What to Make of Maltese Bishop’s LGBT Award Nomination?

November 10, 2014

Malta Gay Rights Movement logo

A top Catholic official in Malta has been selected for an LGBT community award, but questions are being raised about his nomination given the bishop’s mixed record on same-sex relationships.

The Malta Gay Rights Movement (MGRM) honored both public input and committee votes by adding Auxiliary Bishop Charles Scicluna to the nominee list in the spirituality and religion category for their annual LGBTI Community Awards gala. When some indivdiuals criticized this choice, MGRM responded in a statement, quoted in part by Malta Today:

” ‘Spirituality and religion have a positive impact on many peoples’ lives. Just as in the heterosexual community, also for some LGBTI people religion and faith are an important part of their identities. Hence, we support the efforts of LGBTI people who wish to be accepted within their faith communities’…

“The gay rights movement said the bishop had received sufficient votes in the online and sub-committee votes, and in a final review, it was decided not to exclude him to preserve the integrity of the selection process. ‘Secondly… we have indeed seen a marked improvement in the quality and tonality of communication from the Catholic Church more generally in relation to issues affecting the LGBTI Community.’ “

MGRM also announced a meeting to discuss Scicluna’s nomination, and the organization hopes the bishop attends as a “gesture of friendship and dialogue.” It is worth noting that Dominican monk and philosopher Mark Montebello was also nominated for the “spirituality and religion” category.

Bishop Charles Scicluna

Bishop Charles Scicluna

Scicluna’s record on LGBT issues is a messy one. He has repeatedly denied that same-sex couples can marry, and even opposed a civil unions law in Malta that ultimately passed in September 2013.  Scicluna, in an unconfirmed report, said Pope Francis was “shocked” at the idea of gay couples adopting.

At the same time, Scicluna has apologized to lesbian and gay people for times the church has made their lives more difficult. He publicly criticized a lay man’s harsh letter against same-sex relationships, saying it was a “caricature of the Church’s teaching on gay relationships,” and that these relationships exhibit more than lust. Scicluna remarked in an interview about homosexuality in the Catholic Church that, “Love is never a sin. God is love.” Earlier this year, he took part in an official event marking the International Day Against Homophobia, alongside pro-equality political leaders.

Still, critics of MGRM’s decision to keep Scicluna on the nominee list are not satisfied. They believe his record opposing LGBT civil rights and his inability to defy church teaching are sufficient to judge him negatively. Malta Today quotes advocate Joseph Carmel Chetcuti as saying:

” ‘I may have missed something but does Scicluna no longer consider homosexuality intrinsically disordered? Is he now saying that gay men and lesbians, as individuals and couples, should be allowed to adopt children and that it is in the interest of children to have gay and lesbian parents?’ “

What to make of all of this?

First, the Malta Gay Rights Movement should be applauded for their approach to this situation. MGRM recognizes that there is no clear distinction between the LGBT community and Catholicism, but that many sexual and gender diverse people are also faithful believers. MGRM’s willingness to advocate critically and inclusively in this tension is commendable, as is the organization’s commitment to respecting the voices of the public and subcommittees who nominated Scicluna.

Second, Malta is one of the most Catholic nations in the world and the church cannot be ignored by LGBT advocates. More than 90% of the population identify as Catholic and the country is officially identified with the church per the constitution. As MGRM itself recognized, ” ‘While it is undeniably an organisation with deep flaws, [the Catholic Church] also does great good’ in the educational and social services it provides for the island nation. And while the institutional church may not support LGBT equality, the Catholic citizenry of Malta do: it was the first European nation to include gender identity protections in its constitution last year proving there is room to grow.

Third, MGRM is not letting the Catholic Church or Bishop Scicluna off the hook just because they are honoring him. There are deep problems with how the institutional church treats and speaks about LGBT people, and much work remains in attaining an inclusive and just Catholic community. MGRM expressed hope that modern scientific and social development in human sexuality will be integrated into the church’s thought. Further, the organization says, “that at some time in the future the Catholic Church will want to apologise to the LGBTI community for its current and historic discriminatory and exclusionary approach.”

In the end, Bishop Scicluna has declined the nomination, reports MGRM on their Facebook page which also explained the bishop’s reasoning as the following:

“Bishop Scicluna feels he should decline the nomination for the LGBTI Community Awards since, as a matter of principle, he does not accept nominations and awards for doing his duty as a Bishop.

“Bishop Scicluna would like to confirm his commitment to promote a community spirit of solidarity and compassion in which LGBTI persons feel they are welcomed. He also commits himself to fight any unjust discrimination against LGBTI persons.”

