On Religious Liberty and LGBT Rights, Catholics Must Pursue Third Way

March 30, 2015

Gov. Mike Pence signing Indiana’s “right to discriminate” law, surrounded by religious leaders

Legislative developments in Indiana and other states, as well as the District of Columbia, are seemingly pitting LGBT rights against religious liberty. This binary is, however, false and Catholics must pursue a third way which upholds justice for all people while respecting real religious liberty.

First, a bit of context. Last week, Indiana Governor Mike Pence signed a law which could legalize anti-gay discrimination by prohibiting “state and local laws that ‘substantially burden’ the ability of people, businesses and associations to follow their religious beliefs,”reports Crux. This was one of more than a dozen similar bills introduced in state legislatures this year, and many LGBT advocates consider it among the most extreme, triggering calls for a boycott of the state from business leaders and celebrities. Ongoing updates about such bills are available at Crux.

Writing at the blog Catholic Moral Theology, Thomas Bushlack highlights that Indiana’s law and those like it are undergirded by “bad jurisprudence and bad theology.” Bushlack states:

“This bill strikes me as one of the most ironic and perverse applications of religious liberty imaginable: a fundamental principle of the United States’ Bill of Rights, enshrined in the First Amendment non-establishment clause, is now being used to sanction discrimination.  The ironies of history and politics know no bounds.”

Critiquing a photo from Pence’s signing ceremony, where Catholic religious are prominently displayed, Bushlack adds:

“Is this really the way in which religious leaders, including members of the Catholic Church such as those represented in this photo, want to stand up in defense of religious liberty?  Do we want to use the fundamental tenet of American democracy as an excuse to discriminate against our own citizens, against our own brothers and sisters in Christ?  I submit that this is not the face of religious liberty that we need to defend in America today.”

It is tragic that Catholics, including church leaders, are among those working so actively to enshrine a right to discriminate against LGBT people into law. More than 40 church workers have lost their jobs over LGBT issues since 2008 and, in almost every case, church officials appealed to religious identities and ministerial exemptions in legally justifying their actions. The immorality of expelling these workers, however, is quite clear.

As LGBT rights progress in the United States, it is time for Catholics, regardless of their views on homosexuality or gender, to pursue a third way which protects the rights of all people and respects religious liberty, properly understood. Instead of pursuing legalized discrimination and endless litigation, perhaps an example from Utah illustrates how the Catholic Church might proceed.

Senate Bill 296 became law earlier this month, banning discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity in housing and employment while concurrently strengthening religious liberty. What is remarkable is that both pro- and anti-LGBT organizations have welcomed the law,including the Diocese of Salt Lake City reports Fox 13. LGBT advocates praised it, according to Religion News Service:

“Sarah Warbelow, legal director of the Human Rights Campaign, said the law will have a  “dramatically positive effect on the LGBT youth of Utah,” because it dramatizes to Mormon parents that their church accepts the dignity of LGBT people.

“Clifford Rosky, professor of law at the University of Utah and board chairman of Equality Utah, said adding bans on discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity to the state’s anti-discrimination measures was a critical first step. Rosky also cited the new speech protections for employees outside the workplace.”

The press conference announcing the law included LGBT advocates standing next to Mormon leaders. For Utah, which is ranked by Gallup as the fourth most conservative state in America, expanding LGBT equality was enacted by a remarkable political process.  Although the process was imperfect, according to all sides, the dialogue and compromise Utahans performed exhibited a satisfactory step forward.  A columnist in the The Star Press expands on this idea, writing:

“The precise language of the Utah’s law, of course, is not a one-size-fits-all solution readily transferable to other states. Existing civil rights laws and religious freedom exemptions vary from state to state, so any recipe for compromise in other places will require a somewhat different mix of protections and exemptions.

“Despite these caveats and remaining disagreements, the spirit of the Utah agreement — the willingness to seek a balance between nondiscrimination and religious freedom acceptable to people on all sides — can, and should be replicated elsewhere.”

Religious liberty discussions can be misleading, for adjudicating religious liberty and LGBT equality is not a zero-sum game. Treating it as such only hurts the common good. For the Christian, protecting religious liberty is one and the same with advancing LGBT rights as matters of justice and equality for all God’s people. In future disputes about religious liberty, Catholics must position themselves as bridge-builders for divided interests.  A third way approach, like we saw in Utah rather, is so much more preferable than our church’s leaders lending their voices to those who desire to discriminate.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

Related Articles

National Catholic Reporter, “Catholic Mission, Religious Freedom, & LGBT Rights”

Part One

Part Two

Part Three


When Life’s Journey Is Not What You Expected It to Be

March 29, 2015
On the Sundays of Lent, Bondings 2.0 will feature reflections by New Ways Ministry staff members. The liturgical readings for Palm Sunday are: Isaiah 50:4-7; Psalm 22:8-9, 17-20, 23-24; Philippians 2:6-11; Mark 4:1-15:47. You can access the texts of these readings by clicking here.
Have you ever been traveling and things didn’t go according to your plan?  We’ve all experienced minor inconveniences like travel delays, missing reservations, or bad directions.  But have you ever had a trip go fantastically and catastrophically wrong?  If so, Simon of Cyrene might be your patron saint.

“Simon of Cyrene Helps Christ” by David O’Connell

We don’t know much about Simon, but it’s an understatement to say that he was in the wrong place at the wrong time.  The Gospel writer says only that “they pressed into service a passer-by, Simon, a Cyrenian, who was coming in from the country, the father of Alexander and Rufus, to carry [Jesus’] cross.”  Perhaps we should consider Simon’s story for a couple of moments–the story that the Gospel writer left out.

Simon was probably a pilgrim who visited Jerusalem for the Passover.  He traveled a long way (Cyrene was located in what is now Libya) and spent a lot of money to make this spiritual journey.  I am sure it involved a lot of planning and not a little risk.  So I can only imagine the hot mix of anger, fear, and resentment that Simon might have felt when his plans were upended violently and he was forced by random chance and Roman hands to become an unwilling participant in the unfolding drama of Jesus’ death.  I can almost hear Simon ask bitterly, “Why me?  Why the heck am I stuck with this man’s burden? Why do I deserve this?”  And then, just as abruptly as he appeared, Simon vanished from the Gospel narrative; we do not know what happened to him.

I think LGBT Catholics have a lot in common with Simon of Cyrene.  Most LGBT Catholics are born into the church, which means we are born into a faith community that doesn’t necessarily understand or accept us.  We are born into a faith community that is being pulled in two directions by those who affirm and those who reject LGBT rights.  It’s an uncomfortable position in which to find ourselves — a position that seems to demand everyday that we justify our identities, feelings, and relationships to our fellow Catholics.  I think that pressure to validate our existence and our rights is why so many LGBT people leave the church.  Similar to Simon, they ask, “Why me? Why am I stuck with the burden of other people’s ignorance and malice? Why do I deserve this?”  Hurt and frustrated, it’s understandable why some LGBT Catholics choose to leave.

However, just as Simon’s story didn’t end with his carrying Jesus’ cross, I don’t think the story of LGBT Catholics inevitably ends with a possible departure from the church–and it doesn’t even end if we decide to stay in the church. One of the things the Passion narrative teaches us is that the Christian calling is difficult and involves challenges not of our own choosing.  It sometimes makes us ask the “why me?” questions.

But to be able to experience the joys of the resurrection, one must follow Jesus through his suffering and death.  For LGBT Catholics, I think this might mean staying with the church and doing the hard work of education and bridge-building within Catholic institutions. It might mean suffering the burdens of other people’s ignorance and malice.  It’s not always fun or pretty, but through that effort, I believe we will experience some of the joy of Jesus’ resurrection by knowing that we are making the church a more inclusive and just place for all God’s children.

–Matthew Myers, New Ways Ministry


Filipino Bishops Reverse Position on LGBT Non-Discrimination Bill

March 25, 2015

Archbishop Socrates Villegas in preparations for the papal visit

In a reversal from their earlier position, the Catholic bishops of the Philippines have endorsed an LGBT non-discrimination bill, with only one reservation.

Earlier this month, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines sent a pastoral guidance letter to dioceses endorsing non-discrimination as a “Christian imperative,” reports Gay Star News. Archbishop Socrates Villegas, the conference’s president, said further:

” ‘Insofar as the proposed piece of legislation renders illegitimate the relegation of persons with sexual orientation and gender identity issues to citizens of a lower category enjoying fewer rights, the CBCP cannot but lend its support to this proposed legislative measure.’

” ‘We must however reiterate that none must be demeaned, embarrassed, or humiliated for reasons of sexual orientation and gender identity.’ “

This support comes as legislators are about to pass a Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity bill, which the bishops opposed in 2011. During a committee hearing earlier this year, a representative of the conference actually opposed this current bill saying some forms of discrimination were acceptable. The only caveat desired by the bishops now is that they retain full control of who is admitted into the priesthood, reserving the right to discriminate including due to sexual orientation.

