Lessons Learned from Cancelling “The Laramie Project” at a Catholic High School

March 24, 2012

One has to wonder what kind of lessons are taught to students when parents’ complaints to New Jersey Catholic high school administrators caused the cancelling of a production of The Laramie Project, a play about the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard, a young Wyoming gay man.

According to a news story in The Trenton Times, the decision to cancel the show, originally scheduled for Notre Dame high school in Lawrence, N.J.,

“has proved to be just as controversial as the play’s edgy and dramatic portrayal of a Wyoming town gripped in the aftermath of a hate crime.

“On one side, school administrators say parents worried that the choice for the play was inappropriate for high schoolers, too loaded in its tale of the murder of a young gay man beaten and left tied to a fence to die.

“But cast members and students at the Catholic high school said they’ve been unfairly robbed of their ability to put on a thought-provoking and powerful play, one whose message of tolerance resonates powerfully in the wake of the Tyler Clementi cyberbullying verdict and other anti-harassment efforts.

“ ‘I wanted to do a show that had meaning and purpose to it and when I found out we were doing “The Laramie Project” I got really excited because this show teaches the values I’ve been taught my last 12 years of Catholic education,’ cast member and Notre Dame senior Tessa Holtenrichs said. ‘When I was told we couldn’t do it, I felt like it was really hypocritical.’ ”

Clearly, the overwhelming lessons of the school’s action are going to be that censorship is appropriate, that homosexuality is a forbidden topic, and that concerns about sexual activity are much more important that lessons about respect and tolerance.

What makes this decision even more difficult to understand is that that school administrators had previously deliberated over whether or not to stage the play, and had made a conscious decision that it would be beneficial to do so:

“School president Barry Breen and principal Mary Ivins said in a statement the choice for the spring play was originally seen as a ‘powerful and appropriate vehicle’ to address issues of respect and tolerance. But as calls questioning the play’s content rolled in, officials worried that the controversy would become distracting, and the decision was made Tuesday to cancel the show.

“ ‘The expression of these concerns opened our eyes to the realization that different eyes will see radically different messages than the ones we intended,’ they said.

“ ‘This has led the administration to conclude that we might inadvertently be placing our school at the center of an undesired and potentially damaging controversy by moving forward with the production.’ ”

The administration’s rationale teaches the wrong lesson that public pressure, not a principled decision, should be guide one’s thought.

Not all parents were against the staging of the play.  At least one thought the play–and its ensuing controversy–had the potential for an important lesson:

“ ‘I think the people had the assumption that the play was going to do something it never would have done, to encourage students to become homosexuals instead of not killing homosexuals,’ Diane Steinberg, a parent of a Notre Dame student and an alum, said during an interview.

“She said the school missed the chance to turn any controversy into a teachable moment.”

As one student’s comments illustrate, preparing for the play was already producing beneficial lessons for students:

“ ‘My director, Ms. (Diane) Wargo, said something pretty powerful,’  [Tessa] Holtenrichs said. ‘She said Jesus didn’t die on the cross for us to have so many rules about who to love and how to love. I thought that was great.’ ”

What is even more surprising is that many Catholic high schools and colleges stage this play regularly.  In 2010, Xavier High School in Manhattan, produced this play for the second time in less than ten years, and withstood pressure to cancel it.  According to a New York Times article:

“Not only did Xavier’s president and headmaster approve the plan for ‘Laramie,’ they informed Mr. Ostrow [the drama teacher]  that he was not exactly breaking new ground. Xavier had performed ‘Laramie’ in the 2002-3 school year, standing by the production even amid some eye-rolling and grumbling among faculty members and parents and a smattering of picketing from fundamentalist Christians. “

What lessons did staging this production at Xavier teach students?  According to school administrators quoted in theNew York Times:

“ ;I’m thrilled we did it,; Jack Raslowsky, Xavier’s president, said in an interview this week. ‘It’s one of those plays that has the potential to be a springboard to discussion. If you do “The Mousetrap” or “Brigadoon,” you’re not going to be discussing issues of good and evil.’

“Such a discussion, said Mr. Raslowsky and Michael LiVigni, the headmaster, fits firmly in the Catholic theological tradition, with its emphases on social justice and human dignity.

“ ‘When I saw the play,’ Mr. LiVigni said, ‘what struck me most was the scene of Matthew’s funeral when you have picketers with the sign “God Hates You.” But why would God hate what he created? That’s what I want our boys to understand.’ ”

Now, that’s a lesson worth teaching and learning.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

 

 


In Italy, A Singer’s Funeral Revives Debate About “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” Culture

March 23, 2012

On several trips to Italy over the past two decades, New Ways Ministry has met with several gay rights organizations, both Catholic and secular, learning about their struggles and successes.  One message that many of the leaders of these groups repeated is that a big part of the problem in motivating an Italian gay rights movement is that a cultural “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy in place.   Modern Italy never had any anti-sodomy laws on the books, so there has been no strong political rallying point.  The strong family culture that exists in Italy means that few are excluded or ostracized from their families because of sexual orientation.  Instead, Italian lesbian and gay people face a perhaps even more insidious problem: silence, augmented by partial-acceptance.

Lucio Dalla

This phenomenon was highlighted recently at the funeral Mass of a popular Italian singer/songwriter who was very private about being gay, Lucio Dalla.  Dalla’s life-partner, Marco Alemanno, gave the eulogy at the service in the Basilica of San Petronio, Bologna.  According to an article in  The Irish Times, the funeral has revived a debate in Italy about the Catholic church’s approach to homosexuality:

“Total hypocrisy, screamed commentators who suggested the semi-state basilica funeral and the lover’s oration had been tolerated not only because Dalla was a practising Catholic but because he was famous, successful and private about his sexual orientation.

“ ‘Lucio Dalla’s funeral represents a very clear example of what it means to be gay in Italy today. You go to church, they grant you a funeral and they bury you according to the Catholic rite, just as long as you don’t say you are gay,’ said television presenter Lucia Annunziata. . . .

Italian writer Michele Serra took a more optimistic view, stating:

“ “We would like to think that Marco’s brief oration for Lucio has established a precedent. For those homosexuals who are not Catholic, church teaching on the subject does not matter a damn, they could not care less. But for Catholic homosexuals, it is a huge problem. And it is to them that the thoughts of all decent-minded people turn, when we see Marco Alemanno praying for his ‘man’ beside the basilica altar. ‘ ”

Does this example illustrate that money, fame, and power often trump even something as supposedly intransigent as church teaching on homosexuality?  Perhaps.  Does it show that pastoral leaders, at least in this case, were sensitive to the particular situations of this funeral? Perhaps.  Does it offer promise that there might be some “bending of rules” in the future on homosexuality?  Perhaps.

The many “perhaps” answers to these questions are not because I don’t want to take a strong stand on this issue, but because there are so many gaps of information in this case.  One thing that is certain and where a strong stand can be taken is that these gaps exist because of silence on the issue of homosexuality.  Silence can be more damaging than hypocrisy.

The Irish Times article ends on an optimistic note from Italian journalist Marco Politi, who suggests that this incident may lead the way for greater political change in Italy:

“ ‘Now is not the moment to waste time discussing the hypocrisy of the institutional church or why Italians tend to handle their private affairs without any form of ‘outing’. The question is another. If even the church hierarchy now finds it impossible to publicly condemn the gay life, it is hard to understand why the Italian state still has not passed legislation allowing two homosexual partners to publicly testify to their life union.’ ”

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

 


Symposium Provides “Shot in the Arm” for Participants

March 22, 2012

Our final story about New Ways Ministry’s Seventh National Symposium includes a connection to Chuck Colbert’s Windy City Times article entitled “Catholic conference confronts marriage.”

Bishop Geoffrey Robinson at the Symposium. (Jim Brigl Photo)

This article contains a precise summary of Bishop Robinson’s talk in which he called on the Catholic church to rethink its teaching on sexuality:

” ‘If [ church ] teaching on homosexual acts is ever going to change, the basic teaching governing all sexual acts must change,’ retired Auxiliary Bishop Geoffrey Robinson told the gathering of nearly 400 Catholics at the Seventh National Symposium on Catholicism and Homosexuality.

” ‘For centuries the church has taught that every sexual sin is mortal sin,’ said Robinson, an auxiliary bishop of Sydney, Australia.

” ‘The teaching may not be proclaimed as loudly as today as much as before, but it was proclaimed by many popes, it has never been retracted, and it has affected countless people,’ Robinson said.

” ‘There is a serious need for a change in the church’s teaching on heterosexual acts,’ he said, adding,  ‘If and when this change occurs, it will inevitable have its effect on teaching on homosexual acts.’

” ‘The teaching fostered a belief in an incredibly angry God,’ explained Robinson, ‘for this God would condemn a person to eternity in hell for a single unrepentant moment of deliberate pleasure arising from sexual desire. I simply do not believe in such a God. Indeed, I positively reject such a God.’

Robinson is the author of the 2007 book, Confronting Power in the Catholic Church: Reclaiming the Spirit of Jesus, which addressed the clerical sex-abuse crisis and was controversial among his fellow bishops in Australia who faulted him for a 2008 lecture tour in the United States to speak about the issues his book addressed.

Karen Allen and Mary Jo Hoag singing at the Symposium. (Deborah Winarski Photo)

Colbert’s report also contains the perspective of  “Chicagoans Karen Allen and her partner, Mary Jo Hoag, attended the gathering, this their second one.

” ‘What brings me here is the chance to be rooted in my faith and with the people of God and to be sent forth to create loving communities,’ said Allen, who leads a gay and lesbian family-and-friends ministry at St. Nicholas parish in Evanston.

“Allen said the parish group grew out the idea she and others got 10 years ago at the Louisville, Ky., New Ways symposium.

“In proposing the idea, she explained, ‘We were welcomed to do so by our pastor at the time, who said, “Where have you been?’ ‘

“The ministry is about education and prayer and not so much advocacy, Allen said, but ‘more about how can we as gay and lesbian Catholics live fully integrated, authentic lives in our tradition.’

” ‘Many have walked away [ from the church ] but returned in mid-life,’ she explained, while readily acknowledging, ‘struggling mightily’ with ‘clericalism and the hierarchy.’ “

” ‘The church is our church,’ said Hoag, explaining why she stays. ‘Many of us are cradle Catholics who grew up with the rituals, sacraments, and the teachings and feel comfortable. We are gifts to the church and shouldn’t go away, as we provide those gifts of love and understanding and outreach.’

“New Ways Ministry, Allen added, provides us ‘a shot in the arm’ to keep up our work in ministry.

The National Catholic Reporter posted a second article on the  Symposium, this one focusing on Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley’s remarks there.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry


Symposium Coverage Continues with Discussions on Marriage Equality and Sexual Fidelity

March 21, 2012

Seventh National Symposium coverage continues today with a pair of articles from Chuck Colbert, veteran reporter of the Catholic LGBT scene.   His main article in the Rainbow Times entitled “Catholics gather in support of LGBT equality in church and society” features two of the Symposium’s plenary speakers: Maryland Governor Martin O’ Malley and theologian Patricia Beattie Jung.

Governor O'Malley addressing the Symposium

Two weeks before the Symposium began, O’Malley signed marriage equality into law, making Maryland the eighth state (plus the District of Columbia) to legalize unions for lesbian and gay couples.

