Instructions on “Amoris Laetitia” from Malta’s Bishops Can Inform LGBT Issues, Too

Bishops in Malta have published a document on applying Amoris Laetitia, the apostolic exhortation on family released by Pope Francis last year. The bishops’ document reflects the pope’s call for more mercy and inclusion in the church, all of which is applicable to LGBT issues.

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Bishop Charles Scicluna

In the document,  “Criteria for the Application of Chapter VIII of Amoris Laetitia,” Maltese Bishops Charles Scicluna and Mario Grech primarily addressed the situation of Catholics who are divorced and civilly remarried. Yet the principles they laid out are transferable to LGBT Catholics and their loved ones, too.

Released on the Feast of the Epiphany, the document compares Amoris Laetitia to the star which the Magi followed in their search for Jesus. Those “couples and families who find themselves in complex situations” often make this searching journey, too, but, the bishops say, these Catholics may be like the Magi “who took a different route back home after meeting Jesus.”

(Before proceeding, I acknowledge the limitations and troubling language of this document, similar to Amoris Laetitia’s own limitations. The bishops speak of people in “irregular situations,” and use the concepts of weakness against a heteronormative ideal for marriage. But these problems should not prohibit us from claiming what is good in these writings, and then building upon positive developments.)

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Bishop Mario Grech

Extensively citing the exhortation itself, the bishops identified guiding pastoral principles, foremost being that church ministers should not treat people with “complex family situations” different from other Catholics. Such ministry begins with dialogue in charity, leading to “a serious process of personal discernment about their situation.”

Just as divorced and remarried Catholics, many LGBT Catholics’  have experienced pastoral ministry in a discriminatory way, much different than their heterosexual counterparts. Sacraments have been denied to them and LGBT church workers have been fired, while heterosexual people in similar moral situations have not been held to the same standard. Listening as a starting point is always good, and listening to begin discernment rather than provide an answer is better.

Scicluna and Grech continued by addressing priests about their responsibilities to approach any discernment process with mercy and nuance:

“As priests, we have the duty to enlighten consciences by proclaiming Christ and the full ideal of the Gospel. At the same time, in the footsteps of Christ himself, we have the duty to exercise the ‘art of accompaniment’ and to become a source of trust, hope, and inclusion for those who request to see Jesus (see Jn 12, 21), especially for those persons who are most vulnerable. . .

“Our role is patiently to help them to form and enlighten their own conscience, in order that they themselves may be able to make an honest decision before God and act according to the greatest good possible (see AL 37).”

These words expand on Pope Francis’ insistence that the church is supposed to help form, not replace consciences, and it is to respect people’s  conscience decisions once made.

What church leaders need to recognize is that many LGBT Catholics and their families, and in reality many Catholics generally, have already undergone a journey of conscience formation and discernment. They have made an “honest decision before God,” but the church’s leaders and pastoral ministers often reject them because of their decision.

The document’s principle that I consider most relevant for LGBT Catholics is the bishops’ treatment of people who are not sacramentally married, specifically those Catholics who are cohabitating or who have had a civil marriage ceremony, but not a church one. Church ministers owe such people “merciful and helpful” pastoral care, though they would like the care to lead people “‘to the full reality of marriage and family in conformity with the Gospel’ (AL 294).” However, the bishops added:

“In pastoral discernment it is important to distinguish between one situation and another. In some cases, ‘the choice of a civil marriage or, in many cases, of simple cohabitation, is often not motivated by prejudice or resistance to a sacramental union, but by cultural or contingent situations’ (AL 294) and, therefore, the degree of moral responsibility is not the same for all cases. . .

“Throughout the discernment process, we need to weigh the moral responsibility in particular situations, with due consideration to the conditioning restraints and attenuating circumstances.”

Again, the heteronormative ideal proposed by the bishops is not ideal. Yet, their willingness to be nuanced and compassionate when engaging these relationships is noteworthy. What would be even better is an admission that one of the contingent situations keeping same-gender couples from sacramental marriages is the hierarchy’s negative teachings on homosexuality.

