Cardinal Schönborn Says Church Must Meet All Families Where They Are

A top cardinal has endorsed the idea that the church support all families, including those not considered traditional by the Magisterium’s standard.

Cardinal Christoph Schonborn
Cardinal Christoph Schonborn

Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna made his remarks while attending a conference in Ireland entitled, “Let’s Talk Family: Let’s Be Family.” He told journalists, per The Catholic Herald: 

“Favouring the family does not mean disfavouring other forms of life – even those living in a same-sex partnership need their families. . .[Family is] the survival network of the future [and] will remain forever the basis of every society.”

Before the conference held in the city of Limerick, Schönborn addressed the idea of family as it relates specifically to Ireland, reported The Independent:

“‘Ireland is synonymous with family, a country that traditionally has had family at its core. . Second unions, divorce, same-sex unions; these are all part of a new narrative around the family in Ireland. So there is a lot of change and the church must show mercy in the context of that change. It must be willing to meet families where they are today.

“‘Ultimately, and this is certainly the case with Ireland, for all the crises in the institution of marriage the desire to marry and form a family remains vibrant, especially among young people.'”

Schönborn added that “the weakening of family” threatens society and, as such, “Reinvigorating family is perhaps our great mission today.”

Schönborn’s comments are grounded in his understanding of moral theology. He expounded on this topic during his Irish visit, and Crux quoted the cardinal as saying, “Moral theology stands on two feet: Principles, and then the prudential steps to apply them to reality.” The report continued:

“The problem, he said, was that conscience came often to be seen merely as “the transposition of the Church’s teaching into acts” but in fact “the work of conscience is to discover that God’s law is not a foreign law imposed on me but the discovery that God’s will for me is what is best for me. But this must be an interior discovery.”

“He was ‘deeply moved’ when he read the famous paragraph 37 of Amoris, which complains that too often the Church fails to make room for the consciences of the faithful, and that the task of the Church is to ‘form consciences, not replace them.’

That meant understanding that people operated within constraints. . .’The bonum possibile in moral theology is an important concept that has been so often neglected,’ said Schönborn, adding: ‘What is the possible good that a person or a couple can achieve in difficult circumstances?'”

Grounding his remarks in Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia, the cardinal summarized the document’s message as “marriage and family are possible today,” and said it was noteworthy that even when “everybody can get married. . .so many choose not to get married.”

About pastoral care to families, Schönborn said the reception of Amoris Laetitia is “a long process.” He criticized both rigorists and laxists “who have rapid, clear answers.” Accompaniment, the cardinal said citing St. Gregory the Great, “is an art and it needs training.” Indeed, he admitted the Synod on the Family and Amoris Laetitia were not a set of rules that would be applicable in all cases.

What is refreshing about Cardinal Schönborn’s remarks in Ireland is his willingness to admit reality, and then do theology from it amid life’s messiness rather than dictate from idealized models. Being the child of divorced parents likely helps his more merciful understanding of so-called irregular families. His desire to seek the good that is possible in all situations, including same-gender relationships, is too rare among church leaders.

Schönborn’s visit comes a year before Ireland hosts the 2018 World Meeting of Families, which could be accompanied by a papal visit. There may be no more fitting backdrop for the Catholic Church to consider family than Irish society, given its rapid changes, but this will only be true if church leaders are honest about the realities around them.

Hopefully, the next World Meeting of Families takes up Schönborn’s approach, and focuses on how the church can support all families instead of just those which fit the strict parameters of the Magisterium.

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, July 21, 2017


LGBT Pilgrims Reflect on World Meeting of Families; Others Question Meeting’s Impact

As a busy fall for Catholic LGBT advocates winds down, its time for reflecting about what happened–and forecasting what might come. This post focuses in on World Meeting of Families (WMF) and Pope Francis’ visit to the U.S. as they related to LGBT issues, looking both back at the past and what these actions might mean for the future.

Equally Blessed Pilgrims Reflect on Experiences

Several members of the families with LGBT members who participated in Equally Blessed’s pilgrimage to WMF (and to concurrent “outside the walls” LGBT-related events) have shared their experiences and reflections from the week-long even on video.

The Equally Blessed coalition, which includes, Call to ActionDignityUSA,  Fortunate Families, and New Ways Ministry, produced a series of videos from the pilgrimage, one of which you can view below and you can find the others here.

Ryan Hoffman of Call to Action wrote in the National Catholic Reporter about the exclusion pilgrims experienced having been “dismissed from giving workshops, rejected from having a presence in the exhibit hall, relegated to a Methodist church across the street, and nearly shut out of the one presentation on ‘same-sex attraction’.”

