Some Hope But Not Much Joy for LGBT Catholics in Pope’s ‘Joy of Love’ Document

April 8, 2016

Statement of Francis DeBernardo, Executive Director, New Ways Ministry,                                               in response to Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation on marriage and family life

While Pope Francis’ latest document, Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love), contains some hopeful passages, it does not inspire joy in LGBT Catholics and their supporters.  As far as sexual orientation and gender identity issues are concerned, the pope’s latest apostolic exhortation reiterates church formulas which show that the Vatican has yet to learn from the experiences and faith lives of so many LGBT Church members or their supporters.

Though the pope calls for church leaders and ministers to be less judgmental and to respect individuals’ consciences, he has not provided a new pastoral approach to LGBT issues or people.

On other family topics such as divorce and co-habitation, Amoris Laetitia, offers some hopeful advice—and if this advice were simply applied to LGBT issues, which would not be incompatible to do, this document would have been much more positive.  Pope Francis calls for non-judgmental pastoral care, assisting people in developing their consciences, encouraging diverse pastoral responses based on local culture, and calling church leaders to be more self-critical.  All these things, if applied to LGBT people and issues, could produce enormous positive change in the church.

Pope Francis

Instead of listening to more progressive voices at the synods who called for greater understanding and dialogue with the LGBT community, the pope simply repeated church condemnations of same-sex unions, adoption by lesbian and gay people, and the complexities of gender identity.

Most egregious is his repetition of the synod fathers’ false claim that international aid to developing nations is dependent upon openness to marriage equality.  No evidence exists for such a claim. Randy Berry, the U.S. Special Envoy for the Human Rights of LGBTI People categorically denied this claim last November during meetings with church officials at the Vatican to discuss the persecution of LGBT people globally.

Moreover, Pope Francis’ one statement discussing pastoral care to families with lesbian and gay members is included in a section entitled “Casting Light on Crises, Worries and Difficulties.”  Such a classification reveals an assumption that LGBT topics are simply problems to be surmounted, and it does not recognize the giftedness and grace that occur when a family accepts and loves its LGBT family members.

While Pope Francis repeats church teaching condemning discrimination and violence against LGBT people, the fact that there is no elaboration of this teaching concerning countries that are criminalizing sexual and gender minorities makes these words ineffective.

Many in the Catholic LGBT community had great, but realistic, hopes for this document.  While not expecting a blessing on marriage for lesbian and gay couples, many were anticipating that Pope Francis would offer an affirming message to LGBT people, and not the same ill-informed comments. Many were hoping for something more pastoral from this pope known for warm gestures and statements. Where is the Pope Francis who embraced his gay former student and husband during his U.S. visit?  Where is the Pope Francis who invited a transgender Spanish man for a personal meeting at the Vatican? That Pope Francis is hard to find in his latest text.

The two synods in 2014 and 2015, as well as the wide consultations among the laity which preceded them, served as the research for this new papal document.  Unfortunately, as far as LGBT issues are concerned, there is nothing in Amoris Laetitia that indicates the great call for new approaches to these issues that occurred during these discussions.

Perhaps there is hope in the suggestion made by some bishops at the 2015 synod that the Vatican hold an entirely separate synodal discussion on the issues of sexuality and gender.  While this document has a lot to offer on a variety of important family topics, it did not give adequate attention to LGBT family issues that deserve serious examination by church leaders.

Given the new general pastoral direction of this document, there is potential for further development in regard to LGBT issues.  Much more faithful witnessing of LGBT Catholics and their supporters, as well as continued steps toward dialogue with Church leaders, will further this goal.

In one of the more hopeful parts of the document, the conclusion of chapter 8, Pope Francis actually calls for the continuation of such a dialogue:

“I encourage the faithful who find themselves in complicated situations to speak confidently with their pastors or with other lay people whose lives are committed to the Lord. They may not always encounter in them a confirmation of their own ideas or desires, but they will surely receive some light to help them better understand their situation and discover a path to personal growth. I also encourage the Church’s pastors to listen to them with sensitivity and serenity, with a sincere desire to understand their plight and their point of view, in order to help them live better lives and to recognize their proper place in the Church.”

Such dialogues can transform those in so-called “complicated situations,” but they can also transform the Church’s ministers and leaders.  This process is a proven method for the development of doctrine in the Catholic Church.

–Francis DeBernardo, Executive Director, New Ways Ministry

Reader’s Guide Offers Hints to Tomorrow’s Much-Anticipated Apostolic Exhortation

April 7, 2016

Pope, cardinals, bishops in the synod hall.

Tomorrow, April 8th, is the day that Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love), his response to the 2014 and 2015 Vatican synods on marriage and family life.  Many Catholics, especially those concerned with LGBT ministry and equality, have been eager to read what this pope, who is always full of surprises, has to say on issues of marriage, family, gender, and sexuality.

The National Catholic Reporter‘s (NCR) Joshua McElwee has provided information from a guide that the Vatican sent to the world’s bishops this week.  The guide is intended to prepare bishops for the release of Amoris Laetitia, but it also gives a tiny peek into what might be in store in Pope Francis’ much-anticipated document.

The NCR article noted that the Vatican document said that “”The Pope’s concern is . . . to re-contextualize doctrine at the service of the pastoral mission of the Church,” perhaps indicating that nothing will be doctrinally novel in the text, as the Vatican has been saying for months, but perhaps there will be new directions in how to present doctrine.

The reading guide said that the document “encourages not just a ‘renewal’ but even more, a real ‘conversion’ of language.”

Language change was a much-discussed topic at the 2015 synod, and the discussion ran the gamut of bishops calling for a departure from terms like “objectively disordered” and “intrinsically evil” in regard to lesbian and gay people and relationships to calls for simply a more pastoral approach of presenting church teaching.  From what the reading guide states, it looks like the pope will be pushing more for the latter type of renovation of church language than the former.

The guide states:

“The Gospel must not be merely theoretical, not detached from people’s real lives. To talk about the family and to families, the challenge is not to change doctrine but to inculturate the general principles in ways that they can be understood and practiced.”

“Our language should encourage and reassure every positive step taken by every real family.”

The guide further stated that the pope “wants to express himself in language that truly reaches the audience — and this implies discernment and dialogue.”

Using language that just tries to soften the true negative meaning of some of the Church’s doctrines will not be satisfactory. At one of the synod’s press briefings, even the very conservative Cardinal Wilfrid Napier Fox  of South Africa said:

“There’s been a lot of emphasis on using language that doesn’t offend, politically correct language, if you like.  I’m not sure that that’s the best way to be prophetic. It is certainly a way of trying to be more pastoral.”

(For Bondings 2.o posts about the debate on language at the synod, please click here and here and here.)

The reader’s guide offers (and remember, in this post I am quoting from a reader’s guide about the apostolic exhortation, not the exhortation itself) hints that the pope may simply promote a new use of language to soften negative teachings.  For instance, it states:

“Discernment … encourages us to grow from good to better. One of the characteristics of discernment, according to St Ignatius of Loyola, is the insistence not only on taking the objective truth into account, but also on expressing this truth with a good, a constructive spirit.”

Perhaps, though, there will be openings in pastoral practice that may allow for future development not only of language, but of doctrine itself.  The reader’s guide offers two hints that Francis may include material in the apostolic exhortation that lean in this direction.  In three different spots, it states:

  • “Like his predecessors, Pope Francis asks that as pastors we discern amongst the various situations experienced by our faithful and by all people, the families, the individuals.”
  • “For the culture of dialogue, the inclusion of everyone is essential.”
  • “The Pope’s vision of society is inclusive. Such inclusion involves the effort to accept diversity, to dialogue with those who think differently, to encourage the participation of those with different abilities.”

These statements highlight characteristics of Pope Francis’ rhetoric which has given hope to many progressives:  his willingness to acknowledge variety and diversity of life situations, and his emphasis on dialogue and radical inclusion.  These are hopeful steps forward–especially if we remember the darker days of popes who would ignore diversity, dialogue, inclusion, and even sometimes condemn these ideals.  They are hopeful steps that could lead the way for a serious discussion about LGBT issues. But, if they don’t go any further than that in their level of generality, they will only be first steps toward true equality and justice, with much work and advancement still to be done.

On the disappointing side, the reader’s guide notes that the apostolic exhortation will contain a summary of Pope John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body” lectures, which it says are an “important source” for the document.   Numerous theologians have pointed out that “Theology of the Body” ideas rest on ill-informed understandings of gender and the role of sexuality in people’s lives and relationships.  If Amoris Laetitia focuses too much on principles based in this type of thinking, it will be a sad disappointment.

Of course, we will know tomorrow what the pope actually has to say.  For some earlier speculation from Bondings 2.0 posts, please see the Related Posts section below my signature.

As soon as the document is released, and we have time to digest its contents, New Ways Ministry will post its analysis and response on this blog, probably some time in the later morning, Eastern U.S. time, on Friday, April 8th.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

Related Posts

Bondings 2.0:  The Million-Dollar Question: What Will Be In the Pope’s Apostolic Exhortation?

Bondings 2.0:  “What Can We Expect from Pope’s Upcoming Document on the Family Synod?

Bondings 2.0: “Bishops at Synod on the Family React to Final Report, Speculate on Next Steps for LGBT Topics

Bondings 2.0:  Not All Synod Bishops Agree That a Change in Language Would Be Helpful

Bondings 2.0:  Australia’s Archbishop Mark Coleridge: Finally, a Bishop Who “Gets It” ! ”

Bondings 2.0:  Will Language Be the Only Thing That the Synod Updates?






Covenant House Finds Its True Colors in Helping Homeless LGBT Youth

April 6, 2016

In the late 1970s, the name “Covenant House” was synonymous with Catholics caring for runaway and homeless youth in the then-sex-business-ridden Times Square neighborhood of New York City.  By the mid-1980s, the name had become tarnished by what were considered credible accusations of sexual abuse of some clients against Fr. Bruce Ritter, the Franciscan priest who founded and ran the burgeoning organization.   Fortunately, the ministry of Covenant House survived the crisis, and the organization grew to having 27 centers in the cities of six nations around the world.

Kevin Ryan

In a story that is filled with hope for the way Catholic organizations and LGBTQ groups can partner together around shared values, The Windy City Times, Chicago’s LGBT newspaper, recently profiled Covenant House, just as the organization is poised to open its 29th center, the first one ever in that Midwest metropolis.  Prominently featured in the article is Kevin Ryan, the first lay President of Covenant House International. Ryan spoke proudly of the organization’s ability to help youth living on the streets and involved with drugs and the sex trade turn their lives around.  He was even more proud, it seems, at how the Catholic organization has overcome its earlier soiled reputation, and how it is now seeking to improve its services and image for LGBTQ youth.  He may be uniquely positioned to make this latter transition. Ryan, a heterosexual, has a gay brother, Owen Ryan, who is the head of the International AIDS society in Geneva, Switzerland.

The Windy City Times pointed out:

“While Covenant House is not an LGBTQ organization, any institution serving homeless young adults is aware that anywhere from 20 to 40 percent of their clients are LGBTQ. Ryan said ‘there are more LGBTQ young people sleeping under a Covenant House roof than any other entity, because we are in six countries.’ “

But the accusations against Ritter, which developed into a law suit that ultimately was not pursued because of Ritter’s decision to leave the organization, hurt the group’s image among LGBTQ youth and foundations.  Under Ryan’s leadership, that image has begun to change.

The True Colors Fund, the foundation set up by pop-star Cyndi Lauper to help homeless LGBTQ youth, has begun working with Covenant House to make it a safe space for this population.  Jama Shelton, deputy executive director of True Colors, told the Windy City Times:

“There have been accounts, historical accounts, of young people reporting some extreme mistreatment. This is from LGBT young people, from staff and other young people in the space. They earned a reputation of not being safe. … I think part of it was, yes, practices that were not safe and not affirming, and environments that were not safe, and a recognition of that, and wanting to move past that and change that. And also try to repair that history and change the reputation.

“When we entered into this partnership, there were some people that were upset. I understand that because I understand the history of what had happened, and I also feel as a social worker, and from a solutions-focused perspective, my response was I hear you and validate that, but if there are people who want to do right by our young people, should I not try to facilitate that? I will say Kevin and everyone have come to the table and wanting to learn. That’s excellent. … Different sites have different degrees of understanding of LGBT and competency and learning. There are many hopes that through this process there will be some pretty clear understanding of policies and procedures to make LGBT young people safe.”

Shelton acknowledges that the religious background of Covenant House sometimes serves as a barrier for youth seeking help, especially for youth who have been abused by religious messages. But, she also stated that other religious service groups have the same problem, and that Covenant House’s religious roots generally affect only their mission and core values, rather than the way they interact with clients.

Ryan sees the Catholic background of the Covenant House actually helping it to be more inclusive of LGBT youth. The article described:

“Ryan said those religious roots provide the agency with a mission of social justice and helping the poor. ‘This movement is about celebrating young people for exactly who they are,’ he said. ‘Gay, lesbian, transgender, straight, for who they are. We don’t use the narrative of tolerance. It is about connecting kids to their authentic selves.’ “

And the agency is expanding its  LGBTQ dimension on a variety of levels:

“Ryan said he believed Covenant House has moved far beyond its past. They have support from LGBTQ individuals and organizations. They have openly gay people on their international board of directors. “I don’t feel I have to prove anything to the city,” Ryan said. “I have to earn that with the homeless young people of Chicago. Will young people who are desperate, and trying to make a decision, whether it is better on the street or if they are better off inside, will they come inside. I hope they come inside, that they will view it as a safe place to turn their life around.”

There’s just so much hope in this story!  It shows the power of a Catholic agency to turn itself around from a reputation tarnished by sexual abuse accusations.  It shows how a Catholic agency can partner with LGBTQ groups to learn how to be of better service to all God’s children.  It shows how LGBTQ groups can learn to put aside past failings of religious organizations to create a bright future for youth.  It shows the power of family relationships helping to create new knowledge and awareness.   The rest of the Catholic Church has a lot to learn from the Covenant House example.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry


Bishop Criticizes University Honor for Biden, a Supporter of Marriage Equality

April 2, 2016

Sometimes, it seems, that some church leaders go looking for an argument where one should not happen.

Bishop Kevin Rhodes of Indiana’s Fort Wayne-South Bend Diocese has criticized the University of Notre Dame, South Bend, for awarding its highest honor to Vice President Joe Biden, in part because of Biden’s support for LGBT equality.

Vice President Joe Biden

According to LGBTQ Nation, the University of Notre Dame decided to give its Laetare medal to two Catholic politicians, Biden and former Speaker of the House John Boehner–two men who hold very different political opinions.  According to a university press statement the Laetare Medal is given at commencement exercises to Catholics “whose genius has ennobled the arts and sciences, illustrated the ideals of the Church and enriched the heritage of humanity.”

Rhoades wrote to Fr. John Jenkins, CSC, the university president, expressing his displeasure at the decision to honor Biden.  In a statement describing his communication with Jenkins, Rhoades objected to the choice of Biden because of his pro-choice and pro-marriage equality views:

“I believe it is wrong for Notre Dame to honor any ‘pro-choice’ public official with the Laetare Medal, even if he/she has other positive accomplishments in public service, since direct abortion is gravely contrary to the natural law and violates a very fundamental principle of Catholic moral and social teaching: the inalienable right to life of every innocent human being from the moment of conception. I also question the propriety of honoring a public official who was a major spokesman for the redefinition of marriage. The Church has continually urged public officials, especially Catholics, of the grave and clear obligation to oppose any law that supports or facilitates abortion or that undermines the authentic meaning of marriage. I disagree with awarding someone for ‘outstanding service to the Church and society’ who has not been faithful to this obligation.”

What makes Rhoades’ criticism even more problematic is that he acknowledges that the university had a good intention in choosing to honor these opponents, one Democrat and one Republican at this time of political rancor.  Rhoades stated:

“Father Jenkins made it clear to me that in recognizing Vice-President Biden and Speaker Boehner, Notre Dame would not be endorsing the policy positions of either, but rather, would be honoring them for their public service in politics. I know that this honor is also an attempt to recognize two Catholics from different political parties at a time when our national politics is often mired in acrimonious partisanship. I appreciate Notre Dame’s efforts to encourage civility, dialogue, mutual respect and cooperation in political life.”

The problem with Rhoades’ kind of thinking is that it fails to acknowledge that different Catholics may take different routes to solving social problems.  Many avenues exist to address a variety of social problems.  Praising people whose lives and service have been exemplary is one way to heal wounds.  The fact that the university explicitly disavowed any support for particular positions of either recipient should be enough to make it clear to people what the university is praising about the men, and what it is not.

Yet, Rhoades believes that only his approach is appropriate. and that the conferral of the medal on Biden would send a bad message:

My principal concern about this whole matter is scandal. In honoring a ‘pro-choice’ Catholic who also has supported the redefinition of marriage, which the Church considers harmful to the common good of society, it can give the impression to people, including Catholics in political office, that one can be ‘a good Catholic’ while also supporting or advocating for positions that contradict our fundamental moral and social principles and teachings.

Besides the fact that the accusation of “scandal” has become meaningless, Rhoades fails to recognize that, in fact, millions of U.S. Catholics have supported marriage equality in good conscience and with no harm to their faith or spiritual lives.

In the news story, Jenkins responded to Rhoades criticism by noting that he and the bishop don’t always agree, adding:

“I’m gratified that he acknowledged, in his words, ‘Notre Dame’s efforts to encourage civility, dialogue, mutual respect and cooperation in political life.’”

In an interview Jenkins gave before Rhoades’ criticism became public, he further explained the rationale of his decisions:

“One thing I hope we do at the University is we try to bring our students to understand they can disagree but they need to talk to one another, reason with one another, and despite differences, they should always respect the other person and not demean.

“Unless we do that, we cannot work together, we cannot serve the common good. We are just in this gridlock of antagonism that is all too common today.”

Rhoades’ opposition seems to fall under the single-minded “obsession” with sexual issues that Pope Francis has warned bishops against.  Pope Francis has shown the example many times that he can meet with leaders and individuals with whom he may not always agree.  Rhoades’ objection seems to be an objection to political positions, something which the university said did not factor into its decision.  In doing so, the bishop has threatened to turn an exercise in reconciliation into a fiasco in the type of political fighting that was trying to be defused.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

The Million-Dollar Question: What Will Be In the Pope’s Apostolic Exhortation?

April 1, 2016

The countdown begins.

In one week from today, the long-awaited document from Pope Francis which will summarize the 2014 and 2015 Vatican synods on the family and offer his direction for pastoral practice will be released on Friday, April 8, 2016, at 12 noon, Rome time (6:00 a.m. for the U.S. east coast).  The Vatican announced the release date of the document, known as an apostolic exhortation, yesterday, according to a news story in The National Catholic Reporter.

Pope Francis leaves the synod hall, followed by cardinals and bishops.

And with the countdown comes the million-dollar question:  What will Francis say in the document?  Catholic prognosticators have been making guesses almost since the second synod closed at the end of October 2015.  As Joshua McElwee of The National Catholic Reporter  noted that about the only details we know are the length of the document and the date it was signed by Francis:

“Information about the exhortation has been scarce. Several reports have indicated it is rather lengthy, perhaps even as long as 200 pages. The pope is reported to have formally signed the document March 19, the feast day of St. Joseph and the day marking the inauguration of his papal ministry in 2013.”

One detail about the Vatican’s announcement that is worth noting is that Vienna’s Cardinal Christoph Schönborn will be present at the press conference when the document is released.  Schönborn, who upholds the hierarchy’s traditional heterosexual model for marriage, has nonetheless said some good things over the years regarding LGBT issues.  He made a supportive statement regarding gender identity, supports civil unions for lesbian and gay couples, and re-instated a partnered, gay parish council president who was ousted by the local pastor. Whether Schönborn’s presence is because there is something positive in the document or because he will be there to soften the blow of something negative remains to be seen.

I was privileged to be in Rome for the October 2015 synod, having been given press credentials by the Vatican for this blog, Bondings 2.0.  The opportunity allowed me to pay close attention to the many debates that emerged. But that experience, while eye-opening, did not give me any special insight into how the pope is going to respond.   Still, I think there are ways of making estimated guesses about what the document might say.

Among the rumors that have circulated since October is one that says there might not be much of anything new in the apostolic exhortation concerning LGBT issues.  Despite these topics making a big splash in the media halfway through the 2014 synod, by the time the 2015 synod came around, LGBT issues seemed to have taken a back seat, with concern about the very important issue of pastoral care for divorced/remarried people becoming the more prominent topic of discussion.

As I mentioned in a post from last month, even though LGBT issues per se may not receive any positive developments in this document, that doesn’t mean that there won’t be tangential areas that could make way for further progress.  Here’s excerpts from that earlier post:

“Change in the language of church doctrine:  In many bishops’ interventions, there was a call for a transformation of language that was harmful, offensive, and inaccurate.  What comes to my mind is “objective disorder” to describe homosexual orientation and “intrinsic moral evil” to describe sexual intimacy of a gay or lesbian couple. . . .

“Empowering local bishops to respond pastorally according to their own judgments, given the unique attitudes and practices of their cultures and communities: One of the things that the event of the synod illustrated is how culturally diverse the Catholic Church is throughout the globe.  Attitudes and customs about marriage and family are widely divergent–not least of all when it comes to LGBT couples and families. . . .

A  desire for the Church to be more of a listening presence and accompanying friend, instead of a disciplinarian rule giver:  This theme is a strong one throughout Pope Francis’ writings, speeches, interviews, and comments, so I think it is very likely that it will appear in some way in the apostolic exhortation. . . .

And, as I noted on Bondings 2.0 last fall, though LGBT issues did not receive much attention in the final report of the synod, that doesn’t mean that the Church hasn’t already begun to change. The simple fact that many controversial topics were at least discussed at this meeting, with bishops differing greatly with one another, means that our church has begun to move into a direction of a more dialogic institution.  We still have a long way to go in that regard, no doubt, but at least the process has been started.

Australia’s Archbishop Mark Coleridge, who participated in the 2015 synod and made some favorable comments there on on lesbian and gay issues, offered these thoughts about the upcoming document to The National Catholic Reporter last month:

” ‘If the pope can get the mix of encouragement and challenge right, he’ll be the unifier that Peter is meant to be, leading us beyond ideological dogfights and confirming us in the faith,’ Coleridge said.

“His reference to ‘ideological dogfights’ refers to many of the debates that took place during the four-week synod last year, when bishops were known to discuss such issues as divorce and remarriage, the use of contraception, and same-sex marriage.”

Despite all the uncertainty about the substance of the document, one thing for sure is that this exhortation is a pivotal moment in the papacy of Francis.  In a Washington Post news story, theologian Massimo Faggioli said that the synod events and process:

“was the most important moment in the church in the last 50 years. This was the biggest sign of hope that in the Catholic Church there are ideas and we can talk about it. No one before Francis ever had the courage to think about that.”

But Faggioli also noted that the document will be a telling detail of how the sometimes enigmatic Pope Francis really wants to lead the Church:

“ ‘In three years there is a lot he has accomplished. But there is a lot he has not accomplished,’ he said. The synods and the paper that comes from them constitute ‘one of the most important moments in his pontificate, and how he gets out of this moment of fierce disagreement, [what]  comes out of that will say a lot.’ “

Bondings 2.0 will release its own commentary on the apostolic exhortation soon after the document is released on April 8th.  Stay tuned!

Easter Sunday: Resurrection and God’s Faithfulness

March 27, 2016

“Glory of Christ–Easter Day 2008” by Stephen Whatley (21st century)

The resurrection does not solve our problems about dying and death. It is not the happy ending to our life’s struggle, nor is it the big surprise that God has kept in store for us.

No, the resurrection is the expression of God’s faithfulness….

The resurrection is God’s way of revealing to us that nothing that belongs to God will ever go to waste.

What belongs to God will never get lost.

–Henri Nouwen, Our Greatest Gift

Holy Saturday: From All I Am to All I Have Not Yet Become

March 26, 2016

“Body of Christ” by Annibale Carraci (16th century)

Letting Go

By Edwina Gateley

It is time to go.
I can smell it.
Breathe it
Touch it.
And something in me
I will not cry.
Only sit bewildered.
Brave and helpless
That it is time.
Time to go.
Time to step out
Of the world
I shaped and watched
Time to let go
Of the status and
The admiration.
Time to go.
To turn my back
On a life that throbs
With my vigor
And a spirit
That soared
Through my tears.
Time to go
From all I am
To all I have
Not yet become.



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