Bishops Scicluna and Grech, and the people of the highly Catholic nation of Malta, have fairly good records on LGBT issues. Their words and actions have included the following:

  • Bishop Grech sought greater inclusion for LGBT people in the church during his address at the 2014 Extraordinary Assembly of Synod on the Family–an opinion he attributed to his own engagement with the Catholic parents of LGBT children;
  • Bishop Scicluna did not punish and even affirmed the LGBT outreach ministry of a priest who blessed a same-gender couples union in 2015.  Though he opposed civil unions, Scicluna said the church should apologize to LGBT people, and criticized a right-wing blogger for homophobic language. Just last year, Scicluna became one of the few bishops to condemn the harmful practice of “reparative therapy”;
  • Lay Catholics in Malta, specifically through the groups LGBT Christian groups, Drachma and Drachma Parents, have publicly affirmed LGBT people as gifts from God and worked for greater welcome;
  • Politically, Malta has banned conversion therapy, passed civil unions, and has implemented what many considered the gold standard in Europe for transgender and intersex protections.

Some might find this latest document from Bishops Scicluna and Grech to be without merit, and readers may think my assessment of it is too generous. But given the bishops’ own more positive records on LGBT issues, and the larger push for equality by Maltese Catholics, I think a generous interpretive lens which admits limitations is warranted.

Into the many disputes over Amoris Laetitia, Malta’s bishops have shown what church leaders can do with the space created by Pope Francis reclaiming forgotten parts of the Catholic tradition. In this new papal era, it is more a matter of episcopal will more than Vatican constraints that dictates how LGBT inclusion will grow and deepen.

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, January 22, 2017

QUOTE TO NOTE: After Women’s Marches, Resolving to Give Up All Forms of Exclusion

computer_key_Quotation_MarksMillions worldwide marched yesterday for gender justice, affirming the dignity of women and the need for intersectional justice. But after marching, we now take the next steps towards attaining equal rights for people of all sexual and gender identities, as well as of all races, creeds, ethnic backgrounds, immigration statuses, income levels, and abilities. And a Twitter user, @JesusOfNaz316, has offered a fitting next step.  At the beginning of 2017, he tweeted:

screen-shot-2017-01-21-at-7-41-45-pm“Still looking for New Years Resolution? Try this. Oppose racism, sexism, homophobia, antisemitism, Islamophobia, and all forms of exclusion.”

The coming days and months will be difficult times not only to advance LGBT equality but to preserve what equality has already been attained.  And we must similarly work for equality and freedom for all, making intersectionality a goal of our justice work. To focus our strategies, we can look to, spiritual leaders like Sr. Simone Campbell of “Nuns on the Bus,” and we can try to find hope in these dark times. However we carry through on our promise, today is a great day to resolve (or re-commit) to opposing every form of exclusion harming God’s people.

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, January 22, 2017

Finding Rainbows of Hope in Dark Times

For U.S. LGBT advocates, and for so many others around the globe, the incoming U.S. President has turned the usually celebratory Inauguration ceremonies in Washington, D.C. today into a time of mourning. In previous posts (here, here, and here), I have provided analyses of how LGBT Catholic issues may be affected by the political transition underway. Today, I offer a more personal reflection on sustaining hope and keeping focused on equality work for the long months ahead.

4a232b332546447c397e19d4da6044aeAlready, the impending harm to LGBT rights is becoming clearer. Many nominees for the presidential Cabinet are radically opposed to equal rights. Ben Carson, nominee for Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, has questioned the settled science about homosexual orientation,  and he said LGBT people should not be afforded “extra rights.

Nearly all the opposition to equality comes from professed Christians, including some Catholics. Steve Bannon, senior counselor and chief strategist at the White House, was raised Catholic, and he once managed a white supremacist publication which published many viciously anti-gay stories. Catholic campaign advisors for the incoming President included: former Senator Rick Santorum, who in 2003 compared being gay to bestiality,  and who has long opposed LGBT equality issues; Joseph Cella, organizer of the right-wing National Catholic Prayer Breakfast where, last year, Vatican official Cardinal Robert Sarah said the push for transgender rights was “demonic.” It is clear, too, that the 2016 election has emboldened many national politicians and local officials who would curtail the rights of LGBT people and other vulnerable communities.

I am frightened by what this new presidential administration and its ripple effects will mean for people in this country, and I am frightened by what will happen globally when the U.S. government is no longer including LGBT equality as part of its work for human rights internationally. I am frightened, but I am hopeful. And I think hope must be our response if we are to find the resistance required of us now.

I began nurturing this hope while reading Pope Francis’ address to Vatican diplomats earlier this month. He did not speak directly to issues of gender and sexuality, but I find his words are readily applicable to our work:

“Sadly, we are conscious that even today, religious experience, rather than fostering openness to others, can be used at times as a pretext for rejection, marginalization and violence. . .Hence I appeal to all religious authorities to join in reaffirming unequivocally that one can never kill in God’s name.”

Pope Francis also enjoined religious and civil leaders to work together towards peace, saying that civil leaders are “charged with guaranteeing in the public forum the right to religious freedom, while acknowledging religion’s positive and constructive contribution to the building of a civil society.” He continued by highlighting, in the light of faith, the many issues present in our world like the plight of refugees, the arms trade and nuclear weapons, and ecological devastation.

I wish Pope Francis would offer an explicit and firm condemnation of unjust situations where LGBT people are criminalized and threatened. We have to ensure Catholics do not use his troubling silence to justify support for anti-LGBT initiatives. We have to apply the pope’s broader message of mercy and justice to our struggle for LGBT equality.

Today, I find myself like the prophet Habbukuk, crying, “How long, O God, must I. . .cry out to you, ‘Violence!’ and you do not intervene?” Have we labored and sacrificed for so many days and at such great cost only to see our achievements ripped away? Days like today can cause us to doubt whether our efforts are worth it, and even question our faith and firmest commitments.

To respond to this dark foeboding, we must find within ourselves the hope that comes from intimately knowing Jesus, the Incarnate Word who pitched a tent in our midst so that God could share in our human experience. We have a responsibility to stop those who, in Pope Francis’ words, use our religious traditions “as a pretext for rejection, marginalization and violence.” We must ensure, in the United States and globally, that our Christian faith is never invoked by those who harm LGBT people.

I close with words from Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, a prophetic witness for both peace and LGBT justice, who said in his homily last week:

“When all of us really come to understand that this is our call [to love as fully and as far as we can], like that servant in Isaiah, we will be carrying the message of God’s love to the very ends of the earth. As we do this faithfully, then God’s will for our world will be fulfilled. We will transform our world into the reign of God where there will be peace and fullness of life for every person.

“During this Ordinary Time of the year, every Sunday now, we will be listening to ways of how to follow Jesus to bring his message, that important message of love into our life and into our world. If we’re faithful to our call, God’s reign will be breaking forth in our midst and we will be able to rid our world of the violence and the hatred that seems to be so much a part of it. I hope we hear this call and are faithful to it, and each week during this year listen deeply to God’s Word and try to follow that message of Jesus.”

While our liturgical readings may be for Ordinary Time, we begin today an extraordinary time which demands even greater faithfulness. May we find the hope we need today and every day to help the rainbows that signify God’s love break forth and pierce the darkening skies before us.

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, January 20, 2017

 

California Education Official Asks: “Is St. Paul a Homophobe?”

A California education official who is a Catholic is opposing a new LGBT-inclusive curricula, and his opposition stems from a misuse of Scripture, leading him to ask rhetorically whether St. Paul was a homophobe or inspired by God.

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Mike Dunn

Mike Dunn, president of the Conejo Valley School Board and a Catholic, has said he would not be voting for a proposed board policy to implement the state’s newly passed FAIR Act, a new law which adds LGBT information to history and social sciences curricula. The Thousand Oaks Acorn reported:

“Responding last Thursday to a message from a parent criticizing Dunn, the longtime trustee says California’s new K-12 history-social science framework, which instructs teachers to include the accomplishments of LGBT individuals and other marginalized people in their lessons, conflicts with his Catholic faith. . .

“The framework, adopted by the California State Board of Education in July 2016, directs educators to study the stories of a ‘very diverse collection of families,’ including families with lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender parents. . .

“According to the framework, students should be able to ‘locate themselves and their own families in history and learn about the lives and historical struggles of their peers.'”

Dunn, a school board member for more than a decade, is fighting implementation of the state framework in his district. He claimed that his actions were rooted in his Catholic faith, and were helping to uphold the community’s beliefs:

“‘Where I spend eternity is far more important to me than being a school board trustee. . .If I ignore my Christian beliefs, what will happen to my soul when I die?’. . .

“‘I also believe that the community does not want homosexuality, bisexual and transgender (sic) taught to 7-year-old children.’. . .I am also sensitive to the reaction from mothers if we start promoting homosexuality.'”

The Board president’s reasoning is rooted in his interpretation of Scripture, specifically the Pauline epistles which he said “conflict with the state history framework” and commented further, “Is the apostle Paul a homophobe or was he inspired by God?”

According to the Thousand Oak Acorn, Dunn has previously opposed “a new state-mandated sexual education curriculum” and “refused to vote on a change to district policy that allowed transgender students to play on sports teams” consistent with their gender.

Dunn’s peers do not agree with him. Randy Smith, president of the Unified Association of Conejo Teachers, said nothing specific about Dunn’s response, but did say it was “of paramount importance” for the school district to comply with state law. Betsy Connolly, a member of the school board, said:

“‘I see no problem with a person’s faith informing their decision-making process. I expect it to. What I have a problem with is when people cherry-pick faith and facts to support their perspective. . .It’s an important distinction.'”

Connolly also told CBS 2 that schools must not only tell “the typical story” about families, so that students with parents in a same-gender relationship or who have a disability do not feel “at best invisible, at worst, shamed.”

In my view, Dunn’s opposition to the FAIR Act in California has relied on an interpretation of Scripture inconsistent with contemporary scholarship. In recent decades, responsible scholars have repeatedly disproven the idea that Paul’s writings in the New Testament condemn the modern understanding of homosexuality. Vatican II’s document on divine revelation in Scripture, Dei Verbum, expresses clearly how Catholics are to approach the Bible:

“[T]he interpreter of Sacred Scripture, in order to see clearly what God wanted to communicate to us, should carefully investigate what meaning the sacred writers really intended, and what God wanted to manifest by means of their words.”

Connolly’s observation that a school board president has cherry-picked faith and facts to justify his opposition to LGBT equality is extremely accurate. Mike Dunn’s stance will stymie greater inclusion of and protections for all students and their families.   His concern for his own salvation should not be allowed to cause harm to students.

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, January 19, 2017

On Religious Freedom Day, Reclaiming a Progressive and Catholic Value

Today, people in the United States are not only remembering Martin Luther King, Jr., but celebrating Religious Freedom Day. Both commemorations have renewed meaning with an anti-equality presidential administration taking office in less than a week. It is thus an opportune day for Catholic LGBT advocates to reflect anew on two groundbreaking documents so we can reclaim religious freedom as a progressive and Catholic value.

religious-freedomFrederick Clarkson, a senior fellow for religious freedom at the think tank Political Research Associates, wrote an informative article on why religious freedom is indeed a progressive value. Civil rights and religious freedom are the “complementary values and legal principles necessary to sustain and advance equality for all” and is “one of the most liberatory ideas in history.” Clarkson continued:

“Religious freedom is a powerful idea—the stuff from which revolutions are sometimes made. It includes the right of individual conscience—to believe or not believe as we choose, without undue influence from government or powerful religious institutions, and to practice our beliefs free from the same constraints. It’s no surprise that the first part of the First Amendment guarantees freedom of belief.”

Clarkson offered a historical understanding for religious freedom.  In the U.S., the history of this concept begins with the 1786 Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, whose anniversary is celebrated today. At that time in Virginia, the Anglican ruling class was oppressively using religion to retain political power. Civil courts would prosecute those accused of religious infractions, and vigilantes harmed non-Anglican Christians and others. The Statute was a groundbreaking attack against such abuses, and it would go on to inform the U.S. Constitution and legal precedents ever since.

For the nation’s Founders, protection of religious freedom was “synonymous,” in Clarkson’s words, with protections for individual consciences. Taken together, these constituted “a natural and absolute right,” one which has helped progressive movements throughout U.S. history, including the abolition of slavery, the organization of labor, and efforts for gender and racial equality. In summary, religious freedom has gone from an idea expressed locally in the the Virginia Statute to a human right defined globally by the United Nations, and has remained in each historical moment a clear progressive value.

But religious conservatives, including the U.S. Catholic bishops, are misusing this powerful idea and stunting the flourishing of marginalized communities in the process. In the past, segregationists claimed religious freedom to oppose interracial marriage; in the present, those opposed to LGBT rights have claimed religious freedom to fight marriage equality and transgender accommodations.

Since 2012, the U.S. bishops have focused their annual “Fortnight for Freedom” campaign on gender and sexuality issues yet have failed to address real threats to religious freedom experienced by, for instance, Muslims in the U.S. or Christians in the Middle East. They and their conservative associates from other denominations are actually harming real religious freedom.  Clarkson observed that this type of strategy is similar to what was happening in the 1780s when the movement for the religious freedom statute was originated:

“Aspiring clerical aristocrats debase the idea of religious freedom when they use it as tool to seek exemptions from the generally applicable laws of the United States—particularly those that prohibit discrimination.”

Catholics in the U.S. have largely ignored the bishops’ campaign, and overwhelmingly support LGBT equality. The behavior of Catholic lay people shows that religious freedom is not only a progressive value but a very Catholic one.

Religious freedom was not formally defined as Catholic teaching until Vatican II with the promulgation of Dignatitis Humanae in 1965. This Declaration on Religious Freedom, which was the U.S. hierarchy’s main contribution to the Council and relied on the once-censored writings of Jesuit Fr. John Courtney Murray, was in its own way groundbreaking. No longer did the Catholic Church endorse the “confessional State,” in which civil laws mirrored ecclesial teaching, as the ideal. Even Pope Benedict XVI has identified this teaching on religious freedom as one of Vatican II’s top contributions.

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Pope Francis on religious liberty

Our Catholic understanding of religious freedom protects individual consciences, and Catholics have affirmed a form of religious freedom from our earliest days by teaching the primacy of conscience. As the Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes t noted, it is in conscience, this “most secret core and sanctuary” of our beings, alone with a God “whose voice echoes in [a person’s] depths,” where we make concrete judgments about how to live. To act against one’s conscience is wrong. Dignitatis Humanae made this foundational principle explicit in a political sense, positioning religious freedom as a Catholic value.

In a separate article for Religion News Service, Clarkson noted Dr. King’s own reference to religious freedom as a key influence for the civil rights movement. To these secular precedents–Dr. King’s support for religious freedom and the Virginia Statute this Religious Freedom Day–we as  Catholics’, need to add Dignitatis Humanae and the primacy of conscience. These are rich writings and witnesses for us to reflect on today.

And reflect we must. As I wrote about earlier this month, here and here, 2017 will be a year of struggle for LGBT equality under the incoming political leadership in the U.S. Already being considered is the First Amendment Defense Act, which is an effort to undermine civil rights by creating broad religious exemptions in federal law, allowing for greater discrimination. The need for LGBT advocates and other justice seekers to reclaim religious freedom in the United States from religious conservatives has never been so urgent.

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, January 16, 2017

Remembering Jeanne Cordova: A Lesbian Nun Who Broke Her Silence

At the LGBT spirituality blog, Jesus in Love, Kittredge Cherry offered a poignant remembrance this week of Jeanne Cordova, a lesbian advocate who had been a Catholic nun and who contributed to former woman religious and lesbian woman who was a contributor to the groundbreaking 1985 book, Lesbian Nuns: Breaking the Silence. Cordova passed away a year ago this past week.

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Jeanne Cordova

Cherry remembered that Cordova was instrumental in the greater history of LGBT equality, beyond her “radical revelations about lesbian nuns.” Cherry stated:

 

“‘Lesbian Nuns: Breaking Silence’ remains the definitive work on this hidden and forbidden subject more than 30 years after it was first published. It is also one of the best-selling lesbian books of all time. . .Both the church and the secular LGBTQ community may prefer to forget the uncomfortable truth: Same-sex love exists in the church, and the church trained some leaders of the LGBTQ rights movement.”

