On Religious Freedom Day, Reclaiming a Progressive and Catholic Value

Today, people in the United States are not only remembering Martin Luther King, Jr., but celebrating Religious Freedom Day. Both commemorations have renewed meaning with an anti-equality presidential administration taking office in less than a week. It is thus an opportune day for Catholic LGBT advocates to reflect anew on two groundbreaking documents so we can reclaim religious freedom as a progressive and Catholic value.

religious-freedomFrederick Clarkson, a senior fellow for religious freedom at the think tank Political Research Associates, wrote an informative article on why religious freedom is indeed a progressive value. Civil rights and religious freedom are the “complementary values and legal principles necessary to sustain and advance equality for all” and is “one of the most liberatory ideas in history.” Clarkson continued:

“Religious freedom is a powerful idea—the stuff from which revolutions are sometimes made. It includes the right of individual conscience—to believe or not believe as we choose, without undue influence from government or powerful religious institutions, and to practice our beliefs free from the same constraints. It’s no surprise that the first part of the First Amendment guarantees freedom of belief.”

Clarkson offered a historical understanding for religious freedom.  In the U.S., the history of this concept begins with the 1786 Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, whose anniversary is celebrated today. At that time in Virginia, the Anglican ruling class was oppressively using religion to retain political power. Civil courts would prosecute those accused of religious infractions, and vigilantes harmed non-Anglican Christians and others. The Statute was a groundbreaking attack against such abuses, and it would go on to inform the U.S. Constitution and legal precedents ever since.

For the nation’s Founders, protection of religious freedom was “synonymous,” in Clarkson’s words, with protections for individual consciences. Taken together, these constituted “a natural and absolute right,” one which has helped progressive movements throughout U.S. history, including the abolition of slavery, the organization of labor, and efforts for gender and racial equality. In summary, religious freedom has gone from an idea expressed locally in the the Virginia Statute to a human right defined globally by the United Nations, and has remained in each historical moment a clear progressive value.

But religious conservatives, including the U.S. Catholic bishops, are misusing this powerful idea and stunting the flourishing of marginalized communities in the process. In the past, segregationists claimed religious freedom to oppose interracial marriage; in the present, those opposed to LGBT rights have claimed religious freedom to fight marriage equality and transgender accommodations.

Since 2012, the U.S. bishops have focused their annual “Fortnight for Freedom” campaign on gender and sexuality issues yet have failed to address real threats to religious freedom experienced by, for instance, Muslims in the U.S. or Christians in the Middle East. They and their conservative associates from other denominations are actually harming real religious freedom.  Clarkson observed that this type of strategy is similar to what was happening in the 1780s when the movement for the religious freedom statute was originated:

“Aspiring clerical aristocrats debase the idea of religious freedom when they use it as tool to seek exemptions from the generally applicable laws of the United States—particularly those that prohibit discrimination.”

Catholics in the U.S. have largely ignored the bishops’ campaign, and overwhelmingly support LGBT equality. The behavior of Catholic lay people shows that religious freedom is not only a progressive value but a very Catholic one.

Religious freedom was not formally defined as Catholic teaching until Vatican II with the promulgation of Dignatitis Humanae in 1965. This Declaration on Religious Freedom, which was the U.S. hierarchy’s main contribution to the Council and relied on the once-censored writings of Jesuit Fr. John Courtney Murray, was in its own way groundbreaking. No longer did the Catholic Church endorse the “confessional State,” in which civil laws mirrored ecclesial teaching, as the ideal. Even Pope Benedict XVI has identified this teaching on religious freedom as one of Vatican II’s top contributions.

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Pope Francis on religious liberty

Our Catholic understanding of religious freedom protects individual consciences, and Catholics have affirmed a form of religious freedom from our earliest days by teaching the primacy of conscience. As the Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes t noted, it is in conscience, this “most secret core and sanctuary” of our beings, alone with a God “whose voice echoes in [a person’s] depths,” where we make concrete judgments about how to live. To act against one’s conscience is wrong. Dignitatis Humanae made this foundational principle explicit in a political sense, positioning religious freedom as a Catholic value.

