Catholic School Apologizes to, Accommodates Transgender Student

Lily Madigan

A Catholic school which had suspended a transgender student for wearing a uniform consistent with her gender has apologized and implemented new accommodations.

St. Simon Stock Catholic School in Kent, England, apologized to student Lily Madigan. The school said in a letter that she may wear a female uniform and use female restrooms and locker rooms, reported the Daily Mail.

Madigan was sent home and threatened with suspension in March for wearing the “wrong uniform,” having worn a female uniform to school as part of her transition. School officials told the student she would not only be forced to wear a male uniform, but would have to use male restrooms and be called by her legal name, Liam. Madigan said wearing a female-appropriate uniform as part of her transition “made me feel so happy, until I was sent home,” and told Buzzfeed:

” ‘It made me feel that something was wrong with me. You think maybe you’re the problem. It’s alienating. You think school is supposed to be there for you and when that happens it breaks your trust.’ “

A meeting with Madigan, wearing the male uniform, her mother, and school officials was unsuccessful at resolving the situation. She was presented with, in her words, “an ultimatum” from the school which told her to either comply with their policies or leave. Unable to leave, Madigan wore a male uniform for several weeks which caused her depression to worsen and energy to weaken.

Responding to the school’s decision, Madigan organized a petition and received support from more than 200 classmates. That petition stated, in part:

” ‘Transgender students make up some of the most vulnerable students in schools. . . Changing these policies wouldn’t affect other students but not doing so clearly and greatly affects trans students.

“The school already has an equality and diversity policy (created in response to the equality act 2010) so treating us equality should be a no issue. . .This is about trans people presenting how they feel they should be, how they want people to see them, to recognise themselves when they catch their reflection.”

Madigan also retained a lawyer who reminded school officials of the UK’s Human Rights Act and 2010 Equality Act, which says no one may be discriminated against “because of their gender reassignment as a transsexual.” The Act has over authority over the Catholic school because it is state-funded, and it seems efforts by the law firm which took the case pro-bono were key to the reversal.

In addition to the apology and accommodations for Madigan, school staff will receive training on transgender issues. St. Simon Stock’s spokesperson said supporting trans students “is an important issue for us, as for schools up and down the country.” They continued:

” ‘As an inclusive, Catholic academy, we are confident that the attention we have given to transgender, including carefully listening to students, has been invaluable in us going even further to make sure all students are happy and comfortable, so that they can be as successful as possible.’ “

Madigan was pleased with the school’s decision, but said she “felt it was something I shouldn’t have had to fight so hard for, if at all” and further:

” ‘I’m encouraged in that I’ve seen what I’m capable of achieving and I’m proud, but I’m not encouraged about the school’s attitude to equality.’ “

It is unfortunate when politics about school uniforms and gendered spaces impair Catholic education from enacting its true mission, which is the formation and flourishing of its students. Lily’s initially painful story is reminiscent of other extreme decisions here in the U.S. In the Diocese of Little Rock, Arkansas, a new policy threatens LGBT students with expulsion for coming out.  And earlier this year in Pennsylvania, a Catholic high school ejected a lesbian student  from prom because she wore a suit.

Policies are about matters such as wearing pants or a skirt are only important to the degree in which they harm students. Nothing in church teaching mandates clothing along a gender binary, and church teaching would actually affirm helping students become their authentic selves. Efforts to police gender are becoming outdated, and Catholic schools should give up these attempts to suppress the signs of the times in favor of supporting every student.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry, October 22, 2016

Newly-Named Cardinal Comments on LGBT Church Worker Firings

A U.S. bishop who will be made a cardinal in late November has spoken publicly about the pattern in recent years of LGBT church workers firings.

Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin

Archbishop Joseph Tobin of Indianapolis was interviewed by Michael O’Loughlin of America after being named last week as one of thirteen new cardinals. Asked how the church should respond to LGBT church workers, especially those employees in same-gender marriages, Tobin was skeptical that any national employment policy could be developed. He advocated dealing with church workers on a case-by-case basis:

” ‘If I have someone who is a teacher, I think that’s a little different than someone who is a [chief financial officer]. . .I would want to speak with the person about it, and ask, “Do you find any sort of dissonance within yourself teaching faithfully what the church teaches and the choices you make in your life?” ‘ “

Archbishop Tobin commented, too, on his episcopal colleagues and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), which will vote on new leadership and priorities at their fall plenary in November. The archbishop said bishops in the U.S. need to communicate better and follow the pope in valuing “discernment in a synodal way,” continuing:

“[We should] develop a spirit of discernment among us, reading the signs of the times and places in the light of the faith, and being able to talk about that and asking ourselves, what is God’s will? Where is God opening a door?”

For three years, the USCCB has defied the pastoral agenda of Pope Francis with little attention to the signs of the times on LGBT rights and many other issues. But Tobin affirmed the pope, with whom he is acquainted from the 2005 Synod on the Eucharist, and said Francis is calling in Amoris Laetitia for the church to elevate “a way of thinking of what it means to follow or lead a life of discipleship today.”

Two other notable points came up in the America interview.

First, the archbishop said today’s church officials in Rome had a deeper “appreciation and gratitude” for women religious in the U.S.  Tobin had been secretary of the Vatican’s Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life when dual interventions–one a doctrinal investigation of  the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, and one an apostolic visitation of U.S. women’s religious communities–began in 2012.

Tobin defended the sisters, and he was promoted horizontally out of Rome to Indianapolis. The questions these investigations provoked, however, meant the church “understood in a more profound way, just what an important, critical role sisters play.”

Second, Tobin affirmed the need for ministry at the margins when speaking about his own religious identity. Ordained a Redemptorist priest, and later elected superior general, Tobin said the community’s mission is “always like to look on the other side of the tracks and care for people that maybe the church isn’t able to care for.” He said further:

“Our founder spoke of the most abandoned poor and that can take different form in different areas. The way I hear it, and the way I would speak of it when I was superior general, was basically we must go where the church isn’t able to go.”

By all accounts, Archbishop Tobin seems to practice the pastorally-oriented leadership so desired by Pope Francis. His recognition that the church must be present at the margins, and his affirmation of women religious, who have been present there, could indicate a more pastoral approach on LGBT issues.

That is why his comments on LGBT church workers are puzzling to me. While he affirms the need to interact with every employee in a charitable way, including a conversation, the case-by-case solution he proposes does not actually protect LGBT church workers and their families from discrimination.

When it comes to employment, such provisional solutions are almost never adequate. For every Archbishop Tobin in Indianapolis who is pastorally shepherding God’s people, there is a Bishop Tobin in Providence whose firing of a gay music director has forced many more parishioners to question their relationship to the church. . Lacking explicit non-discrimination policies and demonstrated support programs, church institutions remain dangerous workplaces when one’s livelihood depends on the bishop’s whim.

For Bondings 2.0‘s full coverage of this story, and other LGBT-related church worker disputes, click the ‘Employment Issues’ category to the right or here. You can click here to find a full listing of the more than 60 incidents since 2007 where church workers have lost their jobs over LGBT identity, same-sex marriages, or public support for equality.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry, October 20, 2016

Catholicism and the Disappearing Middle Ground on LGBT Rights

By Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry, October 20, 2016

Is a middle ground on LGBT issues disappearing and, if it is, what does this mean for Catholics? David Gushee of Religion News Service answered the first part of this question affirmatively, writing in a new piece:

“It turns out that you are either for full and unequivocal social and legal equality for LGBT people, or you are against it, and your answer will at some point be revealed. This is true both for individuals and for institutions.

“Neutrality is not an option. Neither is polite half-acceptance. Nor is avoiding the subject. Hide as you might, the issue will come and find you.”

Where most institutions, organizations, and businesses in the United States have accepted LGBT equality, the holdouts are religious communities and those civil communities where conservative Christians have a dominant impact. Churches and affiliated institutions are, Gushee noted, “digging in their heels — even against profound and pained internal opposition from their own dissenters.” He continued:

“These institutions and their leaders are interpreting pressure to reconsider as pressure to succumb to error, or even heresy.

“They are interpreting social changes toward nondiscrimination as mere embrace of sexual libertinism.

“They are attempting to tighten doctrinal statements in order to tamp down dissent or drive out dissenters.

“They are organizing legal defense efforts under the guise of religious liberty, and interpreting their plight as religious persecution.

“They are confident that they have the moral high ground, and from their remaining, shrinking spaces of power they still try to punish those who stray from orthodoxy as they understand it.

Gushee’s description fits well the reality of the Catholic Church in the United States. While the faithful support LGBT civil rights, the bishops’ sustain their opposition. As more and more LGBT church workers are fired, it looks more and more like they are being punished. From the other side, political liberals and some LGBT advocates, there is almost contempt for non-affirming religious communities.

Fr. John Jenkins, CSC, the president of the University of Notre Dame, Indiana, opined on the emerging context of LGBT rights in the U.S. for the Wall Street JournalJenkins commented on the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s recent decision to move its national championships out of North Carolina in response to that state’s HB 2 law targeting LGBT people, and said:

“Heightened respect for the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender citizens is a signal moral achievement of our time, and harboring reservations about any retrenchment is natural. Yet some citizens may wonder about the implications of substituting gender identity for biological sex in public restrooms. While attending to the rights and sensibilities of transgender persons, it’s important to also take into account the feelings of those who might be uncomfortable undressing in front of a member of the opposite biological sex.”

Jenkins said that while society “has become inured to public disputes over neuralgic moral and social questions,” universities can foster reflection and discussion:

“At a time when tweets, slogans and sound bites seem to define the substance of our political discourse; when respect for truth seems a casualty of the campaign; and when ideological polarization often hamstrings responsible governing, the nation needs universities to raise the intellectual tone of Americans’ discussions more than ever.”

SocialCommsDay.jpgI see that there is a need for middle ground on two levels: the legal and the ecclesial.

In the legal context, protecting the civil rights of every person requires a careful handling of how such protections interact with religious institutions. Admitting exemptions where necessary can seem like prudent acts. Claims of an attack on religious liberty by the U.S. bishops and other conservatives are overblown, but religious liberty is something worth protecting. Legally, a middle ground seems necessary in a pluralistic society and even vital to healthy democracy. Given the intense complexities of these issues, universities seem like prime sites where intelligent debate and informed discourse could happen.

In the ecclesial context, however, the concept of middle ground becomes more problematic. What does it mean to hold a middle ground in the church? If it means allowing space for people to grapple with church teaching and the signs of the times, receiving pastoral support when needed, then this is the right of every Catholic and it is good. But if middle ground means, in practice, not challenging the prejudices of some believers and allowing extremists to target LGBT church workers or demean same-gender marriages, then it cannot be acceptable.

Unfortunately, Fr. Jenkin’s leadership at Notre Dame undermines his point about universities’ potential contributions. It was only in 2012, after decades of activism by students and alumni, that the University began offering formal support for LGBTQ students. Notre Dame students, however, have questioned the strength of this commitment, and it was reported the University denied housing to a transgender student. Though there have been positive developments, can Catholic colleges and universities like Notre Dame be places of dialogue when LGBT people are left vulnerable to discrimination and violence?

This question seems pertinent to the wider church, too. How can we be a church of dialogue and of encounter when members of the Body of Christ feel unwelcome and even unsafe? When church workers are fired and bishops remain silent after the slaughter of 50 LGBT people in Orlando? Vatican II called the church to dialogue, a defining aspect of the Council and a practice to which we should aspire. But dialogue and understanding, the very essence of middle ground, can only happen when all feel respected, equal, and safe. It might be that middle ground has not disappeared in the Catholic Church on LGBT issues, but that it never existed at all.

Yes to Religious Liberty. But What Does That Actually Mean?

By Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry, October 17, 2016

If asked, most Catholics today would agree that religious liberty is an essential part of the church’s social teaching and most people would identify religious liberty as a constitutive democratic principle.

But questioned further, these same people would offer very different understandings of just what the religious liberty they so affirm actually means. While there are genuine threats to religious liberty internationally, in the United States, religious liberty has become mostly a prominent campaign issue for the right and a puzzling obsession for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Organizations on the left have pushed back against these forces, and even more issues have arisen as civil rights expand for LGBT people.

peaceful-coexistence-report_269_350A new report from the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights explored the complicated questions of nondiscrimination protections and religious liberty in a new report, Peaceful CoexistenceThis 300-page report from the independent and non-partisan federal agency examined issues like the ministerial exemption to employment protections and included statements from noted scholars, as well as these words from Commission Chair Martin R. Castro:

“The phrases ‘religious liberty’ and ‘religious freedom’ will stand for nothing except hypocrisy so long as they remain code words for discrimination, intolerance, racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, Christian supremacy or any form of intolerance. . .

“[T]oday, as in the past, religion is being used as both a weapon and a shield by those seeking to deny others equality. In our nation’s past religion has been used to justify slavery and later, Jim Crow laws. We now see “religious liberty” arguments sneaking their way back into our political and constitutional discourse (just like the concept of ‘state rights’) in an effort to undermine the rights of some Americans.”

Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, in his capacity as chair of the U.S. bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty, joined a handful of more conservative religious leaders in objecting to this report and specifically the words quoted above. Their letter called for President Barack Obama and congressional leadership to reject Castro’s statement and other assertions that religious liberty is being misused.

But new data from the Pew Research Center suggests Catholics in the U.S. are at odds with the bishops’ policies, reported America:

  • 54% of Catholics believe business should not be exempted from LGBT non-discrimination protections, five points higher than the national average;
  • 65% of Catholics do not believe an employer’s religious affiliation should exempt them from providing contraceptive services as part of health insurance coverage;
  • 64% of Catholics believe homosexual activity is either morally acceptable or not a moral issue.

91542022-rev-patrick-mahoney-of-the-christian-defense-coalition-crop-promo-mediumlargeSo what are Catholics to make of religious liberty in the United States, especially if we consider equality and justice for marginalized communities like LGBT people to be high priorities?

Some people might agree with Chairman Castro’s contention that “religious liberty” has become a weapon and a shield used against marginalized communities. Sunnivie Brydum wrote at Religion Dispatches that the use of scare quotes around the phrase now seems appropriate:

“This new, mutant form of ‘religious liberty’ does indeed deserve scare quotes. When Mississippi lawmakers overwhelmingly passed a law that determined what kind of intimate relationships are worthy of protection, they also lost the ability to claim that they were seeking to protect faith-based views broadly speaking. Laws like this have less to do with making sure people can freely practice their faith—they are written to privilege one ideological perspective over all others. . .

“Religious freedom is indeed a central tenet of American democracy. . .But when freedom of religion is used as a weapon to infringe on civil liberties—especially in the public square—it deserves the scare quotes that the Chicago Manual of Style says are ‘used to alert readers that a term is used in a nonstandard (or slang), ironic, or other special use.’ “

More centrist Catholics have cautioned against understanding religious liberty as a zero-sum issue. The editors of Jesuit weekly America called for reasoned discourse that seeks a solution amid the competing goods of religious liberty and non-discrimination protects, concluding:

“But if Catholics are to make a full-throated defense of robust religious liberty, we should also acknowledge the ways the church itself has contributed to the atmosphere of distrust around this cause. Asserting religious liberty primarily on ‘culture war’ issues draws attention only to the church’s policing of moral lines, to the detriment of its proclamation of the good news and service to those in need.

“For generations, the church in the United States has provided succor and support for millions of Americans, regardless of religion. This is not a historical accident but the result of the good works of myriad Catholics and an American context that allows believers to freely practice their faith in all spheres. This tradition must continue.”

Elsewhere, Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese wrote in the National Catholic Reporter that religious freedom and women’s rights could be strengthened together in an argument applicable to LGBT rights as well. Reese, who chairs the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, made this important point:

“A way out of this apparent conflict is to emphasize that religious freedom is a human right that resides in the individual not in a religious tradition. ‘The human right to freedom of religion or belief does not protect religious traditions per se,’ explained Heiner Bielefeldt, the UN special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, ‘but instead facilitates the free search and development of faith-related identities of human beings, as individuals and in community with others.’

“Religious freedom does not protect religious belief or religious institutions from challenge. Rather religious freedom protects the right of an individual to believe or not believe, to change one’s religion if one desires, and to speak and act on those beliefs. It protects believers not beliefs. Religious freedom includes freedom of speech and press on religious topics, which allows individuals to challenge religious beliefs and traditions.”

This understanding, Reese commented, reveals religious liberty “in its true meaning” as a source of empowerment for people to live according to their own beliefs and consciences.

Reese is clear that this approach does not resolve every issue related to religious liberty and gender equity, and therefore neither would it resolve every LGBT-related issue, but it effectively counters the idea that religious liberty and civil liberties are “two essentially contradictory human rights norms.” Much good could come if differing sides focused on points of agreement rather than points of contention.

In the world of U.S. Catholicism, progress on religious liberty seems to be simultaneously advanced and stalled at this moment. On the one hand, the Pew numbers reflect a Catholic faithful who conscientiously discern how to advance the common good while upholding goods that can at times be in tension, and this discernment has led them to positions which affirm LGBT rights in such a way that religious liberty is actually strengthened.

But, on the other hand, the Catholic bishops restrain progress, about which Michael Sean Winters of the National Catholic Reporter cautioned:

“In his response to the USCCR report, Archbishop William Lori, chair of the ad hoc committee on religious liberty at the USCCB, claims that the church only wants the ‘freedom to serve.’ What’s stopping you? As has been argued here and elsewhere repeatedly, there is really no reason, so far as our church’s teaching on cooperation with evil is concerned, for the Catholic church to insist that the accountant at Catholic Charities not get dental insurance for his gay partner. . .

“As they prepare for their plenary session in November, the bishops need to start thinking through two issues if they want to be both serious and successful in their defense of religious liberty. First, they need to abandon the idea that religious liberty extends as far as any particular believer wants it to extend in civil society: The wedding cake baker, bless his heart, is not being asked to participate in anything sinful when he bakes a cake for anybody for any reason. The protections we seek should be for our religious institutions, period. Second, the bishops need to follow the example of their Mormon brethren and reach out to the LGBT community. If this continues as an ‘us versus them’ fight, the bishops will lose.”

The Catholic Church’s endorsement of religious liberty at Vatican II is considered by many theologians to be one of the most notable outcomes of the Council. Dignitatis Humanae, the document on religious liberty, was heavily influenced by bishops and theologians from the United States, especially Jesuit Fr. John Courtney Murray. Where Murray and his collaborators had once been treated with hostility for their views on the issue, they became pivotal in shaping the course of Catholicism in the late 20th century.

LGBT non-discrimination protections are a good affirmed in church teaching, just as religious liberty is affirmed. Our task today is to understand how to strengthen both together. Catholics in the United States should remember the history above, history which calls us to ever more deeply engage and earnestly enact religious liberty in all its complexities.

The only clear answer is that there are no clear answers. We must not only say yes to religious liberty, but come to know more fully that which we are affirming. Bu if we are committed like our predecessors in faith, we can and will find a way forward that is faithful to the church’s tradition while meeting the needs of all in our contemporary world.






Caritas India Announces Initiative for Transgender Outreach

By Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry, October 14, 2016

A Catholic humanitarian agency in India has launched a program aimed specifically at providing services that are more inclusive of and effective for transgender people, indicating both a step forward, as well as  how far the Church still has to go.

Trans woman in India dancing during human rights demonstration

Caritas India, the official in concern and human development organization of the Catholic Bishops Conference of India (CBCI), announced its new policy last Monday.

Executive Director Fr. Frederick D’Souza said this program begins “a new school of thought,” reported Vatican Radio. He explained further:

” ‘Caritas is open to work with transgender people. I am even open to recruiting them. . .People who are suffering for no fault of their own because of sexual confusion in their body require our attention and support.’ “

Deputy Director Fr. Paul Moonjely said Caritas India had already reached out to trans communities, but had “largely failed to recognize them and show data on how many of them we have supported” and more work was needed “towards sensitization on the issue even within the Caritas network.”

But Caritas India’s noteworthy step forward is not without problems, and the need for even more sensitization is visible. Fr. D’Souza said the initiative would be limited to “biological transgenders,” by which he meant trans people who had not undergone gender-confirming surgery. He explained:

” ‘We don’t want to confuse the two. We have an opinion on those who undergo sex change, we are not in favour of that. We believe that the natural gender one is born with is what he/she is supposed to cherish and contribute to creation.’ “

Trans communities in India remain quite marginalized. The 2011 census reported there were about a half million trans people in the country, though that number is likely low due to underreporting. Indian societies have long recognized trans people, known traditionally as hijras, and it was only under British colonialism that legal restrictions were imposed. A ‘third gender’ option was recognized after a Supreme Court ruling in 2014.

Caritas India and the church at large are widely respected for charitable efforts, despite Catholics being less than two percent of the nation’s population. It is hoped that this new program will not only make Caritas India’s efforts more inclusive and effective, but will propel other organizations to adopt similar programs and combat anti-trans prejudices in the wider society. The spirit of inclusion for all LGBT communities might be passed on to other Catholic organizations like the Missionaries of Charity, the religious order founded by Mother Teresa. Last year, the community threatened to cease adoptions if mandated to accept lesbian and gay parents.

The church has been a positive voice for LGBT communities, too, as when Bombay’s Cardinal Oswald Gracias twice spoke against the criminalization of gay people. He also told Bondings 2.0 that the church embraces, wants, and needs LGBT people. Virginia Saldanha, an Indian lay woman who formerly led the Office of Laity for the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences, said the 2015 Synod on the Family needed to bring LGBT “in from the cold.

Pope Francis’ recent comments on trans people were complicated, and they are still the subject of debate. What came across clearly in his words, though, was the pope’s insistence, grounded in church teaching, that people of all genders people be accompanied pastorally and supported in their lives. This effort by Caritas India is hampered, like Francis, by not fully understanding gender identity and expression issues at a sufficient level. But the new program plants a seed from which loving accompaniment that is increasingly competent and informed by modern science can grow.



Controversy at Irish Seminary Prompts Conversation on Gay Priests

By Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry, October 13, 2016

This summer’s controversy at Ireland’s national seminary over the use of a gay dating app by students has quieted, but it has since inspired many worthwhile commentaries on homosexuality, ministry, and the future of the Catholic Church. Today’s post features excerpts with links provided if you would like to read more.

St. Patrick’s College, Maynooth

Earlier this year, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin removed three archdiocesan seminarians from St. Patrick’s College Maynooth over allegations of a “gay culture” there. But he also expressed more general concerns about the closed, strange world of seminaries, and proposed that new models of priestly formation would be needed. Other bishops have rushed to defend the seminary, and a review with an eye towards reform has been conducted.

Michael Kelly’s column in The Independent speculated that the review of priestly formation now underway could actually “kickstart an authentic reform and renewal of Irish Catholicism.” He noted that, according to history, the concept of seminaries was itself a response to problems in the priesthood, but now:

“The world has changed and the way that Irish priests are educated needs to change to meet the needs of the modern world. Pope Francis – that great herald of Church reform – recently observed that Catholicism is not living in an era of change, but a change of era.”

These changes must include the church acknowledging and affirming the presence of gay and bisexual men in the priesthood, said former Irish president and LGBT advocate Mary McAleese. She told The Irish Times:

” ‘We have the phenomenon of men in the priesthood who are both heterosexual and homosexual but the church hasn’t been able to come to terms with the fact that there are going to be homosexuals in the priesthood, homosexuals who are fine priests.’ “

McAleese tied this problem to church teaching and its damaging language about homosexuality as “intrinsically disordered.” Thislabelling  has resulted in Maynooth’s culture where “policing celibacy is more important than pastoral service” and where they seem “to be concentrating on the wrong things.”

Promoting an atmosphere hostile to gay clergy was most noticeable, McAleese said, when Maynooth was visited in 2012 by Cardinal Timothy Dolan and Archbishop Edwin O’Brien. She commented:

” ‘They wanted to be reassured that neither place was, in their words, ‘gay friendly’ . . . so they walked away happy that they were gay unfriendly, hostile to gay people – what sort of message does that send out to young men who are there who are gay, to priests who are gay?’ “

One commentator, Tom Clonan of The Journal, suggested that focusing on gay seminarians and priests is driven by external prejudice, and i misses the actual crisis in the Irish church:

“To be honest, I believe the sexual orientation of seminarians or priests is largely irrelevant in the context of the grave challenges that confront the institution of the Catholic Church in Ireland. Indeed, much of the coverage has been voyeuristic and gay shaming – perhaps unwittingly revealing a deep-seated homophobic bias among some commentators.”

But in general, Irish Catholics have said that a main, if not the primary, issue at Maynooth this summer has been a toxic culture around gay and bisexual men in the priesthood. Voices like Senator Jerry Buttimer, a former seminarian, and Fr. Tony Flannery, CSsR, have affirmed gay priests. Others have rejected outright the allegations of gay dating app use which prompted this controversy.

This question of homosexuality in ministry is not limited to Ireland, however, and affects the global church. Some priests, like Fr. Warren Hall and Msgr. Krzysztof Charamsa have been sanctioned because of LGBT issues. Too often conversations are problematically focused around the question of celibacy, rather than the gifts and opportunities gay and bisexual priests offer the church. Ignored is the faithful service of gay men like Fr. Fred Daley, Fr. Michael Shanahan, and Fr. Ron Cioffi, who has said:

“Yes, I am a gay person whose self-identity includes an abiding call to ministry in our church. . .my orientation is a blessing from God for use in and for the church that is called to help each of us discern and celebrate the good and always affirming love of God for all persons.”

The Maynooth incident has been yet another ugly scandal for an Irish church already crippled by the clergy sex abuse crisis. Instead of turning inward and implementing new restrictions on seminarians, which only further remove them from reality, the nation’s bishops should welcome gay and bisexual men (and, ultimately, people of all sexual and gender identities) to the priesthood with open arms. To paraphrase Pope John XXIII, this is a clear moment to throw open Maynooth’s windows and let the fresh air in.

Remembering Matthew Shepard: Encountering Solidarity, Countering Isolation

Today’s post was written by guest blogger Alfred Pang is a PhD student in Theology and Education at Boston College.

By Alfred Pang, October 12, 2016

I experienced a micro-aggression about a year ago at Mass. It was during a homily that listed, in a single breath, the Magisterium’s teachings against contraception, divorce and same-gender marriage. It obliterated the complexity of each issue. There was, of course, the typical mention of the natural complementarity of male and female as biologically designed by God. Such preaching was not new to me, but until then, I had been able to shut it out, numbing myself to what is said and mustering enough generosity to understand that some homilists do not know any better.

Matthew Shepard

On this particular occasion, I could not. Instead, I simply shut down. I felt invalidated within the church I love as a gay Catholic man. I was angered by the quick dismissal of fruitful same-gender love. I found myself isolated and silenced in the broken shards of the church in which homophobia goes unrecognized. I simply shut down. Such is the power of micro-aggressions, whose cumulative toxicity, often unbeknownst to the offenders, wears down our souls, wearies our bodies and renders our selves invisible.

What aided in my recovery was remembering the story of Matthew Shepard, a gay college student who was brutally beaten, tied to a fence on the outskirts of Laramie, Wyoming and left to die on a cold October night in 1998. I recalled, in particular, Dennis Shepard’s (Matthew’s father) statement to the court at the trial of his murders. These words comforted me:

“By the end of the beating, his body was just trying to survive. You left him out there by himself, but he wasn’t alone. There were his lifelong friends with him—friends that he had grown up with. You’re probably wondering who these friends were. First, he had the beautiful night sky with the same stars and moon that we used to look at through a telescope. Then, he had the daylight and the sun to shine on him one more time—one more cool, wonderful autumn day in Wyoming. His last day alive in Wyoming. His last day alive in the state that he always proudly called home. And through it all he was breathing in for the last time the smell of Wyoming sagebrush and the scent of pine trees from the snowy range. He heard the wind—the ever-present Wyoming wind—for the last time. He had one more friend with him. One he grew to know through his time in Sunday school and as an acolyte at St. Mark’s in Casper as well as through his visits to St. Matthew’s in Laramie. He had God.”

The assurance that God is with me brought me much consolation. God’s presence endures as life not in spite of but in the midst of loss and death. Dennis Shepard’s description of God’s presence in creation and, as Creator, embracing Matthew in Her womb of life, is powerfully evocative. God must have grieved. And in our pain, God grieves with us. We have God because God first loved us. “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them” (1 John 4:16).

Alfred Pang

During my recovery, I realized that God is present not simply to piece together the broken pieces of my life. God is just not into patchwork! God’s daily invitation to us to be reconcilers in Christ is not simply to be a people who patch things up. Rather, God creates us anew and calls us to be co-transformers in the world in light of our wholeness in Christ who holds all things together. I am reminded by Mr. Shepard’s words that the pain that I was experiencing is not mine alone, but shared in the interconnection of our many individual lives held and sustained by the One divine breath of God that blows creation into being.

This recognition of the inter-connectivity of our lives, I suggest, lies beneath the decision of Matthew’s parents not to press for the death penalty against Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, the two young men responsible for Matthew’s violent murder. It is also this attentiveness to the oneness of God’s divine life reflected in diversity that propelled their founding of the Matthew Shepard Foundation just months after their son’s death. In the witness of Matthew’s parents, I gradually found hope and healing.

Today, we commemorate the 18th anniversary of Matthew’s death and I’m struck that Matthew would have been my age if he were alive today. And today, I know Matthew is alive when we remember the reality of violence being directed at young people due to their gender identity/expression and sexual orientation. Hate is, of course, to be resisted.

Beyond physical violence, Matthew’s story also points to the violence of isolation engendered by micro-aggressions cumulatively experienced in our families, schools, churches, and communities. More than an issue of unjust discrimination, every instance of someone fired from ministry or of another teacher dismissed from a Catholic school because of sexuality fuels this culture of isolation, leaving young people feeling abandoned, especially those who are wrestling with their experiences of sexual marginalization.

In today’s Gospel lectionary reading, we hear Jesus speaking to “the scholars of the law”: “Woe also to you scholars of the law! You impose on people burdens hard to carry, but you yourselves do not lift one finger to touch them” (Luke 11:46).

William McNichols, “The Passion of Matthew Shepard”

Jesus’ words are sharply poignant in light of our remembrance of Matthew. Jesus’ words ought to trouble us to confront not only our moral self-righteousness but also our complicity in turning the rich openness to God’s life within the Christian tradition into an enclosed grave for LGBT people and their families. Together with the crucified Christ, let us be stirred by Matthew’s death to lament over the continuing loss of young LGBT lives due to the distress experienced in isolation.

Yet, let us also be challenged that death does not have the last word. God’s enduring presence as life calls us forth to resist dehumanization by first recognizing that violence in any form is never deserved and deserving. Instead, we deserve to be loved as persons created in the image and likeness of God. There are no damaged people. There are only intersecting systems of dominance due to homophobia, heterosexism, racism, and classism that damage relationships.

Do not wait too long to tell someone how proud you are of them. This is the coming out that we all need to do to reverse slowly but surely this life-sapping culture of isolation. And may our families be the first spaces that need to be de-isolated, to be converted into spaces where blessings are shared in the midst of losses, and where our grief and joy, pain and hope are embraced as one, through a commitment to forgive, serve, and witness in God’s divine life. Anything less than these can only mean that Matthew and many other LGBT youth have died in vain, and our remembrance meaningless.

On October 20, people worldwide will “go purple” for #SpiritDay 2016 to resist anti-LGBT bullying and bias that youth experience in schools. For resources on how Catholics, and specifically Catholic schools, can get involved, please click here.

To read a Lenten reflection on Matthew Shepard posted earlier this year on Bondings 2.0, please click here.