These acts impeded “authentic dialogue and genuine encounter,” but did not stop such moments. Hoffman observed:

Ryan Hoffman

“Francis has asked Catholics to work on the margins.  Equally Blessed boldly occupies this space, on the periphery and in the field hospital of the Catholic church. Once again, we found ourselves on the front lines of compassion and justice. . .The pilgrims’ prophetic ministry was not in what they were able to say, but in who they were able to be — their whole and holy, complete and healthy selves — amidst a backdrop of hierarchical control tactics and fear.”

LGBT pilgrims and their families prophetically witnessed to their faith, despite Meeting organizers’ best attempts to shut them out. Catholics at the event, overall, noticed the pilgrims and many affirmed them. Indeed, WMF participants overwhelmingly agreed that openness, honesty, and safe spaces for dialogue were desired by WMF attendees, regardless of where their positions on gender or sexuality.

Absent, too, at WMF were discussions about institutional matters in the church. Fired lesbian educator Margie Winters identified a hoped-for conversation that was not included on the agenda.  She told the National Catholic Reporter:

margie winters
Margie Winters

“We ask the church to reflect on its own identity, an identity now associated with the discriminatory treatment of the LGBT community. We are your sisters and brothers in faith.”

The Philadelphia Inquirer reported on Winters reiterating this sentiment at an LGBT Family Papal Picnic held in Philadelphia, saying the exclusion of people “impacts the integrity of the church as a whole.”

Equally Blessed partners hosted events where more inclusive and honest conversations could happen. Writing at the Human Rights Campaign’s blog about New Ways Ministry’s workshop on gender identity, Lisbeth Melendez Rivera said:

Lisbeth Melendez Rivera

“Their stories were heartbreaking and hopeful. Contrary to the tone of sanctioned workshops, these messages were ones of inclusion and acceptance. They represented the success of our work.”

Stories shared included those of Nicole Santamaria, an intersex woman from El Salvador, and her mother, Vilma. Nicole noted that rather than condemn intersex people, the Catholic Church is entirely silent on this community, and silence is problem for intersex people in heavily-Catholic nations like hers. An asylum seeker to the U.S. after she suffered multiple physical attacks, Nicole told NewsWorks:

” ‘The point of having the Lord’s love in our life is to create the space for people to be [themselves]. . .If people believe that they have the Lord’s right to attack you, they are going to attack you and they are going to be celebrated.”

You can read more about Nicole’s story in an interview she offered to  The Washington Post.

WMF pilgrims also shared their experiences on an installment of DignityUSA’s “Queer Catholic Faith” webinar series last month, which you can view here.

Lingering Questions About the World Meeting of Families

Those involved with Equally Blessed’s pilgrimage were not the only voices questioning and even critical of the World Meeting of Families.

Jake Kohlhaas, a theologian at Loras College, Dubuque, Iowa, who attended WMF, wrote at Daily Theology about an “exclusivist tone” which marked the Meeting’s programming that “works against even legitimate diversity and complexity within the accepted moral tradition of the church.”

In Kohlhaas’ estimation, WMF speakers appealed to inclusivity only in instances where it strengthened their position, while jettisoning it for rigid exclusivism when their perspective on church teaching was challenged, such as being faced with U.S. Catholics overwhelming support of marriage equality. He questioned whether the use of dubious social science findings by WMF presenters is analogous to intelligent design theorists’ discussing evolutionary biology:

Jake Kohlhaas
Jake Kohlhaas

“That is, while the approach in general presents itself as receptive to the findings of non-theological disciplines, when the data challenges basic commitments it is glossed over with affirmations of Catholic teaching. . .Selective uses of observed data undermine this commitment by allowing a prevailing hermeneutic of fidelity to church teaching to obstruct legitimately challenging questions.”

More fundamentally, Kohlhaas expressed concern about WMF’s failure to acknowledge the realities of Catholic families in their diversity today, and he concluded with an important question:

“This is not simply a question about the possibility of certain strategic reforms, it is a question about how we balance a commitment to inclusivity with the specific moral teachings of the Church. If simply acknowledging legitimate diversities and challenging realities proves difficult for many Catholic leaders, how are we as Catholics to respond mercifully to the world’s needs?”

Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, summarized the approach of WMF organizers and the U.S. bishops in this way, reports KEPRTV:

“They see LGBT issues as a problem to contain rather than to explore. . .The entire Catholic community in the U.S. is having a discussion on this now. Why can’t the World Meeting of Families?”

Papal Visit Generally Praised

Pope Francis’ visit, despite the Kim Davis controversy which erupted shortly afterwards, has generally been praised. Denise Hinds, a self-described “Catholic-nun-turned-lesbian-mom,” wrote in The Huffington Post about seeing the pontiff at the White House. Describing the scene as “electric,” she explained:

Denise Hinds

“[Pope Francis] spoke of family and marriage, and his comments were heard by some LGBT advocates as opposing my family and those like mine. But I heard them differently. In the context of the long hard walk to equality and justice for so many people, this pope chose not to defame me. He chose to honor family and marriage, not limit which families and which marriages. And for this church, in the context of this pope’s choices, that is progress. . .

“I felt happy and overwhelmingly proud of the pope, being Catholic and being gay all at the same time. I think his words and deeds will also give my daughter hope that she can have a place in a church that welcomes, accepts and respects her family.”

Victoria Brownworth, a Catholic lesbian as well, also wrote about the papal visit for The Huffington Post and said:

Victoria Brownworth
Victoria Brownworth

“If I have learned anything from watching Pope Francis up close and personal in Philadelphia over his two days here, it is that my Catholic faith and my lesbian identity are inextricable from each other. I have been reminded that I am uniquely blessed to be a Catholic lesbian and that my lesbianism and my faith are gifts. . .

“And so I come away from Pope Francis’s visit not embittered by his failure to speak to me, a lesbian Catholic, but assured by every action and speech of his that I witnessed, that he is more human than God, more conflicted than sure, more searching than settled.

“That reaffirmed for me what I have always known to be true: That I am no less a member of my Church than anyone else, that being a lesbian requires no imprimatur from the Church, because I am, according to the Church’s own theology, made in God’s image.”

Much has happened since the World Meeting of Families and Pope Francis’ visit: the Kim Davis controversy, news of the pope’s meeting with a gay couple, and the Synod on the Family. Yet the good news shared by Equally Blessed’s pilgrims and the encounters they experienced should not be forgotten in the near future. Indeed, their example of dialogue and witness, accompanied by Pope Francis’ vision for the church, constitute a path forward for U.S. Catholics when it comes to LGBT issues.

To read Bondings 2.0‘s full coverage of the Equally Blessed pilgrimage, the World Meeting of Families, and/or Pope Francis visit to the U.S., you can click here

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

Pope Francis’ Former Student Speaks About Meeting During U.S. Papal Visit

Yayo Grassi

Sandwiched amid the Pope Francis-Kim Davis controversy and the Synod on the Family was news that the pope had met with a gay couple while visiting the U.S. — and that this meeting, unlike his encounter with Davis, was of Francis’ own initiative.

Yayo Grassi, the gay man and former student who met with Pope Francis, spoke to the Washington Blade and his interview is worth reading even several weeks later for its insights into the pope as a human being when it comes to LGBT issues.

The meeting, which included Grassi’s partner of 19 years, was considered private. Grassi, now 67, had Pope Francis as a high school teacher back in Argentina many years ago and the two have remained friends in the interceding decades. Grassi decided to make their meeting public after the Kim Davis controversy erupted, overshadowing the pope’s trip:

” ‘One of the things that upset me extremely and profoundly was that people who were so much in love with this Pope immediately turned against him. . .And I was telling my friends how can you forget everything this guy did? How can we forget these things for something that this woman said that we don’t even know is true or not?’ “

When a The New York Times reporter identified Grassi as the former student who had met with the pope, Grassi confirmed that identification, concluding that he had to defend a friend, the pope, now under attack because of the Davis incident. He explained to the Blade:

” ‘To me it was a meeting with a friend of mine. . .It was a meeting between two friends. . .who love each other and I admire him deeply. That would have been the end of the story and I wouldn’t have you here sitting in my kitchen if it wasn’t that this lady Kim Davis came out with this information saying she got a private audience with him.’ “

This was the second time Grassi met Francis since he was elected in 2013, the first time being in St. Peter’s Square during an audience. Grassi had let the pope know he and his partner would be in Italy for a friend’s wedding and were immediately invited to the audience. Pope Francis walked to them amid “hundreds of people. . .with his arms open” and said, “You made it. You make me so happy.” The pope was introduced to Grassi’s partner, hugging him, too.

Grassi is firm in his belief that the pope is trying to help all those who are marginalized and oppressed, including LGBT communities:

” ‘What I can say is we have to recognize the small steps that Pope Francis has taken and that considering the place where he comes from are actually giant steps. . .It’s not that the man does not want to do it. He has a timing for things. He has a way of saying things that are so extraordinary and making them with small steps.’ “

Grassi also shed light into one of the more controversial criticisms of the pope, his actions against marriage equality in Argentina. The student explained he wrote to his former teacher, then Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, archbishop of Buenos Aires, after seeing his harsh comments against same-sex marriages:

“So I fired an email to him explaining to him how much I owed him, what an important person he was in my life, how much he developed my most progressive thoughts in my life and that I was disappointed to hear that he was saying these negative things about gay people and about gay marriage. . .And I mentioned my boyfriend by name and told him at that time we were 14 years together.”

The reply was “beautiful” and “very loving” according to Grassi, who continued:

” ‘He started by apologizing because he had hurt me, because I was hurt. . .And immediately after that he said I have never said any of those things that the press is publishing about me. . .He said as a matter of fact he never expressed himself about this question. And he ended up by saying something that to me is so important. . .He said believe me, in my pastoral work there is no place for homophobia.’ “

Grassi’s account is further confirmation of what Pope Francis seemingly seeks for LGBT people in the church — an unhindered welcome, a loving embrace by pastoral ministers, and a focus on the person first while setting aside questions of doctrinal reform. This is insufficient for some LGBT advocates, but a pope who can apologize and say “there is no place for homophobia” in the church’s mission is a pope who is laying the groundwork for real changes to come.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

Lessons Learned? Analyzing the Pope Francis-Kim Davis Controversy

Keeping up with Catholic LGBT news these last few weeks is not an easy feat. It seems that just a few moments after one story breaks, another is already in the making and now the Synod is underway.

Sampled below are some notable, thought-provoking, or just interesting commentaries related to the Kim Davis controversy and some lessons learned.

Initial criticism against Pope Francis over the Kim Davis affair has shifted to his handlers who apparently staged the encounter, specifically Apostolic Nuncio to the United States: Archbishop Carlo Vigano.

Charles Pierce’s piece for Esquire, which suggested early on that right wing activists had staged the meeting, was considered conspiratorial but now has been vindicated. If one wanted to undercut Pope Francis’ papal visit to the U.S. while scoring partisan points, Pierce laid out a plausible plan:

“Here’s what  I’d do. I’d arrange for the pope to meet Davis, but not as an American culture war celebrity, but as a devout Christian whose faith is under vague assault. . .I’d shuffle her through the process and she gets some vague words of encouragement from the pope, who otherwise doesn’t know her from any other hick who gets sent his way. I’d sit on the news for the entire rest of the pope’s trip, even enlisting Davis’s publicity-hungry legal team in that effort. . .

“Vigano is a Benedict loyalist. Robert Moynihan, whose newsletter, Inside The Vatican, got the story first, is an actual lifelong Ratzinger protégé. And the Vatican press office acted just the way I’d want it to act, if I were the guy setting this up. First, it issues a silly non-denial denial, and then it merely confirms that the meeting occurred. At which point, the office clams up, leaving the story festering out there in the news cycle, and leaving the pope out there in the American culture war to twist in the wind. And, if this scenario is in any way accurate, it had its desired effect.”

Given the Vatican’s confirmation that Pope Francis neither knew who Kim Davis was nor meant to lend support for her cause and that Fr. Thomas Rosica, another Vatican spokesperson, confirmed that it was Vigano’s office who invited Davis, calls are mounting for sanctions against the nuncio. More than 35,000 people have signed Faithful America’s petition calling for Vigano to be replaced at the nunciature.

This seems particularly relevant because, as Tom Gallagher of the National Catholic Reporter pointed out, the Liberty Counsel backing Kim Davis and seemingly instrumental in this scheme has been labeled a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. The New York Times speculated:

“The question now is did Archbishop Viganò, left to linger in the United States as a new administration has taken power in Rome, keep Pope Francis in the dark or simply underestimate the off-message media storm that a meeting with Ms. Davis would provoke. Or, after executing orders from Rome, has he once again found himself being hung out to dry at the end of his career. In January, Archbishop Viganò will turn 75, the age at which bishops must submit a formal request to the Vatican for permission to resign. These requests are not automatically accepted, and bishops often stay in their appointments long after. It seems unlikely, church analysts say, that Archbishop Viganò will be one of them.”

Harvard professor Harvey Cox wrote approvingly of the papal visit in The Boston Globe, while critical of those influences like Vigano which almost ruined it:

“This pope has a highly developed grasp of the importance of symbolism. . .But despite the inspiring clarity of his gestures during his sojourn here, our inept media and his ham-handed American stage managers almost managed to blur the important message he so earnestly wants to convey.”

Still, some remained troubled by Pope Francis’ involvement. Fordham doctoral student Jason Steidl wonders in a piece for The Huffington Post whether “just like that” the pope’s image should be rectified. He doubts that Francis’ outreach gestures “considered basic to human decency” really amount to change, even if the pope was a victim in the Kim Davis debacle:

“It’s time for progressive Catholics to recognize that, in spite of the pope’s gestures towards LGBT people, systematic sin and injustice runs much deeper that the pope’s pastoral style. Why do we keep fooling ourselves into believing that one pope can fix the deep-rooted problem of homophobia in the church? . . .

“It’s time we stop pretending that Pope Francis has fixed everything. He hasn’t. He can’t. The sooner we recognize how much work remains to be done addressing systematic sins of homophobia in the Catholic Church, the sooner we can begin the healing process.”

More incisively, Jamie Manson of the National Catholic Reporter asked when does hope become denial and whether Catholics are “truly listening to the full context” when Pope Francis speaks:

“I remain hopeful justice will come someday, but I think it is important to accept the reality that the residual effects of a patriarchal, homophobic, clerical formation can still dwell within a man who is otherwise committed to justice and deeply pastoral. . .

“How do we remain people of hope with a deep admiration for much of what the pope says and does while also not losing our prophetic edge in fighting for true justice for women, LGBT people, sexual abuse survivors and those suffering from lack of access to contraception?”

Having experienced Pope Francis’ charismatic draw in person twice now, I know that the path of least resistance is to believe change is coming from this man and cede to the frenzy around him. However, the path for LGBT advocates is the more challenging both/and model suggested by Manson. We must both celebrate Pope Francis’ goodness when appropriate and ensure we do not lose our voices as loving critics and critical lovers of a church still inflicting deep harm. What does a frenetic few weeks of Catholic LGBT news teach us moving forward? I identify three lessons, aware there are definitely more.

First, Pope Francis’ ministry requires a slower evaluation than the 24-hour news cycle might allow and we must get comfortable sitting with ambiguity rather than casting immediate judgement. This allows his words and actions to be read in the broader contexts of his papacy, his life, and larger ecclesial, cultural, political and/or social narratives at play. The highs may not be as high, but the lows will likely not be as low and it will help LGBT advocates keep a balanced appraisal of this pontiff. This is true also for the Synod studying family life that is now underway in Rome.

Two, repeating a point already made on this blog by Francis DeBernardo, the Vatican must be more transparent and forthright in explaining Pope Francis’ ministry. Dodging today’s media realities hurts everyone and as DeBernardo told The Advocate:

“The time for vagueness, ambiguity, and secret meetings is over. Pope Francis needs to state clearly where he stands in regard to the inclusion of LGBT people in the church and society.”

While I’m not often one to agree with Crux’s John Allen, Jr., I do agree with his assessment that part of the Kim Davis fiasco was also, in part, simply poor communications work by Vatican officials. Even adept analysis, like that of National Catholic Reporter‘s Joshua McElwee, is insufficient to clarify important points because information has not been forthcoming. News that Pope Francis met privately with a same-sex couple lessened the sting, but it need never have stung if Fr. Federico Lombardi immediately clarified the Kim Davis encounter.

Third, with enough time and clarity, Catholics concerned with LGBT justice must be honest in our appraisals about Pope Francis. He is certainly doing tremendous good, creating space for conversations and breaking ground for change, but he is also flawed. If he is, for instance, becoming more welcoming of LGBT Catholics, we cannot forget those Francis marginalized during his U.S. visit – women, victims of clergy sexual abuse, indigenous people. Intersectionality demands that when we say we want a church that is “home for all,” to use the pope’s expression, we really mean for all.

A tangential footnote for those interested: Many conversations have popped up about conscientious objection. This tenet of Christian life has been promoted by anti-militarism/pacifist Catholics in the U.S. years before religious liberty became a right wing cause célèbre. You can read Ellen Boegel’s write up in America about whether Kim Davis is a conscientious objector (spoiler: she is not).

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

New Ways Ministry Welcomes Pope Francis to Philly with Catholic Gender Identity Workshop

Just as Pope Francis began his schedule in Philadelphia, Catholics gathered in a church hall in downtown to explore ideas and personal experiences about gender identity. The New Ways Ministry-sponsored workshop, titled “Transforming Love,” featured four speakers sharing their stories of being trans*, of being intersex, of being an LGBTQI person’s family member–and doing all of this as Catholics.

Julie Chovanes

After an opening communal prayer service, Julie Chovanes, a transexual Catholic woman from Philadelphia, began the morning’s presentations. Steve Ahlquist of reported:

“Chovanes was raised in the Byzantine Catholic tradition. . .Coming out and transitioning has been a challenge, but she feels she has ‘been accepted in the city, I feel that Philadelphia is the best city in the world for [trans persons].”

“I don’t consider myself a man or a girl. . .I am a trans. My brain and my soul are a woman’s, but my body is a man’s. . .My life is a testament to God’s glory.’ “

Later in the workshop, having claimed “I am very proud of who I am,” Chovanes highlighted her privileged experience compared to many other trans persons. She is a successful lawyer whose marriage and family remained intact while she transitioned. Chovanes lifted up trans people of color who suffer most in the U.S. due to economic hardships and physical and emotional violence.

delfin bautista, who identifies as trans* and specifically two-spirit or genderqueer, spoke next. [delfin does not use male or female singular personal pronouns for self-reference.  Instead delfin prefers the non-gendered plural “they, them, their” pronoun set for self-identification.  Also, delfin’s name is correctly spelled with lower-case initial letters.]   delfin began listing their many personal identities that “sometimes clash and sometimes coexist.” These include being Catholic and being the LGBT Center director at Ohio University.

delfin bautista

bautista detailed their Latino/a Catholic upbringing as they came to know themselves more authentically in an ongoing journey to know “what means to be both/and rather than either/or.” RIFuture quoted bautista:

“Being different is not an option. . .I wore dresses and played princess. I prayed every night to wake up in a new body, but was greeted with silence.’

” ‘When I came out I came out as gay because that’s all I knew, but even then I knew it didn’t fit me. . .My mom wanted to help me and sent me to therapy to be cured. I don’t hate my mother, she was trying to help me.’ “

bautista gently explained the concept of transitioning, saying it was not a matter of changing one’s identity but rather of affirming one’s identity and sharing it with others. The journey is a communal one, involving a person’s partner, friends, and family members.

Responding to participants’ questions, the speakers zeroed in on trans* oppression by the lesbian and gay communities. Chovanes alluded to the historic Stonewall riots in 1969, reminding those at the worksthop that it was trans* people who kicked off the LGBT movement.

bautista said, “We’ve been coming out. We’ve been here for centuries.” They added that sexism and misogyny still silence trans feminine voices even within LGBT circles, bautista’s expanded this critique to the Black Lives Matter movement which has prioritized black men who are killed even though trans women of color face the highest rates of violence.

Both turned to Scripture to further their points, Chovanes highlighting the Apostle Philip’s merciful treatment of the Ethiopian eunuch (see Acts of the Apostles 8) who is as he is not because of sin but “for the greater glory of God” and noting that from Genesis to Galatians, gender is presented as a spectrum.

Vilma Santamaria

The workshop’s second panel featured two speakers from El Salvador. Nicole Santamaria is an intersex Catholic woman and activist, now residing in the U.S.  She was joined by Vilma Santamaria, her mother and a teacher involved with feminist advocacy.

Assigned male at birth, Nicole identified as a girl by the age of three and thought of running away as early as age five. When she finally came out to her mother, Vilma responded, “I love you, whoever you are. I will always have you in my heart.” Vilma had known her daughter was different from a young age. Less understanding was Nicole’s father at whose hands she suffered greatly in adolescence, which she described for

” ‘[I was told,] don’t talk like that, don’t move your hands like that! Oh my God, don’t breathe like that! . . .My father mentally and physically tortured me. He’d heat up coins and burn my nipples.”

Nicole Santamaria

Her father’s damage destroyed her natural breasts and early medical help was equally problematic, but eventually through reconstructive surgery Nicole is now able to present as she identifies. Though she is “passing” [meaning: being visibly recognized as a woman], a term she said she only recently learned in the U.S., Nicole refuses to remain silent and rest in that privilege. As she stated:

“God gave me the opportunity to survive. I’m going to continue to speak out for those who didn’t.”

Citing that faith for the “strength to continue,” she told

“I came here to the World Meeting of Families with Pope Francis, to speak for the voices that were silenced by those who will torture them, by those who will kill them. And the voices that were silenced already by people who feel they have permission and they have the obligation to murder us, to exterminate us, to persecute us, because their religion told them that it is okay to kill a person that is different. When every religious leader spoke out against sexual diversity, or even against abortion, a transgender woman is killed. Every time those kind of things are heard, that means death. Whenever this is reported in the media, you can read the comments from the people, and the comments are, They deserve it, they are abominations, God doesn’t love them, it is okay.”

Violence against LGBTQI people in El Salvador is extensive and often involves sexual violence and torture as well as physical assault. Nicole is currently seeking asylum in the U.S. because, as she told her mother, “I left my country because I won’t let you recognize my body in pieces.”  She left El Salvador after several physical attacks and more than several authentic death threats.

The speakers’ words showed the power and grace present at the workshop yesterday morning.  Their words were filled in by many smaller interpersonal conversations by participants who shared their faith, their identities, and their hopes as well as pains. You can get a glimpse of the atmosphere in this video from Religion News Service.

It is worth noting, finally, that this workshop almost did not happen after Archbishop Charles Chaput ejected it and other LGBT-related events coinciding with last week’s World Meeting of Families from a local Catholic parish. Thankfully, a Arch Street United Methodist Church, a nearby congregation at opened its doors and its arms to the New Ways Ministry program, as well as to Equally Blessed’s World Meeting of Families pilgrims, thus allowing LGBT and Ally Catholics to witness to the power of faith, hope, and love, in their lives, relationships, and families.

To read Bondings 2.0‘s full coverage of the Equally Blessed pilgrimage, the World Meeting of Families, and/or Pope Francis visit to the U.S., you can click here

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

Openly Gay Comedian Mo Rocca Reads at Papal Mass; Francis Remains Unclear on LGBT Front

Pope Francis preaching during Mass at Madison Square Garden

Yesterday, Bondings 2.0 surveyed Pope Francis treatment of LGBT issues during his visit to Washington, D.C. Today, as the pope begins his schedule in Philadelphia, here are some LGBT Catholic takeaways from New York City.

Address to the United Nations

Pope Francis’ address to the UN General Assembly, the fifth such occasion for a pope, avoided any direct condemnation of LGBT rights even though the UN is increasingly active in defending all sexual and gender identities.

His most direct statement was a resurfacing of the “ideological colonization” term spoken about during his visit to the Philippines earlier this year:

“Without the recognition of certain incontestable natural ethical limits and without the immediate implementation of those pillars of integral human development. . .[social progress] risks becoming an unattainable illusion, or, even worse, idle chatter which serves as a cover for all kinds of abuse and corruption, or for carrying out an ideological colonization by the imposition of anomalous models and lifestyles which are alien to people’s identity and, in the end, irresponsible.”

At least one critic, writing in The Advocate, has questioned whether those “anomalous models and lifestyles” are a reference to homosexuality. At one point, Pope Francis criticized the still undefined term “gender theory: during his appeal for natural law reasoning, saying “natural difference between man and woman” must be respected.

More positively, Francis’ repeatedly attacked exclusion as the bedfellow of degrading creation and said “social exclusion is a complete denial of human fraternity and a grave offense against human rights and the environment.” Again, though not directly citing LGBT people, his words are readily applicable to those sexual and gender diverse minorities globally who suffer profound social exclusion.

Mo Rocca reading at Mass

Mass at Madison Square Garden

Rather than Pope Francis’ words or acts, it was comedian and journalist Mo Rocca’s scriptural reading during Mass at Madison Square Garden which is most striking for LGBT advocates.

Rocca is not only Catholic, but is openly gay after coming out publicly in 2011. He said on Twitter that he was “deeply grateful and humbled to have delivered a reading at a Mass” celebrated by Pope Francis.

Many people on the social media channel quickly noted Rocca’s sexual orientation, reported NBC News. It is indeed significant that in a time when LGBT Catholics find themselves unwelcome in many U.S. parishes and more than fifty church workers have lost their jobs in LGBT-related disputes since 2008.

Pope Francis’ homily may explain, in part, the welcome Rocca received. The pontiff heartily affirmed diversity and said cities contain the “hidden riches” of “cultures, traditions, historical experiences. . .all the different ways which we human beings have discovered to express the meaning of life.” He repeated his condemnation of social exclusion.

Vespers at St. Patrick’s Cathedral

Finally, though out of order in the chronological style of this post, Pope Francis’ spiritual reflection during Vespers in New York is worth briefly highlighting. He said nothing about LGBT issues, but the pope praised U.S. women religious when he asked: “What would the Church be without you?”

His gratitude for the sisters comes just months after the Vatican’s investigation of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) concluded. Pope Francis continued praising the sisters for being on “the front lines in the proclamation of the Gospel. . .the front lines in meeting the challenges of adapting to an evolving pastoral landscape,” seemingly the very reasons LCWR was investigated in the first place–which included their support of LGBT issues, generally, and New Ways Ministry, specifically.

Onward to Philadelphia

As I noted yesterday, Pope Francis’ visit to the U.S. has been quite ambiguous when it comes to LGBT topics, a sharp contrast to many American bishops’ culture war mentalities. Foremost among such bishops is Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, where Pope Francis now concludes his visit over the weekend.

Will Francis will speak more clearly and at length about marriage and family life in the city where the World Meeting of Families has just concluded. Already, the pope is drawing criticism from LGBT advocates but I am sticking to a “wait and see” approach.

Check back in the coming days for Bondings 2.0‘s ongoing coverage from Philadelphia and analysis about LGBT Catholic outcomes, reactions, and next steps after Pope Francis’ U.S. visit concludes on Sunday.

To read Bondings 2.0‘s full coverage of Pope Francis’ visit to the U.S., click here

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

At Philly’s World Meeting of Families: Not Much Time Given to Homosexuality, But LGBT Catholics Keep Conversation Going

Ron Belgau and his mother, Beverly Belgau, at the World Meeting of Families.

The World Meeting of Families’ (WMF) only session on homosexuality was held Thursday afternoon, drawing more than 750 people to the talk featuring a Catholic celibate gay man, Ron Belgau, and his mother, Beverley.

Their aim, according to an interview in Slate, was to “help Catholic families to be better at loving LGBT people.” In the session, the Belgaus shared their personal stories, this being the first time since WMF began two decades ago that an openly gay person has spoken. Beverley Belgau called Ron’s coming out “the worst day of my life.” They also reiterated current teachings on homosexuality which mandates celibacy, though they admitted church leaders’ response to LGB Catholics could be improved.

The Belgaus’ session was standing room only, due in part to a last minute room change that left hundreds of would-be attendees standing outside, reported Religion News Service. World Meeting of Families officials did not comment on why a session concerning homosexuality was shifted from a plenary hall capable of holding 10,000 to a much smaller room with the capacity for only 1,000. Call To Action’s Ryan Hoffman commented:

” ‘We are just trying to understand and give [World Meeting of Families officials] the benefit of the doubt. . .This just speaks to the fact that people want to talk about LGBT Catholics and their relationship with the Catholic Church.”

