U.K. Bishops’ Voting Guide Reveals Pope Francis’ Influence

Conversations on marriage and family initiated by Pope Francis have opened doors within the church for families which are considered “non-traditional” by church leaders. But could the pope’s shift to mercy and inclusion in church discussions be having public policy implications as well? There is good evidence from the United Kingdom that the answer is yes.

Screen Shot 2017-05-16 at 9.57.59 AMLike many episcopal conferences, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales (CBCEW) released a voting guide ahead of the U.K.’s general election this June. These guides generally include both guiding principles and specific political positions, which too frequently are reduced to the bishops’ opposition to abortion and to LGBT rights.

It is therefore highly significant that CBCEW’s guide omits commentary on LGBT rights altogether, and poses questions rather than dictating positions on issues which are taken up.

Pope Francis is quoted extensively throughout the two-page document. Among the key principles the bishops draw from the pope are Francis’ words, “We love this human family with all its tragedies and struggles.” The bishops then commented:

“The family is the basic model by which we think of humanity, for the family is indeed the fundamental unit of the human race and therefore to be protected and nurtured. The practical expression of this love is mercy and compassion, extended especially at times of illness, homelessness, bereavement, violence and desolation.”

What follows are brief issue-specific sections,  which have just a line or two of commentary before asking questions of the voter, who is asked to make a conscience decision. This method of engagement is very much in keeping with Pope Francis’ message in Amoris Laetitia that church ministers are called to form consciences, not replace them.

In the section, “Issues on Family and Life,” the bishops ask the question: “What policies do your candidates propose for the flourishing of family life?” Where too many bishops worldwide have in the last decade reduced family concerns to opposing marriage equality, CBCEW’s membership recognizes that public policy needs to be protecting families against actual problems they are facing.

In the section, “Freedom of Religion and Belief,” the bishops look outward to the protection of all religious minorities currently facing danger because of their beliefs. There are no claims that expanding LGBT rights are persecuting Christians in the U.K., claims which the U.S. bishops continue to make quite vocally about their own context.

The voting guide is not proof that the British bishops have changed their beliefs about marriage equality nor does it suggest they will soon become leading advocates of LGBT non-discrimination. Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster (London), who has a positive record on LGBT issues and even said recently he “rejoiced” in the growing acceptance of LGBT people, has said the Magisterium will remain “obstinate” in its opposition to marriage equality.

It is, however, proof that the style and tone of the U.K.’s bishops have begun to more closely mirror Pope Francis’ example. They are focusing on significant injustices in today’s world like migration, care for creation, and human trafficking, and by doing so, are setting aside “culture war” issues. In the church, such changes are not superficial: they are quite substantive.

The guide is also further proof that church teaching does evolve.  Instead of explicitly changing teachings, bishops can simply fail to mention them and then ultimately “forget” these teachings to history. English bishops endorsed civil partnerships for same-gender couples in 2011. They are now letting go of any vocal opposition to civil marriage equality. Perhaps they can now become positive voices for LGBT human rights in a global context.

Going forward, it will be interesting to see if bishops’ conferences elsewhere, in their function as political actors, will come to mirror Pope Francis’ model and vision more closely.

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, May 29, 2017

After Trans Student Shot, Catholic School Shifts Course

A British Catholic school is attempting to make itself a safer space after a transgender girl student was shot with a BB gun by another student. Though the school has responded with some positive steps, this horrifying incident is a reminder of the urgency with which Catholic education needs to become safer for LGBT students.

safe-schools_0A transgender girl in Manchester, England, was shot by a classmate after months of severe bullying, and just two days after the girl’s mother met with school officials about a previous bullying incident.

G, a pseudonym for the 11-year-old girl, had endured five months of harrassment and threats, according to her mother, identified as A. Gay Star News reported:

“Last Monday, G’s mother A was called into school following a ‘distressing’ incident [wherein students had written a series of anti-transgender slurs on her notebook, which we have chosen to omit here]. . .

“The previous day, A said she had sent an email to staff about the escalating bullying. While she was bullied a little at primary, it got a lot worse when she joined secondary school. And she believes that email was ignored.

“‘Pupils have thrown water over her, spat at her, and kicked her to the ground. Not a day goes by without her being attacked, insulted or threatened with violence,’ her mother said.”

A said she told school officials that “something bad was going to happen,” and she faulted them for doing little to intervene against the bullying. When G was shot, her mother said the school did not notify A for over an hour. When she arrived at school, A found her daughter “extremely quiet, just shaking and not speaking.”

Though the physical harm was minimal, the emotional wounds of these incidents have left G in pain. She is unable to sleep because of nightmares, and she has vocalized thoughts about suicide. The family is seeking supports for her. A explained that it has been very clear since her daughter’s coming out that they would need to work hard to ensure G does not become one of the many transgender youth who die prematurely from violence or by suicide.

The Catholic school, which has gone unnamed in news reports, is now taking steps to educate students and staff towards creating a safer environment, reported the Manchester Evening News. The headteacher said the student who fired the BB gun has been expelled. In a statement, the headteacher said:

“The victim is a transgender pupil and sadly there have been incidents of bullying before this latest incident. We have worked with our pupils to respect and accept people of different sexual orientation and identities and will continue to do this. We have enlisted the support of a national organisation to help us further with our training of staff and pupils and support for our transgender pupils. We have met with the parents of the pupil to apologise and to see what we can do further as a school.”

These efforts have included inviting Stonewall, an LGBT organization in England, to do trainings for members of the school community. But school officials should not stop there or lessen their commitment to LGBT students. The mother was clear that the intense bullying G experienced is because of her gender, saying, “It is a hate of who she is and it is awful.”

At least one other British Catholic school has worked with Stonewall, the United Kingdom’s leading LGBT equality group, to make schools safer.  As Bondings 2.0 noted when we reported this news in 2013, such a relationship between a religious group and a secular group is a model for how the Church and the LGBT community could work together.

On a related note, a transgender student Mason Catrambone, who was rejected by a Catholic high school in New Jersey last year, recently began classes at a public school that welcomes him.

During National Catholic Schools Week in January, we featured an Australian gay man who thanked his Catholic school for helping him come out and feel affirmed. While this is not the experience of many LGBT Students, and certainly G has suffered greatly at a Catholic school, it is helpful to remember that the church’s education programs can be a source of tremendous good if done in welcoming and affirming ways.

For now, let us pray that G finds healing and can return, as she hopes to do, to her Catholic school — a place where, increasingly, every student is safe, welcomed, and affirmed.

New Ways Ministry’s Eighth National Symposium, “Justice and Mercy Shall Kiss:  LGBT Catholics in the Age of Pope Francis.” will include a focus session on, “Youth, Young Adult Ministry, and LGBT Questions,” led by campus minister and researcher Michael Maher.  We will also host a focus session on “Transgender and Intersex Identities and the Family,” featuring Deacon Ray Dever, Lexi Dever, and Nicole Santamaria. The symposium is scheduled for April 28–30, 2017, in Chicago.  For more information, click here.

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, February 9, 2017

Catholic School Apologizes to, Accommodates Transgender Student

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Lily Madigan

A Catholic school which had suspended a transgender student for wearing a uniform consistent with her gender has apologized and implemented new accommodations.

St. Simon Stock Catholic School in Kent, England, apologized to student Lily Madigan. The school said in a letter that she may wear a female uniform and use female restrooms and locker rooms, reported the Daily Mail.

Madigan was sent home and threatened with suspension in March for wearing the “wrong uniform,” having worn a female uniform to school as part of her transition. School officials told the student she would not only be forced to wear a male uniform, but would have to use male restrooms and be called by her legal name, Liam. Madigan said wearing a female-appropriate uniform as part of her transition “made me feel so happy, until I was sent home,” and told Buzzfeed:

” ‘It made me feel that something was wrong with me. You think maybe you’re the problem. It’s alienating. You think school is supposed to be there for you and when that happens it breaks your trust.’ “

A meeting with Madigan, wearing the male uniform, her mother, and school officials was unsuccessful at resolving the situation. She was presented with, in her words, “an ultimatum” from the school which told her to either comply with their policies or leave. Unable to leave, Madigan wore a male uniform for several weeks which caused her depression to worsen and energy to weaken.

Responding to the school’s decision, Madigan organized a Change.org petition and received support from more than 200 classmates. That petition stated, in part:

” ‘Transgender students make up some of the most vulnerable students in schools. . . Changing these policies wouldn’t affect other students but not doing so clearly and greatly affects trans students.

“The school already has an equality and diversity policy (created in response to the equality act 2010) so treating us equality should be a no issue. . .This is about trans people presenting how they feel they should be, how they want people to see them, to recognise themselves when they catch their reflection.”

Madigan also retained a lawyer who reminded school officials of the UK’s Human Rights Act and 2010 Equality Act, which says no one may be discriminated against “because of their gender reassignment as a transsexual.” The Act has over authority over the Catholic school because it is state-funded, and it seems efforts by the law firm which took the case pro-bono were key to the reversal.

In addition to the apology and accommodations for Madigan, school staff will receive training on transgender issues. St. Simon Stock’s spokesperson said supporting trans students “is an important issue for us, as for schools up and down the country.” They continued:

” ‘As an inclusive, Catholic academy, we are confident that the attention we have given to transgender, including carefully listening to students, has been invaluable in us going even further to make sure all students are happy and comfortable, so that they can be as successful as possible.’ “

Madigan was pleased with the school’s decision, but said she “felt it was something I shouldn’t have had to fight so hard for, if at all” and further:

” ‘I’m encouraged in that I’ve seen what I’m capable of achieving and I’m proud, but I’m not encouraged about the school’s attitude to equality.’ “

It is unfortunate when politics about school uniforms and gendered spaces impair Catholic education from enacting its true mission, which is the formation and flourishing of its students. Lily’s initially painful story is reminiscent of other extreme decisions here in the U.S. In the Diocese of Little Rock, Arkansas, a new policy threatens LGBT students with expulsion for coming out.  And earlier this year in Pennsylvania, a Catholic high school ejected a lesbian student  from prom because she wore a suit.

Policies are about matters such as wearing pants or a skirt are only important to the degree in which they harm students. Nothing in church teaching mandates clothing along a gender binary, and church teaching would actually affirm helping students become their authentic selves. Efforts to police gender are becoming outdated, and Catholic schools should give up these attempts to suppress the signs of the times in favor of supporting every student.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry, October 22, 2016

London Cardinal Urges Nationwide Expansion of LGBT Catholic Masses

LGBT Catholics Westminster pilgrims with New Ways Ministry pilgrims in Rome earlier this year

Masses in London which offer an intentional welcome to the LGBT community should be expanded across England, Westminster’s (London) Cardinal Vincent Nichols is recommending.

This endorsement of these welcoming Masses comes via Fr. Keith Barltrop, the Catholic official tasked with LGBTQI outreach for the Archdiocese of Westminster.   The liturgies take place twice a month at London’s Church of the Immaculate Conception, overseen by the Jesuits, and located on Farm Street, by which the parish is familiarly known. Baltrop’s comments were reported by The Tablet:

“. . .[T]he cardinal would like to see the Farm Street Masses as a model for other parishes in his archdiocese. He added that the idea could be taken up by parishes in other dioceses.”

This desire for expansion comes two years after the “Soho Masses” were moved to the Farm Street Church at the cardinal’s request, a move which caused some concern at the time, but one now bearing fruit it seems. The Tablet explained:

“Key to the transition was that the Farm Street Masses are an extension of the diocese’s pastoral care for gay people. LGBT Catholics join the regular congregation at the 6.15 p.m. Mass on Sunday evenings twice a month and meet afterwards for a social gathering in the parish hall.”

The pastoral shift here is significant. Instead of fostering separate communities for LGBT and ally Catholics, this model seeks to fold them into regular parish life, while still providing a preferential welcome as well.

According to Martin Pendergast of the LGBT Catholics Westminster Pastoral Council, expansion depends on parishioners’ initiative and is one among several efforts to include all. The Council is also preparing a briefing paper that LGBT Catholics hope will appear at the 2015 Synod of Bishops by way of England’s delegates, Cardinal Nichols and Northampton Bishop Peter Doyle. Language is key to the Council’s requests:

“A major line of argument in the paper, he said, would be a move to encourage the Vatican to undertake a “serious review” of the vocabulary it used in relation to homosexuality.

” ‘Two terms which have been used by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in regard to homosexuality are ‘objective disorder’ and ‘intrinsic moral disorder. . .But these are inaccurate and theologically quite inappropriate – and the people who are most hurt by this sort of language are the parents of children who come out as gay. What does it mean to them to hear their children described in those terms?’ “

In June, LGBT Catholics Westminster participated in London Pride as a registered parade group. Cardinal Nichols called this an “opportunity for evangelization,” reports The Stream.

In February, LGBT Catholics from Farm Street celebrated Mass in Rome with New Ways Ministry’s pilgrims who were there during the same week. (See photo above.)

A recent editorial from The Tablet affirmed Nichols’ desire for expanded LGBT-focused Masses and stated “the Gospel must point the way on gay issues.” Calling same-gender marriage “something of a distraction in this debate,” it continued:

“Treating gays and lesbians with equal dignity and respect does not depend on being for or against gay marriage. Cardinal Nichols is a good example of that position, as is Pope Francis himself. Indeed, the new chief executive of the gay campaigning body Stonewall, Ruth Hunt, who is Catholic, told The Tablet that changing attitudes, not legislation, was now her prime concern.”

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Hunt said Masses explicitly welcoming LGBT Catholics are necessary because of the “ever-widening chasm” between faithful Catholics and church institutions which reject them. Hunt, who is a lesbian Catholic herself, has previously said something must be done about faith communities which do “significant damage to people’s mental health” while silencing LGBT-inclusive religious leaders.

This is Fr. Barltorp’s second positive statement on LGBT issues in as many weeks, adding to Cardinal Nichols’ growing positive record on LGBT issues.

Last week, Barltrop said there was nothing doctrinal about one’s gender identity and the church would be “fully supportive” of those who transition after careful discernment. Barltrop responded to traditionalist critics, saying one website was the Catholic “equivalent of Islamic fundamentalism” and underscored that there is no teaching on transgender identities.

Cardinal Nichols’ desire for expanded LGBT-focused Masses is on point, especially when some church leaders choose to discriminate against these communities and deny Catholics participation in the sacraments based on who they are or whom they love. Such Masses should not stop at English shores, but indeed they should be expanded around the world!

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

Theologian Tina Beattie Banned from Church Property Again Over LGBT Support

Tina Beattie

A British theologian supportive of LGBT inclusion had a speaking event cancelled recently after the Vatican ordered she be banned from church property.

Tina Beattie, a Catholic studies professor at the University of Roehampton in London, was to address the Edinburgh Circle of the Newman Association this month before Archbishop Leo Cushley of St. Andrews and Edinburgh archdiocese intervened. The Tablet reports the archbishop’s letter critiqued both Beattie and Joe Fitzpatrick, a previous theologian the Association had hosted, saying, in part:

” ‘Professor Beattie is known to have frequently called into question the Church’s teaching. I would therefore ask you to cancel this event, as it may not proceed or be publicised on any Church property in this archdiocese.’ “

Beattie has been troubled with such bans before, facing discrimination in 2012 in England and at the University of San Diego, which rescinded  a fellowship offer a mere two weeks before the professor was set to arrive.

According to the National Catholic Reporter, Beattie’s troubles with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which has ordered the ban from church property, stem from her signature on a pro-marriage equality ad in The Times of London. She was one of 27 Catholics who wrote “it is perfectly proper for Catholics, using fully informed consciences, to support the legal extension of civil marriage to same-sex couples.” Terence Weldon makes an important point at his blog, Queering the Church, that Beattie’s support comes as a defense of the primacy of conscience:

“What is particularly disturbing here, is that this claim that she has “frequently called into question the Church’s teaching” is entirely unsubstantiated. Professor Beattie herself emphatically denies the charge…That letter however, was not arguing specifically in favour of gay marriage, but simply for the right of Catholics to disagree in conscience on the matter. That primacy of conscience is deeply embedded in Catholic teaching, and should not be seen as controversial.”

The Edinburgh Circle is a chapter of the Newman Association, whose website describes the U.K. organization as “a national organisation whose members meet regularly in local “circles” to discuss and develop their understanding of the Christian faith.”   The association is named for Cardinal John Henry Newman.

In response to this most recent incident, the Newman Association and Beattie both wrote to Archbishop Curley to express their distress. Neither have received a reply, though the Association has been offered meetings with diocesan officials. Beattie wrote in her letter:

” ‘You say that I am “known to have frequently called into question the Church’s teaching”. Known by whom, in what context and with reference to which of my published works?…Never in my published writings or talks have questioned any of the doctrinal mysteries of the Catholic faith. On the contrary, I have consistently argued in defence of even the most frequently challenged doctrines of the Church.’

“On gay unions, Professor Beattie said that she signed the letter at a time when Cardinal Keith O’Brien, Archbishop Cushley’s predecessor, was one of the ‘most vociferous opponents of same-sex marriage’ and that she believes that Catholics could enter a ‘more reasoned and nuanced public dialogue’ about the matter than the hierarchy allowed.”

Beattie is right in calling for both a respect of conscience and a “reasoned and nuanced public dialogue” over LGBT issues, specifically marriage equality. Her thinking is right in line with Pope Francis, who has respected the teaching on conscience.  He has been a leading figure for dialogue around some of the most contentious global issues.

It is sad that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith still feels it needs to ban and censor and silence Catholics. Authoritarianism is, to use the phrase of the pope, an “antidote to faith” and only helps to cause greater wounds in the church by forcing out good people and creating obstacles to God. Hopefully, this ban is more anomaly than trend when it comes to the CDF’s actions in the era of Francis.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

NEWS NOTES: August 19, 2013

News NotesHere are some items that may be of interest:

1) Using hyperbolic language, the Catholic bishops in England released a document responding to that nation’s passage of marriage equality earlier this year. The document reiterated common messages from the hierarchy, while adding new concepts about Catholics being alienated in their own country because of the new law. You can read more at The Catholic Register. Marriage equality in England has at least one columnist asking if the Catholic Church should remove itself from marriage altogether.

2) Responding to the firing of educator Carla Hale this spring for marrying her wife, one set of Catholic parents began wondering about a Catholic burial for their gay son. While several Catholic officials and funeral directors assured them the institution denies a Catholic burial in only the most extreme instances, these parents remain dissatisfied. Alternatively, one gay Catholic man told The Columbus Dispatch: ” ‘One place the Catholic Church is really, really, really nice about is death.’ ”

3)In the African nation of Cameroon, more anti-gay prosecutions and the seeming assassination of prominent advocate Eric Lembembe caused LGBT rights organizations to demand better conditions from the civil and religious authorities in Cameroon who support homophobic language and acts. LGBT advocates said in a statement reported by France 24: ” ‘The religious authorities, the Cameroonian Roman Catholic Church in particular, take a position on homosexuality in order to incite violence,’ ” Cameroon, where about a quarter of the population are Catholic, is one of the worst nations for LGBT rights.

4) A Michigan high school student won a lawsuit in which he claimed his First Amendment rights were violated during a 2010 classroom interaction. The student claimed his Catholic faith did not allow him to accept LGBT people, and was then written up by his teacher for disruptive behavior. Some observers in Education Week believe this case could have broader implications in the tension over free speech in schools and anti-bullying policies that seek to protect sexual orientation and gender identity.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

NEWS NOTES: August 15, 2013

News NotesHere are some items you might find of interest:

1) The principal of a Canadian Catholic high school which used discriminatory language against gay and lesbian students on its website, among other offenses, will not be returning this fall. CBC News also reports a gay-straight alliance has now been formed at the school. These changes began after a high school student spoke out about the anti-LGBT policy, yet another reminder of the impact a single voice can have.

2) Mexican voters elected the nation’s first openly gay mayor on July 7th. Benjamin Medrano’s political career comes at a precarious moment for LGBT equality in Mexico where homophobia is still publicly acceptable in political campaigns for some areas, but public opinions and legal structures are rapidly changing. Medrano is a Roman Catholic, and while he supports equal rights, he also claims that the highly religious nation is not prepared for widespread marriage rights or other LGBT movement demands. You can read more in The Wisconsin Gazette.

3) The Dominican Republic’s leading church official helped trigger anti-LGBT protests after he used an anti-gay slur and threatening language against President Obama’s nominee for US ambassador to the island nation earlier this summer. The Advocate reports that follwing Cardinal Nicolás de Jesús López Rodríguez’s press conference, religious leaders organized “Black Monday” protests to rouse popular support against an openly gay US diplomat. Meanwhile, the Cardinal is also mired in a sexual abuse scandal after a Polish priest under his charge may have escaped prosecution by fleeing the country with two minors.

4) A church in Denmark has been allowed to hire a gay man as its organist after the local bishop withdrew objections, reports The Copenhagen Post. Ole Knudsen is legally married to his husband, but says they live in a platonic relationship and that may have impacted the bishop’s decision.

Bonus: In case you missed it, LGBT advocates in Sweden develop a most creative (and colorful) way to protest new anti-gay laws in Russia. You can see a picture at the New Ways Ministry’s Pinterest page.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry