I fear that “liberation theology” as we know and live it today has lost sight of what liberation is and means. I see this when the announcement of a white female lay president at a U.S. Jesuit university is seen as a feminist win. I see this when academics are concerned with equal representation on a conference panel on diversity, equity, and inclusion. I see this when we look to the one Black man in the room to represent the thoughts and opinions of the entire Black community.
Of course, these things matter. Being conscious of identity politics at work and increasing representation is a part of how we will decenter whiteness and heterosexism in our church. As public and academic contributions to LGBTQ/queer theology increase mainstream attempts to utilize this particular standpoint epistemology, I want to engage with structural critiques running through the field of queer studies that ask us to interrogate liberation further, to question the rules of the room, to focus on concerns of power, and to expand our imaginations of possibility. These practices help to retrieve a definition of liberation theology as a transformative and constructive worldview that challenges existing systems of oppression and hopes for more than representation and assimilation, for flourishing.
The term identity politics has its roots in the 1977 manifesto of the Combahee River Collective. The Black feminist women who founded the group did so based off their experiences with the women’s liberation and Black liberation movements both failing to fully represent their perspectives, needs, and interests. Their statement writes, “Above all else, our politics initially sprang from the shared belief that Black women are inherently valuable [and] that our liberation is a necessity.” While the beliefs of the collective center on a specific, identity-based oppression, they are also clear that they are not a separatist movement, noting, “the liberation of all oppressed peoples necessitates the destruction of the political-economic systems of capitalism and imperialism as well as patriarchy.” The focus on identity here helps to name a specific instance of oppression in order to clarify what the goals of broad-based organizing should be and includes a power analysis of political and economic systems.
In 1997, Cathy Cohen wrote her essay “Punks, Bulldaggers, and Welfare Queens: The Radical Potential of Queer Politics?” as a critique of queer activism that lacked transformative vision and was too focused on identity-based concerns, such as diversifying groups like the Gay Men’s Health Crisis. Cohen points out that “many of us continue to search for a new political direction and agenda, one that does not focus on integration into dominant structures but instead seeks to transform the basic fabric and hierarchies that allow systems of oppression to persist and operate efficiently.” Her solution is a politics “where one’s relation to power, and not some homogenized identity, is privileged in determining one’s political comrades… If there is any truly radical potential to be found in the idea of queerness and the practice of queer politics, it would seem to be located in its ability to create a space in opposition to dominant norms, a space where transformational political work can begin.” Cohen’s critique observes how movements for liberation went from understanding the problems that identity politics truly do reveal to being satisfied with “bandaid” type identity-based solutions. These solutions may benefit some in the community, but they do not lead to coalition in a broad sense or widespread liberation from oppression, especially in material terms.
In his newly published book, Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò has a word for this phenomenon: “elite capture.” Describing how socially advantaged people gain control of financial benefits in developing countries, elite capture can also refer to how political projects can be overridden by the well-positioned and well-resourced. Táíwò argues that identity politics happens to be the most recent phenomenon to have fallen prey to elite capture, where values that could have been transformational are effectively co-opted and redirected to a less liberatory aim because of the rewards of the existing systems. An example may be the social “reward” an employer receives from putting women in leadership allowing employer elites to ignore the calls of employees to increase the affordability of childcare or expand paid family leave.
Táíwò structures his book around “the room”: reading the room, being in the room, and, ultimately, building a new one. Using the example of Carter G. Woodson’s groundbreaking endeavors into writing distinctly African American history, Táíwò says, “The point was not just to change hearts and minds, but to change the common ground—to change what information was usable by people in their daily interactions.” The rooms that we are in and the common ground that underlies them are central to developing our political subjectivities and our sense of ourselves. To resist elite capture of identity politics, of standpoint epistemologies, is to question the rooms we are in and the information and contexts provided by its rules—the common ground. For my purposes here, the prescriptive outcome of this analysis is, therefore, to see liberation theology as an inherently constructive activity, as creating and imagining new rooms.
