This week began with Cardinal Timothy Dolan’s statement of pastoral outreach to lesbian and gay people, and the commentary and analysis of his remarks still hasn’t stopped. I imagine that the cardinal did not realize that his comment would cause such a discussion, but it is good for the church that this conversation is taking place.
Sister Mary Ann Walsh, the director of media relations for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), wrote a Huffington Post essay in which she expressed surprise that people were stunned by Dolan’s positive gesture. Walsh explained that the Catholic Church has always welcomed gay and lesbian people:
“To reiterate Cardinal Dolan’s point: Gays are welcome in the church. So are divorced people. Heck, even in the rare instances that people are excommunicated, they’re still expected at Sunday Mass. Although some sects ban you from the property for violating their rules, the Catholic Church still wants you in the pew.”
But Sister Walsh’s comments illustrate the problem.Many people know that the Catholic Church officially welcomes everyone, yet a good number of people, especially gay and lesbian people, have not experienced that welcome. One of the ways that welcome has been muted is by harsh rhetoric from Catholic hierarchical leaders, like Cardinal Dolan and the USCCB. Is Sister Walsh aware that people have heard many negative messages from the bishops? Is she aware that her final sentence in the quotation above is not a welcoming one?
David Gibson, an author on Catholic topics who writes for Religion News Service, points out more specific examples of how the bishops have not communicated a welcome:
“During the 2012 presidential campaign, a number of bishops said that those who support civil marriage for gays should be barred from Communion, and Dolan and other bishops cast the battle over gay marriage, and against Obama, in almost apocalyptic terms.
“Other church leaders used especially harsh language to describe gays and lesbians, and some barred children from attending Catholic schools because their parents are gay. Many also equated support for civil marriage for gays with support for abortion, an action that is grounds for automatic excommunication.”
Gibson points to two reasons why Cardinal Dolan may have made his message when he did: 1) a change in leadership style toward a more pastoral approach, exemplified by Pope Francis; 2) the shift occurring in public opinion towards greater acceptance of marriage equality.
Sister Simone Campbell, the executive director of NETWORK, a Catholic social justice lobby, and the leader of last summer’s popular “Nuns on the Bus” tour, also looks at the example of Pope Francis as a sign of hope for a shift in leadership and rhetoric from other church hierarchs. In a Washington Post “On Faith” essay, she wrote:
“My deepest hope is that he [Pope Francis] will lead our church in embracing all people who feel they have been marginalized or cast out because of stridency and cruelty they have encountered in our church. Too often we have been a hurtful structure rather than a caring community. Members of LGBT communities have been particularly harmed, and that is wrong.
“The Gospels are filled with examples of Jesus teaching us to reach out to and welcome those who have been marginalized by others. Jesus reached out to the lepers, healed the Roman occupier’s son, asked the Samaritan woman for help, and prevented the woman taken in adultery from being stoned by judgmental men. Pope Francis seems to understand this better than many, and we now have examples of people like Cardinal Dolan making some progress in following Christ’s example.”
Sister Campbell points to Cardinal Dolan’s words in his Easter homily at St. Patrick’s Cathedral as yet another sign of expectant change. Dolan said:
Michael O’Loughlin, who blogs on “Church and State” issues for BustedHalo.com, a website for young adult Catholics, agrees with Gibson that the change in style may be due to the shift in public opinion on marriage equality, particularly among young people:
Recognizing perhaps that the Church is losing its young members on the issue of same-sex marriage, and perhaps understanding that the battle may be lost entirely, some leaders are beginning to soften their tone. Remember, there’s two parts to the teaching in the catechism: homosexual acts are immoral, we’re told, but all gay people must be treated with respect and dignity. Perhaps the Church is beginning a campaign to emphasize the latter after so many years of touting the former?
O’Loughlin also seems to agree with New Ways Ministry’s suggestion in its initial statement on Cardinal Dolan’s comments that dialogue with LGBT Catholics is the important next step New York’s archbishop:
“As Pope Francis continues to demonstrate so powerfully, symbolism matters. So imagine the powerful image of a senior Catholic prelate sitting down to share a meal with a gay couple and engaging in friendly dialogue about how the Church might make their family feel more welcome in parish life. There’d be no implicit approval of same-sex marriage or conversation about moral theology. Instead, just a pastor and two faithful Catholics exploring ways to live out radical hospitality. Though it seems obvious at first glance, engaging gay and lesbian Catholics in dialogue about their experiences would be a radical shift in how the Church approaches these issues.”
Indeed, DignityUSA, a national organization of LGBT Catholics and allies, has called upon Dolan to dialogue with its members and leadership. In an open letter to Cardinal Dolan this week, Dignity’s leadership stated:
“We sincerely hope and pray that your recent comments mark the beginning of a new chapter in the relationship between the Bishops and LGBT Catholics, as well as the majority of U.S. Catholics who have shown themselves to be increasingly supportive of LGBT people. To that end, we feel it is important to set a definite date to resume a dialogue that has been suspended for far too long. We suggest a meeting before Pentecost, or at the earliest possible date, in either New York City or Washington, D.C. If you would let us know your availability, we will make every effort to arrange our schedules to accommodate yours.”
Finally, just a quick note about reactions to New Ways Ministry’s characterization of Cardinal Dolan’s comments as “an Easter miracle.” Earlier this week, John Corvino, a philosophy professor at Wayne State University, and author of several works on LGBT issues, took exception to this characterization by stating in a Huffington Post essay:
“I give the man credit for taking a more positive and welcoming tone, and sincerely hope that his fellow Christians take note. At the same time, it’s a sign of how low the bar is set when comments like Dolan’s inspire such interest and excitement. For example, Francis DeBernardo, Executive Director of the gay Catholic group New Ways Ministry, called Dolan’s remarks ‘nothing short of an Easter miracle.’ “
“Really? Rising from the dead is an Easter miracle. Marshmallow Peeps are an Easter miracle. (You can put them in your pantry for a decade, and they won’t decay. It’s true.) But a Christian leader saying ‘Hey, maybe we shouldn’t attack gay people’? That’s just common decency, not to mention good strategy — especially in a world where a majority of American Catholics support equal marriage rights for same-sex couples.”
I mention this statement because several blog readers argued along similar lines in the “Comments” section of the original post on Easter Sunday. Was Dolan sincere? Were his comments too little, too late? Does Dolan’s continued opposition to marriage equality cancel out his outreach?
I appreciate where all of these people are coming from, yet I still see Dolan’s statement as a hopeful sign. For one, it is a major shift that he has said anything positive to lesbian and gay people, whatever his motivation. This is new. Will it be the beginning of a new era of openness? Time will tell. But whatever happens, it will be very difficult for Dolan and other bishops not to make positive statements in the future.
Secondly, the quotation about “Easter miracle” was taken out of context and isolated as a single statement, thus allowing it to be interpreted in a variety of ways. Here’s what the original statement said:
“This is the first time that the cardinal has made such a positive statement about God’s love for lesbian and gay people. Such a statement is a refreshing change from the usual harsh rhetoric that the church hierarchy uses when discussing LGBT issues. It is a significant sign of welcome and outreach. Cardinal Dolan’s statement is nothing short of an Easter miracle.
“Cardinal Dolan now has to back up these words with actions. Later in the interview he said that church leaders ‘gotta listen to people,’ referring to lesbian and gay persons. If Dolan meant what he said, he should open a dialogue with lesbian and gay people, especially Catholics, to learn more about their pain and struggle , but also about their joy and faith. New Ways Ministry stands ready to help Dolan identify people with whom he can begin to dialogue.”
An Easter miracle? Yes, but it has to be backed up by actions. Are Dolan’s words “baby steps,” as Corvino characterizes them? I don’t think so. I think they signal a shift, which even if it is only “window dressing” could have a major impact on how Catholicism approaches LGBT issues. If bishops begin speaking positively, even if only as a style change, it can affect the way that many traditional Catholics speak and think about these issues. And when thought changes, eventually policy changes, too.
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry