Catholic School Teacher in Italy Loses Job Because of Lesbian Rumors

July 23, 2014

The disturbing trend of firing Catholic school teachers because of LGBT issues has moved overseas, and the reason for firing has become even weaker than usual, compared to the cases here in the United States.

Students at the Institute of the Sacred Heart, Trent, Italy.

In Italy, a state-funded school, L’Istituto Sacro Cuore (The Sacred Heart Institute) in the northern city of Trent, did not renew its contract with a teacher because there were rumors that she was a lesbian, which she refused to either confirm or deny.

PinkNews.com reported that the teacher, who is known only by the pseudonym “Silvia” offered a reaction to the school’s decision:

“ ‘What happened to me is medieval.

“ ‘Maybe I’m a lesbian, maybe I’m not. But asking me about my sexual orientation as a condition for renewing my contract is unacceptable.’

“She also said that Sister Eugenia Libratore, headmistress and Mother Superior, ‘told me she was willing to turn a blind eye if I was willing to “solve the problem.” Homosexuality is a problem?’

” ‘Silvia’ said she had worked at the school for five years and lives with her partner in Trento.”

According to Gazzetta del Sudthe teacher has not provided information if her partner is male or female:

“Silvia told La Repubblica (an Italian newspaper) adding that she is aged between 30 and 40, has been teaching an ‘important and mandatory subject’ at Sacro Cuore for five years, and lives in Trento with someone she loves.”

Gay Star News reported Sister Libratore’s side of the story:

“Eugenia Libratore, the headmistress of Sacro Cuore, reportedly said she decided not to renew the ‘adequate and professional’ teacher’s contract because she ‘has the school’s environment to protect’ and ‘moral ethics’ to preserve. . . .

“Libratore told Corriere (an Italian newspaper) she had heard about the teacher’s sexuality through rumors in the staff room.

” ‘I told her I had heard these rumours and hoped they were false rumors, because I have the school environment to protect,’ she said.

” ‘When choosing teachers for a Catholic school, I also do assessments from the point of view of moral ethics…

” ‘The Catholic school has its own characteristics and set of educational guidelines that must be defended at all costs.’ “

Italy’s Education Minister Stefania Giannini

Because employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation has been illegal in Italy since 2003,  and because the school accepts government funding, Italy’s Education Minister, Stefania Giannini, has become involved in the case, after 20 Italian senators requested intervention.  In La Repubblicathe Minister stated:

“Whenever we are faced with a case related to sexual discrimination, we will act with due severity.”

As regular readers of Bondings 2.0  will recognize, most of the firings that have happened in the United States over the last few years have been due to a gay or lesbian teacher becoming legally married.  Only one action from the list of all reported ones since 2008 was due to perceived sexual orientation, that being Tim Nelson in 2013.

This Italian case highlights an attitude on the part of the school’s headmistress that may be important to understanding what motivates administrator’s to react so harshly in such cases. The Italian administrator said:

“The Catholic school has its own characteristics and set of educational guidelines that must be defended at all costs.”

Granted this rendering comes from a translation, not the original Italian in which it was spoken, but it seems curious that the headmistress sees herself as a “defender” of the faith, which seems to be under siege.  Such a sad attitude, and perhaps it is one which other church leaders share.

LGBT people are not out to destroy Catholicism or religion.  On the contrary, their experience of overcoming hatred, oppression, and fear contains many important elements which bring much life and spirit to faith.

If Church leaders would be able to stop seeing homosexuality as “a problem,” as the headmistress in this story described it, I know that it would be simply a small step for them to start recognizing the spiritual richness that LGBT offer the church community.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

Related article

TheLocal.it: “Lesbian teacher fired ‘to protect Catholic school’”


Mexican Bishop Calls Homophobic People “Sick”

July 17, 2014

Bishop Raul Vera

In an interview with El País newspaper, the outspoken bishop used some of his most powerful arguments yet to show how Catholic leaders need to refine some of their language in regard to LGBT people and marriage equality.  Here’s an excerpt from the interview:

“Q. Not long ago you baptized the daughter of a lesbian couple. What do you think about homosexuality?

“A. That is a topic that we have refused to address. The people who say homosexuals are sick are sick themselves. The Church needs to come to them not with condemnation, but with dialogue. We cannot cancel out a person’s richness just because of his or her sexual preference. That is sick, that is heartless, that is lacking common sense.

“Q. Is it not the same with abortion?

“A. I share the Church’s views on abortion, and see it as murder. The difference lies in how you penalize it. Abortion, just like same-sex marriage, has served us subterfuge to tell ourselves that we in the Church have our morals. It is very easy to go against a woman who has an abortion, it poses no trouble and we have support from the ultraconservative right. When there was a national campaign against abortion here, I organized rosary recitations to reflect on the defense of the lives of migrants, miners and women as well as the unborn. But we are hypocrites. It would seem that the only moral rules deal with condemning same-sex couples and abortions. You do that and you’re the perfect Christian.

The full interview, in English, can be read by clicking here.

This is not the first time that Bishop Vera has made strong statements about homophobic people.  Almost a year ago, he made headlines by calling homophobia “a mental illness in which you see gays as depraved and promiscuous. You have to be sick in the head for that.”

At the time of that earlier statement, I made the following comment on this blog, which I think is appropriate to repeat at this time:

“It is wonderful to know that this bishop is speaking out so strongly for lesbian and gay rights.  One caution:  I don’t think that he was using ‘mental illness’ as a technical or clinical term.  From the manner in which he is speaking on the video, he seems to be using it as a rhetorical flourish, more than a diagnosis.  It is interesting to see him turn the tables on homophobic people:  it is usually they who are calling lesbian and gay people ‘mentally ill.’

