Head of Catholic News Service Resigns After Right-Wingers Complain

April 16, 2016
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Tony Spence

The head of Catholic News Service (CNS), a news organization owned by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops,  has resigned, after being asked to do so by U.S. church leaders.

Tony Spence resigned on Wednesday as director and editor-in-chief of CNS, having served twelve years in that position. The National Catholic Reporter explained:

“Spence attended a regularly scheduled staff story meeting at 2 p.m. on Wednesday. Sometime later, after meeting with Msgr. J. Brian Bransfield, the general secretary of the bishops’ conference, Spence was escorted from the conference office building without being allowed to speak to his newsroom staff.”

A memo sent the same day from Chief Communications Officer James Rogers to CNS staff said Spence was “stepping down,” but the reasons behind his departure are more problematic. Spence, who colleagues describe as “shattered” by his resignation, faced criticism from right wing organizations for LGBT-related tweets he sent out during February, March, and April. Spence told NCR:

“The far right blogsphere and their troops started coming after me again and it was too much for the USCCB. . .The secretary general [of the U.S. bishops’ conference] asked for my resignation, because the conference had lost confidence in my ability to lead CNS.”

The tweets in question include Spence’s comments on state religious liberty laws targeting LGBT people, Catholic efforts to welcome trans people, and Italy’s debate over civil unions. A sampling of the tweets includes, as available from National Public Radio :

get flushed as NC governor signs bill over

“Stupid evidently contagious. Tennessee tries to join MS, NC, IN in passing pro-discrimination laws.”

“Italy postpones voting, at risk. Opposition from church cited.”

“Fascinating story from #LACongress: #TransgenderCatholics hope to build bridges in church”

Spence told America magazine he never expected that commenting on developing news stories would provoke the backlash it did. The right wing campaign included emails “urging his excommunication and calling him a traitor to the faith.”

Spence has been in Catholic journalism for three decades, serving the church at diocesan and national levels, as well as being a consultor to the Pontifical Council for Social Communications. Calling his time at CNS “the best 12 years of my professional life,” Spence will return to his home state of Tennessee and “start over.”

Tony Spence joins more than 60 church workers who have lost their jobs in LGBT-related disputes since 2008. His forced resignation is particularly troubling because it is another incident where right-wing Catholics were able to force a church worker out based upon trivial claims.

Last May, Rick Estridge resigned as a vice president at Catholic Relief Services (CRS) after a right-wing organization publicly released the gay church worker’s marriage license. Estridge resigned as an alternative to being fired after 16 years of celebrated service to CRS whose leadership refused to stand beside their longtime employee against the right-wing attacks.

Responding to right-wing trivial claims only encourages such operatives to continue their tactics. Tony Spence’s forced resignation is a concession to those who wish to harm LGBT people and any Catholics who stand with them.

My prayer now as Tony Spence resigns, as it was when Rick Estridge was forced out, is that as our church confronts attacks on its faithful workers, we may we all listen to Scripture’s most repeated theme: “Be not afraid!”

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

 

 

 

 


Irish Synod Approves Outreach Proposal to LGBT People, Others Hurt by Church

April 11, 2016
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Synod delegates listen to a speaker

Today, Catholic LGBT and ally pilgrims from the U.S. are bound for Ireland, sponsored by New Ways Ministry.   Sister Jeannine Gramick, New Ways Ministry’s Co-Founder, will be the spiritual leader of this pilgrimage group traveling to the “land of rainbows and wedding bells.” Once there, we will celebrate Ireland’s successful referendum last year that legalized marriage equality, as well as meeting with two Irish Catholic LGBT groups along the way.

We will arrive to good news out of Limerick, where Catholics just concluded a diocesan synod last night after 18 months of listening and of dialogue. Last weekend, 400 delegates gathered for the synod, which was described by Bishop Brendan Leahy as the “distilling of the wisdom of the listening that has gone on across the 60 parishes of our diocese of Limerick.”

