Rejection of LGBT Student Group Raises Problems at Catholic H.S.

Following a Missouri Catholic high school’s rejection of a proposed LGBT student group, community members are asking questions about how and why this decision was made. So far there are few clear answers.

kuzp-ldkAt Nerinx Hall Catholic High School, in Webster Groves, near St. Louis, School President John Gabriel said the Archdiocese of St. Louis directed him to reject a request from students for an LGBT club, reported the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

In a response to concerned alumna, Jill Allen, Gabriel explained that the archdiocese mandated any student LGBT group at the all-girls school follow “a carefully charted course of action that includes conversion therapy.” He would later say he misread this archdiocesan directive.  He also told Allen:

“Nerinx Hall believes that we can best minister to our LGBT students through our Loretto charism and the Loretto school values of faith, community, justice, and respect.”

But, Allen wrote in her initial letter to the school president, that rejecting an LGBT group “doesn’t reflect my experience of Nerinx,” and is not consistent with Loretto values. And Allen is not alone. Within a day, more than 600 people joined a Facebook group protesting the rejection. Beth Schumacher, class of 2001, told the Post-Dispatch:

“‘There are a lot of alumnae out there who are really, really disappointed both with the decision and with the direction it might be going in right now. . .There are young people at risk. If someone is asking for a club of that nature, then there are definitely individuals who can use that level of support.'”

The school was founded and is currently sponsored by the Sisters of Loretto.  It an independent institution not formally affiliated with the Archdiocese.  On the school’s website, the statement of philosophy says that the school believes “educated, caring, and empowered young women are essential to our world.” It shares in the Loretto School Values, which include:

“Community: Building relationships that are affirming, inclusive, empowering, and compassionate

“Justice: Promoting changes to eliminate oppression, and creating systems and relationships in which people, especially women, are treated fairly and impartially

“Respect: Being open to differences, and believing in each person’s potential. Promoting the dignity of individuals and protecting the sacredness of all creation.”

Sister Jeannine Gramick, New Ways Ministry’s co-founder and lifelong Catholic advocate for LGBT people provided the following comment to Bondings 2.0 about this decision made at a school that is sponsored by her religious community:

“As a Sister of Loretto, I am embarrassed and ashamed by the stance taken by Mr. John Gabriel. Such a posture does not reflect the Loretto values of inclusion, diversity, and care for all. The students and alumnae of Nerinx deserve leadership that displays these Gospel-based values.”

The story of the school’s decision became even more complex when later in the day, in a letter to parents after news of the rejection broke, Gabriel retracted his claim about “conversion” therapy, writing:

“Today, a Post-Dispatch reporter reached out to Nerinx Hall and the Archdiocese. In preparing my response to the reporter, I also spoke with Archdiocesan Superintendent Dr. Kurt Nelson. It was during my conversation with him that I realized I had misunderstood the Archdiocesan position on conversion therapy within school LGBTQ+ groups.”

Responding to the Post-Dispatch, Gabriel simply “sent a reporter a list of Nerinx Hall’s initiatives to promote diversity and inclusion, which include training for teachers on ministry to LGBT individuals and diversity forums for students.” He commented only that Nerinx Hall would be consulting with the Archdiocese on next steps.

Unfortunately, it is not merely Gabriel and Nerinx Hall administrators who are involved, as they may be more willing to listen to alumnae. Gabe Jones, an archdiocesan spokesperson, said Archbishop Robert Carlson is responsible for all Catholics, and “[w]hen it comes to Catholic teaching, the archdiocese is the arbiter of what is Catholic and what is not.”

At issue in this debate are guidelines on LGBT ministry published by the Archdiocese last year. Titled “Hope and Holiness: Pastoral Care for Those with Same-Sex Attraction,” these guidelines include a “triage checklist” for dealing with LGBT people, and discourage people from publicly coming out. The guidelines also mandate that the Archdiocese be consulted if an LGBT group is being considered at a school or parish.  The guidelines express concern about how adolescents are considered in such groups:

“[T]he boundaries between transitory same-sex attraction and more deep-seated tendencies are not always clear. It is not unusual for a young person to experience attraction to a person of the same sex. It is important not to assume that such experiences are the result of a deep-seated tendency.”

Perhaps this is what confused President Gabriel into citing conversion therapy as a reason for the rejection. It is troubling that a lack of clarity still exists about how, why, and by whom the decision was made. This haze is similar to other LGBT controversies at Catholic institutions where culpability for unpopular decisions is treated as hot potato, passed around by church officials.

But this is a prime moment in which a Catholic high school can assert its independence and take a firm stand for its LGBTQ students. As a former Loretto Volunteer and friend of some Sisters of Loretto, I have come to know well the values of the Loretto Community, with which Nerinx Hall is affiliated. The Sisters “work for justice and act for peace because the Gospel urges us,” and have done so with a pioneer mentality for over two centuries. President Gabriel and Nerinx Hall administrators should tap into the Community’s rich Catholic roots to find a way forward consistent with this history and these values.

What would be best at this moment is for administrators at Nerinx Hall and Archbishop Carlson to share transparently what happened: Did the Archdiocese demand the group be rejected? Are Nerinx Hall administrators hiding their decision under the Archdiocese’s umbrella? Was conversion therapy a relevant aspect in the rejection? And what happens now? Nerinx Hall students, alumnae, teachers, parents, and Catholics in St. Louis generally deserve nothing less than honest and clear answers to these questions.

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, February 16, 2017

Malta’s Rapid Shift on LGBT Rights Is Case Study for Other Catholic Nations

Malta has elected the nation’s first transgender politician, a sign of just how far on LGBT rights a country where Roman Catholicism remains the state religion has come. A closer analysis of this shift could help Catholics in other regions in their own journeys towards equality.

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Crowds in Malta celebrating Pride Week

Alex Mangion became Malta’s first transgender politician when he won a local election as the Partit Nazzjonalista (Nationalist Party) candidate, reported The Independent. But support for LGBT rights in the conservative party that had controlled Malta’s government since the late 1990s is a recent development, and came only after its 2013 defeat to the Partit Laburista (Labor Party) who had made LGBT rights a major platform item.

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Alex Mangion

Though the Nationalist Party had abstained from a successful vote on civil unions in 2014, Mangion said that presently “having a transgender person in the party made people realize it’s not conservative.” And by 2015, the Nationalist Party had joined the Labor Party in passing a groundbreaking transgender rights law. (It is worth noting that, under that very law, Mangion became “the first person in this tiny nation to be able to update the gender on his official documents without undergoing surgery or hormone treatment.”)

The Independent noted that this shift in a political party is “a microcosm of the evolution underway in Malta,” a traditional Catholic country which outlawed divorce as late as 2011. But where LGBT people once hid, rejected by church leaders and stigmatizing social norms, a married same-gender couple, Steve and Manuel Aquilina, now hosts and produces a leading cooking show. A colleague of theirs, Victor Anastasi, said:

“‘They’re accepted like everyone else. . .We’re a Catholic country. But eventually the church has to come to terms [with society changing].”

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Joseanne Peregin

Joseanne Peregin, the Catholic mother of a gay son, recalled a bishop once saying, “If you’re gay, excommunicate yourself. Go, there is no place for you in the church.” But then in 2011, she said, the Catholic Church’s control over Maltese politics was undercut sharply when divorce was legalized through a popular referendum.

Now it must be acknowledged,, said Fr. Rene Camilleri, that Catholics in Malta “are not taking a package deal.” Camilleri, who is Episcopal Vicar for Evangelization for the Archdiocese of Malta and a lecturer at the University of Malta, has previously described church teaching on homosexuality as “nonsensical.” He also said Catholic ministers “cannot deprive [same-gender couples] of the blessing for which they ask.”

Today, other nations seek to learn from and even copy Malta’s LGBT laws. Minister for Social Dialogue, Consumer Affairs, and Civil Liberties Helena Dalli said that “what we have done here is serving as a model to other countries, and, in a good way, because more people are leading better lives.” And The Independent continued:

“Kyle Knight, a New York-based researcher for Human Rights Watch, said that what’s particularly admirable about Malta’s LGBT rights laws is ‘not just the result as much as the process’ that led to their creation.

“Members of the LGBT community, other advocates and a local human rights group served on a council set up in 2013 to advise the government. Legislation was accompanied by directives that covered how LGBT people in prison should be treated and how schools should deal with bullying of transgender or gay students.

“When Knight was recently asked in Japan how schools should handle anti-LGBT bullying, ‘We copied and pasted these (Maltese) guidance documents and we said, “Look, this is how you do it,”‘ he recalled.”

While marriage equality is not legal yet in Malta, same-gender couples are recognized through civil unions, there are extensive non-discrimination protections, so-called “conversion therapy” is banned with harsh penalties in place, and a 2015 law on transgender and intersex persons is considered the gold standard in Europe.

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The island nation of Malta

How does a country where Roman Catholicism is named in the constitution as the state’s religion and where 95% of its citizens identify as Catholic become so progressive in a short time? Some observers might consider Malta a paradox, understanding LGBT equality and the Catholic Church to be opposites. Yet, there is a very plausible explanation for what has happened.

First, it is an oft-repeated but worth reiterating truism: Catholics support LGBT equality because of, not in spite of their faith. Key tenets like social justice, human dignity, and non-discrimination have informed the faithful’s engagement in civic matters, and this includes working for the rights of sexual and gender minorities. It makes sense the citizens of Malta who practice, or even are simply informed by, Catholic faith would vote for equality.

Second, it has to be admitted that there are non-ecclesial matters influencing this shift. In Western contexts, homosexuality has been largely de-stigmatized and neighboring countries in Europe have been moving forward on LGBT rights. Some have credited Malta joining the European Union as an impetus for catching up to their neighbors, and now taking the lead. As in other Western contexts, Mass attendance and the moral authority of bishops have declined in recent years. Some people leave, or are pushed out of, the church, and there is a certain amount of secularizing that happens. These factors and more, as in other regions, contribute to the rapid pace of the shift.

2b5de-drachmabloglogoBut third, many Maltese remain practicing Catholics and this has made the biggest difference. A few weeks ago, I highlighted the positive outreach of the country’s bishops to LGBT communities . In fact, Malta’s leading gay rights group gave the bishops an award in 2014. Here are other important examples of positive Catholic moments on LGBT issues:

  • Drachma and Drachma Parents are both Catholic organizations engaging LGBT issues in the church, and they have made an impact. They helped consult on the civil unions law, pushing back against a bishop’s criticism, They hosted Sr. Jeannine Gramick in 2011 to educate about LGBT equality in the church. They also hosted theologians Sr. Margaret Farley, RSM, and James Alison.) They were credited by Bishop Mario Grech as helping him to understand the need and urgency for new pastoral care of LGBT people;
  • A priest who blessed a same-gender couple’s rings was not punished by the bishop; indeed, Archbishop Charles Scicluna affirmed the priest’s outreach efforts to LGBT people;
  • After releasing a harsh position paper opposing the government’s efforts to ban “conversion therapy,” a paper in which homosexuality was compared to pedophilia, Archbishop Charles Scicluna listened to Catholics’ criticism and then apologizedsaying the church was “dead set” against such programs.

Though I have never experienced the Church of Malta firsthand, I sense a serious Christian community of mature and critically engaged Catholics. Lay Catholics, and clergy like Fr. Camilleri, have grappled with not only church teaching, but the realities of their context.And, quite notably, the country’s bishops have been willing to affirm LGBT people as beloved by God and to listen to their people. They have even been willing to acknowledge where the hierarchy had it wrong, and to apologize to those whom they have harmed.

In under a decade, Malta went from being socially conservative to a world leader on LGBT rights. Maltese Catholics are a shining example of what can happen when the faithful really listen to the Gospel and live their faith in public life. Let us hope more and more historically-Catholic regions follow this path, especially in areas like Latin America and Africa where the church is rapidly growing and yet LGBT rights remain limited.

If you would like to read reflections from members of Drachma Parents, you can find Louise Laferia’s reflection on the call of being a parent to an LGBT person here and Joseanne and Joseph Peregin’s reflection on what makes a family holy here. For Bondings 2.0’s full coverage of LGBT Catholic issues in Malta, click here.

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, February 13, 2017

 

Former Miss Universe Reconciles Catholic Faith with LGBT Equality

Pia Wurtzbach relinquished her crown as Miss Universe on January 29, 2017, but right before doing so, the model/actress posted a message on a Time magazine website in which she explained that her support for LGBT equality was not in conflict with her Catholic faith.

Wurtzbach, a citizen of the Philippines, who became Miss Universe in 2015, wrote a post for Motto.Time.coma website owned by Time which allows celebrities to state their opinions on whatever subjects they choose.  Wurtzbach began by describing the culture in which she was raised:

“I am Filipino, and like the vast majority of people in my country, I am a proud Catholic. I have a steadfast faith, and my religion is an essential element of who I am. Growing up, my family regularly attended mass, and I studied at a school that taught Christian fundamentals.”

It was exactly those “Christian fundamentals” which shaped Wurtzbach’s inclusive attitude:

“Religious establishments including the Catholic church teach that they are the one true faith, but the values instilled in me as a Christian have encouraged me to respect all beliefs and opinions. Growing up, my family taught me that to receive respect, you must first offer it.”

Wurtzbach is proud that “the Philippines is every day becoming a more tolerant community,” but she also notes that “my liberal opinions on many social issues sometimes conflict with Christianity’s teachings.”  Still, she holds firm to her opinions because they are rooted in her experience and her faith.   Having been raised by a single mother, her childhood was one of struggle. Wurtzbach notes how her experiences shaped her attitudes:

“Perhaps my nontraditional family unit allowed me to accept others’ differences without judgement and has made me proud to advocate for LGBTQ rights as a Christian. In fact, I find the strength to do just that through my faith. Undoubtedly, there will continue to be times when my faith and secular opinions clash, but in those moments, I find comfort in an old saying: ‘Live and let live.’ “

But her views were also shaped by her experience of LGBTQ people:

“I myself owe a lot to the LGBTQ community, many of whom are my closest friends. Without their accepting attitudes toward my own flaws and struggles, I would not be where I am today.”

Wurtzbach has used her celebrity to help those less fortunate.  In December 2016, she met with Manila’s Archbishop Luis Tagle to present the proceeds from a fundraising event she sponsored to be used for Caritas Manila.  Tagle gave her a rosary blessed by Pope Francis.

Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, February 12, 2017

 

 

 

 

After Trans Student Shot, Catholic School Shifts Course

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, February 9, 2017

LGBT Issues Prominent at Conference on U.S. Catholic Higher Education

LGBT inclusion was a central theme at the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities‘ (ACCU) annual meeting this year. Entitled “Inclusion on Campus: Exploring Diversity as an Expression of God’s Grandeur,” the meeting explored several issues, including race, immigration status, and gender.

cukqoshwyaqbqfvDr. Julie Hanlon Rubio, an ethicist at St. Louis University, led a workshop on “Serving the LGBTQ Community.” According to the National Catholic Reporter, Hanlon is concerned that Catholic higher education did not offer appropriate support following last year’s massacre at an LGBT nightclub in Orlando in which 49 people were killed.

Rubio said, “[W]e can’t quite find the words. . .We have to find the theological resources that give us the ground to stand on so that we can appropriately claim the ground that is out there.” NCR reported further:

“Rubio advocated for calling students and others by the names that they wish to be called. Educators ought to be, she said, ‘less worried about the trouble we might get in by inclusion and more worried about the suffering they are experiencing.’. . .

“Rubio walked participants through a timeline of Catholic thinking on topics like what it means to be made in the image of God while offering theological tools for discussing gender and offering hospitality in the context of diversity and inclusion. Urging her listeners to be sensitive to the experiences of their LGBTQ students, Rubio stressed the importance of listening.

“In a question-and-answer period following the session, conference members discussed how to minister effectively when students may want advocacy, the status of conversations with bishops about LGBTQ concerns, and even the potential need for a  ‘safe space’ for theologians who grapple with these topics.”

Beyond gender and sexuality, the meeting dealt with other areas in Catholic higher education where diversity and inclusion could improve. These issues have taken on a new urgency given the first two weeks of the new U.S. presidential administration.

Fr. Bryan Massingale, a theologian at Fordham University, New York, said this was a “moment of stark clarity” calling on Catholic colleges and universities to offer a “powerful, robust vision” that understands “the urgency in which your students are feeling this moment in history.” He said further, “We need to both respond to and interrogate in light of our commitment to God” this new reality.

executive-order-statementIndeed, just as ACCU members gathered for the meeting, the president was issuing an executive banning citizens from seven predominantly Muslim nations from entering the U.S. ACCU’s statement in strong opposition to this ban affirmed, “The commitment of our institutions to creating inclusive, welcoming campus environments that embrace people of all faiths and cultures.”

It is heartening to see thtat this commitment to inclusion and diversity is focusing on matters of gender and sexual identities, which are so present in students’ lives and about which institutions can offer key supports. As last Wednesday’s post for National Catholic Schools Week highlighted and New Ways Ministry’s LGBT-Friendly Colleges listing makes clear, many Catholic colleges and universities in the U.S. are already offering LGBTQ supports and even coursework.

Hopefully, with ACCU’s forward-looking leadership, the meeting this year will encourage schools to either step up or start altogether their inclusion of LGBTQ people on campuses. To read the organization’s list of “Ten Ways to Be More Inclusive,” click here.

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Rev. Bryan Massingale

Fr. Bryan Massingale will address “Pope Francis, Social Ethics, and LGBT People” in the opening plenary session of  New Ways Ministry’s Eighth National Symposium, “Justice and Mercy Shall Kiss:  LGBT Catholics in the Age of Pope Francis.” The symposium begins on the evening of April 28th and runs until the afternoon of April 30th.  All events are in Chicago.  For more information, click here.

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.

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, February 4, 2017

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