The ways these activists, theorists, and philosophers name issues with identity politics and the “capture” of transformational visions are informative when thinking through the aims of a queer liberation theology within our Catholic Church. As a researcher of family ethics and knowing that marriage is perhaps the seminal Queer Catholic issue, I want to posit an alternative reading of the same-sex union blessing controversy that dominated Catholic media in March 2021.
At that time, the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a statement declaring that “the church does not have, and cannot have, the power to give the blessing to unions of persons of the same sex.” The reaction from LGBTQ-affirming media was essentially disappointment in the C.D.F. and with Francis for the exclusion of LGBTQ people from receiving priestly blessings. This would have been a step toward recognizing queer marriages as equal to straight ones. On Catholics who leave the church due to statements such as these, LGBTQ advocate James Martin, SJ wrote on Twitter, “I lament their pain and grieve a loss to the church that is theirs through baptism.”
As a Queer Catholic with a deep interest in sacramental theology, I know the pain that it causes to hear these frequent and persistent denials to those rituals that we hold most sacred. It is important that we acknowledge and hold this pain. As a lay woman who spent three years at Catholic seminary, I see room to push for a wider, more structural critique on this issue, as well. What would it look like to consider identity-based oppressions—queer marriage blessings and women’s ordination—as interrelated symptoms of a need for structural, ecclesial changes? For more democratic processes in our church that would interrogate the role of power that is operative within Catholic priesthood, that contributes to a clerical church where lay people and those on the margins have less of a say? Perhaps a theology of queer liberation requires that we be open to imagining and constructing new ecclesiologies: new rooms. I have hardly been allowed to consider the life that in some world I might have wanted to live, as a married, queer, female deacon of the Catholic Church presiding at a Catholic wedding. This image feels radical, political, and liberatory because of the identity-based components. But I would also argue that it fails to be a transformative image if not accompanied by a constructive ecclesiology of inclusion, community, and collaboration.
Increased representation of Queer Catholics in public, academic, and ecclesial life could be transformational for our church, ridding the institution of mechanisms of oppression that do contribute to the disproportionately high rates of suicide and homelessness amongst LGBTQ youth. As we struggle toward this future, I also think that we must be careful of the ways that the capture of identity politics can be disempowering—I am not sure that the presence of openly gay priests, of women priests, or even the ultimate inclusion of queer people into the sacrament of marriage would each singularly be enough without a fundamentally different approach to ecclesiology. Such a change requires an authentic engagement with clericalism and the operation of power within the church and a critical look to our governing processes and accountability.
The way in which I am inviting us to go deeper here is not new. This is an extension of the position of many feminist theologians regarding women’s ordination as applied to queer issues. Feminist ecclesiologist Mary Hines writes, “Massive transformation of the church’s structures is needed to free [women] from the patriarchal, hierarchical, and clerical assumptions that prevent the church from becoming a prophetic community of equal disciples committed to the task of liberation for all people.” Hines also observes that “feminist theology is the strongest voice calling for the church to apply its concern for liberation and empowerment for all people to its own internal structures.” As seen here, a queer liberation theology in the Catholic tradition is also necessarily inward-looking.
I have attempted to use manifestations of politics of identity to reveal ways in which a queer standpoint can help us, as Catholics, to retrieve liberation from tendencies that would ultimately lead to incomplete and non-solidaristic visions of salvation. Angela Davis has famously defined radical as “grasping things at the root.” Grasping issues of gender and sexuality at the root can help us to see queer liberation as a political and indeed ecclesial project in resisting structures that dominate, control, and distribute power unevenly.
When identity politics only leads us to narrow and symptom-responsive solutions, Táíwò writes, “The problem is that we are still trapped in the room. If we want better politics, we have to challenge how those rooms are put together.” If we want better theology, we have to think critically and structurally about our church and be brave enough to make some changes.