Following the lecture, a question and answer period lasted two hours, at which point those still present were asked to leave the room, reported the Philadelphia Inquirer. Some questions were concrete, like whether a Catholic could attend a family member’s same-sex marriage to which Beverley Belgau suggested that whatever the questioner decides to “do it with love.” Others challenged Ron Belgau’s underlying assertions, like Fortunate Families board member Ed Buechel’s criticism of mandatory celibacy:

” ‘That’s fine for somebody who has been given the gift from God of chastity and celibacy. . .I’m the father of a gay son. . .He’s 34 years old. He loves his church and he loves his God. But because of the conflict between the teachings of the church and his wanting to stay a good Catholic, he had a nervous breakdown 12 years ago.’ “

Titled “Always Consider the Person: Homosexuality in the Family,” critics claim it failed to consider the person and focused primarily on enforcing rigid understandings of sexuality. Marianne Duddy-Burke of DignityUSA wrote on Facebook:

“[T]he problems started for me when they spoke of Ron as having ‘same-sex attraction.’ This immediately takes it/us to a place of disorder, illness, defect. That leads to dehumanization, a sense of moral inferiority, and assumption of sinfulness. From there we get to discrimination, exclusion and violence. That whole chain was never addressed. There was no sense of identity as intrinsic to personhood, or of our sexual orientation as blessed gift. The view of ‘Church’ presented was also disempowered and hierarchical.”

delfín bautista, another Equally Blessed pilgrim, said in the session that LGBT Catholics are not struggling with who they are, but “with the rejection and marginalization that exists within society and also within the church.”

The lack of LGBT Catholic perspectives, except for Ron Belgau’s celibate life, was striking. Ronnie Polaneczky, columnist for the Daily News, called it a “wasted opportunity,” writing further:

“Really? This is the best that the church has for LGBT Catholics – the expectation that they be celibate? At this extraordinary meeting of Catholics from around the globe, why is this celibate gay man the only representation of the church’s LGBT members?”

Equally Blessed pilgrims and others debrief about the World Meeting of Families on Friday afternoon.

LGBT Catholics Respond

The opportunity was not entirely wasted because LGBT Catholics and their families associated with the Equally Blessed pilgrimage kept the conversation going during a Thursday evening panel.

Featuring Claire Dente, John Freml of Equally Blessed, and Marianne Duddy-Burke of DignityUSA, the conversation became an honest and at times heated dialogue on not only Ron Belgau’s talk but broader questions in the Catholic LGBT movement.

One theme panelists picked up on was the need to positively appraise and present diverse sexual and gender identities.

Freml said homosexuality is “not a disorder, a curse, a birth defect. It’s a gift. It’s cause to celebrate.” Duddy-Burke spoke about coming out as a Resurrection experience, adding LGBT folks need to be more outspoken in celebrating their fabulousness. Dente pointed out that though God’s voice is speaking through same-gender relationships, when LGBT people are excluded from the table that part of God’s voice is stifled.

Those in attendance added to the conversation for more than an hour, respectfully, though honestly, dialoguing about sensitive topics. These included the need to diversify the LGBT movement, incorporating global perspectives as well as centering communities of color in the U.S.  Greater solidarity by LGBT communities with those movements for racial, economic, or migration justice was requested by several attendees.

Others highlighted the pain Catholics feel when their priests and religious remain silent in the face of injustice. Sr. Jeannine Gramick, co-founder of New Ways Ministry, spoke movingly about the fear that keeps many from taking prophetic action and emphasized the need to educate church leaders.

Having attended this response period, I witnessed in the church hall an embodiment of precisely the loving dialogue called for repeatedly by Pope Francis during his U.S. visit.  As they have for a long time, LGBT Catholics and their families are fostering encounters in the church–a very hope-filled witness. I was also aware of the deep pain all too present for LGBT Catholics and their family members–a pain church leaders are not only inattentive to, but too often inflict. It cannot be forgotten even for those of us who find hope in what has happened this week.

Mustard Seeds Planted

The Eighth World Meeting of Families with all its LGBT-related controversies and failure to welcome all families has concluded at last. Equally Blessed pilgrims generally reported respect from WMF participants in the many one-on-one conversations held, but there were also moments of hostility. Fortunate Families board member Tony Garascia told NBC 10 that some at the WMF asked why Catholic parents of LGBT children even bothered attending and claimed gay children were perverted.

Still, from my perspective, we must focus on the seeds of love and faith planted all over the Philadelphia by Equally Blessed’s pilgrims. Their deep sharing in conversation, challenging questions, and rainbow witness are the mustard seeds by which God’s inclusive grace will expand narrow-minded areas of our church increasingly into a Catholic Church that is, to quote Pope Francis, “home for all.”

To read Bondings 2.0‘s full coverage of and from the World Meeting of Families, click the appropriate category to the right or you can find it here

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry