Cardinal’s Friendship with Gay Man “Melted Away” Prejudices

June 18, 2016
Red Ribbon Celebration Concert

Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, left, and Gery Keszler

A top cardinal’s words during an HIV/AIDS fundraiser reveals the power of personal encounter to break down barriers and grow in mutual understanding–a good lesson for many bishops when it comes to LGBT people.

Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna appeared last week at the “Red Ribbon Celebration,” a  Viennese charity concert which supports people living with HIV/AIDS. To the surprise of many, he appeared onstage alongside Gary Keszler, a gay man who founded “Life Ball,” Europe’s largest HIV/AIDS charity. Global Pulse reported that cardinal spoke about “our shared humanity”:

“[Schönborn] underlined how important it was to discard prejudices, avoid thinking in categories and dialogue with people as people. . .

” ‘I am not the Catholic Church and Gery Keszler is not the Life Ball. We are first and foremost human beings. . .I said on the stage that I was presumably the only person in the Burgtheater (that evening) who has prejudices. I do have prejudices but they have melted away.’ “

What melted Schönborn’s prejudices was his friendship with Keszler, who lives with HIV. The two met at an event hosted by mutual friends and found their personalities aligned well. Global Pulse continued:

“The cardinal described [Keszler] as someone who has an eye for people who are having a hard time and are in a bad way, something the Austrian church leader said he very much appreciated. . .Cardinal Schönborn later explained on Facebook that he had had several ‘very moving’ talks with Mr Keszler in recent months.”

These talks led Keszler to invite the cardinal to the Red Ribbon Celebration. According to GGGthe activist later said of their appearance together, “Today a great thing has happened. . .It will reach the Vatican and the world.”

Hopefully, their witness as friends transcending differences will reach the world. Too many church leaders have been unwilling to even meet with LGBT people and their families, never mind share a meal and keep conversations going over time. This posturing has led bishops to be deficient in even the most basic knowledge of LGBT people’s realities, as my colleague Francis DeBernardo noted in his commentary on the U.S. bishops’ failings after the massacre at an LGBT nightclub in Orlando last Sunday.

But the cardinal’s words on stage reveal the power that simple gestures and intentional encounters can have, melting away prejudice and building shared understandings. If only more church leaders would engage with the humility and the concern expressed by Schönborn, who knows where our church could move on LGBT acceptance?

This event is not the cardinal’s first supportive act towards the LGBT communities. Last September, in an interview, he called a close friend’s same-gender relationship “an improvement” as they share a life together, even if it is considered irregular by the church. Speaking at the Extraordinary Assembly of the Synod on the Family in 2014, Schönborn spoke about a same-gender couple that “was saintly” because of their love and care for one another. He has previously expressed support for civil unions, and in 2012 reinstated a gay man to a parish council after the local pastor had rejected him.

As we conclude a particularly challenging week which saw 49 LGBT people murdered in Orlando and church leaders’ failing to respond pastorally to the tragedy, the friendship of Christoph Schönborn and Gary Keszler is a sign of hope. One way to begin moving forward is for LGBT Catholics, families, and allies to contact our bishops and ask for meetings so the grace of encounter can do its work.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry


Archbishop Admits Church’s Mistake in Supporting Reparative Therapy

March 1, 2016
scicluna

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

 


Bishop’s Insensible Remarks Reveal the Great Need for LGBT Dialogue

March 10, 2015

The greatest evidence that bishops need to have more dialogues with LGBT people is in the insensible remarks these prelates make regarding sexuality.

Last week, we pointed out how Ireland’s Bishop Kevin Doran made an uneducated remark about how gay people can already get married–just not to each other.   This week, Bishop Doran, of the Elphin Diocese, made an equally uninformed statement when he compared homosexuality to Down’s Syndrome or spina bifida.

Doran was a guest on Ireland’s NewsTalk Breakfast radio program discussing the nation’s upcoming referendum on marriage equality. RawStory.com captured part of the dialogue:

“The radio host asked the bishop people being born gay was ‘as God intended.’

“ ‘That would be to suggest that some people are born with Down’s syndrome or spina bifida, that that was what God intended,’ Doran opined. ‘The thing about it is, I can’t see it in the mind of God.’

“ ‘The things you mentioned are disabilities,’ the host pointed out. ‘Your sexual orientation is not a disability.’

“ ‘Well, I’m not entering into that,’ Doran replied. ‘I’m just saying it would be wrong to suggest that everything that happens, happens because God intended it. If that were the case, we’d be talking about a very different kind of God.’ “

[You can listen to the interview by clicking here.]

It is somewhat embarrassing for Catholics to have to have a radio interviewer point out to a bishop that his analogy is incorrect. Moreover, Doran’s remark seems predicated on the premise that people with Down’s Syndrome or spina bifida are somehow “less than” other people.  I don’t know people with spina bifida, or their friends and family members, react to this.  As someone who has a Down’s Syndrome relative, I know that he was sent to us by God.

Furthermore, the bishop fails to see that the magisterium’s approach to homosexuality codes it as a moral category, not simply a biological one.  That is not something it does with other biological manifestations. If homosexuality and Down’s Syndrome or spina bifida were truly comparable, then why doesn’t the magisterium remove the moral shadow it places over people’s attractions to those of their gender.

Most egregious in Doran’s comments, though, is the implication that he is somehow able to understand what God intends for a person.  I think that understanding God’s intentions for the life of a person is something that borders on mystery. Or, at the very least,  it is something which can be understood only by the person, through prayer and discernment, not by an outsider.

