Queer theology as a form of liberation theology

The methods of liberation theology have been utilised to respond to the oppression of LGBTQ+ Christians. The ideas of some key thinkers, and critical reactions to them, are examined here by Alex Morley.

Gay and lesbian people have been among the most persecuted and brutalised groups within ‘Christian’ societies for many centuries. In terms of a theology of liberation for these groups, therefore, the key issue is very plain. Leaving aside the contested moral status of same-sex genital acts, the evidence reveals that this community has been among the most victimised, oppressed and persecuted groups in human history. However one judges liberation theology, any assessment has to include its response to the LGBTQ+ community and its struggle against such oppression.

The theological matrix in which theologies of liberation emerged
Few would dispute the claim that the Second Vatican Council (1962–5) precipitated a revolution in Catholic thought and practice. Inspired by the ideas of the nouvelle théologie, the Council Fathers endeavoured to reshape the Church’s conception of itself in documents such as Lumen gentium and Gaudium et spes. The Council boldly asserted that ‘we are witnesses of the birth of a new humanism, one in which man is defined first of all by this responsibility to his brothers and to history’ (Gaudium et spes 55). The Council’s call for greater political and social engagement was reinforced by the Synod of Bishops in 1971, which declared that ‘[a]ction on behalf of justice and participation in the transformation of the world fully appear to us as a constitutive dimension of the preaching of the Gospel’. The Church’s key mission, the Synod claimed, was ‘the redemption of the human race and its liberation from every oppressive situation’ (‘Justice in the World’ 6, emphasis added).

Various bishops’ conferences in Latin America energetically embraced this idea. However, it was the Jesuits in particular who stressed the priority of working for social justice among communities which had been exploited, oppressed and marginalised (General Congregation 32 (1974–5)). And it was out of this theological ferment that the Peruvian theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez wrote his pioneering A Theology of Liberation in 1971.1 This book, rightly hailed as the locus classicus of ‘liberation theology’, inspired many theologians to apply the same hermeneutical principles to other socio-political contexts in which people were experiencing oppression and marginalisation.

The epistemological and methodological principles of liberation theology
As Clodovis Boff has shown, the theology of liberation has been guided by three main epistemological and methodological principles. The first calls for positive engagement with the social sciences. It eschews speculative ahistorical theorising in favour of positive, concrete knowledge of society. The second demands a hermeneutical approach to the Bible which ‘accentuates the political dimension of salvific events’, thus enabling oppressed groups to read Scripture ‘in continual mindfulness of and orientation to concrete challenges and problems’. The final principle ‘considers praxis as the fundamental locus of theology, the “place” where theology occurs’.2

The explosion of ‘theologies of liberation’
The enormous potential that liberation theology has for challenging oppressive structures has led to an explosion of what Peter Phan has called ‘theologies of liberation’ – each focusing its attention on the victim group that is identified as requiring justice and liberation.3 So, for example, there have been important developments in feminist, African-American, Native American and mujerista theologies. As Phan observes, each of these theologies has its own specific interests and perspectives, shaped by the nature of their own socio-political and ecclesial contexts.

One of the most significant ‘theologies of liberation’ to emerge in recent years is queer/gay and lesbian theology. Inspired by the Stonewall riots in New York in 1969, as well as the ‘queer theory’ of scholars such as Michel Foucault and Judith Butler, queer theology has often made effective use of the methodology of liberation theology as a means of challenging the extreme marginalisation of gay (and, by extension, all LGBTQ+) people, whose lived experience has been one of victimisation and oppression – both historically and, in many cases, throughout the Christian churches to this day.

The use of the term ‘queer’ is significant. As Gerard Loughlin has argued, ‘there is an important sense in which “queer” is more than a name for “gay” or “lesbian” interests. Those latter terms betoken identities built around erotic interests, and liberatory movements that sought to form new social spaces. They turned the pathological homosexual into the political gay.’

