As U.S. Bishops Strengthen Religious Liberty Committee, What Does This Mean for LGBT Equality?

U.S. bishops voted last week to strengthen their committee on religious liberty. What might this vote mean for the bishops’ engagement with LGBT rights?

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U.S. bishops meeting in Indianapolis

Meeting in Indianapolis, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops voted 132-53 to make their  Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty a permanent structure. Crux reported:

“Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori, committee chairman, said the need for the body stretches beyond the specific legal and public policy issues challenging religious freedom that continue to emerge.

“Lori expressed hope that the committee’s work would help ‘plant the seeds of a movement for religious freedom, which will take years of watering and weeding in order for it to grow, to grow strong and to bear fruit.'”

Michael Sean Winters of the National Catholic Reporter detailed the floor debate over the question of a permanent religious liberty committee. He said that listening to Archbishop Lori’s  oft-repeated allegation that expanded LGBT rights threaten religious liberty which expanded LGBT rights bring with them was like “entering a time warp.” Winters questioned “whether the histrionic approach to the issue is truthful or helpful.”

Several bishops vocally challenged making the Committee a permanent one. Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark and Bishop Christopher Coyne of Burlington, both Francis appointees, warned sharply against continuing to press the religious liberty agenda while at the same time that the USCCB leadership was proposing to close down the working group on immigration. Winters reported further:

“Tobin and other bishops also questioned the funding of the work of the religious liberty committee: The proposal to make the committee permanent was stated to be budget-neutral and it was pointed out that funding sources dry up for a variety of reasons. Archbishop William Lori did his best to assure his colleagues that the funding was solid and not going anywhere: We know the Knights of Columbus have donated $250,000 to the committee since its inception, and Lori is the Supreme Chaplain of the Knights. But he won’t be forever, and his pal Carl Anderson won’t be Supreme Knight forever, either.”

(Note: The National Catholic Reporter recently published an in-depth analysis of the Knights’ spending. You can read Bondings 2.0’s coverage of how that funding impacts LGBT issues by clicking here.)

The Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty has spearheaded U.S. bishops’ opposition to LGBT and reproductive rights in recent years.  A main part of their program has been the USCCB’s annual Fortnight for Freedom, which begins today and runs until July 4th.  In April, the USCCB supported the so-called “Inclusion Act,” a federal bill that would allow religiously-affiliated social service providers to discriminate against LGBT people. They have long opposed the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), defending what they understand to be “just” discrimination. And they have acted thus despite the fact a majority of U.S. Catholics oppose religious exemptions from LGBT non-discrimination protections.

Since Pope Francis’ election, many Catholics and observers have wondered if and when the pope’s vision for the church would be realized in the U.S. episcopacy. There has been little movement to this point; indeed, the bishops’ notably stuck to their conservative, anti-LGBT priorities in 2014 and 2015. But the Indianapolis meeting may finally reveal changes. Winters said, “the tide is turning and the ice cracking in the conservative chokehold of the conference.” He explained:

“The turning of the tide was obvious in larger ways, too. In 2016, the bishops overwhelmingly adopted with only a handful of negative votes a strategic plan that was little different from the previous one, despite requests that the new strategic plan better address the changing focus of Pope Francis. The one major change on the strategic plan? They made religious liberty one of their five areas of special concern. Wednesday, however, 53 bishops voted not to make the Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty a standing committee. That was insufficient to defeat the proposal, but it showed that Team Francis is not simply going to sit quietly and go along.”

There are genuine attacks on religious liberty in our world. Even in the United States, Muslims and other non-Christians face increasing assaults on their civil rights and their personal safety. Catholics are right to be concerned about these injustices, and to seek recourse in such a way that the religious rights of all people are defended.

The U.S. bishops’ work on religious liberty so far have given little indication that they are concerned about attacks on people of other faiths. Religious liberty has become a nearly empty term when used by them, a tactic in their strategy to undermine LGBT civil rights. Hopefully, in Winters’ term, “Team Francis” bishops will reclaim real religious liberty as the bishops let go of their partisan anti-LGBT agenda that has been all too present in recent years.

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, June 21, 2017

In Adoption Debate, Bishops Choose Partisan Agenda Over Children’s Welfare

With the blessing of the state’s Catholic bishops, Texas legislators passed a bill that would allow religiously-affiliated social services to deny LGBT people from full participation in adoption and foster care programs. But whose interests are being served by this incoming law?

shutterstock_548148214_810_500_55_s_c1The Freedom to Serve Children Act was passed by both Texas’ House of Representatives and Senate in May. Governor Greg Abbott is expected to sign it, reported Crux.  The news story reported that once the bill becomes law, it will have “multiple applications,” including:

“It could allow groups that believe children should be placed only with a married adoptive mother and father to provide foster services without facing lawsuits from same-sex couples.”

Supporters claim the bill will improve services for children. For example, State Senator Eddie Lucio, a Democrat, said the bill is “about providing homes for kids.” The Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops also lauded the bill, with Executive Director Jennifer Carr Allmon saying:

“‘Now Catholics can join other people of good will and serve Texas’s children in good faith. . .Most Catholic Charities in the state had withdrawn from serving foster children. . .The new law removes a significant barrier to Catholics serving children in the foster care system and will trigger greater recruitment efforts by Catholic parishes and ministries.'”

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops supported similar legislation at the federal level, saying the proposed “Inclusion Act” would end “unjust discrimination” currently imposed on Catholic social service providers who cannot receive government funding if they discriminate against LGBT people.

Adoption rights have been a highly controversial matter as LGBT equality has expanded. Despite more supportive stances held by Catholics in the pews, church leaders have sought to protect discriminatory policies.

The Missionary Sisters of Charity, the community which Mother Teresa founded, stopped facilitating adoptions in 2015 because they feared single gay people would become parents. Scotland’s St. Margaret’s Children and Family Care Society successfully attained the right to discriminate against LGBT clients. And, according to an unconfirmed report from one of Malta’s bishops, Pope Francis was “shocked” in 2014 to find out that same-gender couples could be granted adoption rights in the island nation. Catholic birth parents unsuccessfully sued in Australia to bar a lesbian couple from adopting their child.

In the United States, church-affiliated social services providers have ended adoption services in Illinois, Massachusetts, and other states, as well as the District of Columbia. Bishops supported passage of a South Dakota law that is similar to the proposed bill in Texas, with Catholic Social Services even helping to co-write the law.

Critics, like the American Civil Liberties Union and the Human Rights Campaign, said the Texas bill would, in the words of HRC’s Marty Rouse, “prioritize discrimination over the best interest of kids in the child welfare system.”

It is hard not to agree that children are victims of this proposed law. Catholic social service providers are not facing a threat to their religious liberty. They are concerned because discriminating against LGBT adoptive and foster parents excludes them from participation in government systems and, crucially, funding sources.  Texas’ upcoming law and similar legislation are hardly about the freedom to serve children.

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, June 11, 2017

New Report Shows Just How Deep Knights of Columbus’ Anti-LGBT Efforts Are

In a troubling new report, the National Catholic Reporter released its findings of an investigation into the Knights of Columbus’ finances. The report includes multiple insights relevant to Catholic LGBT issues, as the Knights have been leading opponents of equality.

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Knights of Columbus members during a liturgy

Tom Roberts, NCR’s editor-at-large, acknowledged the Knights’ significant charitable record. Yet he said the effects of their wealth does not end there:

“For more than a decade and a half, under the leadership of a former political operative, the Knights of Columbus has increasingly used its enormous wealth to influence the direction of the church, underwriting think tanks and news outlets while gaining entrée to some of the highest levels of decision-making in the church.

“Its capacity for funding has given the Knights of Columbus an inordinately loud voice, potentially drowning out that of others, and no other lay group can match the Knights’ ability to leave its mark on the church. Some worry that such influence can actually distort the church’s ecclesiology, its structure and its governance.”

The Knights have made contributions to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, including nearly $1 million for programs “not least of which is the persistent claim by the bishops’ conference that religious liberty is under attack in the United States” and their annual Fortnight for Freedom. Roberts continued:

“If funding is any indication, however, the Knights are deeply engaged in the culture wars with some of the largest grants going to the loudest and most influential participants in the church and the public square.”

Grant recipients have included the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a key organization in seeking to ensure LGBT discrimination remains legal, and the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast, where last year Cardinal Robert Sarah described LGBT human rights as a “demonic gender ideology.” The Knights also fund rightwing trainings for Catholic bishops:

“Between 2010 and 2014, according to earlier NCR reporting, the Knights spent more than $1.4 million to sponsor Catholic bishops attending medical ethics workshops that included speakers opposing homosexuality, same-sex marriage and same-sex parenting. Presentations included psychologically discredited claims that people who identify as gay or transgender can be ‘cured’ through counseling and can become heterosexual.

“The anti-gay training for bishops is coordinated by the National Catholic Bioethics Center, according to a 2014 report in NCR by Nicole Sotelo. The center is another organization that receives Knights of Columbus support. In 2014, it received $250,000; in 2015, $300,617.”

Finally, the Knights also support conservative media outlets, such as the Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN) and its subsidiaries, Catholic News Agency, ACI Prensa, and the National Catholic Register.These outlets have overplayed alleged cases of discrimination against Christians because of expanding LGBT rights. The Knights also fund Crux with $350,000 of the news website’s $850,000 annual budget.

These anti-LGBT activities largely result from the direction which Supreme Knight Carl Anderson has pushed the Knights since assuming leadership in 2000. Anderson’s former career was in politics, including working for President Ronald Reagan and former Senator Jesse Helms, who opposed civil rights laws. About Anderson’s time in the White House, Roberts reported:

“Notably, when the issue of AIDS first surfaced, Anderson differed with then-Surgeon General C. Everett Koop on how to speak of the disease. Anderson wanted the government to use language that contained moral judgments about those afflicted. According to Koop’s autobiography, Anderson also wanted the surgeon general to say that ‘all Americans [not most Americans, as Koop maintained] are opposed to homosexuality, promiscuity of any kind and prostitution.’ Koop wrote that Anderson ‘did not seem to understand that I could not say it because it was not true.'”

Beyond political concerns, the Knights’ influence may be warping the structures and functioning of the Catholic Church itself. Their wealth, and in turn charitable giving, has meant the Knights have unique access to many church leaders. Anderson has been granted papal audiences, been an auditor at the Synod of Bishops, and served on U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops committees, all extremely rare opportunities for laypeople. These moments are key opportunities by which Anderson and the Knights can push their right-wing, anti-LGBT agenda.

Theologian Massimo Faggioli expressed concern about the church being so politicized because “a rather limited number of conservative Catholic voices from the West can have their voices heard much louder” than others in the church. He continued:

“‘From an ecclesiological point of view, it is a distortion because the Catholic Church is based on an idea of leadership where the sensus fidelium, the voice of the faithful, should be equal for all the faithful. . .There should be a fundamental equality, so the sense of the faith in Africa or Latin America or Asia, with no money, should carry the same weight, currency, relevance, authority, as a wealthy Catholic in the Northern Hemisphere.'”

Faggioli’s observation is true, too, for LGBT Catholic and their families, whose voices should have an equal place in the church’s conversation. Yet, because of conservative wealth and power like that of the Knights, marginalized Catholics remain silenced and excluded.

In December 2016, Nicole Sotelo wrote in the National Catholic Reporter about church worker justice and the Knights. With so many dioceses and church institutions offering benefits programs through the Knights, there should be transparency for employees about where their money is going when the Knights invest it. Sotelo also reported in 2014 about the Knights’ extensive funding of anti-LGBT trainings for bishops.

A 2012 report revealed the millions of dollars which the Knights leadership invested in anti-marriage equality campaigns, often without members knowledge. At the time, former vice-president of the organization’s insurance division, Michael O’Keefe, criticized the Knights’ anti-LGBT work saying it tarnished their Catholic tradition.

