Jesuit Weekly Criticizes “Unjust Discrimination” against LGBT Church Workers

A major outlet in the English-speaking Catholic media has opined against the firing of LGBT church workers.

downloadAmerica Magazine, a Jesuit weekly in the U.S., printed an editorial titled “Unjust Discrimination” on the issue of LGBT firings. The editors opened by discussing a 2015 policy change by German bishops to prevent church workers who are divorced and remarried or in same-gender partnerships from being discriminated against in employment. The editors wrote:

“Civil unions for same-sex couples have been legal in Germany since 2001. What sparked last year’s policy change? The bishops recognized that the previous church law, which included a ‘morals clause’ for Catholic employees, was being selectively applied. . .

“Under the new law, the church in Germany can dismiss an employee who publicly expresses ‘opposition to fundamental principles of the Catholic Church—for example by support for abortion or for racial hatred’ or who disparages ‘Catholic faith content, rites or practices,’ on the grounds that these infractions would constitute a ‘grave breach of loyalty.’ “

The editorial cited Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki of Cologne, who at the time the German bishops announced their new policy explained that the change sought “to limit the consequences of remarriage or a same-sex union to the most serious cases [that would] compromise the church’s integrity and credibility.”

Such reasoning and reasonableness has not been present among the U.S. episcopate, even after the nation’s Supreme Court legalized marriage equality nationwide and despite the growing number of church workers who are entering same-gender marriages. The America editors noted a disparity between Catholic colleges and other Catholic institutions in the treatment of LGBT employees and acknowledged cases where “individuals have been secretly reported to their supervisors by other members of the community.” They continued:

“The Catechism of the Catholic Church, while teaching that homosexual acts cannot be morally accepted, also requires that homosexual persons be ‘accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided’ (No. 2358). The high public profile of these firings, when combined with a lack of due process and the absence of any comparable  policing of marital status for heterosexual employees, constitute signs of ‘unjust discrimination,’ and the church in the United States should do more to avoid them. In addition to any possible harm done to the employees who have been fired, the appearance of unjust discrimination weakens the church’s overall witness. The church will lose talented, devoted workers because of institutional decisions made under pressure or without sufficient discernment.”

Employment issues about gender and sexuality pose a further problem since many lay Catholics disagree with the Magisterium, yet church institutions are dependent on the same lay people whose consciences have led them to a more accepting stance. The editors asked how this situation could be sustainable in the long term, and replied:

“The answer is not to downplay or gloss over these teachings. Catholics are called to preach difficult truths about a range of subjects, including but not limited to marriage and sexuality. But what is the best way to do that? It is true that sometimes an employee of a Catholic institution can cause scandal by his or her public words or deeds. But it is also true that treating employees unfairly, by holding them to different standards or dismissing them abruptly or without consultation, can itself cause scandal.”

One proposal the editorial cited is that of Archbishop Joseph Tobin, newly named to become a cardinal in November, who advocated a case-by-case approach in a recent interview with America. There are complex questions of formation and support, too, and the editors conclude:

“The church must be free to conduct its ministries without government interference and with room to challenge prevailing social mores. But we also have a duty to proceed with wisdom and mercy, attentive to the dignity of the individual and the common good.”

This editorial from America adds significantly to Catholics’ responses against the firings as discriminatory and unjust, adding to a 2014 editorial from the National Catholic Reporter. These pieces come as more than 60 church workers have lost their jobs in LGBT-related employment disputes since just 2008. The firings continue, such as the case of  educator Kate Drumgoole and music director Michael Templeton. This latest editorial highlights both the need for positive action in defense of LGBT church workers, the complexities of church employment, and ultimately the tremendous harm done when church leaders discriminate against faithful employees.

For Bondings 2.0‘s full coverage of this story, and other LGBT-related church worker disputes, click the ‘Employment Issues‘ category to the right or here. You can click here to find a full listing of the more than 60 incidents since 2007 where church workers have lost their jobs over LGBT identity, same-sex marriages, or public support for equality.

Court Says Case of Fired Lesbian Teacher Can Go Forward–for Now

For the second time, a New Jersey judge has ruled that the employment discrimination suit of a lesbian teacher fired from a Catholic school can go forward, despite motions by the school and archdiocese attorneys to get it dismissed.  But because the judge’s decision was based on a very specific legal technicality, the possibility that the teacher will be victorious in the case still remains highly uncertain.

Kate Drumgoole

Kate Drumgoole, a former guidance counselor and basketball coach at Paramus Catholic H.S., in the Archdiocese of Newark, is suing because she was fired from her job when administrators learned that she was married to a woman.

Judge Lisa Perez Friscia denied the request by the school and archdiocese, the defendants, to reconsider her August 22nd decision to dismiss the case, saying that no new facts were presented by the institutions’ lawyers.

According to

“Friscia ruled in August that the case should go to the discovery phase, which would end Sept. 3, 2017.

“ ‘Only after discovery is complete, can the court review each claim to determine whether the religious organization exception, grounded in the First Amendment applies,’ Friscia wrote.”

So, the defendants’ request for a religious exemption from New Jersey Laws Against Discrimination (NJLAD) may yet be allowed to proceed.  The judge’s ruling stated only that the religious exemption could not apply at this stage of the case.

According to the news article:

“Friscia ruled that the defendants ‘have not established, at this early juncture,’ that the school can apply religious tenets to employees not engaged in ministerial duties and she said that by merely claiming the religious exemption the school is not necessarily entitled to it.”

It looks like the case is going to turn on the court’s understanding of the definition of a minister and ministerial work.    According to a news report, the attorneys for the school and archdiocese point out:

“Drumgoole signed an acknowledgement that she received the Archdiocese’s ‘Policies on Professional and Ministerial Conduct’ and a ‘Code of Ethics.’ The school’s faculty handbook also says that all teachers must comply with the code of ministerial conduct policies. Her collective bargaining agreement allows for tenured teachers to be terminated for ‘violating accepted standards of catholic morality as to cause public scandal,’ according to the written ruling this week.”

However, the other side sees the situation differently:

“Drumgoole’s attorneys, Eric Kleiner and Lawrence Kleiner, have argued that Drumgoole’s job did not include ministerial duties and that the school uses some of the NJLAD in its faculty handbook, making it liable to all of the laws against discrimination.”

Drumgoole also claimed in her suit that she thinks her firing may be related to her raising charges against two school employees in the recent past:

“Drumgoole, in her certification, said she also believes her firing may have been retaliatory. Drumgoole had alerted school officials to an incident involving two Paramus Catholic employees who allegedly had sex with students during a school trip to Germany.

“In late 2011, two male former employees of the high school were indicted on charges of having sex with at least three female students during a school trip to Germany.

“The state Supreme Court in March 2015 threw out all the overseas sex charges involving Artur Sopel, the school’s vice president of operations at the time of the trip, and Michael Sumulikoski, a substitute teacher. The court ruled local prosecutors had no jurisdiction to charge the two, who were chaperones for the February 2011 school trip.”

Drumgoole’s case has already sparked a number of controversies in the local church.  Fr. Warren Hall, an archdiocesan priest, was suspended from priestly duties in part because of his support for the teacher.  The school’s principal was suspended from work for a few days, and the school’s president still remains suspended. their jobs for a while. Over 3000 school community members have signed a petition protesting Drumgoole’s firing.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, October 25, 2016


Catholicism and the Disappearing Middle Ground on LGBT Rights

By Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry, October 20, 2016

Is a middle ground on LGBT issues disappearing and, if it is, what does this mean for Catholics? David Gushee of Religion News Service answered the first part of this question affirmatively, writing in a new piece:

“It turns out that you are either for full and unequivocal social and legal equality for LGBT people, or you are against it, and your answer will at some point be revealed. This is true both for individuals and for institutions.

“Neutrality is not an option. Neither is polite half-acceptance. Nor is avoiding the subject. Hide as you might, the issue will come and find you.”

Where most institutions, organizations, and businesses in the United States have accepted LGBT equality, the holdouts are religious communities and those civil communities where conservative Christians have a dominant impact. Churches and affiliated institutions are, Gushee noted, “digging in their heels — even against profound and pained internal opposition from their own dissenters.” He continued:

“These institutions and their leaders are interpreting pressure to reconsider as pressure to succumb to error, or even heresy.