Scicluna’s welcome of LGBT is imperfect, but he is also far from the worst. It is important to honor Catholic officials who try to offer positive pastoral outreach within the constraints of institution, rather than writing them off wholesale. Who knows? Perhaps Bishop Scicluna’s real reason for not attending the gala is because he will instead be instructing Malta’s newest resident, Cardinal Raymond Burke, on a more pastoral approach to LGBT people!  One can hope!

What do you think? Should Bishop Scicluna and other Catholic leaders be honored by LGBT organizations, even if their records are mixed? Add your thoughts in the ‘Comments’ section below.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

Filipino Religious Superiors Affirm Their Solidarity with Murdered Transgender Woman

November 8, 2014

Demonstrators call for justice in the case of murder victim Jennifer Laude

Catholic leaders in the Philippines are demanding justice for a transgender woman allegedly murdered by a US soldier, further adding to the church’s positive response in this most tragic situation.

The Association of Major Religious Superiors of the Philippines (AMRSP), through their Office of Women and Gender Concerns, said in a statement:

“Our shock and horror over the gruesome killing of Filipino transgender woman Jennifer (legal name: Jeffrey) Laude by a US marine serviceman are accompanied by grave concern about how the case will progress and the kind of justice that might prevail in the end given the circumstances surrounding the case.”

The statement beautifully reflects Catholic social teaching in its fullness, acknowledging the many factors in this case which disadvantage Laude and her loved ones seeking justice. On the victim’s gender identity, the statement notes:

“Laude, the latest victim, is a member of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender (LGBT) community that, in present society, continues to suffer discrimination, marginalization, exclusion and hate crimes. Such is the result of centuries-old societal biases toward those who ‘do not fit’ into the so-called mainstream.”

AMRSP acknowledges two other factors worth noting here. First, the problematic Visiting Forces Agreement with the United States “puts a Filipino crime victim at a disadvantage” and allows the US to disregard the Philippines in favor of its “own brand of justice.” Second, there is the simple disparity in resources between Laude’s family of “humble means” and the near-unlimited means of the US military. A past incident where US soldiers escaped prosecution for rape was offered as an example. AMRSP leaders called on all involved to seek justice, saying:

“We call on witnesses to put aside fear and come forward with what they know. We call on Laude’s family and supporters to stay the course and not be cowed into giving up. We call on Laude’s critics to hold their judgment. We call on our government officials and lawmakers to re-examine the onerous provisions in the VFA. We pray that genuine justice based on the truth will be served—for both the victim and the accused.”

In a related move, a top official with the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Phillipines spoke about Laude’s murder and the legal case with a Catholic publication. In the interview, Bishop Elenito Galido of Iligan said:

” ‘We are asking for justice. We do not condemn…We do not judge or anything. We are seeking justice.

“Killing a person is a crime whether the victim is transgender or not. We do not discriminate. It’s clear enough there is a crime we have to seek justice for.”

Manila Auxiliary Bishop Broderick Pabillo also called on the Filipino government to ensure rights of the country’s citizens are respected in this legal process.

A week ago, I applauded Catholic pastoral leaders for granting Laude a Catholic funeral that respected her identity and brought healing to both Laude’s family and the LGBT community in the highly traditional Philippines. Ministers mediated God’s love through the sacramental life of the church.

Now, these further statement add justice to that charity by prophetically standing beside a most marginalized and vulnerable person. Their words respect Laude’s identity. They acknowledge the reality that her murder is most likely a hate crime, caused about by anti-LGBT cultural attitudes and discrimination. They address the compounding factors of militarism and inequality before the law in this case. Filipino Catholic leaders show how Catholics can and must integrate LGBT justice into the church’s broader efforts. In short, they model Pope Francis’ desire that we be a “poor church for the poor” that is “home for all.”

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

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Priest’s Homily a Reminder of All Too Prevalent Anti-LGBT Catholic Realities Worldwide

November 6, 2014

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While LGBT equality is advancing in the US, revealing one’s sexual orientation or gender identity can still result in widespread discrimination and violence for too many people. One Tanzanian priest’s recent post-synod remarks are a stark reminder that though these are changing times, anti-LGBT sentiments are thriving in some areas.  All Catholics–especially Pope Francis, must speak out against homophobia and transphobia.

