Catholic Officials Condemn LGBT Murders in Bangladesh, Call for Justice

April 29, 2016
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Xulhaz Mannan, left, and Mahbub Rabbi Tonoy

Catholic officials in Bangladesh have condemned the brutal murders of two LGBT advocates, criticizing too the discrimination that sexual and gender diverse communities face in a nation which still criminalizes homosexuality.

Four days ago, Xulhaz Mannan and Mahbub Rabbi Tonoy were killed by militants affiliated with Ansar Al Islam. Mannan founded and edited Roopbaan, the nation’s first and only LGBT magazine, and worked for the U.S. Agency for International Development. Tonoy was an actor who advocated for gay rights.  Both were hacked to death by machete

Mannan and Tonoy’s murders add to a spree of targeted killings by militants against liberal figures and intellectuals. Al Qaeda and Islamic State affiliates are seeking to grow in the majority Muslim nation, and their campaign includes targeting LGBT advocates.

The brutality of these murders by machete, coupled with the victims’ gay identities, has propelled the story into the international spotlight. Two Catholic officials in Bangladesh have reacted forcefully against the murders.

Fr. Albert Thomas Rozario, head of the Archdiocese of Dhaka’s Justice and Peace Commission and a Supreme Court lawyer, told UCA News that justice must be ensured for the two gay men murdered:

” ‘The church always supports the demands of LGBT people for equal rights and opportunities as ordinary citizens. . .We call on the authorities to ensure justice is meted out for the killings, and also to take steps to end discrimination against this community.’ “

Rosaline Costa, a Catholic who is Executive Director of Hotline Human Rights Trust Bangladesh, said the government must do more than just investigate these killings:

” ‘God has given us freedom of choice and nobody is allowed to persecute people for their sexual orientation because of so-called traditional values based on conservative religious norms. A truly democratic society can’t accept abuse in the name of religion. . .

” ‘A proper probe and justice for the killings won’t do much protect the community. The government must ensure that the discrimination of LGBT people ends in this country even though the so-called protectors of Islam might not like it.’ “

The situation for LGBT people in Bangladesh is highly oppressive. Being gay is criminalized with sanctions including life imprisonment. While the law criminalizing homosexuality is a leftover from British penal laws, strong current prejudices lead to cultural disapproval and discrimination. Bangladesh, a predominantly Muslim nation, is highly religious, though there are only about 300,000 Catholics or 0.2% of the population. An anonymous advocate with the gay rights group Boys of Bangladesh told UCA News that being LGBT “can result in the denial of every opportunity and rights” and that they are considered “dreadful sinners.”

The deep tragedy of these murders is shining light on the suffering of Bangladesh’s LGBT communities, both in country and abroad. Fr. Rozario and Rosaline Costa countered the idea that religious belief entails LGBT condemnation, and they rejected violence in the name of religion. They acted because of their Catholic faith, not in spite of it, to not only seek justice for Mannan and Tonoy but to demand government action against anti-LGBT discrimination and violence. In this way, where fundamentalist religion and anti-LGBT hate had culminated in the brutality of these murders, Catholics found a way to mediate God’s love and cry out for God’s justice.

But the church’s response must move beyond reactive calls for justice when LGBT people are attack to a proactive solidarity which seeks protections before tragedy occurs. Words from Pope Francis condemning LGBT criminalization would go a long way towards this goal, but he has remained silent. Thankfully, clergy like Fr,. Rozario and lay people like Rosaline Costa are not waiting, but immediately standing with marginalized communities to demand justice and fair treatment.

If Pope Francis would condemn criminalization against LGBTQI people, he would clarify a sometimes ambivalent Catholic stance regarding violence against sexual and gender minorities. Catholics across the world have asked Francis to send a clear message through the #PopeSpeakOut campaign – and you can add your voice by clicking here and learning about a variety of ways that you can contact the pontiff!