Introducing the governor, New Ways Ministry’s co-founder, Sister Jeannine Gramick thanked him for

“. . .his service to God’s people who are lesbian or gay, by his signing the marriage equality bill in Maryland. . . . I am proud of him because he is a Catholic. I am proud that the people of Maryland, and this nation, know that a Catholic practices his faith by serving the people, just as Jesus did, even when it may be unpopular or when it may engender criticism from the religious establishment. I am proud that our Governor is giving a lot to the Church through the service of God’s people.”

Colbert’s article quotes from O’Malley’s speech:

“ ‘I am not here as a Catholic, I’m here as the governor of all Maryland,’ he said.

“ ‘At the end of the day, all of us want the same thing for our kids — we want our children to grow up in caring, committed, and loving homes, protected equally under the law,’ said O’Malley, adding, success in the state legislature rested on a ‘belief in the dignity of every individual.’

“O’Malley has framed marriage equality as a balancing of protections for religious liberties and provisions for equal rights.”

Patricia Beattie Jung addressing the Symposium (Jim Brigl Photo)

Patricia Beattie Jung made a case not only for extending civil marriage to same-sex couples but also to promote the idea that sexual fidelity is an essential part of all marriages, heterosexual and homosexual:

“ ‘Sexuality is ambiguous,’ she said. ‘It can be dangerous and a grace. So we channel it in marriage. Monogamy entails promises to be steadfast and sexually exclusive.’

“ ‘I’m pretty conservative,’ explained Beattie Jung, who said her main reason for promoting sexual fidelity is its service to ‘love’ and to ‘life.’

“ ‘Great sex is wholehearted,’ she said.  ‘This is what makes it graceful and us vulnerable and vicious. These promises give us the time and focus to learn how to love.’

“ ‘Can fidelity serve same-sex lovers the same way?’ asked Beattie Jung. ‘Yes!’ ”

Jung’s talk generated a substantial discussion about sexual fidelity both during the question-and-answer period, as well as throughout the Symposium.  Colbert’s article highlights some of this discussion.

Barbara Johnson with New Ways Ministry's Sister Jeannine Gramick (Mark Clark Photo)

In another Rainbow Times article entitled “Lesbian denied communion addresses Catholic symposium,” Colbert features the Symposium appearance of Barbara Johnson.  He notes that while Ms. Johnson spoke,

“. . . any number of symposium attendees fought back tears.”

You can read excerpts from Ms. Johnson’s talk by reviewing yesterday’s Bondings 2.0 blog post.

Symposium coverage should conclude here tomorrow.  For previous posts on the Symposium, check out:

“From Water to Wine: Lesbian/Gay Catholics and Relationships” Starts Today!

Bishop, Governor, and Theologian Highlight Symposium’s Second Day

Barbara Johnson’s Symposium Appearance is Highlight of the Closing Day

Barbara Johnson:  “All That Matters Is Love”

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

 

 

 


Barbara Johnson: “All That Matters Is Love”

March 20, 2012

“What matters…and all that matters…is love.”

Barbara Johnson arrives to the Symposium with Francis DeBernardo (All photos by Deborah Winarski)

Those words were spoken by Barbara Johnson, the Catholic lesbian woman who had been denied communion at her mother’s funeral, when she appeared  at New Ways Ministry’s Seventh National Symposium on St. Patrick’s Day last week. For many participants, Ms. Johnson’s visit was the highlight of the three-day event.

New Ways Ministry’s Executive Director Francis DeBernardo introduced Ms. Johnson, pointing out how though she had been the victim of this liturgical abuse, she, because of her courage, strength, and faith, was also the main healer of many who experienced her pain vicariously.

Barbara and Ruth

After a brief talk to the assembled Symposium participants, Barbara was joined on the stage by her partner, Ruth, DeBernardo presented them with flowers and then led the Symposium participants in a blessing of the couple and of their family.

Excerpts from Barbara Johnson’s talks follow:

“The past several weeks have been extraordinary for me. One day my mother was fine and we were meeting to see the progress on the new house my partner and I are building, and the next day she was in ICU on a respirator after suffering full cardiac arrest.

“After weeks of slow improvement, my partner and I shared a beautiful evening with her and the next day…she lay dying in another ICU bed.

“It’s been difficult to wrap my mind around just these events. But then… No, I don’t want to tell you the story of the woman who was denied communion at her mother’s funeral. As my mom would say, “For heaven’s sake,” you’ve heard or read it enough!

“What I want to share with you today is the story of a daughter, a lesbian daughter, who felt her mother’s love and acceptance deeply.

“I remember when I first came out and my mom was not happy. Each year at the gay pride parade I would stand and applaud those PFLAG moms and dads for their courage and their compassion. And I would pray that one day my mom and dad would walk beside me in that contingent.

“As I got older, I stopped needing parades. And what I got was even better. I got a life where my mother and father adored my life partner. I got a life where my parents walked me down the aisle at our (not so legal) wedding. I got a life where, on our last happy time together, I thanked my mom for accepting and embracing me and for loving my partner so much…and her response was to pat Ruth on the leg as she looked her in the eye with the most beautiful smile and said, ‘I wouldn’t have it any other way…right?’ ”

Ruth, Barbara, and Francis during the communal blessing.

“It is my mother’s love, compassion, and willingness to stand up for what is right that you see standing before you today.

“You see Midge and Dick Johnson’s youngest daughter who is deeply heartbroken that her parents are no longer on this earth with her and her family.

“You see this daughter who wound up in a whirlwind of media spectacle. You see this daughter who was placed in a state of grace by none other than her beloved mother. For there is no more amazing state of grace than the one I was honored to receive as my mother allowed me to witness her passing from this life and into the dancing arms of my dad.

“Some people have said, ‘How have you done this? How have you maintained your grace and composure during all this?’

“On one level, once you’ve been present at your mother’s dying, nothing else seems to really matter.

“But on the deeper level, I was witness to one of the holiest moments in life. I was present as my mother gently left her body to become spirit. I was given a spiritual gift that night. And I was transformed by the peace I felt in her peace. There is no more fear for me. There is only transformation.

“I admit that my initial response to the ‘events’ was to say that I would never return to the Church. And that’s where each of you, and so many more Catholics and people of many faiths come in.

Cathy Burke, Dwayne Fernandes, and Cynthia Nordone participate in the blessing of Barbara and Ruth.

“I received such an amazing outpouring from so many people of so many faiths, that I couldn’t help but see the error in those thoughts. I couldn’t help but see the love all around me.

“What matters…and all that matters…is love. The love that you, and so many others have shown me during my darkest hours, has been uplifting and healing. . . .

“My mother loved the Catholic Church. I would ask that each of us dedicate some piece of our future work to her and her love of what is good and holy in the Catholic faith and all faiths. She was a mighty, mighty woman. She was a hard worker, she loved a good party, and she loved her family. . . .

“I join you in celebration of St Patrick and offer you my thanks and deep gratitude for being part of my family of the faithful.”

–Francis DeBernardo,  New Ways Ministry


Sacramento Diocese Decision to Withdraw Shelter Funds Begs the Question: Whose Money Is It, Anyway?

March 19, 2012

A little over a week ago, the Catholic diocese of Sacramento withdrew their funding of  Francis House, a very effective social service agency which serves homeless people in that city.  The reason for this decision is that the center’s new director, Rev. Faith Whitmore, a United Methodist minister, has publicly supported abortion rights and marriage equality.

The Sacrmento Bee, which first reported this story notes Rev. Whitmore’s response:

” ‘I have never represented any of those positions on behalf of Francis House. . . .I was speaking as an individual. So for me, this came out of the blue.’ “

The same news story carries the comments of the diocese:

“Diocesan spokesman Kevin Eckery said the decision to drop Francis House as a beneficiary of the pastoral center’s annual fundraising appeal stemmed in part from public confusion about the agency’s affiliation with the church. Although Francis House was born at St. Francis of Assisi Catholic parish in Sacramento, it has long been nondenominational and no longer is part of the church.

“However, ‘a lot of people still think Francis House is a Catholic charity,’ he said, and some are concerned that Whitmore’s views are a reflection of those of the church. . . .

” ‘Francis House is a great charity, and we respect the fact that the director’s views are different from the diocese’s. But money collected during the annual appeal is very much Catholic parishioner money,’ said Eckery.”

Acknowledging that the money belongs to parishioners is noteworthy, however, it should also mean that diocese should have inquired of the parishioners if they wanted to fund Francis House.

The reason that they didn’t do so may be because the diocese doesn’t actually believe this to be true.  Later in the article, the same diocesan spokesperson is quoted as saying:

” ‘It’s the diocese money, and they get to decide how to spend it,’  he said.”

So, whose money is it anyway?

An interesting comment in this article highlights the corner that diocesan officials are painting themselves into:

” ‘Clearly the bishops have been very vocal on their views about some of these issues,’ said the Rev. Thomas Reese, a Catholic priest and senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University.

” ‘But if the bishops are going to defund every organization headed by someone who disagrees with their views on gay marriage, birth control and abortion, they are going to find very few agencies to fund.’ “

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

 


Barbara Johnson’s Symposium Appearance Is Highlight of the Closing Day

March 18, 2012

New Ways Ministry’s Seventh National Symposium, From Water to Wine:  Lesbian/Gay Catholics and Relationships, ended on St. Patrick’s Day, with plenary talks by Luke Timothy Johnson and Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, who each received richly-deserved standing ovations from the assembled participants.

The largest ovation, however, was reserved for the appearance of Barbara Johnson, the Catholic lesbian woman who had recently been denied communion at her mother’s funeral.

Ms. Johnson thanked the participants for the outpouring of support that she received from them and from Catholics all over the country.
She told how throughout the ordeal she felt the love of her mother leading and guiding her.  She told how faith in knowing of God’s love for her and her family kept her strong when the going got rough in recent weeks–including times when she received hate-filled and threatening messages from detractors who were purportedly “defending” the church. Bondings 2.0will provide excerpts from the text of her talk and photos of the event when they become available to us.

After her remarks, Ms. Johnson was joined on the Symposium stage by her partner, and both received a blessing from the assembled participants.  The text of the blessing follows:

“For you, Barbara, your partner, and your family, we, the People of God, the Church, raise our hands in blessing.

“We believe our Life-Giver and Love-Maker God is present; may every breath we take, flow into our world full of peace, hope, compassion and courage. Amen.

“We believe that Jesus’ love can heal all our hearts and all our losses. May we be open to the gifts of new life that the Resurrected Christ wants to share with us.  Amen.

“We believe all are welcomed and invited in this space and around this table of sharing; may we all become the Church inclusive, where the outcast and the stranger bear the image of God’s face. Amen.

“Go now, in the name of Jesus, Our Christ, who said ‘follow me’ without saying where he was going, just promising transformation and relationship with the Triune God along the way. Amen.

The Washington Post today carries a front-page story, “Denying Communion: A priest and a lesbian set off a Catholic culture clash.”  The article focuses more on Fr. Guarnizo, the priest who denied Ms. Johnson communion, than it does on Ms. Johnson herself.  Most interesting is a quote from Fr. Thomas Reese, SJ, a scholar at the Woodstock Theological Center of Georgetown University:

“If I was Cardinal [Donald W.] Wuerl, I’d buy him a one-way ticket to Moscow. . . .These days, arch-conservative priests feel much more comfortable attacking their bishops than do liberals because they feel they’ll get support from conservative Catholic blogs and maybe some in the Vatican.”

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry


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