In a separate article for Religion News Service, Clarkson noted Dr. King’s own reference to religious freedom as a key influence for the civil rights movement. To these secular precedents–Dr. King’s support for religious freedom and the Virginia Statute this Religious Freedom Day–we as  Catholics’, need to add Dignitatis Humanae and the primacy of conscience. These are rich writings and witnesses for us to reflect on today.

And reflect we must. As I wrote about earlier this month, here and here, 2017 will be a year of struggle for LGBT equality under the incoming political leadership in the U.S. Already being considered is the First Amendment Defense Act, which is an effort to undermine civil rights by creating broad religious exemptions in federal law, allowing for greater discrimination. The need for LGBT advocates and other justice seekers to reclaim religious freedom in the United States from religious conservatives has never been so urgent.

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, January 16, 2017

For National Migration Week, Bishops Must Learn Realities of LGBT Immigrants and Refugees

This week is National Migration Week, an annual event convened by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) to focus attention on the plight of migrants, refugees, and victims of human trafficking in our world. This year’s theme for National Migration week, drawn from Pope Francis, is “Creating a Culture of Encounter.” And in this work of migration justice, it is past time for the Catholic Church to engage with the realities LGBT migrants, too.

national-migration-week-2017-poster-470x609While the bishops’ solidarity with migrants is strong and consistent, they have largely abandoned LGBT migrants, thus undercutting the church’s institutional witness. In 2013, the USCCB threatened to withdraw support for immigration reform over a provision granting benefits to same-gender couples. A number of individual bishops, like Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco and Bishop Leonard Blair of Toledo, Ohio, reiterated this threat to stop supporting comprehensive legislation because of LGBT rights. That same year, funding through the Catholic Campaign for Human Development was withdrawn from an immigrant rights organization because the organization was in a coalition with other organizations who supported marriage equality.

Most recently, the U.S. bishops remained largely silent about the racist and xenophobic comments that were hallmarks of the president-elect’s campaign, a silence one theologian described as a “stunning lack of leadership.” Where Pope Francis seems capable of differentiating between being gay and being xenophobic, to paraphrase theologian Massimo Faggioli, the U.S. bishops seem incapable of doing the same.

But the theme of “encounter,” together with an incoming presidential administration hostile to both migrants and LGBT people and the refugee crisis globally, provides an opportunity for bishops in the U.S. to educate themselves about and initiate explicit support for LGBT immigrants and refugees.

Such a shift is quite feasible. The bishops’ language about migrants is equally true for LGBT people. For instance, a statement from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops says the following:

“With respect to migrants, too often in our contemporary culture we fail to encounter them as persons, and instead look at them as others or render them invisible. We do not take the time to engage migrants in a meaningful way, as fellow children of God, but remain aloof to their presence and suspicious of their intentions.”

These words describe well the way many church leaders approach LGBT people, who are not encountered but treated in the abstract as distant and often invisible objects. Just as the bishops exhort others to engage migrants as subjects with whom one is in close relationship, they could turn their words inward and encounter LGBT people in the same way. The power of encounter is profound, and some church leaders have testified to this power, like Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna who said his friendship with a gay man had “melted away prejudices.

The same analysis can be applied to the bishops’ call for responding to immigrants’ needs withr hospitality and accompaniment. Bishop Joe Vásquez of Austin, chairman of the USCCB Committee on Migration, commented that Migration Week is “an excellent opportunity to highlight Biblical tradition and our mission to welcome the newcomer” and “a vital time to show welcome, compassion, and solidarity with our migrant and refugee brothers and sisters.” It is, again, easy to understand how the bishops could apply this thinking to practice greater hospitality to and accompaniment with LGBT people and their loved ones.

The shift is not only feasible, but it must happen because the situation of LGBT migrants is often dire.

Given that more than 70 nations criminalize homosexuality and other nations restrict LGBT rights, some refugees are seeking asylum based on their sexual orientation and gender identity. How many such refugees apply for asylum in the U.S. is unclear as these numbers are not tracked by the federal government, according to a report from the LGBT Freedom and Asylum Network. But regardless of their numbers, such refugees are fleeing harsh persecution in their home country that may include discrimination, imprisonment, physical and sexual violence, and torture.

LGBT victims of human trafficking have unique needs, as stigma and specific health issues make their liberation and recovery more difficult. LGBT people, particularly youth, may be more susceptible to traffickers because of economic disadvantage and/or being ostracized from families and communities. The world’s human trafficking is one which the Catholic Church has responded well to, but the response can be improved by providing informed and competent care to LGBT victims.

Finally, too often LGBT migrants, refugees, and victims of human trafficking are subjected to immigration processes and detention facilities in the U.S. which, failing to account for the unique needs of sexual and gender minorities, actually make these communities more vulnerable. For instance, trans detainees can be misidentified and held in a facility that does not match with their gender identity.

If the U.S. bishops could take the time and be willing to truly encounter LGBT migrants, listening to their realities and learning about the specific issues affecting them, the bishops would understand that LGBT concerns must be included, and even given a preferential option, in the church’s larger witness for just and humane migration.

This National Migration Week, may all Catholics — the bishops, LGBT Catholics and their families, and immigrants — encounter one another in new ways. This coming year will prove difficult for marginalized communities (as I wrote about over the weekend here and here), and greater solidarity will be needed by all to confront further discrimination and oppression.

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, January 9, 2017

With LGBT Rights Under Attack in 2017, Catholics Must Seek Justice with Renewed Vigor (Part II)

Today’s post is the second half of an analysis of how Catholic LGBT issues in the United States will play out in the new year, and with a new president taking office. Yesterday’s post, which you can read here, discussed emerging issues at the state and local level, contrasting the responses of two Catholic politicians in Virginia as an example.

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LGBT advocates rallying outside the U.S. Capitol

I turn now to the national landscape. Writing for Religion Dispatches, Sunnivie Brydum has identified areas at the federal government level where LGBT rights are likely to be threatened. In reading her article, we again ask: what can Catholics expect in the church and in society? And how can Catholics respond effectively?

First Amendment Defense Act

First, Brydum says the First Amendment Defense Act (FADA) “is all but certain to become law.” This bill “exemplifies the ways in which the bedrock principle of religious freedom” has been weaponized to block the advance of LGBT equality.”

FADA is a federal version of the “right to discriminate” legislation which has appeared in state legislatures, allowing people and corporations to deny services to LGBT people if the person or corporation acts according to their religious beliefs. Brydum suggested that FADA’s passage in Congress will strengthen local efforts to enact “right to discriminate” laws.

Unfortunately, U.S. Catholic bishops have been leading figures in misusing religious liberty, particularly in regard to LGBT issues. Brydum noted that it was in a letter to Catholics that President-elect Trump said he would support FADA’s passage. These realities mean LGBT Catholics and their allies will have to challenge not only political but ecclesial forces in the coming year. We have to demand that church leaders adhere more closely to Catholic teaching which supports non-discrimination protections for LGBT people and the equality of persons rooted in human dignity.

Attacks on Healthcare Access

Brydum identified healthcare access as a second threatened area. She specifically identified the impact that proposed Secretary of Health and Services Tom Price will have. Price, a congressman from Georgia, has repeatedly voted against LGBT rights and “defended false equivalencies between pedophilia and homosexuality as nothing more than harmless ‘Christian beliefs regarding proper sexual ethics.'” Brydum continued:

“Crucially, Price also denounced the Obama administration’s landmark support for transgender students as an ‘absurd’ and ‘clear invasion of privacy.’. . .For the first time under the [Affordable Care Act], transgender Americans could not be denied gender-affirming health care simply because they were transgender.”

For sexual and gender minorities, changes to the Affordable Care Act (ACA) could eliminate vital programs which help many Americans, and particularly vulnerable populations, to obtain healthcare. One study estimated that 36,000 people would die each year if the ACA is repealed. Rea Carey, executive director of the National LGBTQ Task Force, is quoted by Brydum saying, “If confirmed, Tom Price would steer HHS in a dangerous direction that’s motivated by profit and the desire to control our bodies.”

Again, despite Catholic teaching affirming healthcare as a human right, it has been Catholic bishops and political operatives who have repeatedly tried to stop passage of and then undermine the ACA. Healthcare that is affordable and informed about gender and sexuality issues is not always accessible to LGBT people, but many steps were taken under President Barack Obama to address systemic problems. Catholics will have to challenge any movement to reverse these lifesaving measures, and again demand that church leaders shift their focus.

Curtailed Civil Rights

The third and final national area Brydum addressed are LGBT civil rights, and, specifically, the impact changes at the Department of Justice might have. Brydum wrote:

“President Trump’s Department of Justice may use the muscle that agency developed under Obama to suppress voting rights, privatize education, and strip away existing civil rights protections. That last provision is particularly important for LGBT Americans, who enjoyed an unprecedented growth in legal equality under President Obama.”

However, Brydum said, the approval of Senator Jeff Sessions as Attorney General would mean “the fate of American civil rights law is effectively sealed” and the Department of Justice would become “a powerful foe.”

Catholics in the United States have repeatedly proven to be among the most LGBT- supportive religious believers, and Catholic politicians like Governor McAuliffe who have done much to advance LGBT rights in civil law. Civil rights is one area where it would be easy for church leaders to raise their voices; human rights are a settled matter in church teaching. The chilling silence of most U.S. bishops after 49 people were massacred at an LGBT club in Orlando cannot be repeated.

Looking Ahead in 2017

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The road ahead will be much harder than it was under the previous presidential administration.Wherever civil rights come under attack, Catholics must step forward. Catholic LGBT advocates must be in solidarity with Muslim Americans, communities of color, people with disabilities, immigrants, women, and other marginalized groups who may come under attack. It is helpful to keep in mind these words from the Catholic Committee on Appalachia:

“Catholics are called by God to oppose discrimination in all of its forms. No religious conviction justifies our treatment of anyone as a second-class citizen.  All are made in the image and likeness of God. Therefore, religious freedom does not trump civil rights, as both are important and should be protected equally.”

Now, more than ever, we must cultivate deeper roots of faith in Jesus Christ in which to ground our witness for equality in the church and in the world.

For the latest updates on Catholic LGBT issues, subscribe to Bondings 2.0 in the upper right-hand corner of this page.

–Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, January 8, 2017

As LGBT Protections Overturned, Transgender Patient Claims Discrimination by Catholic Hospital

A transgender man has filed a discrimination lawsuit against a Catholic hospital just at the same time that a federal judge blocked new healthcare policies implemented by President Barack Obama to protect LGBT people.

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Jionni Conforti

In a lawsuit, Jionni Conforti claimed that St. Joseph’s Regional Medical Center in Paterson, New Jersey denied him a surgery which was “medically necessary as part of his gender transition,” reported ABC News.

A nurse initially told Conforti the surgery would be scheduled. Then Fr. Martin Rooney, the director of mission services at St. Joseph’s, intervened against it. He said in an email to Conforti’s doctor that a hysterectomy was not possible due to the institution’s religious identity. ABC News reported the especially troubling fact that the surgery had been denied “despite the fact that the hospital’s ‘patient bill of rights’ guarantees medical services without discrimination based on ‘gender identity or expression.'” Neither the hospital nor Fr. Rooney will comment on the incident and subsequent lawsuit.

Conforti, however, is clear about both the damage this alleged discrimination has caused and his reasons for suing, saying:

“‘I felt completely disrespected as a person. . .That’s not how any hospital should treat any person regardless of who they are. A hospital is a place where you should feel safe and taken care of. Instead I felt like I was rejected and humiliated.'”

The lawsuit, which beyond financial compensation hopes “to require the hospital perform any needed medical care for transgender patients,” helps to contribute to the important work of combating endemic problems related to trans people accessing healthcare. ABC News explained:

“While he had the procedure performed three months later at a different hospital, Conforti said he’s pursuing the lawsuit so that no one else has to go through what he did. . .[he] cites the problem of suicide in the transgender community.

” ‘Anything can trigger that. Something may seem small, but to a trans person, it’s not. . .This is a big thing that happened. I want it to change. I don’t want other trans people to have to go through and feel what I felt.'”

Conforti’s story has come to light just as policies initiated by the federal Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to protect LGBT patients have been blocked by a federal judge. This ruling by U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor may mean more trans patients face discrimination by religiously-affiliated hospitals.

Religious groups had filed lawsuits against the federal government over the HHS regulations which, congruent with the Affordable Care Act, prohibit discrimination based on a number of protected classes, including gender identity. Buzzfeed News reported:

“O’Connor, the same judge who blocked federal government protections allowing students in public schools to use restrooms consistent with their gender identity last year, halted enforcement of the rule one day before it was supposed to go into effect, on January 1, 2017. . .