Fr. Camilo Mdeya spoke to Mass participants in the city of Mwanza about the recent synod in Rome, and he criticized the bishops for not agreeing on a condemnation against   same-sex relationships, which means local church officials must now handle such controversial matters. According to AllAfrica,  he said:

” ‘We are seeing strange and shameful phenomenon of same sex people daring to approach the church for marriage vows, and let me tell you, I will not be ready to do that and if it happens that fellow priests or even the Bishop asks me to attend, I will resign at once.’ “

Mdeya, whose remarks were reportedly well received by the congregation, also told parents that their children may be “dragged into same sex relationships.” This statement is clearly false, and whether or not there are same-sex couples seeking Catholic marriages in Tanzania is unconfirmed. Yet, what is essential here is that the priest’s highly-charged and influential words will foment anti-gay attitudes in a nation where homosexuality is criminalized.

Harsh and dangerous language from religious leaders has also caused lesbian and gay Liberians to go into hiding due to scapegoating over the Ebola outbreak. Archbishop Lewis Zeiglier of Monrovia has supported statements in the past suggesting Ebola is a plague sent as punishment for homosexuality’s presence in Liberia.

Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe, who is Catholic and attended the beatification of Paul VI, applauded the synod for not being more welcoming to LGBT people. His country also criminalizes homosexuality, and Mugabe is a deeply troubling figure in terms of human rights.

Though homosexuality is portrayed as a colonial Western import, it is indeed this virulent homophobia closely tied to Christianity that is the actual import. The Human Rights Campaign recent report, The Export of Hate, details how American Christian leaders, including some lay Catholics, are helping foster anti-LGBT attitudes, discrimination, and even criminalization laws in Africa because their efforts have failed in the US.

Thus, it is incumbent on Catholics worldwide to reject any violence or discrimination based upon one’s sexual or gender identity. Christopher Hale of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good and Jes Stevens of Catholics United wrote in the National Catholic Reporter about this topic recently, saying:

“As the church goes forward on this journey, there will be more and more areas of profound internal disagreement…But there is one area about which there should be no disagreement: ending the menacing violence against the LGBT community.

“At its best, the Catholic church can and should be a leader in fighting discrimination against the LGBT community…For people of faith to say ‘yes’ to welcome, we must say ‘no’ to violence whether it be on the streets of Philadelphia, the personnel decisions at our Catholic institutions, or the intentions of our own heart — intentions that build up and tear down.”

Pope Francis himself rejected religious justifications for violence and discrimination, though not specifically LGBT-related, while traveling in Albania. The pope spoke of the peaceful coexistence of that nation’s people after conflict, adding:

“Let no one consider using God as a shield while planning and carrying out acts of violence and oppression! May no one use religion as a pretext for actions against human dignity and against the fundamental rights of every man and woman, above all, the right to life and the right of everyone to religious freedom!”

When the lives and livelihoods of LGBT people are under attack, Catholic leaders must vocally and clearly stand alongside the marginalized and victimized. They should be ever aware of the harm their words can cause, especially in places where anti-gay attitudes are culturally and legally prevalent.

To initiate a more pastoral and merciful tone towards LGBT people, Pope Francis needs to explicitly speak out against any and all anti-LGBT legislation and the violence which accompanies such laws. To ask the pope for this, click here.

To read Bondings 2.0 ongoing coverage of anti-LGBT laws internationally and the #PopeSpeakOut campaign, click here.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

SYNOD: Malta Bishop’s Talk Was Influenced By Parents of LGBT People

October 10, 2014

ROME, Italy–The news from the Vatican’s synod on marriage and the family yesterday contained an important lesson about the power of Catholic parents advocating for their LGBT children.

Bishop Mario Grech

Bishop Mario Grech, bishop of Gozo, and the president of the bishops’ conference of Malta, gave a talk to the synod in which he called for a church that is more accepting of its’ LGBT members.  What was not apparent from his speech, though, is the fact that much of his evolution in thinking about these matters happened because he has been in dialogue with a group of Maltese Catholic parents of LGBT people for several years.  (You can read his entire talk by clicking here.)

Drachma Parents, the affiliated organization of Drachma, Malta’s Catholic LGBT organization, which is coordinated by Joseanne and Joseph Peregin, has been meeting with the bishop for several years to share their stories of love, struggle, and acceptance of their LGBT children.  Joseanne shared the story of the organization’s work at the October 3rd international theological conference “The Ways of Love,” held in Rome.  (You can read two previous blog posts about this conference by clicking here and here.)

At the Synod, Bishop Grech told his brother bishops:

“We know very well that, as our Lord himself promised to give his Spirit to guide us to all truth (cfr. Jn 16:13) and in a spirit of complete trust in his word, the doctrine of the faith is capable of progressively acquiring a greater depth. We must not change or twist the Gospel of the Family in such a way that would lead to its disfigurement. Today’s family, however, also quite commonly includes the following scenarios: the situation of a man and woman, both divorced and who now live together in a second relationship; or the case where a son or a daughter profess to be gay; or that given context whereby the exercise of responsible fatherhood proves to be a constant hurdle; relationships that are torn apart by failure; or the challenge of having to live in a framework which renders incomprehensible the very concepts of natural law… We need to know our families very well if we are to offer them the Gospel in a practical way. A good point of departure would be in our choice of language – may it be the language of a Church that is both merciful and brings healing. I must confess to facing the urgency of this need while listening to families of homosexuals as well as to the same persons having such an orientation and who feel wounded by the language directed towards them in certain texts, for instance in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1997 edition, §2358); these persons consequently struggle both with maintaining their faith alive as well as cultivating their sense of filial belonging to the Church. It is necessary to learn to speak that language which is known to contemporary human beings and who acknowledge it as a way of conveying the truth and the charity of the Gospel: “If we wish to adapt to people’s language and to reach them with God’s word, we need to share in their lives and pay loving attention to them.” (Evangelii Gaudium [EG] 158).”

He also urged the synod participants to be creative in finding new ways to address contemporary family situations:

“Creativity in both the language as well as in the pastoral attitude towards persons who find themselves in difficult pastoral situations requires far more than a mere external modification. On the contrary, it demands the sustained pursuit of new answers alongside new pastoral approaches some of which can be extracted from the teachings of the Church Fathers. It is desirable that such situations be closely examined with theological erudition together with a pastoral mindset, in order for suitable pastoral solutions that are built upon deepened doctrinal considerations to be obtained.”

He concluded on a note of urgency:

“At the very heart of the Gospel of the family is found the salvation of every human person, even of those who find themselves in uncomfortable pastoral situations. It is our duty as Pastors to proclaim the Gospel of salvation even to them. This is an urgent duty because humans are going through such trajectories today: therefore the time to answer to this plea from God’s People is now. “

Joseanne Peregin speaking at the international theological conference in Rome.

Joseanne Peregin speaking at the international theological conference in Rome.

I had the pleasure of spending a few days and meals in Rome with Joseanne and Joseph Peregin, and I found them to be people of deep faith, prayer, and love.   They reminded me of the many Catholic parents I meet in the United States who are part of Fortunate Families. Joseanne credits New Ways Ministry’s Sister Jeannine Gramick with the inspiration for forming the Drachma Parents group. It was after hearing Sister Jeannine give a talk in Malta in 2004 that Joseanne and other parents decided to form the group.

During Joseanne’s talk at the October 3rd international theological conference, she described the experience of herself and her husband’s coming to acceptance of their gay son, and then she explained:

“It seems almost all parents feel this initial shock. Confusion and fear paralyze most parents. But for us Roman Catholics, an added concern is what the Church says about homosexuality. I realized that, when it comes to the LGBT reality, there are many misconceptions and myths that enwrap people in doubt and fear. Although we may have some laws in place that protect the rights of homosexuals, there is still a long way to go until we see the change in culture and mentality that is needed. One of the very first challenges parents of gay children must face is: ‘What will people say?’ but then in Catholic Malta, the second one is: ‘What does the Catholic Church say?’ Unfortunately, this is where many parents get confused and this is where pastoral care is felt most lacking.”

Joseanne also offered some wisdom about pastoral care:

“To me, pastoral care is about meeting people where they stand and building a friendship with those who feel isolated, distant or cut-off from the Church or even their families – with those who are on the periphery of society – focusing therefore on emotional support and spiritual care.

“As Christians we must stand by the side of the poor and rejected, even if it causes us discomfort and humiliation. But there is still a lot of hostility and judgment out there. Our Christian communities need to build bridges and dialogue with those who are at the periphery of society. We need to offer them a SAFE SPACE where they can continue their faith journey. A SAFE SPACE where they can share their vulnerabilities.”

And she also gave advice for advocacy, which, as Bishop Grech’s talk illustrates, was very effective in her case:

“Something else that works is sending emails to the Bishop. Whenever I listened to a priest’s homily that was delivered with a prejudice tone against gays or whenever the Drachma Community celebrated a wonderful Christmas or Easter Mass, I would write to my Bishop to inform him and give him a most vivid description of the event.

“Like me, other members of Drachma took different initiatives. Eventually, this led to building enough interest in the pastoral work of Drachma and some important follow-up meetings were held with the Bishops. Last February the Drachma Parents Group wrote a letter to the Bishop with specific recommendations for the upcoming Synod. And on May 17th IDAHO [International Day Against Homophobia] Mass was celebrated by the Bishop and was made public in the media. This was an important pastoral gesture by our Bishop which also helped to heal some wounds (especially after the Civil Union Law). Recently, I was also invited to give my input during a consultation meeting with the Bishop representing Malta at the Synod and I was one of 20 such advisors – so these humble initiatives are helping to build bridges, gain credibility and strengthen dialogue in the church.”

Joseanne concluded with pastoral advice that I pray all the synod bishops–indeed, all bishops and pastoral ministers–would follow:

“In my view, taking the hostility experienced by LGBTIs upon ourselves, and choosing to defend them instead of judge them, is perhaps the need I see most urgent and universal right now in the life of the church. We need to help stop the bullying that goes on in schools. We need to help persuade countries to change their laws starting with those countries that still consider homosexuality to be a crime. The Church can lead by example.

“It needs to address this phenomenon by first showing it is on the side of gays and ready to defend them, with the same determination as when we defend the unborn child. It is important that we reduce the number of attempted suicides by educating people, so as to respect diversity. Immediately following the Bishops’ Synod, the Catholic Church would do well to implement better ways of expressing its support in a concrete and outward way. We should insist on this. If we don’t, who will?

“Yes, our church is tired of pompous judgmental statements – it is tired of clashing symbols and empty words – people want to see real people, real testimonies of hope and love, people who listen, who make themselves available and who are ready to offer their time and their friendship.

“So whoever feels lost, hidden or forgotten in the church would be pleased to find us busy right now, (like the woman in the Drachma parable  in Luke 15) sweeping up the whole house of God and causing a household stir. They would be happy to know that we value and celebrate their worth and are doing whatever we can to build an inclusive Church. And hopefully, we will REJOICE with our friends, including the Bishops and the Pope!”

(You can read the entire text of Joseanne’s talk by clicking here.)

It is wonderful that the bishops in the synod are finally starting to talk in more compassionate and realistic ways about lesbian and gay people. But we must remember that their episcopal voices have often been taught about the ways of love from parents, pastoral ministers, and LGBT people themselves.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry


SYNOD: We Can Hope for Some Change, But Let’s Hope It’s More Courageous Than Nigerian Archbishop

October 9, 2014

ROME, Italy–This has certainly been an exciting week for the Catholic Church!  Sometimes, I have to pinch myself to make sure that what I am reading is really happening.  For many decades Catholics have been calling on the hierarchy to at least have a dialogue about sexuality, marriage, and family issues, and it seems that the dialogue has begun.  No doubt, it is imperfect.  There are certainly not the dialogue members that need to be there–especially LGBT people and their families.  But it is a first step, and that is good.

Of course, I have to also be on guard against getting caught up in some of the sensational headlines, tweets, and Facebook posts that I have seen.  Many people, including press representatives, seem caught up in the euphoria of the moment and are heralding changes in Catholic teaching, when such is not the case.  We have indeed seen an important opening in the discussion these last few days, with bishops sharing their ideas about marriage and family, and listening to at least some of the laity on this matter.  We haven’t seen discussion like that among church leaders at all in my lifetime–and I’m in my mid-50s.  But the beginning of a discussion does not equal change.

Cardinal Vincent Nichols

According to Vatican Radio, Cardinal Vincent Nichols of London, England, welcomed the new atmosphere of discussion:

“Cardinal Nichols pointed out it’s too early to draw any conclusions from these first sessions, yet it does seem clear that this first Synod of Francis’ pontificate is shaping up for a much more honest and down-to-earth discussion than most bishops have experienced here in the Vatican over recent decades.”

One thing, perhaps that we can hope for, is a change in language.  On Tuesday, at a press briefing, Basilian Father Thomas Rosica told reporters that bishops had discussed language about sexuality used in church discourse:

“Language such as ‘living in sin,’ ‘intrinsically disordered,’ or ‘contraceptive mentality’ are not necessarily words that invite people to draw closer to Christ and the Church.”

So many Catholics have been asking for almost 30 years for the terms “intrinsically disordered” and “objective disorder,” which refer primarily to homosexuality, to be changed.  Terencce Weldon, at Queering The Church, commented:

“For lesbian and gay people, this is nothing new, but it is something that the bishops needed to hear. Indeed, even some of those who are already aware of the harmful effects and warning against them, may not realize the depth of the damage that is done. They may understand that it is one of the factors that turns many our community away from the Catholic Church, as noted in the press briefing – but do they understand that it is also quite literally, destructive of lives, especially young lives?”

There was also a glimmer that there may be openness to recognizing value in relationships that are not legally or ecclesiastically considered “married.”  According to Vatican Radio:

“Fr Lombardi used an analogy from the Second Vatican Council which led to profound changes in the Catholic Church’s relations with other Christians and people of other religious traditions. During the Council, bishops agreed that while the fullness of Christ’s Church “subsists” only in the Catholic Church, important elements of truth and holiness also exist in other churches and faith communities. In a similar way, he said, valid and important elements of true love and holiness can also exist in a relationship that does not conform to the full vision of an ideal Catholic marriage.”

Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama

On Wednesday, Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama of Jos, Nigeria, offered the following explanation of what the synod might and might not do. The National Catholic Reporter quotes his reflections at a press conference:

“What we are trying to examine is the pastoral approach that could be done differently. The doctrines remain the same. We are not going to invent new doctrines … or suppress doctrines that the church has practiced for years.”

Kaigama is probably right, but that doesn’t mean that doctrine won’t eventually change.  In the church, a change in pastoral practice usually leads toward a change in doctrine, and not the other way around.

Kaigama himself showed the possibility of change.  On Wednesday, he told a synod press briefing that the Catholic Church in his country did not support the law applying harsh penalties to people convicted of homosexuality.  This is a reversal of his opinions at the time the law was being enacted.  The Tablet reports Kaigama’s statements:

“ ‘We are not supporting the criminalisation of people with different sexual orientations,’ Archbishop Kaigama stressed. ‘We would defend any person with homosexual orientation who is being harassed, who is being imprisoned, who is being punished.’

“He added: ‘The Government may want to punish them – we don’t. In fact we will tell the Government to stop punishing those with different orientations.’ ”

This is a surprising change given that some months back the news about his stance was much different:

From Bondings 2.0, on March 7, 2014, quoting a Religion News Service story:

 “In a January letter on behalf of the Catholic hierarchy of Nigeria, Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama of Jos praised Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan for his ‘courageous and wise decision’ in signing the legislation. Kaigama said it would protect Nigeria ‘against the conspiracy of the developed world to make our country and continent, the dumping ground for the promotion of all immoral practices.’ “

From Bondings 2.0, on February 13, 2014, quoting an Advocate.com story:

“Ignatius Kaigama, archbishop of the Middle Belt region of Jos, told SaharaTV that Catholic bishops in Nigeria ‘thank God that this bill was passed,’ and in a letter sent to Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, called the law ‘a courageous one and a clear indication of the ability of our great country to stand shoulders high in the protection of our Nigerian and African most valued cultures of the institution of marriage.’ ”

At the synod press conference, Kaigama defended his record, saying that he only meant to support the law’s opposition to marriage for same-gender couples.  The Tablet reports:

“. . . the archbishop said the Church only supported the elements of the law that set out that marriage is between a man and a woman. He added that there had been a “gross misinterpretation” of this by the media.”

Perhaps that is true, but the archbishop must take responsibility for the fact that in a volatile political debate, his supposedly nuanced comments are insufficient and ineffective.  Why didn’t he speak out clearly and strongly against the portions of the bill that imposed harsh penalties for orientation?  If indeed he did not support the bill in its entirety, why did he only praise the parts he liked and not condemn the parts he did not like?  This example shows how silence on the part of church leaders is often complicity in the homophobia which fuels repression and violence.

The synod will surely hold many more surprises.  Let’s hope that most of them are more edifying than the much delayed “clarification”of the Nigerian archbishop.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry











SYNOD: Same-Gender Couples Mentioned in Synod Talk, But Not In a Very Positive Way

October 7, 2014

The issues of same-gender relationships made its debut at the Synod on Marriage and the Family on Monday in a talk by a married couple on evangelization.  And while it was exciting to see same-gender couples finally mentioned in a Vatican meeting as something other than pariahs, their statement certainly wasn’t a clear endorsement, for which we still wait, hope, and pray.

Ron and Mavis Pirola, who are the chairs of the Australian Catholic Marriage and Family Council, were discussing the challenges of presenting church teaching to the modern world, nothing that  “We need new ways and relatable language to touch peoples’ hearts.”  According to The Vatican Insider, the couple elaborated on this idea:

“ ‘The domestic church’ represented by the family, ‘has much to offer the wider Church in its evangelizing role,’ the couple continued. ‘For example, the Church constantly faces the tension of upholding the truth while expressing compassion and mercy. Families face this tension all the time.’ The couple went on to illustrate this with an example relating to homosexuality. ‘Friends of ours were planning their Christmas family gathering when their gay son said he wanted to bring his partner home too. They fully believed in the Church’s teachings and they knew their grandchildren would see them welcome the son and his partner into the family. Their response could be summed up in three words, “He is our son.” ‘ “

The couple commented on their’ friends’ response by saying that it was

“a model of evangelization for parishes as they respond  to similar situations in their neighbourhood! The Church’s teaching role and its main mission to let the world know of God’s love.”

