The Open Closet and Self-Censorship

The weekend after New Ways Ministry’s Eighth National Symposium, “Justice and Mercy Shall Kiss:  LGBT Catholics in the Age of Pope Francis,”  I was reading an op-ed essay in the New York Times,  and my mind reeled back to that meeting held in Chicago on the last weekend of April.

I was surprised that the essay would conjure up a memory of the symposium, since, on the surface, the text had nothing to do with Catholic or LGBT issues.  Yet, on another level, I saw the essay was, in fact, speaking to the core of the Catholic LGBT conversation–or, perhaps, I should say lack of conversation.

The op-ed essay in question was entitled “How Censorship Works,” and it was written by a Ai Weiwei, a Chinese artist, whose name had recently been removed from several of his works by government officials at exhibitions in Beijing and Shanghai.  The essay is an insightful analysis of the ways that censorship operates in a contemporary culture which seems to prize and valorize free expression.

What the essay reminded me of was a section of Fr. Bryan Massingale’s talk at the New Ways Ministry Symposium.  The National Catholic Reporter captured the important quotation:

“What underlies the church’s ‘hesitant, resistant and even hostile stance’ toward justice for lesbians and gays, the theologian said, is its fear that legislation protecting the rights of homosexual persons would also “lead to social approval of forbidden and immoral sexual behaviors.”

“The more operative concern, Massingale added, is that such legislation would bring on greater visibility of homosexual persons who would be negative models for youth.

“The situation leaves the church in an often contradictory corridor or ‘open closet,’ Massingale said, one in which gays ‘are to be accepted sensitively and compassionately, as long as there is little or no public acknowledgment of their sexual identity, “lifestyle” or “culture.” ‘ “

The “open closet” which operates in the Catholic Church around LGBT issues is actually a form of censorship.  While it may not be explicit censorship in which books and speakers are banned (though that happens, too), it is a more subtle form of censorship in which people are persuaded not to bring up what are deemed “inappropriate” topics.  This second, more subtle kind of censorship, operates more insidiously by getting people to censor themselves, without there seeming to be some overt requirement to do so.

In the op-ed essay, the artist Ai explains this kind of censorship:

“The most elegant way to adjust to censorship is to engage in self-­censorship. It
is the perfect method for allying with power and setting the stage for the mutual
exchange of benefit. The act of kowtowing to power in order to receive small pleasures may seem minor; but without it, the brutal assault of the censorship system would not be possible.”

Unfortunately, self-censorship is rampant in the Catholic Church, particularly on LGBT issues. For many years now, poll after poll has shown that Catholics in the U.S. overwhelmingly support LGBT issues.  Yet how many people make their views known to their pastors and bishops?  This behavior is especially true of Catholics who have institutional positions in the Church.

To clarify, I am not saying that all LGBT people in the church should come out.  The decision to come out as an LGBT person is a highly personal and even spiritual one, and I respect every person’s right to decide whether and how they will express their identity.  What I am saying, however, is that we would be living in a much different church if  Catholic people, both LGBT and allies, would voice their opinions more openly.

And I want to be clear, too, that I sympathize with those involved in institutional church positions who do not speak out.  I recognize that many factors impinge on their decision not to do so, not least of which often involve their livelihoods.

What I am asking, however, is that all Catholics examine how much self-censorship is involved in their decision to be quiet about LGBT issues.  I think we will find that it operates more than we realize.  I acknowledge that I, too, fall victim to self-censorship at different times.  It happens usually when I think that bringing up LGBT issues might make people too uncomfortable or that they will think that I am pushing an agenda.

Censorship of any kind–whether the “open closet,” self-censorship, or overt censorship– is doing a lot of harm not only to LGBT people, but to our church as a whole.  Ai describes some of the personal and institutional harms that censorship causes.  It is harmful to an individual’s development:

“The harm of a censorship system is not just that it impoverishes intellectual life;
it also fundamentally distorts the rational order in which the natural and spiritual
worlds are understood. The censorship system relies on robbing a person of the self-perception that one needs in order to maintain an independent existence. It cuts off
one’s access to independence and happiness.”

It is harmful to those who acquiesce to self-censorship:

“For people who accept this passive position toward authority, ‘getting by’
becomes the supreme value. They smile, bow and nod their heads, and such
behavior usually leads to lifestyles that are comfortable, trouble free and even cushy.
This attitude is essentially defensive on their part.”

It robs the organization of any opportunity to grow or develop, becoming locked in a rigid, authoritarian posture:

“It is obvious that in any dispute, if one side is silenced, the words of the other side will go unquestioned.”

The personal and social consequences can be devastating:

“Censoring speech removes the freedom to choose what to take in and to express to
others, and this inevitably leads to depression in people. Wherever fear dominates,
true happiness vanishes and individual willpower runs dry. Judgments become
distorted and rationality itself begins to slip away. Group behavior can become wild,
abnormal and violent.”

Just imagine if everyone in our church who supported LGBT equality spoke our truth to friends, politicians, church leaders.  While such a possibility can’t happen overnight, it can begin if people take small steps, mention thoughts, feelings, and beliefs gently and gradually.  Practice makes perfect.  Everyone can do something.  What step will you take to end self-censorship and to end the “open closet”?

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, June 1, 2017

 

 

Italian Gay Catholic: “Just because I’m gay doesn’t mean I’m an atheist”

The Vatican City State is surrounded by the nation of Italy, and so the Catholic Church has a great influence on Italian politics and social life, especially in regard to LGBT issues.  But Italian Catholic LGBT people have been organizing and working to spread a more positive message about LGBT issues than most church leaders offer.  Many of the major Italian cities have religious LGBT organizations, often heavily populated by Catholics, and a national federation of Christian LGBT groups, Cammini di Esperanza, recently formed.

Iacopo Ialenti

Vice magazine recently had a short interview with Iacopo Ialenti, a young gay Catholic man in Florence, Italy,  who is a member of Kairos, that city’s Christian LGBT organization.  Kairos made headlines in 2013, when early in the pontificate of Pope Francis they wrote an introduction letter to him and received an affirming, handwritten response.

Ialenti’s story gives some insight into the struggle of LGBT people in this country heavily influenced by the Catholic Church, but it also shows the power of how personal witness and faith can overcome even the most challenging situations.  For example, Ialenti described his parents’ reactions to his coming out as gay:

“My parents didn’t take it that well; my father told me that he’d rather have a disabled son. . . .One day, my mother came to visit, and I took her to a lectio divina (divine reading) with Kairos members. When we got back home, I told her, ‘Mum, they were all gay.’ She almost fainted. My parents have changed since then. Now my father is looking for a husband for me.”

Being a gay person of faith has its challenges, but Ialenti shows that he is working at overcoming them.  He describes  what is probably the biggest challenge:

“. . . [T]he toughest part is coming out to yourself—as a Christian, you have to face an internal homophobia, which makes you your worst judge. And then there’s the law of God; when you are told you are unnatural, it’s oppressive.”

He explained, though, that he has decided to remain a Catholic, despite challenges not only from the Church, but from the gay community itself:

“When you came out, did you consider walking away from the church?
Just because I’m gay doesn’t mean I’m an atheist. And I feel sorry for those who deny their sexuality in the name of religion.

“Have you ever felt excluded from the gay community because of your faith?
My whole life is discrimination! You have no idea how many guys dumped me after discovering I was a Catholic.”

Ialenti also described an important action that Kairos took a few years ago, and some of his hope for the future of the Catholic Church:

“During the 2015 synod of bishops, we asked the church to stop considering homosexuality a tendency and start to consider it an affection. But the power of the church is based on the people’s perception, and until the believers change their point of view, Rome won’t change. I still hope that a kamikaze pope comes along and writes an encyclical letter saying that homosexuals are the same as straight people, in God’s grace.”

While he acknowledges that it may take “centuries” before such a pope is elected, he does see change happening in small ways.  Last year, Kairos helped organize Florence’s first gay pride celebration, which Ialenti notes brought many disparate groups together.  One small detail stuck out for him, though, as a sign of things to come in the Church:

“There was even Sister Fabrizia, who hosted us in her convent. So let’s hope they all start to open their eyes.”

To read the entire interview with Ialenti, click here.

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

SYMPOSIUM: Kentucky Bishop Speaks Out Against Church Firings of LGBT People

When Bishop John Stowe, OFM, Conv, spoke at New Ways Ministry’s Eighth National Symposium, “Justice and Mercy Shall Kiss:  LGBT Catholics in the Age of Pope Francis,” he also gave an interview to  Patricia Lefevere of The National Catholic Reporter.  During that interview, Lefevere asked the bishop from Lexington, Kentucky, about the contentious issue of  LGBT employees being fired from Catholic institutions (which was also the topic of a plenary session and a focus session at the symposium).   His answers to her questions provide the strongest statements yet in support of LGBT employees from a U.S. Catholic bishop.

Symp17_Friday_ - 57.jpg
Bishop John Stowe, OFM Conv.

Lefevere reported that the bishop stressed that the firings of LGBT employees amounted to a form of discrimination which was not appropriate for a Catholic institution to exhibit:

“When Stowe was asked how he felt the church should respond to cases of LGBT employees — many of whom had been fired from long-held church positions when their same-sex marriages were publicized or outed — he stressed that the church must be consistent and non-discriminatory in dealing with all its employees.

” ‘We must preserve our tradition and our integrity as a church,’ he said. ‘We risk contradicting ourselves if we want our employees to live by the church’s teaching and if we ourselves as an institution don’t live by our teaching, which has always opposed discrimination of any sort.’ “

While some bishops contend that firing LGBT employees is protected under the church’s religious liberty protections,  the Franciscan bishop pointed out that a more creative response was needed.  Lefevere reported:

“Stowe thought the church could find a way to ‘defend our religious liberty without violating any one’s human rights.’ “

For Stowe, it seems, the church’s teaching on the dignity of work and workers should be a guiding force when it comes to church employment issues:

“He pointed to its century-long championing of working people, of their rights to a living wage, to humane treatment in the workplace and to collective bargaining. ‘We must be consistent, even though that can be very difficult sometimes.’ “

And the dignity of the human person must be preserved above all,  even above institutional ideals:

“The challenge is to ‘articulate Gospel principles consistently and implement them compassionately,’ he said, noting that Catholic social teaching has always upheld the dignity of each human person. ‘We preach that human flourishing is a primary goal,’ he said, ‘much more important than the protection of our institutions.’ “

Stowe’s comments constitute the most comprehensive positive statement from a U.S. bishop on the employment of LGBT people in Catholic institutions.  To this date, only one other U.S. bishop,  Boston’s Cardinal Sean O’Malley, OFM Cap, who in 2014 told Bondings 2.o that the firings “need to be rectified.”

The bishops of Germany have instituted a policy that protects legally married gay and lesbian workers in Catholic institutions. An  America magazine editorial in 2016 called the firings “unjust discrimination.”

For other positive developments in the church worker controversy, click here.  To view New Ways Ministry’s resources on the topic, visit our Catholicism, Employment, and LGBT People page.

Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, May 23, 2017

Nuns As Queer

Nancy Corcoran, CSJ

Today’s post is from guest blogger, Sister Nancy Corcoran, CSJ. Students at Wellesley College, Massachusetts, first introduced themselves to Nancy as trans or gender-variant in her role as the Catholic Chaplain at the school. Recently retired, she is on a sabbatical, exploring a ministry of presence and accompaniment with other queer folk.

 

Before I became a Sister of St. Joseph, I visited New York City to meet Sister Anne Brotherton who was getting her doctorate at Fordham University.  As we toured Greenwich Village together, I asked Anne if she felt funny walking around in a traditional habit. “Oh, no”, she responded, “I feel quite comfortable.  We’re all queer here”.

Merriam-Webster defines the word “queer” as  “differing in some odd way from what is usual or normal.”  And today, the term “queer” is being reclaimed as a source of pride to folks who disdain the rigid binary classifications of being either female or male.  So why do I think of nuns as queer?

Presently, I am on a sabbatical exploring ministry with LGBTQIA folks after working at a women’s college that graduated a few men every year.  The students exposed me to the rigid binary construction of female and male.  The way they used their clothing and hair styles in ways that did not fit the gender binary politicized my consciousness.

When I no longer had the energy to keep up with the 18-22-year-olds as their Catholic Chaplain, I retired, and I am now on sabbatical. During this time, I have learned that rather than “peculiar, bizarre or weird”, the term “queer” has come to mean “unconventional, unorthodox folks who make visible that maleness and femaleness are social constructions rather than divinely assigned categories”.

Believing that one cannot minister with humans that we believe to be “other” than ourselves, I began reflecting on how I and my religious sisters have also challenged the binary. Let me share some examples which have existed in convents. In an age when a woman’s glory was her long hair, nuns cut theirs off before they pronounced vows. They often were given names reserved for men. Richard Joseph, Francis Regis, John Kenneth, James Patrick, Christopher, Leo, Paul are names of some of my sisters who are alive today.  If sisters did not bind their breasts, they often wore bib like material to disguise their natural form.  Like males, most sisters did not wear makeup. When in habit they went “stealth” at times, especially at the beach.

When I was a child in the 1950-60’s, religious women did the jobs that men did. They were presidents of colleges, principals of schools, administrators and financial officers of hospitals. Some sisters note that when they wore a habit, they were no longer perceived as a woman. We were given instant authority, instant deference.  They were perceived equal to priests–or at least of higher privilege than other women.

Like the experience of many transgender and gender non-conforming humans, many of our parents were not pleased with the choice of our entering the convent.  Our parents’ dreams of traditional weddings and grandchildren faded with our choice.  So I find I have a lot more in common with folks who claim the term “queer” than I had thought possible.

I have hope that by normalizing our “unconventional” and “unorthodox” choices, we might also claim our love and support of humans who likewise challenge the social construction of our society. Rigid constructions of our social norms do need to be challenged. Perhaps by looking at the choices made by nuns, we might expand our acceptance of other queer folk, and explore together how to be fully human.

Sister Nancy Corcoran, CSJ, May 20, 2017

Catholic Parishes Hold IDAHOBIT Prayer Vigils to Oppose Anti-LGBT Actions

Today is the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia, and Transphobia  (IDAHOBIT). While this commemoration is not widely marked here in the United States,  in other nations, particularly in Europe, it is an important time to oppose prejudice and discrimination.

An IDAHOBIT prayer vigil held in Milan, Italy, May 12, 2017

Catholic participation in IDAHOBIT has grown over the past few years.  According to Progetto Gionata, an Italian LGBT Christian group, reports that this year prayer vigils marking the occasion (over the course of a week) will be held in Catholic churches in seven Italian cities and one in Spain.  The cities and churches are:

Italy

  • Milan: Santa Maria della Passione
  • Reggio Emilia:  Regina Pacis
  • Pistoia:  Santa Maria Maggiore di Vicofara a Pistoia
  • Catania:  SS. Crocifisso della Buona Morte
  • Florence:  Madonna della Tosse
  • Bologna:  San Bartolomeo della Beverara
  • Genoa:  San Pietro in Banchi

Spain

  • Seville:  San Pedro de Alcántara

Most notably on this list are the additions of Genoa and Palermo, two places where bishops put a stop to such prayer vigils in previous years.  Notably, the Archdiocese of Palermo has an archbishop, Corrado Lorefice, appointed in 2015 by Pope Francis.

Progetto Gionata also reports that at least in one location, a high-ranking diocesan official will lead the prayer vigil:

This is not the only news for this year, for the first time religious orders and Catholic associations will also publicly take part in the vigils. In Genoa the vigil will not only be hosted by a parish but, last minute changes notwithstanding, the general vicar for the dioceses Nicolò Anselmi will participate. “I think this is the most visible sign of how the Church is beginning to really ask itself the questions brought forth by the Synod in regards to providing pastoral welcoming for LGBT people and their families” says Innocenzo Pontillo, from Progetto Gionata.

Last month, at New Ways Ministry’s Eighth National Symposium, “Justice and Mercy Shall Kiss:  LGBT Catholics in the Age of Pope Francis,” participants heard Frank Mugisha, the executive director of Sexual Minorities Uganda, speak about how homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia translate in his country into oppression and violence.   After his talk, New Ways Ministry asked symposium participants if they would pose for a photo that would be used on IDAHOBIT to show over 300 U.S. Catholics who oppose such prejudice and discrimination.  Here it is:

Symp17_Sun - 1

Catholic doctrine is so clear in opposing harmful attitudes and actions based in phobic reactions to people’s sexual orientation or gender identity.  Catholic parishes around the world should be opening their doors on this day to sponsor prayer vigils to counter such destructive practices.  The growing number of parishes, including those listed above, are great pioneers in this movement.

It may be too late to organize and IDAHOBIT action for this year.  But one thing you can do is make a pledge that you will work to get your  Catholic parish, school, or other institution, to host a prayer vigil on May 17, 2018.  It’s not too early to start now!

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, May 17, 2017

CATHOLIC LGBT HISTORY: Boston Archdiocese Admits Lesbian Couple’s Child to Catholic School

“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. 

Boston Archdiocese Overrules Parish To Admit Lesbians’ Child to School

The list of  painful actions Catholic institutions have been taking against LGBT people is staggering. LGBT people are fired from church jobs.  LGBT people are denied sacraments or liturgical participation at funerals of family members.  And perhaps most emotionally painful action, children of LGBT people are denied entrance into Catholic schools.

But not all dioceses follow these practices regularly.   Some offer their acceptance quietly, but in one case, in May 2010, church officials protected  a lesbian couple after their son was initially denied admission to  a local Catholic school

Boston. com reported on May 13, 2010:

“The Archdiocese of Boston said yesterday that administrators of a small Catholic elementary school in Hingham were not following archdiocesan policy when they rescinded admission of a prospective student after learning that his parents are lesbians.

“Spokesman Terry Donilon said the archdiocese has no prohibition against same-sex couples sending their children to Catholic schools.”

The school involved  was St. Paul Elementary School, Hingham.

This Boston example was particularly important at the time because only two months before, in March 2010, the Archdiocese of Denver had upheld a local parish school’s decision not to admit a child to a pre-K class because the parents were a lesbian couple.  Bosont.com reported:

“In Boulder, Colo.,  in March a Catholic school refused to allow a student in prekindergartn to reenroll after discovering the child’s parents were lesbians.  Denver Archbishop Charles J. Chaput defended the decision, writing in the Denver Catholic Register newspaper that the church does not condemn gays and lesbians or their children, but does define marriage as a hetgerosexual union.  He said families with other views ‘have other, excellent options for education.’ “

Dr. Mary Grassa O’Neill

Dr. Mary Grassa O’Neill, the Archdiocese of Boston’s Secretary for Education & Superintendent, said in a statement about the case:

“The Archdiocese of boston is committed to providing quality Catholic education, grounded in academic excellence and the teachings of the Catholic Church to the students at all of our schools.   We believe that every parent who wishes to send their child to a Catholic school should have the opportunity to purse that dream.  . . . The Archdiocese does not prohibit children of same-sex parents from attending Catholic schools.  We will work in the coming weeks to develop a policy to eliminate any misunderstandings in the future. “

O’Neill went on to explain that she met  with the school’s pastor and principal, and that she also contacted the parents to let them know she would help them find another Catholic school in the Archdiocese for their child.

Fr. James Martin, SJ

At the time, the case also caught the attention of Jesuit Father James Martin, who has emerged as a strong voice for justice for LGBT people in the Catholic Church.  On May 17, 2010, Martin wrote in a blog post for America magazine:

“The archdiocese’s decision is not only pastoral, but sensible–even practical.  For how can one adequately determine if the parents of a child agree with all of Catholic teaching?  Or even ‘respect the beliefs’ of the church? Many of the parents in parochial schools in the U.S. aren’t even Catholic.  How many of them are divorced and remarried?  How many believe in everything that the church teaches on important matters?How many even know what the church teaches on important matters.  Likewise, how many funerals of less-than-devout Catholics are celebrated?  How many couples with little interest in the faith are married in Catholic churches?

“Singling out children of same-sex couples smacks of targeting one particular group.”

The Archdiocese of Boston did act wisely and pastorally in this case, and in the process, set a precedent for all other U.S. dioceses to follow.  With the expansion of marriage equality in the U.S. in 2015, more Catholic schools are going to be faced with similar situations, if they haven’t been already.  The Boston example provides an excellent rationale for other church leaders to follow.

Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, May 16, 2017

 

QUOTE TO NOTE: London Cardinal ‘Rejoices’ in LGBT Acceptance, While Still ‘Obstinate’ on Marriage

London’s Cardinal Vincent Nichols has been one of the global church’s strongest advocates of pastoral outreach to the LGBT community.  At the same time, he has opposed marriage equality though, unlike U.S. bishops, he seems comfortable in making social and ecclesial accommodations for lesbian and gay couples.

The Catholic Herald recently reported on remarks Nichols made at a public lecture.  His remarks show the two sides of his approach to matters of gay sexuality.  The news story stated:

“Cardinal Vincent Nichols, the most senior Catholic cleric in England and Wales, has said the Church will continue to be ‘obstinate’ about gay marriage and other questions of sexual morality.

“Answering questions after a talk at St Ethelburga’s Centre, London, Cardinal Nichols was asked about the Church’s response to homophobia. The cardinal said that society had become more empathetic and compassionate towards gay people, and that he ‘rejoiced’ in the change.

Cardinal Vincent Nichols

“However, he went on to say that Catholics ‘still stand for’ a definition of marriage as ‘between a man and a woman’ which is open to new life.

“Cardinal Nichols went on: ‘There has never been a time when Christian sexual morality has been totally accepted in any society.’ But, he said, Christians would ‘persist’ in being ‘awkward’ on such matters.”

No doubt some will criticize Nichols’ opposition to marriage equality and his upholding of traditional church teaching on sexuality.  Nichols is no stranger to criticism, though. For years, conservative Catholics in England have been criticizing the pastoral outreach he began to London’s LGBT community, some of these critics even bringing their complaints to the Vatican. Nichols, however, stood firm, and the pastoral outreach program, LGBT Catholics Westminster, is alive, well, and thriving today.

While Nichols may be correct that Christian sexual morality has never been totally accepted in any society, that doesn’t mean that Christian sexual ethics hasn’t changed as new scientific information and social understandings and customs have evolved.   The fact that ethical principles have changed over the centuries is the best argument that they can change in the future.

Still, Nichols serves as a model to other prelates that their opposition to same-gender marriage does not mean that they cannot welcome LGBT people into the church community.

Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, May 15, 2017