Delegates considered 100 proposals about church teaching and practice that emerged from a listening process, which included meetings with 1,500 people and other input from more than 5,000 people. The Irish Times reported on one proposal related to LGBT Catholics:

“A proposal to reach out to those hurt by the church including women who have had abortions, members of the LGBT community and people who have spent time in church institutions was overwhelmingly supported on the first day of the synod.

“Some 52 per cent of the delegates ‘strongly supported’ the proposal with 38 per cent expressing more general support.”

Fr. Eamon Fitzgibbon, synod director, commented afterwards about the importance of recognizing the harm church leaders have caused LGBT people:

” ‘We are all too well aware of people who have been hurt by the church in the past. I suppose even most recently with the marriage equality referendum, a lot of people voiced hurt and concern, for example with how the LGBT community might have felt alienated.’ “

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Bishop Leahy, center, speaking with delegates

Before the synod met, Bishop Leahy acknowledged that the church must admit its wrongs in order to do “our part to repair and remedy.” He told The Irish Catholic:

“We need to acknowledge the failure and disappointment we see in our own wounds, those at the heart of the Church, in all that has not been right in the Church, in the complex situations of the world around us.”

Leahy told the Limerick Post that the synod was an opportunity to apologize to those hurt by the church and to reach out out them “as much as we can.” You can read more of the bishop’s worthwhile thoughts about why he called this synod and what impact it could have by clicking here.

This gathering was the first diocesan synod in Limerick in 80 years and the first in Ireland in 50 years. Beyond the six themes around which delegates conversed (Community & Sense of Belonging; Faith Formation; Pastoral Care of the Family; New Models of Leadership; Liturgy and Life; Young People), “universal issues” were considered such as LGBT issues and even the ordination of women.

Most delegates were lay Catholics, including a significant number of women, with clergy and religious numbering about 100. Bishop Charles John Brown, papal nuncio to Ireland, who bore an Apostolic Blessing for the event from Pope Francis, also attended. Synod Director, Fr. Fitzgibbons, noted that besides parish delegates, representatives from “education, healthcare, communities within the city, inter-faith delegates – Polish community, immigrant delegates” were included. Bishop Leahy described the process to the Limerick Leader:

“It was launched in 2014, and then opened up a whole journey of contacting and building bridges with all kinds of people, to discuss the future directions of our Diocese. That was step one. We now actually have the event itself, which will be for three very full days of deliberations, discussions, and that will be a very, very important moment.

“After that comes the actual making up of all that policy as it were; once the decisions are taken and recommendations are given to me, then I have the task of producing a programme for government – somebody used that image and there is an element of that about it – I have the task to make that policy and implement it basically.”

Bishop Leahy seems to respect Catholics’ voices, as he called this synodal process a “people-led journey” because the “the people decided what would be on the agenda and the people voted.”

The people of God in Limerick, led by Bishop Leahy, have offered a living witness for dioceses worldwide about how to listen to victims of the church’s violence, how to learn from the wisdom of Catholics’ lived realities, how to dialogue about sharp differences, and how to move forward in faith as one Body in Christ. More synods should begin this lengthy, but meaningful process by calling diocesan and national synods and enacting the localized governance called for by Pope Francis.

As Frank DeBernardo and I, your faithful bloggers, join other pilgrims in our journey across Ireland, celebrating equality and praising God in prayer, we will give thanks for the people of God in Ireland who have expanded LGBT rights in society and sought justice in the church. In a special way, we carry in our hearts and our minds all of you, our blog readers and New Ways Ministry supporters, who faithfully work each day for LGBT equality!

If you would like information about future pilgrimages, please send an email request, containing your postal address to info@NewWaysMinistry.org.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

 

 


Gay Ambassador Faces Harsh Letter from Bishops and Ban from Catholic School

March 30, 2016
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Ambassador James “Wally” Brewster

Religious leaders’ opposition to gay U.S. Ambassador James “Wally” Brewster is again intensifying in the Dominican Republic (DR), spearheaded by the actions of Catholic officials in the Caribbean nation.

In a mid-March statement, the Dominican Episcopal Conference (the organization of Catholic bishops in DR) condemned Ambassador Brewster, and they urged the nation’s government to complain formally about his appointment by the U.S. government. The bishops criticized “abuses” by Brewster since he arrived in 2013, saying the “sovereignty of the nation and its traditional values” is at stake.

The alleged violations of law and of protocol include visits to schools and youth events by the ambassador and his husband, Bob Satawake. Such visits are offensive to the bishops because the couple has “a family model that is incompatible” with the Dominican Constitution and the couple allegedly attempts to “confuse our youth.”

The bishops cited Pope Francis’ condemnations of “ideological colonization” to defend their criticism of Brewster, and Victor Grimaldi, the Dominican Republic’s Ambassador to the Holy See, sent the Conference’s statement to Pope Francis, according to Dominican Today. There is no comment thus far from either Pope Francis or the Holy See about this devolving situation in the Dominican Republic. Responding to the bishops’ statement, Brewster said in a radio interview reported by Buzzfeed:

“We’re promoting equality around the world. . .That’s not why we went to the school, but we’re not going to have people continue to condemn and try to keep Bob and I or anyone else in the closet because [sic] that’s not who we are — and we’re proud of who we are, and we’re proud of representing the values of making sure that people aren’t marginalized.”

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Signs outside San Juan Bautista

In a second incident, San Juan Bautista School in Santiago banned Brewster from its property. Officials posted at least three signs outside the school which read, “The entrance of the US Ambassador of the United States is not permitted in this institute.” They have since been defaced by LGBT activists and were then removed for Holy Week. The school’s director, Fr. Manuel Ruiz, defended the signs,reported Dominican TodayRuiz told a radio interviewer he had the right to put up signs on private property and that “[Brewster’s] presence and of his partner in a school isn’t innocent.”

Finally, a petition launched by the Dominican Council of Evangelical Unity, a Protestant coalition, which asks President Barack Obama to remove Ambassador Brewster has gained 32,000 signatures.

In response to the criticism of the ambassador, public figures and organizations in the U.S. and the in the Dominican Republic have come to Brewster’s defense against these religious attacks. The Human Rights Campaign released a statement supporting Brewster, and one of their board members said it was “deeply concerned” by the religious leaders’ actions. HRC President Chad Griffin invoked the pope when he reiterated that support in the Blade, saying:

” ‘It’s time Pope Francis spoke out against this campaign of hate being perpetrated by Catholic Church leaders.’ “

Rosanna Marzan, director of Diversidad Dominican, an LGBT equality group, said the issues referenced by the ambassador’s critics are “a smokescreen to cover up other issues.” Her remarks were backed by Cristian King of Trans Siempre Amigos, another Dominican LGBT organization.

In the last few months, the White House and the State Department have been clear that they fully support Ambassador Brewster. Last week, 61 congresspeople signed a letter to the Dominican Republic’s president, Danilo Medina, affirming their support for Brewster and his work to “advance universal human rights,” reported the Washington BladeThese politicians and others are using the hashtag #ImWithWally to express their support. Illinois Senator Dick Durbin, a Catholic, previously wrote to Pope Francis asking  him to intervene in attacks against Brewster, who is Durbin’s friend.

Brewster himself has been diplomatic but firm in rebutting Catholic leaders’ criticism and promoting LGBT human rights. In an interview with Michael Lavers of the Washington Blade, he commented on Cardinal López’s repeated homophobic comments:

“The disappointing thing for me is that I don’t see that as something that you’re hearing from the leader of the Catholic Church in Rome. . .I would hope that the Vatican — as we would not do that with their officials — would understand and condemn those types of words to any official with any government. . .”

