Jesuit Priest Speaks Out for Canadian Transgender Equality Bill

A Jesuit priest in Toronto, Canada, has emerged as an important voice in support of a national bill for transgender equality.

Fr. Gilles Mongeau, SJ

Fr. Gilles Mongeau, SJ, associate professor of systematic theology at Regis College, Toronto, has spoken out in favor of bill C-16 which would include gender identity and expressions as protected categories in Canada’s  Human Rights Act.  According to an article in America magazine, Fr. Mongeau stated:

“To the extent that it seeks to protect the quest of trans people to be themselves in a safe environment, Bill C-16 is something to be applauded by Christians.”

Mongeau has worked with Our Lady of Lourdes parish, situated in the gay neighborhood of Toronto.  The parish hosts a program called “All Inclusive Ministries,” which hosts a weekly Mass for the LGBT community, among other programs.

The Jesuit priest acknowledges that biological sex and gender may be more complex phenomena than simple physical characteristics.  He follows his brother Jesuit, Pope Francis, in describing church outreach to transgender people, saying:

“We must begin from the fact that the church, at this time, has no official teaching about gender identity or trans persons.”

“[Mongeau] underlines the need to, as Pope Francis suggests, accompany real people in real situations. For his part, though the Holy Father has been critical of ‘gender theory,’ he has been sensitive to preferred pronouns in the context of real encounter. That is reflected in his comments about a letter he received from a transgender man: ‘He who was a she, but is a he,’ the pope said.”

The question about pronoun usage reveals a more important question about our understanding of transgender people as human beings, Mongeau noted:

“The question of pronouns cannot be separated from the real lives of people. Asking these questions in the abstract is part of the problem we are facing because it makes it possible to evoke the image or idea that trans people somehow serve an agenda of attacking the moral fiber of society or serve an anti-Christian agenda. Trans people, in my experience, are trying to live healthy, productive and (sometimes) spiritually fruitful lives.”

In the America article, the need for equal civil protections for transgender people was expressed by Janice Towndrow, a Christian transgender woman from Toronto:

“I used to wish I had cancer because when you have cancer all the family rallies around you. But when you’re trans, you don’t have family, they kick you out.

‘It is very difficult,’ she says, even ‘comparable to biblical times,’ when lepers were shunned by the community. ‘You’re distanced; you’re pulled from your family; you’re cast out of the community. So you don’t see your children anymore. If you had a job, you probably don’t have it anymore.’ “

Janice Towndrow

And she noted how important it is for Christian churches to support transgender people and Bill c-16:

“Christian support for Bill C-16 would make a huge difference for transgender people looking to lead healthy spiritual lives, who are often alienated by communities of faith. As Ms. Towndrow explains, ‘I think somewhere along the line, everyone [in the transgender community] turns their back on the church because the church has turned its back on them.”

The bill passed Canada’s House of Commons in December, by a vote of 248-40, and is now being sent to the Senate.

While opponents of the bill continue to make their voices heard, we can thank God for courageous Catholic leaders like Fr. Mongeau and for communities like Our Lady of Lourdes parish for showing their public support for transgender equality.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, January 31, 2017

 

Gay Alum Thanks Catholic School for Being “A Haven” for Him

National Catholic Schools Week begins today in the United States, a celebration of the church’s educational programs. In past years during this week, I have written about the need for Catholic schools to increase their supports of LGBTQ youth. You can read those commentaries here, here, and here. But this year, I want to highlight an Australian writer’s story about the good an inclusive Catholic school can do for LGBTQ students.

13-1420csw_logo_circle_cmykIn The Sydney Morning Herald, Joel Meares wrote about a new movement in Australia, Equal Voices, in which Christians are apologizing for the harm done by churches to LGBT people.of his gratitude for the Catholic school he attended, a place he called “a haven.” He elaborated on this topic by describing his childhood experiences with the people of faith:

“And yet the apology comes as no surprise to me. The Christians in my life – those in the pews who don’t make, nor seek, headlines – have been some of the most supportive people I’ve known. Of course they want to say sorry: it’s the Christian thing to do. . .As some of them get ready to say sorry this March, I’d like to take a moment to say thank you.”

Meares shared about his time at the Catholic school, a place he landed because his parents did not want to send their children to public schools but could not afford more elite private schools. While the family was not religious, Meares said, “from Monday to Friday I was an evangelistic little Tracy Flick, biro in hand and halo on head.” He continued:

“I was also very gay. I didn’t realise this at the time – I was quite late to my own coming-out party – but I already ticked all of the cliche boxes. . .If my teachers had eyes and ears, they knew I was different. And these same teachers – not members of the clergy, but many of them laypeople of deep faith – were profoundly nurturing of that difference. . .And I was always protected.”

th_meares
Joel Maeres

No longer a practicing Catholic, except for “when I have to get up for the Eucharist at a wedding,” Meares remains grateful for the way he was educated by the church. He wrote:

“But I’ve always liked core Christian values, particularly the simple ‘golden rule’ I was taught back in [kindergarten]: ‘Treat others the way you like to be treated.’

“I know it’s not everyone’s story – and I know others whose time at religious schools was far less rosy – but I was able to grow up different and safe and proud because the people around me also subscribed to that idea.

“I don’t see much of that sentiment when I scan the statements of church leadership when it comes to LGBTQI issues today. But the Equal Voices apology is a reminder of the kinds of Christians who helped shape me growing up. These people put into quiet practice so much of what is beautiful about the religion, and did very little preaching as they went.”

These last words mirror a statement made recently by the head of Scotland’s Catholic school system, who said the church’s educational programs were to “propose the gospel, not impose the gospel.” Sadly, for too many LGBTQ students, faith-affiliated schools are places where they experience the Gospels being preached more than practiced. Either through direct harm or not providing adequate supports, Catholic schools have too often failed to be safe places.

This year’s theme for National Catholic Schools Week is “Catholic Schools: Communities of Faith, Knowledge and Service.” Joel Meares’ positive story gives educators a source of inspiration for what can be achieved when Catholic education is done well and inclusively, inviting students to faith, educating them well, and instilling in them Christian values.

Ultimately, the goal should be for every LGBT student who passes through the Catholic education system to be able to offer a story of gratitude similar to Joel Meares’ experiences.

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, January 29, 2017

QUOTE TO NOTE: On the Church As a Body

computer_key_Quotation_MarksMichael J. O’Loughlin, national correspondent fo America magazine, has written an insightful analysis of Pope Francis’ church reform agenda, entitled:  “Walking With Peter:  A confident pope sets a new example for governing the church.”  His introductory paragraphs offer a wise reminder to anyone working for justice in the Church, particularly LGBT justice:

“Taking a few steps is something most people take for granted. It is a fairly easy process at first thought, just one leg in front of the other. But the physical mechanics of beginning a journey are far more complex. Dozens of muscles must expand as others simultaneously contract, creating various tensions in the body that propel us forward. Though often viewed as something to be massaged away, tension is in fact a sign that we are alive.

“If the church functions like a human body, as St. Paul claims, then it follows that within it there must be tensions.”

It’s good to keep that in mind when the going gets rough.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry,

CATHOLIC LGBT HISTORY: Diocese Supported Maine Gay Rights Bill

History-Option 1“This Month in Catholic LGBT History” is Bondings 2.0’s  feature to educate readers of the rich history—positive and negative—that has taken place over the last four decades regarding Catholic LGBT equality issues.  We hope it will show people how far our Church has come, ways that it has regressed, and how far we still have to go.

Once a  month, Bondings 2.0 staff will produce a post on Catholic LGBT news events from the past 38 years.  We will comb through editions of Bondings 2.0’s predecessor: Bondings,  New Ways Ministry’s newsletter in paper format.   We began publishing Bondings in 1978. Unfortunately, because these newsletters are only archived in hard copies, we cannot link back to the primary sources in most cases. 

Dialogue Brings Diocesan Support for Gay Rights Bill

On January 5, 2000, The Bangor Daily News carried a new article with the headline “Catholics Back New Proposal for Gay Rights.”  The story was about the latest group to support a bill in the state legislature  It began:

“Maine’s perennial debate over the enactment of a state gay rights law was reinvigorated Tuesday when the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland announced it would support an amended proposal.”

[Note:  The Diocese of Portland encompasses the entire state of Maine.]

Diocesan spokesperson Marc Mutty explained the diocese’s change of position from opposition to support:

“We believe [the amended bill] represents a reasonable and thoughtful resolution to the legitimate concerns that been raised by persons of good faith with respect to past proposals.”

By the year 2000, it was not unheard of for Catholic dioceses to support bills which protected basic rights of lesbian and gay people.  What was more noteworthy in this case, though, was the process that the diocese engaged in to arrive at this position of support.  The news article explained:

“Members of the Maine Lesbian Gay Political Alliance and legislative supporters worked with the Diocese to find common ground to back the proposal.”

While not unheard of, it was still a very rare occurrence for a diocese to dialogue with a gay equality organization to negotiate a solution.

Not everyone, not even all people of faith were happy with the diocese’s decision.  Michael Heath, the executive director of the Christian Civic League of Maine, opposed the bill (and an earlier gay rights law which they overturned through a referendum) commented on the Catholics’ announcement:

“This is a sad day for Maine and it is a sadder day for the church.”

Joining Mutty at the press conference announcing the diocesan position was Father Michael Henchal, former diocesan chancellor.  Henchal supported the idea of not having another referendum if the bill passed. He praised the process the diocese had taken with the gay rights group:

“Maybe people sitting down and talking together can actually do a much better job in resolving a question than can be done through a citizens’ initiative or referendum.”

Gay rights activists were similarly pleased with the dialogue that took place with church officials.  David Garrity, president of the Maine Lesbian Gay Political Alliance, stated:

“We have always believed that the Roman Catholic Church would be a natural ally in this fight against discrimination.”

I’m sure that many regular readers of Bondings 2.0 will agree that it does seem natural for the Catholic Church to be an ally, not an opponent, of LGBT equality.  And, as Fr. Henchal noted, that talking together is a very effective way for disparate parties to find agreement.  These are lessons that church leaders in 2017 would do well to remember.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, January 28, 2017

 

 

Catholic Schools in Scotland to Have LGBT Safe Spaces

To better support LGBT students, every secondary Catholic school in Scotland will soon have a safe space available, reported The Herald.

logoBarbara Coupar, who directors the Scottish Catholic Education Service, announced the move after a legislator complained that some existing measures were deficient. The Herald explained:

“[Coupar] added many teachers did not feel equipped to become counsellors for pupils regardless of the problem, so schools were making sure teachers and students know where the pupils can go for help inside and outside the school.

“She said: ‘That’s why we’re going to down this avenue of ensuring that within all of our Catholic secondary schools that they would be able to go to someone, a trusted adult, a safe space within the school, where there would be someone who would have had that opportunity to be trained, for want of a better word, in order to be able to meet the needs of the young people in their care.'”

These remarks come after criticism by Christina McKelvie, a legislator who convenes the Equalities and Human Rights Committee of Scotland’s Parliament. Concerned by input from Catholic school students that some LGBT peers had died by suicide, McKelvie said:

“‘A lot of young people have told me some horrendous stories about how PSE [personal and social education classes] is used, especially going down a moralistic route as well, where a lot of young people feel really backed into a corner where they thought their thoughts and feelings were not being respected.’

“She said she had heard teachers are ‘not equipped’ to deal with LGBTI issues or misogyny ‘because either it’s dealt with as a moralistic issue or it’s something that they don’t believe in’.”

McKelvie acknowledged that Catholic education in Scotland had instances of both “brilliant” and “disturbing” support for LGBT youth. She explained that the government wants to make sure students feel protected:

“‘What we are looking for is if there’s a belief issue there, what we want is for teachers to be able to handle that, and if they can’t, for whatever reason, they’re equipped to signpost those kids to the right places for those kids to get that support. . .to address that without making young people feel as if they are committing a sin.'”

Coupar’s announcement comes several months after the Service promised trainings for teachers to become competent on matters of gender and sexuality. And she affirmed the Scottish church’s commitment to education that is inclusive and support for all students, saying the aim was to “propose the gospel, not impose the gospel.”

With National Catholic Schools Week in the United States beginning this Sunday, the creation of an LGBT safe space and trained educator in every Catholic school would be an attainable and highly effective initiative. Every Catholic school should make a commitment in 2017 similar to the one made by Scottish Catholics.

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, January 26, 2017

Catholic Scouts in Ireland Working on Policy to Welcome Transgender Children

A Catholic scouting organization in Ireland is developing a policy about transgender girls that looks like it will be accepting them.

cgi20logo20hi20resWhile the Catholic Girl Guides of Ireland (CGI) does not currently accept openly transgender children, the group’s leader told the Irish Independent that they are working to develop a policy:

“Linda Peters, chief executive officer of the Irish Girl Guides, said in yesterday’s Irish Independent that ‘our policy is that anyone who lives their life as a female is welcome to join our organisation’.

“However, when asked if she would presently accept a boy identifying himself as a girl, she said: ‘I don’t know. It’s a hypothetical question, so I’m not going to answer it or comment further. We’ll be in a better position to go into more detail when we finalise our guidelines on this topic.’ “

Peters’ words that they would like to welcome “anyone who lives their life as a female” seem to indicate that their new policy will be welcoming.

CGI spokesperson Michelle Finnerty explained that the group would not currently accept a transgender girl but that the organization feels this is “in the best interests of everyone, and especially for that child, until a policy is developed.” CGI, she said, did not want to make trans children’s’ lives “any more difficult.”

The policy in development, which Finnerty said can be expected “very soon,” was sparked by a CGI volunteer who is interested in transgender issues.Finnerty explained:

” ‘One of our members has a special interest in this area and had gathered a lot of useful information on this topic while she was over there [at a recent round-table discussion in Sweden on gender and membership with the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts].’

” ‘Putting together a policy on this is going to take a long time, because it will need a lot of consultation. We have to listen to the views of our youth members and parents’ opinions, along with expert advice, too.’ “

The organization is also consulting a CGI volunteer who has a transgender child who is not a member of the group.

Reading this news story, I thought back to a similar response offered last year by a Catholic school in Rhode Island. Administrators at Mount Saint Charles Academy had implemented a ban on transgender students, the reasoning for which is that the school did not provide sufficient resources to support trans youth. Administrators retracted the policy quickly after alumni organized, and the school instead undertook made efforts to expand its supports for LGBT students while concurrently welcoming all applicants.

Interestingly, Alan Matthews, a scouting leader for boys in Dundalk, Ireland, offered some wisdom to the Independent on how he would react to a trans boy seeking membership:

” ‘I don’t see why we wouldn’t let them join. If they want to identify themselves as a boy, fair enough. I suppose it’s their human right and we’re not going to stand against them. I’m sure six- and seven-year-olds wouldn’t notice the difference.'”

Societies tend to discount the agency of children, and in doing so, we too frequently miss the lessons they offer the rest of us. But I think Matthews is correct that answers to questions about gender and Catholic organizations may be found in the wisdom of young children, to which Jesus himself exhorted us to listen. If children are seeing each other as another person first, rather than as a gender, then we should make that our starting point for any policy: always welcome the persons before you, and then figure out how to accompany them.

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, January 26, 2017

Balancing Justice and Mercy in Pope Francis’ Teaching

Two key buzzwords of Pope Francis’ papacy have been “justice” and “mercy.”  Time and again, the first Latin American pope has called world leaders to enact justice for the victims of poverty, war, and social oppression.  And just as frequently, he has called church leaders to extend mercy to those who seek God, but whose lives may not conform in every way to the doctrinal purity that was emphasized by the previous two popes.

Among many people who have been observing Pope Francis’ words and deeds about LGBT issues, there has been a fervent hope and desire that he would meld justice and mercy when dealing with internal church matters.  Yes, LGBT Catholics need mercy from church leaders, but they also seek justice, too.  Many have expressed that Francis would direct calls for justice to church leaders, just as he has done to world leaders.

A new essay on the Vatican Insider website by British theologian Stephen Walford shows, in part how Francis has already made this connection between justice and mercy in his apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia. The focus of the essay is about the exhortation’s treatment of allowing divorced/remarried Catholics to receive communion, but, of necessity, to analyze this topic, Walford occasionally argues about the larger questions of justice and mercy.  [The essay is comprehensive in scope, so I will only focus on a few excerpts here.  For those readers with more theological interests, I suggest reading the entire essay by clicking here. A “hat tip” to the UK’s Martin Pendergast for alerting me to this essay.]

After an extensive introductory section on theological and pastoral issues involved in the formation and respect for conscience,  Walford raises an interesting distinction between justice and mercy:

“If there is one major criticism of those who oppose the Holy Father –and this includes some priests and bishops unfortunately – it is an apparent lack of interest in trying to understand the situations of real people. It probably explains why the practice of discernment is so widely ridiculed. To get to the heart of these situations is to open oneself to the possibility that maybe there is more to the story than a legal answer will allow. Personally, I have a suspicion this is why the devotion to the Divine Mercy in the form presented by the Lord to St. Faustina seems to be frowned upon among many traditionalists-certainly in English speaking countries. The justice of God is easier to accept – we have the rules, if we fail we know the consequences; in essence, safety from the awful anger of almighty God. But of course, that is not the way to form a deep friendship with Jesus. Mercy on the other hand implies a God who desires to reach out and lift up; to not ask many questions, rather just see the joy of reconciliation.”

Walford observes, however, that pastoral care that is grounded only in a rules-based approach to Catholic teaching is neither justice nor mercy.  In disputing an American canon law scholar’ argument which values a rules-based approach to the question of the reception of communion, Walford offers a Scriptural example where justice and mercy are united:

“I would humbly suggest to Dr Peters that throwing the law book at all these situations as if pastoral application is not possible is not the way of Jesus. In the story of the woman caught in the act of adultery, we know Jesus addressed the Pharisees first. He didn’t dismiss the Law of Moses at all; he simply invited whoever was without sin to throw the first stone. (In fact we could say that he applied a ‘new’ canon to that law with that question). As the Pharisees left the scene one by one, only one was left; the Lawgiver himself-that is a law of love and mercy. Jesus himself was now the only one who had a right (with his new pastoral application!) to stone her to death. But of course he didn’t because the law would have condemned her immediately, and possibly to eternal damnation if no repentance had been shown and no other mitigating factors had rendered her less guilty. No, Jesus wasn’t interested in that outcome, he didn’t even ask if she was sorry; and if she was not repentant, he being God, knew that also. Still the fact remains he ignored the rule and penalty of the law in order for a higher good to possibly come about. He told her to go and sin no more because that was fundamentally more important for her soul than the correct application of the law which would have ended any chance of spiritual ascent.”

And in his conclusion, Walford offers an important interpretive lens with which to read the apostolic exhortation and the pontiff:

“Humility is the key to accepting what may be for some a genuine difficulty in understanding Amoris Laetitia, or indeed the entire charism of Pope Francis.”

Walford’s essay reminds us that the church’s teachings on justice, mercy, sin, and conscience are more complex than we sometimes acknowledge them to be.   If you are interested in these types of questions, and particularly how they apply to LGBT issues, I invite you to attend New Ways Ministry’s Eighth National Symposium, “Justice and Mercy Shall Kiss:  LGBT Catholics in the Age of Pope Francis,” April 28-30, 2017,  Chicago, Illinois.   Among the topics to be examined in the light of justice, mercy, and LGBT issues will be social ethics, sexual ethics, church employment questions, criminalization laws, youth and young adults, transgender and intersex topics, Hispanic communities, gay priests and brothers, lesbian nuns, and parish ministry.   For full details and registration form, visit www.Symposium2017.org. Register today!

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, January 25, 2017