The bishops’ initial opposition to protecting the rights of all people has clearly changed.  Perhaps it is due to Pope Francis’ recent visit and his ongoing emphasis on mercy and the dignity of all persons: the Francis Effect. Now, Archbishop Villegas is telling Filipino Catholics that sexual orientation and gender identity are gifts from God and, as such, are not chosen. What other fruits can we expect for LGBT equality in this heavily Catholic nation?

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry


What Are We to Make of Pope Francis’ Inclusive Prison Visit?

March 24, 2015

Pope Francis preaches at a Naples mass on the day he visited a prison in that city.

Pope Francis joined 90 prison inmates for lunch during his visit to Naples last Saturday, including 10 from the ward which houses those who are gay, transgender, or have HIV/AIDS. They were among the 1,900 inmates who participated in the lottery for a chance to eat with the pope.

The pope did not address LGBT issues specifically in his talk to the prisoners, but stuck to general themes about God’s love for those incarcerated.  In his talk, he stated:

“Sometimes it happens that you feel disappointed, discouraged, abandoned by all: but God does not forget his children, he never abandons them! He is always at our side, especially in trying times; he is a father ‘rich in mercy’ who always turns his peaceful and benevolent gaze on us, always waits for us with open arms. This is a certainty that instills consolation and hope, especially in moments of difficulty and sadness. Even if we have done wrong in life, the Lord does not tire of showing us the path of return and encounter with him. The love of Jesus for each one of us is a source of consolation and hope. It’s a fundamental certainty for us: nothing can ever separate us from the love of God! Not even the bars of a prison.”

The inclusion of the prisoners who are trans, gay, and HIV+ was not a special outreach by Pope Francis, but it is significant that their identities did not prevent the pope from meeting with them.  A Washington Blade article quoted New Ways Ministry’s Executive Director Francis DeBernardo about the importance of this papal gesture:

“This is another example that Pope Francis does not consider sexual orientation, gender identity or HIV status as something that should prevent him from engaging them in dialogue and conversation. Under the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, these same personal characteristics were causes for the popes to shun and ignore people, much to the discredit of the church.”

The Washington Blade story also cited Andrea Miluzzo, director of LGBT News Italia, who said that there was an additional positive LGBT angle to the pope’s visit to Naples:

“Members of the local affiliate of Arcigay, an Italian LGBT advocacy group, were among those who were allowed to stand along the streets of Scampia, a poor Neapolitan neighborhood overrun with crime, earlier in the day as Francis passed through in his open-air car known as the pope-mobile.”

Pope Francis’ willingness to include trans, gay, and HIV+ prisoners in his luncheon and to allow an LGBT advocacy group on the parade route, but not mentioning either of them in his talks, shows the complicated approach he is taking to LGBT issues, and perhaps to other issues, too.  In an editorialThe National Catholic Reporter analyzed what they see as the pope’s strategy:

“Francis perplexes Europeans and North Americans who have split the analysis along a liberal-conservative axis, writes [Austen] Ivereigh, ‘because he uses a lens and a language that come from outside those categories.’

“Francis wades into slums, embraces those who otherwise might inspire revulsion, refuses to draw boundaries so rigidly as to exclude anyone, welcomes all questions and robust debate, and leads with the God of mercy.

“He preaches ‘the art of encounter,’ which requires moving beyond the safety of the church building and walking with the people. It is an approach schooled in the slums of Buenos Aires, Argentina, where the norm is broken lives, messy, stressed and needy.

“It is in those circumstances, he preaches, in the irrational embrace of the prodigal, that grace abounds. In a recent visit to a parish in Rome, he instructed its leaders to avoid telling people where they were wrong, but to ‘get closer’ to the people, walking with them and respecting their needs.”

The power in Pope Francis’ symbolic gestures lies in the hope that other church leaders will soon imitate him, thus opening up greater possibility for encounter and discussion on LGBT and other important issues, too.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry


Dublin Archbishop: I’m No Expert on Family; Anti-Gay Groups’ Language is “Obnoxious”

March 23, 2015

Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin displayed a humility rarely seen by someone of his office, admitting last week he knew little of the realities of family life today. He also criticized the language used by anti-marriage equality campaigners in Ireland, saying plural societies must respect gay and lesbian people.