Brewster said, too, that the attacks against him and his husband have prompted many Dominican citizens to express their support for marginalized LGBT communities:

“It’s a great social conversation that needed to happen and I think its happening now. . .It’s rising the level of those who bully and perpetuate prejudices in areas for all marginalized groups and it’s allowing them to be seen for who they are.”

While these incidents may indeed be increasing visibility of and support for LGBT justice in the Dominican Republic, Catholic officials’ participation in the homophobic attacks must cease immediately. What is happening in the Dominican Republic against Ambassador James Brewster and his husband demands ecclesial action.

Cardinal Nicolas de Jesus López Rodriguez, the leading prelate in the DR, has previously said Brewster was “wife to a man” and should stick to housework. In 2013, López used an anti-gay slur to refer to the ambassador , and he said Brewster should “take his gay pride elsewhere.”  The Washington Blade reported that López once described LGBT tourists as “social trash” and “degenerates.” Cardinal López’s remarks made Bondings 2.0’s lists of Worst Catholic LGBT News in both 2013 and 2015.

Cardinal López’s anti-gay leadership has harmed the Dominican hierarchy and other clergy.  Pope Francis should immediately accept his letter of resignation submitted four years ago on López’s 75th birthday. As Bondings 2.o previously argued, Pope Francis’ direct involvement in the local church would not undermine his efforts towards decentralized power in the Catholic Church. It would be a necessary action to cull some Catholic leaders’ overt prejudice. Dominican Catholics should use the Year of Mercy to promote greater respect for and inclusion of LGBT communities, as a way to undo some of the damages recently inflicted.

–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


North Carolina Bishop Cancels Charity Fundraiser Over Gay Entertainer

March 12, 2016
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Kat Williams, right, with her partner

A Catholic fundraising event in Asheville, North Carolina, has been cancelled because of an invited performer’s sexual orientation.

The Diocese of Charlotte postponed indefinitely the 2016 Gala for Hope, a major annual event to support Catholic Charities, because singer Kat Williams, who had been scheduled to entertain there, is a married gay woman. Williams, who performed the last two years at this Gala, explained on Facebook:

“On March 1, 2016 I was notified by Gerry Carter ( Executive Director Catholic Charities Charlotte) that per Bishop Peter Jugis (Charlotte Diocese) that my services were not needed at the Asheville Gala of Hope March 12, 2016 ( a fundraising event I’ve performed at for the last 2yrs.). When I asked ‘Why?’, Gerry’s silence was deafening. I asked him just to be honest with me. He stated Bishop Jurgis read an article in Verve Magazine where I said ‘I have been married to my partner for seven years’ and for that reason the Bishop will not need my services.”

A statement from the Diocese downplayed the reason that Williams said she was given, saying the postponement was needed to “focus our energies on the task which is our charge,” namely providing social services. Communications Director David Hains later told WLOS that because Williams is in a same-gender marriage, it “makes it inappropriate for her to perform for us” and the Diocese is simply “exercising that right” to represent its faith.

Williams was increasingly hurt as her expulsion set it, writing on Facebook:

“I’m hurt and saddened! . . .This is the first time I’ve been fired from a performance solely based on who I chose to love. There are two things in my life I didn’t choose, to be Black and to be gay! I am proud to be both and want our North Carolina religious community to stand with the teachings of Christ – love, forgiveness, tolerance and inclusion.”

The singer expressed worry about what message the bishop’s action sent to LGBT people in the Catholic community. She asked supporters, many of whom have promised to boycott the Gala if its rescheduled and withhold donations to Catholic Charities, to respond positively by donating to LGBT organizations and inviting Bishop Jugis to her church: Unity on the Blue Ridges. Williams affirmed, too, the good work that Catholic Charities does and asked people to continue donating there.