Tom Roberts’ report is further evidence that greatly expands and deepens public understandings of the Knights, and confirms what LGBT advocates have known about the organization’s extensive attempt to stop the expansion of LGBT human rights.

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, June 7, 2017

 

 

 

Sr. Jeannine Gramick Asks, “What Can We Do to Lessen Anti-LGBT Prejudice?”

Sr. Jeannine Gramick, co-founder of New Ways Ministry, marked the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia, and Transphobia (IDAHOBIT) earlier this month with a reflection on her ministry in an international context.

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IDAHOBIT poster from Italy

Writing for The National Catholic Reporter’s “Global Sisters Report, Gramick suggested, “perhaps the tide is turning for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people.” Gramick wrote:

 

“The International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia is particularly strong in Europe and Latin America, where it is commemorated with public events such as marches, parades and festivals. In Cuba, Mariela Castro [niece of Fidel Castro] has led massive street parades on May 17 for the past three years. The day can also include arts and culture-based events, such as a music festival called “Love Music – Hate Homophobia” in Bangladesh. Albanian activists arrange an annual bike ride through the streets of the capital on May 17.”

She also saw hope in the number of religious services held to mark IDAHOBIT, including several Catholic vigils. You can find out more information about these services by clicking here.

Still, while the tide may be turning in favor of LGBT equality, it has definitely not turned fully. IDAHOBIT celebrates the day–May 17, 1990–when the World Health Organization removed homosexuality as a mental illness. But in today’s world, Gramick explained, “the erroneous diagnosis of mental disorder persists, causing much fear and confusion about lesbian and gay people, with often tragic results.” IDAHOBIT then is not only a celebration of the past but a time for action towards a more just future, especially against transphobia.

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Sr. Jeannine Gramick, center, with Polish LGBT activists and journalists

To highlight the “already/not yet” reality of LGBT rights today, Sr. Gramick discussed her trip to Poland at the end of 2016. (You can read more details about the trip by clicking here.) She struck a hopeful note, despite the country’s strong opposition to LGBT issues from Catholic leaders and many politicians:

“I was surprised by the degree of openness and acceptance I found among the Polish people for their lesbian and gay sisters and brothers. Polish Catholics are emerging not only from the political stranglehold of communism, but also from the grip of their authoritarian and traditionalist religious culture. From them I learned that I, too, need to emerge from the iron grip of my own prejudices, my blind spots, and the beams in my own eye. I want to be more open to those who ‘rub me the wrong way’ and to be more welcoming to those with whom I disagree. My visit to the Polish people filled me with hope that homophobia is gradually decreasing in unexpected places.”

Gramick asked, “What can we do to lessen the homophobia and transphobia that engulfs those who are different?” She concluded:

“In my decades of ministry with LGBT people, I continue to be astounded and inspired by the example of those who remain in a church that has so miserably failed to nourish their faith life. In a spirit of non-violence, these LGBT Christian groups are now calling us to stand with them. We may not understand different sexual orientations or gender identities, but we do believe that each person should be treated with dignity and respect because each of us has been made in the image and likeness of God.”

Though IDAHOBIT has come and gone, the need to struggle against prejudices and biases that denigrate another person’s dignity or their love is always present.

How would you answer Sr. Jeannine’s question above? Leave your thoughts in the “Comments” section below.

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, May 29, 2017

 

 

 

U.K. Bishops’ Voting Guide Reveals Pope Francis’ Influence

Conversations on marriage and family initiated by Pope Francis have opened doors within the church for families which are considered “non-traditional” by church leaders. But could the pope’s shift to mercy and inclusion in church discussions be having public policy implications as well? There is good evidence from the United Kingdom that the answer is yes.

Screen Shot 2017-05-16 at 9.57.59 AMLike many episcopal conferences, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales (CBCEW) released a voting guide ahead of the U.K.’s general election this June. These guides generally include both guiding principles and specific political positions, which too frequently are reduced to the bishops’ opposition to abortion and to LGBT rights.

It is therefore highly significant that CBCEW’s guide omits commentary on LGBT rights altogether, and poses questions rather than dictating positions on issues which are taken up.

Pope Francis is quoted extensively throughout the two-page document. Among the key principles the bishops draw from the pope are Francis’ words, “We love this human family with all its tragedies and struggles.” The bishops then commented:

“The family is the basic model by which we think of humanity, for the family is indeed the fundamental unit of the human race and therefore to be protected and nurtured. The practical expression of this love is mercy and compassion, extended especially at times of illness, homelessness, bereavement, violence and desolation.”

What follows are brief issue-specific sections,  which have just a line or two of commentary before asking questions of the voter, who is asked to make a conscience decision. This method of engagement is very much in keeping with Pope Francis’ message in Amoris Laetitia that church ministers are called to form consciences, not replace them.

In the section, “Issues on Family and Life,” the bishops ask the question: “What policies do your candidates propose for the flourishing of family life?” Where too many bishops worldwide have in the last decade reduced family concerns to opposing marriage equality, CBCEW’s membership recognizes that public policy needs to be protecting families against actual problems they are facing.

In the section, “Freedom of Religion and Belief,” the bishops look outward to the protection of all religious minorities currently facing danger because of their beliefs. There are no claims that expanding LGBT rights are persecuting Christians in the U.K., claims which the U.S. bishops continue to make quite vocally about their own context.

The voting guide is not proof that the British bishops have changed their beliefs about marriage equality nor does it suggest they will soon become leading advocates of LGBT non-discrimination. Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster (London), who has a positive record on LGBT issues and even said recently he “rejoiced” in the growing acceptance of LGBT people, has said the Magisterium will remain “obstinate” in its opposition to marriage equality.

It is, however, proof that the style and tone of the U.K.’s bishops have begun to more closely mirror Pope Francis’ example. They are focusing on significant injustices in today’s world like migration, care for creation, and human trafficking, and by doing so, are setting aside “culture war” issues. In the church, such changes are not superficial: they are quite substantive.

The guide is also further proof that church teaching does evolve.  Instead of explicitly changing teachings, bishops can simply fail to mention them and then ultimately “forget” these teachings to history. English bishops endorsed civil partnerships for same-gender couples in 2011. They are now letting go of any vocal opposition to civil marriage equality. Perhaps they can now become positive voices for LGBT human rights in a global context.

Going forward, it will be interesting to see if bishops’ conferences elsewhere, in their function as political actors, will come to mirror Pope Francis’ model and vision more closely.

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, May 29, 2017

Former Vice President Joe Biden Calls for Greater Global LGBT Solidarity

Marking yesterday’s International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia, and Transphobia, former Vice President Joe Biden called for people in the U.S. to be in greater solidarity with LGBT people around the world.

Biden - Human DignityBiden, who is Catholic, wrote in the Washington Post that his father instilled in him a belief that “everyone is entitled to be treated with dignity and respect.” He continued:

“It’s a simple but powerful notion that lies at the heart of our identity as Americans. It is a truth that continues to drive me today, particularly when it comes to full equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. . .

“Progress doesn’t happen by chance. It happens because good people come together and demand change. And any person of conscience, regardless of their religious or partisan beliefs, should be able to agree: Violence against any person, in any form, is intolerable. No one should be killed, tortured, assaulted or harassed because of who they are.”

Biden noted the many advances in LGBT rights in recent years, but he pointed out how much work remains when LGBT people are being discriminated against, tortured, and even killed in places like Chechnya, Syria, Iraq, and Uganda. Biden notably rejected the use of religion to justify such human rights violations:

“This offensive argument ignores the fundamental truth that LGBT rights are human rights. Prejudice is prejudice; inhumanity is inhumanity. Using religion or culture to license discrimination and demonizing LGBT individuals to score political points are no more justifiable around the world than they are here at home.”

Biden - Work to DoBiden concluded with an appeal to fellow Americans to enact greater solidarity with LGBT communities worldwide through government policy, business partnerships, and personal action:

“In the face of such atrocities, it is the responsibility of every person to speak out. . .Progress is possible. But we cannot wait, we cannot stand by. . .

“Together, we will work to defend and advance the human rights of all people, and we will not rest until equality, at home and around the world, is fully realized. Until then, to all those suffering discrimination and violence simply because of who they are or whom they love, know this: The American people are on your side.”

 As Vice President, he was a noted advocate for LGBT equality who once said trans rights were “the civil rights issue of our time.”  He vocally supported the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, and he is credited with moving former President Barack Obama to support marriage equality. Biden even officiated at a staffer’s same-gender wedding in the vice presidential residence, despite some bishops’ criticism. Biden has said that the criteria for marriage he used was, “Who do you love?

It is a hopeful sign that the former vice president, through the Biden Foundation, is still prioritizing global LGBT rights, growing his profile as one of the nation’s most high-profile Catholic advocates for equality.

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, May 18, 2017

 

Catholic Parishes Hold IDAHOBIT Prayer Vigils to Oppose Anti-LGBT Actions

Today is the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia, and Transphobia  (IDAHOBIT). While this commemoration is not widely marked here in the United States,  in other nations, particularly in Europe, it is an important time to oppose prejudice and discrimination.

An IDAHOBIT prayer vigil held in Milan, Italy, May 12, 2017

Catholic participation in IDAHOBIT has grown over the past few years.  According to Progetto Gionata, an Italian LGBT Christian group, reports that this year prayer vigils marking the occasion (over the course of a week) will be held in Catholic churches in seven Italian cities and one in Spain.  The cities and churches are:

Italy

  • Milan: Santa Maria della Passione
  • Reggio Emilia:  Regina Pacis
  • Pistoia:  Santa Maria Maggiore di Vicofara a Pistoia
  • Catania:  SS. Crocifisso della Buona Morte
  • Florence:  Madonna della Tosse
  • Bologna:  San Bartolomeo della Beverara
  • Genoa:  San Pietro in Banchi

Spain

  • Seville:  San Pedro de Alcántara

Most notably on this list are the additions of Genoa and Palermo, two places where bishops put a stop to such prayer vigils in previous years.  Notably, the Archdiocese of Palermo has an archbishop, Corrado Lorefice, appointed in 2015 by Pope Francis.

Progetto Gionata also reports that at least in one location, a high-ranking diocesan official will lead the prayer vigil:

This is not the only news for this year, for the first time religious orders and Catholic associations will also publicly take part in the vigils. In Genoa the vigil will not only be hosted by a parish but, last minute changes notwithstanding, the general vicar for the dioceses Nicolò Anselmi will participate. “I think this is the most visible sign of how the Church is beginning to really ask itself the questions brought forth by the Synod in regards to providing pastoral welcoming for LGBT people and their families” says Innocenzo Pontillo, from Progetto Gionata.

Last month, at New Ways Ministry’s Eighth National Symposium, “Justice and Mercy Shall Kiss:  LGBT Catholics in the Age of Pope Francis,” participants heard Frank Mugisha, the executive director of Sexual Minorities Uganda, speak about how homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia translate in his country into oppression and violence.   After his talk, New Ways Ministry asked symposium participants if they would pose for a photo that would be used on IDAHOBIT to show over 300 U.S. Catholics who oppose such prejudice and discrimination.  Here it is:

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Catholic doctrine is so clear in opposing harmful attitudes and actions based in phobic reactions to people’s sexual orientation or gender identity.  Catholic parishes around the world should be opening their doors on this day to sponsor prayer vigils to counter such destructive practices.  The growing number of parishes, including those listed above, are great pioneers in this movement.

It may be too late to organize and IDAHOBIT action for this year.  But one thing you can do is make a pledge that you will work to get your  Catholic parish, school, or other institution, to host a prayer vigil on May 17, 2018.  It’s not too early to start now!

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, May 17, 2017