Giant Step for Transgender Welcome, But Not As Far for Gay & Lesbian People

February 4, 2015

In a wide-ranging interview with Vermont Public Radio, Bishop Christopher Coyne, installed as the tenth bishop of the Diocese of Burlington, Vermont, last week,  stated: “I see no reason why transgender people would not be welcome in church.”

Bishop Christopher Coyne at his installation Mass.

While this statement, probably the most direct and open welcome to transgender people by a Catholic leader, seems to indicate a new approach to LGBT issues, his message about lesbian and gay people was somewhat more ambiguous. [No written transcript of the interview is yet available, but you can listen to the audio by clicking here.  The segment on LGBT issues begins around the 10:45 minute mark.]

On the Vermont Edition show, interviewer Jane Lindholm asked the bishop a question sent by a listener: “You say you’re going to reach out to Catholics who no longer attend Mass.  Is there any plan to reach out to transgender persons who no longer feel welcomed at church?”

Coyne’s response was:

“Well, I’m sorry that’s happened.  I see no reason why transgender people would not be welcome in church. There is more and more evidence coming forward that a lot of this is biological, that it’s not just something that a person just makes as a kind of fashionable choice or cultural choice, but that these transgender people are really struggling with the idea of gender identity and that they’ve struggled with it for years, and that’s through no fault of their own.  So there’s no fault to be made, actually. This is who they are . .  . everyone is God’s creatures, and I would invite anyone to come to the table. And I would hope that none of my priests, most especially myself, would ever say anything that would be hurtful or harmful to transgender folk.”

There’s a lot that is good in that answer:

  • a direct welcome to transgender people;
  • an acknowledgement of scientific research;
  • a statement of the moral neutrality of transgender people;
  • a directive to priests not to make harmful statements about transgender people.

But when Coyne also added some comments which make it clear that he is not affirming of gay and lesbian relationships.  When asked to confirm if he would welcome transgender people, he answered:

“Absolutely. In the same way that I would welcome people who identify as gay, lesbian, bi, but also all folks, to come to the church to try to grown in their love for the Lord God and Jesus Christ.  You know it’s not easy being a Catholic.  Our faith is a very demanding faith. The starting point must be that relationship with Jesus, and once you begin to get that into place, you begin to work on the other parts of your life that need a little order, that need a little change.”

The interviewer asked him to expand upon what he meant by people who need more order in their life, specifically asking if the bishop meant “people who are gay and who have what often the church calls ‘a gay lifestyle.’ ”  Coyne’s answer was yes, but that he also intended it to mean people such as divorced/remarried people, and those who live in excessive wealth with no concern for the poor.

Coyne’s pastoral advice for such people who are not living in accordance with official church teaching was to recommend first developing faith in Jesus, and then seeking how to align one’s life with the church’s teachings.  He explained what this meant in the context of the church’s sexual teaching:

“Our church believes that the perfection of the expression of human sexuality is between a man and a woman in a committed, fruitful relationship open to children.  That’s the paradigm.  Most of us struggle with getting there.  Even those who are married may say there are times when I’m not all that committed to because I’m human.  But the paradigm is still there.

“In any kind of expression that doesn’t match that, that doesn’t necessarily mean that what I’m striving at is wrong. . . . but am I a bad person or a bad Catholic? No, I’m someone who’s on the road who’s trying to find my way to live in this world to live in this life and in this world even if I don’t quite match up to what the church is calling me to do.”

These recommendations may be the most complete illustration of the undefined pastoral approach to gay and lesbian people that Pope Francis has been hinting it.   What is good about it is that it reduces the stigma associated with lesbian and gay people.  No longer are they to be summarily ostracized from the church community.  It does not put adherence to church teaching as a litmus test for being part of the parish community.

The negative side of this approach, however, is that it still considers gay and lesbian relationships “less than.”  Moreover, the welcome this approach offers, while not conditional from the outset, still has the expectation that once welcomed, gay and lesbian people will work towards renouncing responsible sexual expressions of their love and commitment.  Although this expectation is not stated outright, it seems to be the logical extension of such an approach.  There is no recognition of the authority of conscience that may be directing a gay and lesbian couple to live together and to seek a life of faith in community.

Pope Francis has been vague about his outline for pastoral care for lesbian and gay people.  Bishop Coyne’s statements, though, echo much that was said at the 2014 synod in regards to LGBT pastoral care.  While it may be a step forward, it also highlights how far we yet to have to go as a church.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry








Pope Francis Reportedly Meets with Transgender Man Rejected by Parish

January 28, 2015

Diego Neria Lejárraga

According to a Spanish newspaper report, Pope Francis recently held a private meeting at the Vatican with a transgender man and his fiancee.

Diego Neria Lejárraga had written to the pope about being rejected by his faith community after undergoing gender confirming surgery.  Neria explained: “After hearing him on many occasions, I felt that he would listen to me.”

Neria told the newspaper Hoy, from the Extremadura region of Spain, that Pope Francis had initially responded to his letter with  a phone call, and the pontiff told Neria that the letter “touched his soul.”

According to The Huffington Post, the private meeting last week was a result of this December exchange on the phone. A spokesperson from the Vatican, Fr. Manuel Dorantes, would not confirm the meeting, however.

In the Huffington Post article, Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, questioned the Vatican’s silence but said he would not be surprised if the meeting had happened. He said the meeting did not necessarily indicate a stance of papal “acceptance,” but it was definitely a very positive indication of the way that Francis wants the church to respond:

” ‘The Vatican’s reluctance to verify the meeting is another indication of why I don’t think their attitude can yet be called ‘acceptance’…

“This pope, through his many gestures of meeting with those who society and the church treat as outcasts, has made it his mission to lead by example, and to send a strong message of welcome and hospitality to all people, regardless of their state in life. . . .

” ‘Pope Francis is an intellectual who values discussion…I think that his meeting with the transgender man was a gesture not only of pastoral care, but of genuine interest in learning about the transgender experience from a firsthand source.’ “

Speaking to the Washington Blade, Marianne Duddy Burke, executive of DignityUSA, called the meeting”a very significant event” and continued:

“For the pope to meet with a transgender man about to be married, and for that meeting to result in this man feeling more hopeful about his place in the Church, shows a concern for those at the very margins of our church…I hope the pope listened carefully to this man’s experience, and will speak about what he heard.”

Lisbeth Meléndez Rivera, director of Latino and Catholic Initiatives for the Human Rights Campaign, affirmed this view, saying the meeting was an “extraordinary event.”

Pope Francis has communicated with LGBT communities before, including a letter to the Florence-based Catholic group Kairos. This outreach was one of the things that inspired Sr. Jeannine Gramick, co-founder of New Ways Ministry, to ask the pope if he would meet with a group of LGBT Catholic pilgrims next month in Rome.

Neria told the Spanish daily Hoy that he had long struggled because of his identity, saying “My jail was my own body…Because it absolutely didn’t correspond with what my soul felt.” Transitioning at 40, the man said rejection and condemnation led by the church still left him trapped. Priest mades comments to him such as, “How do you dare to come here with your condition” and “You are the devil’s daughter.”

Neria’s encounter with the pope was entirely transformative and set the man at peace, reports The Washington Post

“Neria told Hoy when he got before the pope, he asked whether, after his transition, whether there a ‘corner in the house of God’ for someone like him. And he said Francis then embraced him.”

Indeed, it has been these personal moments during Francis’ papacy which most clearly reveal his desires for the church and direction for ministry to LGBT people. DeBernardo tells People magazine:

“A pope’s influence is more from his personal example than from any doctrinal edicts…That’s why this meeting is very powerful and can really help to bring about a lot of good.”

If the Vatican confirms the meeting with Neria, the impact of Pope Francis’ witness that being a disciple of Christ means welcoming all would be that much more powerful. Hopefully, the pope will continue encountering many more LGBT people before next fall’s Synod on Family Life, and these meetings could inspire him to permit LGBT people to speak of their experiences of faith, relationship, and identity to the synod bishops.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

Psychological and Spiritual Explorations of the Transgender Experience

January 21, 2015

Transgender people and issues are still new and unknown to many people in the LGBT and ally community.  While decades of information and experience have taught our church and world so much about sexual orientation, we are only just recently breaking the ice on the question of gender identity.  Many people are just beginning to ask questions about this more forgotten sector and are learning about the gifts that transgender people bring to our faith and civil communities.

