Australian Bishops Face Discrimination Complaint Over Anti-Marriage Book

November 30, 2015

The cover of the Australian bishops’ document under review

Australia’s bishops are facing a discrimination complaint about an anti-marriage equality publication they published earlier this year, the latest incident in the nation’s debate over equal marriage rights.

Martine Delaney, a politician who is transgender, filed the complaint with the Tasmanian Anti-Discrimination Commission in mid-September. She is now seeking conciliation by the Commission rather than a hearing, reported The Catholic Leader.

The Commissioner accepted the complaint initially, affording Archbishop Julian Porteous of Hobart, and the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, an opportunity to respond. There is no word on mediation, but Porteous affirmed his openness to such a process, which may include meeting Delaney. He rejected claims the bishops had offended anyone.

The publication in question, a booklet titled “Don’t Mess with Marriage,” was distributed by Porteous to Catholic school students in sealed envelopes. Copies were also provided for distribution to all Catholic institutions in the diocese, accompanying a nationwide release.

Explaining her objections to the bishops’ document to ABC News, Delaney said:

” ‘It makes several statements which suggest that children being raised in same-sex relationships are not healthy’ . . .

” ‘The church is entitled, as we all are, to freedom of speech but there’s an inherent responsibility with that, that you cannot do it in a manner which is offensive and insulting and humiliating.’ “

Criticisms were widespread when the document was released in June, particularly in dioceses like Hobart where schoolchildren were used as couriers to bring it to their parents. LGBT advocate Michael Bayly went as far as calling it a “new low” for the nation’s bishops.

Marriage equality’s status in Australia remains contested, and this complaint is part of larger political conversations. The federal Senate rejected a statement of support for the bishops, reported The Guardian, but the question of free speech remains prominent.

Concerns have been raised about this case by both anti-equality activists and Australia’s Human Rights Commissioner Tim Wilson, who is gay and supports marriage equality. Gay News Network quoted Wilson as saying the complaint gave him “chills” for its potential to suppress political speech as Australians prepare for a national referendum on marriage. He said further:

” ‘Understandably, the direction of the Tasmanian case could have a significant impact on the extent of the public debate around marriage for same-sex couples in the lead-up to a plebiscite.’ “

Delaney said her decision to file a complaint was not an attempt to freeze free speech, but rather ensure a balance as there is “an obligation for [bishops] to exercise those rights without causing harm.”

Bishops elsewhere in Australia have criticized the Tasmanian complaint, adding their criticism to their ongoing criticism of marriage equality. Archbishop Anthony Fisher of Sydney called it “astonishing and truly alarming.” Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane, who supported more pastoral language on homosexuality at the Synod on the Family, wondered on Twitter if marriage equality is a “new totalitarianism.

While there are speculations as to why Australia has yet to extend civil marriage equality, what is clear is that more and more Australians are on board with it. In September elections, the country replaced former prime minister Tony Abbot, an anti-equality Catholic, with Malcolm Turnbull, a pro-equality Catholic but who nonetheless has sustained Abbot’s proposed national referendum on the question.

Many issues are tied into this discrimination complaint and the larger milieu of marriage equality. Those involved will sort through political and legal considerations, but what needs to be recognized, too, is the pastoral aspect.

A bishop shepherds all the faithful in their diocese, not just the Catholics whose political leanings pair well with the current occupant’s ideology.  Whether or not Australian bishops violated Tasmanian law, their document does not mirror Pope Francis’ call for mercy and inclusion nor does it show a respect for LGBT people.

Hopefully, through mediation, the wrongs incurred by “Don’t Mess with Marriage” can be rectified and Catholics, like all Australians, will be able to debate freely the question of civil marriage equality ahead of the nation’s vote.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry



Play Starring Transgender Jesus Draws Catholic Protests

November 24, 2015

Jo Clifford as Jesus in the play

Catholics in Northern Ireland protested a play performed this month which portrays Jesus as a transgender woman, but the playwright defended it as an attempt to make audiences “think again” about faith and gender.

The play, titled “The Gospel According to Jesus, Queen of Heaven,” was most recently performed at Outburst Queer Arts Festival in Belfast just weeks after the nation’s legislature failed to advance marriage equality legislation.

