Bishops’ Meeting Spotlights Tensions About Pope Francis and LGBT Issues

November 14, 2014

Though the U.S. bishops’ meeting in Baltimore this week has not produced anything substantial in terms of policy, the news coming from that gathering focused on the split reaction that bishops have had to Pope Francis’ call for a more open church.

Of course, not all bishops fear the pope’s new approach.  In fact, some seem to be emulating his style, as I will point out later in this post.  First, I’d like to examine the tension that appears to exist in the bishops’ conference with regard to Pope Francis. Such an examination may be fruitful because the same dynamic of tension exists in the discussion of LGBT issues in the church.

New York Times article entitled “U.S. Bishops Struggle to Follow Lead of Francis” contained quotations from two different bishops which showed, I think, some of the underlying assumptions that guide responses to Francis.

Archbishop-elect Blase Cupich

Archbishop-elect Blase Cupich, who will soon lead the archdiocese of Chicago said:

“The pope is saying some very challenging things for people. He’s not saying, this is the law and you follow it and you get to heaven. He’s saying we have to do something about our world today that’s suffering, people are being excluded, neglected. We have a responsibility, and he’s calling people to task.”

But a few paragraphs later, the former archbishop of Chicago, Cardinal Francis George, had a totally opposite evaluation of the pope:

Cardinal Francis George

“He says wonderful things, but he doesn’t put them together all the time, so you’re left at times puzzling over what his intention is. What he says is clear enough, but what does he want us to do?”

Those two quotations sum up a lot for me.  While Cupich emphasized that the pope is not ordering people to follow rules, George’s response is a question which asks the pope to provide the bishops with definite direction.  To me, that distinction underlines a difference in the church between people who are more comfortable with discussion and discernment versus those who are more comfortable with authority and obedience.

The National Catholic Reporter’s Michael Sean Winters estimates that “As many as half of the bishops are those who simply do not understand what Pope Francis is trying to achieve.”  He thinks 25% “are genuinely enthusiastic about Pope Francis,” and another 25% are “digging in, resisting the pope, hoping it will all blow over quickly.”

In a Religion News Service article by David Gibson, church observer Rocco Palmo of Whispers in the Loggia blog, described the distinction between the bishops’ camps using different language:

“The prelates know they can’t go back to the way things were, said Palmo, who was covering the annual fall meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which runs through Thursday.

“But, he said, they are still trying to figure out how to adapt Francis’ flexible pastoral style to their local situations. ‘When you come from an institutional mindset,’ as Palmo said many American bishops do, ‘that’s going to create some apprehension.’ ”

Many of the news reports seem to focus on the fact that many of the U.S. bishops fall into the “authority and obedience” camp.  But other reports have been sprinkled with quotations showing that some bishops are following Pope Francis’ lead.

Bishop Thomas Tobin

For instance,  Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence, Rhode Island, who a few weeks ago referred to the synod as “rather Protestant,” and who has been a strong opponent of marriage equality, seemed to acknowledge past errors in pastoral practice.  Michael O’Loughlin of CruxNow.com, interviewed Tobin at the meeting :

“As for his letter condemning same-sex marriage, Tobin acknowledged that gay Catholics seek ‘a sense of welcoming’ in the Church. He said that he believes the Church is open to them, but ‘have we always expressed that very clearly? I’m not so sure.’ ”

In a second article, O’Loughlin of CruxNow.com reported on Archbishop Joseph Kurtz’ presidential address to the conference:

“Kurtz defended the pope’s emerging “culture of encounter,” with its emphasis on mercy over judgment, embracing those not living in accord with Church teaching, and more directly assisting the poor and disadvantaged. He likened Francis’ philosophy to his own visits to the homes of parishioners when he was a pastor.

Archbishop Joseph Kurtz

“ ‘When I’d come to someone’s home, I wouldn’t start by telling them how I’d rearrange their furniture. In the same way, I wouldn’t begin by giving them a list of rules to follow. . . .’

“ ‘I would then invite them to follow Christ, and I’d offer to accompany them as we, together, follow the Gospel invitation to turn from sin and journey along the way,’ he said. ‘Such an approach isn’t in opposition to Church teachings; it’s an affirmation of them. . . .’

“Notably absent from the address was a direct condemnation of same-sex marriage or even talk of threats to marriage, discussion of which had become a mainstay of the bishops’ group under Kurtz’ predecessor, New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan.”

Kurtz did seem to be playing both sides of the coin, however, since in the same address he also heavily praised “St. John Paul II’s remarkable vision of marriage and family life as developed in his theology of the body.”

And Peter Smith, reporting for The Pittsburgh Post-Gazettenoted:

“Bishops, however, maintained they would continue opposition to legalized same-sex marriage and linked the issue to their outspoken campaign for religious liberty, which they say is being challenged by gay-rights legislation.”

As I mentioned, this same dynamic exists in the debate about LGBT issues in the church.  Should we be a church of welcome or of rules? Which is more important:  “discussion and discernment” or “authority and obedience”?  “A flexible pastoral style” or “an institutional mindset”?  A ministry of accompaniment or Theology of the Body?

It comes down to a simple dichotomy that Catholics have been noting for decades regarding LGBT issues:  social justice or sexual ethics?  Which of these moral traditions should govern how the Church approaches LGBT persons?  Pope Francis has elevated that distinction to the front and center of the church’s discussion on marriage, sexuality, and the family.

I hope and pray for a Church where social justice and concern for individuals is primary. I will watch with continued interest to see how this debate, now amplified, will play out.

This year’s bishops’ meeting may not have delivered anything memorable in terms of statements or policies, but it sure did help to make apparent this important tension in our Church.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

 

 

 

 


Archbishop Kurtz’s Election as New USCCB President Signals Ambiguous Direction for Conference

November 13, 2013

Archbishop Kurtz with Cardinal Dolan

America’s Catholic bishops have spoken. Yesterday, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) elected a new president and vice-president for the first time since Pope Francis was elected, choosing Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville and Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston for the respective roles.

Observers viewed this leadership election as a sign of how the US hierarchy is responding to a pope noted for his mercy, welcome, and emphasis on the marginalized.

While pasts are not blueprints for the future, neither Kurtz nor DiNardo’s records leave LGBT advocates optimistic. Kurtz chaired the USCCB’s Ad Hoc Committee for the Defense of Marriage until 2010 and was one of three signatories on a letter to Congress opposing the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. More locally, he has established a Courage chapter in Louisville while remaining distant from gay-friendly parishes. Kurtz did not support a local nondiscrimination bill inclusive of sexual orientation and gender identity in 2012.

Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry’s Executive Director, was on hand at the bishops’ meeting in Baltimore where the election took place.  The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette captured his reaction to the bishops’ move not to choose a more LGBT-friendly leader:

” ‘[Pope] Francis is a game-changer,’ said Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, a national group advocating for gay and lesbian Catholics, one of several liberal advocates who spoke with reporters outside the bishops’ meeting area at the Baltimore Waterfront Marriott. ‘The U.S. bishops seem to be playing by yesterday’s playbook.’ “

What signs of hope remain for Catholics who want a more inclusive Catholic community in the US? Whispers in the Loggia says of the two newly elected bishops:

“On the wider front, meanwhile, after two headstrong, high-profile presidencies in a row that exponentially amplified the body’s voice in the national public square, the duo now in place are decidedly more reserved and consensus-driven, and the impact of that shift on the conference’s level and tone of advocacy bears watching. Yet perhaps most intriguingly of all, both the new president and his deputy were parish priests upon and until their appointment as bishops… and it’s admittedly difficult to remember the last time that was the case.”

David Gibson writes at Religion News Service that the bishops did not choose a known culture warrior like Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelpahia, but also sidelined bishops who more closely correspond with Pope Francis. He also reports that honest conversations on the USCCB’s direction in coming years will occur today and tomorrow:

“The real debates were expected to go on behind closed doors in sessions that will last through  Thursday. Church sources say the bishops are expected to have frank talks about contentious issues like their stance against the Obama administration’s contraception mandate.

“But they are also expected to discuss the larger direction of the hierarchy. The election of Pope Francis and his oft-repeated desire to push the bishops in a new, more pastoral direction have unsettled the bishops, who in recent years were already divided and often unable to agree on major statements or initiatives.

“Many of the bishops meeting here said the conference was in something of a holding pattern, waiting to see who Francis will name to leading U.S. dioceses and whether he can recast the U.S. hierarchy in his mold and perhaps leave it more unified.”

The election of the new president provided an insight into some of the lesser-known demographics of the bishops’ conference. Michael Sean Winters points out at the National Catholic Reporter:

“Three years ago, Chaput also ran for the presidency and vice presidency of the conference. And he lost then too, with almost the same number of votes. Turns out there is a significant number of bishops who like the culture warrior approach. And if the nuncio wants to know just how many bishops in the US do not really much like Pope Francis, he now knows precisely: 87.”

It is helpful to recall the papal conclave last spring, when many LGBT advocates and progressive Catholics expected another pope in the model of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Even after Pope Francis’ election was announced, ambiguity abounded on where he would lead the Church. Studying his actions in Argentina left many concerned with reforming the hierarchy’s positions sexuality discouraged.

However, the Spirit is alive and well with Pope Francis who has preached open doors, demanded non-judgement, and encouraged new ways of thinking about marriage and family issues. Will Archbishop Kurtz truly seek to “warm hearts and heal wounds,” as he offered in a press conference following his election today, or will it be more of the same?

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry


Courage Ministry Instituted in Archdiocese of Louisville

October 21, 2012

The Archdiocese of Louisville, Kentucky, has instituted a Courage ministry which is intended to help gay and lesbian people lead chaste lives.

The Louisville Courier-Journal reports that the institution of such a group is not without controversy.

Archbishop Joseph Kurtz

While Archbishop Joseph Kurtz maintains that the group’s goal is “both to promote the dignity of every human being and promote chaste living,” others see that Courage may hurt more than it helps.

The Courier-Journal notes:

“Chris Hartman, director of the Fairness Campaign, a Louisville gay-rights group, said he’s a confirmed Catholic who has avoided the church for years because of its stance on homosexuality.’It’s repressive and really unhealthy for people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender, to suggest one can suppress an entire part of who they are,’ Hartman said.

New Ways Ministry’s Executive Director Francis DeBernardo is also quoted, noting that Courage does not employ a complete approach to the gay or lesbian person, but focuses solely on potential sexual activity:

“ ‘Courage views the homosexual orientation as a defect and as a burden rather than as a gift to be embraced and as an integral part of someone’s personality,’ DeBernardo said.

“Pastoral care, DeBernardo said, is ‘not about teaching’ but ‘about working with the person you have in front of you, in the situations they find themselves in.’ For many gays and lesbians, he said, their biggest struggles involve ‘alienation from family or integrating into society and church life.’ ”

The Archdiocese of Louisville has several gay-friendly parishes which take a more comprehensive approach to pastoral care.  The news article describes one:

“The Cathedral of the Assumption, for example, describes itself on its home page as ‘an oasis of prayer, a beacon of social justice, and a family where no one needs to be invisible because of their race, social or economic background, marital status or sexual orientation.’ ”

Courage as a ministry has been controversial because  it uses a twelve-step model to try to help people remain chaste, thus treating sexual orientation as if it were an addiction.

Moreover, even though Courage officially does not require a person to try to change his or her sexual orientation, some chapters have offered such “therapy” as an option. The Courier Journal reports:

“[Angelo] Sabella [assistant to the director of Courage] said Courage does not itself conduct therapy that seeks to change a person’s sexual orientation — an approach that the American Psychological Association says is unlikely to succeed and poses ‘some risk of harm.’ The state of California in September prohibited therapists from using change therapy with minors.

“But Sabella said the group has invited advocates for change therapy to talk with Courage groups to let participants know about it. ‘It’s not for everybody,’ he said, but he did not rule out a divinely fostered change in orientation.

“ ‘If a soul really is desiring with his heart and puts forth the amount of effort and by God’s grace, maybe that person will experience opposite-sex attraction at some time, but who’s to say?’ Sabella said.

“But that view itself is harmful, DeBernardo said.

“ ‘By taking that negative view, they almost guarantee that people are going to come to want to change their orientation,’ he said.”

Bondings 2.0 commented previously on the Courage ministry back in January of this year when the Archdiocese of Hartford instituted a group.  The comment we made back then still applies:

“The main problem I see with the Courage ministry is that it primarily views lesbian/gay people in terms of sexual activity.  This approach does not consider lesbian/gay people as whole people, but narrowly defines them in terms of sex.

“Lesbian/Gay people are so much more than their sexuality, and ministry with them should address the totality of their lives.  For example, lesbian/gay people  have often suffered alienation, marginalization, and oppression, and these factors need to be addressed, too.  They are also people who have come to a remarkable and wondrous discovery about themselves that is very different from the majority of the population–a difference which should be celebrated.  Lesbian/Gay people may have experienced harsh messages from church authorities which may have affected their relationship with God which may need healing.  Most importantly, lesbian/Gay people have spiritual gifts which they long to bring to the church community, so ministry with them could focus on opportunities for them to share these gifts.

“In short, a ministry which primarily focuses on the possibility of sexual activity is a very stunted ministry.    It is a model of ministry which ignores a great deal about the human person and how they can be integrated into a community.”

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,135 other followers