Vatican Official Criticizes Transgender Rights at Bioethics Conference

A senior Vatican official criticized transgender rights at a recent U.S. bioethics conference that was attended by more than one hundred North American bishops. But despite the official’s and conference organizers’ claims to the contrary, Catholic understandings and implications of gender identity are not settled.

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Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia

Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, addressed the conference, “Healing Persons in a Wounded Culture,” organized by two organizations with LGBT-negative records, the National Catholic Bioethics Center (NCBC) and the Knights of Columbus (K of C).

Paglia, who is president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, and formerly head of the Pontifical Council on the Family before it was merged into the new Dicastery for the Laity, Family, and Life, said in his address that bishops should be “very clear-headed and resolute in confronting the contradictions of extreme individualism and moral relativity.”

“Transgenderism” and “the ideological take-over of gender questions,” Paglia said, are tied to “the acquisition of greater power and the satisfaction of our own desires.” About a range of issues, the archbishop warned against people who are “maddened with dream of omnipotence. . .and the ancient call of hubris leads man to believe himself a ‘creator’ as well as a destroyer.”

On gender identity specifically, Paglia quoted a segment of Pope Francis’ exhortation Amoris Laetitia which suggests people today understand identity as “the choice of the individual, one which can also change over time” and that “biological sex and the socio-cultural role of sex (gender) can be distinguished but not separated.” He said later:

“As we respond to what for too long we have called ‘challenges,’ we must remember that we are to [sic] being called to a conflict but rather to a rebuilding, a reconstruction of what it means to be human.  Our first task is not to identify enemies but rather to find companions on the journey, person with whom we can share our path.  In this optic—and I’m referring to only one subject that can open a new horizon on the relationship between the Church and the family—a call for a new alliance, human and civil, between men and women wold be an indispensable resource. The alliance between the sexes that, as a result of openness to community, can be created not only within marriage and the family, is a resource that the Church must seek out, encourage and support.  It is likewise the most effective response to ideologies of separation or indifference.  The alliance of masculine and feminine must again take hold of the tiller of history, of statecraft, of the economy.”

Gender identity topics covered at the conference included “learning how recently won rights for transgender individuals could affect Catholic entities, including hospitals, schools and parishes, on both ethical and legal grounds,” reported Michael O’Loughlin of America magazine. Despite the conference devoting “the first day of our Workshop to grappling with the issue of transgenderism,” there were no presentations given or remarks offered by trans person.

Paglia’s remarks and the general tenor the conference are consistent with NCBC’s understanding of gender identity. America cited a statement from the organization that described trans equality as “coercive and based on a destructive understanding of human identity” and rejected all forms of gender transition or even using names and pronouns which may be inconsistent with a person’s biological sex.

But gender identity is not settled in either Catholic teaching or pastoral practice, and many have criticized approaches like that of NCBC. O’Loughlin quoted Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, who criticized the conference for not considering “the most up to date scientific research research on transgender issues” or for hearing testimony from any trans individuals.  He continued:

“They should instead follow the example of Pope Francis who has revealed that he has had discussions with transgender Catholics.”

Theological experts who had not been invited to speak at the conference were interviewed by O’Loughlin.  They agreed that more reflection was needed beyond the simple answers offered at the NCBC.

Charles E. Bouchard, O.P., who directs ethics and theology for the Catholic Health Association, said while gender dysphoria was nearly settled as a legitimate medical condition, much is still unknown about gender identity and “we’re trying to be cautious before we make definitive ethical statements about it.”

Carol Bayley, vice president for ethics at the Dignity Health System, argued in 2016 that, in America’s words, “Catholic hospitals may be morally permitted to carry out some gender reassignment procedures. She urged Catholic hospitals to have an open mind and to educate staff about trans issues.” America magazine quoted Bayley:

“‘Because this condition is relatively rare, and also because it affects socially freighted aspects of our humanity—sex and gender—many in Catholic health care are unfamiliar with it. That should not prevent us from rendering compassionate care’. . .

“‘Furthermore, Catholic health care institutions should be cautious about developing practices that could violate their own policies of non-discrimination, particularly in light of the federal government’s recognition of transgender individuals as members of a protected class.'”

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Discerning a path for the church through which it can more inclusively and more lovingly respond to trans people and their loved ones is urgently needed work. Trans communities experience rates of violence, discrimination, and suicide far higher than the general population. Rejecting trans people from Catholic health providers, who care for 1 in 6 patients nationally, will create much suffering.

While NCBC, K of C, and similar Catholic right-wing groups want to stem the expansion of LGBT rights, and specifically protections for transgender persons, many Catholics, thankfully, are taking a more inclusive approach. A Jesuit priest in Canada recently spoke out for transgender equality legislation, Indian Catholics helped found a school for transgender youth, and theologians are exploring gender identity in positive ways.  Most recently, Fr. James Martin, SJ, spoke out in defense of transgender youth, in the midst of the U.S.’s latest “bathroom debate.”

Bishops in North America should not be swayed by right-wing groups who promote an ideological agenda not rooted in good science nor the personal experiences of trans people. Applying Pope Francis’ words quoted in the graphic above, Catholics have two paths which we can follow: the path of exclusion or the path of inclusion.

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, February 19, 2017

New Ways Ministry’s Eighth National Symposium, Justice and Mercy Shall Kiss: LGBT Catholics in the Age of Pope Francis, is scheduled for April 28-30, 2017, Chicago, Illinois. Plenary speakers:  Lisa Fullam, Leslie Griffin, Rev. Bryan Massingale, Frank Mugisha. Prayer leaders:  Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, Bishop John Stowe, OFM, Conv.  Pre-Symposium Retreat Leader:  Sr. Simone Campbell, SSS.  For more information and to register, visit www.Symposium2017.org.

 

Two Jesuits Offer Contrasting Reactions to Repeal of Guidelines Protecting Transgender Youth

U.S. bishops, including Bishop George Murry, S.J., have applauded the Trump administration’s decision to rescind federal guidelines aimed at protecting transgender students. In contrast, Fr. James Martin, S.J. criticized those who oppose transgender rights. But which of these two paths taken by Jesuit priests will Catholics follow should LGBT rights become repealed.

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Archbishop Charles Chaput and President Donald Trump

In a joint letter, Archbishop Charles Chaput, OFM Cap.,were of Philadelphia and Bishop George Murry, S.J. of Youngstown, in their respective capacities as chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth and Committee on Catholic Education, said they were “grateful” that the Trump administration has revoked a “Dear Colleagues” letter with guidelines for protecting transgender students that was issued during the Obama administration.

Describing the Trump administration’s decision, The New York Times reported that “top civil rights officials from the Justice Department and the Education Department rejected the Obama administration’s position” which had expanded nondiscrimination protections based on sex to include trans youth in public schools. Those protections allowed trans students to use sex-segregated spaces, like bathrooms and locker rooms, consistent with their gender, and to have their name and pronouns respected at school.

When the “Dear Colleagues” letter was issued last May, Bishop Richard Malone of Buffalo and Archbishop George Lucas of Omaha released a statement calling it “deeply disturbing.” Elsewhere, Catholic groups sued the Department of Health and Human Services last year to prevent implementation healthcare nondiscrimination protections similar to the education guidelines.

screen-shot-2017-02-24-at-10-48-38-amBut Fr. James Martin, S.J., took a different approach than his Jesuit counterpart, Bishop Murry. In a series of tweets on February 22nd, when the policy change was announced, Martin indirectly criticized the decision by expressing his support for transgender youth. Martin said:

  • #Trans students endure so many indignities already. They should be able to use whatever bathrooms they choose. It’s doesn’t hurt anybody.
  • It saddens me that a #trans student cannot choose what bathrooms to use. A basic need. It’s an affront to their dignity as human beings.
  • And who is harmed by a #trans student using a bathroom? I’ve seen women using men’s rooms when the ladies’ rooms were full. Who is harmed?
  • As usual, the one who is made to suffer indignities is the one on the margins, the one seen as “other,” the one seen as “them.”
  • But for Jesus, there is no “other.” There is no “them.” There is only “us.” So we must be about openness, acceptance and inclusion. #trans

screen-shot-2017-02-24-at-10-50-04-amFr. Martin, who received New Ways Ministry’s Bridge-Building Award last October, also posted messages on Facebook that were similar to his tweets. Last May, when the Obama administration implemented the now-rescinded directive, Martin, in an interview, said respecting trans people was a “fairly simple thing to do.

It is worth noting that another Jesuit priest and theologian, Fr. Gilles Mongeau, SJ, recently defended a transgender rights bill in Canada.

massingale_2The action of Frs. Martin and Mongeau align with theologians exhortations that the church should provide pastoral care to trans people and promote their human wholeness, while not treating trans people with with pity. Fr. Bryan Massingale has written movingly about why the church cannot abandon transgender people. (Note: Fr. Massingale will be speaking at New Ways Ministry’s 8th National Symposium, “Justice and Mercy Shall Kiss: LGBT Catholics in the Age of Pope Francis,” this April. For more information, please visit www.symposium2017.org).

Supporting trans people is consistent with church teaching, and already practiced by many of the faithful, especially outside the U.S. Indeed, historically Catholic nations have led on expanding rights for trans and intersex people: Malta has enacted what is considered the gold standard of gender identity laws in Europe, and the Associated Press reported that Argentina has “the world’s most far-reaching laws” that allow children as young as 6 to have official documents which conform with their gender identity. In India, the bishops’ development agency launched an outreach program for trans people, and Catholics helped open the nation’s first school with supports for trans youth.

Speaking about hope in a recent weekly audience, Pope Francis said that the hope given to us by God “does not separate us from others, nor does it lead us to discredit or marginalize them.” With a U.S. federal government now led by politicians with long records of hostility toward LGBT rights, it is now more urgent than ever for Catholics to reject Bishop Murry’s path of exclusion and discrimination and instead choose Fr. Martin’s path of compassion and inclusion.

You can find more of Bondings 2.0’s coverage of gender identity issues in our “Transgender” category to the right or by clicking here.

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, February 25, 2017

New Ways Ministry’s Eighth National Symposium, Justice and Mercy Shall Kiss: LGBT Catholics in the Age of Pope Francis, is scheduled for April 28-30, 2017, Chicago, Illinois. Plenary speakers:  Lisa Fullam, Leslie Griffin, Rev. Bryan Massingale, Frank Mugisha. Prayer leaders:  Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, Bishop John Stowe, OFM, Conv.  Pre-Symposium Retreat Leader:  Sr. Simone Campbell, SSS.  For more information and to register, visit www.Symposium2017.org.

Same-Gender Love “Not a Natural Condition,” Says Vatican Official

A senior Vatican official who defended the reception of Communion by divorced and remarried Catholics has said such openness does not apply to same-gender relationships, which he said were “not a natural condition.”

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Cardinal Francesco Coccopalmerio

Cardinal Francesco Coccopalmerio, president of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, made his comments in a recent interview with Crux.

The cardinal sparked headlines earlier this month for publishing a booklet in which he defended Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics. Crux reported further:

“Asked if this interpretation applies also to gay couples who live together, some civilly married too, Coccopalmerio said that it’s ‘clearly’ not the same situation because for Church teaching and doctrine, ‘it’s not a natural condition. We can accept them, welcome them, accept their decision, but it’s not [the same].'”

The booklet, titled The Eighth Chapter of the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation ‘Amoris Laetitia’, was offered as a “simplification” against claims by more traditionalist Catholics that there was doctrinal confusion, Coccopalmerio said. Though not released in any formal capacity, his comments are especially noteworthy because the Pontifical Council he oversees is charged with interpreting church documents. He is also a member of both the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the Apostolic Signatura.

Coccopalmerio’s reasoning is worth a closer consideration given his tenuous claim that same-gender couples can not be included in his communion idea. In the booklet, the cardinal explained the conditions under which a Catholic in a “non-legitimate” heterosexual relationship could receive Communion: the person is “conscious of the wrongness of the situation, has the desire to change it but can’t because it would hurt innocent people, such as the children,” and has consulted a priest and/or bishop to find a “common solution” through dialogue. America reported on a case study offered by the cardinal:

“He cited as an example the case of a woman who is free to marry according to church law and decides to enter into a stable relationship and lives with a married man, whose wife had left him with three young children. In such a case, he explained, ‘the children would now consider her their mother and for the man, she is his life,’ as she means everything to him. If she eventually recognizes the problem with her situation and decides to leave, then her husband and children will find themselves in great difficulty. But the cardinal said, ‘If this woman concludes “I cannot leave. I cannot do such harm to them,” then this situation, where she wants to change but cannot change, opens the possibility of admissions to the sacraments.’

“In such a situation, the cardinal said, there is the recognition of sin and the sincere desire to change but also the impossibility of making it happen. In this situation, he would tell her, ‘remain in this situation, and I absolve you.’ While he said that he has never had to refuse absolution to anyone, the cardinal nevertheless insisted that ‘one cannot give absolution except to persons who are repentant and desire or want to change their situation, even if they cannot put their desire into practice now because that would harm innocent persons.’ In this way, he said, ‘the doctrine is safeguarded but takes account of the impossibility.’

Coccopalmerio also said that ideally such a couple should live without sexual intimacy, but also noted that Amoris Laetitia referenced Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes, where it is acknowledged that lack of such intimacy could deeply harm relationships. It may be impossible, he admitted, for couples in “non-legitimate” situations to practice complete abstinence. He ultimately affirmed the necessity of Catholics in these situations to make a conscience decision.

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I explained his reasoning in such detail above because as I read the interview, I wondered why his reasoning about Catholics who are divorced and remarried cannot, in his estimation, apply to Catholics in same-gender relationships. If his positions are accepted and engaged, then shouldn’t same-gender couples be able to receive Communion after consulting a priest, making penance, and following their consciences, even if they remain in such situations? Granted, given the Magisterium’s present articulations of church doctrine, there are differences between the two groups, but appeals to conscience make no such distinctions. Every person is mandated to follow the decisions of a properly formed conscience.

The reason for Coccopalmerio’s dissonance is his statement about same-gender relationships as “not a natural condition.” Such a statement reveals inadequate knowledge about sexuality, and likely an unfamiliarity with the lives of LGB people. He appears unable to imagine same-gender relationships as loving and generative, and worse yet, he seems to imply LGB people have less moral agency than their heterosexual peers.

Cardinal Coccopalmerio is not the first, and sadly will not be the last, church leader to hold such errant views about sexuality. But I find his remarks particularly disheartening. When news of his booklet first broke, I was glad to see a Vatican official so willing to practice the mercy and respect for conscience called for by Pope Francis. That he could not extend that willingness to include LGBT people greatly undercuts his message. I pray his eyes will be opened to that natural and divine spark found and mixed-gender and same-gender relationships alike.

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, February 24, 2017

Bishops Take Note: Marriage Equality Linked to Decreased Youth Suicides

According to a new study, suicide attempts by youth have decreased where marriage equality is enacted. Such data should be a wake-up call for Catholic bishops rethink their strong opposition to equal civil marriage rights and LGBT rights more generally.

web1_suicide-stop2JAMA Pediatrics, a leading medical journal, published the study, “Difference-in-Difference Analysis of the Association Between Same-Sex Marriage Policies and Adolescent Suicide Attempts,” in its February 20, 2017 edition. PBS Newshour reported:

“The researchers found that suicide attempts by high school students decreased by 7 percent in states after they passed laws to legalize same-sex marriage, before the Supreme Court legalized it nationwide in 2015. Among LGB high school students, the decrease was especially concentrated, with suicide attempts falling by 14 percent.

“But in states that did not legalize same-sex marriage, there was no change.”

PBS noted that overall deaths by suicide for all populations have risen during the period surveyed by this study, 1999 to 2015. Led by Julia Raifman of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, researchers compared suicide rates between states that had and had not passed marriage equality. She told PBS:

“Raifman told the [PBS] NewsHour she was interested in studying same-sex marriage laws ‘as a marker of equal rights in general,’ adding that other laws that pertain to LGBT rights — such as employment and housing protections — still vary widely around the country.

“The study noted that the laws themselves reflected larger social trends toward support for the LGBT community, a possible factor in the fall in suicide attempts. But Raifman said that the decrease was especially concentrated around the time that same-sex marriage laws passed.”

What is left unexplained is why the decrease in suicide attempts is correlated to marriage equality. Raifman suggested it could be mental health improvements that come with being considered equal in society or seeing more representations in public life of married same-gender couples. PBS reported further:

“The feelings of being accepted and connected to society have “a protective effect in relation to suicide risk, suicidal ideation and suicidal behaviors,” said Dr. Victor Schwartz, a chief medical officer of the JED Foundation who works to reduce youth suicide. Schwartz wasn’t involved in the study. . .

“‘[Stigma is] a real risk factor, a feeling that you’re at odds with your family or community. . .It’s very painful, and can be very frightening. You feel like you’re going to be left out on your own.'”

Dr. Brian Mustanski of Northwestern University’s Institute for Sexual and Gender Minority Health and Wellbeing, said the wider literature shows “positive health effects of social policies that affirm and protect the equality of the LGBT community, and those positive benefits extend beyond LGBT individuals to the general population.”

Will these findings affect the way U.S. church leaders relate to LGBT equality? They should. Religious leaders, including Catholic bishops, have led the opposition against marriage equality and LGBT rights generally. But their opposition, as many pointed out, has the potential of causing harm to LGBT people, especially youth. Given the fact that 15 youths in the United States die by suicide each day and that LGB youth have an attempted suicide rate four times the average, this approach is no longer tolerable, if it ever was.

The U.S. bishops promote pro-life activities, but most often limit these to abortion. Many Catholics question bishops’ real commitment to social justice. But if the bishops are indeed pro-life, then why have they shown so little regard for the lives of LGBT people? If this latest research, which shows how much good legal equality can have on the lives of LGBT youth, does not move their hearts to end campaigns against LGBT rights, then their pro-life admonitions will ring empty.

Earlier this week, Bondings 2.0 reported about the Vatican’s effort to gather input directly from youth and young adults for the 2018 Synod of Bishops. Pope Francis and the Curia seem to have the right approach to engage youth, who are much more strongly aware of the need for LGBT acceptance, inclusion and justice. The U.S. bishops need to change their approach to LGBT rights not just for the good of sexual and gender diverse people, but because doing so will save lives and help youth flourish.

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, February 23, 2017

 

Rejection of LGBT Student Group Raises Problems at Catholic H.S.

Following a Missouri Catholic high school’s rejection of a proposed LGBT student group, community members are asking questions about how and why this decision was made. So far there are few clear answers.

kuzp-ldkAt Nerinx Hall Catholic High School, in Webster Groves, near St. Louis, School President John Gabriel said the Archdiocese of St. Louis directed him to reject a request from students for an LGBT club, reported the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

In a response to concerned alumna, Jill Allen, Gabriel explained that the archdiocese mandated any student LGBT group at the all-girls school follow “a carefully charted course of action that includes conversion therapy.” He would later say he misread this archdiocesan directive.  He also told Allen:

“Nerinx Hall believes that we can best minister to our LGBT students through our Loretto charism and the Loretto school values of faith, community, justice, and respect.”

But, Allen wrote in her initial letter to the school president, that rejecting an LGBT group “doesn’t reflect my experience of Nerinx,” and is not consistent with Loretto values. And Allen is not alone. Within a day, more than 600 people joined a Facebook group protesting the rejection. Beth Schumacher, class of 2001, told the Post-Dispatch:

“‘There are a lot of alumnae out there who are really, really disappointed both with the decision and with the direction it might be going in right now. . .There are young people at risk. If someone is asking for a club of that nature, then there are definitely individuals who can use that level of support.'”

The school was founded and is currently sponsored by the Sisters of Loretto.  It an independent institution not formally affiliated with the Archdiocese.  On the school’s website, the statement of philosophy says that the school believes “educated, caring, and empowered young women are essential to our world.” It shares in the Loretto School Values, which include:

“Community: Building relationships that are affirming, inclusive, empowering, and compassionate

“Justice: Promoting changes to eliminate oppression, and creating systems and relationships in which people, especially women, are treated fairly and impartially

“Respect: Being open to differences, and believing in each person’s potential. Promoting the dignity of individuals and protecting the sacredness of all creation.”

Sister Jeannine Gramick, New Ways Ministry’s co-founder and lifelong Catholic advocate for LGBT people provided the following comment to Bondings 2.0 about this decision made at a school that is sponsored by her religious community:

“As a Sister of Loretto, I am embarrassed and ashamed by the stance taken by Mr. John Gabriel. Such a posture does not reflect the Loretto values of inclusion, diversity, and care for all. The students and alumnae of Nerinx deserve leadership that displays these Gospel-based values.”

The story of the school’s decision became even more complex when later in the day, in a letter to parents after news of the rejection broke, Gabriel retracted his claim about “conversion” therapy, writing:

“Today, a Post-Dispatch reporter reached out to Nerinx Hall and the Archdiocese. In preparing my response to the reporter, I also spoke with Archdiocesan Superintendent Dr. Kurt Nelson. It was during my conversation with him that I realized I had misunderstood the Archdiocesan position on conversion therapy within school LGBTQ+ groups.”

Responding to the Post-Dispatch, Gabriel simply “sent a reporter a list of Nerinx Hall’s initiatives to promote diversity and inclusion, which include training for teachers on ministry to LGBT individuals and diversity forums for students.” He commented only that Nerinx Hall would be consulting with the Archdiocese on next steps.

Unfortunately, it is not merely Gabriel and Nerinx Hall administrators who are involved, as they may be more willing to listen to alumnae. Gabe Jones, an archdiocesan spokesperson, said Archbishop Robert Carlson is responsible for all Catholics, and “[w]hen it comes to Catholic teaching, the archdiocese is the arbiter of what is Catholic and what is not.”

At issue in this debate are guidelines on LGBT ministry published by the Archdiocese last year. Titled “Hope and Holiness: Pastoral Care for Those with Same-Sex Attraction,” these guidelines include a “triage checklist” for dealing with LGBT people, and discourage people from publicly coming out. The guidelines also mandate that the Archdiocese be consulted if an LGBT group is being considered at a school or parish.  The guidelines express concern about how adolescents are considered in such groups:

“[T]he boundaries between transitory same-sex attraction and more deep-seated tendencies are not always clear. It is not unusual for a young person to experience attraction to a person of the same sex. It is important not to assume that such experiences are the result of a deep-seated tendency.”

Perhaps this is what confused President Gabriel into citing conversion therapy as a reason for the rejection. It is troubling that a lack of clarity still exists about how, why, and by whom the decision was made. This haze is similar to other LGBT controversies at Catholic institutions where culpability for unpopular decisions is treated as hot potato, passed around by church officials.

But this is a prime moment in which a Catholic high school can assert its independence and take a firm stand for its LGBTQ students. As a former Loretto Volunteer and friend of some Sisters of Loretto, I have come to know well the values of the Loretto Community, with which Nerinx Hall is affiliated. The Sisters “work for justice and act for peace because the Gospel urges us,” and have done so with a pioneer mentality for over two centuries. President Gabriel and Nerinx Hall administrators should tap into the Community’s rich Catholic roots to find a way forward consistent with this history and these values.

What would be best at this moment is for administrators at Nerinx Hall and Archbishop Carlson to share transparently what happened: Did the Archdiocese demand the group be rejected? Are Nerinx Hall administrators hiding their decision under the Archdiocese’s umbrella? Was conversion therapy a relevant aspect in the rejection? And what happens now? Nerinx Hall students, alumnae, teachers, parents, and Catholics in St. Louis generally deserve nothing less than honest and clear answers to these questions.

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, February 16, 2017

Malta’s Rapid Shift on LGBT Rights Is Case Study for Other Catholic Nations

Malta has elected the nation’s first transgender politician, a sign of just how far on LGBT rights a country where Roman Catholicism remains the state religion has come. A closer analysis of this shift could help Catholics in other regions in their own journeys towards equality.

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Crowds in Malta celebrating Pride Week

Alex Mangion became Malta’s first transgender politician when he won a local election as the Partit Nazzjonalista (Nationalist Party) candidate, reported The Independent. But support for LGBT rights in the conservative party that had controlled Malta’s government since the late 1990s is a recent development, and came only after its 2013 defeat to the Partit Laburista (Labor Party) who had made LGBT rights a major platform item.

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Alex Mangion

Though the Nationalist Party had abstained from a successful vote on civil unions in 2014, Mangion said that presently “having a transgender person in the party made people realize it’s not conservative.” And by 2015, the Nationalist Party had joined the Labor Party in passing a groundbreaking transgender rights law. (It is worth noting that, under that very law, Mangion became “the first person in this tiny nation to be able to update the gender on his official documents without undergoing surgery or hormone treatment.”)

The Independent noted that this shift in a political party is “a microcosm of the evolution underway in Malta,” a traditional Catholic country which outlawed divorce as late as 2011. But where LGBT people once hid, rejected by church leaders and stigmatizing social norms, a married same-gender couple, Steve and Manuel Aquilina, now hosts and produces a leading cooking show. A colleague of theirs, Victor Anastasi, said:

“‘They’re accepted like everyone else. . .We’re a Catholic country. But eventually the church has to come to terms [with society changing].”

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Joseanne Peregin

Joseanne Peregin, the Catholic mother of a gay son, recalled a bishop once saying, “If you’re gay, excommunicate yourself. Go, there is no place for you in the church.” But then in 2011, she said, the Catholic Church’s control over Maltese politics was undercut sharply when divorce was legalized through a popular referendum.

Now it must be acknowledged,, said Fr. Rene Camilleri, that Catholics in Malta “are not taking a package deal.” Camilleri, who is Episcopal Vicar for Evangelization for the Archdiocese of Malta and a lecturer at the University of Malta, has previously described church teaching on homosexuality as “nonsensical.” He also said Catholic ministers “cannot deprive [same-gender couples] of the blessing for which they ask.”

Today, other nations seek to learn from and even copy Malta’s LGBT laws. Minister for Social Dialogue, Consumer Affairs, and Civil Liberties Helena Dalli said that “what we have done here is serving as a model to other countries, and, in a good way, because more people are leading better lives.” And The Independent continued:

“Kyle Knight, a New York-based researcher for Human Rights Watch, said that what’s particularly admirable about Malta’s LGBT rights laws is ‘not just the result as much as the process’ that led to their creation.

“Members of the LGBT community, other advocates and a local human rights group served on a council set up in 2013 to advise the government. Legislation was accompanied by directives that covered how LGBT people in prison should be treated and how schools should deal with bullying of transgender or gay students.

“When Knight was recently asked in Japan how schools should handle anti-LGBT bullying, ‘We copied and pasted these (Maltese) guidance documents and we said, “Look, this is how you do it,”‘ he recalled.”

While marriage equality is not legal yet in Malta, same-gender couples are recognized through civil unions, there are extensive non-discrimination protections, so-called “conversion therapy” is banned with harsh penalties in place, and a 2015 law on transgender and intersex persons is considered the gold standard in Europe.

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The island nation of Malta

How does a country where Roman Catholicism is named in the constitution as the state’s religion and where 95% of its citizens identify as Catholic become so progressive in a short time? Some observers might consider Malta a paradox, understanding LGBT equality and the Catholic Church to be opposites. Yet, there is a very plausible explanation for what has happened.

First, it is an oft-repeated but worth reiterating truism: Catholics support LGBT equality because of, not in spite of their faith. Key tenets like social justice, human dignity, and non-discrimination have informed the faithful’s engagement in civic matters, and this includes working for the rights of sexual and gender minorities. It makes sense the citizens of Malta who practice, or even are simply informed by, Catholic faith would vote for equality.

Second, it has to be admitted that there are non-ecclesial matters influencing this shift. In Western contexts, homosexuality has been largely de-stigmatized and neighboring countries in Europe have been moving forward on LGBT rights. Some have credited Malta joining the European Union as an impetus for catching up to their neighbors, and now taking the lead. As in other Western contexts, Mass attendance and the moral authority of bishops have declined in recent years. Some people leave, or are pushed out of, the church, and there is a certain amount of secularizing that happens. These factors and more, as in other regions, contribute to the rapid pace of the shift.

2b5de-drachmabloglogoBut third, many Maltese remain practicing Catholics and this has made the biggest difference. A few weeks ago, I highlighted the positive outreach of the country’s bishops to LGBT communities . In fact, Malta’s leading gay rights group gave the bishops an award in 2014. Here are other important examples of positive Catholic moments on LGBT issues:

  • Drachma and Drachma Parents are both Catholic organizations engaging LGBT issues in the church, and they have made an impact. They helped consult on the civil unions law, pushing back against a bishop’s criticism, They hosted Sr. Jeannine Gramick in 2011 to educate about LGBT equality in the church. They also hosted theologians Sr. Margaret Farley, RSM, and James Alison.) They were credited by Bishop Mario Grech as helping him to understand the need and urgency for new pastoral care of LGBT people;
  • A priest who blessed a same-gender couple’s rings was not punished by the bishop; indeed, Archbishop Charles Scicluna affirmed the priest’s outreach efforts to LGBT people;
  • After releasing a harsh position paper opposing the government’s efforts to ban “conversion therapy,” a paper in which homosexuality was compared to pedophilia, Archbishop Charles Scicluna listened to Catholics’ criticism and then apologizedsaying the church was “dead set” against such programs.

Though I have never experienced the Church of Malta firsthand, I sense a serious Christian community of mature and critically engaged Catholics. Lay Catholics, and clergy like Fr. Camilleri, have grappled with not only church teaching, but the realities of their context.And, quite notably, the country’s bishops have been willing to affirm LGBT people as beloved by God and to listen to their people. They have even been willing to acknowledge where the hierarchy had it wrong, and to apologize to those whom they have harmed.

In under a decade, Malta went from being socially conservative to a world leader on LGBT rights. Maltese Catholics are a shining example of what can happen when the faithful really listen to the Gospel and live their faith in public life. Let us hope more and more historically-Catholic regions follow this path, especially in areas like Latin America and Africa where the church is rapidly growing and yet LGBT rights remain limited.

If you would like to read reflections from members of Drachma Parents, you can find Louise Laferia’s reflection on the call of being a parent to an LGBT person here and Joseanne and Joseph Peregin’s reflection on what makes a family holy here. For Bondings 2.0’s full coverage of LGBT Catholic issues in Malta, click here.

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, February 13, 2017

 

After Trans Student Shot, Catholic School Shifts Course

A British Catholic school is attempting to make itself a safer space after a transgender girl student was shot with a BB gun by another student. Though the school has responded with some positive steps, this horrifying incident is a reminder of the urgency with which Catholic education needs to become safer for LGBT students.

safe-schools_0A transgender girl in Manchester, England, was shot by a classmate after months of severe bullying, and just two days after the girl’s mother met with school officials about a previous bullying incident.

G, a pseudonym for the 11-year-old girl, had endured five months of harrassment and threats, according to her mother, identified as A. Gay Star News reported:

“Last Monday, G’s mother A was called into school following a ‘distressing’ incident [wherein students had written a series of anti-transgender slurs on her notebook, which we have chosen to omit here]. . .

“The previous day, A said she had sent an email to staff about the escalating bullying. While she was bullied a little at primary, it got a lot worse when she joined secondary school. And she believes that email was ignored.

“‘Pupils have thrown water over her, spat at her, and kicked her to the ground. Not a day goes by without her being attacked, insulted or threatened with violence,’ her mother said.”

A said she told school officials that “something bad was going to happen,” and she faulted them for doing little to intervene against the bullying. When G was shot, her mother said the school did not notify A for over an hour. When she arrived at school, A found her daughter “extremely quiet, just shaking and not speaking.”

Though the physical harm was minimal, the emotional wounds of these incidents have left G in pain. She is unable to sleep because of nightmares, and she has vocalized thoughts about suicide. The family is seeking supports for her. A explained that it has been very clear since her daughter’s coming out that they would need to work hard to ensure G does not become one of the many transgender youth who die prematurely from violence or by suicide.

The Catholic school, which has gone unnamed in news reports, is now taking steps to educate students and staff towards creating a safer environment, reported the Manchester Evening News. The headteacher said the student who fired the BB gun has been expelled. In a statement, the headteacher said:

“The victim is a transgender pupil and sadly there have been incidents of bullying before this latest incident. We have worked with our pupils to respect and accept people of different sexual orientation and identities and will continue to do this. We have enlisted the support of a national organisation to help us further with our training of staff and pupils and support for our transgender pupils. We have met with the parents of the pupil to apologise and to see what we can do further as a school.”

These efforts have included inviting Stonewall, an LGBT organization in England, to do trainings for members of the school community. But school officials should not stop there or lessen their commitment to LGBT students. The mother was clear that the intense bullying G experienced is because of her gender, saying, “It is a hate of who she is and it is awful.”

At least one other British Catholic school has worked with Stonewall, the United Kingdom’s leading LGBT equality group, to make schools safer.  As Bondings 2.0 noted when we reported this news in 2013, such a relationship between a religious group and a secular group is a model for how the Church and the LGBT community could work together.

On a related note, a transgender student Mason Catrambone, who was rejected by a Catholic high school in New Jersey last year, recently began classes at a public school that welcomes him.

During National Catholic Schools Week in January, we featured an Australian gay man who thanked his Catholic school for helping him come out and feel affirmed. While this is not the experience of many LGBT Students, and certainly G has suffered greatly at a Catholic school, it is helpful to remember that the church’s education programs can be a source of tremendous good if done in welcoming and affirming ways.

For now, let us pray that G finds healing and can return, as she hopes to do, to her Catholic school — a place where, increasingly, every student is safe, welcomed, and affirmed.

New Ways Ministry’s Eighth National Symposium, “Justice and Mercy Shall Kiss:  LGBT Catholics in the Age of Pope Francis.” will include a focus session on, “Youth, Young Adult Ministry, and LGBT Questions,” led by campus minister and researcher Michael Maher.  We will also host a focus session on “Transgender and Intersex Identities and the Family,” featuring Deacon Ray Dever, Lexi Dever, and Nicole Santamaria. The symposium is scheduled for April 28–30, 2017, in Chicago.  For more information, click here.

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, February 9, 2017