Speaking on “The Teaching of the Church on Marriage Today,” at the Iona Institute, Martin answered critics who question the bishops’ credentials in pronouncing on marriage and family life, reports The Independent. These critics, including former Irish president Mary McAleese, doubt “rightly” because, Martin continued:

“I have no experience and understanding…I must be honest and say that I am also lacking in knowledge of more fundamental day-to-day realities of the sexual, marital or parental experiences in a family.”

The Iona Institute is a think tank actively involved in the ‘No’ campaign against marriage equality in Ireland.

Elsewhere in his talk, the archbishop criticized anti-LGBT groups during his speech . PinkNews quotes Martin as saying:

” ‘I have consistently said that the debate must be carried on respectfully without the use of intemperate language…

” ‘I do however feel obliged to say that I have received in recent time correspondence from people who support a “no” vote in the referendum in which the language used is not just intemperate but obnoxious, insulting and, unchristian in regard to gay and lesbian people.

” ‘If people use such language to support a position they feel is Christian, then all I can say is that they have forgotten something essential about the Christian message.’ “

While opposed to marriage equality, Martin said society must ensure equality before the law. The Independent reported:

“Dr. Martin suggested that a pluralist society could be creative in finding ways in which people of same-sex orientation had their rights and their loving and caring relationships recognised and cherished in a culture of difference.

” ‘I’m not saying that gay and lesbian people are unloving or that their love is somehow deficient compared to others, I am talking about a uniqueness in the male-female relationship,’ he said.”

Archbishop Martin has also called for a “conscience clause,” should the referendum pass, to allow lay people who are opposed to marriage equality to express objections, such as denying business services for lesbian and gay weddings, without breaking equality laws. LGBT organizations are calling such clauses a “license to discriminate,” reports Yahoo News.

Though opposed to marriage equality, Martin has also made a name for positive statements on LGBT issues. Just last week he and another archbishop openly condemned Irish Bishop Kevin Doran’s comparison of homosexuality to Down’s syndrome and spina bifida. He has previously said church teaching is “disconnected from real experiences of families” and had been used “in a homophobic way” to do great harm. There are also no reports that he sacked a Dublin priest for coming out and openly endorsing marriage equality during Mass a few months back.

Criticism of anti-LGBT voices from any church leader is rare and this is not Archbishop Martin’s first time calling for a more respectful tone from the church on LGBT civil rights. Rarer still is the humility displayed by Martin that he is no expert on marriage and family. That is unprecedented in all of the discussions during last year’s synod and those that are leading up to this year’s meeting. The archbishop seems to be willing to follow Pope Francis’ requests to bishops to be close to their flocks.

This latest admission of non-expertise will hopefully allow for a greater opening space for those with expertise in family life — like married couples and LGBT people — to speak their truths during next fall’s World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia and the Synod on Marriage and Family in Rome.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry


Following Jesus by Bringing Beauty Into the World

March 22, 2015

On the Sundays of Lent, Bondings 2.0 will feature reflections by New Ways Ministry staff members. The liturgical readings for the Fifth Sunday of Lent are: Jeremiah 31:31-34; Psalm 51: 3-4, 12-15; Hebrews 5:7-9; John 12:20-33. You can access the texts of these readings by clicking here.

“The world will be saved by beauty.” Several years ago I saw this quote on a poster at a Catholic Worker house. I’m told that it’s from The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoevsky. I think he’s on to something.

There’s something transcendent when you’re in the presence of beauty. Imagine the last time you experienced an epic natural landscape, admired a skillful work of art, or were in the presence of a lovely person. How did you feel? In the presence of such beauty, I sometimes feel like my soul is opened up and overwhelmed by the sight, blurring the edges between myself and the universe, making me feel a little intoxicated… it’s like briefly touching the infinite with my finite senses, if such an experience could be adequately expressed. And I think that gives us some insight into today’s Gospel.

Beauty is the key to understanding Jesus’ statement: “I will draw everyone to myself.” Jesus lived a profoundly beautiful life — perhaps not in a visual sense of beauty, but insofar as he showed us how to live a fully human life. He demonstrated compassion to the most vulnerable and marginalized members of society. He affirmed the best in people while encouraging them to overcome the worst. He shared and forgave and laughed and loved. The beauty of Jesus’ life attracts and amazes us, just as a mountain landscape or piece of timeless artwork does. That beauty inspires us to imitate his example because we too wish to be beautiful. That means overcoming our frailties and limitations, and claiming our shared identity as beloved sons and daughters of God. And that’s how beauty saves us.