Two articles written by Catholics recently looked at transgender issues from two different perspectives: the psychological and the pastoral.  Both, of course, include a faith dimension to their discussions.

Sydney Callahan

The psychological article was written by Sydney Callahan as a blog post for America magazine.  Callahan is a respected Catholic psychologist and writer who has long advocated for new understandings of the role of sexuality in our lives.  As far as I know, this is her first examination of transgender issues.

Reflecting on a New York Times op-ed essay by transgender activist Jennifer Finney Boylan, and also on the tragic recent death of teen Leelah Alcorn, Callahan suggests that its important for all of us to compose our own “gender autobiography”–an account of how we have all come to learn and accept our gender.  She states:

“. . . [W]hen we reflect on our own developmental history we can better see the various complexities involved. So much happens beneath and before conscious awareness. Gender identity emerges, I now conclude, from an interrelated interplay of genes, biochemical influences in the womb, infant and child personal experiences and social pressure. The brain seems hardwired early, perhaps in different degrees. But undoubtedly, random chance events determine individual developmental outcomes. While God does not make mistakes, God works through secondary causes such as evolution’s random mutations and variations.”

In reflecting on our own journeys, we will be able to see how various influences and lessons shaped our own gender identity.  Callahan takes note of the personal evolution that everyone goes through:

“Autobiographical reflections confront us with the mysterious question, ‘How does the self-conscious “I am” relate to the “me” of my body changing through time?’ ”

Regardless of the origin of gender identity, Christians are called to show respect for all  people:

“Fortunately, Christians do not have to wait for scientific consensus to understand and affirm religious truths. We know that God commands us to treat each human life with justice and love. In particular we must protect the vulnerable and relieve suffering. Moreover, the embodied person’s whole identity, deeds and character are more important than gender identity.”

Callahan ends by pointing to a new direction that Catholic theology needs to take:

“I thank God that Christians value and protect every stage and condition of embodied life. We value embryo, fetus, infant, child, adult, aged, disabled and the dying. And we’ve been promised the gift of transitioning to resurrected life as members of Christ’s body. Can we hope now for an expanded theology of the body and person, to better understand gender and transgendered persons?”

Sister Monica (center) with two transgender friends. (Photo by William Widmer)

It is on this spiritual and theological note that the second article I read takes off.  Written by “Sr. Monica,”  a pseudonym for a Catholic nun who has been in pastoral ministry with transgender people since 1999, the Huffington Post  essay looks back on the pastoral lessons that she has learned from this community.   (She chose to remain anonymous in her publicity so as not to attract the attention of the Catholic hierarchy.)

She describes her ministry as, at first, a learning experience for herself, since she had not previously known any transgender people.  But the actual ministerial principles and actions were the same as other forms of accompaniment ministry:

“I believe that when we are trying to live our lives honestly and with integrity we are moving toward God and not away from God. Whether in a formal retreat setting or in the many informal ways I companion them, I remind them that they are precious and loved by God.”

An added dimension of her outreach included being an advocate and a “bridge” for transgender people wherever she could be:

” . . . [I]t is my great privilege to bring my transgender friends out from the darkness of the margins of society into the light where they can be seen as who they are — gifted, struggling human beings as we all are. I’ve mediated with families when asked by them. I’ve coordinated many Trans Awareness Evenings to provide an opportunity for people with open minds and hearts to meet and talk with my trans friends.”

Like Callahan, Sr. Monica sees that the transgender journey of self-acceptance is primarily a spiritual one:

“In the past 16 years I have come to know well over two hundred transgender people. From the beginning I had a passion to be a supportive companion to them in the deeply spiritual journey of claiming and living in their truth. My mantra has always been ‘What gives glory to God is for us to be the person God made us to be. When we are trying to live as honestly as we can our lives gives praise to God.’ “

Sr. Monica reflects on what transgender ministry has given to herself:

“I am 71 years old and have had the privilege and joy of being present among the transgender community since 1999. I could never have imagined the extent to which my own life would be shaped by them. They have taught me so much about courage, about the value and the cost of being honest with oneself, with others, and with God.”

Gender has often been a restricting influence on all people.  Gender roles rarely match the individual complexity of any one person’s life, and they can inhibit personal development.  I am beginning to learn that transgender people have the special gift of helping all people to overcome gender expectations and constrictions which harm or deaden an individual.  They help us all to become the people that God made out of love.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

The Pope, the Archbishop, & the Lesbian: Hopes for the Philippines Encounter

January 14, 2015

As he journeys to the Philippines this week, Pope Francis will be met there by an archbishop who, like the pontiff, is opening the door to greater openness to the LGBT community. He can also listen to advice from a Filipina lesbian woman in the U.S. about what he needs to teach the Church in her native land.

Archbishop Socrates Villegas

Archbishop Socrates Villegas of Lingayen-Dagupan, who is also president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, gave an affirmative and categorical statement to a question about whether the pope condemned the LGBT community.  Villegas stated:

“Being a homosexual is not a sin. It is a state of a person.”

The archbishop’s remarks came during an interview on a television show hosted by the Philippine Daily Inquirer newspaper.  The show was aired in anticipation of the pontiff’s visit to that nation between January 15th-19th. You can view the video by clicking here. reported on the interview, in which Villegas elaborated on that basic statement:

“ ‘The Pope says “The Lord came to die for all, homosexuals and lesbians included.” There is no one excluded from the saving plan of God,’ Villegas said in the forum held at the Thomas Aquinas Research Center of the University of Santo Tomas.

“The archbishop said the Church was calling on gay and lesbian believers to embrace holiness.

“ ‘God died for them also. God invites gays and the lesbians to go beyond their present situation and love Jesus,’ he added.”

Shakira Sison

In a blog post on,  Shakira Sison, a Filipina-American lesbian woman penned an open-letter to Pope Francis as he prepares for his visit to her native country.  In it, she offered advice on what messages he should give:

“I hope you’ll teach the Catholic leaders of the Philippines that faith is personal, it is salvation for those who need it. It does not judge, and it does not hate.

“Most of all, please teach our people that your version of faith does not condemn gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender children from their homes or keep them from worshiping their God.

“I would like you to teach your people that the Catholic God’s love and acceptance does not pick and choose. . . .

“You said it yourself that gays must be integrated into society. I’ve lived enough and am secure enough with my life to know that my spirituality will be fine whether or not you accept me. However, there are many others like me who need for you to tell the majority of Catholics that God loves and accepts every single one of us, so they may start accepting my LGBT brothers and sisters as well.”

The Philippines is a heavily Catholic nation.  According to Gay Star News, it is “the country with third largest number of Catholics with an estimated 75.5 million believers, or roughly 80% of the population.”  Although bishops there have been outspoken against marriage equality, there are other signs that greater openness to LGBT people is emerging in the church.

For example, a Catholic parish recently conducted the funeral of a transgender woman, murdered allegedly by a U.S. military man.  The parish used the woman’s preferred pronouns during the Mass and ritual. Furthermore, following the murder, the Association of Major Religious Superiors of the Philippines (the heads of religious communities of men and women) issued a statement condemning anti-LGBT violence and called for a full inquiry into murder, especially important because political pressure might come into play because international military personnel are involved.

Archbishop Villegas’ statement is important because it very likely shows the “Francis effect.” In this case, the “effect” is a member of the hierarchy being more willing to speak out affirmatively about LGBT people.

It must be admitted that Villegas’ statement is not really a “cutting edge” statement which pushes the envelope on church teaching.  It is safely within the parameters of very orthodox church discourse.

Yet, it must be remembered that though the teaching of the moral neutrality of a homosexual orientation has been official for four decades, very few bishops in the last two decades have shown any willingness to speak out about this most basic principle for fear of being considered too positive towards LGBT people.

If Pope Francis has done nothing else than given permission to bishops to speak out on even the tamest parts of church teaching on homosexuality, that, in itself, is a major step forward.  If he wants to take the next step, he should follow the advice of Shakira Sison, given above.

Let’s hope and pray that Pope Francis’ visit to the Philippines will inspire greater courage on the part of the hierarchy there to open their doors and their minds to the lives of LGBT people.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry




Resolve to Create a Trans* Epiphany in 2015

January 4, 2015

Leelah Alcorn

One question is occupying my mind on today’s Feast of the Epiphany: what does God’s rupture into humanity mean following a 17-year-old trans* girl’s suicide?

Leelah Alcorn walked onto a highway and ended her life via a truck three days after Christmas. As Christians worldwide celebrated Jesus’ birth, the Alcorns were instead confronted by their own child’s death. Leelah had written about the suicide on her blog shortly beforehand. That note, found here in full, says the following:

“The life I would’ve lived isn’t worth living in… because I’m transgender. I could go into detail explaining why I feel that way, but this note is probably going to be lengthy enough as it is. To put it simply, I feel like a girl trapped in a boy’s body, and I’ve felt that way ever since I was 4. I never knew there was a word for that feeling, nor was it possible for a boy to become a girl, so I never told anyone and I just continued to do traditionally ‘boyish’ things to try to fit in.

“When I was 14, I learned what transgender meant and cried of happiness. After 10 years of confusion I finally understood who I was. I immediately told my mom, and she reacted extremely negatively, telling me that it was a phase, that I would never truly be a girl, that God doesn’t make mistakes, that I am wrong. If you are reading this, parents, please don’t tell this to your kids. Even if you are Christian or are against transgender people don’t ever say that to someone, especially your kid. That won’t do anything but make them hate them self. That’s exactly what it did to me.”

Leelah describes the Christian therapists who tried to “heal” her and the social isolation her parents imposed after withdrawing Leelah from school. Instead of liberating Leelah, the Christian faith of those who could neither love her nor understand her as she had been made by God became complicit in this young girl’s death.

In demanding that Leelah conform to gender expectations that are irrelevant to true faith, and to conform to identities that are false before herself and before God, self-identified disciples of Jesus failed to love this young child. Perhaps they were unaware that Paul writes to the Galatians that “there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus”? Perhaps they simply forgot that the greatest law beyond all else is love? Perhaps they were well-intentioned and good people who simply failed, as we all do?

Unlike many, I do not solely blame the Alcorns. I simply do not know the details well enough to understand their lives and their relationship with Leelah. My focus is broader: this suicide and the thousands more of LGBT youth are indictments of our Christian communities for failing to love in concrete and real ways. It is clear Leelah’s death results from harmful and intolerant messages from the church, and I agree with Melinda Selmys on this:

“Whatever our ideological beliefs about gender and sexuality may be, those beliefs should not translate into an isolated child, deprived of hope, rejected by her parents, cut off from her support networks, denied the ability to be the only person that she knew how to be. The love of God should not translate into the slaughter of the innocents. That was never His work.”

What about today’s Feast of the Epiphany amid all this? “Epiphany” means breakthrough. In ancient times, the revelation of Jesus’ divinity breaking through to all the world was seen in not only the visit of the Magi, but in Jesus’ baptism, and the wedding at Cana, instances where Christ shatters preconceptions and expectations to reveal God in new ways to new peoples. This divine rupture into human history is a most radical event.

Leelah’s suicide was an epiphany, too. It has sparked national conversations and a hashtag on Twitter, #RealLiveTransAdult, where trans* people have shared their stories and their lives before the world. People worldwide are answering Leelah’s parting call that transgender people be “treated like humans, with valid feelings and human rights…My death needs to mean something…Fix society. Please.”

Now, it is time for an epiphany on trans* issues in the Catholic Church. We must help our local communities and our global church to breakthrough fear and ignorance to welcome all as God knows them and calls them. We must rupture our own prejudices and discomforts to learn more and grow in love for those we consider “other.”

Let us resolve in 2015 to making this epiphany a reality. Resolve to ensure that the next trans* youth contemplating suicide finds positive faith voices and inclusive communities. Resolve to support parents in loving their trans* children as Deacon Ray Dever wrote about so beautifully last week. Resolve to challenge anti-transgender prejudices and correcting false information about gender in our faith communities. Resolve to be open to God’s power that breaks into our world through Jesus’ divinity and remains today through the Spirit, for with God all things are possible and indeed surprise is often God’s means.

For more information on Catholic transgender issues, check out the “Transgender“category to the right.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

LGBTQ Children in Catholic Families: A Deacon’s View of Holy Family Sunday

December 28, 2014

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Today’s post is written by a guest blogger: Deacon Ray Dever of St. Paul Catholic Church, Tampa, Florida.

On this first Sunday after Christmas, the Church observes the feast of the Holy Family.  And with that observance inevitably comes reflection on the nature and meaning of the Catholic family today.  Many within the Church still seem to hold an idealized and increasingly inaccurate vision of what a Catholic family looks like, in spite of the growing diversity of the families that comprise the people of God.  As one who would count my own family among that diversity, the topic of Catholic family holds considerable personal interest for me.

In the fall of 2013, at the beginning of our son’s sophomore year at Georgetown University, Washington, DC, he came out as transgender.  In doing so, she became one of only three openly trans* students at Georgetown at the time.  This happened just a few weeks after the now famous Pope Francis interview that made “Who am I to judge?” part of our vernacular.  And with those events, my family found ourselves plunged into all the questions and issues that Catholic families with LGBTQ children face. [Editor’s note:  The term “trans*” is used as a “catch-all” word for the diverse forms of gender identities (other than the traditional male/female binary) that exist in humanity.]

In our case, there was at least one notable difference.  Besides being a husband, father, and professional engineer, I’m a permanent deacon in the Catholic Church, having been ordained in 2009.  When the topic of married clergy comes up, many Catholics are taken aback when they’re told that the Church already has married clergy, mostly in the person of the approximately 18,000 permanent deacons in the US.  I can’t imagine what they would think if they realized there are Catholic clergy whose families include LGBTQ children!

Our journey has probably not been very different than the journey of any family with an LGBTQ child.  It really began with our daughter descending into a deep depression during high school.  We would learn more about depression and mental illness, about suicidal ideations and self-injurious behavior, about therapists and anti-depressant medications than we ever could have imagined or wanted.  That journey would eventually lead to questions of gender identity that were intimately connected with her mental health struggles.

When our daughter came out, my wife and I experienced the full range of thoughts and emotions that any parents do in that situation – shock at the news, a lack of understanding of gender issues, conflict with what the Church teaches about human sexuality, confusion and guilt about what we should do as parents, profound sadness at what felt like the loss of our son, fear and worry for what the future would hold for her.  There were arguments, sleepless nights, and prayers – lots of prayers.

We slowly came to the realization that we hadn’t lost the person who had been our son.  In fact, in many respects we got our child back, as she embraced her gender identity and emerged from the depths of depression.  All the creativity, humor, empathy, and intelligence that make her an exceptional person are still there and are shining through stronger than ever.  And I’d like to think that the acceptance of her immediate and extended Catholic family have played some part in that positive transformation.

However, family support for LGBTQ children is obviously not the rule, and is often problematic for Catholic families in particular, given the mixed and often confusing messages they hear from the Church regarding LGBTQ issues.  A few months ago I had the privilege of visiting with the LGBTQ Resource Center and the Catholic chaplain’s office at Georgetown.  While I was surprised and gratified by the warm welcome that I received as an interested, supportive parent of an LGBTQ student, I was saddened to hear that I was the exception and that there were far too many stories of families rejecting their LGBTQ children and of causing tremendous pain and family divisions.

While I am certainly not qualified or authorized to speak for the Church on LGBTQ issues, I have been commissioned by the Church through ordination to proclaim and to preach the Gospel.  And if one thing is crystal clear in the public ministry and teachings of our Lord, it is that everyone is included in His love and mercy and forgiveness, and that we are all called to do the same.  For those Catholic families with LGBTQ children that are struggling with what they should do, I would suggest that they look to the Holy Family.  Look to the love embodied in the Incarnation, a love like no other, and embrace your children.  As the Church calls us to do first and foremost, follow your conscience, love own another, and especially love your children.

–Deacon Ray Dever, St. Paul Catholic Church, Tampa, Florida

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CAMPUS CHRONICLES: There is Much to Be Grateful For in Catholic Higher Ed This November

November 29, 2014

It is becoming a mantra for me: Catholic higher education in the US is a bright light for the church and the world when it comes to LGBT justice. Bondings 2.0‘s “Campus Chronicles” series often reports on the positive developments taking place on these campuses, or at a minimum, the way students and faculty are challenging anti-gay elements.

Though a few days after Thanksgiving, there is still much to be grateful for at America’s more than 200 Catholic colleges and universities. Below is a brief sampling of what has happened this November.

Controversy at Marquette U.

A class discussion at Marquette University in Milwaukee has attracted national attention after a student’s challenge to a teaching assistant’s handling of an ethics debate.

The teacher, Cheryl Abbate, passed over the topic of same-sex marriage to focus on other examples related to the philosophy of John Rawls which was being discussed. After class, a student recorded a conversation with Abbate, without her permission, in which he challenged her decision not to discuss same-sex marriage. Inside Higher Ed reports on the details of the conversation, but in can be summarize by saying that Abbate decided the student’s desired debate over same-sex marriage and LGBT parenting was irrelevant to the topic and grounded in questionable data.

Conservative outlets claim the incident reveals just how heavily academia inhibits free thought on LGBT issues, though Abbate denies a key quote they attribute to her and there is no recording of the class itself. University of South Carolina professor Justin Weinberg offers a different and more helpful perspective on the incident:

“There are certainly interesting pedagogical questions about how to discuss potentially offensive topics without violating harassment policies…However, the event at the center of this controversy does not appear to be one of speech being shut down because it is offensive. Rather, the [student’s] comment was off-topic and based on false claims, and the instructor needed to make a decision about how to use limited class time, especially given the topic of the lesson and the subject of the course (which is ethical theory, not applied ethics).”

For her part, Abbate hopes the incident will lead Marquette administrators to reconsider their policy on cyberbullying and harassment, given that the secret recording of her conversation was posted by a faculty member posted on his personal blog. Saying such practices lead to a “toxic environment,” she added:

” ‘I would hope that Marquette would do everything in its power to cultivate a climate where Marquette employees, especially students, are not publicly demeaned by tenured faculty.’ “

A spokesperson for Marquette University said administrators are reviewing the incident, which has prompted complaints from both students and faculty.

Holy Cross to Build Digital Transgender Archive

A faculty member at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, has won a fellowship to develop a Digital Transgender Archive (DTA) which would document “information on the works, studies and experiences of transgender individuals and the social movement to advance their rights.”

The archive, an idea of English professor K.J. Rawson, is the first of its kind, according to Holy Cross Magazine and involves ten collaborating analog archives. Rawson describes it as: “a collaborative project with a robust search engine that virtually merges disparate collections of materials.” The purpose is to quickly and easily connect researchers to appropriate materials, in part as a way to correct a harmful historical narrative on trans identities.

Though the article notes many challenges ahead for the archive, it appears Holy Cross’ Catholic identity is proving to be an asset. Rawson explains he “could not imagine a more welcoming environment for the DTA,” including laudatory administrators and thankful alumni who reached out to the professor. He added:

” ‘The core Jesuit qualities that distinguish Holy Cross also inspire this project; as the mission statement successfully captures, Holy Cross encourages every member of our community to be passionate about truth, promote social justice and foster dialog in order to more deeply understand and respect diverse experiences. The DTA will further these qualities by counteracting negative and hurtful stereotypes of transgender people with more truthful and historically informed representations.’ “

Loyola Communities Press for Change

The faculty Senate at Loyola University New Orleans voted to expand fringe benefits to same-sex partners of employees, whether legally married or in domestic partnerships. The Maroon, the campus newspaper, reports that a faculty committee proposed the change before it was overwhelmingly approved in a vote, despite opposition from the Catholic Studies department head.

Meanwhile, Loyola University Chicago’s student government is exploring how the campus could implement gender-neutral restrooms. A coalition of student groups and administrative departments is researching the change and has already received an anonymous financial contribution to help fund replacement signs, according to campus newspaper Loyola Phoenix.

Villanova U. Moves Beyond Gender Binary

Villanova University hosted its second annual LGBT Awareness Week in late October, during which a faculty member gave a lecture entitled “Moving Beyond the Gender Binary: What We Need to Know About Gender Expression.” Professor Katina Sawyer spoke about how different people associate with and express a particular gender identity, according to campus newspaper The Villanovan.

Speaking about the week generally, Kathy Byrnes, associate vice president for student life, said:

” ‘It’s really important to acknowledge, but more important celebrate our LGBTQ students because we love them, they’re valuable…

” ‘Villanova can maybe be a beacon of light in modeling of how people can stay faithful, be faithful and still celebrate whether they’re LGBT themselves, or celebrate their LGBT brothers and sisters.’ “

To read about more positive changes and developments related to Catholic higher education, check out the “Campus Chronicles” category in the right hand column on this page or click here.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry


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