“And because lesbian and gay people have so often been so mislabeled with that diagnosis, I think we have to be very careful of labeling their opponents in the same way.  In my experience in working with LGBT issues, homophobia is more often a result of ignorance and misguided piety than by a clinical disturbance.”

While noting that distinction, it’s important to recognize that Bishop Vera operates out of deep courage fpr speaking out for all sorts of marginalized groups.  The El País article referred to him as

“the Mexican bishop who holds the record for death threats. He has survived more than one attempt on his life, and his work in favor of missing persons, immigrants, children and juveniles, indigenous populations, prostitutes and pariahs of all types has earned him the undying hatred of many, including the drug rings.”

In the interview, he explains how his work with exploited indigenous communities in southern Mexico taught him about the importance of courage:

“I learned that you have to risk your life if you want to stand on the side of the poor. I learned that in order to defend human life, you have to put your own life on the line. There is no other way to be a shepherd.”

In The Advocate’s report on this story, they noted:

“In 2011, when John Paul II was pope, the Vatican investigated Vera’s work with a gay group. But much has changed under Pope Francis’s leadership.”

The El País article made note of the change of atmosphere in the Church since that time:

“For a long time, Raúl Vera was the Catholic Church’s black sheep, the old-fashioned left-winger. But that was until the ideological earthquake represented by the new pope, Francis I, gave renewed relevance to his words. Now, other bishops are suddenly turning to Vera for guidance.”

Let’s hope and pray that his guidance sways many more bishops to his line of thinking.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

 


Transgender Woman Prepares to Enter Carmelite Convent

July 14, 2014

One of the places where Catholicism and gender are most strongly inscribed together is the area of vowed religious life.  There are communities for only men and other communities for only women.  What if your gender doesn’t fit into this binary?

Tia Michelle Pesando

That question is being answered in London, Ontario, where a transgender woman is preparing to enter a community of Carmelite women.  When Canada’s Tia Michelle Pesando, who is already living as a consecrated virgin, is accepted into the community, it is being said that she will be the world’s first transgender nun.

CTV News reported that Pesando, who is a hermaphrodite* (born with physical characteristics of both male and female) has already begun a process of taking hormones to live as a woman.  But the process of becoming a nun is more a spiritual, than a physical, notion for her.  As CTV News stated:

“Two years ago Pesando heard God calling her and she knew she had to take her transformation farther.

“ ‘I’m very convinced of the reality of God and the importance of such a calling,’ she says.

“When Pesando decided to become a nun, she received her priest’s blessing and is now going through the process to become a Carolinian sister and the first ever Roman Catholic transgender nun.

“ ‘I’m in the training process which is starting this August, so it’s a positive start that I’ve undergone.’ “

While there is always the possibility of hierarchical intervention in the admissions process,  Pesando remains positive:

“ ‘Forgiveness needs to begin somewhere,” she says. “It needs to begin with us, all of us, those in the LGBT community and those of the Christian faith.’

“Pope Francis has made huge strides with the gay community, preaching for greater inclusion and acceptance of homosexuals. This in part has helped to fuel her decision. She says the time is right for a transgender nun.”

Pesando recently published a book, Why God Doesn’t Hate Youin which she develops the theme of God’s unconditional acceptance and love of everyone, regardless of gender identity and sexual orientation.  In a wide-ranging interview with London Community News  where she describes her spiritual development and challenges,  she also explained the need for the book’s message:

“ ‘From a theological perspective, I think I have a solid argument,’ Pesando said. ‘People are leaving the church because they feel the God of love has betrayed them, and betrayal is one of the worst feelings you can imagine. So I am reaching out to people saying this is what the Bible actually says.’

“Her purpose in writing Why God Doesn’t Hate You is to reach out to everyone ‘who feels like they are rejected by God, who feels like they are a second-class citizen in God’s eyes.’ ”

And she notes an interesting detail about the Bible:

“ ‘There is actually nothing in the Bible to condemn the trans community because they were simply not aware of it,’ Pesando said. ‘Just like there is nothing in the Bible that talks about aerospace engineering, both of these things were discovered about 1,500 years after the it was written.’ ”

(EDITOR’S NOTE:  The same is true about constitutional homosexuality.  Biblical authors did not have the awareness that some people are naturally homosexually oriented.  Therefore, in the places where homosexual acts are Biblically condemned, the authors are not condemning what is now known to be a natural, normal way of loving.  More often, they are condemning homosexual rape, pagan rituals, or sexual novelty.)

My only minor gripe with this story is not about Pesando’s eligibility to become a nun, but the claim that some have made that she will be “the world’s first transgender nun.”  I would probably want to modify that to “the world’s first OPENLY transgender nun.”   Though I have no historical evidence, I imagine that over the centuries, other transgender women have joined convents, though probably being secretive about their identities.   We do know that transgender characteristics have often been very accepted in Catholic spirituality and practice (St. Joan of Arc).  And it was always common practice for nuns to take male religious names, and for religious men to often add “Mary” or “Marie” to their religious names.

If you know of other examples of Catholic transgender history or cultural details, please add them in the “Comments” section of this post.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

*There has been some discussion in the “Comments” section of this blog as to whether “intersex” or “hermaphrodite” is the correct word to use.  There has also been some discussion as to whether Tia Michelle Pesando is actually transgender.  I recognize that language is a sensitive and powerful arena, and I am open to correction.  Upon reflection, I have decided to keep the original terms I used.