To follow Jesus is to know and imitate the beauty of his life. Good disciples are signposts along the way who point others to Jesus. They are like Phillip and Andrew who, when approached by the foreigners in today’s Gospel, show the way to Jesus. As LGBT Catholics and allies, do our own actions point others to Jesus or away from him? Do we bring beauty into the world by imitating the example of Jesus? Do we practice compassion and forgiveness? Seek out the most marginalized and vulnerable?

The struggle for LGBT equality in our church and society can be disheartening at times. But you have an opportunity right now to inspire and encourage fellow blog readers by answering one or both of these two questions:

1) How do you, like Jesus, bring beauty into the world?
2) How do you see others following Jesus by bringing beauty into the world?

Write your response in the “Comments” section of this post.

–Matthew Myers, New Ways Ministry


Catholics Leave Mass Over Bigoted Homily, but Not All Priests Oppose Marriage Equality

March 21, 2015

Gaelic footballer Eámon McGee, left, supporting the ‘Yes’ campaign

Catholics in Ireland walked out of Mass recently after a priest made prejudiced and personal attacks during a homily against marriage equality, about which the Irish are set to vote in a referendum later this spring.

Fr. John Britto, a Carmelite from India, encouraged parishioners at St. Mary Star of the Sea Church in Annagry, County Donegal, to deny same-gender couples the right to marry by voting ‘No.’ He also attacked local Gaelic footballer Eamon McGee, who has publicly supported the ‘Yes’ campaign, recently telling the Irish Examiner:

” ‘I don’t know would I be more ashamed that I didn’t vote or the fact I voted against it. It comes down to equality and one less difference in society…It’s not that I have any friends who are gay or any close family members but it’s a social issue.’ “

In response to Fr. Britto’s homily, more than a dozen attendees stood up and walked out, including family members of the woman for whom Mass was being offered on the first anniversary of her death. One parishioner who left told The Independent:

” ‘He (the priest) is entitled to his view but it didn’t go down well. After the Mass some members of the congregation approached the family of the woman being remembered to say they only stayed because of them, otherwise they would have walked out too.’ “

Former altar boy and longtime parishioner Noel Sharkey, who assists the ‘Yes’ campaign there also commented:

” ‘As a Catholic and a gay man from the area, I think it’s essential that we engage on this issue in a respectful and tolerant way, and I ask people to avoid using hurtful or upsetting language. Yes Equality Donegal asks people to focus their attention on the key principles of love and equality as they make their mind up on this important issue.’ “

Fr. Britto, however, denies these claims and refuses to clarify what happened, saying only:

“I didn’t see anybody leaving. I didn’t see that…I won’t talk to the media because the media will only twist what I have to say; I speak to the people in church and I only the speak the truth and the Word of God.”

It was reported that the priest issued an apology to McGee, but Fr. Britto denies apologizing for any of his homily, reports The Independent.

Fr. Iggy O’Donovan

On a slightly more positive note, an Augustinian priest from County Limerick announced he would vote ‘Yes’ in the referendum. Fr. Iggy O’Donovan wrote an op-ed for the Irish Times in which he stated:

” ‘It is possible to have deep and passionately-held convictions without seeking to have those convictions imposed by the State on fellow citizens who do not share them…respect for the freedom of others who differ from us is part and parcel of the faith we profess. For these and for other reasons I will be voting Yes.’ “

In a later radio interview, Fr. O’Donovan clarified that he does not endorse marriage equality and would never preside at a same-gender wedding, but he could not judge others and how they choose to live their lives. He ventured that other priests would likely vote ‘Yes,’ too.

With about ten weeks until Irish polls open, the ‘Yes’ campaign is launched and the debate over marriage equality is intensifying.

The damage by negative statements from church leaders such as Fr. John Britto or Bishop Kevin Doran, who said gay couples were not parents and compared homosexuality to Down syndrome, is enormous. Catholic clergy would do well to temper their anti-LGBT viewpoints, which are increasingly not accepted by an Irish Church already devastated due to the sexual abuse crisis and other problems, and keep these thoughts out of Mass. If they wish to make their opinions known on the issue, like Fr. Iggy O’Donovan, doing so in another venue, and in a way that is respectful of and sensitive to LGBT people, should be the foremost considerations.

Marriage equality coming to Ireland could be a moment of renewed belief in marriage, love, and family in this traditionally very Catholic nation. Church leaders should choose to prevent divisive pastoral harm in the lead up to the referendum.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry


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