As a child in inner-city Milwaukee, Father Bryan Massingale's grandmother gave him a leather-bound copy of The New Webster Encyclopedic Dictionary of the English Language, along with a dream that he might need it someday.
"My grandmother was not delusional. She did not live in denial of reality," said Massingale, a Jesuit priest who holds an endowed chair in ethics at Fordham University in New York. "Her gift was a vision, an act of hope. It was a dream, a hope, a reminder that the neighborhood, with its drugs, violence and rodent-infested corner store with overpriced goods, did not define or limit who I could be."
That's important to know, he declared, since he was speaking as "a Black, gay priest and theologian" at Fordham's recent Ignatian Q Conference for LGBTQ students from Jesuit campuses. This event was a "space for our dreaming, for queer dreams" of hope for "despised and disdained and stigmatized peoples," he added.
"I dream of a church where gay priests and lesbian sisters are acknowledged as the holy and faithful leaders they already are," he said, in a published version of his address. "I dream of a church where LGBTQ employees and schoolteachers can teach our children, serve God's people and have their vocations, sexuality and committed loves affirmed. ...
"I dream of a church that enthusiastically celebrates same-sex loves as incarnations of God's love among us."
Theological visions of this kind inspire hope for some Catholics and concern for others.
Thus, the North American phase of the Vatican's global Synod on Synodality found "strong tensions within the Church," while participants in the virtual assemblies also "felt hope and encouragement and a desire for the synodal process to continue," according to the 36-page report released on April 12 by U.S. and Canadian Catholic leaders.
Catholics are "called to act co-responsibly in a synodal fashion, not to wait until we know how to do everything perfectly, but to walk together as imperfect people," said one group, in its summary of the process. Another group added: "When Church structures and practices are dynamic and able to move with the Holy Spirit, everyone is able to 'use their gifts in service of the Church and of each other.'"
Calling for "greater inclusivity and welcome" within the church, the final report said this was especially true with "women, young people, immigrants, racial or linguistic minorities, LGBTQ+ persons" and "people who are divorced and remarried without an annulment."
But the report also warned about the "danger of false or unrealistic expectations regarding what the synodal process is meant to be and to 'produce,' since people living in North American culture" tend to focus on "measurable results and ... winners and losers." Some participants, for example, questioned calls for "radical inclusion," while asking about the "pastoral and even doctrinal implications" of that term.
The explosive nature of these debates jumped into the news weeks later when the Church of St. Paul the Apostle in New York hosted, next to a side altar, a "God Is Trans" exhibit.
In his written explanation of his art, Adah Unachukwu said this display "maps the queer spiritual journey" through "Sacrifice, Identity and Communion." There is, he added, "no devil; just past selves" and "Communion rounds out the spiritual journey, by placing God and the mortal on the same plane."
After seeing headlines, Archdiocese of New York officials promised to investigate the exhibit at the Paulist Fathers parish. The congregation also offers, on its website, an "Out at St. Paul" ministry to the "Gay, Lesbian, Bi, Trans and Queer community."
Media reports early this week noted that parish leaders changed the name of this art exhibit, but that it remained in place.
Massingale delivered his Fordham address before that controversy. However, he did stress that Catholics must dare to share dreams of change -- even those with "an inherently subversive quality" -- while seeking a "new and more just social order."
Referring to the "wedding banquet at Cana," when Jesus turned water into wine, the Jesuit theologian called for a changed church in which "people of all races, genders and sexualities rejoice at the presence of love" and a world in which "spiritual wounds will be healed, where faith-based violence will be no more, where fear and intolerance are relics of history."
Terry Mattingly leads GetReligion.org and lives in Oak Ridge, Tenn. He is a senior fellow at the Overby Center at the University of Mississippi.