in his image and likeness, equality arises from divine, not human, authority. Even in Locke’s First Treatise of Government, he rejects philosophical arguments for theocracy on the basis that absolute sovereignty belongs only to God. Therefore, the Church is not an absolute power. Instead, it has the responsibility to uphold the perfect equality elaborated by God, pursuant to its role as a contractual authority. This suggests that the social contract requires a sense of equality that the Church does not universally apply. 

Lastly, the social contract is irreconcilable with exclusion because God provides no recourse for exclusion. Some will argue that Locke’s vision of religion and conjugal society excludes LGBT people. Locke’s philosophy of mind in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding holds that divine law exceeds the comprehension of the human mind and requires divine revelation. The Bible reveals the equality of man. No aspect of the social contract, biblical or otherwise, specifies an entitlement by which individuals or authorities can deprive man of equality under God. The Church cannot adopt exclusionary practices without violating its canonical role as guarantor of perfect equality. 

The Catholic religious social contract excludes LGBT Catholics by failing to fully integrate them into or even recognize them as part of its society. If “every Christian is a mission in the world,” as the Church claims, then it should extend membership in the Church’s society not to “lonely infidels,” but to their fellow Catholics, LGBT or otherwise. For Locke, society “brings men out of the loose state of nature.” It is an “agreement everyone has with the rest to incorporate.” It follows that the Church cannot impose boundaries on which men it will integrate into its society. Rather, the Church has a responsibility, as both a political and religious institution, to include every one of its would-be members in its society. 

As the Church has failed to establish equality—much less perfect equality—the validity of the religious social contract comes into question. John Locke argues that the dissolution of legitimate government (in our case, the political body of the Catholic Church) should occur “when he who has the supreme executive power neglects and abandons that charge [of the social contract].” So, the religious social contract should not, and cannot, reinforce the immoral and downright un-Christian native state of LGBT Catholics. The papal synod of last October aspired to speak to the Church’s revitalized mission of inclusion. But it elected to move further away from Christ’s call to love all people and the covenantal equality that the Church ought to establish. This cursory call for inclusion is both antithetical to the religious social contract and perhaps grounds for the dissolution of the Catholic Church as the unipolar hegemon of the covenant between God and his peoples.   

Recent developments in Church doctrine indicate a shift towards fulfilling the Church’s contractual obligation to their members, specifically in blessing the union of LGBT individuals. Pastoral blessings of LGBT unions were not allowed prior to 2023. However, in a somewhat dramatic reversal, and despite dissent from the Church’s conservative wing, Pope Francis issued a writ which redefined pastoral blessings as “forms of blessing, requested by one or more persons, that do not convey an erroneous conception of marriage.” The blessing of LGBT unions, so long as they do not resemble marriage, is now permitted. For the Church, this is a revolutionary step towards broadening the Church’s borders.

Blessings are directly tied to the covenant between God and his people. In Genesis, when God forms his covenant with Abraham, he tells Abraham that in exchange for devotion, “I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you.” A blessing is not only a product of the covenant but a symbol of the covenant that God shares with his people in the Old Testament and renews with Christ in the New Testament. The blessings of LGBT individuals hold great value in identifying LGBT people as members of the religious social contract. They effectively invite LGBT individuals into the religious social contract. 

Yet, at the same time, the Church continues to reinforce the unequal state of LGBT people within the social contract. Gay couples, the Church still states, “are morally unacceptable from an objective point of view.” It may be idealistic to even hope that the Catholic Church will ever secure equality for its members, particularly the moral outcast. But each step, be it large or small, continues to put Catholicism more in step, not with modernity, but with its duty as a contract of perfect equality between God and all his peoples. 

The Church should heed the Pope’s message of inclusion as a reflection not of LGBT rights but of its responsibility to uphold a state of equality within the religious social contract. It should not import exclusive values which limit the bounds of the Catholic society or validate the second-class status of the Church’s LGBT members. Maybe then the papal synod’s missionary goal could be a reality. Maybe then I could walk into a church without the “bloodguilt” of my sexuality. Maybe then we could see inclusion as enriching the Catholic tradition instead of diluting it.

Evan Wells is a fourth-year student at the University of Notre Dame studying biochemistry and political science.