In her post, Cherry offered a more expansive remembrance of Cordova’s life, drawing from her writings and from interviews. Cordova grew up in a conservative Catholic family, attending Catholic schools before entering religious life. In her own words, she “fell in love with God at the age of seven,” and this love was the main reason she became a woman religious. But there was a secondary reason why Cordova joined the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in 1966:

“I chose the convent because I knew I wasn’t interested in the world of men and women, marriage, children—’that’ lifestyle. Being in the service of God within a community of women felt natural and right.”

Cordova left after a year in the novitiate, a year after Vatican II ended, when religious life was changing dramatically. The IHM community in Los Angeles would eventually separate from the church just a few years after Cordova left, but during her year there, she experienced religious life in a time of postconciliar tension between hopeful reforms and lingering ills in the church. Cherry wrote:

“[Cordova] was enrolled in Immaculate Heart College, where sensitivity training, encounter groups and open classrooms exposed her to new ideas and emotions. She found out for the first time about drugs, the peace movement and covert homosexuality.

“As 1967 began, her Mother Superior informed her that she and her fellow novices were being sent to live in the ‘real world’ — Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles and the black ghetto of Watts. She was appalled and radicalized by seeing poverty and racial injustice for the first time.”

Cordova said Vatican II had ‘destroyed my dreams’; she sought a quiet life as a nun amid the trappings of the preconciliar church with its Tridentine liturgy and stiff habits. Her decision to leave was not just about coming out as a lesbian woman. Cordova underwent a more fundamental conversion. She explained:

“‘I left the convent because of my political radicalization and inability to justify the Roman Catholic Church’s teachings and actions regarding social justice, and its ongoing battle with my IHM order to keep women in line under patriarchy. My newly realized lesbianism was actually secondary to falling out of love with the Catholic Church, which I had questioned all my life.'”

No longer a nun, Cordova began working as a social worker and community organizer who “helped decriminalize homosexuality and protect the jobs of openly lesbian and gay teachers.” But in the church, she is known for her contribution to Lesbian Nuns: Breaking the Silence. Cherry explained that this work had influence outside the church, too:

“As the foreword to the 2013 reprint edition notes, the book ‘played a significant role in the mainstreaming of lesbian print culture.’ The editors ‘wanted to shatter the silence that denied the existence of lesbians in religious life and to make it clear that ‘lesbians are everywhere.'”

The book included stories from fifty nuns, cultivated from some 400 submissions. Cordova later wrote a more detailed account of her own life in Kicking the Habit: A Lesbian Nun’s Story and When We Were Outlaws. Before dying of cancer last year, Cordova said in an open letter, “It is wonderful to have had a life’s cause: freedom and dignity for lesbians.”

Finally, Cherry highlighted a key insight from Cordova that social justice movements, including for LGBT rights, have been filled with and led by former women religious. In Cordova’s words, religious life was “a boot camp for us all.”

The experiences of lesbian women religious are still quite hidden, and their contributions to the church and the world are still under-appreciated. For over 20 years, New Ways Ministry has had a project called Womanjourney Weavings which is an educational program for not only lesbian nuns, but for the leaders of women’s religious communities, and nuns who work in vocation and formation ministries.  For more information, contact:  info@NewWaysMinistry.org.

At New Ways Ministry’s upcoming Eighth National Symposium, “Justice and Mercy Shall Kiss:  LGBT Catholics in the Age of Pope Francis,” we will have a focus session entitled “Lesbian Nuns:  Gift to the Church.”  For more infomration about the symposium, scheduled for April 28-30, 2017, Chicago, click here.

Whether one is a woman religious, a former woman religious, or another part of the faithful, Cordova’s story is instructive. Her witness reminds us of the immense power of being in love with God and living authentically from that love can draw forth from us.  With it, we can change the world. As we remember, we ask her intercession: Jeanne Cordova, pray for us.

Note: If you are not aware of Kittredge Cherry’s blog, Jesus in Love, and her wider work on queer spirituality through the site Q Spirit, they are a good resource and well worth checking out. Like her post on Jeanne Cordova, Cherry offers many reflections on LGBTQ saints — some who are commonly known, others who are a bit more obscure.

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, January 14, 2017

 

Australian Catholics Help Start Ecumenical LGBTI Group

Despite Australia’s ongoing debate over marriage equality, there have been several positive developments in Catholic LGBT issues recently in the land “down under.” Today’s post highlights one of those major developments.

ev-logo-1-e1483341716491Australian Christians have founded the interdenominational group Equal Voices to promote reconciliation between LGBTI communities and churches, reported Buzzfeed. The first meeting will occur at the end of this month, with a more formal launch in April.

Equal Voices seeks to be a networking and resource group based on values such as boldly proclaiming Christ’s love for all people, honoring same-gender relationships, and promoting listening and learning.

What is interesting about Equal Voices, according to spokesperson Natalie Cooper, is that those Christians involved are from “fairly conservative church backgrounds” that include Baptists, Pentecostals, Anglicans, and Catholics. Lay people hope to end the false idea that one can either be LGBT or Christian. Cooper added:

“‘For too long gay and lesbian people in the churches have been asked to carry the load by themselves. . .What’s often denied is that there are large numbers of LGBTI people of faith. Some of those people are in church, some of them are out, a lot of them are closeted because they don’t feel safe being out’. . .

“‘Very often, the impression given is that there is just one point of view, just one Christian voice. . .We want to make it clear there are lots of Christian voices, and give everyone a seat at the table.'”

Benjamin Oh

Among the leaders of Equal Voices is Benjamin Oh, a Catholic LGBTI advocate who has worked in human rights and development fields. According to his website bio, Oh “was elected as head of a Catholic international aid & development agency in Australia” and was the “World Youth Day Coordinator and Social Justice Project Manager for the worldwide Dominican Order” in 2008.  He also serves on the Steering Committee of the Global Network of Rainbow Catholics.

Equal Voices’ first priority, according to Buzzfeed, is to “facilitate a national apology to LGBTI Christians and the wider community” that will be presented in the nation’s capitol. This Apology is partially inspired by Pope Francis’ own call last year for the church to apologize to LGBTI people.

But the Apology seeks to not only seek forgiveness for past wrongs, but to educate Christians so as to prevent future wrongs. Some Christians may object to apologizing, said Cooper, figuring such an action was not needed. But the Apology explained its own reasons:

“Speaking for myself and as a member of my church, I ask for your forgiveness:

  1. For being too slow to acknowledge that we need to say sorry to you.
  2. For not speaking up against the hurtful, damaging and often violent mistreatment you have been subjected to.
  3. For speaking about you, without first listening to you.
  4. For not creating safe environments within our churches where people can speak openly and honestly about their struggles and understandings.
  5. For perpetuating stereotypes, and for not taking full account of your actual lived experiences.
  6. For talking to you or about you in such a way as to suggest that sexual and/or gender differences are not part of your true identity as creatures made in the image of God, but are simply a result of brokenness or sin.
  7. For perpetuating the mistaken belief that non-heterosexual orientations should be treated, healed or changed, and for not acknowledging the damage such misunderstanding has wrought in peoples’ lives.
  8. For not acknowledging that Christians who are seeking to be faithful to their Lord and to the Scriptures are coming to different conclusions on matters of gender, sexual orientation, and marriage.

The Apology ended with five commitments to LGBTI people that signatories make, including supporting LGBTI “in every way possible,” being open to correction and guidance, holding others accountable for “careless, hurtful or misleading talk,” resisting efforts to exclude LGBTI people from churches, and engaging “in genuine and open dialogue to gain better understanding of other perspectives.”

Australian Catholics’ support for Equal Voices is consistent with many positive actions which have happened in the country. Last December, Fr. Paul Kelly’s eight-year effort to outlaw “gay panic” defense in Queensland led the state’s Attorney General to introduce a parliamentary bill doing just that. In response to Pope Francis, an Australian parish held a Liturgy of Apology to LGBT People which participants said opened new possibilities for healing. And when bishops have publicly opposed marriage equality, Catholics have pushed back, including Fr. Frank Brennan, S.J.’s, warning that a plebiscite on marriage equality could be “very nasty.”

Whether or not Australia’s Parliament will indeed pass a marriage equality law is still an open question despite overwhelming support by legislators and the public. But it is good to know Catholics, and Christians generally, are not waiting to advance the cause of LGBT equality in many spheres.

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, January 12, 2017