Pope Francis Calls For Church to Find New Ways to Proclaim Christ to Families Headed by Same-Gender Couples

January 6, 2014

Pope Francis

In a talk from the autumn of 2013 which was made public this past weekend in the Italian magazine La Civilita Cattolica, Pope Francis described families headed by same-gender couples as one of the new educational challenges facing the Church.

Gulf-Times.com reports:

“ ‘On an educational level, gay unions raise challenges for us today which for us are sometimes difficult to understand,’ Francis said in a speech to the Catholic Union of Superiors General in November, extracts of which were published on Italian media websites yesterday [Saturday, January 4, 2014].

“ ‘The number of children in schools whose parents have separated is very high,’ he said, adding that family make-ups were also changing.

“ ‘I remember a case in which a sad little girl confessed to her teacher: “my mother’s girlfriend doesn’t love me’,” he was quoted as saying.

“The Pontiff said educational leaders should ask themselves ‘how can we proclaim Christ to a generation that is changing?’

“ ‘We must be careful not to administer a vaccine against faith to them,’ the 77-year-old Pontiff added.”

It’s difficult to know what to make of the pope’s attitude toward gay couples based on this small amount of information.  On one hand, it is unsettling that he used a negative example of a child’s experience of same-sex guardians.  On the other hand, his comment about not giving them “a vaccine against faith”  seems to indicate that he realizes that a humanitarian approach is needed.

One definite positive insight is the pope’s awareness that the church needs to examine ‘how we proclaim Christ to a generation that is changing.”    That insight is way overdue in the Catholic world.  Social attitudes and practices regarding gender, sexuality, marriage, and family have been changing for decades now, and yet church leaders, for too long, have chosen to either ignore these changes or to staunchly oppose them to the point of alienating whole swaths of the population.

Yes, Pope Francis is right:  a generation is changing.  But, not all those changes are bad.  Indeed, some are very good.  Catholic leaders do need to be aware of these changes and to adjust the way they present the gospel.  What worked in 1954 will not work in 2014.   The gospel message of unconditional love is the same; the audience, however, is vastly different.  People need to hear the gospel message in a way that speaks to their lives and their new realities.

If the pope is serious about developing a new way to proclaim Christ to a new generation, the best thing that he can do is to listen humbly to the voices of the people who experience these new realities:  women,  separated and divorced people,  single parents, same-gender couples, parents of LGBT people, and single LGBT people.  His move last year to encourage bishops to seek input from the laity on marriage and family issues in anticipation of the 2014 Synod on those topics is a good first start, but more has to be done, too.

New ways of proclaiming the gospel to our contemporary world are long overdue.  Pope Francis’ call for change is a good beginning.  He needs to make sure that this new call is truly new and that he does not inherit the old, negative attitudes toward gender, sexuality, marriage, and family, which have done so much harm for so long.

Bishop Francis Mugavero

Pope Francis’ call has a precedent from over 35 years ago, when Brooklyn’s Bishop Francis Mugavero wrote his pastoral letter, Sexuality:  God’s Gift.    In that document, which was the first ecclesiastical document in which a bishop spoke directly to lesbian and gay people, he told them;

“we pledge our willingness …to try to find new ways to communicate the truth of Christ because we believe it will make you free.”

It is from that direct statement that, in 1977, Sister Jeannine Gramick and Father Robert Nugent borrowed the term “new ways” to identify their newly established educational ministry for the church and lesbian/gay community:  New Ways Ministry.

Pope Francis would do well to mirror Bishop Mugavero’s spirit of openness and innovation, which, unfortunately, was not promoted by the Vatican over the past 30-plus years.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry


Remembering Bishop Sullivan’s LGBT Ministry

June 11, 2013
Bishop Joseph Sullivan

Bishop Joseph Sullivan

There have been a number of good obituaries for the recent passing of retired Brooklyn Diocese Auxiliary Bishop Joseph M. Sullivan.  The New York  Times’ account is probably the most complete.  All of the tributes I read understandably focused on Bishop Sullivan’s lifetime of work defending the poor and powerless as a Catholic Charities administrator on both local and national levels.  None, however, mentioned the fact that Bishop Sullivan, in his “retirement,” became a powerful and effective advocate for LGBT people in both church and society.

Bishop Sullivan began his ministry as all good ministry begins: he listened.  In the early 2000’s he regularly met with a group of LGBT Catholics and family members in Brooklyn, listening to their stories of marginalization and faith.  Moved by this experience, he began to help a number of parishes in Brooklyn and Queens, New York, to develop LGBT outreach ministries.  He supported those ministries powerfully, often speaking with pastors to let them know that they had his support if people objected to these programs.  He would often visit parishes to speak with parishioners who were not necessarily convinced that LGBT outreach was a good thing to do.

At the U.S. Bishops’ Conference meeting in November 2006, Bishop Sullivan spoke on the floor against the draft of the bishops’ document, “Ministry to Persons with a Homosexual Inclination: Guidelines for Pastoral Care.”  He called, instead, for a more compassionate pastoral approach than the document reflected.  Unfortunately, he was in the minority, and his suggestion did not prevail.

In 2007,  Bishop Sullivan was one of two bishops (the other was Archbishop Francis Hurley of Anchorage, Alaska) to speak at New Ways Ministry’s Sixth National Symposium on Homosexuality and Catholicism in Minneapolis, Minnesota.   He did so, even though the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith had asked him not to be part of the program.  He traveled to the symposium by air,  even though the entire Northeast was crippled by a terrible snow storm.  Throughout the weekend, he was available to chat, and mostly listen, to many LGBT people, family members and pastoral ministers.

In 2011, in the midst of New York State’s debate on enacting marriage equality legislation, Bishop Sullivan published an op-ed in support of LGBT equality in The Buffalo News.  It was a compassionate essay, encouraging acceptance and understanding.  Though it is impossible to say that this essay had any influence on the debate, it is curious that only about a week after it appeared, a Republican state senator from Buffalo, who is Catholic, announced that he was switching his position and supporting marriage equality.  His was a critical deciding vote in the close contest.

In that op-ed, Bishop Sullivan stated:

“. . . Catholics are among those who increasingly are reaching out pastorally to the LGBT community. A recent study released by the Public Religion Research Institute found that a majority of Catholics believe that job discrimination against gay and lesbian people should be outlawed. By almost 2 to 1, Catholics believe that gay and lesbian couples should be allowed to adopt children.

“The views of Catholics about the LGBT community have been evolving for years. Catholic teachings compel us to work toward the elimination of unjust structures and to treat people with dignity, regardless of their state in life or their beliefs. My own understanding of this community has also evolved over the course of four decades of ministry.

“Given that Catholics represent approximately one-quarter of the U. S. population, the changing attitudes of Catholics toward greater degrees of LGBT equality most likely will be a significant influence in the public square. Across the country there are increasing numbers of parishes that welcome LGBT parishioners and their families to active participation in the church. Catholic colleges and universities are in dialogue with their LGBT students, and Catholic retreat houses provide retreats specifically for LGBT Catholics.

“Catholics and other religious people who support LGBT rights do so because of their experience of engagement with members of the LGBT community. They are not rebels in their churches, but people who have taken spiritual messages of inclusiveness and welcoming to heart. They are taking the church’s teaching on social justice and applying it to pastoral practice in engaging the LGBT community.”

Bishop Sullivan’s support for LGBT issues had an earlier incarnation, too.  In 1985 he was in charge of Catholic Charities in the Brooklyn Diocese, which comprises about half of New York City.  At that time, in the New York Archdiocese (the other half of the city), Archbishop John O’Connor was threatening to withdraw $60 million in contracts that his diocese had with New York City to run child care facilities.   The reason for this threat was that Mayor Ed Koch had just issued Executive Order 50, which forbade agencies that had contracts with the city to discriminate in hiring practices on the basis of sexual orientation.  Cardinal O’Connor did not want to go along with this anti-discrimination law.

In the midst of the furor, which made headlines daily in New York, Bishop Sullivan, issued a statement that said that Catholic Charities in the Brooklyn Diocese had no problem with following Executive Order 50 because it promoted the good of non-discrimination.  Though in a much less powerful position than Cardinal O’Connor, he did not back down from opposing him in public on this issue of justice.

dotCommonweal blogger Paul Moses had this to say about Bishop Sullivan:

“In a better church, Brooklyn’s retired auxiliary bishop Joseph Sullivan would have headed a large diocese. He certainly had the ability and the track record, but it was not to be – no doubt because he was viewed as too liberal.

“Nonetheless, he made enormous contributions to the church and to his city, and they will be remembered.”

I think that “in a better church,” we would have more bishops like Bishop Sullivan, who was not afraid to take a minority position in the defense of justice.

Catholics who support LGBT equality and justice now have a new saint to whom we can pray.  May he rest in peace.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry


ALL ARE WELCOME: Going Beyond the Boundaries

April 11, 2012

The ALL ARE WELCOME series is an occasional feature  which examines how Catholic faith communities can become more inclusive of LGBT people and issues.  This is the fifth installment.  At the end of this posting, you can find the links to previous posts in this series.

Do you participate in your local parish or have you needed to find another Catholic faith community outside the boundaries of your neighborhood, town, or geographic area?  If you are a Catholic for whom LGBT justice and equality are important, you may fall into the second category.

A recent New York Times article, “A Parish Without Borders,” focuses on St. Boniface parish, in downtown Brooklyn, NY, which attracts parishioners outside of its surrounding neighborhood.  Not surprisingly, the parish’s welcoming approach to LGBT people and families is part of its wide appeal.  Indeed, the reporter also notes that a similar welcome of LGBT people has attracted many to another “intentional parish” in New York City:

“St. Boniface is an example of an intentional parish, a phrase some members of the clergy use to describe a destination church that attracts people from beyond its geographic boundaries. Many gay and lesbian Catholics travel to the Church of St. Francis Xavier in Chelsea [Manhattan].”

(Incidentally, both of these parishes are included on New Ways Ministry’s “Gay-Friendly Parish” list, which catalogs over 200 parishes around the country with an explicit welcome of LGBT people.  Many, though not all, of these faith communities could be described as “intentional parishes.”)

Indeed, the article uses homosexuality as the touchstone for defining the accepting pastoral approach that St. Boniface has adopted:

“ ‘Meeting them where they are’ is a mantra among St. Boniface’s five priests and a lay brother, who make it a point to invite new faces to monthly home-cooked lunches in the rectory.

“But the inclusive philosophy has a stickier side. While the priests hold true to and convey all the church’s teachings, whether from the Vatican, the United States Conference of Bishops or the Diocese of Brooklyn, they accept that not everyone in the pews does.

“When a lesbian couple approached one of the priests, the Rev. Mark Lane, about baptizing their child, they were afraid he would turn them away, he said. But they were welcomed. For Father Lane, 55, the parish’s openness simply reflected Christ’s teachings to love everyone. Even if that could be taken as an implicit critique of the church’s position on homosexuality, the parish did not make the family occasion into a cause.

“ ‘The danger is, you turn that into a platform and forget about the persons involved, and I think that’s wrong,’ Father Lane said. The two mothers stood at the font with their child along with everyone else. ‘The symbol is visually powerful, but that’s enough.’ ”

“The priests prefer to address controversial issues like same-sex marriage and the death penalty outside of Mass, and while anti-abortion marches are listed in the church bulletin, they are not announced after services.”

The question that comes immediately to mind is:  “Since these parishes are so successful, why aren’t other communities following their example?”  If these intentional parishes are able to attract people who must travel some distance to get there every Sunday (and to participate in non-liturgical activities during the week), they must be doing something right.  It seems obvious that a big part of the attraction they offer is the extravagant sense of welcome described above.  “Meeting people where they are” is key to that welcome, and something that all parishes could adopt with no additional cost, other than an intentional effort on the part of parish staff.

The notion of an intentional parish is not without controversy, however.  While the article states that none other than New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan recently gave an endorsement to the idea of Catholics seeking out parishes where they feel welcome, stating:

“I don’t mind telling you to be rather mercantile. If the particular parish that you’re in does not seem to be listening, there are an abundance of those that are.”

Yet the Brooklyn diocese’s Monsignor Kieran E. Harrington holds a different opinion:

“The church is about growing where you’re planted. . . .It’s like a family. . . .You don’t choose your family.”

What do you think?  Which is more important:  worshiping locally or worshiping in an inclusive setting?    Whatever you may have decided, what have you had to “trade-off”?  What benefits do you receive?  How did you find the community in which you feel welcome?  Do you have any advice for others?

Please submit your answers to these questions in the “Comments” section of this post.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

Previous posts in the ALL ARE WELCOME series:

Say the Words , December 14, 2011

All in the Family , January 2, 2012

At Notre Dame, Does Buying In Equal Selling Out? , January 25, 2012

A Priest With An Extravagant Sense of Welcome,  February 13, 2012


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