That is where dialogue comes into play.  Open, honest, candid conversations between bishops and LGBT people would help bishops better appreciate what many LGBT people understand so intimately: that they have been wonderfully made by God; that they experience their sexuality as a way of drawing into more intimate relationship with another human being and with the Source of Life and Love; that their gender identity allows them to see the world, other people, and God in new and life-giving ways.

Bishops will not learn about such realities from a book.  They will only learn about it from faith-filled discussions with real people.

Bishop Doran should start such conversations before he says another word about marriage equality or LGBT people.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

 


QUOTE TO NOTE: LCWR on Dialogue and Respecting Differences

August 19, 2014

computer_key_Quotation_MarksAs this morning’s post explained, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious’ (LCWR) recent meeting focused on the important topic of how to respond to the Vatican’s directive that their important decisions be overseen by the Archbishop Peter Sartain, who was appointed to this position by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF).

The LCWR leadership released a statement in which they said they will continue respectful dialogue with the Vatican concerning the directive.  In that statement, they reflected beautifully on the need for dialogue and respect for differences in our Church:

“We will continue in the conversation with Archbishop Sartain as an expression of hope that new ways may be created within the church for healthy discussion of differences. We know that thousands of persons throughout the country and around the world long for places where they can raise questions and explore ideas on matters of faith in an atmosphere of freedom and respect. We believe that the ongoing conversations between CDF and LCWR may model a way of relating that only deepens and strengthens our capacity to serve a world in desperate need of our care and service.”

May it ever be so!

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry


Reflections On Vatican II and LGBT Issues–Part 1: Dialogue

December 27, 2012

2012 marked the 50th anniversary of the opening of Vatican II.  As we’ve noted before, the Second Vatican Council was instrumental in laying the groundwork that allowed a discussion of LGBT issues in the church to develop.

Earlier this year, theologian Richard Gaillardetz wrote an insightful essay in America magazine marking this important anniversary.  Gaillardetz identified three crucial dynamics at the Council that allowed it to emerge as the transformative experience it was for the church.  In three separate posts, I’d like to examine those three dynamics and reflect on how they apply to LGBT issues in the church today.  (The next two posts will appear here in the coming week.)

dialogueThe first dynamic Gaillardetz idenitifies is “the catholicity of dialogue.”  He observes:

“During the four sessions of the council, bishops were introduced to other prelates from diverse countries and continents, who looked at key pastoral and theological issues from strikingly different perspectives. One of the more felicitous decisions of the council concerned the seating of bishops in the aula (the nave of St. Peter’s Basilica where the main meetings of the council were conducted). The bishops were seated in order according to episcopal seniority rather than by region. This created the circumstances in which an Italian bishop, for example, might sit next to a bishop from Africa.

“This arrangement made possible a fruitful exchange of diverse perspectives and insights. Indeed, some of the most important work of the council was accomplished at the coffee bars (nicknamed after two Gospel characters, Bar-Jonah and Bar-Abbas) kept open behind the bleachers in the aula. Bishops, after struggling to stay awake during one mind-numbing Latin speech after another, found respite at these coffee bars and often engaged in frank conversation about a variety of topics. It was the sustained, face-to-face conversation and sharing of diverse experiences that opened episcopal eyes to new possibilities. These conversations were further facilitated by informal gatherings of bishops like the 22 bishops who met regularly at the Domus Mariae hotel and were committed to encouraging a more wide-ranging deliberation than was possible within the aula. These bishops met weekly to discuss topics being considered by the council. . . .

“It was the many opportunities for discussion and debate, both formal and informal, that allowed the bishops to discern the impulse of the Spirit.”

What a remarkable opportunity for the church!  Bishops actually had the opportunity to dialogue with one another, to share perspectives and test their ideas against what others think.

From so many hierarchical statements today on LGBT issues, one gets the idea that the bishops are not talking even with one another.  Instead, they seem to be listening to and repeating only statements that come from the Vatican.  Our church is clearly the poorer for this situation.

Bishops–and our entire church–need more opportunities like Vatican II to dialogue, particularly in the area of LGBT issues.  LGBT topics are a relatively new topic for examination and discussion in both society and the world.  It was only after the mid-point of the 20th century that even secular society began to slowly discuss these topics.  Clearly, LGBT topics are among those that needed the fresh air that Pope John XXIII discussed when he announced the Council as an opportunity to open the windows of the church.

Several bishops have told me personally that these days bishops rarely discuss ideas with one another in informal settings.  They, sadly, have few opportunities to test out ideas and theories with one another in free and open situations.  Only staleness could thrive in such a context.

For LGBT issues, and for all issues related to sexuality, bishops need to dialogue with more than one another.  Since all bishops are vowed celibates,  if they only speak with one another, they will only hear part of the necessary conversation. They need to hear the lived faith experiences of people involved in public and loving sexual relationships.

While it may take a long time to end the culture of silence and non-discussion that infects our current hierarchy,  we can foster that spirit of dialogue by starting conversations on LGBT issues on the grassroots level.  Start programs of dialogue and education on LGBT issues  in your parish or faith community if you can.  If you are unable to do that,  then raise LGBT issues whenever possible:  in social justice committee meetings, education  committee meetings, pastoral outreach meetings, evangelization meetings–wherever there is an opportunity to do so.

I know that in many quarters in the church  there is an unhealthy silence about LGBT issues.  We need to end that silence by addressing these issues whenever and wherever we can in ways that will not alienate those we are trying to engage in dialogue.    If we begin the dialogue in small ways in our home communities, then the larger dialogue that is needed in our church, and that Vatican II modeled for us, can become a reality.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry


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