The welcome, yes, is very important. And it is admirable that they are encouraging parishes to welcome LGBT people as this couple weclomed their son and his partner. But it is hard to interpret what the Pirolas’ silence about the evaluation of the gay couple’s relationship is.  Does it mean that they accept the couple or that they don’t want to talk about the relationship?  It is hard to say.  The clause “the Church constantly faces the tension of upholding the truth while expressing compassion and mercy” makes me think that their intention is the latter.  When “truth,” “compassion,” “mercy” are all in the same sentence in an official church context, it usually means that the speaker does not support the idea of full equality for LGBT people and their relationships.

Ron and Mavis Pirola

The Pirolas’ follow-up example seems to support a conservative interpretation of their statements about the gay couple.  They illustrated their point with a different story, but with another condescending remark:

“A divorced friend of ours says that sometimes she doesn’t feel fully accepted in her parish. However, she turns up to Mass regularly and uncomplainingly with her children. For the rest of her parish she should be a model of courage and commitment in the face of adversity. From people like her we learn to recognize that we all carry an element of brokenness in our lives. Appreciating our own brokenness helps enormously to reduce our tendency to be judgemental of others which is such a block for evangelisation.”

The remark is condescending because it doesn’t at all take into account what the divorced women’s feelings and perception about the situation might be.  The married couple attribute positive spiritual motivations to a woman who may not be experiencing these at all.

Gay and lesbian issues were not expected to make their debut on Wednesday, when the synod addresses “Difficult Pastoral Issues,” which is where pastoral care of families headed by same-sex couples was listed.  Martin Pendergast, a British Catholic LGBT advocate has wondered how the synod will be able to discuss such pastoral care without actually having a same-sex couple or openly lesbian or gay person speak at the synod.  The inadequacy of the Pirolas’ comment shows the problem of having others speak for a group of which they are not a member.  Indeed, they were not only speaking as lesbian and gay people, but they weren’t even speaking of parents of such people, as their example came from the experience of their friends, not themselves.

When Pope Francis opened the synod he asked the bishops and cardinal to speak “boldly” and not worry about offending him.  Although the Pirolas are not members of the hierarchy, their language and examples certainly don’t fit into the category of bold speaking.  Their intervention is one small step forward in that it acknowledged how Catholic families love their LGBT members, but it is a step which also reveals how many steps our Church still has to go to reach full justice and equality.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry


SYNOD: Bishop Geoffrey Robinson: Sexual Ethics Should Be Based on Jesus’ Teaching

October 5, 2014

Here in Rome, where church officials are preparing for the opening of the extraordinary synod on marriage and family today, the mood is high, and many people here are saying, that it’s really difficult to say what the outcome of the meeting will be.  There is much hope for change in many of the issues concerning marriage, family, sexuality, but many people are saying that the composition of the synod participants, the fact that the process of this synod–including the request for input from the laity–and how influential in which direction Pope Francis will be all make it difficult to predict outcomes.


Bishop Geoffrey Robinson at the “Ways of Love” conference in Rome.

One bishop’s voice was heard loudly and clearly in Rome in the last few days, not by church leaders, but by Catholic LGBT people and ally advocates.  Bishop Geoffrey Robinson, a retired auxiliary of Sydney, Australia, spoke at the Ways Of Love conference on pastoral care with LGBT people, about which we posted yesterday.  The gathering in Rome was to discuss new possible approaches to LGBT people that the synod could take.  Bishop Robinson, who many readers may remember spoke at New Ways Ministry’s Seventh National Symposium in 2012, outlined a new approach to sexual ethics for the Church that would recognize the goodness and holiness of same-sex committed relationships.  His talk was a highlight of the conference, and I will try to outline some of the main points below.

Bishop Robinson began by dismantling some of the crippling assumptions that underline current church teaching, most particularly the idea that sexual sins are among the most grievous that humans might commit:

“Striking a king or president has always been considered a more serious offence than striking an ordinary citizen. In line with this, it was said, the greatest king by far is God, so an offence against God is far more serious than an offence against a mere human being.

“Because all sexual sins were seen as direct offences against God, they were, therefore, all seen as most serious sins. Sexual sins were seen as on the same level as the other sin that is directly against God, blasphemy, and this helps to explain why, in the Catholic Church, sexual morality has long been given a quite exaggerated importance.

“For centuries the Church has taught that every sexual sin is a mortal sin. In this field, it was held, there are no venial sins. . . .

“This teaching fostered belief in an incredibly angry God, for this God would condemn a person to an eternity in hell for a single unrepented moment of deliberate pleasure arising from sexual desire. This idea of God is totally contrary to the entire idea of God that Jesus presented to us, and I cannot accept it.

“My first rebellion against Church teaching on sex came, therefore, not directly from a rejection of what the Church said about sex, but a rejection of the false god that this teaching presented.”

Robinson also objected to the presumption that the Church’s sexual ethics should be based on judging the solely of sexual acts:

“. . . [T]he teaching of the Church is based on a consideration of what is seen as the God-given nature of the physical acts in themselves, rather than on these acts as actions of human beings. And it continues to do this at a time when the whole trend in moral theology is in the opposite direction.

“As a result it gets into impossible difficulties in analysing physical acts without a context of human relations. For example, some married couples find that there is a blockage preventing the sperm from reaching the ovum, but that in a simple procedure a doctor can take the husband’s sperm and insert it into the wife in such a way that is passes the blockage and enables conception. But the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith condemned this action because the physical act was not considered “integral”, even though the entire reason for this intervention was precisely that the couple wanted their marriage to be both unitive and procreative.

“The Church’s arguments concerning sex are based solely on the physical act in itself rather than on the physical act as an action affecting persons and relationships.”


New Ways Ministry’s Francis DeBernardo and Sister Jeannine Gramick at the “Ways of Love” conference in Rome.

Focusing in on lesbian and gay sexuality in particular, Robinson challenged the presumption of “natural law theory” opposing same-gender relationships:

“It was God who created a world in which there are both heterosexuals and homosexuals. This was not a mistake on God’s part that human beings are meant to repair; it is simply an undeniable part of God’s creation.

“The only sexual acts that are natural to homosexuals are homosexual acts. This is not a free choice they have made between two things that are equally attractive to them, but something that is deeply embedded in their nature, something they cannot simply cast aside. Homosexual acts come naturally to them, heterosexual acts do not. They cannot perform what the Church would call ‘natural’ acts in a way that is natural to them.

“Why should we turn to some abstraction in determining what is natural rather than to the actual lived experience of human beings? Why should we say that homosexuals are acting against nature when they are acting in accordance with the only nature they have ever experienced?

“The Church claims that it is basing itself on ‘natural law,’ but a natural law based on abstractions is a false natural law. Indeed, it brings the whole concept of natural law into disrepute.”

The bishop began an outline of a new basis for sexual ethics, based more on the teachings of Jesus than on any other outside philosophical theory.  He began this section of his talk by quoting Scripture:

“ ‘If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea’ (Mk.9:42).

“ ‘Then they will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’”(Mt.25:44-45)

“In these two quotations Jesus identifies with the weakest persons in the community, and tells us that any harm done to them is a harm done to himself.

“I suggest that this harm done to people is the real sin in matters of sex, the only sin that angers God.

“I suggest, therefore, that we should look at sexual morality in terms of the good or harm done to persons and the relationships between them rather than in terms of a direct offence against God.

“Following from this, may we say that sexual pleasure, like all other pleasure, is in itself morally neutral, neither good nor bad? Is it rather the circumstances affecting persons and relationships that make this pleasure good or bad, e.g. a good pleasure for a married couple seeking reconciliation after a disagreement, a bad pleasure for a man committing rape?”

After critiquing a reigning ethic of sex in the contemporary world that only cautions people to “do no harm,”  Bishop Robinson supplies an ethic based more on the commandment to love our neighbor:

“I suggest that the central questions concerning sexual morality are: Are we moving towards a genuinely Christian ethic if we base our sexual actions on a profound respect for the relationships that give meaning, purpose and direction to human life, and on loving our neighbour as we would want our neighbour to love us?

“Within this context, may we ask whether a sexual act is morally right when, positively, it is based on a genuine love of neighbour, that is, a genuine desire for what is good for the other person, rather than solely on self-interest, and, negatively, contains no damaging elements such as harm to a third person, any form of coercion or deceit, or any harm to the ability of sex to express love? . . . .

“Many would object that what I have proposed would not give a clear and simple rule to people. But God never promised us that everything in the moral life would be clear and simple. Morality is not just about doing right things; it is also about struggling to know what is the right thing to do. It is not just about doing what everyone else around us is doing; it is about taking a genuine personal responsibility for everything we do. And it is about being profoundly sensitive to the needs and vulnerabilities of the people with whom we interact.”

To catch all of Bishop Robinson’s nuances, examples, and explanations, I urge all who are interested in this topic to read his entire text which can be found on the conference’s website.  You will be enriched by reading all of Bishop Robinson’s nuances, examples, and explanations, as well as additional arguments.

As the synod opens today, I pray that other bishops will listen to voices like Bishop Robinson’s, whose approach to all sexuality is so rooted in the teachings of Jesus.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry



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