“They are interpreting social changes toward nondiscrimination as mere embrace of sexual libertinism.

“They are attempting to tighten doctrinal statements in order to tamp down dissent or drive out dissenters.

“They are organizing legal defense efforts under the guise of religious liberty, and interpreting their plight as religious persecution.

“They are confident that they have the moral high ground, and from their remaining, shrinking spaces of power they still try to punish those who stray from orthodoxy as they understand it.

Gushee’s description fits well the reality of the Catholic Church in the United States. While the faithful support LGBT civil rights, the bishops’ sustain their opposition. As more and more LGBT church workers are fired, it looks more and more like they are being punished. From the other side, political liberals and some LGBT advocates, there is almost contempt for non-affirming religious communities.

Fr. John Jenkins, CSC, the president of the University of Notre Dame, Indiana, opined on the emerging context of LGBT rights in the U.S. for the Wall Street JournalJenkins commented on the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s recent decision to move its national championships out of North Carolina in response to that state’s HB 2 law targeting LGBT people, and said:

“Heightened respect for the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender citizens is a signal moral achievement of our time, and harboring reservations about any retrenchment is natural. Yet some citizens may wonder about the implications of substituting gender identity for biological sex in public restrooms. While attending to the rights and sensibilities of transgender persons, it’s important to also take into account the feelings of those who might be uncomfortable undressing in front of a member of the opposite biological sex.”

Jenkins said that while society “has become inured to public disputes over neuralgic moral and social questions,” universities can foster reflection and discussion:

“At a time when tweets, slogans and sound bites seem to define the substance of our political discourse; when respect for truth seems a casualty of the campaign; and when ideological polarization often hamstrings responsible governing, the nation needs universities to raise the intellectual tone of Americans’ discussions more than ever.”

SocialCommsDay.jpgI see that there is a need for middle ground on two levels: the legal and the ecclesial.

In the legal context, protecting the civil rights of every person requires a careful handling of how such protections interact with religious institutions. Admitting exemptions where necessary can seem like prudent acts. Claims of an attack on religious liberty by the U.S. bishops and other conservatives are overblown, but religious liberty is something worth protecting. Legally, a middle ground seems necessary in a pluralistic society and even vital to healthy democracy. Given the intense complexities of these issues, universities seem like prime sites where intelligent debate and informed discourse could happen.

In the ecclesial context, however, the concept of middle ground becomes more problematic. What does it mean to hold a middle ground in the church? If it means allowing space for people to grapple with church teaching and the signs of the times, receiving pastoral support when needed, then this is the right of every Catholic and it is good. But if middle ground means, in practice, not challenging the prejudices of some believers and allowing extremists to target LGBT church workers or demean same-gender marriages, then it cannot be acceptable.

Unfortunately, Fr. Jenkin’s leadership at Notre Dame undermines his point about universities’ potential contributions. It was only in 2012, after decades of activism by students and alumni, that the University began offering formal support for LGBTQ students. Notre Dame students, however, have questioned the strength of this commitment, and it was reported the University denied housing to a transgender student. Though there have been positive developments, can Catholic colleges and universities like Notre Dame be places of dialogue when LGBT people are left vulnerable to discrimination and violence?

This question seems pertinent to the wider church, too. How can we be a church of dialogue and of encounter when members of the Body of Christ feel unwelcome and even unsafe? When church workers are fired and bishops remain silent after the slaughter of 50 LGBT people in Orlando? Vatican II called the church to dialogue, a defining aspect of the Council and a practice to which we should aspire. But dialogue and understanding, the very essence of middle ground, can only happen when all feel respected, equal, and safe. It might be that middle ground has not disappeared in the Catholic Church on LGBT issues, but that it never existed at all.

Yes to Religious Liberty. But What Does That Actually Mean?

By Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry, October 17, 2016

If asked, most Catholics today would agree that religious liberty is an essential part of the church’s social teaching and most people would identify religious liberty as a constitutive democratic principle.

But questioned further, these same people would offer very different understandings of just what the religious liberty they so affirm actually means. While there are genuine threats to religious liberty internationally, in the United States, religious liberty has become mostly a prominent campaign issue for the right and a puzzling obsession for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Organizations on the left have pushed back against these forces, and even more issues have arisen as civil rights expand for LGBT people.

peaceful-coexistence-report_269_350A new report from the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights explored the complicated questions of nondiscrimination protections and religious liberty in a new report, Peaceful CoexistenceThis 300-page report from the independent and non-partisan federal agency examined issues like the ministerial exemption to employment protections and included statements from noted scholars, as well as these words from Commission Chair Martin R. Castro:

“The phrases ‘religious liberty’ and ‘religious freedom’ will stand for nothing except hypocrisy so long as they remain code words for discrimination, intolerance, racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, Christian supremacy or any form of intolerance. . .

“[T]oday, as in the past, religion is being used as both a weapon and a shield by those seeking to deny others equality. In our nation’s past religion has been used to justify slavery and later, Jim Crow laws. We now see “religious liberty” arguments sneaking their way back into our political and constitutional discourse (just like the concept of ‘state rights’) in an effort to undermine the rights of some Americans.”

Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, in his capacity as chair of the U.S. bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty, joined a handful of more conservative religious leaders in objecting to this report and specifically the words quoted above. Their letter called for President Barack Obama and congressional leadership to reject Castro’s statement and other assertions that religious liberty is being misused.

But new data from the Pew Research Center suggests Catholics in the U.S. are at odds with the bishops’ policies, reported America:

  • 54% of Catholics believe business should not be exempted from LGBT non-discrimination protections, five points higher than the national average;
  • 65% of Catholics do not believe an employer’s religious affiliation should exempt them from providing contraceptive services as part of health insurance coverage;
  • 64% of Catholics believe homosexual activity is either morally acceptable or not a moral issue.

91542022-rev-patrick-mahoney-of-the-christian-defense-coalition-crop-promo-mediumlargeSo what are Catholics to make of religious liberty in the United States, especially if we consider equality and justice for marginalized communities like LGBT people to be high priorities?

Some people might agree with Chairman Castro’s contention that “religious liberty” has become a weapon and a shield used against marginalized communities. Sunnivie Brydum wrote at Religion Dispatches that the use of scare quotes around the phrase now seems appropriate:

“This new, mutant form of ‘religious liberty’ does indeed deserve scare quotes. When Mississippi lawmakers overwhelmingly passed a law that determined what kind of intimate relationships are worthy of protection, they also lost the ability to claim that they were seeking to protect faith-based views broadly speaking. Laws like this have less to do with making sure people can freely practice their faith—they are written to privilege one ideological perspective over all others. . .

“Religious freedom is indeed a central tenet of American democracy. . .But when freedom of religion is used as a weapon to infringe on civil liberties—especially in the public square—it deserves the scare quotes that the Chicago Manual of Style says are ‘used to alert readers that a term is used in a nonstandard (or slang), ironic, or other special use.’ “

More centrist Catholics have cautioned against understanding religious liberty as a zero-sum issue. The editors of Jesuit weekly America called for reasoned discourse that seeks a solution amid the competing goods of religious liberty and non-discrimination protects, concluding:

“But if Catholics are to make a full-throated defense of robust religious liberty, we should also acknowledge the ways the church itself has contributed to the atmosphere of distrust around this cause. Asserting religious liberty primarily on ‘culture war’ issues draws attention only to the church’s policing of moral lines, to the detriment of its proclamation of the good news and service to those in need.

“For generations, the church in the United States has provided succor and support for millions of Americans, regardless of religion. This is not a historical accident but the result of the good works of myriad Catholics and an American context that allows believers to freely practice their faith in all spheres. This tradition must continue.”

Elsewhere, Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese wrote in the National Catholic Reporter that religious freedom and women’s rights could be strengthened together in an argument applicable to LGBT rights as well. Reese, who chairs the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, made this important point:

“A way out of this apparent conflict is to emphasize that religious freedom is a human right that resides in the individual not in a religious tradition. ‘The human right to freedom of religion or belief does not protect religious traditions per se,’ explained Heiner Bielefeldt, the UN special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, ‘but instead facilitates the free search and development of faith-related identities of human beings, as individuals and in community with others.’

“Religious freedom does not protect religious belief or religious institutions from challenge. Rather religious freedom protects the right of an individual to believe or not believe, to change one’s religion if one desires, and to speak and act on those beliefs. It protects believers not beliefs. Religious freedom includes freedom of speech and press on religious topics, which allows individuals to challenge religious beliefs and traditions.”

This understanding, Reese commented, reveals religious liberty “in its true meaning” as a source of empowerment for people to live according to their own beliefs and consciences.

Reese is clear that this approach does not resolve every issue related to religious liberty and gender equity, and therefore neither would it resolve every LGBT-related issue, but it effectively counters the idea that religious liberty and civil liberties are “two essentially contradictory human rights norms.” Much good could come if differing sides focused on points of agreement rather than points of contention.

In the world of U.S. Catholicism, progress on religious liberty seems to be simultaneously advanced and stalled at this moment. On the one hand, the Pew numbers reflect a Catholic faithful who conscientiously discern how to advance the common good while upholding goods that can at times be in tension, and this discernment has led them to positions which affirm LGBT rights in such a way that religious liberty is actually strengthened.

But, on the other hand, the Catholic bishops restrain progress, about which Michael Sean Winters of the National Catholic Reporter cautioned:

“In his response to the USCCR report, Archbishop William Lori, chair of the ad hoc committee on religious liberty at the USCCB, claims that the church only wants the ‘freedom to serve.’ What’s stopping you? As has been argued here and elsewhere repeatedly, there is really no reason, so far as our church’s teaching on cooperation with evil is concerned, for the Catholic church to insist that the accountant at Catholic Charities not get dental insurance for his gay partner. . .

“As they prepare for their plenary session in November, the bishops need to start thinking through two issues if they want to be both serious and successful in their defense of religious liberty. First, they need to abandon the idea that religious liberty extends as far as any particular believer wants it to extend in civil society: The wedding cake baker, bless his heart, is not being asked to participate in anything sinful when he bakes a cake for anybody for any reason. The protections we seek should be for our religious institutions, period. Second, the bishops need to follow the example of their Mormon brethren and reach out to the LGBT community. If this continues as an ‘us versus them’ fight, the bishops will lose.”

The Catholic Church’s endorsement of religious liberty at Vatican II is considered by many theologians to be one of the most notable outcomes of the Council. Dignitatis Humanae, the document on religious liberty, was heavily influenced by bishops and theologians from the United States, especially Jesuit Fr. John Courtney Murray. Where Murray and his collaborators had once been treated with hostility for their views on the issue, they became pivotal in shaping the course of Catholicism in the late 20th century.

LGBT non-discrimination protections are a good affirmed in church teaching, just as religious liberty is affirmed. Our task today is to understand how to strengthen both together. Catholics in the United States should remember the history above, history which calls us to ever more deeply engage and earnestly enact religious liberty in all its complexities.

The only clear answer is that there are no clear answers. We must not only say yes to religious liberty, but come to know more fully that which we are affirming. Bu if we are committed like our predecessors in faith, we can and will find a way forward that is faithful to the church’s tradition while meeting the needs of all in our contemporary world.






Controversy at Irish Seminary Prompts Conversation on Gay Priests

By Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry, October 13, 2016

This summer’s controversy at Ireland’s national seminary over the use of a gay dating app by students has quieted, but it has since inspired many worthwhile commentaries on homosexuality, ministry, and the future of the Catholic Church. Today’s post features excerpts with links provided if you would like to read more.

St. Patrick’s College, Maynooth

Earlier this year, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin removed three archdiocesan seminarians from St. Patrick’s College Maynooth over allegations of a “gay culture” there. But he also expressed more general concerns about the closed, strange world of seminaries, and proposed that new models of priestly formation would be needed. Other bishops have rushed to defend the seminary, and a review with an eye towards reform has been conducted.

Michael Kelly’s column in The Independent speculated that the review of priestly formation now underway could actually “kickstart an authentic reform and renewal of Irish Catholicism.” He noted that, according to history, the concept of seminaries was itself a response to problems in the priesthood, but now:

“The world has changed and the way that Irish priests are educated needs to change to meet the needs of the modern world. Pope Francis – that great herald of Church reform – recently observed that Catholicism is not living in an era of change, but a change of era.”

These changes must include the church acknowledging and affirming the presence of gay and bisexual men in the priesthood, said former Irish president and LGBT advocate Mary McAleese. She told The Irish Times:

” ‘We have the phenomenon of men in the priesthood who are both heterosexual and homosexual but the church hasn’t been able to come to terms with the fact that there are going to be homosexuals in the priesthood, homosexuals who are fine priests.’ “

McAleese tied this problem to church teaching and its damaging language about homosexuality as “intrinsically disordered.” Thislabelling  has resulted in Maynooth’s culture where “policing celibacy is more important than pastoral service” and where they seem “to be concentrating on the wrong things.”

Promoting an atmosphere hostile to gay clergy was most noticeable, McAleese said, when Maynooth was visited in 2012 by Cardinal Timothy Dolan and Archbishop Edwin O’Brien. She commented:

” ‘They wanted to be reassured that neither place was, in their words, ‘gay friendly’ . . . so they walked away happy that they were gay unfriendly, hostile to gay people – what sort of message does that send out to young men who are there who are gay, to priests who are gay?’ “

One commentator, Tom Clonan of The Journal, suggested that focusing on gay seminarians and priests is driven by external prejudice, and i misses the actual crisis in the Irish church:

“To be honest, I believe the sexual orientation of seminarians or priests is largely irrelevant in the context of the grave challenges that confront the institution of the Catholic Church in Ireland. Indeed, much of the coverage has been voyeuristic and gay shaming – perhaps unwittingly revealing a deep-seated homophobic bias among some commentators.”

But in general, Irish Catholics have said that a main, if not the primary, issue at Maynooth this summer has been a toxic culture around gay and bisexual men in the priesthood. Voices like Senator Jerry Buttimer, a former seminarian, and Fr. Tony Flannery, CSsR, have affirmed gay priests. Others have rejected outright the allegations of gay dating app use which prompted this controversy.

This question of homosexuality in ministry is not limited to Ireland, however, and affects the global church. Some priests, like Fr. Warren Hall and Msgr. Krzysztof Charamsa have been sanctioned because of LGBT issues. Too often conversations are problematically focused around the question of celibacy, rather than the gifts and opportunities gay and bisexual priests offer the church. Ignored is the faithful service of gay men like Fr. Fred Daley, Fr. Michael Shanahan, and Fr. Ron Cioffi, who has said:

“Yes, I am a gay person whose self-identity includes an abiding call to ministry in our church. . .my orientation is a blessing from God for use in and for the church that is called to help each of us discern and celebrate the good and always affirming love of God for all persons.”

The Maynooth incident has been yet another ugly scandal for an Irish church already crippled by the clergy sex abuse crisis. Instead of turning inward and implementing new restrictions on seminarians, which only further remove them from reality, the nation’s bishops should welcome gay and bisexual men (and, ultimately, people of all sexual and gender identities) to the priesthood with open arms. To paraphrase Pope John XXIII, this is a clear moment to throw open Maynooth’s windows and let the fresh air in.

Remembering Matthew Shepard: Encountering Solidarity, Countering Isolation

Today’s post was written by guest blogger Alfred Pang is a PhD student in Theology and Education at Boston College.

By Alfred Pang, October 12, 2016

I experienced a micro-aggression about a year ago at Mass. It was during a homily that listed, in a single breath, the Magisterium’s teachings against contraception, divorce and same-gender marriage. It obliterated the complexity of each issue. There was, of course, the typical mention of the natural complementarity of male and female as biologically designed by God. Such preaching was not new to me, but until then, I had been able to shut it out, numbing myself to what is said and mustering enough generosity to understand that some homilists do not know any better.

Matthew Shepard

On this particular occasion, I could not. Instead, I simply shut down. I felt invalidated within the church I love as a gay Catholic man. I was angered by the quick dismissal of fruitful same-gender love. I found myself isolated and silenced in the broken shards of the church in which homophobia goes unrecognized. I simply shut down. Such is the power of micro-aggressions, whose cumulative toxicity, often unbeknownst to the offenders, wears down our souls, wearies our bodies and renders our selves invisible.

What aided in my recovery was remembering the story of Matthew Shepard, a gay college student who was brutally beaten, tied to a fence on the outskirts of Laramie, Wyoming and left to die on a cold October night in 1998. I recalled, in particular, Dennis Shepard’s (Matthew’s father) statement to the court at the trial of his murders. These words comforted me:

“By the end of the beating, his body was just trying to survive. You left him out there by himself, but he wasn’t alone. There were his lifelong friends with him—friends that he had grown up with. You’re probably wondering who these friends were. First, he had the beautiful night sky with the same stars and moon that we used to look at through a telescope. Then, he had the daylight and the sun to shine on him one more time—one more cool, wonderful autumn day in Wyoming. His last day alive in Wyoming. His last day alive in the state that he always proudly called home. And through it all he was breathing in for the last time the smell of Wyoming sagebrush and the scent of pine trees from the snowy range. He heard the wind—the ever-present Wyoming wind—for the last time. He had one more friend with him. One he grew to know through his time in Sunday school and as an acolyte at St. Mark’s in Casper as well as through his visits to St. Matthew’s in Laramie. He had God.”

The assurance that God is with me brought me much consolation. God’s presence endures as life not in spite of but in the midst of loss and death. Dennis Shepard’s description of God’s presence in creation and, as Creator, embracing Matthew in Her womb of life, is powerfully evocative. God must have grieved. And in our pain, God grieves with us. We have God because God first loved us. “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them” (1 John 4:16).

Alfred Pang

During my recovery, I realized that God is present not simply to piece together the broken pieces of my life. God is just not into patchwork! God’s daily invitation to us to be reconcilers in Christ is not simply to be a people who patch things up. Rather, God creates us anew and calls us to be co-transformers in the world in light of our wholeness in Christ who holds all things together. I am reminded by Mr. Shepard’s words that the pain that I was experiencing is not mine alone, but shared in the interconnection of our many individual lives held and sustained by the One divine breath of God that blows creation into being.

This recognition of the inter-connectivity of our lives, I suggest, lies beneath the decision of Matthew’s parents not to press for the death penalty against Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, the two young men responsible for Matthew’s violent murder. It is also this attentiveness to the oneness of God’s divine life reflected in diversity that propelled their founding of the Matthew Shepard Foundation just months after their son’s death. In the witness of Matthew’s parents, I gradually found hope and healing.

Today, we commemorate the 18th anniversary of Matthew’s death and I’m struck that Matthew would have been my age if he were alive today. And today, I know Matthew is alive when we remember the reality of violence being directed at young people due to their gender identity/expression and sexual orientation. Hate is, of course, to be resisted.

Beyond physical violence, Matthew’s story also points to the violence of isolation engendered by micro-aggressions cumulatively experienced in our families, schools, churches, and communities. More than an issue of unjust discrimination, every instance of someone fired from ministry or of another teacher dismissed from a Catholic school because of sexuality fuels this culture of isolation, leaving young people feeling abandoned, especially those who are wrestling with their experiences of sexual marginalization.

In today’s Gospel lectionary reading, we hear Jesus speaking to “the scholars of the law”: “Woe also to you scholars of the law! You impose on people burdens hard to carry, but you yourselves do not lift one finger to touch them” (Luke 11:46).

William McNichols, “The Passion of Matthew Shepard”

Jesus’ words are sharply poignant in light of our remembrance of Matthew. Jesus’ words ought to trouble us to confront not only our moral self-righteousness but also our complicity in turning the rich openness to God’s life within the Christian tradition into an enclosed grave for LGBT people and their families. Together with the crucified Christ, let us be stirred by Matthew’s death to lament over the continuing loss of young LGBT lives due to the distress experienced in isolation.

Yet, let us also be challenged that death does not have the last word. God’s enduring presence as life calls us forth to resist dehumanization by first recognizing that violence in any form is never deserved and deserving. Instead, we deserve to be loved as persons created in the image and likeness of God. There are no damaged people. There are only intersecting systems of dominance due to homophobia, heterosexism, racism, and classism that damage relationships.

Do not wait too long to tell someone how proud you are of them. This is the coming out that we all need to do to reverse slowly but surely this life-sapping culture of isolation. And may our families be the first spaces that need to be de-isolated, to be converted into spaces where blessings are shared in the midst of losses, and where our grief and joy, pain and hope are embraced as one, through a commitment to forgive, serve, and witness in God’s divine life. Anything less than these can only mean that Matthew and many other LGBT youth have died in vain, and our remembrance meaningless.

On October 20, people worldwide will “go purple” for #SpiritDay 2016 to resist anti-LGBT bullying and bias that youth experience in schools. For resources on how Catholics, and specifically Catholic schools, can get involved, please click here.

To read a Lenten reflection on Matthew Shepard posted earlier this year on Bondings 2.0, please click here.

National Coming Out Day and the Complexities of Catholic Higher Education

By Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry, October 11, 2016

Today is National Coming Out Day, celebrating the ongoing process of coming out that is a part of many LGBT people’s journeys. Catholic colleges have in recent years marked this day with educational programs and celebrations, but recent events at Boston College reveal the challenges that still exist even at Catholic schools considered LGBT supportive.

Boston College students at the march

Nearly 200 students and faculty marched through Boston College’s campus last week, a move to “break the silence” that LGBTQ people alongside communities of color and people with disabilities experience on campus, reported campus newspaper The Heights. [Disclosure: I am a graduate student at Boston College, a Jesuit university.]

Graduate Pride Alliance president Dylan Lang explained in a statement, “We are here and we will not be silent, so it is time to make changes to better the lives of LGBTQ+ students at Boston College NOW.”

The march directly responded to a gay slur written on a campus sign and the perceived silence of administrators about the incident. It was also tied to larger issues identified by many students relating to LGBT identities, racial justice, and people with disabilities. Dean of Students Tom Mogan did release a statement saying the College “does not tolerate acts of hate, bias and prejudice on our campus such as this.”

Marchers ended with a rally near where the slur had appeared, and students shared their experiences on campus of being excluded. Zoe Mathison, an affiliate campus minister, attended the event and acknowledged Campus Ministry does not do enough on these issues, telling The Heights:

“There is this confusion that Jesus does not care about these issues and that he would not stand up for queer lives or black lives.”

There are, however, some positive developments at Boston College. This week, the GLBTQ Leadership Council (GLC) is hosting its first Pride Week that expands on National Coming Out Day to celebrate LGBT identities and educate allies. The focus this year is on intersectionality, explained GLC chair Anne Williams, and will address “how sexual orientation and gender identity intersect with race, class, ability, etc.”

Last week, the Episcopalian Chaplaincy hosted openly transgender priest Rev. Cameron Partridge for a lecture.  Additionally, the student government passed a resolution calling on College administrators to establish an LGBTQ center.

But the contrast between many students’ experience and some LGBT supports reveals how complex LGBT issues in Catholic higher education can be. An editorial in The Heights described this challenge well:

“The vandalized sign should stand as a reminder that issues of prejudice and LGBTQ rights have not been solved on this campus. There are still problems, and LGBTQ students deserve support from the administration. Queer Peers [a mentoring program], while it was shut down for a while, is back in a larger context, which is one step in the right direction. But to fully support LGBTQ students, the administration should support efforts that LGBTQ students have expressed the need for, like Ignatian Q and an LGBTQ resource center.”

Student Christian Cho forcefully appealed to the College’s Catholic identity as the basis for not only allowing existing programs, but intentionally enacting more supports:

“BC can and should fully support LGBT students and their allies in their journeys to live the gospels of love and justice by actively financing LGBT-led initiatives like Ignatian Q and Queer Peers. Homophobia that lurks within the minds of bigots can be replaced with love, but only if the environment encourages that kind of conversion. I have seen love manifest itself through that kind of enlightenment, but it will take courageous leadership from an administration not afraid to boldly follow Pope Francis into the new paradigm he has set for us.”

Catholic colleges and universities in the United States have been institutions at the forefront of promoting LGBT inclusion in the church, but as National Coming Out Day is celebrated, it should not be forgotten there is still much work to do.

This post is part of our “Campus Chronicles” series on Catholic higher education. You can read more stories by clicking “Campus Chronicles” in the Categories section to the right or by clicking here. For the latest updates on Catholic LGBT issues, subscribe to our blog in the upper right-hand corner of this page.

Related Article

The Boston Globe, “Protest denounces BC’s response to gay slur on campus