However, the use of ‘queer’ turns an insult into a token of pride. While traditional theology ‘serves the very churches where … insults are thrown, where those who love their own sex were once named as “sodomites” (to be burned) and are now described as “objectively disordered” (to be reordered)’, queer theology works towards subverting ‘a heterosexual normalcy that defines itself in terms of what it rejects’.4

James Alison’s socio-analytical hermeneutic: gay people as ‘scapegoats’
James Alison employs a socio-analytical hermeneutic when exploring the status of homosexual people in the Catholic Church today.5 An openly gay priest, Alison has spent much of his career championing the work of the French anthropologist René Girard. Following Girard, Alison argues that any human society will invariably find a way to resolve tensions and conflict within itself by deflecting blame onto victims. He claims that this ‘scapegoating’ mechanism has been utilised by the Judaeo-Christian tradition over the centuries in its systematic victimisation and marginalisation of sexual minorities.

For Alison, it is ironic that this tradition, while responsible for the victimisation of gay people, also offers the richest theological resources for challenging that very exploitation. Above all, he contends, it is the liberating power of Jesus’ resurrection which frees us from the need to victimise, scapegoat and persecute sexual minorities, and invites us to change our anthropological dynamic from one of blaming victims to one of forgiveness and acceptance. Conservative Catholic philosophers, such as John Finnis, have strongly objected to this call for the liberation of gay people from ecclesial ‘oppression’.6 They hold that, while homosexuals should be treated with compassion and dignity, this does not mean that an actively gay lifestyle should be condoned by the Church, which must uphold its orthodox teaching that homosexual acts are ‘intrinsically disordered’ (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) 1986 3). Such critics maintain that true liberation means conforming to Christ – not compromising with the truth in order to make concupiscence easier to live with.

Biblical models of liberation
Alison also addresses the issue of how gay Christians can utilise biblical models of liberation. He argues that, unlike the Civil Rights activism of African-American Christians, in its early years the gay liberation movement lacked something crucial. African-Americans were inspired and empowered by the Exodus narrative, but there was nothing comparable for gay activists. Though many gay people have stories of ‘coming out’, and though many have discovered that, in spite of all the hurt and rejection, they are capable of forming loving relationships, they have hitherto been unable to ‘inscribe’ their own lives into a biblical narrative. However, instead of focusing on a single story of liberation, we should realise that there is only one Bible story – the story told by God – and ‘it is within this that we are to inscribe ourselves’. So gay people do not need to ‘search’ for their own biblical story; rather, it is a question of ‘discovering, slowly, painfully, and through endless muddle and losing the thread, that we are being invited to inhabit a story which is one not of rejection, but being called into being and rejoiced in’. For Alison, then, all humans are part of God’s story, ‘which can enrich us all, straight and gay alike’.7

Not all ‘queer’ theologians agree with Alison that the search for gay models of liberation in Scripture should be abandoned. Jeffrey John, former Dean of St Albans and a prominent gay Anglican theologian, argues that the story of the healing of the centurion’s servant in Luke 7 shows that Jesus made a point of including those who had been excluded by society.8 John argues that the fact that the centurion’s servant is described by Luke as entimos (‘highly prized’) clearly bespeaks a close and intimate relationship between the centurion and his servant. John claims that servants in the first century were largely seen as expendable, so the centurion must have had a very special love for his servant, given that he asked Jesus to heal him. Jesus’ response to what is clearly a case of homosexual love in the New Testament is not to condemn that love, but rather to heal it – to include rather than exclude. Just as Jesus’s willingness to welcome former prostitutes in his circle is a sign of his radical inclusion, his healing of the centurion’s servant shows his willingness to include those whose conduct might even today offend sexual mores.

Christopher Zeichmann has challenged John’s ‘queer affirmative’ exegesis of Luke 7.9 For Zeichmann, the historical Jesus is silent on the question of homosexuality. Indeed, as a good Jew, Jesus would almost certainly have adhered to ancient Jewish tradition which overwhelmingly criticised same-sex intercourse. Moreover, even if we accept John’s reading of Luke 7, for Zeichmann it would entail Jesus giving his blessing to a profoundly immoral situation: a master-servant sexual relationship which would almost certainly have been exploitative and non-consensual.

Marcella Althaus-Reid’s indecent theology: a praxis of social justice
The late Argentine theologian Marcella Althaus-Reid had a critical, self-reflexive approach to liberation theology. She developed what she referred to as ‘indecent theology’, arguing that ‘[i]ndecent theologians are called to be sexual performers of a committed praxis of social justice and transformation of the structures of economic and sexual oppression in their societies’.
Althaus-Reid starts her analysis by agreeing with the axiom of liberationists ‘that there is no such thing as a neutral theology’; however, while this axiom can be used to one’s hermeneutical advantage, in that it can enable one to adopt, say, a ‘preferential option for the poor’, it can also blind one to other forms of oppression. While the early focus on the economically poor in Latin America was necessary at the time, liberation theology now needs to become a continuing process of recontextualising theology. In this sense, her project of ‘indecent theology’ is both a ‘continuation of Liberation Theology and a disruption of it’. She applies the ‘contextual hermeneutical circle of suspicion’ to women and queer people – focusing on the way in which their voices have been silenced and ‘de-legitimised’ by patriarchal, heterosexist and homophobic hegemonic power structures. She offers an analysis of sexual constructions which serves to ‘destabilise’ heteronormative and phallocentric assumptions, thereby ‘unveiling the sexual ideology of systematic (even liberationist) theology’. The very discourse of theology is thus exposed as a sexual project ‘based on a sexed understanding of dualistic relationships and its legitimatory role’.

Althaus-Reid has also developed the idea of an ‘indecent Christ’. Traditional Christology has understood ‘kenosis’ as involving God ‘self-emptying’ and becoming embodied in Christ. For Althaus-Reid, this has only served to perpetuate a patriarchal and homophobic stereotype whereby Jesus has been ‘dressed theologically as a heterosexually oriented (celibate) man. Jesus with erased genitalia; Jesus minus erotic body’. She argues for a more inclusive understanding of the Incarnation – one which emphasises the bisexuality of Christ and reconceptualises Christ in postmodern sexualities, genders and economic locations. While she commends ‘traditional’ liberation theology for raising issues of colonial power and domination, she is seriously critical of its failure to address issues of sexuality and gender inequality.10

Pope Francis and queer theology: a shift in tone
The election of Pope Francis in 2013 saw a dramatic shift in the Roman Catholic Church’s tone towards gay people. Earlier pronouncements, most notoriously On the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons, held that ‘[a]lthough the particular inclination of the homosexual person is not a sin, it is a more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil; and thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder’ (CDF 1986 3).

This contrasts sharply with the early ‘queer affirmative’ statement from Pope Francis, when he asked: ‘Who am I to judge?’ Moreover, Francis furthered his reputation for theological disruption with his October 2020 endorsement of same-sex civil partnerships. These papal interventions have been enthusiastically greeted by LGBTQ+ campaigners within the Church, such as Fr James Martin SJ, who have hailed them as an important step towards fully affirming the love and commitment of same-sex couples. While supporters of Francis insist that the Pope’s remarks in no way undermine the Church’s traditional teaching on marriage, they have been met with consternation and outrage by conservative ecclesiastics, such as Bishop Athanasius Schneider, who are fearful of the ‘ambiguity’ and ‘moral confusion’ that such papal utterances are in danger of causing in the Church.11 Conservatives welcomed the CDF’s controversial ruling in March 2021 forbidding Church blessings of same-sex unions. According to the CDF, God ‘does not and cannot bless sin’.12

True equality: gay marriage
For some theologians, it is not enough for the Church merely to endorse civil partnerships for homosexuals. If LGBTQ+ people are to achieve full equality, nothing less than sacramental marriage will do. For David Matzko McCarthy, this is fully consonant with the authentic message of the gospel, which tells us that God’s people are meant to show Christ’s love for the world. The gospel says that God is love; the doctrine of the Trinity says that God exists as a union of persons in love and that God made us in God’s own image. In other words, God made us capable of loving one another as God loves us. McCarthy points out that the Church calls marriage holy and a sacrament precisely because, when two people love one another and want to be united for life, then that commitment, that covenant of love, reflects something of God’s own nature. For him, it is clear that two people of the same sex can love one another in that way. It is true that a gay couple cannot have children together, but neither can a heterosexual couple if they are infertile or past the age of childbearing. The Church has never refused to marry a heterosexual couple who cannot have children, so why refuse gay couples?

