More to the Story Than Simply an Exorcism

July 22, 2013

While reviewing news stories and opinion pieces for this blog, I tend to avoid pieces which scream of sensationalism, of which there are many since this blog deals with two journalistically volatile topics:  religion and sexuality.

Image from the movie "The Exorcist"

Image from the movie “The Exorcist”

One story came across my computer screen a few weeks ago about a priest in Italy recommending an exorcism for a young gay man.   Reading the headline, I initially wrote this off as a sensational story.  Yet someone sent me the link recently, and when I read the whole story, I realized there was more to it than just the exciting headline.

Indeed, the story is not so much about  the priest, but about a mother who is a strong advocate for her son and LGBT people.

Gay Star News  reported the incident this way:

“A faithful Catholic mom was comanded to get an exorcist and leave the church, after her priest discovered her teenage son was gay.

“His condemnation came after she begged him to read a letter to his congregation in favor of gay rights on behalf of her and her son.

“But he replied: ‘Your son is a devil. So, please, go to an exorcist. And, please, leave this church.’

“The incident earlier this month in Palermo, the capital of the Italian island of Sicily, has now been reported by LGBT Christian group Ali d’Aquila.”

But buried in the story is the fact that this mother was a fearless advocate for her son:

According to Ali d’Aquila coordinator Giovanni Capizzi:

“She asked the priest to read a pro-gay letter during the service. But this is how the priest reacted.”

More importantly, Capizzi also noted that he sees this priest’s response as uncharacteristic of the Catholic clergy that he knows:

“Ali d’Aquila is hosted by priest Padre Cosimo Scordato in the San Francesco Saverio church in the Albergheria area in Palermo.

“We have to thank all the wonderful priests who believe in us. Not all the church people are homophobic or anti-gay.

“Some priests don’t want us to pray and hold public meetings, but some of them are really friendly and pro-gay.”

So, far from being a story about  a priest’s ignorant reaction, the story turned out to be about a mother who was advocating her son, and the fact that Catholic priests in Sicily are more welcoming of LGBT people than is usually thought.  I’m glad I read the story past the headline.

–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


Anti-Gay Letter from Catholic Priest Is Inadequate Response for Boy Scouts

May 30, 2013

Fr. Derek Lappe

A Catholic pastor in Bremerton, Washington, has closed the parish’s scouting program in the wake of the Boy Scouts of America’s decision to accept gay youth.  His decision, which he announced in a searing letter to parishioners, contradicts much of the Catholic hierarchy’s response so far.

Fr. Derek Lappe released the charged letter last Sunday to explain his actions and offer a  his views on homosexuality. He accuses the Boy Scouts of conceding to political correctness, strangely refers to the organization as the “New Boy Scouts,” and lists debunked pseudo-science to explain LGBT sexuality including a “Dislike of team sports” or “Lack of hand/eye coordination.”

Relying heavily on writings of the anti-gay Catholic Medical Association, Lappe’s screed continues in an emotional and disparate manner until it ends with this:

“To me it is cruel, and abusive and absolutely contrary to the Gospel to in any way confirm a teenager in the confusion of same-sex attraction, which is what the New Boy Scout policy will do.

And so, we are going to redouble our efforts to create a community that is supportive of happy, healthy, holy marriages. In our marriage preparation we are going to try to get women to stop marrying such loser men who will never be capable of being good dads and husbands, and vice versa…

“We are going to provide youth activities for any and all youth…Our current Fraternus andFidelis programs are well equipped to help cultivate authentically masculine and feminine identities.”

Reporting on Fr. Lappe’s letter, Seattle Post-Intelligencer notes that this letter “is the most hard-line anti-gay statement to come from anywhere in Washington’s three Catholic diocese over the past year,” which included anti-marriage equality campaigning last year before that state’s referendum.

KING 5 reports that a local chapter of Scouts For Equality will help relocate every scout in the Our Lady Star of the Sea parish’s troop to continue with the Boy Scouts, if they choose to do so.

Positive reactions from Catholics is more common than Fr. Lappe’s homophobic one. Dioceses and parishes in Grand Forks, Madison, Rochester and elsewhere are either welcoming the continuation of Catholic scouting or delaying comment until they can consider it further. The National Catholic Committee on Scouting released a statement that it will study the Boy Scouts’ decision, and nothing from the USCCB has been released yet.

The pastor’s letter is retrograde, perpetuating myths about LGBT people and promoting intolerance among youth in those very moments in life where love and affirmation are needed most. Fr. Lappe must apologize in good faith for the harmful act he undertook writing this anti-gay letter, and work now to foster a welcoming community for all his parishioners.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry


Cardinal Dolan: All Are Welcome, But. . .

April 26, 2013
Cardinal Timothy Dolan

Cardinal Timothy Dolan

Cardinal Timothy Dolan made headlines at the beginning of April because he acknowledged that the church could do better in terms of outreach to lesbian and gay people.   Commentators all over the U.S. offered him suggestions as to how he could begin better outreach. A month later, though, and Dolan has not shown any evidence of following any of this advice.  Instead, he  has offered a blog post on hospitality which offers, quite frankly, a bizarre notion of welcome, and he particularly mentions lesbian and gay people in this unusual message.

On his personal blog, Dolan recounts a story from his childhood when his playmate, Freddie, was invited to dinner, but first admonished to wash his hands before eating.   While he claims that as a child he was excited that his friend was welcome, he also notes that he learned the lesson that “All are welcome, but. . . .”  And he thinks that is a good lesson to learn.  His words:

“Simple enough . . . common sense . . . you are a most welcome and respected member now of our table, our household, dad was saying, but, there are a few very natural expectations this family has.  Like, wash your hands!…

“So it is with the supernatural family we call the Church:all are welcome!

“But, welcome to what?  To a community that will love and respect you, but which has rather clear expectations defining it, revealed by God in the Bible, through His Son, Jesus, instilled in the human heart, and taught by His Church.”

I don’t know about you, but I don’t find this notion to be welcoming at all.  I find it condescending.  Dolan continues:

“We love and respect everyone . . . but that doesn’t necessarily mean we love and respect their actions.

“Who  a person is?  We love and respect him or her . . .

“What a person does?  Truth may require that we tell the person we love that such actions are not consonant with what God has revealed.

“We can never judge a person . . . but, we can judge a person’s actions.”

So, Dolan wants an escape clause:  he still wants to be able to sit in judgment about something.  Humans judge.  It’s part of our condition.  But when we are trying to offer a welcome, we do best to check our judgments, and instead observe and listen in holy dialogue.  We do best to take off our shoes on the holy ground of someone else’s life and experiences.

Dolan doesn’t see it this way.  In his view, he has the right to tell people that they are dirty, and then the presumption of calling that a welcome:

“Freddie and I were loved and welcomed at our family table, but the clear expectation was, no dirty hands!”

And then, most stingingly, Dolan offers examples of people that the church wants to welcome while at the same time standing in judgment of :  alcoholics,  greedy businessmen, exploitative capitalists, women who’ve had an abortion, and. . . . lesbian and gay people.    Does he not see how offensive that notion is to include lesbian and gay people with those who are physically challenged or who have moral choices to make?  Being gay or lesbian is not an activity or an action or a choice one makes.

Another offensive angle on this commentary is the Scripture story that Dolan uses to justify his prejudice–the woman caught in adultery (John 8: 1-11):

Jesus did it best.  Remember the woman caught in adultery?  The elders were going to stone her.  At the words of Jesus, they walked away.

“Is there no one left to condemn you?”  the Lord tenderly asked the accused woman.

“No one, Sir,” she whispered.

“Neither do I condemn you,” Jesus concluded.  “Now go, but sin no more.”

Hate the sin; love the sinner . . .

Another lesson to be learned from this story is that religious people can often let their penchant for judgment get the better of them and forget that love and welcome are more important than judgment.  And also that Jesus does not condemn her, even before he knows whether or not she will continue her patterns.

I recommend to Dolan (and to others) to read the ground-breaking book, Jesus, An Historical Approximation (Convivium Press, 2009), in which Spanish theologian Jose Pagola, proves the idea that Jesus’ model of ministry was to welcome all people–even those the religious authorities called sinners–and tell them that they are loved by an all-gracious God, regardless of whether or not they will decide to refrain from what others might consider sin.   That  is what welcome is all about.  Welcome with no “buts” or conditions.

Cardinal Dolan has a long way to go to learn about welcoming not only LGBT people, but all people, too.  We all have to continually learn this lesson for ourselves, and practice it fearlessly and generously.

New Ways Ministry repeats its offer to meet with Cardinal Dolan to help him understand effective ways of pastoral outreach to LGBT people.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

 


In Strange Move, Bishop Returns Petitions to Ousted Gay Catholic

April 26, 2013
Nicholas Coppola holding a copy of the petition.

Nicholas Coppola holding a copy of the petition.

This is the story of one of the strangest moves that I’ve ever heard of coming from a bishop.  A little over a week ago, we reported that Nicholas Coppola, a gay man who had been dismissed from his volunteer ministries at a Catholic parish on Long Island because he married his partner, delivered a petition with over 18,000 signatures to Bishop William Murphy of the Rockville Centre diocese, asking to be re-instated.

This week, we’ve learned that Bishop Murphy has returned the petition and signatures, with a cover letter which simply stated:  “From your faithful Roman Catholic bishop.”  A copy of the letter can be viewed here.

GLAAD (Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) reported this development on their blog  this week.  They quote Coppola’s reaction to this latest development:

Bishop William Murphy

Bishop William Murphy

“I really don’t understand what sort of message Bishop Murphy is trying to send. Is he no longer listening to the voices of the faithful? I have more questions than anything now.”

The strangeness of the note baffles the mind.  Is the bishop being vindictive?  Pretentious? Humorous? Sarcastic?  The move is certainly unprofessional, and clearly not pastoral.  The message it sends is an authoritarian one, not one of responding to human needs or concerns.

The Washington Post notes that the diocese confirmed that the letter did indeed come from the bishop:

“Sean Dolan, a spokesperson for Murphy, on Thursday confirmed that the bishop had sent the 300 sheets of paper with the signatures back to Coppola.

“In a statement, Dolan said the petition and the way its delivery was staged for the media ‘was designed to misinform the press and the intended recipient,’ and was ‘only designed to promote the organizations behind this spectacle.’

“ ‘All legitimate correspondence sent to the Office of the Bishop either by email or regular U.S. Mail is responded to,’ Dolan said in a statement. ‘Online petitions of this nature lack legitimacy (and) are not considered correspondence and therefore do not warrant a response.’ “

On-line petitions are a new form of media and expression, but they are now ubiquitous, and certainly a legitimate form of communication.  The diocese disregards such communications at its peril, and will continue to be out of touch with the real world.

GLAAD points out an interesting church law fact about the diocese’ response:

“According to canon law, the bishops must respond to letters that have been delivered. Later the same day that Nicholas delivered the petitions, the diocese issued a media statement reaffirming Nicholas’ ouster. It is unclear if returning the petition is the official response, per canon law.”

U.S. Catholic magazine has opined on the serious pastoral error that Murphy has made:

“Whether or not Coppola should have been removed from ministry, and whether Catholics who enter into a civil union or same-sex marriage with their partner should be allowed to participate in the life of a parish, are questions that will surely get a lot of arguments on both sides. But the fact that many Catholics were upset with the way Coppola was treated isn’t something that should just be ignored–a good bishop should at least engage with his flock and, if not to debate the decisions he’s made, should at the very least be open to explaining his reasoning in a pastoral manner. If nothing else, the bishop should see it as a teachable moment rather than something to turn away from and refuse to acknowledge.”

Coppola has a second petition campaign going in which he asks New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan to have a meal with his family.  On Easter Sunday, Dolan stated on a television talk show that the church needs to do better outreach to gay and lesbian people.  You can sign the petition here.

GLAAD’s Ross Murray, director of news and faith initiatives, stressed the importance of this second petition:

“Nicholas Coppola is a faithful Catholic who loves his church, and he is now being treated like a threat by his own bishop. Now more than ever, it is vital that Cardinal Dolan break bread with Nicholas to hear how he is being treated by the church that he loves so much.”

New Ways Ministry urges you to sign this petition.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry


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