To answer the first issue, I have used “hermaphrodite” because that is the term that Tia Michelle Pesando uses to describe herself on her website: http://www.whygoddoesnthateyou.com/.   It is also the term used in the original article upon which this post is based, so I have assumed that it was the term she used while being interviewed.

To answer the second issue,  because Tia Michelle Pesando lived the first thirty years as a man and has now decided to live as a woman, including taking hormones, I think it is accurate to describe the process she went through as “transitioning,” and thus “transgender” seems to be an accurate description.  Again, I assume, based on the fact that news articles about her use the term “transgender” that this is a label of which she approves.

 

 

 

 


New Employment Contract Clauses Raise a Host of Issues

July 13, 2014

Bishop Michael Barber

Oakland, California’s Bishop Michael Barber issued a statement recently to try to clarify the new clauses added to his diocese’s employment contracts which greatly restrict support for LGBT people and issues.  The problem with his explanation, though, is that he seems to be speaking out of both sides of his mouth.

The National Catholic Reporter’s Monica Clark noted the sentences in his statement which I find most confusing:

“Responding to apprehensions about a new so-called ‘morality clause’ in the Oakland, Calif., diocese’s teacher contract, Bishop Michael Barber has said he has ‘no intention of monitoring an individual’s personal life. What one does in one’s private life is between them and God.’ But, he added, ‘what concerns me is if someone does something in their private life that becomes public and then becomes a cause of scandal or detracts from the school’s religious mission.’ “

To me the bishop seems to be saying, “I don’t care if you do something that I consider a sin, but I just don’t want it to be public.”   That does not seem like a very pastoral approach to this question at all.

If we take it one step further, another way of interpreting the bishop’s message is that he has a total disregard for an individual’s conscience.  Perhaps he is saying, “You and God may have worked things out, but that won’t fly with me.”

And though the bishop says he does not want to monitor people’s lives, some teachers are suspicious of that promise.  Clark reported:

“Some teachers felt the addition allows the diocese to intrude into their private lives and creates a climate of fear and distrust. For example, if a teacher attended the same-sex wedding of her lesbian niece and a family photo of the event was posted on Facebook, would she be seen as violating the new terms of the contract?”

Indeed, in a number of the firings which have taken place, it was a revelation on Facebook about a marital relationship or support for marriage equality which initiated the unjust action.

Commentator Jocelyn Sideco, who teaches at Bishop O’Dowd High School in Oakland,  has also noted another passage from the new Oakland contract which makes it seem that, in fact, private lives of teachers will be monitored:

“The new contract language puts an explicitness on who teachers are, both in their personal and professional lives. ‘In both the EMPLOYEE’S personal and professional life, the EMPLOYEE is expected to model and promote behavior in conformity with the teaching of the Roman Catholic faith in matters of faith and morals, and to do nothing that tends to bring discredit to the SCHOOL or to the Diocese of Oakland’ (emphasis in original).”

Another O’Dowd H.S. teacher, Kathleen Purcell, is worried about how strictly enforced the contract will be, under this bishop and future ones. KALW Radio cited her thoughts:

“ ‘The bishop says I’m not gonna fire anybody, and I take him at his word,’ Purcell said. ‘But he’s not going to be Bishop forever, and he might change his mind. I don’t think employees should have to be operating under a contract that purports to take away their civil rights and just go on trust.’

“Purcell was let go after refusing to sign the new contract. She says she was not afraid of being targeteit is a matter of principle: before teaching U.S. history at O’Dowd, Purcell was a civil rights lawyer.

“Purcell says she understands Catholic doctrine but she says ‘being a catholic school is not a license to discriminate.’

“ ‘These are contentious issues in the church, about which faithful Catholics have very different conscientious positions. And what this contract language does is to place employees personal lives in the middle of that fight. And that’s cruel.’ ”

On the bright side, KALW Radio reports that the bishop has entered into dialogue with Catholics about the issue, and there is a possibility of a change of heart:

“The Bishop . . . met with teachers and students at two schools, including O’Dowd, at the end of the school year. Many say they were encouraged by the open dialogue. The Bishop says he is considering removing the controversial language from next years contract. For now though, it remains unchanged.”

Oakland is not the only diocese to institute new contract clauses. (For a complete list of firings and contract clause additions, check out this blog’s “Catholicism, Employment, and LGBT Issues” page.) One of the most public protests of new clauses has been in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati.  Catholic parishioner Judy Hampel penned an op-ed at Cincinnati.com in which she says that it’s now time for Catholic to challenge their leaders on questions of discrimination against LGBT people:

“I’m trying to describe a not-uncommon experience that leaves many Catholics straddling a thorny pew: Should we stay, and hope and wait for a new vision for our faith community, or should we leave in protest before we find ourselves counted among those who would perpetuate such a dark legacy for the sake of tradition? Until recently, many of us never even considered a third possibility: challenging these egregious teachings openly by voicing our concerns. There is a very real danger that, whether we leave or stay, we are perpetuating a dark regime as long as we are silent. . . .

“It’s time to make up for lost time. It’s time for all Catholics and anyone else who will join us to collectively call to task all leaders and followers of any religion, sect or denomination that indulges in discriminatory doctrines and practices. Because, let’s face it, one of the most compelling forces inhibiting universal justice is intolerance toward others, which is often perpetuated by religious archaisms.”

It may very well be that time that Hampel describes.  According to a 2013 U.S. Catholic poll of 743 Catholics,  nearly 70% (or over 500 people) would not sign a loyalty oath if it was required for volunteer ministry in their parish.

With numbers like that, church leaders need to re-think not only the morality, but also the practicality, or instituting new contract clauses.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry


A Few Steps Forward, and then Some Back, on Marriage Equality

July 12, 2014

Bishop Marcel Sanchez Sorondo

There’s been good news and bad news recently regarding Catholic leaders’ opinions on legal protections for same-gender couples.  The surprising thing is that the good news comes from the Vatican.

Queering The Church tipped us off to a Buzzfeed article that looks at the progress of Italy’s proposed civil unions bill, long stalemated in part

because of the Vatican’s previous opposition.  That’s right, “previous.”  The Buzzfeed article indicates that change seems to be happening:

“But there are also signs of a thaw within Vatican City. Monsignor Marcel Sánchez Sorondo, chancellor of the Pontifical Academies of Science and Social Science, Vatican offices that engage with research on society, told Buzzfeed in an interview last week at an event inside the Vatican walls in which Italian politicians were participating that the church is solidly against any law that makes ‘complete [equivalence] of the normal [matrimony] and the gay,’ but if legislation clearly distinguishes between them, ‘that is another question, and this is accepted by the church.’ ”

[Editor's note:  Though Buzzfeed  refers to Sorondo as "Monsignor," he is actually an Argentine bishop.  In Argentina, as in many Latin American nations, a bishop is referred to as "Monseñor."]

Terence Weldon, at Queering The Church points out the significance of this monsignor’s statement:

“What makes Monsignor Sorondo’s observation particularly interesting right now, is his position with PASS [the Pontifical Academy of Science and Social Science]. Although Vatican documents pay lip service to the importance of paying due attention to the findings of both social and natural science, in practice, the published guidance on homosexuality and on queer families have largely ignored the scientific evidence, especially on the matter of gay adoption. That could be about to change. In the working document prepared for the bishops’ forthcoming synod on marriage and family, there is an acknowledgement that there is a need for better understanding of the science, and that some questions should be referred to the academy.

” ’117. Many responses and observations call for theological study in dialogue with the human sciences to develop a multi-faceted look at the phenomenon of homosexuality. Others recommend collaborating with specific entities, e.g., the Pontifical Academy of the Social Sciences and the Pontifical Academy for Life…..’ “

In Indiana, however, Catholic bishops issued a strong rebuke to a court decision there which overturned the state’s constitutional ban against same-gender marriage.  WTHR.com reported that the bishops said:

” ‘The Church upholds the dignity of every human person, including persons with same-sex attraction, whom we accept and love as our brothers and sisters. At the same time, the Church upholds the dignity and sanctity of marriage as a natural union established by God between one man and one woman, intended towards the establishment of a family in which children are born, raised, and nurtured.’

“The bishops explain that because God is its author, ‘it is not within the power of any institution, religious or secular to redefine marriage.’ “

Similarly, this week in Colorado, the Catholic bishops there roundly criticized a court decision to overturn the state’s constitutional ban on same-gender marriage.  Their statement, which repeats many of the same arguments of the Indiana bishops, can be read by clicking here.

In nearby, Missouri, Archbishop Robert Carlson of St. Louis also criticized the decision by that city’s mayor to issue marriage licenses to four same-gender couples.  The Riverfront Times carried a column criticizing the archbishop for such a statement, particularly after his recent disappointing testimony on clerical sex abuse where he answered that  he “did not remember” when he learned that pedophilia was a crime.

So, we take a few steps forward, and one step back.  Little by little. That’s how all real and lasting change happens.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

Related article:

The Elkhart Truth: “Catholic Bishops of Indiana respond to Indiana same-sex marriage ruling”

LGBTQNation.com:  “St. Louis Archdiocese condemns city for issuing same-sex marriage licenses”

 

 


Fired Gay Teacher Files Legal Complaint in a Case Where Ironies Abound

July 11, 2014

The running controversy over LGBT people being fired from jobs in Catholic schools and parishes has mostly quieted down in the last month.  That silence, though, is probably due more to the fact that schools are on break and parishes are in “lite” mode for the summer than because of any moratorium on firings.

Flint Dollar

The topic surfaced again this week with news that one fired teacher is filing an equal opportunity claim against the Catholic school that fired him.

Flint Dollar, who was fired from his job as a music teacher at Mount de Sales Academy, Macon, Georgia, when it was learned that he intended to marry a man.

Dollar has had a difficult time seeking legal recourse in this situation.  This week, his lawyer announced that they found grounds to make a legal case against the school.  National Public Radio reports:

Since neither federal law nor state law in Georgia expressly forbids employers from discriminating against gays, it initially seemed like there was nothing Dollar could do. But Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which turned 50 this week, does prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex. Dollar’s lawyer, Charles Cox, sees an opening there.

“When you fire somebody because they are engaging in a same-sex marriage, I think that pretty clearly fits with gender discrimination,” Cox says. “You’re being fired because you’re not complying with traditional gender stereotypes, and that’s wrong, and we believe it’s unlawful.”

Though this strategy has been tried before in courts and failed, there is hope in this case because of a legal precedent set in April of this year:

“. . . [A] judge in Washington made a ruling in a lawsuit brought by federal employee Peter TerVeer. TerVeer claims his supervisor at the Library of Congress made his work life miserable because TerVeer is gay.

“LGBT rights attorney Greg Nevins, who is helping with TerVeer’s case, explains how TerVeer sued under Title VII:

” ‘His romantic or intimate interest in men is something that the women workers at the office were not penalized for, but he was,’ Nevins says. ‘He made that claim in federal district court, and the court allowed it to proceed, despite a motion to dismiss by the Department of Justice.’ “

“Now the TerVeer case is giving hope to people like Dollar. He’s filed a complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, or EEOC, alleging sex discrimination.”