“One plaintiff in the lawsuit, a private hospital system called the Franciscan Alliance, said that, consistent with the teachings of the Catholic Church, ‘a person’s sex is ascertained biologically, and not by one’s beliefs, desires, or feelings.’

“The hospital group argued that treating or referring patients for transition-related care would constitute ‘impermissible material cooperation with evil.'”

The plaintiffs, which include Christian organizations and several states, claimed the regulation infringes upon their religious liberty as it does not include a religious exemption from providing healthcare required by transgender people, which the plaintiffs claimed violate their religious beliefs. Yet, according to new standards of care and the American Psychiatric Association’s new 2012 diagnosis of gender dysphoria, providing gender-affirming surgeries, hormone treatments, and counseling is increasingly understood to be valid and necessary medical care.

Catholic plaintiffs who are part of the several lawsuits against the HHS regulation have included the Catholic Benefits Association (CBA), the Diocese of Fargo, Catholic Charities North Dakota, the University of St. Mary, the Sisters of Mercy in North Dakota, and SMP Healthcare.

As I noted earlier this week, Catholic healthcare leaders’ opposition to non-discrimination protections are entirely out of step with Catholic teaching. Healthcare in church teaching is not only a good, it is a human right. Pope John XXIII’s 1963 encyclical Pacem in Terris was groundbreaking in human rights advocacy for his affirmation of this truth.

St. Vincent’s Hospital in New York City strongly affirmed this truth when it implemented a non-discrimination policy to protect lesbian and gay people  in 1973, becoming the first Catholic institution to do so. Such protections are good, but they are meaningless if, as with St. Joseph’s Regional Medical Center, they are merely words. Catholic healthcare systems should stop fighting legal protections and instead proactively implement policies by which they will abide that live out the first rule of medicine: do no harm.

–Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, January 6, 2017

 

 

God’s Incarnate Promise, Our Promise to Love One Another

This weekend, Christians around the world gather with their families and loved ones to celebrate the amazing mystery of the Incarnation. There is much to ponder about God became human, but one truth it affirms is the goodness of being embodied beings in relationship with and loving other beings.

Sadly, this weekend can also be difficult for many LGBT people if lack of acceptance for their identities and/or relationships has caused pain or division in families and communities. Returning home for Christmas can be a moment where holy embodiment is forgotten, and LGBT people are asked by misguided loved ones to leave the fullness of their lives and their love at the door.

As Christmas celebrations begin today, it seems a fitting time to reflect on the words of Amy Morris-Young in the National Catholic Reporter who recently told the story of her brother’s coming out as a gay man, and how families can respond with love.

Morris-Young begins her tale with an anecdote about being a child in the 1960s, riding around in the back of her family’s car. In a silly game, the siblings would try to elicit reactions from drivers by waving at them while saying through clenched teeth, “Wave if you’re gay!” But when they grew up, that childish statement took on a different meaning. She explained:

“My baby brother, Tom, was now 19. He had just completed his first year at our shared Catholic university, and was driving north for a visit. He told me on the phone before he left Southern California that he wanted to talk with me about something in person. He had decided to come out. He was gay.”

Tom had already come out to his family, friends, and Catholic parishioners, and these conversations did not go well. But Morris-Young was already prepared to greet him in a special way:

“When I opened our front door, and saw Tom standing there, road-weary and squinting at me through the glass of the storm door, I just smiled and held up my hand, saying, ‘Wave if you’re gay.’

“He slowly raised his hand and wiggled his fingers.

“We both laughed as I let him in.

“When he dropped his duffel bag, I hugged him. He started to cry, his head heavy on my shoulder, his body shuddering with each sob.

“We stood there for a long time. When he finally straightened up and sniffed, wiping his dripping nose on the back of his sleeve, I saw that his tired, sad eyes made him look a lot older than 19. I had moved away to college when he was 11, and never moved back. He had been through a lot since then.”

Morris-Young said the two spent a week catching up, including many conversations about growing up in a Catholic family, a Catholic parish, and a Catholic school. Tom had suffered “trying to hide his attraction, and his shame. . .trying to force himself to be normal.” During the week, it came out that Morris-Young had known her brother was different since they were young. She told him a story:

“I said, ‘When you were 3 years old, and I was 10, you walked into my bedroom, and said, “Amy, there’s been a big mistake. I was supposed to be a girl. Who do we talk to?” ‘

“He said, ‘I don’t remember that.’

“I smiled, ‘Tom, you were 3. Of course you don’t. But I do. I don’t remember what I told you, but I do remember that you were super disappointed that I couldn’t fix it for you. I mean, I was your big sister. I was supposed to know everything, right? I felt bad.'”

Morris-Young said that she was “happy [Tom] had been brave enough to come out, but I was still scared for him. And for us.” Acceptance by the rest of their fellow Catholics was slower, and Tom was “trapped at the edges of our family” and “marginalized.” When she mentioned the story about his question when he was three years-old, the adult Tom cried. She remarked:

“The pain of knowing exactly who he was at three years old — followed by a lifetime of continually striving for dignity and acceptance in a world that can still be harsh and judging and dangerous — seemed just as fresh as it had been more than 20 years earlier.”

lgbt_family_logo_ceramic_ornament-rd0ce0e1d152346e5b60ad965b3162478_x7s2g_8byvr_324Morris-Young is now a mother and a grandmother who knows that our contemporary times are a very different fromm the era when Tom came to understand his sexual identity and live authentically. She promised that she would offer a better response than her ten year-old self if a child or grandchild were to ask, “There has been a mistake. Who do we talk to?”  Her thoughts are ones we should all remember this Christmas season:

“I promise an answer full of love and acceptance and hope. One that says God doesn’t make mistakes, and we are each created to be exactly as we are. That above all, we are family, and we are on this journey together. And that I promise to be your designated adult, to do my best to keep you safe from everything I can — from choking on small objects to having to face unkindness or injustice all alone — forever and ever, amen.”

As we remember anew the promise of love God makes to us through the Incarnation, knowing that when God became human, our embodied beings were affirmed wholly as wonderfully made, let us make that same promise to one another. We will always answer our loved ones with love, acceptance, and hope. We will promise to do our best to accompany them the way that Jesus Emmanuel accompanies us.

–Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, December 24, 2016

Theologian: Gay Priests Must Have Their “Stonewall Moment”

Following initial reactions last week to the Vatican’s new document reaffirming a 2005 ban on gay men entering the priesthood, several Catholics have offered more extended reflections. You can find initial reactions here and New Ways Ministry’s response here.

charamsastonewallTheologian Lisa Fullam called for gay priests to have a “Stonewall Moment.” She disagreed with Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese’s recommendation that a “reputable survey” be undertaken to determine how many gay men are in the priesthood. (You can read Bondings 2.0’s coverage of Reese’s piece by clicking here, and you can read Fullam’s piece at Commonweal by clicking here.)

Fullam acknowledged that there are a significant number of gay priests, but challenged Reese’s idea for a survey:

“. . . [T]he central issue should not be how many such men serve as priests. The issue should be that what is said about them is not true. And a survey won’t correct a lie. What is needed is for gay priests to have a Stonewall moment. They need to speak up for themselves. Their colleagues, ordained and otherwise, need to stand with them. They need to come out of the closet, or nothing will change.”

(Fullam will be a plenary speaker on sexual ethics at New Ways Ministry’s Eighth National Symposium, “Justice and Mercy Shall Kiss:  LGBT Catholics in the Age of Pope Francis,”  April 28-30, 2017, Chicago. Among the many focus sessions at the symposium will be one on gay men in the priesthood and religious life, led by an openly gay priest.)

Fullam provided five reasons why gay priests should have their “Stonewall Moment,” beginning with the recognition that “what is said about them is a slander.” About the document’s suggestion that gay men are inhibited from correctly relating to people and their presence may cause “negative consequences,” Fullam wrote:

“And what are the ‘negative consequences’ we are warned of? Thinking that gay people are decent, hard-working, loving children of God like the rest of us? And that some are called to service in the Church, like the rest of us? . . . It is an act of thuggery to out people against their will; gay priests need to stand up for their own vocations and those of other gay priests.”

Fullam said that gay priests are currently invisible, yet it is because of out and visible LGBTQ people that society’s perceptions and opinions have changed. Unless gay priests begin coming out in greater numbers, they will “still be regarded as a question about a shadowy minority we think we do not know.” Fullam acknowledges that, for many, there is a fear that if a gay priest comes out there will be sanctions. But she remarked:

“It is also the case that there is a drastic shortage of priests in the Church at present, so this seems unlikely, at least if lots of gay priests come out. With any luck, their straight brothers would stand with them. If they do not, were they really their brothers in the first place? Myself, I have little sympathy for those who fear defrocking as a dire punishment–what does that say about all the other non-ordained ministers in the Church? Yes–coming out makes gay priests vulnerable. Aren’t we about to celebrate the birth of God into the human community in the most vulnerable possible form? So, like the angel said, “Fear not.” And gay priests should know: your friends, your allies, your colleagues, your parishioners, your families, we’ve all got your backs.”

Fullam also pushed back against priests who claim that their religious communities are open, even if they are publicly closeted. Fullam’s final reason for a “Stonewall Moment” about gay priests looked outward beyond the clergy:

“It’s not only about you. . .there are also queer kids in the Church who hear how important the Church leadership thinks it is to keep folks like them out of leadership. They might even buy that line about ‘objectively disordered,’ and, unless they’ve read a fair amount of Thomas Aquinas, might think it means they’re broken and unloveable, doomed to loneliness and despair. Even in these times of increased acceptance of gay people in our society, queer kids have an increased risk of being bullied, beaten up, thrown out of their homes, and even of attempting and completing suicide. Is that enough?”

Acknowledging the discomfort or risks involved in openly discussing one’s sexuality, Fullam said that until gay priests come out in greater numbers:

“Church leaders–some of them closeted, sometimes self-loathing, homosexually-oriented men themselves–will continue to utter the slander that affects not just ordained gay men and seminarians, but every LGBTQ person in the Church.”

Worth noting in Fullam’s piece are the two positive developments in “The Gift of the Priestly Vocation” that she identified. The document “bears the stamp of Francis in a good way” as it speaks of priests as “missionary disciples. . .’with the smell of the sheep'” bringing mercy to God’s people. Priests in this model are “constantly needing an integrated formation.” And the document, she points out, moderates “the clerical triumphalism of John Paul II.”  Both of these developments, if taken seriously, could have positive effects for LGBT ministry.

Another perspective on the Vatican statement controversy comes from Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of DignityUSA, who wrote an essay for Advocate.com. She opined:

“The pope’s endorsement of this document sends a clear signal to those of us in the LGBTQI and ally community who follow church politics. Despite the pope’s tendency to say reasonable things about us in unscripted moments, when he is acting for the institution of the church, he shows no willingness to disrupt the status quo. This means that those who saw the Franciscan papacy as a time when official Catholic teaching on gender identity and sexual orientation might be changed are likely to be deeply disappointed.”

Duddy-Burke also identified church leaders’ failure to “accept the wide variety of human expression and relationships has far-reaching implications,” which affect matters like education and healthcare,” and which put “countless people at risk of violence, imprisonment, mental and physical health problems, social isolation, and increased poverty.”

Finally, Jamie Manson of the National Catholic Reporter used the Vatican’s document on priesthood as a springboard to discuss some broader ideas about Pope Francis and LGBT issues. But of the document, Manson wrote:

“Though the Vatican leaves to the imagination what precisely the “so-called ‘gay culture’ [sic] might be, the guidelines suggest that gay seminarians who act like straight guys, conceal their sexualities, repress their sexual desires, and oppose any campaign for LGBT rights might be given a small window of clerical opportunity. . .If the church does have ‘profound respect’ for these men, it has a twisted way of showing it.”

Manson said that Pope Francis, who reportedly approved the document actually signed by another Vatican official, may have “intended to use his message to critique ‘worldly and rigid priests,'” but instead he amplified the homophobia and misogyny present in the church.

The call for gay priests to have their “Stonewall Moment” is similar to former Vatican official Krzysztof Charamsa’s call for the Catholic Church to have its own Stonewall. Charamsa, who had been a priest and theologian at the Vatican, came out just days before the Synod on the Family began in 2015.

If you would like to show your support for gay priests, you can sign New Ways Ministry’ statement “The Gift of Gay Priests’ Vocations” by clicking hereThis statement is a wonderful way to let Catholic leaders know that Catholic lay people welcome and support the gay priests in their midst.

–Robert Shine, December 19, 2016, New Ways Ministry

A Woman of Courage Brings Emmanuel, “God With Us”

For the four Sundays of Advent, Bondings 2.0 is featuring lectionary Scriptural reflections by LGBTQ theologians and pastoral ministers studying at Boston College.  The liturgical readings for the Second Sunday of Advent are Isaiah 7:1-014; Psalm 24:1-6; Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1:18-24.  You can read the texts by clicking here.

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Elizabeth Sextro

Today’s reflection is from Elizabeth Sextro, a master’s student at the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry.

“We are told of meek obedience. No one mentions / courage.”                -Denise Levertov, Annunciation

Deuteronomy states that if a woman in ancient Israel were to become pregnant out of wedlock, “the men of her town [should] stone her to death” (22:21). In the reading from Matthew’s gospel today, Mary’s community would likely assume that she had sex and became pregnant by another man, after already being betrothed to Joseph. Joseph is portrayed by Matthew as being a righteous man since he decided he would “divorce [Mary] quietly,” instead of exposing her as an adulterer.

We hear, however, very little about the woman in the story: no one speaks to Mary directly, no one asks her what happened, and certainly no one in her community would offer their support to her. Perhaps our reflection today could be to uplift the voice of the scared, confused, and ostracized thirteen-year-old girl who is told that she is to bear a son.

Approaching conversations about Mary tends to make me nervous. Historically, as Elizabeth Johnson reveals in her book Truly Our Sister, theologians and scholars have tended to strip Mary of her very humanity by turning her into a symbol. She is idealized as the “handmaid,” the virgin, the quintessential mother, and the ultimate model of femininity.[1] Johnson’s project is to retrieve the person of Mary: the human being, just like you and me!

Our Gospel reading, however, does not reveal much about her. We know, of course, that Mary was Jesus’ mother. But before she was ever a mother, she was just a girl: a Jewish girl from Galilee, living in the village of Nazareth. Although Johnson gives us a much more complete picture of her historical life, I am fascinated by Mary’s incredible courage. To borrow from Denise Levertov, nobody ever talks about the fact that getting pregnant could have had her killed. We talk about a virgin, so meek and mild, but what of her courage?

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Ernest Kotkov, “Virgin Mary with the Infant”

So the story goes: an angel appeared to this young girl and asked her to be the one to bear the “Emmanuel,” meaning “God with us,” a very fitting wordplay since God would quite literally be within Mary. But we would be remiss to think of God becoming human without a price. Mary’s fiat, Mary’s “yes,” most likely turned her into a social pariah. Why would she agree to that?

I don’t want to idealize Mary for saying “yes”: I am with Johnson in that it is more theologically helpful to view her as our “sister.” Rather, I hope to say that Mary as an embodied woman experienced fear like the rest of us and responded to that fear with courage. God sometimes asks us to do things that are unpopular, that make us outcasts, that could figuratively stone us to death. Standing in solidarity with marginalized communities of people is a one-way ticket to being outcast, but isn’t this exactly what Jesus was all about? Jesus deeply loved and connected with the poor, the women, the lepers, the blind, the common people who had no power in society.

Mary sacrificed her social capital in order to bring God to us. God is “with us” as a human only because of Mary’s incredible courage. We need not idealize this courage or see it as unattainable. Rather, we have the opportunity to emulate it.

At a time in the United States when people of color, Muslims, women, people with disabilities, the poor, undocumented immigrants, and people of the LGBTQIA community are being specifically targeted, it is essential that we find the courage to speak out against injustice. Just as Mary’s courage brought God into the world, so too can our courage bring about change in unjust social systems. It is not so outlandish to suggest that we, too, are called to bring God into our social structures, which are often violent. Like Mary, we too are called to bring God into the world.

–Elizabeth Sextro, December 18, 2016

[1] Johnson, Elizabeth, Truly Our Sister: A Theology of Mary in the Communion of Saints, (New York: The Continuum International Publishing Group, 2003), 22-36