Why Do Conversations About Gay Priests Always Focus on Celibacy?

February 5, 2016

As we mentioned in Tuesday’s Bondings 2.0 post, Chicago’s Fr. Michael Shanahan came out as a gay man in an article published in The Washington Post.  The article detailed both many challenging experiences that gay priests face, and it also spoke about their deep spirituality and love of ministry.  Yet, in the past two days, other news outlets have picked up on the Post’s story, but the only thing that they have focused on is the fact that Fr. Shanahan came out  in the article.

s-first-united-lutheran-church-largeI’m happy that the idea that there are gay men in the Catholic priesthood is getting some publicity, and I applaud Fr. Shanahan’s decision 100%.  I am a little surprised that the media have jumped on this story in this particular way.

For example the CBS station in Chicago featured Fr. Shanahan’s announcement both on television and online.  But even though Fr. Shanahan’s quotations in his story spoke about his interior struggles and his dedication to ministry, the CBS segment focused on celibacy.  More than half the article is devoted to the topic.  If a priest in a news article said that he was heterosexual, would the topic of celibacy be raised by others?  I think not.  I think a bias still exists in society that gay=sexually active, so that acknowledgment of a gay orientation implies that a person may be more inclined to be involved with sexual activity.

The news media, however, are not the only ones to blame for this focus on celibacy.  The church hierarchy promotes this kind of thinking.  The CBS story reported that the Archdiocese of Chicago issued a very succinct statement:

“In response to inquiries from CBS 2, a spokesperson for the Chicago Archdiocese on Monday said Shanahan would not comment and released a one-sentence statement from Archbishop Blase Cupich:

‘We support all our priests as they live out the promises they made on the day of their ordination.’ “

In one sense, it is good to hear that the Archdiocese of Chicago supports both their gay and heterosexual priests.  In another sense, though, it is sad that in responding to a question about a gay priest that they felt the need to bring up the promise of celibacy.

The article prolonged the celibacy theme by quoting two other experts in the area of priesthood:

“Can openly gay men be priests? Amid allegations last year the Archdiocese of Newark had effectively disciplined an openly gay clergy member, a spokesperson for church leaders there said being gay does not preclude a man from being a priest, provided he upholds his vow of celibacy.

“Thomas O’Brien, director of DePaul University’s Center for Religion, Culture and Community, agrees that is the general policy church leaders are following.

“ ‘All priests are required to be celibate, regardless of sexual orientation,’ he said in an email to CBS 2. ‘That policy does not vary from diocese to diocese, although different dioceses do approach violations of celibacy in distinct ways depending on the leadership style of the bishop and his administration.’ “

Again, in regard to this quotation, I am glad that the Archdiocese of Newark says it does not discriminate against gay candidates for the priesthood.  But, again, I am amazed that their primary concern about gay men in the priesthood is whether or not they will keep their vow of celibacy.  Aren’t they also concerned with how he might be treated or accepted by others in the Church?  Don’t they want to know how his spiritual life is developing and what spiritual gifts his experience of sexual orientation provided him?  Aren’t they interested in knowing what kind of minister he might be?

The CBS article did carry a lay person’s perspective on the issue.  Mildred Soriano, a parishioner at Shanahan’s parish, said she wasn’t concerned about the priest’s sexual orientation:

“It doesn’t really matter, as long as he believes in God. It doesn’t matter to me at all. We’re all God’s children.”

Now, that’s a wise perspective!

I think this obsession with celibacy shows that our Church still hasn’t fully appreciated the gifts that gay men bring to the priesthood.  Men like Fr. Shanahan have a unique perspective on the world and on spirituality, and so they bring a richness to the Church and its ministry.  Gay men have been serving admirably and courageously in the priesthood for centuries, and, by all estimates, still make up a significant segment of the contemporary priesthood.  They are as varied and diverse as the heterosexual priests are, as varied and diverse as all in the Church.

I think that the fascination with a priest’s orientation is due in part that we have imagined that all celibate people give up their sexuality.  They may forego the opportunity to express that sexuality physically with an intimate loved one, but that doesn’t mean that they still aren’t sexual beings.  The cloud of secrecy and silence that hangs around priesthood and celibacy also becomes a lure for some to want to inquire deeper into these men’s sexual lives than they would about other people.  Secrecy and silence only cause harm–to both individuals and the Church as an institution.

I am so happy for the witness of Fr. Shanahan.  His many contributions to the church, including this last one of coming out, help to build God’s reign of justice and equality.

New Ways Ministry is sponsoring a weekend workshop abourt gay priests, deacons, and religious brothers. Entitled,Fan into Flame the Gift of God: Embracing the Gifts of Gay Priests, Deacons, and Brothers,” it seeks to help the church embrace more the gifts of its vibrant gay ministers.

The retreat, scheduled for April 28-May 1, 2016, near Philadelphia, is open to gay priests, deacons, and brothers, but also to all diocesan clergy personnel, as well as leaders and formation personnel of men’s religious communities.  The program is designed to foster communication and understanding between gay clergy and religious, and the leaders responsible for their development. To view a brochure, click here.

If you are a member of the target audience and are interested in attending the retreat or know someone who might be interested, please contact New Ways Ministry at info@NewWaysMinistry.org or call (301) 277-5674.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

Related article:

Chicago.Go.Pride.com: “Chicago priest: ‘I’m gay and I’m a priest, period’ “




“The Lost Flock” Film Profiles LGBT Ministry in Baltimore

February 4, 2016

The good work done by the LEAD Ministry of St. Matthew’s Church in Baltimore has been profiled before on this blog, but a new video series gives even greater insight into the ways this ministry serves the people of God. Filmmaker Eric Kruszewski produced “The Lost Flock,” the seven-part series on LEAD, which stands for LGBT Education and Affirming Diversity.  He told Out Magazine:

“I was raised Catholic, but have not practiced my faith in years. And before this project, I had never heard of Saint Matthew Catholic Church. . . It was clear that there was something special within this congregation.”

Though not an LGBT Catholic himself, Kruszewski hoped the documentary could “accurately capture their thoughts, feelings and experiences” and advance the discussion about acceptance of sexual and gender diversity in the church.

The series covers diverse perspectives when it comes to LGBT identities in the church. One part documents the baptism of a same-gender couple’s daughter, with one of the dads saying that St. Matthew’s is a place which honors their relationship and which supported them during the adoption process.

In another, a lesbian woman named Gigi describes first being disowned by her adoptive parents but then coming to see God through her partner, Ashley, and through the church community which quickly welcomed her.

In a third part, Henry, who comes from Kenya where homosexuality is criminalized, explains why he participates with the LEAD Ministry. He says the LGBT communities need support like anyone else, and further:

” ‘I always ask myself: What would I do if one of my daughters or one of my sons came out? Do LGBT people need to be accepted? To be heard? Yes. We have got to find a way to give them everything they need.’ . . .Gay or straight. We are together.”

But “The Lost Flock” is not simply positive stories. It also explores the harsher realities of LGBT Catholics’ experiences. In a segment about Rachel and Vania Christian dos Passo, the film highlights that their marriage cannot be recognized in the church and for this reason, Vania explains:

“We made a serious decision to leave the church. We want to have a family where our children don’t feel pointed out because we are gay. . .W still go to LEAD because its family for us. But unfortunately we have to live this exile until one day, maybe in another lifetime, gay people will be equally recognized in the church.”

Then there is Carolyn’s story, the Catholic mother of two gay children, Renee and David. Though there were no difficulties with Renee’s coming out, her husband was unable to accept David’s sexual orientation and kicked their son out of their home. Carolyn now says she wants the same opportunities for my gay and straight children in the Catholic Church.” She says further that it was this idea that “was the foundation for LEAD” and expresses her own growth since joining LEAD as a Catholic led by her conscience.

Those profiled have helped foster the safe and affirming space that is LEAD.  Supporting the ministry is Fr. Joe Muth, the pastor, who, in his own video segment explains why, as a Catholic priest, he supports this LGBT work, saying:

“I don’t think the institutional church realizes how hurtful they are to homosexual people when they come across so harshly on that issue. The institutional church says, in a sense, you can be a part only so far.”

Muth acknowledges that LEAD struggles with being an LGBT support and outreach group, while at the same time worrying about being closed down by higher church officials. Despite that threat, these Catholics have managed to build up a more and more affirming community. They host parish events and have even participated in Baltimore’s Pride celebrations the last few years. As Bondings 2.0 has written previously, LEAD is a model for the Catholic Church when it comes to LGBT pastoral care.