The Georgia Voice also notes another precedent that Dollar’s lawyer raised:

“Cox also cites Glenn v. Brumby, the Eleventh Circuit court case from 2011 which found that the Georgia General Assembly fired activist Vandy Beth Glenn due to her being transgender, which was a violation of the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution that protects against gender discrimination.

“ ‘The same thing applies to same-sex marriage because that’s not conforming to traditional gender stereotypes,’ Cox says.”

The Dollar case has sparked a variety of commentary examining some of the moral questions involved in the action of firing.  Back in June, David Oedel, a law professor, wrote about some of the ironies of the case:

“In its employee handbook and website, the school articulates policies of nondiscrimination as to ‘sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression,’ ‘marital status’ and ‘any other characteristic or status that is protected by federal, state, or local law.’

“Federal law protects the right to travel to other states and avail oneself of the benefits of other states’ laws, so the school apparently accepts Dollar’s right to go to Minnesota, join in a same-sex marriage, and have that marriage honored by federal law. Georgia doesn’t legally have to respect such a marriage, and neither did Mount de Sales — until the school adopted its nondiscrimination policy and made promises to Dollar.

“There’s little ambiguity about Roman Catholic teachings on promise-keeping. The church endorses keeping promises, such as those between church-married partners and, presumably, promises Mount de Sales apparently made to Dollar to hire and retain Dollar despite his sexual orientation, committed relationship and marriage plans.”

The school’s action is surprising to Oedel, given the progressive history of the institution:

“It wouldn’t have been a stretch for Dollar to take the school at its word because the school is known in Macon as a path-breaking institution. Mount de Sales was the first school here publicly to educate those of various faiths, first to integrate and first to embrace such a wide-open nondiscrimination policy. From some national press, though, you’d think the school is a regressive horror-chamber.”

And the contradiction goes even deeper:

“One wonders what St. Francis de Sales, for whom the school is named, would think. Francis famously advocated charity over penance. Where is Christ’s charity in firing Dollar now?”

For comprehensive coverage of all the firings, click on “Employment Issues” in the “Categories” box in the right-hand column of this page.  You can find a complete list of fired employees on this blog’s “Catholicism, Employment, & LGBT Issues” page. 

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry
Related articles:

The Telegraph: “Fired Mount de Sales band director files EEOC claim”

The Telegraph: “Bigotry, prejudice and grace”

 

 


What Makes a Catholic Advocate for LGBT Equality Tick?

July 10, 2014
Francis DeBernardo

Francis DeBernardo

As one of the co-founders of New Ways Ministry, I’ve had the pleasure of working for more than 20 years with Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry and editor of this blog. Many New Ways Ministry supporters and Bondings 2.0 readers have had the opportunity to meet him as he travels around the country doing workshops and talks on Catholic LGBT topics.

But, even if you know Frank personally, you will probably see a new side to him, as I have,  in the recent in-depth personal interview conducted by The National Catholic Reporter’s Sister Camille D’Arienzo, RSM.  The interview is this week’s installment of the popular series “Conversations with Camille” which focuses on the lived faith experiences of unique Catholics.

Of course, if you want to get the full experience, you should probably read the entire interview, which you can access by clicking here.  In this blog post, I’ll provide some excerpts that may give you some insights into what motivates and sustains him in his work for LGBT equality and justice in the Catholic Church and civil society.

In the interview, Frank speaks candidly and lovingly of his early development within his family:

“I grew up in a large Italian family in Brooklyn. I was one of eight siblings. We lived in a house with members of my mother’s extended family, and Sundays and holidays were always filled with cousins, aunts, uncles and close friends getting together. Family was always a very important part of my life. . . .

“My mother died when I was 3 years old, leaving my father with six children, two of whom were newborn twins and the other four ranging in age from 3 to 10. My father remarried the following year, and our “new” family began a lifelong journey of bonding together. My new mother had two more children in the coming years, bringing my large family to 10 members. I learned early the responsibility, benefits and power of belonging to a strong family unit. . . .

“This unique family experience taught me powerfully at a very early age that love, not biological reproduction, is what makes a family. That lesson has served me well as my work at New Ways Ministry continues to place me in the midst of marriage equality debates.”

Frank relates the strange and humorous set of circumstances that brought him to New Ways Ministry:

“New Ways Ministry was only 2 miles from my house. When I wanted to start working on LGBT justice, they were the closest place for me to be involved. I started as a volunteer, and then I joined the staff part time. I had been teaching writing part time, too, but I was getting burned out from that work, and the work at New Ways Ministry was very exciting to me. It just felt natural.

“I always tell people as a joke that I started work at New Ways Ministry for the money. At the time, I had just received my first credit card, and in a few short months, I racked up what I thought was a horrible debt. I realized that I would not be able to pay off the bill unless I took a second job. Just at that time, New Ways Ministry was looking for a part-time worker, and since I had been volunteering there, I was hired.

“The funniest thing about this story is that my whopping credit card debt was $800. I’ve since learned that the average credit card debt in the U.S. is about $10,000. Since that time, I have paid off my balance in full every month.”

He speaks gratefully about what he has witnessed in his ministry with LGBT people:

“The main thing that attracted me to work at New Ways Ministry and has kept me here for 20 years has been the people that I have met as I travel. I have had the incredible opportunity to hear so many amazing stories of courage, love and faith. I’ve met a number of real saints: Catholic LGBT people who faced immense amounts of oppression, often from their church and its leaders, and who still continue to testify to the truth about themselves and to live in love the way they know that God has created them. . . .

