If Marriage Equality Becomes Law, Archbishop Threatens to Fire Married Gay and Lesbian Church Workers

An Australian Catholic archbishop has threatened to fire any church employee that enters into a same-gender marriage, should the option for such a marriage become legal soon in that nation.  The threat comes as Australia prepares to host a postal plebiscite which could result in the country’s Prime Minister calling for a vote on the measure in Parliament.  [Bondings 2.0 reported on the plebiscite last week, and you can review that post by clicking here.]

The Sydney Morning Herald reported:

Archbishop Denis Hart

“Archbishop of Melbourne Denis Hart. . . pointedly warned the church’s 180,000 employees they were expected to uphold its teachings ‘totally,’ and defiance would be treated ‘very seriously.’ “

” ‘I would be very emphatic that our schools, our parishes exist to teach a Catholic view of marriage,’ he said. ‘Any words or actions which work contrary to that would be viewed very seriously.

” ‘Our teachers, our parish employees are expected totally to uphold the Catholic faith and what we believe about marriage. People have to see in words and in example that our teaching of marriage is underlined.’ “

Hart is the chair of the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference.  His remarks were supported by Archbishop Timothy Costelloe, chair of the Bishops Commission for Catholic Education.

Hart’s comments highlight the skewed view that some prelates have taken about the question of same-gender marriage.  Does he really think that a Catholic view marriage is the main reason that Catholic parishes and schools exist?  Don’t they also exist to teach salvation, God’s love, justice in the world, respecting the equality of all, and so many other things?  When did marriage become the litmus test for authentic Catholicism?

Does he really believe that church employees must “totally uphold the Catholic faith”?  What about other employees whose lives do not reflect church teaching on charity, on kindness, on justice for the oppressed, on care for the poor, not to mention many other sexuality issues?

Fr. Frank Brennan

While religious liberty protections may allow the Catholic hierarchy the freedom to fire such employees, that doesn’t mean that they must do so.  That’s the position of Fr. Frank Brennan, an Australian priest who is the chief executive of Catholic Social Services Australia.  Writing in The GuardianBrennan defended the hierarchy’s right to fire married lesbian and gay employees, but he recommended that they shouldn’t.  Speculating that the nation will legalize marriage equality, he wrote:

“Once the Marriage Act is amended, should a church school be able to decline to offer married quarters to a teacher in a same sex marriage? I would answer ‘yes,’ though I would hope a church school would be open to the employment of a gay teacher living in a committed relationship. Equally I would continue to allow a church school to make a free choice as to who best to employ as a teacher.

“Given the lamentable history of homophobia, I would think a good church school would be pleased to employ an openly gay teacher who respects and espouses the school’s ethos. Free choice is often better than legal prescription when trying to educate in the ways of truth and love.

“Should a church aged care facility be able to decline to offer married quarters to a couple who had contracted a same sex marriage? I would answer ‘yes,’ though I would hope a church facility would be open to providing such accommodation in Christian charity if it could be done in a way not to cause upset to other residents. After all, same sex marriage is a very modern phenomenon and I would favour ongoing tolerance of the residents in aged care facilities run by a church, wanting to live out their last days with individuals and couples in relationships such as they have long known them.

“However, even in Catholic aged care facilities, we need to admit that not all couples are living in a church recognised marriage, and it is no business of other residents to know if they are. We need to allow everyone time to adapt with good grace, provided only that we can be certain that appropriate services are available elsewhere if a church feels unable to oblige on religious grounds.

[Editor’s note:  Brennan first publicly supported marriage equality in 2013.]

Brennan’s argumentation points out a dimension sorely lacking in Hart’s statements:  situations are complicated and often involve intersecting values that must be weighed.  Why don’t Catholic leaders consider the other demands and truths of church teaching such as charity and justice? Why does sexuality have to trump all other Catholic values?

In addition to Brennan, another Catholic leader has indicated that the archbishop’s threats may not be enacted.  The Sydney Morning Herald reported:

Suzanne Greenwood

“Catholic Health Australia, the country’s largest non-government, non-profit health group, distanced itself from those threats.

“Chief executive Suzanne Greenwood . . .[said] she would not expect doctors and nurses to adhere so strictly to the church’s teachings, though conceded it may be different for teachers.

” ‘We’re not converting people to Catholicism,”‘ she said. ‘It’s not really relevant to the jobs people are performing within the care environment at a hospital or an aged care facility.

” ‘It’s not like people are currently screened [for sexuality or marital status]. I would see absolutely no reason why that would change.’ “

Terry Laidler

And Terry Laidler, a psychologist who is a former priest, took a more pointed stand against the threats to gay and lesbian employees.   In an essay for The Sydney Morning Heraldhe wrote:

“Consistent the archbishops may be, but they are entirely out of touch with society generally, and with their own staff and people.

“Hart and Costelloe should not be surprised at the cries of hypocrisy that have echoed in mainstream and social media when they have appeared to threaten people’s livelihoods like this while those in leadership positions like theirs have previously proved inept or craven in ridding the very same institutions of child predators.”

Part of the archbishops being “out of touch,” Laidler pointed out, is that 60-70% of Australian Catholics support marriage equality.  And worse than being out of touch, is the harm that the archbishops’ words can have:

“. . . .[T]hey appear so lacking in insight into how their words would affect a young LGBTI man or woman considering contributing to our nation as a teacher.”

The possibility exists that in at least one part of Australia, Tasmania, married lesbian and gay church employees would be protected against discrimination and firing.  NT News reported:

“Tasmanian Gay and Lesbian Rights Group spokesman Rodney Croome said the state’s anti-discrimination laws meant the church and other religious organisations would not be able to sack employees in a same-sex marriage if the latter was legalised.

” ‘Tasmanian law makes it very clear that there can be no discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or relationships status, including in faith-based schools or hospitals,’ Mr Croome said.”

The Catholic Church should not have to be coerced by civil law to practice fairness and equality.  Those values should spring from the hearts and souls of Catholics, and we hope they would spring especially so from their leaders.   As Bondings 2.0 has reported before, the German bishops have found it in their hearts to protect lesbian and gay church employees in committed unions.  When will the bishops of other countries follow their shining example?

Francis DeBernardo, August 22, 2017

Related article:

Gay Star News: Australian Catholic churches threaten to fire people who marry same-sex partners”

Catholics Central in Debate on Australia’s Upcoming Marriage Equality Vote

Catholic voices remain influential in Australia’s ongoing struggle to pass marriage equality, the latest step of which has been the government’s announcement of a “postal plebiscite.”

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Malcolm Turnbull

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, a Catholic, announced the non-binding vote last week. Elected in 2015, Turnbull is a pro-marriage equality candidate who agreed to adhere to a planned plebiscite drafted under former Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who opposes marriage equality. In keeping with this agreement, Turnbull has not allowed a vote on marriage equality in Parliament despite there being overwhelming support for passage.

Turnbull has said the “postal plebiscite,” a voluntary survey mailed to all Australians, will inform him on how to proceed.  The plebiscite’s question is “Should the law be changed to allow same-sex couples to marry?” If the “yes” votes win, it would mean that Turnbull will hold a Parliamentary vote and allow legislators to vote their consciences on a marriage equality bill.  If the “no” votes win, there would be no parliamentary vote held, and the stalemate now in place would continue. To learn more about the vote, click here and here.

Beyond Turnbull, there are several other Catholic voices in the debate. First, former Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who has affiliations with Opus Dei, is advocating a “no” vote. He said LGBT advocates are engaging in “moral bullying,” reported PinkNews, and that voting no would stop political correctness.

He also expressed bewilderment about why same-gender couples wanted marriage rights when in his eyes they are perfectly equal without either marriage or adoption rights. Abbott has links to the Alliance Defending Freedom, a U.S. organization that, among other agendas, promotes the criminalization of lesbian and gay people.

Abbott’s sister, Christine Forster, is a partnered lesbian woman who has for years sharply criticized him for not supporting her legal right to marry.

Less hostile, but still opposed to marriage equality is Bishop Les Tomlinson of Sandhurst. Reiterating the need for all people to be respected, he said in a statement reported on by the Bendingo Advertiser:

“‘As the secular society seeks to answer the question as to whether it redefines marriage, I pray that we treat each other with respect and not resort to emotive or insulting language or behaviour.

“‘By restricting ourselves to emotional arguments, we ignore exploring the deeper effects of changing the definition and restrict ourselves to a superficial level of debate.'”

Paul Hegerty, a former Catholic priest, pushed back against Australian Catholics opposed to equal marriage rights. He claimed they had “hijacked” his religion, and pointed out that a majority of Christians support marriage equality. Hegerty wrote in the Courier Mail:

“I want religious freedom in this country and for my convictions to be heard in the public debate. Like many others I don’t want people opposed to marriage equality to hijack my spirituality and misrepresent it as some basis for denying other people their rights. People like me don’t want to impose our faith on others, including co-religionists who disagree with us. We get that Christianity seems ridiculous to many. We’ve known since the beginning that we Christians can look stupid. As one of our founders put it, we are fools. But we still want our voice to be heard as citizens of this country.”

Hegerty explained some of the reasons why Australian Catholics endorse LGBT equality, adding:

“And at the end of the day, we act on how we understand the fundamentals that Jesus gave us. . .It’s about how we treat others. Being kind to people is not an optional extra, it’s how we relate to God. As he taught, if we can’t love those we do see, how can we love God we can’t see? A famous parable of his summed it up — it has phrases that have a core place in the hearts of Christians: ‘When I was hungry, you fed me.’ ‘When I was sick, you visited me.’ So we hear Jesus today saying, ‘When I was LGBTQI, you got out of the way and let me get married.'”

There are many reasons why the nation’s citizens are outraged about the postal plebiscite, not the least of which is its $122 million price tag, but most of all because Australians are long past ready to take this step towards greater LGBT equality. For too long, Catholic politicians like Malcolm Turnbull and Tony Abbott have joined church leaders in stymieing the rights of LGBT Australians. It is time for them to join their fellow Catholics in supporting marriage equality not in spite of their faith, but because of it.

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, August 16, 2017

Catholic Parents’ Story Reveals the Love, Struggles of Having Transgender Child

Time and again, it is the love of Catholic parents for their LGBT children that continues to define healthy relationships, both in families and with the Catholic Church. The story of Teresa and Bill (pseudonyms), and their transgender daughter, Grace, is no different.

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Bill and Teresa

In Australia’s Catholic Leader newspaper, Grace, 50, told the story of how she came out as a trans person to her parents nearly two decades ago. Then presenting as a male, Grace had come home to give her parents an article, “Boys Will Be Girls,” and then she told them, “I’ve decided I want to live as a woman.” The report continued:

“Bill stood up from the couch, looked his son in the eye, and wrapped his arms tightly around him.”. . .

“‘I see this as a blessing because, to me, that particular day, when that news came, I just know that I did not have to think about it (giving his son a hug). . .I knew it was love in me that made me do it.’

“‘It said to me that even though I may not always show it, I actually do love my children unconditionally as any parent should – that there wasn’t anything they could say or do – I might disagree with them, which I still do – but it doesn’t stop you loving them.'”

A previous blessing helped  informed that moment. Bill had taken a bioethics course six months before, and it had dealt with transgender healthcare issues from various perspectives. Bill said he still thought gender-confirming surgeries were “going a bit far,” but he affirmed the reality gender dysphoria, the controversial mental health diagnosis sometimes given to trans people.

Grace transitioned a year and a half after coming out to them, and informed them that she chose her new name because, in Bill’s words, “she was looking for the grace to become a woman.”

What most troubled Bill and Teresa was the church’s response to their daughter. She could not find “any sympathy or understanding within the Church,” and left. Teresa said she doubts Grace will ever return. The Catholic Leader continued:

“Teresa said she struggled to reconcile the Church’s position on gender dysphoria with her own Catholic faith, though it has not made her less faithful.

“‘I get very upset about their ignorance, that they don’t seem to listen to all the new psychology information that has come out about gender dysphoria, and most still seem to see that people who want to change their gender are mentally unstable,’ she said.

“‘I really wanted to do something about it and shake them and say, “Listen to them – don’t you understand that your position is so antiquated?”‘”

Bill also challenged the church’s response, saying “people with no knowledge of embryology” are making scientific claims they should be more cautious about. Gender identity, he said, is different than sex characteristics. Bill and Teresa rejected the idea that gender is a choice. Bill said:

“‘I even heard the Pope say it’s not a matter of choice; I also say it’s not a matter of choice – it’s just a fact. . .For a transgender person, it’s not saying “I choose to be this”, or “I choose to be that”, but “I am, I am a woman but I have been given an XY chromosome”– but that is semantics.'”

Though supportive of Grace, it is important to note Teresa and Bill are still struggling with aspects of trans equality. They have fears that children are transitioning too early, and hesitations about widespread use of gender-confirming surgeries.

This story of Teresa, Bill, and Grace, notably published in the Archdiocese of Brisbane’s diocesan newspaper, reveals the tensions with which many Catholic parents often grapple. Fitting together the realities of their LGBT children and the church’s weak response is not easy. On the other side of this grappling, parents often become some of the most committed advocates for equality in the church.

Whether Teresa and Bill can be considered fully-affirming advocates or people still grappling with trans issues is not clear in the story, but what is clear is that they are refusing to settle with failed pastoral care and simplistic answers.

Editor’s Note:  Fortunate Families, a ministry of Catholic parents with LGBT children, is seeking a new part-time executive director. If you or someone you know might be interested in the position, you can find more information here or by contacting Michael Duffy at michaelduffy.duffy@gmail.com

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, July 25, 2017

On Gilbert Baker’s Passing, Why Rainbow Flags Are Needed in Catholic Spaces

Gilbert Baker, the person who designed the rainbow flag used as a symbol of LGBT identity, passed away last week. Despite his flag first appearing in 1978, controversy about its presence continues, including a recent spate at a Catholic university in Australia. As we remember Baker’s contribution, this additional unfortunate incident is a reminder of why pride flags are so essential for Catholic spaces.

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The flag sticker in dispute

Rainbow flag stickers have twice been posted, and twice torn down, at the University of Notre Dame Australia’s campus in Fremantle. The stickers were posted by the Student Association on their office windows as an expression of welcome, given the general absence of LGBTQ supports on campus. Buzzfeed reported:

“’We took it upon ourselves to do stuff for our LGBTIQ students, because there was nothing,’ student association president Dylan Gojak told BuzzFeed News. ‘One of the first steps was putting up these ally stickers.’ . . .But the vandalism has placed the stickers in the spotlight – and prompted complaints to university management arguing the ‘divisive’ rainbow flag has no place on campus.”

Gojak said for LGBTQ students like himself “there’s nothing, there’s no public statement, there’s no sign that you’re welcome here.” No action thus far has been taken on recommendations made by the Sexuality and Pastoral Care Working Party. The repeated vandalism against the flag stickers has only intensified awareness that such supports are absent.

Administrators initially asked the Student Association to remove the flag stickers, though a compromise was reached which allowed them to remain. After the stickers were vandalized a second time, Vice Chancellor Celia Hammond sent an email, saying:

“‘While I believe the symbol is divisive, and the University does not support all that has come to be associated with the Rainbow flag, the University does not condone the sticker being deliberately taken down in the way that it was. . .This only aggravates the situation and has the potential to cause additional distress.’ . . .

“‘To that end, while the University does not endorse the Rainbow flag, and does not approve it being displayed on any other parts of the University campus, the University is not seeking for it to be removed from the two windows of the Student Association Office at this time.'”

According to Hammond, “the display of the politically charged stickers” could imply the University is not in full compliance with Catholic teaching. She acknowledged there may be people on campus with homophobic views that are “inconsistent with our Catholic teachings,” but that there were others with “legitimate concerns” about the flag stickers.

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Gilbert Baker

Over time, the rainbow flag has come to signify inclusion, acceptance, and pride in embracing the sexual and/or gender identity.  These are all Catholic values and can lead a person on the path to holiness.

Baker’s flag, created at the request of martyred gay icon Harvey Milk, was to be more celebratory than the pink triangle symbol then in use, which has ties to Nazi Germany. And, according to Gay Star NewsBaker imbued the flag with even more meaning:

“Each stripe on the original eight-color flag had a meaning starting with hot pink which represented sexuality. Red represented life, orange was healing, yellow for sunlight, green for nature, turquoise for magic and art, blue for serenity and harmony and violet for spirit.”

These facts make it hard to understand what “legitimate concerns” could be lodged against the posting of rainbow flag stickers. Rather, it is very disturbing that the University of Notre Dame Australia offers no formal support to LGBTQ students, and, in this recent situation, administrators could not express unqualified solidarity with such students.

As the world remembers Gilbert Baker, church officials should remember that church teaching backs the value of each stripe on the rainbow flag, as well as the flag’s symbol of welcome and acceptance. Given how important LGBTQ visibility can be for youth and young adults, every Catholic institution should fly the rainbow flag with pride this spring.

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, April 10, 2017

 

Gay Alum Thanks Catholic School for Being “A Haven” for Him

National Catholic Schools Week begins today in the United States, a celebration of the church’s educational programs. In past years during this week, I have written about the need for Catholic schools to increase their supports of LGBTQ youth. You can read those commentaries here, here, and here. But this year, I want to highlight an Australian writer’s story about the good an inclusive Catholic school can do for LGBTQ students.

13-1420csw_logo_circle_cmykIn The Sydney Morning Herald, Joel Meares wrote about a new movement in Australia, Equal Voices, in which Christians are apologizing for the harm done by churches to LGBT people.of his gratitude for the Catholic school he attended, a place he called “a haven.” He elaborated on this topic by describing his childhood experiences with the people of faith:

“And yet the apology comes as no surprise to me. The Christians in my life – those in the pews who don’t make, nor seek, headlines – have been some of the most supportive people I’ve known. Of course they want to say sorry: it’s the Christian thing to do. . .As some of them get ready to say sorry this March, I’d like to take a moment to say thank you.”

Meares shared about his time at the Catholic school, a place he landed because his parents did not want to send their children to public schools but could not afford more elite private schools. While the family was not religious, Meares said, “from Monday to Friday I was an evangelistic little Tracy Flick, biro in hand and halo on head.” He continued:

“I was also very gay. I didn’t realise this at the time – I was quite late to my own coming-out party – but I already ticked all of the cliche boxes. . .If my teachers had eyes and ears, they knew I was different. And these same teachers – not members of the clergy, but many of them laypeople of deep faith – were profoundly nurturing of that difference. . .And I was always protected.”

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Joel Maeres

No longer a practicing Catholic, except for “when I have to get up for the Eucharist at a wedding,” Meares remains grateful for the way he was educated by the church. He wrote:

“But I’ve always liked core Christian values, particularly the simple ‘golden rule’ I was taught back in [kindergarten]: ‘Treat others the way you like to be treated.’

“I know it’s not everyone’s story – and I know others whose time at religious schools was far less rosy – but I was able to grow up different and safe and proud because the people around me also subscribed to that idea.

“I don’t see much of that sentiment when I scan the statements of church leadership when it comes to LGBTQI issues today. But the Equal Voices apology is a reminder of the kinds of Christians who helped shape me growing up. These people put into quiet practice so much of what is beautiful about the religion, and did very little preaching as they went.”

These last words mirror a statement made recently by the head of Scotland’s Catholic school system, who said the church’s educational programs were to “propose the gospel, not impose the gospel.” Sadly, for too many LGBTQ students, faith-affiliated schools are places where they experience the Gospels being preached more than practiced. Either through direct harm or not providing adequate supports, Catholic schools have too often failed to be safe places.

This year’s theme for National Catholic Schools Week is “Catholic Schools: Communities of Faith, Knowledge and Service.” Joel Meares’ positive story gives educators a source of inspiration for what can be achieved when Catholic education is done well and inclusively, inviting students to faith, educating them well, and instilling in them Christian values.

Ultimately, the goal should be for every LGBT student who passes through the Catholic education system to be able to offer a story of gratitude similar to Joel Meares’ experiences.

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, January 29, 2017

Australian Catholics Help Start Ecumenical LGBTI Group

Despite Australia’s ongoing debate over marriage equality, there have been several positive developments in Catholic LGBT issues recently in the land “down under.” Today’s post highlights one of those major developments.

ev-logo-1-e1483341716491Australian Christians have founded the interdenominational group Equal Voices to promote reconciliation between LGBTI communities and churches, reported Buzzfeed. The first meeting will occur at the end of this month, with a more formal launch in April.

Equal Voices seeks to be a networking and resource group based on values such as boldly proclaiming Christ’s love for all people, honoring same-gender relationships, and promoting listening and learning.

What is interesting about Equal Voices, according to spokesperson Natalie Cooper, is that those Christians involved are from “fairly conservative church backgrounds” that include Baptists, Pentecostals, Anglicans, and Catholics. Lay people hope to end the false idea that one can either be LGBT or Christian. Cooper added:

“‘For too long gay and lesbian people in the churches have been asked to carry the load by themselves. . .What’s often denied is that there are large numbers of LGBTI people of faith. Some of those people are in church, some of them are out, a lot of them are closeted because they don’t feel safe being out’. . .

“‘Very often, the impression given is that there is just one point of view, just one Christian voice. . .We want to make it clear there are lots of Christian voices, and give everyone a seat at the table.'”

Benjamin Oh

Among the leaders of Equal Voices is Benjamin Oh, a Catholic LGBTI advocate who has worked in human rights and development fields. According to his website bio, Oh “was elected as head of a Catholic international aid & development agency in Australia” and was the “World Youth Day Coordinator and Social Justice Project Manager for the worldwide Dominican Order” in 2008.  He also serves on the Steering Committee of the Global Network of Rainbow Catholics.

Equal Voices’ first priority, according to Buzzfeed, is to “facilitate a national apology to LGBTI Christians and the wider community” that will be presented in the nation’s capitol. This Apology is partially inspired by Pope Francis’ own call last year for the church to apologize to LGBTI people.

But the Apology seeks to not only seek forgiveness for past wrongs, but to educate Christians so as to prevent future wrongs. Some Christians may object to apologizing, said Cooper, figuring such an action was not needed. But the Apology explained its own reasons:

“Speaking for myself and as a member of my church, I ask for your forgiveness:

  1. For being too slow to acknowledge that we need to say sorry to you.
  2. For not speaking up against the hurtful, damaging and often violent mistreatment you have been subjected to.
  3. For speaking about you, without first listening to you.
  4. For not creating safe environments within our churches where people can speak openly and honestly about their struggles and understandings.
  5. For perpetuating stereotypes, and for not taking full account of your actual lived experiences.
  6. For talking to you or about you in such a way as to suggest that sexual and/or gender differences are not part of your true identity as creatures made in the image of God, but are simply a result of brokenness or sin.
  7. For perpetuating the mistaken belief that non-heterosexual orientations should be treated, healed or changed, and for not acknowledging the damage such misunderstanding has wrought in peoples’ lives.
  8. For not acknowledging that Christians who are seeking to be faithful to their Lord and to the Scriptures are coming to different conclusions on matters of gender, sexual orientation, and marriage.

The Apology ended with five commitments to LGBTI people that signatories make, including supporting LGBTI “in every way possible,” being open to correction and guidance, holding others accountable for “careless, hurtful or misleading talk,” resisting efforts to exclude LGBTI people from churches, and engaging “in genuine and open dialogue to gain better understanding of other perspectives.”

Australian Catholics’ support for Equal Voices is consistent with many positive actions which have happened in the country. Last December, Fr. Paul Kelly’s eight-year effort to outlaw “gay panic” defense in Queensland led the state’s Attorney General to introduce a parliamentary bill doing just that. In response to Pope Francis, an Australian parish held a Liturgy of Apology to LGBT People which participants said opened new possibilities for healing. And when bishops have publicly opposed marriage equality, Catholics have pushed back, including Fr. Frank Brennan, S.J.’s, warning that a plebiscite on marriage equality could be “very nasty.”

Whether or not Australia’s Parliament will indeed pass a marriage equality law is still an open question despite overwhelming support by legislators and the public. But it is good to know Catholics, and Christians generally, are not waiting to advance the cause of LGBT equality in many spheres.

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, January 12, 2017

 

In Advent Lessons, Bishops Reflect on Waiting, Flesh, and Facts

Advent is frequently a time for bishops to release pastoral letters and other documents to offer their reflections. This year, two such documents reflect the style and substance of Pope Francis in his efforts for a more merciful and inclusive church.

wpid-listening-is-an-act-of-love_20130529115704168Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane, Australia, released a pastoral letter entitled The Flesh and the Facts. In its first words, the letter cites both the Year of Mercy and Pope Francis, saying “we don’t now set mercy aside” simply because the Jubilee year has concluded. Coleridge wrote:

“In Genesis we’re told that God saw what he had made and found it very good (1:31). Christmas says that God saw what he had made and, seeing its goodness disfigured, decided to become part of his own creation to restore it to the glory he intended from the beginning. The God who takes flesh deals not in abstractions but in facts. Likewise the Church that worships the mystery of the Word-made-flesh needs to deal with facts. That’s where mercy starts.

“At times what we believe and teach can seem too abstract. That’s the sense I had listening to certain voices at last year’s Synod on marriage and the family in Rome. What I heard at times was logical, perhaps even beautiful in a way, but it didn’t put down roots in the soil of human experience, and it would have been incomprehensible to most people outside the Synod Hall.”

Coleridge, a participant in the Synod on the Family from where he made several LGBT-positive remarks, noted in his letter the challenges of communicating faith in today’s culture. He called Advent a “special time for listening” in which new ways of engagement could be found. Describing the church as a teacher, the archbishop said church leaders must “find new words or images, a new language” to help people understand their teachings. He continued:

“Part of this new engagement will be a reconsideration of Church structures and strategies, which can be based upon the facts of other times. They may have been brilliantly successful once upon a time when things were different. But they are not what’s required now in a situation where the facts have changed.”

Addressing marriage and family specifically, Coleridge said there was a divide between the hierarchy’s and society’s understandings of these concepts. But this is not grounds for the church to write off the world, an approach which is “not the Catholic way” because:

“We are a Church who, because we take the Incarnation seriously, take culture seriously and seek to engage it as creatively as we can. This means we have to be in touch with reality rather than inhabiting some abstract world which can produce what the Holy Father has called ‘dry and lifeless doctrine’ (Amoris Laetitia, 59) and ‘a cold, bureaucratic morality'(Amoris Laetitia, 312).

Being pastoral means getting “in touch with the facts of human experience,” Coleridge explained. According to the archbishop, this does not mean changing church teaching, but it also should not be a one-way mode of engagement by church leaders. Instead, he advocated a more holistic approach:

“It means that we, like God, abandon the world of abstraction to engage the real lives of real people . . .This will mean a new kind of listening to the truth of people’s experience. From a new listening will come a new language that people can understand because it’s in touch with their lives. That’s what it means to be a truly pastoral Church.”

On the other side of the world, Bishop Johan Bonny of Antwerp, Belgium, whose call two years for the church to bless same-gender relationships was positively received by many Catholics, released a brief Advent letter,  reflecting on the words, “I have been waiting for you!” In one section, he wrote:

“We do not say [“I have been waiting for you!”] to each other when there is no friendship or love involved. It makes us recognise friends and loved ones: they wait for each other, they consider the other’s  presence, they become impatient or distrustful when the other does not show up, the absence of the other at an appointment hurts. When friendship or love cools, waiting for each other disappears. Appointments become more business-like. Waiting becomes less personal and less emotional. Do you want to know who your friends are or who loves you? This question is the test. Who would say to me now, ‘I have been waiting for you!’?”

What do I read in these letters which make them worthwhile for LGBT Catholics, their families, and advocates?

First, Archbishop Coleridge’s call for Advent as a “special time of listening” which can lead to shifts in Catholic leader’s language and church structures, is the favored mode of Pope Francis. This method is the dialogue for which Vatican II yearned, and it is the primary way forward on LGBT equality in the church. Listening in authentic encounters opens people to one another’s realities, and it can overcome the hardness of church leaders who speak abstractly, and therefore harshly at times, about sexual and gender diverse people. While Archbishop Coleridge has, for instance, condemned marriage equality in the past, what is more important is his firm understanding that the church must exhibit mercy and practice reconciliation.

Second, Bishop Bonny’s reflection on waiting–both how we wait for one another as human beings and how God waits for us–is applicable to issues of gender and sexuality in the church. Waiting signifies love and concern, the love that LGBT Catholics and their families have exhibited by waiting for church leaders to catch up on contemporary knowledge and be more faithful to the Gospel by being more inclusive. But waiting is not forever, and impatience and distrust can develop when someone does not show up or when their failure to be present causes hurt. How long can Catholic leaders expect their siblings in Christ to wait around for dialogue and for inclusion, especially when harm is actively done?

I close with words from Claretian Fr. John Molyneux, the editor-in-chief of U.S. Catholic, who in his own Advent reflection:

“What a way to begin Advent: announcing the truth that Jesus has come for all people.  James Joyce famously described the church as ‘Here Comes Everybody.’  And yet recent events have brought to light divisions within our country, our church, our families, and across the world.  Words like ‘nationalism’ and ‘tribalism’ are being bandied about.

“Perhaps this Advent we can reflect on what each of us is called to as a member of this catholic (small c) church.  Am I a Catholic who longs to be more catholic?  When I sing, ‘All Are Welcome!’ do I mean it?”

If you would like to read more spiritual reflections, I would point out Bondings 2.0’s reflection series on the Sunday Mass readings each week, which this year comes from LGBT theologians and pastoral workers studying at Boston College. You can find the reflections here.

–Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, December 3, 2016