Massachusetts Bishops Offer Temperate Response to New Transgender Law

mcc-logoCatholic bishops in Massachusetts have offered a tempered, though not perfect, response to newly passed anti-discrimination law aimed at protecting transgender people. Their statement improves upon other church leaders’ responses to this contentious human rights issue in other U.S. states.

Republican Governor Charlie Baker signed the bill in law last Friday. Building on employment protections passed in 2011, the new law provides non-discrimination protections based on gender identity for all public accommodations in the state. The Massachusetts Catholic Conference, representing the state’s bishops, released a statement which said, in part:

“While the purpose and intent of the legislation is to provide protection and access to public accommodations for transgender individuals in the Commonwealth, the issue of its implementation will require both careful oversight and respect for all individuals using such public accommodations. . .

“The understanding of and respect for transgender persons has only recently commanded widespread attention. The complex challenge of crafting legislative protections for some in our community while meeting the needs of the wider population will require sensitive application of the legislation just passed.”

The Conference statement suggested debate will continue, citing contested gender and sexuality issues addressed by Pope Francis in his apostolic exhortation, Amoris LaetitiaBut the Conference urged civility, concluding:

“Debate about this legislation and its implementation will undoubtedly continue in some form. It will inevitably touch on themes not easily captured by law. . .We urge respect in this discussion for all those whose rights require protection. In our parishes, schools and other institutions, the Church will respect the civil law while upholding the principles of our faith and our religious freedom.”

Public accommodation protections for transgender people have been hotly debated in the U.S., with more than 100 pieces of anti-LGBT legislation having been debated in state legislatures this year. Debates about these bills, and the broader issue of transgender public accommodations, have very often become rancorous.

The country’s Catholic bishops, for the most part, have responded poorly. North Carolina’s bishops welcomed that state’s HB 2 law which mandates restroom use according to assigned sex at birth, though one bishop later qualified his support. Bishop Joseph Kopacz of Jackson offered qualified praise for Mississippi’s HB 1523 law, a law which allowed for some discrimination.  It was described by one state legislator as “the most hateful bill I have seen in my career in this legislature.” Bishops in Nebraska actively opposed newly-approved policies to protect transgender student-athletes in the state’s schools. And at least two dioceses criticized President Barack Obama’s directive mandating public school students be able to use restrooms and locker rooms matching their gender identity. It is worth noting, too, that Vatican official Cardinal Robert Sarah, while addressing the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast, referred to transgender rights as “demonic.”

Respecting transgender people should be a “fairly simple thing to do,” to quote Jesuit Fr. James Martin, but unfortunately this has been too difficult for many church leaders. Issues around gender identity and expression, civil law, and true religious liberty can be very complicated, as Bondings 2.0 has noted at least twice (here and here).

The church’s response should be respectful, a simple thing to do, but should not rely upon simple answers where nuance is required. The Massachusetts’ bishops response in this case should have highlighted more strongly Catholic teaching about opposing discrimination, but even with that deficiency, its tempered tone and willingness to dialogue is a step forward.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

Social Ills Linked to Marriage Equality? Really?

The new Catholic bishop of Springfield, Massachusetts, spoke against marriage equality, and seemed to name it as the cause for a variety of social ills.

Bishop Mitchell Rozanski

It seems odd that Bishop Mitchell Rozanski, formerly an auxiliary bishop in Baltimore, would use this opportunity to speak out a about a political issue which was decided 12 years ago in Massachusetts, when it became the first state to institute marriage equality for lesbian and gay couples.

What’s even more surprising is, according to the report of the interview on, Rozanski brought up the topic of marriage in response to a question about social ills:

“In terms of secular culture, he said, today’s ‘crime, drugs, general lack of respect for one another, is really based on in the disintegration of family life.’

” ‘What we offer as Catholics is to strengthen the family as the basis of society. When there is a solid family life, there is less likelihood of crime, there is less likelihood of drug use. The children grow up with a solid foundation. And that is a foundation they can take all through their lives,’ Rozanski said. ‘And, as a Church, what we are saying is that God made us male and female, and that the institution of marriage is so crucial. It is a sacrament of the Church, if the sacrament is well lived, then the children and future generations will benefit.’ “

(You can read the entire interview here.)

Taken in this context, it seems like the bishop is including marriage for lesbian and gay people as part of the reason that many other aspects of society are disintegrating. The news reporter noted that Pope Francis has asked bishops not to “obsess” about gay marriage:

“Last September, Francis, in an interview, said abortion, contraception and gay marriage had become an “obsessed” focus in the Church.”

The reporter also noted that U.S. bishops have not followed this advice:

“U.S. bishops continue to speak out against abortion, oppose same sex marriages, and to support legislation that would ban them.”

From his statement, it looks like Bishop Rozanski fits this profile.

Besides the dubious connection of marriage equality to social ills, Rozanski’s comments are flawed in three more ways.

First, he attributes the major parts of society’s ills on the disintegration of the family.  While family problems almost certainly contribute to these problems, other problems such as unemployment, poverty, homelessness, untreated mental illness also are major contributing factors.  Why select a personal issue, such as family, and not one of these more social issues, to highlight the causes of society’s problems?

Second, while Rozanski may lament the disintegration of the family, he fails to recognize that marriage equality actually strengthens families rather than contributing to their disintegration.  Marriage equality provides protections for all families, not just those headed by heterosexual couples.  And marriage equality teaches respect for lesbian and gay people, which is an important factor in strengthening their families of origin.

Third, the bishop notes that marriage is a sacrament, but that is not a view that is shared by all people in our pluralistic nation.  While Catholics view marriage as a sacrament, others see it as purely a civil matter, governed by legal realities, not ecclesial or spiritual ones.   Confusion of church marriage with civil marriage is one of the most insidious strategies that marriage equality opponents employ.

Let’s pray that Bishop Rozanski’s tenure in Springfield, Massachusetts will be met with more enlightened and pastoral approaches to LGBT issues than he has already displayed.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

Gay Couple Sues Diocese in Real Estate Deal Over Fears of ‘Gay Marriage’

UPDATE: The Rainbow Times provides commentary from canon lawyer Rev. Thomas Doyle after Msgr. Sullivan suggested canon law barred the Diocese of Worcester from selling property if it was to be used for same-sex marriages:

“In his assessment, Catholic priest and canon lawyer, the Reverend Thomas Doyle said, ‘There is no basis whatsoever in canon law’ for the diocese’s suggestion it is prohibited by church policy from selling to buyers who may allow same-sex wedding celebrations.

“‘In the first place, the diocese’s action is pure discrimination based on their twisted concept of gay, as well as their condemnation about what may happen, not what has happened,’ he said. ‘They have no right to condemn what has not happened.’

“’Apart from that, canon law says that it is forbidden to use a sacred place for a profane use unless the place is de-sacralized by an act of the bishop or if they have been given over to secular uses either de facto or by decree,’ Doyle explained.

“’However, this applies to churches, chapels and shrines and not mansions that were used as therapy centers.  In light of the scandal that arose out of then Houses of Affirmation they could hardly be called a “sacred place.”‘”

Additionally, the Boston Globe editorialized about the growing incident in support of Fairbanks and Beret.

A Massachusetts married couple is suing the Diocese of Worcester for discrimination after church officials broke off real estate negotiations allegedly over the men’s sexual orientation.

Alain Beret and James Fairbanks outside of Oakhurst mansion.

James Fairbanks and Alain Beret are business partners as well and sought to buy Oakhurst mansion, a former retreat center, to convert it into a banquet facility as they had done in other locations around New England. As the Milford Daily News reports:

“’It was a facility we were extremely interested in,’ he said. ‘We have made our life by restoring old buildings.’

“’Now that it’s lost to us, it’s a great disappointment to me,’ he added.

“Beret said he first became suspicious when the diocese ended negotiations abruptly.

“Beret said an email from Monsignor Thomas Sullivan, included in the complaint, explained the sale’s failure. In the email, Sullivan reportedly writes, ‘Because of the potentiality of gay marriages there, something you shared with us yesterday, we are not interested in going forward with these buyers.’”

The Worcester Telegram reports about events after the two businessmen made an offer on the property on June 8:

“The email was later inadvertently forwarded to Mr. Beret, according to the suit, which seeks unspecified monetary damages for alleged violations of state housing discrimination laws and infliction of emotional distress.

“Msgr. Sullivan, who oversees the sale of diocesan property, is named as a defendant in the suit, along with the House of Affirmation Inc., Bishop Robert McManus and Eastern Alliance Realty, LLC, which acted as an agent for the diocese in the negotiations.”

The Diocese of Worcester repeatedly cites financial failings for cutting of the sale with Fairbanks and Beret, denying any knowledge of the men’s sexual orientation:

“’They couldn’t come up with the money. This happens all the time,’ he [Msgr. Sullivan] said in July…

“’From the diocese point of view, this case is not about discrimination against gay persons. It’s simply a failed real estate transaction,’ Mr. Reardon [a diocesan attorney] said.”

Bondings 2.0 reported on this story when it first broke in July, ‘Monsignor Is Caught in a Lie as Diocese Backs Out of Selling Property to a Gay Couple.’

In the column cited there, Beret and Fairbanks reject the diocese’s continued financial narrative and Worcester Telegram columnist Diane Williamson reports on their take:

“’Their [the diocese] message was, “These guys are gay. Get rid of them,”’ Beret said. ‘I don’t argue with their right to stand on the pulpit and condemn. But they don’t have the right to chase me down with their poison.’”

“Their lawyer, Sergio Carvajal, said state law prohibits discriminating agasint buyers based on sexual orientation, and said the potential for gay marriages would exist regardless of the sexual orientation of the buyer.”

The message that the Diocese’s actions amount to discrimination is made clear from the plaintiffs, joined by the Massachusetts Fair Housing Centerin the lawsuit. For Beret, a Christian who once considered the priesthood, this lawsuit is about something fundamental to Catholicism:

“ ‘I have plenty of sins,’ Beret said. ‘But being gay isn’t one of them. This is not a fight I wanted to pick. But for the sake of my dignity, I’m not walking away.’ ”

New Ways Ministry’s Executive Director Francis DeBernardo commented on the story for the Rainbow Times:

“Nothing in church teaching prohibits the sale.  The decision not to do so comes from the church representatives involved in the business negotiations, not from the official teaching of the church.  The true scandal here is not the possibility of same-gender marriage taking place at the location but that church officials are negotiating in such a surreptitious way.”

What do you think? Is this a case of discrimination or should the Diocese be enabled to choose the buyer? Even if it is legal to reject Beret and Fairbanks offer, is Beret right that morally this is fundamentally about dignity of the human person?

Leave your responses in the ‘Comments’ section below.

-Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

Monsignor Is Caught in a Lie as Diocese Backs Out of Selling Property to a Gay Couple

The following story is a cautionary tale about how far some Catholic officials will go to dissociate themselves from marriage equality.  It’s also a cautionary tale about lying and diligently checking to whom you may be forwarding an email.

Oakhurst mansion

Dianne Williamson, a columnist for Massachusetts’ Worcester Telegram, reports that when a gay couple offered to buy a mansion for sale from the Diocese of Worcester, they were rejected as buyers.  A mistakenly forwarded email to the couple reveals that the diocese was concerned that the new owners might use the building to host gay weddings.  Moreover, a diocesan official has been caught in a lie to the newspaper about why the diocese refused the sale.

Williamson’s column begins:

“It’s bad enough that the Catholic Church discriminates against gay people. But it’s poor form — and possibly illegal — to document the bigotry and then mistakenly email it to the victims.

“This embarrassing etiquette lapse occurred as James Fairbanks and Alain Beret were pursuing the purchase of Oakhurst, a 44-bedroom mansion in Northbridge, owned by the Diocese of Worcester. Fairbanks and Beret had searched for two years for the perfect renovation project, and hoped to turn the run-down estate into a banquet facility. Previously, the pair had transformed mansions in Vermont and Barre into similar businesses.”

The diocese originally seemed very happy to sell the building, going so far as to suggest a lower bid because of renovations that had been done.  But after they rejected the deal which was in progress, Williamson called a diocesan official to get an explanation:

“This week, Monsignor Thomas Sullivan, who oversees the sale of diocesan property, told me the deal fell through because of financing.

“ ‘They couldn’t come up with the money,’ he said. ‘This happens all the time.’

“I told him the potential buyers believed that he rejected the deal because of their sexual orientation, or the prospect of gay marriages someday being performed at Oakhurst. Was that an issue?

“ ‘No, it wasn’t,’ Msgr. Sullivan said. ‘It was an issue of them not having the financing. That was all.’

“As noted, if you’re going to discriminate, you should cover your tracks. Inadvertently attached to the email rejecting the counter offer is an email from Msgr. Sullivan to the diocesan broker:

‘I just went down the hall and discussed it with the bishop,’ Msgr. Sullivan wrote. ‘Because of the potentiality of gay marriages there, something you shared with us yesterday, we are not interested in going forward with these buyers. I think they’re shaky anyway. So, just tell them that we will not accept their revised plan and the Diocese is making new plans for the property. You find the language.’ ”

Fairbanks and Beret are now planning to sue the diocese; in Massachusetts it is illegal to refuse to sell because of a purchaser’s sexual orientation.

An added wrinkle in this story is that the Oakhurst mansion had previously been used as a treatment center for pedophile priests, but had been closed because of allegations of sexual abuse and financial mismanagement:

“Speaking of reprehensible, Oakhurst is perhaps best known as the former House of Affirmation, a treatment home for pedophile priests, which closed amid scandal in the late 1980s. Ironically, Beret was willing to overlook that history; he’s a devout Christian who at one time studied for the priesthood.

“ ‘I have plenty of sins,’ Beret said. ‘But being gay isn’t one of them. This is not a fight I wanted to pick. But for the sake of my dignity, I’m not walking away.’ ”

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

ALL ARE WELCOME: A Priest With An Extravagant Sense of Hospitality

The ALL ARE WELCOME series is an occasional feature  which examines how Catholic faith communities can become more inclusive of LGBT people and issues.  This is the fourth installment.  At the end of this posting, you can find the links to previous posts in this series.

When a parish wants to welcome LGBT people to their community, sometimes all it takes is a simple symbol to let folks know they will not meet with any animosity due to sexual orientation or gender identity.

Fr. Walter Cuenin

A lesson in expressing that welcome can be learned from Fr. Walter Cuenin, a long-time advocate for LGBT people in the Boston area, having been pastor at one of the first gay-friendly parishes there, Our Lady Help of Christians, in suburban Newton.  In 2006, he was the main speaker at Boston’s interfaith prayer service for Gay Pride Week.

The Brandeis Hoot, the student newspaper of Brandeis University, a mostly Jewish school in Waltham, Massachusetts, recently carried a profile of Fr. Cuenin, who serves as the school’s Catholic chaplain. The article begins with Fr. Cuenin’s  simple pastoral theology, based in the Christmas story, which is appropriate since the chapel at Brandeis is called the Bethlehem Chapel:

“Cuenin bases his decision to exhibit a gay pride flag [outside the chapel] on a tale about Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. According to Christian tradition, when Mary and Joseph arrived at a Bethlehem inn, Mary was forced to have her baby in an outside stable since there were no rooms left at the inn. Cuenin connects this story to Brandeis’ Bethlehem Chapel by using the multicolored flag to portray that ‘in this Bethlehem, there’s always room for everyone in the inn.’ ”

Fr. Cuenin knows how to talk as a pastor in a way that affirms people. The wide-ranging interview with him covers a variety of hot-button issues:  contraception, abortion, gays in the military, immigration, and he answers them all with the kind of compassion and common sense that any good pastoral leader should exhibit.  For example, while not stating support outright for marriage equality, Cuenin gets across a message of loving acceptance.  In the interview, he states:

“ ‘The Catholic Church opposes gay marriage, so I cannot directly say I support it, but I have seen from my experience that for many people it creates a much healthier environment … For example, if you were to go to Provincetown in the summer time, where a lot of gay people go, it’s a radically different place today than it was 20 years ago,’ Cuenin said. ‘They are there with children and married, raising kids, so they go home at night. In other words, it has transformed the whole gay scene … it hasn’t led to total debauchery. In some ways, it has pulled people back together,’ Cuenin said.”

