Parish Closure of LGBT Ministry Reminds Us of the Holy Week Journey

It’s Holy Week, so as Catholics we are likely meditating frequently on two different ideas: 1) humanity’s propensity to crush God’s offer of abundant love; 2) the fact that suffering can be redemptive.

The news of this week so far is certainly reflecting the first concept.  On Monday, Bondings 2.0 carried a story about Catholic educators ignoring the needs of transgender students.  Yesterday’s main post focused on a Montana parish funeral which almost turned into a tragedy for the family because of a pastor’s intransigence on LGBT issues.  Today’s story, unfortunately, follows the same sort of line as the past two days.

St. Mary Church, Evansville, Indiana

In Evansville, Indiana, a parish ministry for LGBT Catholics was shut down by the parish leaders.  The ministry had flourished for 12 years at Sts. Mary and John Parish, and, indeed, the parish had been listed on New Ways Ministry’s LGBT-friendly parish list for many years.  The Evansville Courier & Press reported that the Bill Muller, the acting secretary of “Rainbow Catholics in Christ” (RCC) informed the members of the parish leaderships decision in an email which read:

“We are so sorry to inform you that after extensive discussion Father (Gordon) Mann and Deacon (Ed) Wilkerson determined that the Rainbow Catholics in Christ Ministry is no longer welcome to exist at Sts. Mary and John Parish. Father Mann said we are not operating in compliance with the Roman Catholic Church rules.”

The pastor suggested that the group be re-formed under the model of a Courage/Encourage ministry.  Courage (for gay and lesbian Catholics) and Encourage (for their parents) is a national ministry whose primary focus is on maintaining the celibacy of its members.  Unfortunately, as many have pointed out, Courage uses a 12-step model to help people maintain celibacy, thus viewing sexuality as a problem to be overcome.  Many bishops will not allow Courage/Encourage to operate in their dioceses.

At issue was the RCC’s program for 2016, which was described as including “LGBTQ advocacy; fairness in employment and housing; and human sexuality and spirituality.”

The pastor, Fr. Gordon Mann, refused to speak with the newspaper, saying only:

“You know, I’m not going to comment, at all.”

A spokesperson for Diocese of Evansville issued a statement which did not address the parish leadership’s decision about which form of ministry to support:

“The Church’s respect for the dignity of every person as created in the image of God has remained consistent throughout time. Outreach to people across society — including the LGBT community here in the Tri-State and across the world — continues to be founded in that respect for the sacredness of every person. All are welcome.”

The diocesan statement also referenced the Indiana bishops’ 2013 statement which described marriage as “the union of one man and one woman — a natural institution established by God.”

The Courier & Press newspaper also acquired a copy of minutes from the parish council meeting where the closure of RCC was discussed.  The newspaper article stated:

“Listed under new business in Feb. 22 pastoral meeting minutes, parish pastoral council member David Nelson addressed RCC’s departure which, according to those minutes, happened during a team meeting in mid-February.

” ‘The team presented their program calendar for 2016, and after review and discussion, it was determined that speakers/topics proposed were contrary to the mission of the supportive role of the group, and instead the group had become political in nature,’ the minutes stated. ‘Its politics could not be supported by a nonprofit entity, nor did they coincide with the teachings of the Catholic church.’

“Mann suggested RCC members research Courage/Encourage to learn more, but members disagreed and ‘the meeting abruptly ended.’ Meeting minutes later noted that Mann, after discussing it with the diocese, declared that Courage/Encourage is ‘not the right program for Sts. Mary and John at this time.’

“However, Mann said the parish must ensure Catholics of any orientation feel welcome.

” ‘The Catholic church supports people with same-sex attraction and does not consider them second-class citizens,’ the meeting minutes read.”

While the decision to shutter the RCC group in its present format is certainly troublesome,  what is more troublesome is the decision on the part of the parish and diocesan leadership to be silent or vague about the reason for such a decision.  What was wrong with the the program the RCC presented for 2016?  Were they not given a chance to amend that program in any way?  If the pastor was ambivalent about the Courage/Encourage model after speaking with the diocese, why is he now suggesting that approach?  How, specifically, will the parish and the diocese show that LGBT people are welcome in the church in the future?  It seems that there was no dialogue in the parish about this ministry.

Wally Paynter

Wally Paynter, the president of Tri-State Alliance, an LGBT equality organization, said he is helping the 25 members of RCC discern their future direction since many of them want to continue their group’s ministry, even if the parish will not accept them.  In the past, Paynter has addressed the group on HIV issues, youth topics, and acceptance in the local community, so he has a relationship with them.  He expressed the sentiment that many are feeling:

“I feel like people just really feel hurt, torn down. Something that was so vital to who they were as Catholics and as individuals and to have that group treated in this way — I think people need time to heal.”

One of the RCC members, John Radez, told the newspaper that he does not see the controversy as “us against them.”  He explained:

“My issue is not so much confrontational with the church or anything. Mine is more disappointment. The church is missing an opportunity to minister to people who need it. By pushing people away from the table, marginalizing people, the church is missing a golden opportunity to minister. … Which is completely contradictory to what Christ would have done. He invited all of the sinners to the table.”

These are certainly tough times for the RCC members in Evansville, and for many parishioners at Sts. Mary and John parish.  I started this post describing two thoughts that we tend to meditate on during this holiest of weeks in the church calendar.  I think that as we contemplate this story, we need to remember that second point: that suffering can be redemptive.  I’m not suggesting that it was good that this decision was made.  It was a very bad decision.  Faith tells us that even when human weakness destroys something good, God can bring about a new life from the disaster. While we live in the time of suffering, it is hard to imagine the new life which is possible, but that is the challenge of Easter.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

Related article:

The Evansville Courier & Press:  Letter: “Rejection of Rainbow group leaves parishioner without a church”

 

8 thoughts on “Parish Closure of LGBT Ministry Reminds Us of the Holy Week Journey

  1. amagjuka March 23, 2016 / 6:02 am

    Absent the requirement from the Pope that bishops stop these draconian measures, Catholics are at the mercy of the whims of their bishop or priest. The “letter of the law” is on the side of discrimination of LGBT people. We are all complicit when we do not rebel against these horrific acts. So many are being hurt in the name of religion. This is not OK with me as a straight Catholic. I cannot be part of this intentional mistreatment of a group of people. It is wrong. It is not of God. When will our church get on the right side of this? At what point must Catholics who love justice leave? Because saying you are part of a religion that intentionally does this kind of harm to people is not right.

  2. Bishop Carlos Florido March 23, 2016 / 9:58 am

    A very sad event, particularly during this week. It seems as an attempt to limit the Redemption from the Christ. Of course, that is truly an impossibility since Jesus the Christ came to bless and redeem all. Some in the RC appear to have forgotten their roots.

  3. Friends March 23, 2016 / 10:28 pm

    Isn’t it interesting that we don’t see these atrocities being perpetrated by the ordained clergy in our sibling Anglican, Episcopal and Lutheran Churches? I am more and more convinced that forcing Roman Catholic priests (and bishops) to remain forcibly celibate — at least officially and ostensibly — is the foul root of this dysfunction. If our Roman Catholic clergy possessed spouses and children of their own, it would be far more difficult for them to behave in such hateful and exclusionary ways — especially since some of their very own children would be GLBT. The plain fact is that Jesus’ own Apostles and Disciples were mostly married men with children. So what is the problem here? Theologically, THERE IS NONE!

    • mrnickvirga March 24, 2016 / 6:30 pm

      You might very well be on t’ something there. I remember the Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong saying Roman Catholic clergy will never understand the value of women until they have daughters. Maybe they will understand the LGBT community if they have gay children of their own as well.

  4. JOHN HILGEMAN March 23, 2016 / 10:54 pm

    The sticking point is the insistence by RCC leadership that same sex relationships and behaviors are immoral despite all the evidence to the contrary. Doctrine has been put ahead of reality. Real lives are discounted because they do not fit into the framework of rigid theology and morality. And those who hold such a view are unwilling or unable to see beyond the rigid boxes that were created long ago. I wish these “Rainbow Catholics” well. Unfortunately, at this time much of the leadership of the RCC Church, despite claims of “welcoming all” is not welcoming. But then, Jesus was rejected by the religious leaders of his day. So that can be a source of inspiration for those who are rejected by the religious leaders of today. Change is coming in fits and starts. In the long run, the rejection will not win out.

  5. amagjuka March 24, 2016 / 8:23 am

    Many clergy and religious are afraid of coming out forcefully for the full rights of LGBT people, because if they do so they could be kicked out–losing their homes, retirement plans, health care, etc. They stay silent, hoping that by being one of the “pastoral” ones it will be enough. But it isn’t enough! The “rule on the books,” that LGBT sexuality is “intrinsically disordered” and sinful–must change. The Pope of Mercy and Love must speak out and demand that the firing, isolating, marginalizing, and disrespect of LGBT people stop. Until this happens, we are all in an untenable situation. Speak up and get thrown out of the ministry/church, or stay silent and be part of the problem.

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