Nuns As Queer

Nancy Corcoran, CSJ

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sister Nancy Corcoran, CSJ, May 20, 2017

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

“This Month in Catholic LGBT History” is Bondings 2.0’s  feature to educate readers of the rich history—positive and negative—that has taken place over the last four decades regarding Catholic LGBT equality issues.  We hope it will show people how far our Church has come, ways that it has regressed, and how far we still have to go.

Once a  month, Bondings 2.0 staff will produce a post on Catholic LGBT news events from the past 38 years.  We will comb through editions of Bondings 2.0’s predecessor: Bondings,  New Ways Ministry’s newsletter in paper format.   We began publishing Bondings in 1978. Unfortunately, because these newsletters are only archived in hard copies, we cannot link back to the primary sources in most cases. 

Boston Archdiocese Overrules Parish To Admit Lesbians’ Child to School

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

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

Boston. com reported on May 13, 2010:

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

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

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

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

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

Dr. Mary Grassa O’Neill

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

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

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

Fr. James Martin, SJ

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

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

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

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

Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, May 16, 2017

 

New Anti-Bullying Manual for Catholic Schools Is a Gift to the Church

A new manual for Catholic school teachers in England and Wales on how to combat homophobia and biphobia has caused a bit of a minor controversy based on its origin, perhaps because the document offers strong practical advice on how to stop and prevent bullying of sexual minority students.

The document, entitled “Made in God’s Image:  Challenging homophobic and biphobic bullying in Catholic Schools” was produced by the Catholic Education Service of the Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales, in partnership with St. Mary’s University, Twickenham.  The Catholic Herald reports, however, that some critics have questioned who contributed to the document:

“A covering letter accompanying the document, reported online, states the CES has ‘received funding to cover the printing and distribution of a hard copy for each school.’

“However, a spokesman said: ‘The document is a collaboration between the CES and St Mary’s and no external funding has been received for it.’ “

The critics said that portions of the document are very similar to anti-bullying materials produced by Stonewall and lgbtyouth Scotland, two leading UK LGBT equality organizations. Stonewall denied any involvement but said their materials are public and they’d be glad if their ideas were used by others.

What is most remarkable about this “controversy” is that the criticism seems intended to discredit what is a fine document on how to educate Catholic students about respecting gay, lesbian, and bisexual people.  Regardless of its source, the document explains its Catholic rationale very clearly.  Here are some excerpts from the first section:

“This guidance forms part of the commitment of the Catholic to the pastoral care of pupils and in particular the elimination of homophobic stereotyping and bullying for all children and young people educated in our Catholic schools. Its aim is to challenge all forms of homophobic and biphobic bullying in order to create safe spaces for pupils to come together to learn. . . .

“The intention of this guidance is to help our schools flourish as communities of loving respect where everyone is cherished as a person made in the ‘Image of God’. In April 19971 Cardinal Basil Hume wrote, ‘The Church recognises the dignity of all people and does not define or label them in terms of their sexual orientation. The pastor and counsellor must see all people, irrespective of their sexuality, as children of God and destined for eternal life. . . .

“Any systematic failure to respect that dignity needs to be tackled, if necessary by appropriate legislation. Nothing in the Church’s teaching can be said to support or sanction, even implicitly, the victimisation of anyone on the basis of his or her sexuality. Furthermore, ‘homophobia’ should have no place among Catholics. Catholic teaching on homosexuality is not founded on, and can never be used to justify ‘homophobic’ attitudes.”

And the document is clear that the material presented is based on Catholic social teaching. The following is an excerpt that descibes “inclusive education” as founded on Catholic social teaching:

“Inclusive education:  If we are serious about inclusive education in our Catholic schools then we must be concerned with the quest for equity for all who work within our communities. The social teaching of the Church and our participation within this teaching should be at the heart of what guides our work as a community. The well being of all – staff and pupils – requires the removal of any barriers of prejudice, discrimination and oppression if all are to strive and to realise our potential as unique and fulfilled human beings.

“What is Catholic Social Teaching? “The immediate purpose of the Church’s social doctrine is to propose the principles and values that can sustain a society worthy of the human person”. (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church 580) Catholic Social Teaching calls us…

  • to be aware of injustice in our society and the wider world
  • to challenge and change our attitudes to take action to bring about a more just society and
  • to be aware of injustice in our society and the wider world
  • to challenge and change our attitudes
  • to take action to bring about a more just society and world”

The bulk of the document presents eight detailed lesson plans that teachers can use to address bullying against gay, lesbian, and bisexual students, within an authentic Catholic context. Though transgender people are not mentioned in the general sections of this document, bullying against them is mentioned briefly in the lesson plan section.  More discussion of transphobia could have improved this document.

The Catholic “frame” and material conained in these lesson plans make it difficult to understand why critics would suggest that it was too heavily influenced by secular sources.  And what would be the problem if secular sources were used?  The Church as always learned from knowledge developed in the secular world.  Why should such learning be a problem in this case?

The document points out the need teachers have for guidance on bullying:

“Very few teachers in primary schools (8%) or secondary schools (17%) say they have received specific training on tackling homophobic bullying.

“Three in ten secondary school teachers (29%) and two in five primary school teachers (37%) don’t know if they are allowed to teach lesbian, gay and bisexual issues. . . .

“Scheider and Dimito (2008) found that 68% of teachers did not feel enough resources were present in schools to deal with issues on sexual orientation. 60% of teachers interviewed did not feel they had appropriate training and 56% of teachers believed parents would protest if sexual orientation or gender identity were raised at school.

“For teachers working in church school contexts there can be a hesitancy in addressing or challenging issues related to sexual orientation. It can be wrongly assumed that, for teachers working in a church school, there is a tension between a strongly held religious belief and equality and respectful treatment for gay people. As the St Mary’s University survey shows . . . many of our Catholic schools toned support in approaching issues relating to sexual orientation and, indeed, to respond to issues of homophobic bullying.”

Clearly, this document addresses an important need.  While there are certain sections in it that apply to UK law and policy regarding sexual orientation and gender identity, the bulk of this document, especially the lesson plans, can be useful for Catholic school teachers in almost every location.

If you work in a Catholic education or youth ministry, or if you are someone who is concerned generally about bullying, you should read the entire document by clicking here.  Made In God’s Image is a great gift to Catholic education!

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, May 14, 2017

 

Fr. James Martin: Some Saints Were “Probably Gay” and Will Greet You in Heaven

There are Catholic saints who were “probably gay,” said Jesuit Fr. James Martin, the well-known author, against online commenters critical of Bishop John Stowe’s attendance at New Ways Ministry’s Symposium two weeks ago.

Screen Shot 2017-05-12 at 3.34.33 PMMartin posted a news story to his Facebook page about spiritual reflections Stowe gave at the Symposium. The priest, who has more than a half million followers online, commented on the story, “Another sign of welcome and building bridges.”

But some followers were critical of Stowe and Martin. Walter Maczynski said, “Any canonized saints would not be impressed.” That is when Martin offered his powerful reply:

“Some of them were probably gay. A certain percentage of humanity is gay, and so were most likely some of the saints. You may be surprised when you get to heaven to be greeted by LGBT men and women.”

While some commenters joined Maczynski’s criticism, most people affirmed Fr. Martin’s idea and shared their own stories of being an LGBT Catholic or having a loved one who is.  This post was similar to Martin’s 2014 post when he said the sexual orientation of theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who some have theorized was a gay man, should matter in remembering him.

The Advocate noted that Martin was recently appointed by Pope Francis to be a consultor for the Vatican’s Secretariat for Communications, and he has also spoken out for LGBT equality:

“Martin has a history of LGBT advocacy within the Catholic Church. Last summer, he released a viral video on Facebook imploring Catholics to “stand with… their LGBT brothers and sisters” in the wake of the Orlando shooting.

“Afterward, he penned a book, Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity. He was honored by New Ways Ministry, a Catholic LGBT group, with its Bridge Building Award for his work.”

He recently challenged another priest to be more supportive of transgender people, an act one journalist described as a “holy mic drop.

The communion of saints is a very powerful aspect of the Catholic imagination, and thus there have been many efforts to celebrate Catholic saints who would today likely identify as LGBT. Catholics remember those holy people in our history who have practiced radical hospitality or lived as their authentic self in defiance of the cultural norms of their times. For example, one artist has created queer depictions of popular saints, and there is a significant devotion to Fr. Mychal Judge, OFM, the saint of 9/11, who was gay.

LGBT Catholics and allies can once again thank Fr. Martin for his outspoken advocacy for a church where all people are welcome.

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, May 13, 2017

 

Scottish School Apology Is a Model for the Church

In Scotland, a Catholic secondary school official responded in an extremely appropriate and effective way when anti-gay leaflets were discovered on campus:  he apologized to the students.

Glasgow’s Herald newspaper reported that when Stephen Phee, the Head teacher (chief administrator) at St. Mungo’s school, Falkirk, was informed of the leaflets’ existence by the student who discovered them, he immediately offered an apology. The student, Aidan Callaghan, said:

“Mr. Phee apologised straight away and said they shouldn’t have been there, and he would investigate how they got there.”

St. Mungo High School

The fliers, which were published by an organization called “The Catholic Truth Society,” were immediately removed from the school.  Entitled “The Church and same-sex attraction,” the tract used terms like “deep-seated tendencies” and “acts of grave depravity” to discuss, respectively, homosexual orientation and gay sex.”  These terms are often used in Catholic magisterial writing. Why is an apology such an appropriate and effective response in this case?  Because it signaled to the students that the administration sees part of its role as protecting LGBT people from harrassment,

Why is an apology such an appropriate and effective response in this case?  Because it signaled to the students that the administration sees part of its role as protecting LGBT people from harassment.  That is a task that every Catholic institution administrator should consider as part of the job description.

Scottish LGBT advocates noted how important it is for the school to respond strongly to this situation. The Herald reported that Cara Spence, Senior Programmes Manager at LGBT Youth Scotland, explained:

 “[These] messages are deeply damaging to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender learners and could have a long-term impact on a young person’s confidence and their ability to talk to others about how they feel.”

With a positive response like Phee’s, it’s not surprising that Callahan, the student who found the fliers, noted that the school’s atmosphere is an accepting one.  He stated:

“Homophobia isn’t an issue at our school, so I was really surprised to see something like this.”

Last June, Pope Francis had called on church leaders to apologize to lesbian and gay people for the ill-treatment they have received from religious institutions.  Few leaders have done so, which makes the school administrator’s statement all the more remarkable.

The spirit of apology seems to be infused in Scotland lately.   The theological forum of the Church of Scotland (the established Presbyterian church) has announced that it will ask the General Assembly of the denomination meeting this month to offer an apology to lesbian and gay people.  A report issued by the forum stated:

“We recognise that as a Church we have often failed to recognise and protect the identity and Christian vocation of gay people and believe that the Church as a whole should acknowledge its faults.”

Let us pray that this action from the Church of Scotland will inspire other Christian churches to follow suit.  And let us pray that the action of this Scottish Roman Catholic school official will spark other Catholic officials to begin the process of reconciliation with the LGBT community by offering their own apologies.

Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, May 11, 2017

 

‘Santa Muerte’ Devotion Highlights Chasm Between the Church and Trans Mexicans

The development of a new religious devotion among Mexican transgender persons highlights the growing chasm between LGBT people and the Catholic Church in one of the world’s most Catholic nations, as well as the tragic circumstances among which many transgender people live.

Religion News Service recently reported on the growth among trans Mexicans of the “Santa Muerte” (“Saint Death”) devotion, the practice of honoring and praying to the skeletal figure of “Death.”  The news story explained:

A shrine to Santa Muerte

“The skeleton saint — with her female form and association with death — is particularly appealing to transgender sex workers, who face the persistent threat of violent clients and transphobic hatred.

“Unlike official church figures such as Our Lady of Guadalupe whose images are ethereal, Santa Muerte appeals to those with practical problems and passions living on the country’s margins. Devotees ask her for protection, even when sex work is their only occupation.

” ‘The majority of us believe in Santa Muerte,’ said [Betzy] Ballesteros [a trans sex worker]. ‘She’s a God to us. I ask her to shield me from danger and provide work and clients.’

“The cult of Santa Muerte is an example of religious syncretism, with roots in European Catholicism and Aztec beliefs.”

The Catholic hierarchy has condemned the devotion, just as they have expressed many negative messages about transgender people:

“The Rev. Hugo Valdemar Romero, a spokesperson for the Archdiocese of Mexico City, said the church does not abandon or excommunicate transgender people. But he does believe they suffer from pathology.

” ‘Of course it is not acceptable for someone to violate their own biology,’ he said. ‘Nature is very clear. There are men and there are women.’

“As for Santa Muerte, Romero considers it a heretical cult.

“. . . .Despite the church’s condemnation, many Santa Muerte devotees describe themselves as Catholic.”

Though the hierarchy condemns the new devotion, it seems that they don’t recognize their own part in its creation.  Andrew Chesnut, a religious studies scholar from Virginia Commonwealth University who has studied the devotion, explains that the new tradition arose to serve a need that established churches were not meeting:

“Mexican Catholics and evangelicals tend to view transgenderism as a lifestyle choice. But the fact that Santa Muerte is outside the orbit of both evangelical and Catholic Christianity makes her much more appealing. It’s much easier for followers to feel that she’s not going to be judgmental.”

And the lived experience of trans Mexicans testifies not only to violence they face in society but also the rejection they receive from churches:

“The civil rights organization Transgender Europe has documented 247 killings of transgender people in Mexico between January 2008 and April 2016, the second-highest number in the world, after Brazil.

“The life expectancy of transgender women in Latin America is 35, according to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

” ‘Transgender people are more likely to become involved in substance and alcohol abuse and they are less likely to have strong networks of family and others on whom they can count,’ said Cymene Howe, an anthropologist who has studied the importance of Santa Muerte among transgender sex workers who migrate between Guadalajara and San Francisco.”

And Betzy Ballesteros, the sex worker quoted above, offered testimony of her experience with the church:

“I went with some transgender friends to Mass one time. The priest stopped his sermon and told us to leave the house of God. After that, I decided I wouldn’t ever go back.”

If Catholic Church leaders in Mexico believe that this devotion is harmful to its adherents, they must first recognize that their own harmful actions towards trans people are encouraging the worship of Santa Muerte to flourish.  When people are scorned and rejected, they will find their own path to God.  The surest way for Church leaders to win back trans people to the ecclesial community is for them to end their negative rhetoric which causes both physical and spiritual death.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, May 9, 2017

Newark’s Cardinal Will Welcome Catholic LGBT Pilgrimage

A pilgrimage of LGBT Catholics will be welcomed by Cardinal Joseph Tobin at the Archdiocese of Newark’s Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart when they arrive there on Sunday, May 21, 2017.

Sacred Heart Parish, South Plainfield, Church of the Precious Blood, Monmouth Beach are organizing the event, which seems to have had a serendipitous origin.

Rev. Alexander Santora, a Hoboken, N.J. priest, described in an NJ.com essay how the pilgrimage idea grew:

“David Harvie was at a regional meeting in Brooklyn of the Interparish Collaborative [a group of about 15 Catholic parishes in the New York-New Jersey-Connecticut region that have LGBT ministries]. . . . He was seated next to Redemptorist Father Francis Gargani and talked about how there are so many beautiful church edifices that deserve to be seen.

” ‘I am a church architecture geek,’ Harvie said, mentioning, for example, the Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Newark.

“Gargani, who resides at the Redemptorist Provincial House in Brooklyn, said he would bring it up to the new Archbishop of Newark, Joseph Cardinal Tobin, also a Redemptorist, who was coming to dinner the next evening.”

And the rest is (or will soon be) history.  Cardinal Tobin, newly appointed by Pope Francis, responded by email to Gargani’s request:

“I am delighted that you and the LGBTQ brothers and sisters plan to visit our beautiful cathedral. You will be very welcome!”

The mass will take place in Our Lady Chapel of the Cathedral, at 3:30 p.m., followed by a tour of the building.

It has been a long time since a bishop has welcomed a group of LGBT people to the local cathedral.  Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen welcomed the DignityUSA convention to the Seattle cathedral in 1983 (though his welcome message was delivered by audio recording because he had been summoned to Rome).  When Rochester, N.Y.’s Bishop Matthew Clark held a mass for the gay and lesbian community in his cathedral in 1997, 1300 people showed up for the space which could hold only 900, so the remaining spilled out onto the sidewalks.   A year later Richmond, Virginia’s Bishop Walter Sullivan followed suit with a similar mass in his diocesan cathedral, telling participants, “You are welcome here. It’s about time someone told you that.”  In 2015, a group of LGBT pilgrims led by New Ways Ministry was given VIP seating at the papal audience in St. Peter’s Square in Rome on Ash Wednesday.

The organizer of the event reflected on how far the LGBT community and the Catholic Church have come in his lifetime:

Harvie recalled first marching in the annual Gay Rights Parade in Manhattan at a time when a wall of police would separate the marchers from entering St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue.

“We could not get anywhere near our Catholic church,” Harvie recalled, contrasting that experience with the gesture of Cardinal Tobin. “No one can believe it.”

Harvie expects an overflow crowd in the chapel, which can only hold 40 to 50 people. But that would be a wonderful problem to have, he said.

Harvie is the facilitator of the LGBT ministry in Sacred Heart parish, South Plainfield, N.J.

It is so good to see that a cardinal is eager to extend a welcome to a group of LGBT Catholics.  Indeed, his example should be emulated by others.  If bishops want to make Pope Francis’ message of welcome tangible to LGBT people, more instances like this need to take place.  God will surely bless this beautiful initiative!

For more information on the pilgrimage, click here or e-mail sacredheartigi@gmail.com. You can contact David Harvie at Church of the Sacred Heart, 200 Randolph Ave., South Plainfield, NJ 07080; phone: 908-822-5895.

Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, May 9, 2017