For McCarthy, gay and lesbian people should not be judged by some a priori theory of how one should live. On the contrary, whether gay or straight, we must emphasise the importance of living lives of love which are conducive to our flourishing and wellbeing.13 However, critics have argued that, while it is vital to challenge instances of injustice, the danger of queer theology is that, by privileging sexual identity over and above other ways of being human, it leads ineluctably to a reductionist ontology and a one-dimensional anthropology. Worse, by reifying a person’s sexuality, it encourages a retreat into a form of identity politics which only serves to foster conflict and division. As Jacques Maritain argued, once the spiritual dimension of human nature is eschewed, we no longer have an ‘integral humanism’; all we have left is a partial humanism, one which omits a fundamental aspect of the human person.14

As we have seen, many champions of queer theology have attempted to utilise the methods of liberation theology in order to expose the reality of gay victimisation, oppression and continued discrimination by the Christian churches. On the other side of the debate, many theological ‘traditionalists’ take issue with the hermeneutical methods and biblical exegesis employed by queer theology and feel threatened by its calls for the liberation of gay people from injustice. However, as with the feminist movement’s call for women’s liberation in the late 1960s, ‘queer’ theologians have succeeded in ‘raising the consciousness’ of Christians to the systemic inequality and injustice within the churches. They have shown the danger of scapegoating sexual minorities and have shamed many into acknowledging that the true message of Christ is about inclusion of those who are different from us. Marginalised sexual minorities can thus gain inspiration from the methods of liberation theology: the stories of freedom from oppression at the heart of the Christian gospel convey the hope and confidence that they too are loved and accepted by Jesus.
1 Gutiérrez, G., A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, Salvation, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1971.
2 Boff, C., Theology and Praxis: Epistemological Foundations, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1987, p. xxi.
3 Phan, P., ‘Method in Liberation Theologies’, Journal of Theological Studies 61 (2000), p. 42.
4 Loughlin, G., ‘The End of Sex’, in G. Loughlin (ed.), Queer Theology: Rethinking the Western Body, Oxford: Blackwell, 2007, pp. 9, 8.
5 Alison, J., Jesus the Forgiving Victim: Listening for the Unheard Voice, Glenview, IL: DOERS Publishing, 2013.
6 Finnis, J., ‘Reason, Faith and Homosexual Acts’, Catholic Social Science Review 6 (2001), pp. 61–9.
7 Alison, J., Faith Beyond Resentment: Fragments Catholic and Gay, London: DLT, 2000, p. 197.
8 John, J., Sermon delivered on 29 May 2016, available at https://soundcloud.com/livcathedral/sunday-29-may-1030am-very-revd-dr-jeffrey-john-dean-of-st-albans?in=livcathedral%2Fsets%2Fsummer-term-2016.
9 Zeichmann, C., ‘Rethinking the Gay Centurion’, The Bible and Critical Theory 11:1 (2015), pp. 35–54.
10 Althaus-Reid, M., Indecent Theology: Theological Perversions in Gender, Sex and Politics, London: Routledge, 2000, pp. i, 5, 6, 7, 114.
11 Schneider, A. ‘Same-Sex Civil Unions and the Catholic Faith’, available at: https://edwardpentin.co.uk/bishop-schneider-to-
12 Responsum of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to a dubium regarding the blessing of the unions of persons of the same sex, see https://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/
13 McCarthy, D. M., ‘Homosexuality and the Practices of Marriage’, Modern Theology 13:3 (1997), pp. 371–97; McCarthy, D. M., ‘The Relationship of Bodies: A Nuptial Hermeneutics of Same-Sex Unions’, Theology and Sexuality, 8 (1998), pp. 96–112.
14 Maritain, J., Integral Humanism, Freedom in the Modern World, and A Letter on Independence, Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1996.