The closing of the interview highlights the extravagant sense of hospitality that would be wonderful to see throughout out church:

“ ‘When I was a pastor of a large church … I would always say I welcome everybody to this church, whether you’re gay or straight, divorced or remarried. Sometimes people in authority can take that the wrong way, but my understanding of being Christian is someone who welcomes everybody.’ ”

Let’s all try to practice that welcome to all we encounter.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry


Previous posts in the ALL ARE WELCOME series:

Say the Words , December 14, 2011

All in the Family , January 2, 2012

At Notre Dame, Does Buying In Equal Selling Out? , January 25, 2012

Barney Frank Remembers Kevin White

Barney Frank
Kevin White

If openly gay Congressman Barney Frank is praising an Irish Catholic former mayor of Boston, you have to stop to take notice.

Indeed that is what Frank did the other day in a news story circulated by the Associated Press, and which I read on the website of The Herald News of Fall River, Massachusetts.  Kevin White, who passed away on January 27th, was the subject of Frank’s praise.

Describing White as “the first modern mayor,” Frank lauded him for his inclusive spirit:

” ‘City Hall was pretty much a Whites-only — almost an Irish-only — place,’ Frank told The Associated Press. ‘He opened it up, hired people of all races, genders’ and even embraced the gay rights movement.”

Most importantly, as Frank tells the tale, if it weren’t for the Catholic White, there would have been no “Congressman Frank:”

“ ‘He was an enormously important figure for the city, for many of the values I cared about and, in my case, really made a great difference in my life,’ Frank said.’I was still, when I met him, planning on an academic career, figuring I would dab in politics. He was the one who persuaded me to try fulltime government political work.’ ”

White had served four terms as Boston’s mayor, being elected for the first time in 1967 and serving until 1983.  Before this tenure, he had served as Massachusetts’ secretary of state three times.  The article also notes:

“White also was the first major state-level political figure to open up the political system to new people, including African-Americans and gays, Frank said.”

White’s funeral will be held at St. Cecilia Catholic Church, Boston.  This gay-friendly parish was in the news in 2011 when the Archdiocese of Boston told them that they could not host a Pride Mass during Gay Pride week in the city. The mass was re-schedule for one month later, after the pastor, Fr. John Unni, had preached a sermon of unconditional love and acceptance.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

Steps Forward for Transgender Equality

Within the space of one week, on opposite coasts of our nation, transgender equality has taken several steps forward.

Two transgender equality laws went into effect in California on January 12, 2012.  The bills were signed last year by Governor Jerry Brown, a Catholic and former seminarian.

According the San Francisco Times, the Gender Nondiscrimination Act clarifies existing employment, housing, and other civil rights protections.   The Vital Statistics Modernization Act makes it easier to obtain and update birth certificates.

One week later,  in heavily Catholic Massachusetts, Governor Patrick Deval hosted  a ceremonial signing into law of that state’s  Transgender Equal Rights Bill, according to The new law protects transgender citizens from discrimination in housing, employment, credit, and offers protections in the areas of civil rights and hate crimes.

Not included in the Massachusetts law was the area of public accommodation, and at the ceremony LGBT activist Danica Ali noted that it “must be added to the bill.”  As the story notes,  “Public accommodation refers to the right to stay at a hotel, ride a bus, or even use a bathroom without being discriminated against.”

Meanwhile, in Maryland this past week, the Baltimore County Council began public hearings on a transgender equality bill they are considering, according to The Baltimore Sun.  Opponents of the bill have spread rumors that a similar bill in Maryland’s Montgomery County have led to bathroom rapes by men dressed as women.  The Baltimore Sun also reported that the Montgomery County Chief of Police Thomas Manger has said these rumors are false.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry


–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry