Gay Priests Have a Place in the Catholic Church, Says Irish Senator

August 21, 2016
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Senator Jerry Buttimer

An Irish legislator has affirmed a place for openly gay priests in the Catholic Church, comments made as discussion continues about an unhealthy sexual atmosphere at the country’s national seminary.

St. Patrick’s College Maynooth is in the spotlight after Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin decided to withdraw the archdiocese’s seminarians from the school. As Bondings 2.0 reported yesterday, he cited as his reasons an alleged “gay culture” and questioned whether the seminary was a “good place for students.”

This archbishop’s decision has elicited many responses, including that of Irish Senator Jerry Buttimer who, according to the Evening Echo, said he was unsurprised that gay men would be in formation for the priesthood

Buttimer, an openly gay Fine Gael legislator from Cork and a faithful Catholic, said church leaders should welcome this reality rather than regard it as a problem. He said the church has failed to respect people of all sexual identities, and Archbishop Martin’s decision “exposed the hypocrisy of the Church around its teachings on sexuality, celibacy and attitude towards gay people.” This case highlights for the senator “the need for the Irish hierarchy to embrace LGBT people of faith and make them part of our church,” adding:

” ‘Many of these [LGBT] people are already making a huge contribution in parishes across Cork. The Church is nothing without its people, all of its people. Many of us pray for a Church that is inclusive, welcoming, accepting, open and transparent. We are fortunate that in many parishes across Cork and around the country a vibrancy does exists and liturgies are participative, led by good men. However, unfortunately, we could do a lot better.’ “

Buttimer studied at Maynooth for five years, and spoke highly of his time there which left a “lasting impression” upon him, saying he never regretted studying there. But he continued:

” ‘I disagreed with them at times about issues surrounding formation and teachings of the Church, but I still believe today that they were, in the main, interested in developing and educating young men to be good priests. As a person of faith, I pray and yearn that my Church and its leaders would move to be more progressive, open and transparent around the teaching on sexuality.’ “

Redemptorist Fr. Tony Flannery, founder of the Association of Catholic Priests (ACP), concurred in a piece for The Independent  where he called on Irish Catholics to use this controversy as a time for re-imagining ministry. Flannery suggested that most applicants to seminary today were either gay men (or at least men confused about their sexuality) and traditionalist men. He wrote:

“There is absolutely no reason why a gay man should not be a priest, but if a particular profession is attracting a far higher percentage than is present in the general population, then questions need to be asked about the nature of the profession. . .what type of priest is needed in today’s world, and what type of spiritual and theological formation should they be given?

“I believe that the present malaise has much deeper roots. The solution would have to involve a radical revision of our understanding of ministry and the requirements necessary to become a priest. So, rather than just tinkering around with Maynooth, the Catholic Church needs to initiate a process of discussion at all levels to discern what type of ministry is best suited for the Church of the future.”

Flannery said beyond affirming gay men in the priesthood, the church must critically examine the issues of women in ministry, clericalism, and Roman interventionism.

Fr. Brendan Hoban, himself a member of ACP, said Martin’s decision amounted to “moving deck chairs on the Titanic” because the larger question behind the Maynooth happenings is the crisis of priestly vocations. He told The Irish Times:

” ‘[In seminary] you are always going to have a mixture of gay and heterosexual candidates, that has always been the case, and there will be – from time to time, incidents that people would prefer didn’t happen. But they do happen, human nature being what it is.’ “

Hoban said despite allegations, “there doesn’t seem to be anything substantially proven.” ACP’s statement defended Maynooth, and claimed criticisms were coming from disgruntled former students, traditionalist Catholics, and “right-wing commentators who are unhappy with the focus on the theology of the Second Vatican Council and suspicious of modern psychological and other insights.”

Several commentators have also said that homosexuality is, perhaps unfortunately, a feint to hide the real and much larger problems at Maynooth and beyond. Irish Times columnist Una Mullally said hypocrisy was the real scandal in this incident, writing:

“The immature, archaic and coded language clergy members and others have used to describe the Maynooth story – ‘gay subculture’ ‘strange goings on’ ‘quarrelsome’ ‘not the healthiest place’ – belongs in the past, and compounds homosexuality as something to joke about or be scandalised by. Across social media, the temptation for crass jokes and wink-wink-nudge-nudge comments was too much for many. Unfortunately, all this does is re-enforce an attitude towards homosexuality that is crude and childish. . .

“The church still views homosexuality as a ‘problem’, inside and out of its organisation. But the real scandal at Maynooth isn’t about gay priests. Of course there are gay priests. Tonnes of them. The real scandal is the church’s addiction to secrecy, arrogance, and its hierarchy of hypocrisy.”

Colum Kenny, also writing in the Irish Timessaid the Maynooth controversy has nothing to do with sex or theology at all. Ireland’s hierarchy has again proven itself  not to be credible, Kenny said, and so the Irish church must use this opportunity to renew itself:

“It is a question of the spirit, a challenge to be converted to a new order of witness and theology – one that can help Irish people of Catholic background who have rejected outdated dogma and practice as empty forms to live spiritually in the modern world.”

Allegations of sexual relationships, harassment, and mishandling at Ireland’s national seminary will assuredly keep provoking conversations. Archbishop Martin’s decision to withdraw his seminarians remains controversial. This incident is immensely painful for an Irish church already in crisis and surely so for the seminarians and staff of Maynooth.

The responses to this case show the necessity and the increasing willingness of many Catholics to have extremely hard conversations about ministry, sexuality, ecclesial power, and the intersection of these issues. If done well, this moment of pain and scandal could lead to a time of renewal and flourishing.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry


Archbishop Withdraws Students Over “Gay Culture” at Irish Seminary

August 20, 2016
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St. Patrick’s College, Maynooth

A leading Irish archbishop has withdrawn his diocese’s students from an embattled seminary, citing allegations of a “gay culture” there which led to sexual activity.

Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin removed the three archdiocesan seminarians from St. Patrick’s College Maynooth, the country’s national seminary, reported Crux. Martin, initially quiet about his reasons, has now explained:

“There are allegations on different sides. One is that there is a homosexual, a gay culture, and that students have been using an app called Grindr [which] would be inappropriate for seminarians, and not just because they are training to be celibate priests, but (because) an app like that would be something that would be fostering promiscuous sexuality, which is certainly not in any way the mature vision of sexuality one would expect a priest to understand.”

The archbishop will instead send seminarians to the Pontifical Irish College in Rome, at least until the matter at Maynooth is resolved and structural reforms have been implemented.

Martin also criticized the anonymous nature by which complaints had been filed, saying it eliminated due process and created a “poisonous” culture.

Bishop Alphonsus Cullinan of Waterford and Lismore withdrew his diocese’s seminarians from St. Patrick’s, too, but other Irish bishops are publicly supporting the seminary. College President Monsignor Hugh Connolly said since no complaints had been publicly filed, there could be no investigation. He defended the seminary environment as “a wholesome, healthy one.”

Rumors about sexual relationships and administrative problems are not new for Maynooth, which hosts about 55 students currently, reported America:

“One former seminarian last week testified to its so-called gay culture, one that was widely known about but not addressed. Another former seminarian claims he was expelled from the college after he failed to report two colleagues for engaging in sexual activity. The reports revealed a deep disconnect between church authorities and the experience of some seminarians, along with the challenges the Irish church is struggling to address: homosexuality as a reality in the church, celibacy, accusations and secrecy and a formation process that is quickly becoming antiquated.”

But America’s coverage also noted further reasons why Archbishop Martin is removing his seminarians, stemming from the Apostolic Visitation to Ireland initiated by Pope Benedict and overseen by Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York. That Visitation, which Martin has criticized, “resulted in greater separation between the seminarians and lay students in Maynooth, with barriers erected and separate eating quarters introduced.” The article continued:

“It created a more isolated formation process for seminarians, one that has been criticized for being at odds with Pope Francis’ vision for a more inclusive, open and integrated church. . .Indeed, it was claimed that six seminarians were held back from ordination and told to take time out last year because they were ‘too theologically rigid.’ “

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Archbishop Diarmuid Martin

Though reported as a scandal about homosexuality, Archbishop Martin seems less concerned with whom seminarians may potentially be in sexual relationships, and more focused on the idea that seminarians would be in any sexually compromising situation at all. He used the words “gay culture,” but nothing he mentioned about the seminary’s culture is uniquely gay. There may, perhaps, be an unintegrated or immature culture around sexuality in the seminary, but there would seem to be no difference whether seminarians were using the gay dating app Grindr or its heterosexual counterpart, Tinder.

Martin seems equally concerned that this incident revealed an unhealthy atmosphere of secrecy and anonymous accusations at Maynooth. He questioned if seminarians would be better educated beyond the “closed, strange world of seminaries” in new programs of formation more grounded in the real world.

In short, I do not believe Martin’s evaluation of Maynooth as not being “a good place for students” hinges upon seminarians being gay or in same-gender relationships. In general, he has evidenced a more positive approach to LGBT issues than most bishops. His positive approach is particularly distinctive, given the ugly history after the clergy sexual abuse crisis emerged in Ireland in the early 2000s, and gay priests and seminarians were frequently scapegoated.

Archbishop Martin’s decision to withdraw Dublin’s seminarians has provoked good conversations throughout Ireland about the priesthood, celibacy, and indeed homosexuality. His is a credible voice for an Irish public skeptical of the church, and he was described as a “maverick” among other clergy in a recent Irish Times profile. He cooperated fully with civil authorities in clergy sexual abuse investigations, and he has been pastoral in his treatment of LGBT issues. The conversations which Martin has initiated are important and ongoing, and they are applicable not only for Ireland but for the church universal. Tomorrow, Bondings 2.0 will cover more of those Irish conversations.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry


Parents Implore Pope to Put an End to Homophobia in Poland

August 19, 2016

We’ve often commented on this blog that the Catholic parents of LGBT people are among the strongest advocates in the Church for equality and justice.  Parents’ groups have been speaking boldly and effectively around the globe, perhaps most notably here in the U.S. through the organization Fortunate Families, and in Malta through the organization Drachma Parents.

A new set of parental voices has joined this growing chorus, this time from the very Catholic nation of Poland.  When Pope Francis visited there last month for World Youth Day, a group of parents of 16 gay Poles wrote to the pontiff, asking him to help put an end to the “widespread” homophobia which they say exists in their nation.

NDTV.com reported on the parents’ letter:

“Pointing to a recent string of ‘attacks on offices of organisations working with homosexuals, burning of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) symbols, and beatings of non-heterosexuals,’ the group implored Francis to intervene.

” ‘Instead of compassion for families, society is engulfed by a wave of homophobia,’ the group said in an open letter, which was published by several Polish newspapers and magazines in the past week [end of July].

” ‘Only the voice of Your Holiness can prevent future tragedies,’ they told Francis, who famously remarked ‘Who am I to judge?’ about gays earlier in his papacy.”

The news report described other important passages from the letter, including the experience of LGBT Poles, and the failure of the Polish church to protect the dignity of LGBT people:

” ‘On a daily basis, our children face hate attacks, verbal assaults and even physical violence only because they were created that way by God,’ said the parents, who did not publish their full names for fear of reprisals.

 ” ‘Why is there so much homophobia among Polish Catholics?’ they asked, quoting passages from Church teachings that call for gays and lesbians to ‘be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity.’

” ‘Why aren’t priests reminding people in their sermons that LGBT people are also God’s children and only God can judge them?’

” ‘Jesus himself never said anything about the love between people of the same sex,’ the letter said.”

Unfortunately, Pope Francis did not address LGBT issues in any of his public addresses at World Youth Day, though he did refer negatively to gender issues in a private meeting with Polish bishops.

One Polish gay advocate feels that Francis’ more positive messages on LGBT issues is having an influence on the minds and attitudes of Catholic Poles.  NDTV.com reported:

” ‘It’s not yet at the point in history when the Catholic Church in Poland would be ready to agree (to officially recognise LGBT groups) — we are not yet there,’ [said] Misza Czerniak, an LGBT activist.

“He however acknowledged that ‘Francis has changed the tone and the vocabulary that is used when speaking about LGBT people in the Church, and we are extremely grateful for that.’

” ‘And what is a big sign of hope for us, is that the Polish church is gradually learning from him.’ “

Catholic parents of LGBT people are the true prophets in our Church.  Their journeys of acceptance and love, their experience of understanding new realities, are exactly the same journey that the entire Church, especially the hierarchy, need to learn.  Parents have a lot to teach church leaders about unconditional love, and about treating all people equally as brothers and sisters.  Their strong voices in support of their LGBT children are a true gift to our Church.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry.


Bishops in Colombia Kill Anti-Bullying Education Program

August 18, 2016
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President Juan Manuel Santos

A proposed anti-bullying program in Colombia will not go ahead as planned, following a meeting between the country’s president and Catholic bishops.

Colombia’s Ministry of Education, in conjunction with two United Nations agencies, had prepared a document, titled “Discrimination-Free School Environments,” to handle sexual and gender diversity training for educators. But, after meeting with three Catholic bishops, President Juan Manuel Santos announced that the document would not be implemented, reported The Catholic Herald.

In reply to the president’s announcement, the Colombian Conference of Catholic Bishops said in a statement that it “received with satisfaction the announcement of the National Government and the Department of Education that they will not promote or implement gender ideology in the country.” The bishops did note that all human beings should be respected regardless of identities, including their “sexual orientation.”

The meeting between the president and the bishops was held one day after thousands of Colombians demonstrated against the document, which had been released on the website of the United Nations Children’s Fund. The bishops’ statement said these protests were “an exercise by the parents of their right to be assisted in educating their children in accordance with their convictions and values.” But the church-encouraged protests were, in part, inspired by pornographic images released to the public that were falsely attributed to the document. There are claims the images were released by the Office of the Inspector General, Alejando Ordonez, who is a traditionalist Catholic, though he denied them.

Colombia Reports explained the anti-bullying document was merely aimed at giving teachers “the tools to teach children about sexual diversity and show how this can reduce bullying,” an idea first proposed after a gay Colombian teenager, Sergio Urrego, died by suicide two years ago. The document was part of larger efforts to update sexual education programs and protect LGBT people, led by Education Minister Gina Parody, who is herself a gay woman.

Church leaders, however, remain powerfully connected to the Colombian government and opposed to nearly any acceptance of sexual and gender minorities. The bishops’ voices joined other LGBT-negative critics in the country who condemn, without any specificity, “gender ideology” and make claims of “colonization” against those people seeking to expand LGBT rights.

LGBT rights have, however, expanded slowly in Colombia. For instance, in June, citizens were granted the right to change legal documents to match their gender identity. Earlier in the year, the Constitutional Court legalized marriage equality.

Despite this most recent bad news in Colombia, early August has been a positive time for LGBT rights in Latin America. As of this month, transgender people in Bolivia and Ecuador are now able to have their government records match their gender identity, reported Americas QuarterlyBelize’s Supreme Court overturned an anti-homosexuality law, ending the last criminalization of lesbian, gay, and bisexual people in Latin America, according to Out Magazine.

As LGBT acceptance expands, bishops in Colombia and elsewhere should not partner with anti-LGBT movements to suppress human rights. Avoiding this strategy is most important when it comes to anti-bullying initiatives targeting youth. Yesterday’s post on Bondings 2.0 about teenager Daniel Fitzpatrick’s suicide, as well as the memory of Sergio Urrego in Colombia, are sufficient evidence of the harm caused when schools are not safe places for all students. Given these high stakes, pastoral leadership demands more from bishops than empty slogans.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry


In Ontario, Catholic Teachers Pave the Way for LGBTQ Inclusion

August 15, 2016
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Kevin Welbes Godin

Today’s post is by guest blogger Kevin Welbes Godin.

For the past four years, I have served as Equity and Diversity Coordinator at Egale Canada, a national LGBTIQ2S equality organization.  My work has primarily been with the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association (OECTA), the world’s largest Catholic teachers’ union, helping them to better serve their LGBT students.

While the slogging is still tough in Catholic schools, definite gains are being made for LGBTQ youth.  Egale Canada has faithfully supported the training of Catholic teachers and has touted this service as “one of a kind” in the world.  Contrary to what some conservative Catholics may think, many members of the LGBTQ community have been supportive of the work Catholic teachers are doing to create safer and accepting schools for LGBTQ students.

Many Catholics, including myself, still expect our Catholic hierarchy to lead. After all, it is a bishop’s role to teach. Many educated, concerned Catholics have questioned local Catholic authorities as to why there is such a roaring silence that plays into structural homo/bi/transphobia in schools.  Perhaps Church overseers are choosing to be silent toward our LGBTQ brothers and sisters because they see the rest of us so willing to take the lead?  Even if unconsciously, I wonder if the spirit of Vatican II is swirling in the minds of episcopal gents as many Catholics refuse to let stubborn, rigid language and rules ruin and even take people’s lives?   It would be good to hear from our Bishop-teachers, though, right?   They still exercise the power when they choose to.

Ontario Catholic teachers have resoundingly told me that LGBTQ inclusion–creating safer schools and curriculum–is a priority.  OECTA members participated in Egale Canada’s “Every Teacher Project.”  Have a look at the report by clicking here.  This research tells a good story of where Catholic educators want the Catholic school system to move.  Here are some of the key findings:

What the classroom teacher sees as a need, doesn’t always get reflected as a priority for a  school board.

Religious schools are often assumed to be sites that are hostile to LGBTQ-inclusive education, but educators from Catholic schools were only slightly less likely to approve of LGBTQ-inclusive education (83% vs. 85% of respondents from secular schools), and slightly more likely to be opposed to it (6% vs. 4%). This suggests that the relationship between educators’ perspectives on the issue and the official perspectives of their schools is not a straightforward one.

Catholic teachers want to do the job of LGBTQ inclusion, but…

 Educators from Catholic schools were much less likely to feel comfortable discussing LGBTQ issues with their students (57%) than those from secular schools (76%), even though, as noted earlier, they were almost as likely to approve of LGBTQ-inclusive education (83% vs. 85%). This suggests that their discomfort has more to do with their school context than with their personal values.

Teachers know what they need and the kind of leadership necessary to support their work with LGBTQ inclusion.

 When asked why they did not practice LGBTQ-inclusive education, very few Catholic school educators cited their own religious beliefs. Their biggest reason for not practicing LGBTQ-inclusive education was insufficient training (29% vs. 17% from secular schools), followed by fear-based reasons concerning lack of leadership.

Even without leadership, Catholic teachers are boldly standing in solidarity with their LGBTQ students. Among their accomplishments:

Many Catholic schools have established Ontario’s legislated Gay-Straight Alliances (GSA).

Recently, I was invited to a Catholic high school assembly that openly proclaimed the need to be more inclusive of its LGBTQ students and staff.  While the chaplain prophetically spoke gospel truth to institutional power, students rallied and advocated for a school GSA, and the school administrators led the line in signing the rainbow flag.

Catholic student leaders keep the system accountable.

Across the province of Ontario, I’ve seen courageous student leaders, fueled by a deep passion, and tired of being invisible, raise their voices to challenge lackadaisical Catholic school boards. They urge these boards to support  LGBTQ students and keep them safe.  Catholic student trustees continue to make LGBTQ inclusion a priority on their school boards.

Many OECTA local units, especially the Toronto Secondary Unit, stand in solidarity with LGBTQ members.

Marching in Pride parades, advocating for LGBTQ member human rights, and speaking strongly to other Catholic partners all need to continue.  The time has arrived, and sitting on our hands and exercising a complicit silence can no longer be the norm if Catholic schools in Ontario are to viably speak to its students and teachers and remain authentic to the gospel mandate to love.

All sorts of resources and new social and cultural initiatives have been added to schools.

School libraries showcase books on diverse families (same-sex families). School hallways advertise pink shirt days and safe space initiatives.  A Catholic high school outside Toronto crowned Prom-Queens!  Rainbow flags are expressly being waved inside and outside schools.  These and more continue to be signs that LGBTQ inclusion is countering the nervous, nibbled-knee responses that have darkened the Spirit in the past.

Catholic teachers have recognized the “signs of the times” and are acting accordingly, and quickly, to support the dignity and well-being of LGBTQ students.  The problem is with those who wait, doing nothing,  while the suicide rate of LGBTQ youth is four times the average.  Gratitude is to those who take the prophetic, bold steps to seize the moment and stand with the most vulnerable.

Courage will still be needed to stand in the face of hate, and dignity will be needed to sway those who prefer a splintered community.   As we forge ahead, let us raise each other up, stand arm in arm, and wholehearted welcome the part of the Body of Christ that is LGBTQ.

Yes, the slogging still remains tough, but as Canadian singer Bruce Cockburn said, “nothing worth happening comes without some kind of fight.”  Continue on… there’s no turning back now.

–Kevin Welbes Godin

 


Australian Liturgy Answers Pope Francis’ Call for Apology

August 12, 2016

At the end of June, Pope Francis made headlines when he called on the church to apologize to lesbian and gay people for the harm that they have experienced.  In the six weeks since the pope made that call, no church leader or organization has accepted the pope’s challenge.  Until today.

What is likely the first public apology to LGBTIQ people in response to Pope Francis’ statement, an Australian Catholic parish and a Catholic LGBT coalition will be hosting a “An Apology Liturgy to LGBTIQ People” today, in which the two groups will ask pardon of the sexual and gender minority community, and seek to chart a more just course for the future.

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‘Pastoral organizers including St Joseph’s Church Newtown Parish Priest Father Peter Maher (3rd from right) at an ecumenical pastoral leaders’ roundtable hosted by the interagency’

The Mass is being sponsored by St. Joseph’s Church, Newtown (a suburb of Sydney), and the Rainbow Catholics InterAgency for Ministry, an umbrella group for several Australian Catholic groups that work for LGBT equality.

“We are taking Pope Francis’ words to heart, along with all the other positive things he has had to say over the years, not only about gay people, but also about Jesus’ words to welcome, heal relationships and show mercy” said Father Peter Maher, pastor of St Joseph’s, in a press statement.

Francis Vroon, a Rainb0w Catholics Interagency for Ministry spokesperson noted the innovative and unique experience this Mass will be:

“Perhaps for the first time in Australia, and possibly the world, we have a Catholic Church respond to these words, where we are inviting people of goodwill to community prayer in recognition of our church’s and collective failure to keep LGBTIQ people safe from discrimination and hurt. More importantly, we pledge that we do better from here on.”

Vroon noted that in hosting the Mass, the group  was joining with Pope Francis and the newly appointed Bishop of Parramatta, Vincent Long, in acknowledging the ways that the church has harmed or failed to protect LGBTIQ people.

Noting that just over 25% of the Australian population identifies as Catholic Vroon added:

“It may be also be possible that one in four people in the LGBTIQ community has come from a Catholic background, church or school. Many have left our church, some have remained, finding peace in reconciling both their sexuality and faith.”

The groups’ press statement offered an explanation of the purpose of having a Mass of Forgiveness, not just issuing a statement:

What can our humble prayer service do? In our Catholic tradition, we have a saying ‘lex orandi, lex credendi’ which is a fancy way of saying that what we pray informs our beliefs. As we pray for forgiveness, we resolve to change our hearts and be part of the healing process for those we have hurt or failed. One of our saints has been quoted as saying ‘Pray as if everything depended on God, Work as if everything depended on you.’ Some might say that words are empty without action, and perhaps we need the LGBTIQ community to keep us accountable, in positively encouraging ways. We have to start somewhere, and we hope our prayers are a beginning, as we start to walk with our LGBTIQ siblings in relationships that lead to a change of hearts towards each other. And then who knows what good fruits will be born of this?”

The Mass will be held at 8:00 p.m. on August 12th at St. Joseph’s, whose mission statement says is “to provide a safe place for all people to pray regardless of age, race, creed, gender, cultural background or sexual orientation.”  The parish was featured last year in a Bondings 2.0 post because of the rainbow banners which are a permanent fixture in the church building.

The Rainbow Catholics Interagency describes itself as a “coalition of Catholic organisations whose primary purpose is to build relationships, to pray, and to educate, in advocating for justice and the full inclusion of LGBTIQ Catholics and their families in the Australian Catholic Church and our larger community. Their members include parents, clergy, religious and pastoral leaders from various parts of the Australian Catholic community.”

New Ways Ministry will be praying with these groups, and we encourage all of our friends to do the same.  We will also be praying that other leaders, parishes, and church organizations will follow their example and make some public statement or action of apology, as Pope Francis has asked.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry


Italy Is a Case Study for How the Church Can Build Up a Marriage Culture

August 9, 2016
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Deborah Piccini and Elena Vanni celebrating their civil union in Italy

Civil unions by same-gender couples have begun in Italy, implementing a law passed earlier this year against the Catholic hierarchy’s objections. But a new study suggests that church weddings, already in great decline, may disappear altogether in Italy in 15 years.  These two facts make Italy a case study for how the church can actually build up a healthy and positive culture around marriage.

It is not clear which couple was the first to be legally joined in Italy, but it is clear that couples have rushed to get their relationships legally recognized. Malay Mail reported one couple entered a union early in Milan because, after 28 years together, one partner was terminally ill. Gay Star News reported that Elena Vanni and Deborah Piccini were among the first couples, celebrating their union at the City Hall of Castel San Pietro near Bologna. Vanni said of their decision to be united under the law:

“‘Desires are the engine that leads us to be happy. . .Not that we were in a hurry, but at some point, our union [became] a discourse about justice.'”

Italy’s national conversation about same-gender relationships has been contentious, and much of the debate has been framed around the issue of justice. Both sides rallied hundreds of thousands to their cause, resulting in massive demonstrations in the lead-up to the law’s passage last May. Lay Catholics were split on the civil unions question, though Italians overall support expanding LGBT rights.  Italian church leaders substantively supported anti-equality efforts, though the Italian Episcopal Conference and some bishops practiced more distance than they had before Pope Francis’ election. For its part, the Holy See avoided the debate in Italy. Still, church leaders were overwhelmingly clear they did not support the law and the Conference’s president called the law’s passage “a loss for everyone.

Contrasting this rush by couples to enter civil unions is a report which suggested that Catholic sacramental weddings in Italy may end altogether by 2031. The study was done by CENSIS, the Center for Social Investment Studies, and analyzed marriage trends from the last two decades. Crux reported that the numbers of Italians entering into sacramental marriages were “in free fall” despite 95% of the nation’s residents still identifying as Catholic. Religious weddings fell by an average of 6,400 annually, and civil ceremonies are holding steady, but show little to no growth.

CENSIS director Massimiliano Valerii said the study indicates the “dissolution of this institution [of marriage],” which the Center attributed in part to legislative trends “including the fact that children born outside of marriage are now recognized as equally legitimate as those born to married couples, and also the civil recognition of de facto couples in addition to those who are married.” Civil unions for lesbian and gay couples are too new to have been factored into any calculations.

The phrasing, “culture of marriage” is used mostly by conservative opponents of marriage equality who claim that the expansion of LGBT rights undercuts the institution of marriage and family life. But Italy reveals that the culture of marriage is not defended, and certainly not strengthened, by denying LGBT people their human rights. If this were the case, marriage should be flourishing in Italy, the last Western European nation (aside from the Holy See) to grant rights to same-gender couples. It is not.

Whether or not sacramental marriages in the Catholic church will cease by 2031 is uncertain. Trends provide guidance, but do not predict the future. What is certain is that the debate over LGBT rights in Italy will continue. Civil unions are progress but are not equivalent to equal marriage rights. Adoption rights for same-gender partners were stripped from the civil unions law to ensure its passage. While employment non-discrimination protections exist, these protections do not extend to other areas like public accommodations. Between now and 2031,  Italian church leaders have an opportunity to shift their strategy on marriage equality, and, in the process, save the nation’s culture of marriage.

Until now, bishops’ engagement with marriage policy in many Western nations has almost exclusively existed of their public condemnations of marriage equality, divorce and remarriage, or contraception. They have failed to offer a compelling, positive, and hopeful vision of marriage and family life that the Catholic tradition possesses. The synodal process and Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation, Amoris Laetitia, attested to the institutional church’s deficiency in preaching and cultivating this vision.The generally conservative Italian episcopacy has been a prime example of this approach.

But if the bishops would listen to the LGBT people and their loved ones, who are actually defending marriage and family, they might actually build up the culture of marriage that they seek. Where the bishops have failed, lay people have led the way. It is no coincidence that marriage equality, and LGBT rights overall, frequently advance first in regions which are predominantly Catholic. The faithful, driven by a sense of justice for people who are marginalized, have championed equality under the law precisely to strengthen all couples and their families. Catholic loved ones of LGBT people, particularly parents, have passionately affirmed not only the goodness of same-gender relationships but demanded equal protections for them. These Catholics understand that all love is good before God, and it should be affirmed and protected by society because marriage and family are indeed essential goods for human flourishing.

As Italians keep addressing LGBT rights, the nation’s bishops should stop resisting LGBT rights as if equality’s progress is anti-marriage and anti-family. They have done tremendous damage to the institution of marriage by claiming some love is second class, and that some families should not be recognized as such. Bishops should instead listen to the many faithful Catholics in Italy and around the world whose advocacy for equality has done more to build up a culture of marriage.

Foremost among these leaders is the Bishop of Rome, Pope Francis, who has to some extent undertaken this positive reclamation of marriage and family.  Unfortunately, he has done so by promoting heterosexuality as the norm for these institutions. If he cannot affirm marriage equality, he could at least affirm publicly  the love and commitment which exists between same-gender couples and the legal protections their families deserve.   That would do wonders for the culture of marriage in Italy and around the world.

 

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

 

 


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