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry


Top Gay Rights Campaigner in UK Speaks Movingly About Her Catholic Faith

April 20, 2016
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Ruth Hunt

In an interview with The Scottish Catholic Observer, a leading gay rights advocate in the United Kingdom spoke movingly about her faith, while at the same time she appealed again for more common ground between LGBT and religious communities.

Ruth Hunt, head of the LGBT rights organization Stonewall, and a Catholic lesbian woman, gave the interview to coincide with LGBT month in Scotland, which this year celebrates the theme “faith, religion and philosophy.” In the interview, Hunt spoke about being raised Catholic, and she said of the faith which she still practices:

” ‘I was brought up Catholic, I believe in one Holy Roman Catholic Church. . .I believe it is where Christ is most accurately reflected. I feel at home there, I maintain a good relationship with the Church, I am pleased to be part of it. . .

” ‘I never felt the need break away. . .In the past, when I didn’t go I found I missed it, it provides community and creates a space that is very profound and spiritual for me.’ “

Hunt later said she “never felt excluded from the Church I attended. . .never felt I wasn’t welcome.” Like many Catholics, though, Hunt has questioned the church, yet remaining Catholic was a “very important thing” in her teenage years and was reaffirmed during her college studies of medieval English.

Hunt acknowledged that some sharp divisions and deep hurt exist between LGBT and religious communities, which can create further difficulties for LGBT people of faith. She explained:

” ‘I do meet people who have had different, difficult experiences though who’ve been damaged by being told to deny their sexuality, who felt rejected by God. . .That’s saddens me, and at Stonewall we often talk about the need for “kind eyes,” when we listen to people.'”

But too often these divisions are “something artificially constructed,” particularly the “over inflated” conflict between religious freedom and LGBT rights that some propose. Hunt noted:

” ‘There are many LGBT people of faith and many LGBT people have lots of friends and family in faith communities. To think in terms of binaries and opposites is not helpful. . .It does concern me the way some opposition is expressed. I don’t think it is Christian to be harmfully offensive. I think there’s always room to disagree with compassion.’ “

Working towards more inclusion in religious communities and more common ground between LGBT and religious communities remain an important task, according to Hunt, because “legal rights only go so far.” She offered advice on how LGBT advocates could proceed as they seek greater justice and equality:

“Hearing the truth of people’s testament is very important. . . A lot can be achieved if you start on basis of love but it’s difficult when people are utterly determined not to hear each other. . .

“We need to reach deeper into communities, to help people be accepted as they live, work, socialise and pray. . .

“The rights of LGBT people don’t get in the way of people of faith who practice that faith.”

This interview is not Hunt’s first time speaking about the need to overcome divisions between LGBT and religious communities. When she was appointed Stonewall’s director in 2014, Hunt recognized that despite legal advances, there was still much work to do to bring about religious and cultural acceptance of LGBT people and their relationships. Last year, Hunt reaffirmed to The Tablet that changing attitudes rather than legislation was her priority. She welcomed Archbishop Vincent Nichol’s support of monthly LGBT outreach Masses near London as an effort to overcome the deep chasm that may exist between faithful Catholics and their church institutions.

Her wisdom is again insightful in this interview with the Observer, and LGBT advocates, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, would do well to read it. Hunt, who recommends listening to the truth of people’s lives, witnesses powerfully by living her own truth as a lesbian Catholic woman refusing to compromise on either her faith or her sexual orientation.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry


“Amoris Laetitia” Is a Step in Process that Is Far From Over, Say Commentators

April 10, 2016
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Martin Pendergast

Yesterday, Bondings 2.0 featured reactions to Pope Francis’ new exhortation on family, Amoris Laetitia. Below are more reactions related to Catholic LGBT issues. You can read New Ways Ministry’s response by clicking here.

You can read LGBT-related excerpts from Amoris Laetitia by clicking here.

Martin Pendergast, a UK advocate for LGBT Catholics, said many people realized LGBT issues would not be central, reported The Tablet. But even in the “light treatment” this document affords such issues, there are positive developments:

“First of all, no condemnations, no quoting of language of ‘intrinsic disorder’, a nuance around the use of language like same-sex attraction, which some of us find offensive, an actual recognition of homosexual orientation, which is very significant in a document of this status.

“One of the key debates in the Church has been: is there such a thing as a different sexual orientation and paragraph 250 refers to people who manifest homosexual orientation. So it’s actually acknowledging that homosexual orientation exists: that’s very important.”

Pendergast said the text lacks the coherence of Evangelii Gaudium or Laudato Si, instead showing “evidence of interventions from the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith” in the conservative messages that were included. He concluded:

“The question that many of us will have is: how are you going to apply those very important principles about conscience, internal forum, not judging people, not throwing stones at people?”

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Jonathan Capehart

Jonathan Capehart of the Washington Post said the pope’s treatment of homosexuality “hues pretty closely” to paragraphs in the 2014 Synod’s midterm report that were celebrated for their positive approach but inspired quite a backlash. Capehart wrote:

“Sadly missing is this sentence: ‘Furthermore, the Church pays special attention to the children who live with couples of the same sex, emphasizing that the needs and rights of the little ones must always be given priority’. . .

“By talking about the humanity of gay and lesbian Catholics, Pope Francis is openly recognizing them as children of God. After centuries of demonization, that’s a revolutionary act that can’t be undone.”

Mary Hunt

Mary Hunt

Mary Hunt, theologian and co-director of WATER (Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics, and Ritual), criticized the text as “a study in ambiguity that gives new evidence for the use of the term “jesuitical.” She continued:

“Alas, the hetero monogamous ideal remains in place while lip service is paid to the remote possibility of other options. Clearly the input of lay people at the two Synods amounted to little or nothing. All in all, this is a missed opportunity for Pope Francis to demonstrate that there is anything new under the Vatican sun.”

Ryan Sattler

Ryan Sattler

Ryan Sattler of the LEAD Ministry (an LGBT outreach) at St. Matthew Catholic Church, and a board member of New Ways Ministry, told the Baltimore Sun

“As much as we love Pope Francis — he has changed the tone of conversation on so many issues — when you have real, deep substance and doctrine in the church that continues to hurt and marginalize people, changing the tone doesn’t do the job.”

Ken Briggs, writing at the National Catholic Reporter, said the effectiveness of Amoris Laetitia was hindered because its authorship precluded the voices of lay Catholics, including LGBT people, from sharing their wisdom and challenges:

“Despite the many eloquent and enlightening portions of the pope’s message, it still emanates from a place which practices no family life that resembles that of the laity, and loses much credibility accordingly. . .the analysis and prescription contents of the document operate entirely within the sometimes shadowy framework of defined doctrine. allowing for no valid concept of family life outside the narrow definitions of Catholic moral teaching. It precludes the possibility that other models might reflect the Creator’s purposes in yet other ways.”

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David Gibson

Beyond the document itself, David Gibson of Religion News Service set Amoris Laetitia within the ongoing process under Pope Francis from which the text emerged:

“But the larger reality conveyed by the document — and one that could unsettle Catholic traditionalists more than anything — is that the pope clearly wants the debates over church teachings and pastoral practices to continue and, perhaps, to continue to evolve. . .

“In other words, don’t look to Rome for the solution to every challenge, and don’t stop looking for ways to welcome anyone and everyone who feels alienated from the faith because their personal lives do not conform to the Catholic ideal. . .

“If that journey is part of the pilgrimage of faith, it is far from over. In fact, it may never be over.”

The journey to justice and equality for LGBT people in the Catholic Church is certainly not over. The reactions to and understandings of Amoris Laetitia and how it will impact the church are not over yet, either. Bondings 2.0 will, as always, keep our readers updated about the new document and its reception.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry


Priest Who Denied Communion to Same-Gender Couple Now Disrupts Parishioner’s Funeral

March 22, 2016
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St. Leo’s Catholic Church

A Montana priest’s disruption of a parishioner’s funeral recently has its roots in his denial of communion to a same-gender couple in the parish in 2014.

Almost two years ago, Fr.  Spiering, 29, denied Communion to Paul Huff and Tom Wojtowick because the two men had recently married. The pastor expelled them from parish ministries in which they had been active. Fellow parishioners at St. Leo’s Catholic Church in Lewistown protested the priest’s act at the time, including resignations by the church choir’s director and several members.

Earlier this month, at least three of those former choir members and director Janie Shupe were invited by the Valach family to sing at the funeral of Pearl Valach, a parishioner at the church for all of her 92 years. Ms. Valach had disagreed at the time with the priest’s decision to deny Communion to Huff and Wojtowick but remained in the church. Her daughter-in-law, Susan Valach, explained to the Great Falls Tribune:

“She was upset when the decision was made. . .She continued to be faithful to the church, but with pain in her heart.”

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Pearl Valach

Greg Clark, partner of Pearl’s son Frank Valach Jr. for twenty-plus years, said Pearl was so pained by the priest’s actions that she never spoke about it. But Greg, Frank, and other members of the Valach family left the parish after the communion denial. They said the decision to hold the funeral at St. Leo’s was painful, but did so to respect Pearl’s wishes.

When Valach’s loved ones and parishioners–more than 300 people–gathered for the funeral on the morning of March 8, he told Shupe she could not join the singers, but she could only participate at the funeral from her pew. Shupe explained:

” ‘It was mortifying. It was the most embarrassing thing. I could have stepped down, but at the same time I thought, “That’s ridiculous “. . .I can’t believe anyone in the right mind, let alone anyone who professes to love God, could do this.’ “

Fr. Dan O’Rourke, the parish’s former pastor who was invited to celebrate the funeral, defended Shupe’s right to lead singing. After he argued with Spiering about the decision, Spiering threatened to prevent O’Rourke from presiding at the funeral, and threatened to ban him from the parish. The family, however, refused to let their mother’s funeral be tarnished by Spiering’s continued exclusion. When Spiering informed Valach’s widower, Frank Valach, that the he would now celebrate the funeral Mass, the family rejected that offering and demanded Fr. O’Rourke. Susan Valach explained:

” ‘We immediately said, “Absolutely, no”. . .I went up to the choir and said we would cancel. Our family was so upset and finally (Spiering) agreed to leave. . .

” ‘As a family, we would like to let this go, but it isn’t right. . .It hurts all Christians because it’s not compassionate.’ “

Fr. Jay Peterson, vicar general for the Great Falls-Billings Diocese who was in attendance, presided at the funeral Mass. Peterson invited the women, including Janie Shupe, to lead the singing. Greg Clark said all involved were able to put aside the pre-funeral antics of Spiering for a “reverent, celebratory, and beautiful” liturgy. Clark wrote on his blog [editor’s note: he uses strong language in the blog post]:

“For the balance of the day our family basked in her glow. And there was no doubt that God was with us. Hence against all odds, our love for her conquered all. It wasn’t until later that evening that our angst and frustration over the morning’s events arose again. All must be told about the sins of that Father.”

But the incident — and the harm done — has not ended. This controversy continued to play out in the following weeks. Spiering commented on the incident before his homily at Mass on March 22, stating the he does not regret the decision he made but only the manner in which he made it. He attacked Fr. O’Rourke in his statement and promised St. Leo’s parishioners a new funeral policy to “prevent such problems” in the future. Spiering apologized to the Valach family in a one-liner at the end, but the family said neither the priest nor Bishop Michael Warfel had reached out to them since the funeral.

Fr. O’Rourke released his own statement, explaining that Spiering would not let the matter drop even though the funeral was set to begin in fifteen minutes and had threatened to ban him from the parish. The former pastor’s statement ended positively: “The singer/musician sang her heart out.”

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Tom Wojtowick and Paul Huff

Fr. Peterson, in his position as diocesan vicar general, defended Spiering’s actions as an exercise of his “canonical rights” despite it not being “the right pastoral decision.” Peterson said Bishop Michael Warfel was “very concerned” about the incident, which was described as an “unfortunate conflict.” Peterson, a longtime friend of the Valach family, said despite it being Holy Week he hoped “things can be dealt with sooner than later to bring healing and unity and peace” and would be involved if he could help, reported the Independent Record.

In the words of a Billings Gazette reporter:

“It was supposed to be a simple funeral for a woman who was a lifelong Catholic and a lifetime member of St. Leo the Great Catholic Church in Lewistown. . .Instead, it devolved into a disagreement that nearly derailed the rite and left family and friends confused and angry.”

Few incidents in the church hurt more than sacramental exclusion and interference. These incidents cause tremendous pastoral damage to those targeted  and those witnessing these The tragic nature of this funeral incident speaks for itself. Coupled with Spiering’s denial of Communion to a same-gender couple, this funeral fiasco should be enough for Bishop Warfel to question Fr. Spiering’s ministerial competencies and role in active ministry and in the priesthood altogether.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry


Beyond Being the Prodigal Child, We are Parent and Sibling, Too

March 6, 2016

 

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“The Prodigal Son Returns” by Soichi Watanabe

On the Sundays of Lent, Bondings 2.0 will feature reflections by New Ways Ministry staff members. The liturgical readings for the Fourth Sunday of Lent are: Joshua 5:9A, 10-12; Psalm 34: 2-7; 2 Corinthians 5:17-21; and Luke 15:1-3, 11-32. You can access the texts of these readings by clicking here.

The Prodigal Child is among Scripture’s most well-known parables. In today’s liturgy, its rich themes of forgiveness and reconciliation are enhanced by the readings from the book of Joshua  and 2nd Letter to the Corinthians with which it is paired.

Interpretations generally position the reader as the wayward child returned to the parent, hinting that we are lost disciples returned to God’s loving embrace. This applies to our interpersonal relationships when we find ourselves welcomed back into families and communities which we may have left

But what if we position ourselves as the parent, or even the elder sibling? Doing so complicates a calming parable, raising questions for us when we would rather bask in being the prodigal child welcomed home and celebrated.

For instance, if we are the parent, we have to ask ourselves if we run to meet those who have abandoned and even harmed us? Are we “filled with compassion” by their presence? Do we unreservedly organize a celebration when someone accepts returns after years of exile? As people existing at the church’s margins who have experienced the very real exclusion and  harm which some church ministers can inflict, is our response to other excluded people like the parent in this parable?

If we picture ourselves as the elder sibling, are we ready to acknowledge that we want some people in our lives to remain absent and even figuratively dead? Are we envious when others receive greater love or care in certain moments? When reconciliation happens in our church, would we rather the divisions and wounds remain because we have adjusted to them? Have we so rooted ourselves and our identities at the margins that progress becomes unwelcome?

Asking myself these questions raises truths I would rather ignore. I have to admit that that at times I have not wanted to forgive, never mind to celebrate, certain people who have passed through my life. I am comforted that seeking LGBT justice in the Catholic Church seems to be stable employment, given the depth of institutional and cultural homophobia in our community. I would rather be the prodigal child, welcomed and held, celebrated and held up, than practice the parent’s boundless compassion or admit the darkness I share with the elder sibling.

Thankfully, the lectionary sets this parable of the Prodigal Child within a context. The first two readings are reminders of that God fulfills promises. In the passage from Joshua, the Israelites celebrate the Passover as their forty years of wandering comes to an end. The unceasing manna which had sustained them dries up. God kept God’s promise. In 2 Corinthians, Paul speaks of the new creation brought about by God through Christ. Again, God kept God’s promise.

This context allows us to root ourselves in God, confident that God keeps the promise made by Jesus to be with us always. Knowing that God’s grace is operative in our lives, we know that when we do not love boundlessly or are ready to face our dark sides, we do not do so alone. We have God’s grace and we have one another, ambassadors of Christ in Pauline language, to mediate that grace to us. Lent is a time for conversion. My prayer today is that we may all come to know we are loved as the Prodigal Child, to know we must love as the parent, and to know that to love and be loved we must wrestle with our darkness as the elder sibling.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry


U.S. Catholics Overwhelmingly Reject LGBT Discrimination by State Legislatures

March 4, 2016

RuizNondiscrim.jpgMarriage equality’s legalization in the United States last year has prompted an anti-LGBT backlash at state and local levels. Bills ostensibly defending religious liberty  allow legal discrimination for opponents of equality. Conversely, ordinances to expand non-discrimination protections  for LGBT people face strong religious opposition. Where are Catholics amid these debates?

New polling from the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) shows 73% of U.S. Catholics support LGBT nondiscrimination protections, two points higher than the 71% U.S. average. 61% of Catholics oppose allowing business owners to deny service to LGBT people. Even those opposed to marriage equality are far more approving of non-discrimination protections, according to PRRI CEO Robert P. Jones.

This widespread Catholic support for civil rights is driven by strong support from the lay faithful. For instance, James Rowe, a Catholic who is and the executive director of Believe Out Loud, said it is the mission of LGBTQ Christians and allies to “mobilize love” when anti-LGBT religious groups seek to institutionalize their discriminatory theologies. Rowe reflected on his own Catholic faith in view of South Dakota’s HB 1008 which would have mandated students use restrooms and locker rooms according to their assigned at birth sex:

“The very idea behind this harmful law is discrimination, plain and simple—and discrimination has no place in Christianity.

“My Catholic teachings tell me that Jesus stood in solidarity with those who are most often bullied and ostracized by others—and I believe today, Jesus would have been in Pierre, South Dakota, standing at the steps of the Capitol building demanding that Governor Daugaard veto this harmful bill.”

Believe Out Loud joined LGBT, educational, and civil liberties organizations in delivering 80,000 signatures opposing the bill, which was thankfully vetoed by the governor earlier this week.

Buzzfeed reported at least 105 similar pieces of legislation at the state level which seek to curtail civil rights rooted in sexual and/or gender identity, or allow the denial of services to LGBT people. None have yet passed, but there is momentum in at least eight states.

Unfortunately, the church’s leadership differs from the faithful, despite Catholic teachings which say every sign of unjust discrimination must be opposed. South Dakota’s bishops, Robert Gruss of Rapid City and Paul Swain of Sioux Falls, released a letter expressing their support for HB 1008. Religious leaders’ opposition and legislators’ questionable coupling of Church and State can create a belief that LGBT and religious belief are at odds with one another in these debates. It is a frequent refrain here at Bondings 2.0 that Catholics support LGBT justice because of their faith and not in spite of it.

Mychal Copeland, who co-edited Struggling in Good Faith, an interfaith anthology about LGBTQI inclusion, challenges the idea that LGBT justice and religious belief are at odds.  In Copeland suggested that currently “every American religious tradition is engaged in a struggle about LGBT inclusion” and there are changes happening, even if quite slowly. He continued:

“[T]here is a prevailing assumption that individuals will hold anti-LGBT religious doctrine above other religious ideals. More and more religious leaders and lay people are prizing overarching principles of faith, such as compassion, love, dignity, and welcome over negative religious legislation. . .Americans are more likely to see that [LGBT] individual as someone who should be able to rent an apartment, keep a job, and even marry the one they love.”

Church teaching does not allow for discrimination, meaning it should be unthinkable that Catholics would support any “right to discriminate” bills or oppose nondiscrimination protections. Sadly, this is not the case. If church teaching does not suffice, then perhaps we need to appeal to the deeper love expected of Christians by Jesus. It is Jesus’ kind of love which led early Christian writer Tertullian to note how his pagan contemporaries said, “See how those Christians love one another.” Catholics are certainly supportive of LGBT communities because of this love, but we must keep working to ensure that our church and our Christian faith are not used any further to deny the civil rights due to LGBT communities.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry


Archbishop Admits Church’s Mistake in Supporting Reparative Therapy

March 1, 2016
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Archbishop Charles Scicluna

Malta’s top bishop acknowledged church leaders were mistaken when they released a controversial position paper designed to oppose a bill which seeks to make reparative therapy outlawed in the island nation.

Speaking to the Times of Malta, Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta said he “would not have simply released a position paper” about the reparative therapy bill knowing what he knows now.

The bill, entitled the Affirmation of Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity, and Gender Expression Act, seeks a “ban on professional conversion therapy” and an “outright ban on conversion therapy on vulnerable persons,” such as minors and those with disabilities. Professionals, such as therapists and ministers, and nonprofessionals, too, would face fines and jail time for engaging in or advertising reparative therapy if the bill is approved.

The Maltese bishops’ position paper stated, among a number of claims to draw heavy criticism, that the bill would privilege homosexuality and linked homosexual orientation to pedophilia. LGBT advocates and government officials were quick to condemn the eight-page document.

Drachma LGBTI and Drachma Parents Group, Malta’s leading LGBTI Christian organizations, said this position paper was a missed opportunity to build bridges, reported The Independent. The groups said in a statement that “LGBTIQ people who are living this reality” should have been included among the experts commissioned for the paper, adding:

“It would have been appropriate for the Church to dialogue with us about this delicate subject, especially after the significant gesture done by the Church when a few months ago it requested a member of Drachma to form part of the panel that prepared the Position Paper on the Embryo Act and to give a talk about LGBTIQ matters to the College of Parish Priests.

“We expected the Church not to miss out on an opportunity to build bridges with the LGBTIQ community by stating clearly that it is against conversion therapy, even though there might be certain elements in the bill that may require further clarification.”

The groups said the church should seek forgiveness from those subjected to reparative therapy, and  it should acknowledge the intense damage done to such victims, including spiritual damages.

Malta’s Prime Minister Joseph Muscat said he opposed “the fundamental concept that equates homosexuality to illness or pedophilia,” reported Gay Star News. Helena Dalli, the Minister of Social Dialogue, Consumer Affairs and Civil Liberties and sponsor of the bill, agreed and said the church’s position paper is “based on false premises,” reported Malta Today.

Mark Josef Rapa of We Are, a youth LGBTQQI organization, said the church’s position paper was unexpected and added that the position shows church leaders still believe “one can be cured from homosexuality,” , according to The Independent

The Malta Gay Rights Movement (MGRM) said, in a statement reported by the Times of Malta, the bill “simply seeks to ensure that all persons, whatever their sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression are valued equally.” MGRM noted the “serious prejudice towards bisexual persons” in the position paper, which suggested that such persons have difficulties being monogamous.

Among the other problems with the church’s position paper is that it described the bill as suffering “from a most basic and manifest discrimination,” as it would ostensibly allow conversion therapy for heterosexual people who would seek to become gay or bisexual. The paper, composed by Maltese academics in theology and law, claimed the bill ignores “grey areas of complex sexual orientations” and would bar those who seek to “curb his or her homosexual inclinations” because of a desire to be celibate or support a mixed-gender marriage. It attempted, too, a subtle critique of Malta’s Gender Identity, Gender Expression and Sex Characteristics Act, which became law in 2014 and is considered the gold standard for transgender protections in Europe.

Facing such sustained criticism from so many quarters, Archbishop Scicluna’s interview is a noteworthy admission that the church should have handled the reparative therapy legislation differently. He clarified:

“Any conversion therapy which forces someone to go against their decisions or their life choices is just a no go – a no go – and I want this to be absolutely clear.”

Pressed on this position, Scicluna said if experts say such therapies are “totally harmful then we should avoid it.” He said further that, given how pastorally sensitive this legislation is, the approach should have been “less technical and more pastoral.” In retrospect, he said, the church should “not have simply released a position paper,” and he added:

“The experience has taught me it is not enough, when discussing a Bill, to contribute to the debate only with the help of experts. You also need to factor in the impact on people’s emotions and the perception the document may create.”

Scicluna took responsibility for the position paper, saying that while it comes from Malta’s church leadership, he approved its publication. The paper also claimed the bill would violate a consenting adult’s “right to receive treatment,” reported the Times of Malta. Asked whether the bishops’ panel of experts who prepared the position paper should have included “somebody from the gay community,” the archbishop replied:

“It would have helped immensely to include people from Drachma in the preparation of the position paper because they have contributed in other papers and their contribution has been precious. When I asked Professor [Emanuel] Agius [who formed part of the panel of experts], he said that was something we could have done and we should have done, as was the case with another position paper we presented recently.”

Scicluna’s willingness to admit the bishops’ position paper was mishandled and misguided in its approach, if not in its substance, was complemented by his renewed commitment to dialogue with LGB people:

“But I feel I have to build bridges with the gay community who felt our language was too technical, too cold and too distant. . .I want to reassure them that we are dead set against conversion therapy because we believe, as they do, as government does, that it goes against human dignity.

“We do not subscribe to beliefs that describe gay people as sick. . .These are labels that demean them. And certainly we are not going to associate gay people with paedophilia.”

Commenting on the Jubilee Year of Mercy inaugurated by Pope Francis, Scicluna admitted, too, that in the church’s history “our actions and language have not been inclusive” at times, and this year bears a “message of compassion and inclusivity” to drive the church’s efforts.

The archbishop reaffirmed a desire for dialogue and for collaborative work in his ministry, describing his leadership style as “highly collegial. He said he prefers to consult advisors and host discussions before making decisions. More importantly, as is evident regarding the bishops’ position paper on reparative therapy, Scicluna reviews his decision and feels free to revise ineffective or incorrect ones.

Scicluna remarked, too, about the Catholic Church’s role in public life because of his outspoken leadership style in Malta. He said while people appreciate a church engaged in society, it must be a church “that accepts it is a voice among many others” because the church exists in “a pluralistic society.” Church leaders cannot pretend to have the last word on issues about which they speak, he concluded. Democratic environments requires that we “be able to discuss things with respect and not take matters personally.”

This interview in the Times of Malta, worth reading in full, adds to Archbishop Scicluna’s improving record on LGBT issues. He clearly opposes marriage equality. Before Malta approved civil unions, he joined other church leaders in opposing the law. But he apologized at the same time to lesbian and gay people whose lives had been made harder by the church. And Scicluna has defended the love which can exist between same-gender partners, saying in one interview that “Love is never a sin. God is love.” He refused to sanction a Dominican priest who blessed the rings of an engaged same-gender couple, exhorting the priest in a meeting to continue outreach to LGB people but to do so respectful of the church’s rites as they are presently understood.

Scicluna’s mixed but generally positive record led the Malta Gay Rights Movement to honor him at the LGBTI Community Awards in 2014, though the then-auxiliary bishop declined because he does not receive awards or honors for simply “doing his duty as Bishop.” He took part in events for the International Day Against Homophobia that same year.

The archbishop’s latest remarks about the reparative therapy bill and episcopal leadership help his record on LGBT issues to become even more positive. Malta’s church leaders submitted a position paper to the government and to the public which is not much different from other bishops’ statements on homosexuality. For this, they received sustained and intense criticism from many voices in the highly Catholic country. What is key here is the the deep humility which undergirds the type of “Francis Bishop” that Scicluna seems to be exemplifying. He is willing to listen and learn, to acknowledge his mistakes, to seek reconciliation, and to exist more comfortably than most bishops within life’s complexities.

One last regret expressed by Archbishop Scicluna in the interview was that he had not yet structured pastoral visits into his leadership. On Fridays, in his words, “the bishop has to be where suffering is and I have not managed to do that.” He seems to know there is much suffering at the church’s own margins, as well as at society’s margins. I hope Archbishop Scicluna will spend more Fridays cultivating relationships and building bridges with LGBT people and their loved ones so that pastorally harmful mistakes like the bishops’ position paper on reparative therapy will not happen in the future.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

 


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