Writer and actor Jo Clifford described it as a “very important, very intimate show,” explaining to BBC:

” ‘Obviously being a transgender woman myself it concerns me very greatly that religious people so often use Christianity as a weapon to attack us and justify the prejudices against us. . .

” ‘I wanted to see if we could move away from that and make people think again.’ “

Audience members are quite moved, said Clifford, including Christians. The writer has repeatedly reinterpreted biblical stories to generate new ideas, suggesting the overall message of this play is clear:

” ‘I think it’s very important to get across the message that Jesus of the gospels would not condone or want to promote prejudice and discrimination against anybody and to try to convey a message of compassion and love and understanding of everybody. . .No matter what their belief, no matter what their gender, orientation or sexuality.’

Not all welcome that message as a small Catholic group protested in Belfast, as has at previous performances. Former Glasglow Archbishop Mario Conti once said that it is hard to imagine “a more provocative and offensive abuse of Christian beliefs” than this play.

Clifford, however, said protesters have generally not seen the play and that it seeks neither to offend nor blaspheme because she is a Christian herself. Her point is rather to reflect on Jesus’ ministry through this “work of devotion”:

” ‘I simply want to assert very strongly, as strongly as I can that Jesus of the gospels would not in anyway wish to attack or denigrate people like myself.’ “

Clifford made a similar point in another interview, available on YouTube:

“He was talking to the victims of persecution, to the victims of prejudice and he would speak to them in a very accepting way, as one human being to another.”

In this, Clifford is correct. The Gospels reveal a Jesus who elevated people’s dignity and specifically sought out those who had been marginalized.

Catholic tradition has long embraced the arts as a means for spiritual nourishment and divine revelation, opening up the human person to themselves, to others, and to God. While I have not viewed Clifford’s play, her interviews suggest she is someone committed to creating art with devotional ends. The protesters would have benefited more by attending a show and seeing what came up in their inner life, instead of casting stones from afar.

For more information on The Gospel According to Jesus, Queen of Heaven, visit the play’s website here.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry


LGBT Africans Ask Pope Francis to Preach Tolerance

November 23, 2015

LGBT folks are asking Pope Francis to preach tolerance during his upcoming Apostolic Voyage to Uganda, Kenya, and Central African Republic beginning Wednesday.

Frank Mugisha

Frank Mugisha

Frank Mugisha, who directs Sexual Minorities Uganda and is himself Catholic, understands Pope Francis may be constrained but said speaking out could do much good. He told Reuters:

” ‘If [Francis] starts talking about rights, then Ugandans are going to be very defensive. . .But I would think if the Pope was here and talking about love, compassion and equality for everyone, Ugandans will listen.’ “

Simply affirming that LGBT people should be “treated like any other children of God” would signal progress in nations where homosexuality is criminalized and the death penalty for those convicted has even been suggested in recent years.

David Kuria

Kenyan advocate David Kuria, who was raised Catholic, echoed those sentiments:

” ‘I hope the Pope would say, “Love everyone,” especially those who are still coming to church.’ “

Kuria is particularly concerned for Catholic parents of LGBT children who often face pressures in their local churches and communities. These social mores cause faithful parents to “doubt themselves as parents or as Christians,” noting his own mother’s expulsion from her village prayer group after Kuria came out.

Jackson Mukasa

Jackson Mukasa, also known as Princess Rihanna, was jailed in Uganda last year on “suspicion of committing homosexual acts,” though not convicted for lack of evidence, according to Reuters. Mukasa’s message for the pope is clear:

” ‘I would like the Pope to at least make people know that being LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) is not a curse. . .Being a gay in Uganda is a challenge. You expect mob justice, you expect to be killed, you expect to be arrested.’ “

Being openly LGBT in Uganda is dangerous, but equality advocates have made strides, Repeated attempts to pass “Kill the Gays” legislation have been suppressed. The situation in Kenya is better, though still oppressive. While homosexuality is illegal, wider tolerance means the law goes unenforced. Indeed, there are some 500 LGBT refugees from Uganda there.

What is significant is that both nations are highly Catholic, with 40% (Uganda) and 33% (Kenya) of their populations identifying as Roman Catholic. Much of the harshly anti-gay rhetoric comes from evangelical churches. Catholic leaders have been silent, vague, and sometimes supportive of oppressive measures, especially in Uganda. If Pope Francis leads and they follow, they could be critical voices for moderation and even tolerance.

The pope has called for bishops to be close their people, to be shepherds who smell of their sheep and who listen closely. Frank Mugisha, David Kuria, and Jackson Mukasa, on behalf of LGBT communities in their countries, make simple and direct appeals. Will Pope Francis listen?

Their appeals, affirmed by Catholics worldwide through the #PopeSpeakOut campaign, call the pope to the margins of his own church where sexual and gender identities remain marginalized. Will he choose to be close?

Exhorting Italy’s bishops a few weeks ago, Pope Francis asked them to begin “a creative movement” to put into practice the welcoming attitude of his apostolic exhortation,Evangelii Gaudium (Joy of the Gospel).  Clearly condemning anti-LGBTQI laws and violence is a prime opportunity for Pope Francis to be creative in making real the joy of the Gospel — and to save LGBT lives. Will he speak out and preach tolerance?

Pope Francis has an opportunity to condemn LGBTQI criminalization and clarify a sometimes ambivalent Catholic stance regarding violence against sexual and gender minorities. Catholics across the world are asking Francis to send a clear message with the #PopeSpeakOut campaign.

To send a message to Pope Francis and add your voice to the many Catholics openly critical of institutionalized homophobia, visit the campaign’s website by clicking here.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

Cloistered Argentine Carmelite Nun Reaches Out to Trans Women

November 21, 2015

Regular long-time readers of Bondings 2.0  may remember our posts about Sister “Monica,” a U.S. nun who pioneered ministry to transgender people.  We’ve covered her involvement in this groundbreaking work a few times (here and here, for example), and you can read about her ministry and why she chooses to remain anonymous, using only the pseudonym Sister “Monica” when she appears in the media.

Sister Monica, third from right, with her group of trans women in Argentina.

In another part of the world, another Sister Mónica has emerged who is doing similar outreach work with the transgender community.  This Sister Mónica (which is her real name) lives in the Neuquén province of Argentina and is a member of the Discaled Carmelite Order, a contemplative community.  Her ministry has even attracted the attention and support of Pope Francis.

Her story first appeared in OhLaLá, an Argentinian web magazine for women.  Thanks to “Rebel Girl,” the blogging name of a contributor to Iglesia Descalza, a site for progressive Catholic reflection, we have an English translation of the article featuring Sister Mónica Astorga Cremona.

The story recounts how Sister Mónica’s pastoral life has always been with those on the margins of society, and that an encounter with a young transgender woman focused her attention on the needs of this community.  The nun described the story:

” ‘I feel that God wants me to accompany the wounded and that’s why I take responsibility. They often tell me I stand with them; it’s that I feel that from that place I can understand them. Because when we look at them from the other side, it’s impossible. I get in deep,’ the sister adds.

“And because of this kind of attitude, it’s not surprising that in December 2005, when Romina, a trans woman, approached Lourdes parish, the bishop decided this was a job for her.

“Romina went at that time to the church because she wanted to donate a tenth of her wages. ‘When the priest asked her where it came from, she told him from prostitution, and she explained that that was the only work she could get. At that point, the priest called me and told me about the case.’ “

Sister Monica Astorga Cremona

Sister Monica describes the poignancy of many of the simple hopes that some transgender women face, as well as the crushing obstacles to living with dignity:

” ‘The first time I came to see the group of trans women, I asked them to tell me their dreams. One of them, Kathy, told me that hers was to have a clean bed on which to die,’ says Mónica. At that time the nun contacted a priest, told him about the case and got an abandoned house which eventually became the refuge of the girls, as Mónica calls them.

“As she got to know this group of women, she learned how they lived — that they couldn’t hold any job except prostitution because they weren’t accepted in any position, that they often didn’t finish their studies because they were discriminated against in school, and that hospitals threw them out when they were about to die, so that in most cases they died alone and abandoned.”

As with many pastoral ministers who stand in solidarity with the marginalized, Sister Mónica has had her detractors, though she also seems to have the ability to turn those detractors into friends sometimes:

“Mónica admits that within the Church itself there are conflicting opinions as to her work with these people, but says she has the support of Pope Francis and that in her community small advances have already been achieved.

” ‘Once, when Romina had just come to the church, a lady came to find me and told me,”There’s a transvestite.” I replied that she was a trans woman, and then she asked me what she was doing in the church, to which I replied, “What are you doing here?.” At first, she continued questioning me about Romina’s presence, until I asked her what would happen if that were your child,’ she says.

” ‘After a couple of days, she came back and apologized to me, and at the following Mass she went looking for Romina to give her the sign of peace,’ she adds.”

As for the papal support she has received, the nun explains that she has been in email correspondence with Francis:

“. . . [S]he affirms that Pope Francis knows of the work she is carrying out with this group of women and that he supports her. In an email he wrote her: ‘In Jesus’ time, the lepers were rejected like that. They [the trans women] are the lepers of these times. Don’t leave this work on the frontier that is yours.’ “

The nun sees the possibility of a society that is free of oppression of transgender oppression, noting that such oppression is what causes these women to live lives of poverty and addiction:

“The girls make a huge effort against the stream. We have to help them and integrate them. They are capable and intelligent people, but they are abused. We ourselves are the ones who lead them to the streets. If society would open the door to them and give them a chance, we could help them get out of this. . . .

“. . . I think who is that person to judge like that and bury another live.”

The witness of Sister Mónica should challenge all of us to take one more step along the journey of advocating and standing in solidarity with trans people.  It is people like her who are building God’s reign of justice and peace in the world and in our Church.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

Church Workers Speak Out, Backed by 1,000+ Catholics at Call To Action Meeting

November 17, 2015

Church workers present Declaration at Call to Action’s conference

At the Call To Action conference in Milwaukee earlier this month, more than 1,000 Catholics affirmed a Catholic Church Worker Declaration, standing with church workers who have lost their jobs in employment disputes, many of them centered on LGBT topics.

The Declaration, which you can read here, affirmed both the good work that LGBT church workers do, and it condemned the injustices they and the communities they serve experience when discrimination occurs.

The Declaration listed expectations of the church and its leaders when it comes to employment in Catholic institutions. These included:

“We expect that dealings with Church workers be conducted with transparency and due process in accordance with canon and civil law. . .

“We expect Church leaders to uphold non-discrimination policies and to treat all employees equitably, even if the employer is exempt from such laws. . .

“We expect Church leaders to respect the primacy of conscience. . .[and] to acknowledge that people are capable of forming virtuous consciences with the guidance of Holy Spirit.”

Catholics are now being invited by Call To Action, a national Catholic justice organization, to join terminated church workers and those who gathered at the Milwaukee conference by signing a petition to be sent to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Apostolic Nuncio to the United States, and to Pope Francis. You can add your name by clicking here.

This Declaration is the latest step by Catholics and those affiliated with ecclesial institutions to respond to church worker discrimination. More than 50 employees have lost their jobs in LGBT-related disputes alone since 2008, according to New Ways Ministry.

A recent series in The Huffington Post features six such church workers telling their stories, specifically how they remained faithful despite being expelled. An introduction noted:

“Increasingly, American Catholics are finding it hard to believe that the options the church gives LGBT people are moral or just. . .Perhaps the most stunning aspect of these dismissals is the faith journey that begins after these LGBT Catholics have been turned away from their church.”

Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, affirmed the commitment even fired church workers have to their faith and told The Huffington Post:

” ‘Lesbian and gay people involved in these issues have really had to come to a deeper understanding of their spirituality and their relationship with God. From the get go, these are very spiritual people.’ “

Indeed, these church workers are very spiritual people, and their stories reveal just how deeply faithful and committed to the Gospel they are. Below is a sampling, but I encourage you to click the provided links and read more.


Colleen Simon

Colleen Simon, fired from a Jesuit parish in Kansas City after her marriage to another woman inadvertently became public, wrote about a loving God, a God who is love itself, and a God who does not discriminate:

“The Catholic Church has left behind people like me, labelling [sic] us ‘intrinsically disordered.’. . .I should not have shame about who I am. I am made wondrously in God’s image. I should not feel guilty about who I love, as God loves everyone.”


Michael McMahon

Michael McMahon, fired as a parish music director for being married to another man, is now employed by the National City Christian Church. He affirmed that loving God is what is most important for ministers, wherever they do their work:

“After I left my job at my local Catholic Church, I thought my ministry career was over. But what’s happened since then has probably reaffirmed my ministerial calling more than ever before. . .

“I still feel the wounds of it. But I’ve picked myself up and I’m ready to go and do the work before me. My hope comes from my long career in ministry that’s taught me that in the end, the love of God is the most important thing.”

margie winters

Margie Winters

Margie Winters, fired from her religious education position at a Philadelphia-area Catholic school for marrying her wife, wrote about a freedom that comes with loving God and being loved by God openly:

“God created me, accepts me, and wants me to be a whole person, integrating my sexuality, just like my spirituality, into my person. This rejection comes from a Church hierarchy that clings to a teaching formed without the lens of current scholarship in scripture, psychology or sociology.

“Instead of feeling alienated from God, I recognize how much God has given me. Freedom is the greatest gift. Freedom to speak the truth that I have known for so long. My partner, Andrea and I, can be a married couple without fear.”


Kristen Ostendorf

Kristen Ostendorf, fired from a Catholic high school for her relationship with a woman, is unapologetic in being both gay and Catholic, but she is clear there can be consequences for those who openly claim both identities:

“I am done with bringing less than my full self to my work. Unfortunately, that means I am also done working for the Catholic Church and done being able to do the work to which I believe I am called.

“Some days, it is enough to know that I stood up for my authentic self. . .Some days I am flattened by the rejection from my Church — I am not welcome to be my full self and in a loving relationship if I want to be a member of the Church that has given me life, the Church I gladly served for 21 years.”


Sam Albano

Sam Albano, expelled from volunteer parish ministries for social media advocacy for LGBT equality, wrote about another vocation LGBT Catholics witness to:

“After 11 years of prayer and careful discernment, I experienced a moment of clarity in 2013. My primary vocation in this life is a simple one: to be a living witness to a gay life lived in Jesus Christ — and to carry that witness to the church and to the LGBT community. . .

“Whatever injustice I faced at the hands of church leaders, I had an early awareness that God was prepared to use this experience in a powerful and life-giving way.”


Colin Collette

Colin Collette, fired from his position as music director at a Chicago-area parish for being engaged to a man, wrote about being stuck in the back of the pews, even as Pope Francis seeks more inclusion:

“How I long for the opportunity to sit with the Holy Father and tell him about my life in the church, and ask him why I still sit in only the back pews of the church.”

Collette is one of two church workers (the other is Sandor Demkovich) who have filed complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission claiming discrimination against the Archdiocese of Chicago.

In her homily at Call to Action’s conference, theologian MT Dávila affirmed the idea that God’s Kin-dom (a less hierarchical term than “kingdom”) is on the move. When it comes to church worker justice, the Catholic Church Worker Declaration and LGBT church workers’ sharing of their faith stories are certainly signs of God’s radical presence in our movement for LGBT justice and equality. The Kin-dom is, indeed, on the move!

For Bondings 2.0‘s full coverage of this story, and other LGBT-related church worker disputes, click the ‘Employment Issues‘ category to the right or here. You can click here to find a full listing of the more than 50 incidents since 2008 where church workers have lost their jobs over LGBT identity, same-sex marriages, or public support for equality.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

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In #PopeSpeakOut, Catholics Ask Pope Francis to Save LGBT Lives

November 16, 2015
Pope Francis on plane

Pope Francis

In just over one week, Pope Francis will begin an apostolic voyage to Uganda, Kenya, and the Central African Republic.  where homosexuality is culturally disapproved, and, in the first two nations, is illegal.

New Ways Ministry is relaunching our #PopeSpeakOut campaign to encourage Francis to publicly oppose  the criminalization of, discrimination towards, and violence against LGBT communities.  His pastoral visit is the perfect opportunity to do so.

#PopeSpeakOut was initially launched in 2014, following Pope Francis’ appeal for solidarity in his World Day of Peace message, to save LGBT lives. This campaign uses Twitter to send messages (tweets) to the pope (his Twitter handle:  @pontifex) to speak out for LGBT human rights.  More information on how to send tweets and other electronic messages, with samples of what to say, can be found by clicking here.

Pope Francis’ voice and moral authority on a global level have only grown in the time since. A clear condemnation of social and legal structures which harm LGBT people across the world and especially in Uganda and Kenya which criminalize homosexual people, would send a clear message that the Catholic Church truly does not approve of or tolerate discrimination and violence against sexual and gender diverse minorities. The pope should affirm the following:

  • Catholic teaching does not support the criminalization of sexual orientation/gender identity and all such laws should be repealed;
  • Each and every instance of discrimination and violence against LGBTQI people is morally wrong and should be opposed vigorously;
  • Western nations are not withholding foreign aid based on a recipient nation’s recognition of same-sex relationships, despite what the Synod on the Family’s final report claims.

Already, a multilingual petition has generated 100,000 signatures asking Pope Francis to condemn homophobia and transphobia. You can sign it at by clicking here.

Despite the dangers that being openly gay or lesbian entails in Uganda, and despite rumors that this nation’s Parliament is considering new legislation to stifle human rights work, a Pride celebration in went on as planned there this summer.  You can view images of it here.

Despite the bleak picture, there are some signs of  progress , too. A Ugandan presidential candidate, while clearly opposing same-sex marriage, did attack homophobia as wrong earlier this year. Advocates like Dr. Frank Mugisha, a Catholic who is executive director of Sexual Minorities Uganda whose work you can read about in a PinkNews article, are continuing to seek justice and equality. International allies must add our voices to these efforts by encouraging  Pope Francis’ to speak out against repression.

Pope Francis’ agenda during his first African excursion is packed. Central African Republic is engulfed in a brutal civil war, and a refugee camp is on the pope’s itinerary, which will surely be a moving experience to witness. Questions of inter-religious cooperation, regional security, and human development will be at the forefront of discussion since they strongly affect a continent where Christianity is growing rapidly.

That said, for a pope exhorting the church to go to the margins, LGBT lives should not be negligible. Even a brief remark during his several planned speeches would go a long way to doing some good.  Even better would be a call for sexual and gender human rights during a homily at Mass.  Most importantly, he needs to educate the bishops in these countries that it is their obligation as pastors and leaders to protect the rights and lives of LGBT people. Anything the pope says positively would reverberate around the globe.  Francis has been too silent on this issues. It is time for the pope to speak out!

Pope Francis touches down in Kenya in less than ten days, which is enough time for you, other Catholics, and others concerned with LGBT human rights to appeal to Pope Francis for a message of solidarity–and more than that, an appeal to save LGBT lives. To take action with #PopeSpeakOut and add your voice, click here.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

Will U.S. Bishops Finally Affirm Pope Francis’ Agenda This Week?

November 15, 2015

Pope Francis arriving at St. Matthew’s Cathedral, Washington, D.C. before his address to U.S. bishops

U.S. bishops will gather for their fall plenary this coming week, the outcomes of which will clearly indicate whether they are finally ready to affirm Pope Francis’ agenda or pursue more of the same. Either way, decisions made in Baltimore will impact LGBT Catholic issues in this country for the next several years. So what is at stake?

Strategic Priorities

First, bishops will vote on the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ strategic priorities through 2020.

The discussion around these goals may be the “most explosive” debate of the entire meeting, observed Michael Sean Winters of the National Catholic Reporter. The current five priorities are: family and marriage; evangelization; religious freedom; human life and dignity; vocations.  In one sense,  all of these topics touch, in varying degrees, upon LGBT issues.

A draft of new priorities during their June meeting received heavy criticism, with Burlington’s Bishop Christopher Coyne saying it was “the same thing we’ve always done” and other Pope Francis appointees–Archbishop Blase Cupich of Chicago and Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego–added their own sharp criticisms.

With marriage equality a settled matter politically, will the bishops keep this issue and potential opposition to other LGBT advances, like nondiscrimination protections, at the top of their priorities? With a refugee crisis abroad and economic injustices rampant at home, will bishops continue prioritizing opposition to LGBT rights? Answers to these questions and the broader agenda-setting conversation will have a major impact, directing the USCCB’s significant resources and setting a public tone for ecclesial leadership.


Second, the bishops will vote on key positions in committee leadership.

There is “a real choice” in these races, according to Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese of the National Catholic Reporter. Four of Pope Francis’ personal appointees are in races and almost all contests are between a bishop more in the style of Francis and a bishop who is less so.

Most relevant is the election for chair of the Committee on Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth between Philadelphia’s Archbishop Charles Chaput and Bridgeport’s Bishop Frank J. Caggiano. Chaput is a noted culture warrior, whose city hosted the World Meeting of Families in September and who is fresh off the Synod on the Family where he showed few signs of prioritizing mercy and inclusion. Alternatively, Caggiano believes “that which unites us is greater than that which divides us.”

The chair of the Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development is contested between Venice’s Bishop Frank J. Dewane and San Diego’s Bishop Robert W. McElroy. Dewane has been publicly criticized by his own priests, while McElroy has been hailed as a leader of a more welcoming Catholic Church. Other elections include the chairs for committees tasked with Catholic Education, Divine Worship, and Clergy, Religious Life, and Vocations.

With LGBT issues rapidly increasing their visibility in the church as well as the world, these committees could impact how the U.S. bishops respond to the persecution of LGBT people globally, the firing of LGBT church workers, or the acceptance of openly gay priests. Who is elected will, ultimately, be a referendum on whether the U.S. episcopacy wants leaders focused on mercy and encounter or those focused on legalism and confrontation.

Faithful Citizenship

Third, the bishops will vote on minor revisions to their document, “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” which outlines political engagement for Catholics and is released before major elections.

This document has been criticized for its overemphasis on “culture war” issues, including opposition to marriage equality, while downplaying more pressing social justice issues. Unfortunately, the expected changes to this document will be minimal, according to Stephen Schneck of U.S. Catholic. Noting this document was last revised in 2011 before Pope Francis was elected, Schneck wrote:

“Faithful Citizenship, as it has come to be called, reads like something from another age. . .Its tone is juridical, and does not convey the merciful and pastoral message of His Holiness. In form, it is an un-Francis-like assemblage of pronouncements for judging citizens, politicians, and officeholders. . .

“Our bishops should be reminding Catholic voters and officeholders of the church’s insistence that government itself (and not just charitable individuals) has a responsibility to address poverty, injustice, environmental degradation, and to provide for a moral economy. Our bishops do a disservice to their flock if American Catholics imagine that the church’s teachings for citizenship and government are restricted to matters like abortion, marriage, or religious liberty.”

From his earliest interviews, Pope Francis has criticized certain Catholics’ “obsession” with issues like same-sex marriages. Marriage equality is now legal nationwide without any realistic challenges for its reversal. The U.S. bishops should not just make limited changes, but totally overhaul Faithful Citizenship to reflect both Pope Francis’ agenda and the political realities of the nation in which they minister–particularly climate change.

Were the Bishops Listening to the Pope in D.C.?

Finally, there is the broader question of how the U.S. bishops will relate to Pope Francis and his agenda moving forward. Michael Sean Winters of the National Catholic Reporter recalled Pope Francis’ words addressing the U.S. bishops at St. Matthew’s Cathedral, Washington, DC, during his papal visit, writing:

“There, [Francis] confronted the dominant culture warrior approach the USCCB too often has displayed, most notably this year in their reaction to the Supreme Court decision on same sex marriage. The pope said, ‘Harsh and divisive language does not befit the tongue of a pastor, it has no place in his heart; although it may momentarily seem to win the day, only the enduring allure of goodness and love remains truly convincing.’ “

Pope Francis added a strong appeal for dialogue, and at this upcoming meeting, in Winters’ estimation, the U.S. bishops have an “opportunity to demonstrate that they heard the Holy Father” or choose to remain “out of touch with their own flocks” about which Winters wrote:

“The sad and regrettable fact is that the USCCB of late has acquired only the smell of the neo-conservative, upper middle class Catholic sheep and the Republicans for whom they vote.”

But Pope Francis’ criticism of the U.S. bishops, and his call for them to restructure their priorities, did not end in September. The pontiff’s particularly strong words about change in the Catholic Church earlier this week make the U.S. bishops’ choice next week all the more meaningful. Winters suggested:

“When the session opens on Monday morning, the bishops should set aside the agenda, read this entire talk, pray over it, maybe have small group discussions of it, and then return to their agenda in the afternoon. How do they evaluate their ministry, individually and as a conference, in the light of the pope’s remarks? The Holy Father said this morning, ‘We are not living an era of change but a change of era.’ Will that change of era be manifest in Baltimore next week?”

In recent weeks, both at the Synod and and in the wake of Vatican financial scandals, Pope Francis has made clear that little will stop his reform agenda for the Catholic Church. He has said, “Today is a time of mercy!” and that he wants a church that is “home for all.” The question in Baltimore next week is whether U.S. bishops will agree with these words and evolve, or clarify their resistance to Pope Francis and double down on their anti-LGBT obsessions.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

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