To learn more and view all seven videos that compose “The Lost Flock,” click here. To read Bondings 2.0‘s previous coverage of the LEAD Ministry, click here.

To learn more about some of the hundreds of parishes across the U.S. which offer a welcome to LGBT people, click here.

The ALL ARE WELCOME series is an occasional feature on this blog that highlights Catholic parishes and faith communities that support and affirm LGBT people. 

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

Alberta Bishop Refuses to Apologize for Anti-Trans Letter

February 3, 2016
>Bishop Fred Henry says the church has a lot to apologize for, but remains a tremendous source of good.

Bishop Fred Henry

The Canadian bishop who referred to LGBTQ education guidelines as “totalitarian” and “anti-Catholic” is refusing to apologize for his comments or to dialogue about the issue, according to a second letter he released.

Bishop Fred Henry of Calgary issued his latest post, “Totalitarianism in Alberta II,” last week, reported the Edmonton Sun. In it, the bishop wrote:

” ‘If you are reading this piece in the hopes of discovering an apology and/or a retraction, you might as well stop reading right now. That’s simply not going to happen.”

Henry claimed he had received “considerable support” for both the substance and style of his initial letter, and quoted comments from Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si  about gender and used Scripture to defend the idea that he should warn people of wrongdoing.

Alberta’s Education Minister David Eggen responded to the letter by reiterating that collaboration and a willingness to put students’ well-being first would facilitate progress when he meets with church leaders in a few weeks. Other responses to Bishop Henry’s repeated attack of the LGBTQ guidelines were less reserved.

Educator and LGBT advocate Brian Hodder again noted how detrimental the Alberta bishops’ resistance to LGBTQ student supports is to actual students.  Writing in The Telegram, he stated:

“As we have found in this province, gay-straight alliances play a critical role in fostering support and understanding for all students. More importantly — as my own experiences in life have taught me — the value of a supportive and equal education system is vital in preventing many of the social difficulties faced by LGBTQ youth as well as others facing any kind of difficulty. Denying them this support is just the wrong thing to do.”

Hodder concluded that it was Bishop Henry, not Alberta’s Education Ministry, “who wishes to forcefully impose” an ideology, and he said that Henry could do so as long as Catholic education was not publicly funded.

Jeremy Klazsus echoed this point in Metro, stating the bishop “makes a better case than anyone that Catholic schools should no longer get full public funding.” The columnist explained further:

“Henry is unelected, and accountable primarily to his church, not the public. Yet he holds significant sway over the publicly funded Calgary Catholic School District as its moral and spiritual leader. . .Given his church’s privileged position, Henry could have responded to the new guidelines in any number of measured ways.”

The bishop’s responses could have included an acknowledgement that Catholics hold diverse views on sexuality or that more consultation with Catholics would be advisable. Instead, Klaszus wrote, Henry “went guns blazing.”

But in The Globe and Mail, University of Alberta law professor Eric Adams cautioned  against setting up the Alberta debate as a battle over religious freedom and human rights, or using the debate to undermine Catholic education. While there are many nuances in Canadian constitutional law and human rights law involved in the controversy, Adams’ broader point about consensus building is worth noting:

“The answer, as is so often the case, is not a battle of constitutional rights, but a co-existence of them. Policies that protect the rights of transgender students to human dignity fall, like other concerns focused on the well-being of students, within the province’s jurisdiction over education. A constitution of pluralism and mutual respect means Catholic schools teaching Catholic values and respecting the choices of transgender students to difference.

“Which rights win? They all do. We do, too.”

As regular readings of Bondings 2.0 will know, the question of LGBTQ policies in Alberta’s Catholic schools, specifically controversies around the Edmonton Catholic School Board, have made headlines almost weekly for awhile now. Each time, conservative church leaders and their allied board members have escalated the stakes with hyperbolic language. Church leaders fight harder and harder against guidelines that would help keep LGBTQ students safe and encourage them to thrive.

For the sake of LGBTQ students, Catholic education, and the wider church in Alberta, this approach to the issue must change. Bishop Henry should apologize for the damage he has caused, and, along with his episcopal peers, find a third way forward with Alberta’s Education Ministry so that Catholic education can thrive even more by its enthusiastic protection and embrace of LGBTQ students.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

Conversation on Gay Catholic Priests Expanded by New Article

February 2, 2016

Fr. Fred Daley

Michelle Boorstein’s latest piece in The Washington Post expands the emerging conversation on gay men in the priesthood.

Stating the Catholic Church is undergoing an “historic period of debate about homosexuality,” Boorstein wrote:

“At a time when the phrase ‘coming out’ is starting to sound almost quaint, the Catholic priesthood may be one of the last remaining closets — and it’s a crowded one. People who study gay clergy believe gay men make up a significant percentage of the 40,000 ordained priests in the United States, including some who believe they may even be the majority. Meanwhile, the number who are out is minuscule.”

This reality means gay priests are, as Boorstein stated, “invisible” in the wider conversation about homosexuality. The Post report emerged from interviews with “a dozen priests and former seminarians who are gay, and experts on gay priests,” who shared their varying thoughts:

“Many [of those interviewed] express no urgency for the church to accept it. Some, however, say the priesthood remains sexually repressive; one said there is an ‘invisible wall’ around the topic among priests.

“They speak forcefully about the tough work they had to do to accept their sexuality and how important a part it is of who they are. But their acceptance of the closet often harks back to an earlier time.”

Those interviewed include Chicago priest, Fr. Michael Shanahan, who was praying about whether or not to come out after 23 years in the priesthood, and did so in the interview with Boorstein. He weighed potential negative consequences, like diminished respect from parishioners or penalties from the archdiocese, against the positive outcomes:
“[T]he impact his coming out could have on the lives of young gay people in treatment for addiction or who are suicidal, on the parents and grandparents who feel they must choose between their gay child and their church. For some, knowing their priest is gay — and at peace with it — could be healing, he felt.
” ‘There’s a level of witnessing here that’s important for me to do. The Christian faith has a lot to say about the underdog, about the marginalized or the leper, the blind, the lame, the ostracized woman prostitute, widow, the little one,” [Shanahan] said.
” ‘I’d like to be one of those priests, who, with great respect for the church’s teaching, can say: I’m a human being. I’m a son — one of six — I’m gay and I’m a priest, period.’ “

Boorstein interviewed Fr. Fred Daley who said his brother priests, “gay as well as straight,” remain “silent” rather than supportive about his coming out. Daley, whose story you can read here, said he does not receive support as a gay priest because he “broke the rules of the clerical club” by coming out.

Fr. Warren Hall, who came out as gay after being fired from Seton Hall University for supporting the NOH8 Campaign, said priests may choose to not come out because they believe it will negatively impact their ministries. In fact, Hall would recommend to current seminarians that they remain closeted.

Regarding the priesthood’s future, of those interviewed only Monsignor Stephan Rossetti believes there are fewer gay priests today. One gay priest in Pennsylvania said of younger priests and seminarians that, “They may be more conservative, but no less gay.”

The need to openly discuss and better support gay priests is and will remain very real for the Catholic Church. To help that discussion, New Ways Ministry is sponsoring a retreat this spring for gay priests and male religious that will be led by Fr. Fred Daley.

Entitled,Fan into Flame the Gift of God: Embracing the Gifts of Gay Priests and Brothers,” it seeks to help the church embrace more the gifts of its vibrant gay ministers.

The retreat, scheduled for April 28-May 1, 2016, near Philadelphia, is open to gay priests and brothers, but also to all diocesan clergy personnel, as well as leaders and formation personnel of men’s religious communities.  The program is designed to foster communication and understanding between gay clergy and religious and the leaders responsible for their development. For more information, click here.

If you are a member of the target audience and are interested in attending the retreat or know someone who might be interested, please contact New Ways Ministry at info@NewWaysMinistry.org or call (301) 277-5674.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry


Examining the Two Faces of Pope Francis on LGBT Issues

February 1, 2016

Today’s blog post is by guest blogger Vernon Smith (see bio below).

Francis-scowling 3pope-laugh 2There he goes again! Pope Francis’ recent statements about marriage equality are unclear and disappointing. The man who at times provides glimpses of hope and a breath of fresh air can also be the man who confounds and lets people down.  Sometimes, I just throw up my hands and walk way.  But after the tantrum has subsided, I still cannot just write off the guy completely.  One word captures my attitude towards Pope Francis: ambivalence.

In reflecting upon this ambivalence Francis can inspire, I see the currents of polarization that are so prevalent these days in the media and in society. The need to view and cast things in black and white, as incontrovertible and opposing, is stronger than ever. This polarized world view provides clarity and a certainty:  good versus evil, saint and sinner, human against beast, hero versus villain, Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader.

Yet this polarization also points to a world filled with fear.

The need to find certainty amidst confusion is both a personal and social means of coping with new and potentially threatening ideas. The global rise of religious fundamentalism among all major faiths is an example of this need for certainty. Like all coping mechanisms, black-and-white thinking might be helpful in moderation, especially during times of stress.  But as coping moves toward obsession without addressing complex root causes that defy black-and-white portrayals, it becomes dangerous. The classic example is the rise of fascism in 20th century Europe, when Jews, gays, and other “undesirables” were viewed as fundamental causes of the social and economic problems of the times and in need of eradication.

As far as evaluating Pope Francis, I see someone who, for all his faults, bucks this disturbing trend to polarize and marginalize one another. He is certainly not perfect, especially on LGBT issues. But maybe my need to see him as “perfect” is part of the problem. After all, perfection is also a polar concept. But really . . . do you know any perfect people?

Like many, I wish our church would move us a little towards the “positive” end of the spectrum on LGBT issues in the Church–never mind “perfection.”  The snail’s pace at which we move is frustrating and tries the patience.  I certainly understand, and do not challenge, my fellow progressives who may have given up on this Pope, or the Church, or other aspects of religion and spirituality.  Matters of injustice and prejudice necessitate impatience.  Each person is called to respond to these challenges in a manner that is true to oneself and promotes his or her own spiritual health.

When I assess Pope Francis, I do so in the context of my most basic life experiences and how those close to me are impacted. I think of my mother who recently passed away.  She was raised in the pre-Vatican II era in which salvation rested in doing what the Church said you should do.  This mindset was her experience and foundation in life, and as much as my generation moved away from that approach, I learned to respect the fact that – bottom line – she only genuinely wanted to be one with God.

Mom had two gay sons.  As she was not a progressive Catholic in the slightest, homosexuality went against everything she was ever taught and understood, and there was no changing her mind.  However, she never disowned my brother and me, or denied us her love. That was a great gift. However, I knew that for years she quietly struggled over the dissonance between her rigid Catholic background and her love for her children. What can be more terrifying to a parent than the thought – as ingrained by your Church – that any of your children may not enter Heaven?

In her final years, when faced with another potentially distressing family issue that did not square with Church teachings, she surprised us.  She quickly responded by referencing Pope Francis’ famous line about gay people. She said, “Who is he to judge? Well, that is how I look at these things these days.” We were moved by her peace-filled response, which is not how she would have responded earlier.

A simple, pastoral statement by Francis allowed Mom to sleep a little better, and approach the latter part of her life with more peace, after a long and faithful journey.  For all of my frustration with Francis, that personal impact is important to me. It was painful to see my mother troubled for so long.  For Mom to realize that she could be released from those worries seemed to have a calming effect on her during the last few years of her life.

And so, I remain grateful to Pope Francis, and I have not quite been able to give up on the hope that he represents.  I sometimes challenge myself about “settling” for really low expectations of him.  He is no liberal stalwart that will revolutionize Church teachings the way I would like. He will continue to say things about “mercy” in relation to LGBT folks that can seem demeaning.  But he does something that is probably more important these days.  He emphasizes love and respect for the person, the whole person, above and beyond mere teachings.  The way he embodies that message transcends everything else he does. And the occasionally bumbling manner in which he does so only underscores the humanity with which he carries himself while approaching and respecting others. I find that amazingly refreshing.

We really need this kind of high profile, vulnerable voice in an increasingly certain, polarized world.  We need a fallible leader to cut through the fear that drives so many into opposing camps. His simple, pastoral emphasis upon love and respect for every person – and his imperfect means of engaging folks – allows for the discussion of genuine differences.  In the polarized environment that existed under his predecessors, no discussion of perspectives was even possible. Francis seems to have put aside the fearful tough talk and harsh rhetoric that prevents the exploration of genuine, complex differences among people.  It seems to be the first time in a long, long time that there is room for discussion. It is not exactly what I want, the way I want it, but at least it is moving in a positive direction.

Without discussion, there is not much hope for change in a polarized world. To me, Pope Francis defies polar opposites. He is difficult to cast as an outright hero or villain. I hope that is a good thing for the Church in moving forward, especially on LGBT issues. . Keep your emphasis upon the people, Pope Francis . . . keep it on the people!

–Vernon R. Smith

vernVernon Smith is a professional archivist and a longtime volunteer for New Ways Ministry. He lives with Thom, his partner of 21 years, in suburban Maryland.

Lay Catholics in Italy Split on Civil Unions Question

January 31, 2016

Outside the Pantheon in Rome, equality supporters, including Catholics, call for civil unions to be legalized.

YesterdayBondings 2.0 explored how Pope Francis and the Italian hierarchy have engaged that nation’s present debate about civil unions for same-sex couples. One theologian’s analysis was that, for Pope Francis, this was an issue best left to the laity. Today’s post explores just how the laity have been involved and what their involvements could mean.

Italian Catholics on both sides of the civil unions question have participated in major demonstrations. Nearly a million LGBT supporters rallied on January 23 in public squares across Italy, bringing clocks with them to call on legislators to “wake up” about the necessity of recognizing same-gender partners in law. Rome’s Gay Center spokesperson Fabrizio Marrazzo said the 100+ demonstrations signal Italy’s “crisis point. . .about civil rights,” reported the National Catholic Reporter.

Among those experiencing this crisis is Andrea Rubera, a married gay Catholic in Rome, whose story, told in The New York Times ,reveals the urgent necessity of legal protections. Rubera married his partner, Dario De Gregorio, in Canada, and they became parents to three children. The Times article explained:

“But when they returned to their native Italy, a transformation occurred. Mr. Rubera suddenly became a single man, and his legally recognized husband in Canada became his single male roommate in Italy. Italian law also divided custody of their children.”

Of this, Rubera commented:

” ‘There are major injustices coming from this, all toward the kids. . .We are dreaming to be recognized as we are — as a family.’ “

Despite this reality, support for civil unions is declining, if the polls are accurate. Latest numbers have support below 50% whereas it peaked at 67% or higher last May, a decline tied to a clause supporting stepchild adoption for same-gender couples, according to some pundits. Attempting to assuage critics, the civil unions bill was watered down, reported Crux, when sponsors added “language clearly distinguishing the relationships from marriage” and other amendments.

Yesterday, groups and individuals against civil unions took part in “Family Day” protests, which received support from some church leaders, including Italian Episcopal Conference President, Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco. According to Crux’s John Allen, lay support for conservative church leaders is one reason that the Catholic Church “still has significant social capital and packs a political punch” in Italy. He wrote:

“That doesn’t mean the Italian Church wins all the time; famously, it lost referenda in 1974 over divorce and in 1981 over abortion, and prevailed in 2005 over stem cell research only by persuading Italians not to vote in order to invalidate the ballot.

“Yet Mass-going Catholics remain a sizable chunk of the national population and are well represented in both major political parties, and their sentiments have to be at least considered.”

Yet, simply citing that Catholics are politically involved is not sufficient evidence that LGBT rights will fail. It may actually be evidence for the contrary, as Out Magazine noted:

“At one time, the power of the conservative Roman Catholic Church seemed an almost insurmountable obstacle to the progress of LGBT rights. In 2003, Belgium became the first Catholic-majority country to adopt marriage equality, soon to be followed by Canada, Spain, Portugal, Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, France, and, most recently—and in a popular referendum—Ireland, revealing a trend that shatters such a pessimistic illusion. In fact, countries with a Catholic majority make up nearly half of those with marriage equality, and Catholics are overwhelmingly inclined to support same-sex marriages, or at least civil unions. So long as the false narrative of mainstream Catholicism’s lack of acceptance prevailed, LGBT progress for Italy looked bleak. Now, the country of 60 million looks poised to legalize same-sex civil unions. “

Ireland’s referendum and the marriage victories in many historically Catholic countries and states, aided in most cases by lay Catholics’ fervent efforts for equality, are true. But this is Italy, where the church’s political hold remains stronger due to the Vatican’s influence. With lay Catholics active both for and against civil unions, with Pope Francis advancing a more nuanced response, and with Italy’s bishops not united in strong opposition, it seems unclear just what influence Italian Catholics will have on Tuesday’s expected vote.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

Are Civil Unions Coming to Italy? Pope Francis & Bishops Hope Not

January 30, 2016

Pope Francis

Italy’s Parliament began debating civil unions for same-gender couples this week. Whatever the outcome of a vote expected next Tuesday, Catholics have and will continue to play an essential role in the debate. In a two-part story (today and tomorrow), Bondings 2.0 will highlight Catholics’ varying responses to the potential for same-sex unions being recognized next door to the Vatican.

First, and inevitably, there is speculation about how Pope Francis will engage civil unions in Italy. In a speech to the Roman Rota last week, the pope rejected any legal recognition of same-gender relationships, using his strongest language to date. How to interpret his remarks remains disputed and some have suggested, according to The Washington Post, that his comments had nothing at all to do with Italy’s current debate. Theologian Massimo Faggioli, writing in Commonweal, commented that the pope’s address was notably different from his predecessors who would explicitly comment on Italian politics and reference “non-negotiable values.”

In The Washington Post story, Anthony Faiola compared Francis’ approach to Benedict XVI’s response to a civil unions proposal in 2007:

“As Italy now undertakes its most serious effort yet to legalize civil unions, the more nuanced response of the Vatican in its own back yard is turning the bill into a test case for whether Francis’s inclusive tone can translate to change on the ground.

” ‘My impression is that the pope is determined not to be confrontational and fight this law,’ said Massimo Franco, a Vatican watcher and columnist for Italy’s Corriere della Sera.”

Faggioli also sees a distinct difference, noting that Pope Francis was “not directly endorsing the upcoming Family Day [protests],” not appealing to Italian politicians or Catholics directly on the matter, and emphasizing repeatedly that the matter is “in the hands of the Catholic laity.”

Faggioli also identified a split in Italy’s Church between “Pope Francis Catholics” and “those who favor a more muscular response.” In Faggioli’s analysis, Francis’ foremost aim here is “protecting the authority of the pope from any attempt to manipulate it” by Italy’s bishops. He wrote:

“Italian bishops are divided, and the once-powerful lay movements are divided between progressives afraid to go on the record in favor of legislation on same-sex unions or same-sex marriage, and those who continue to use the rhetoric of the culture war and plan to descend on Rome for the rally. The paradox is that the only Catholics who are responding to Francis’s call for the engagement of the laity in public issues are those who use the bellicose language that Francis makes a point of eschewing. Catholics who welcome Francis’s style and ecclesiology are now less organized and less motivated to stake out visible positions in the church and in politics.”

Less nuanced, but still changing, is the response from Italy’s bishops who “have largely sided with the opposition” and helped rally anti-LGBT support. The Post noted, however, that the Italian Episcopal Conference “is not directly sponsoring” a planned protest against civil unions this weekend.

Bishop Nunzio Galantino, the Conference’s general secretary, told Corriere della Sera that society must acknowledge somehow the “growing presence of unions of a different kind” becaue “the state has a duty to give answers to everyone, respecting the common good first.” The newspaper also noted another important fact:

“The Italian news media took note when Francis abruptly canceled a meeting with Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco of Genoa, the president of the Italian bishops conference, after he publicly backed the Family Day protest.”

What impact is all this having on the civil unions debate? Gabrielle Piazzoni of ARCIGAY, an Italian LGBT equality organization, said Pope Francis has had “a meaningful influence” because:

” ‘It’s clear to everyone that the Holy See does not intend to openly support the call to arms coming from other Catholics in Italy.”

If civil unions are approved, Italy will be the last nation in Western Europe (minus Vatican City) to extend legal rights to same-gender couples. The nation faces increasing European pressure to recognize same-gender couples. Last year, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Italy violated LGB human rights by not doing so. Some LGBT advocates say civil unions are a compromise, but admit marriage equality remains unrealistic in a country where ecclesial politics are intimately tied to civil politics.

Though the Parliament’s house will likely pass the bill, it is unknown whether there will be enough support in the Senate, particularly if a clause allowing adoption of children biologically tied to one partner is included.

Tomorrow’s post will look more closely at Italian Catholics have been involved in the civil unions debate.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry


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