Given her response, columnist John Boyle wrote a very true and telling line about Williams in the Charlotte Citizen-Times:

“In this whole upheaval, Williams has sounded more Christian — Christ-like, if you will — than the church to me.”

Bondings 2.0 has covered a string of incidents in the Diocese of Charlotte that have been motivated by opposition to LGBT issues. These have included two teacher firings, a Dominican nun’s anti-gay lecture to high school students, and banning Sr. Jeannine Gramick from speaking to Catholic parents on church property. This latest incident is not surprising, but it is shocking that the bishop has chosen to prioritize discrimination over aiding those who benefit from Catholic Charities. Or, in other words, Jugis prioritized ritual laws over the needs of human beings —an action often condemned in the gospels.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

 


L.A. Religious Education Congress Hosts Workshop on Transgender Catholics

March 10, 2016

religiousedcongress20161Nearly 40,000 people attend the Los Angeles Religious Education Congress each year, and this year two transgender Catholics were among those attending after being invited to share their stories. Crux reported:

“. . . [E]vent organizers this year took a cue from popular culture and included a new session, one that attracted a standing room only crowd of 750 people, nearly all of whom jumped to their feet for a sustained round of applause after talks from two young, committed Catholics.”

The two Catholics who spoke during the workshop, titled “Transgender in the Church: One Bread, One Body,” were Matteo Williamson and Anna Patti.

Williamson, 24, spoke about being raised Catholic and the mixed experiences he has had in the church. But under Pope Francis’ leadership, Williamson believes “there’s been a change among people in general to understand something that they maybe haven’t encountered before.”

Patti, 23, spoke too about being trans and Catholic, too. You can read a transcript of her remarks by clicking here. She told Crux afterwards:

” ‘Catholic spirituality and the Catholic tradition can provide more nourishment, and also more sense into the trans experience, than anything else I’ve encountered.’ “

The problem, in her estimation, is that the church in the U.S. is too invested in politics, specifically anti-LGBT work, which turns an ideal setting “into the worst place imaginable.” Too many LGBT people have been hurt by the church or understand it to be a transphobic institution, so they refuse to explore faith. But the session at the L.A. Congress was an “unexpectedly affirming experience” for Patti, who told Crux:

” ‘I hadn’t realized how silenced I felt within the Church. . .At Mass I always sit in the back row in the back corner, making myself as visibly small as possible. Here was the opposite, where people wanted to learn about an issue that is so often immediately condemned.’ “

Explaining the decision to host a session on gender identity, Fr. Christopher Bazyouros who directs the Archdiocese of Los Angeles’ office of religious education, which is the sponsor of the Congress, said:

” ‘There aren’t many places for Catholics to discuss these things that are thoughtful, intentional, and that gathers people who have had this experience. . .Many Catholics want information about this topic, they want things to help them understand this situation.’ “

Bazyouros also cited Pope Francis’ desire for people to encounter one another, saying conversations begin more easily from the sharing of personal stories. Based on responses, it seems the session received widespread approve. Laura Wagner, who works at a Catholic high school, said she attended to learn more, and the session gave her “a lot of hope for the future of the Church.” Kevin Stockbridge, a graduate student, said it was good for trans Catholics to speak out because too often the issue is silenced.

Williamson and Patti were clear that, moving forward, no one is expecting that people become experts on gender identity. Instead, they called for a focus on acceptance and love, with Patti saying that “it comes down to, are you willing to accept another human being, a child of God?”

As the church grapples with gender identity issues in their many facets, this conversation at the L.A. Congress is a major step forward towards building up faith communities inclusive of people of all genders.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry


New Show, “The Real O’Neals,” Features Gay Child in Catholic Family

March 9, 2016
BEBE WOOD, MATT SHIVELY, NOAH GALVIN, JAY R. FERGUSON, MARTHA PLIMPTON

The cast of “The Real O’Neals”

“The Real O’Neals,” ABC’s latest comedy series which premiered last week, features a gay child coming of age in a Catholic family as a prominent storyline.

Entertainment Weekly called the show, which airs Tuesday nights, “a sometimes sentimental, sometimes silly half-hour about a family trying out honesty — and, as a result, acceptance” by . It features an Irish Catholic family in Chicago that is seemingly perfect, but struggles imperfectly with life’s realities like the parents’ impending divorce.

“The Real O’Neals” is loosely based upon the adolescence of columnist and LGBT advocate Dan Savage, who serves as an executive producer for the show. The foremost plot line is the coming out of youngest son Kenny and his pious mother’s ambivalent reaction, reported the Chicago Sun Times. Martha Plimpton, who plays mother Eileen, commented on the particular storyline:

” ‘One of my favorite things about our writers is how they are exploring this boy’s coming-out and experiences as a young gay man. It is all about how universal they are. The experience of puberty, or falling in love for the first time, or finding a date for the prom, or knowing what you like, or knowing who strikes your fancy. . .The fact that he’s a young gay kid experiencing all these normal rites of passage really delights me.’ “

Plimpton expressed hope that the show can use humor to address challenging contemporary issues such as LGBT family members, providing a forum for discussion of topics that may be uncomfortable for some. She highlighted the tragic reality that many LGBT youth are still rejected by their families and far too many to experience homelessness as a result, concluding:

” ‘We have a responsibility — as citizens, but also as people making this show — to respect that reality and offer people a way to talk about this and acknowledge their fears and weaknesses in a way that is loving.’ “

Plimpton’s character, though, is not necessarily an affirming figure for her gay son, paralleling Savage’s own mother with whom he was close but who struggled with his coming out “because of her faith and her fear for the fate of his immortal soul.” Plimpton told Bustle that rather than mocking Catholicism, the show laughs at failures and weaknesses as a way to advance love and acceptance.She said religious parents’ resistance can be “buffered by the love of your child.”  It is worth noting that four of the show’s eight writers are Catholic.

Conservative groups failed in an attempt to have the show cancelled when its broadcast was announced last spring. What may sink the show are critics’ mixed reviews, which have suggested that the show’s treatment of homosexuality is dated. For instance, The New York Times’ review stated:

“[The show] wants desperately to be the brash new sitcom that talks forthrightly about subjects that had been taboo. And a decade or two ago it might have been. Now, though, it’s just the guest who arrives late to the party, blundering in loudly and clumsily. . .Yes, there are still plenty of closeted teenagers and plenty of parents as clueless as the two O’Neals, but in 2016 that no longer seems like an occasion for lowbrow laughs.”

More positively, Slate’s review lauded “The Real O’Neals” for advancing representations of gay people on television and explained:

“If you want to measure how far TV representations of queer people have come since Will & Grace’s attractive gay leads spent entire seasons without any romantic action, please note that on ABC’s new sitcom The Real O’Neals, only six episodes elapse between 16-year-old Kenny O’Neal’s coming out and his first gay date. . .And before the season is over, Kenny will have his first gay kiss and go to prom with a boy.”

The Atlantic’s review was hopeful, too, that this comedy, which deals with darker issues in a sitcom’s typical “bouncy, upbeat style,” would fulfill its potential. The Washington Post said Catholicism is not the “butt of the joke,” but a device to reveal “an endearing story about a family that loves and supports one another.”

I watched the first two episodes, and from those shows, I think that charges that “The Real O’Neals” is anti-Catholic are unsubstantiated. There were jokes about bingo nights and contraception, but these came across less as offensive and more as just tired.

There is potential for the show to engage Kenny’s sexual identity in meaningful ways. It has not happened yet as the show’s treatment of this issue is too exaggerated and not clever.

The realities of Catholic families with LGBT members are sacred and complex, and there is certainly humor to be found in the struggles and in the celebrations such families experience. Whether “The Real O’Neals” can capture these realities or will stick to tired stereotypes remains to be seen.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

 


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