“When I first started working at New Ways Ministry, I was reading a book called Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed by Philip P. Hallie. It is the story of the Huguenot village of Le Chambon, France, which sheltered Jewish people during World War II in open defiance of the Nazi regime. The courage of these French Protestants, who took literally the commandment “Love one another,” had a profound effect on me. And as I met LGBT Catholics, their parents, and their pastoral ministers who were speaking out for their human rights and their rights as baptized people, I saw the same courageous spirit as the people of Le Chambon.”

He describes how the challenging work of Catholic LGBT ministry brings him joy:

“People tend to think that I spend my days arguing and fighting with homophobes, and as a result, I must get really down. It’s not true. Most of the people that I come in contact with are Catholics who are seeking creative ways to ensure LGBT justice and equality. I find so much joy in my work because I see so much good happening. It’s like almost every day I get to learn about real miracles taking place. How can I not be lighthearted? I get to witness so much joy.”

And, perhaps most intimately, he reveals the inner workings of his relationship with God, including his favorite Scripture verse:

“Psalm 27: 8-9. ‘Of You my heart has spoken, seek God’s face. It is your face O God, that I seek. Hide not your face from me.’ Whenever I feel lost, this reminds me of the true direction of my life. I’ve also found it helpful when I have to deal with difficult people. It reminds me that they, too, are the face of God. . . .

“Lately, my image of God is a bed. A big, soft, comfy bed with lots of pillows and quilts and blankets where I can just relax and be myself. In that bed, I can be at peace and learn to deal with and respect my morning grumpies, my terror-filled nightmares, my most hopeful dreams, my anxious questions and challenges that keep me awake at night, and, of course, my moments of joy-filled bliss.”

In the full interview, Frank illustrates many of the turning points of his life with details and stories that are poignant and telling.  I think you will find the interview enlightening, inspiring and fun.   As one of the commenters on The National Catholic Reporter’s  website said:

“Thank you, Sister Camille, for this is a wonderful interview, I am so inspired by it! Francis DeBernardo seems like a a man I would want for a friend; a delightful person.”

–Sister Jeannine Gramick, SL, New Ways Ministry

 

 


Religious Leaders, Including Catholics, Call on Obama to Oppose Religious Exemption in Upcoming Executive Order

July 9, 2014

President Barack Obama’s expected executive order barring federal contractors from employment discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity has sparked a controversy because some religious leaders have asked him to include a broad religious exemption in the order.

But, yesterday, Obama heard from a different group of religious leaders, this one asking him not to inscribe discrimination into his executive order by including a religious exemption.  Over 100 diverse clergy, academic, and lay leaders wrote to the president asking him to truly protect LGBT people by not providing language that would exempt religious institutions.

At least seven Catholics were among the letter’s signers:  Francis DeBernardo, executive director, New Ways Ministry; Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director, Dignity/USA; Jim FitzGerald, executive director, Call To Action; Sister Jeannine Gramick, executive coordinator, National Coalition of American Nuns; Mary Hunt, Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics, and Ritual; Jon O’Brien, President, Catholics for Choice; Deb Word, President, Fortunate Families.

The letter argues the case against religious exemptions from a variety of perspectives.  First, there are practical considerations:

“Requiring all federal contractors to operate according to the same set of non-discriminatory hiring practices is more than fair; it is a critical safeguard that protects all parties. If contractors were allowed to selectively follow employment or other laws according to their religious beliefs, we would quickly create an untenable morass of legal disputes. Furthermore, if selective exemptions to the executive order were permitted, the people who would suffer most would be the people who always suffer most when discrimination is allowed: the individuals and communities that are already marginalized.”

There is also the religious perspective:

“Increasing the obstacles faced by those at the margins is precisely the opposite of what public service can and should do, and is precisely the opposite of the values we stand for as people of faith.”

The letter also argued from logic:

“An executive order that allows for religious discrimination against LGBT people contradicts the order’s fundamental purpose, as well as the belief shared by more and more Americans every day, which is that LGBT people should not be treated as second-class citizens. An exception would set a terrible precedent by denying true equality for LGBT people, while simultaneously opening a Pandora’s Box inviting other forms of discrimination.”

The letter also argued from the perspective of American cultural values:

“In a nation as diverse as the United States of America, it is critical that the federal government be trusted to follow—and indeed, to role-model—equitable employment practices. We believe that our mutual commitment to the common good is best served by policies that prohibit discrimination based on factors that have no relationship whatsoever to job performance. We are better and stronger as a nation when hiring decisions are made based on professional merit   rather than personal identity.”

You can read the entire text of the letter, with a list of all signers, here.

In addition to the letter, more than 30,000 U.S. Christians have signed a grassroots petition urging President Obama to oppose those who would use their faith to justify anti-gay discrimination. The petition, organized by Faithful America, reads, in part:

“There’s nothing Christian about firing someone just because they’re gay or lesbian. Taxpayer dollars shouldn’t fund discrimination.”

The letter from faith leaders and the Faithful America petition were in part a response by last week’s Hobby Lobby decision, which many feared would become a slippery slope to expand religious exemptions.

As a person of faith, what are your thoughts about religious exemptions?  Offer your ideas in the “Comments” section of this post.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

Related articles:

National Catholic Reporter: “Obama’s faith-based advisers divided over religious exemption for anti-gay discrimination”

ThinkProgress.com: 100 Faith Leaders To Obama: Religious Liberty Shouldn’t Be Used To Discriminate Against LGBT People

New York Times: “Faith Groups Seek Exclusion From Bias Rule”


On Independence Day, Remembering the Global Struggle for LGBT “Life, Liberty, and Pursuit of Happiness”

July 4, 2014

In the United States, today is Independence Day, when we commemorate the establishment of our democratic nation which allows people to enjoy “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” to quote the Declaration of Independence.

Amid the celebration, we might take a moment to remember LGBT people around the globe who do not enjoy these blessings due to restrictive and oppressive laws.  As we do so, it is good to note that the United States government is trying to promote LGBT human rights around the globe.

While Catholic bishops in Uganda have supported that nation’s new law which promotes harsh punishments for homosexuality, a Catholic lay person here in the United States has recently spoken out strongly against this measure, and others like it which are springing up around the globe.

Vice President Joseph Biden

United States Vice-President Joseph Biden, a practicing Catholic, did not mince words recently when he addressed a “Forum on Global LGBT Human Rights” which he hosted at his residence.   Huffington Post reported:

“Seeking to mobilize a global front against anti-gay violence and discrimination, Vice President Joe Biden declared Tuesday that protecting gay rights is a defining mark of a civilized nation and must trump national cultures and social traditions.

“Biden told a gathering of U.S. and international gay rights advocates that President Barack Obama has directed that U.S. diplomacy and foreign assistance promote the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender men and women around the world

” ‘I don’t care what your culture is,’ Biden told about 100 guests at the Naval Observatory’s vice presidential mansion. ‘Inhumanity is inhumanity is inhumanity. Prejudice is prejudice is prejudice.’ “

Vice President Biden is largely credited with moving the Obama administration to much more progressive policies in regard to marriage equality and LGBT rights.

Marianne Duddy-Burke at the forum.

In attendance at the forum was Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of Dignity/USA, a national organization of LGBT Catholics.

Buzzfeed reported that days before the Vice President’s statements, President Obama instituted new directives towards Uganda because of the anti-gay law:

“The White House announced . . . that it would cancel a U.S.-funded aviation exercise with Uganda and impose a visa ban on officials involved in human rights abuses and corruption as part of a package of steps in response to enactment of the Anti-Homosexuality Act in February.

“ ‘As President Obama has stated, the Government of Uganda’s enactment of the Anti-Homosexuality Act (AHA) runs counter to universal human rights and complicates our bilateral relationship,’ said the NSC Spokesperson Caitlin Hayden in a statement.

“In addition to the travel ban and the cancellation of the aviation exercise, the White House also announced that it is ‘redirecting funds for certain additional programs involving the Ugandan Police Force, Ministry of Health, and National Public Health Institute.’ ”

MSNBC.com has reported on the deteriorating quality of life that lesbian and gay Ugandans have experienced since the law as enacted:

“Some gays and lesbians have decided to flee; others are choosing to stay, trapped indoors and inside a prison of fear.

“ ‘Before, we were an underground community, but at the same time we were vibrant, we were engaged,’ photographer Aldo Soligno recalls a woman telling him while shooting in Kampala.

“ ‘Since the law passed, everything has changed,’ she said to him. ‘Now we are scared to go out from our homes.’

“The situation is far worse for lower-income gays and lesbians, Soligno told MSNBC. Wealthier people can take cabs and spend their weekends at country clubs, free from the threat of violence and police raids that often accompany public transportation trips. ‘But if they don’t have this money,’ Soligno said, ‘they can’t go outside.’ ”

Uganda, a heavily Catholic nation, has very strong anti-gay cultural values.  The Catholic heritage is, in some ways, responsible for this reality.  Kittredge Cherry, who blogs at Jesus In Love Blog, has written about how the nation’s religious heritage influenced its homophobia:

“Forty-five Ugandan male pages refused to have sex with their king after they converted to Christianity — so he executed them. Many were burned to death on June 3, 1886. These boys and young men were canonized by the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches, leaving some truths hidden by their halos.”

But Cherry refuses to buy into the traditional anti-gay spin that this story often carries.  She asks the following questions:

“Does the experience of the Ugandan martyrs illustrate a gay king being oppressed and demonized by conservative Christians? Or does it exemplify Christians heroically trying to rescue boys from sexual abuse by a pedophile king? Did Christians teach young African men shame about their own same-gender-loving desires? Or did Christians give the pages a way to refuse rape by a ruler with absolute authority? Maybe the truth lies somewhere in between? How can the story be interpreted so that LGBT Ugandans have equal access to justice… and to God? “

Cherry’s answers to these questions are too expansive to reproduce here.  I recommend reading her entire blog post on the subject for a very interesting analysis.  (A “hat tip” to highly respected Catholic gay blogger Michael Bayly for alerting me to Cherry’s post.”)

New Ways Ministry continues to encourage Catholics and others to tweet to Pope Francis to denounce anti-gay laws such as the one in Uganda.  For information on the #PopeSpeakOut campaign, click here.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

 


Synod Document is First, Not Last, Word on Marriage and Family Issues

June 27, 2014

One of baseball legend Yogi Berra’s memorable quotations is “It ain’t over till it’s over.”

I was reminded of the wisdom of that sentence yesterday when I first heard the news that the Vatican has issued the working paper (in Latin, the instrumentum laboris) for the upcoming synod on marriage and the family to take place in Rome this coming October.   There have been high hopes for this meeting, especially since the Vatican has asked lay people for their opinions on various topics, and especially since several bishops have noted that lay opinion has been strongly calling fo r changes on certain aspects of church teaching on marriage and family.

But the content of the document released yesterday does not seem to signal any hope for change.  Joshua McElwee of The National Catholic Reporter synthesized the document in this way:

“Struggles faced by faithful around the world in following Catholic teachings stem mainly from ineffective education in those teachings and the pervasive effect of a relativistic culture, states the guiding document for an upcoming Synod of Bishops on the family.

“The document, anticipated by many Catholics as a barometer for what to expect from the synod, also strongly reinforces church teachings regarding the indissolubility of marriage, the restriction of marriage to heterosexual couples, and that partners must be open to having children.

“At the same time, the document states, the church must respond with mercy to the struggles of families to adhere to sometimes controversial teachings — like those prohibiting divorce and remarriage, contraception, cohabitation, and same-sex marriage — and ‘support her children on the path of reconciliation.’ “

While it is commendable that the document is stressing Pope Francis’ constant themes of mercy and of meeting people in whatever situation they are living, the troublesome part of the document is that it views the secular world as a problem, rather than as a dialogue partner.  McElwee’s synthesis continued:

“Responses to the synod office’s global consultation — which saw bishops’ conferences around the world answer a long questionnaire on how Catholics perceive church teachings — were ‘in agreement on the underlying reasons for the difficulty in accepting Church teaching,’ the document states.

“Among those reasons: ‘the hedonistic culture; relativism; materialism; individualism; the growing secularism; the prevalence of ideas that lead to an excessive, selfish liberalization of morals; … [and] a culture which rejects making permanent choices.’ “

I’ve no doubt that some of these factors affect the way some people approach church teaching, however, I have met far too many people who disagree with church teaching on matters of marriage, sexuality, gender, and family who are motivated, instead, by a deep faith.  Their positions were arrived at after much study, reflection, discussion, and prayer.  Their disagreements grow out of their lived and examined faith, not some worldly “monsters” that this document discusses.

This is the same kind of thinking that was evident in the International Theological Commission’s document “‘Sensus Fidei’ in the Life of the Church,” which was published on the Vatican’s website.   You can read the summary of that document here, and you can read an excellent commentary by seasoned religion journalist Ken Briggs here.

If the bishops of the world ignore the reality that disagreement comes out of a deep faith, they do so at great peril to themselves and to the church.

On LGBT issues, the document is not totally problematic.  For example, Reuters’ news story on the document focused on the fact that there seems to be some agreement already that children of lesbian and gay couples should not be prohibited from baptism.   The story quotes the document:

“. . . .when people living in [same-sex] unions request a child’s baptism, almost all the responses emphasize that the child must be received with the same care, tenderness and concern which is given to other children.”

Some other sections are half-good, half-bad.  For instance, there is a recognition that the Church must engage with the scientific world on the issue of homosexuality:

“Many responses and observations call for theological study in dialogue with the human sciences to develop a multi-faceted look at the phenomenon of homosexuality.”

That’s good.  That’s a difference from the 1986 Vatican document on homosexuality which said the Church did not need science.

Yet this good statement is undercut by the statement which immediately follows it, which says that the dialogue with science should be conducted through Vatican offices:

“Others recommend collaborating with specific entities, e.g., the Pontifical Academy of the Social Sciences and the Pontifical Academy for Life, in thoroughly examining the anthropological and theological aspects of human sexuality and the sexual difference between man and woman in order to address the issue of gender ideology.”

It’s hard to think that Vatican officials will learn anything new if they conduct their inquiries with a closed or biased mindset.

There is also a recognition that Church leaders have not always been good at developing pastoral ministry with gay and lesbian people, particularly those in committed relationships:

“On the whole, the extreme reactions to these unions, whether compromising or uncompromising, do not seem to have facilitated the development of an effective pastoral programme which is consistent with the Magisterium and compassionate towards the persons concerned.”

Yet, a few paragraphs later, the document states:

“The great challenge will be to develop a ministry which can maintain the proper balance between accepting persons in a spirit of compassion and gradually guiding them to authentic human and Christian maturity. In this regard, some conferences refer to certain organizations as successful models for such a ministry.”

If by “authentic human and Christian maturity,” the bishops are saying that ministry should help gay and lesbian people develop a healthy acceptance of their sexuality and the formation of their adult consciences, I’d be all for it.  Yet, sadly, I don’t think that is what they mean.

All of this brings me back to “It ain’t over till it’s over.”  Let’s remember that this document is the first word on the synod, not the last word.  It’s true that it doesn’t get off on a positive note, but I believe that there will be some interesting debate in October and that we won’t know the final outcome until the meeting closes.  Let’s remember that this synod will most likely be very different from those held under Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI when the instrumentum laboris was often written by the Vatican Curia, and bishops in synod were simply asked to rubber-stamp it.  Pope Francis has already shown that he wants more discussion and collegiality from bishops.

More harmful than the specific remarks on lesbian and gay people, though, are the remarks that the reason that Catholics don’t agree with church teaching is because they have succumbed to a secular mindset.  We’ve heard that remark time and again from U.S. bishops, especially in the context of same-gender marriage, but it is simply not the whole truth.  It’s very convenient to have a scapegoat. It’s much more challenging to face up to the reality that faithful Catholics are calling for change.

(Bondings 2.0 will continue to report on various responses and interpretations of this document in the coming days and weeks, so check back for further posts.  For previous posts on the upcoming synod, click “Synod 2014″ in the “Categories” section in the right hand column of this page.)

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

Related articles:

Associated Press: “Vatican concedes many Catholics ignore core teaching on sex and contraception”

Catholic News Service: “Synod document cites cultural and economic threats to family”

 


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