Bishops’ Employment Action Against Editor Has Troubling Consequences for U.S. Church

April 26, 2016
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Tony Spence

More than sixty church workers have lost their jobs in LGBT-related disputes since 2008, but the recent news of Tony Spence’s departure from Catholic News Service(CNS) gained wider attention in Catholic media because of his high-profile position.

Spence was director and editor-in-chief of CNS, which is owned by the USCCB. His forced resignation has chilling implications for church workers and for the bishops’ conference. It raises troubling questions for the U.S. church primarily because the USCCB responded so swiftly and completely to accusations leveled against Spence by several small right-wing Catholic groups. The alleged offenses for which Tony Spence was fired are sending tweets about LGBT news stories.  For example, in one tweet he described a story about transgender Catholics sharing their stories as “fascinating.” In another, he called anti-LGBT laws in places like Mississippi and North Carolina “stupid.”

Robert Mickens, writing in Commonweal, said the Spence situation was “further enabling homophobic and hate-mongering heretic hungers” on the church’s right wing.  Mickens said the USCCB caved to the extremist attacks on Spence, and without warning, asked for his resignation, despite his sterling professional record which includes being an advisor to the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Social Communications.

Small organizations like these accusers, some consisting of a single person, have targeted LGBT church workers before and now even attack those Catholics who dare to comment on LGBT issues.

Michael Sean Winters of the National Catholic Reporter, calling the firing “regrettable in the extreme,” echoed the reality that such actions only encourage extremist behavior. He wrote:

“[T]he USCCB has become in thrall to right-wing activists whose ability to weigh competing values is skewed or worse. The bishops have been ill-served, and many of them know it, but no one has taken the lead in seeking to change it. The conference is losing staff faster than the Titanic lost passengers. Now, they will range themselves among that sliver of conservative opinion that believes they must fight and die on the hill of opposition to LGBT rights. Someone should tell them that the country passed that hill five miles back.”

Patricia Miller, writing for Religion Dispatches, said Spence’s firing should not be surprising because it is in keeping bishops’ actions nationally, which have included the monitoring of church workers’ social media profiles:

“Across the country, conservative Catholic bishops have pushed employees of Catholic institutions to sign what are in effect loyalty oaths that promise to monitor the Twitter accounts and Facebook pages of employees of Catholic institutions. . .the bishops’ strategy appears to be ever-tighter wagon-circling, and Spence was definitely on the outside of the circle.”

The Spence situation will also impact CNS. Mickens asserts that conservatives at USCCB have sought to change the news service into “a propaganda wing for the conference’s numerous culture war battles.” He explained:

“But Spence struggled to protect the independence that is written into the news agency’s statutes—one of the features that has made Catholic News Service such a good, reliable, and credible source of church news and analysis.

“But like just about everything else the reactionary leaders at the U.S. bishops’ conference touch these days, it looks like they are determined to ruin this too.”

Winters agreed that CNS would become “worthless” if it loses editorial independence.

Winters looked deeper than the standard claim that Spence was forced out for posting tweets opposing LGBT discrimination. He suggested the USCCB, unable to back down from the religious liberty narrative, is shifting away from contraception issues related to the Affordable Care Act to issues of LGBT civil rights. To support this idea, Winters commented:

“No one likes to admit it, but the Church’s theology related to gays and lesbians is inadequate. For two thousand years, the working assumption was that gays and lesbians were behaving in an aberrational manner but, in recent years, most people have come to accept that being gay is not a choice to act in a certain way, but is constitutional for that person. We have not yet wrestled with that fact, and the changed moral framework it requires, adequately. . .

“I fear, too, that the same psychology at the conference that led them to fire Spence would frustrate any effort to find a compromise formula on the issue of LGBT rights. Unlike the fight over the contraception mandate. . .this time the bishops should start with the theology and let the legal strategy flow from that.”

Finally, and most basically, Winters reminded the bishops that, on seeking to restrict LGBT rights, “[t]hey will lose” and “deserve to lose.” People in the U.S. generally disagree that religious liberty is under attack, and Catholics readily question whether the bishops’ advocacy has crossed the threshold from genuine political participation to partisan campaigning.

In her Religion Dispatches essay, Miller stated the same idea in a different way:

“Spence’s firing, and the lack of respect for both freedom of the press and individual conscience it reflects, shows just how transactional the bishops’ relationship with fundamental American freedoms really is.”

The Spence fiasco raises serious questions for the for the U.S. church. Does the USCCB find that simply listening to Catholics’ lived experiences, something so forcefully witnessed to by Pope Francis, a threatening proposition? Does the USCCB totally reject opposition to discrimination against marginalized communities, an undeniable principle in Catholic social thought? Is an accomplished veteran journalist and Vatican advisor, celebrated by his peers on both accounts, so readily expended to appease extremist Catholic elements?

Without a statement from the USCCB about the Spence situation and the issues that it raises, it seems that the U.S. bishops are answering “yes” to these questions. And to that, U.S. Catholics must respond with a very clear no.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry


Fr. James Martin, LGBT Groups, Others React to Pope Francis’ “The Joy of Love”

April 9, 2016

Screen Shot 2016-04-08 at 5.29.58 PM.pngYesterday’s release of Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation on the family whose title translates as The Joy of Love, has provoked a tremendous amount of news reports and commentaries that will surely continue as this more than two-hundred page text is digested further.

Today, Bondings 2.0 provides an initial round-up of reactions as they relate to LGBT issues. You can read LGBT-related excerpts from Amoris Laetitia by clicking here.  You can read New Ways Ministry’s response by clicking here.

Fr. James Martin, S.J. tweeted that Amoris Laetitia offered a welcome to LGBT people and set issues around sexuality and gender within a global context, saying, in two separate tweets:

“To LGBT friends: Pope says ‘before all else’ you are respected, and inveighs against violence against you–a huge challenge to Africa, e.g.”

“Good to remember that #AmorisLaetitia is addressed to the whole world. So his comments on LGBT people are challenging to many cultures.”

Martin also highlighted the renewed emphasis on conscience present in the document. You can read Martin’s “10 Takeaways from Amoris Laetitia” in America.

Equally Blessed LogoEqually Blessed, a coalition of Call to Action, DignityUSA, Fortunate Families, and New Ways Ministry, expressed disappointment in its statement:

“While the Pope acknowledges the complicated issues facing Catholics on the margins. . .[he] ultimately reinforces existing harmful church teaching that characterizes LGBTQI people as unable to reflect the fullness of God’s plan for humanity. Specifically, the Pope continues to condemn same-sex marriage and adoption by same-sex parents, and he refuses to acknowledge the complexities of gender identity.”

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Marianne Duddy-Burke

Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of DignityUSA, said many had “hoped for much more” and continued in a statement:

“While the Pope acknowledges the Church has been too rigid in other areas, there is no repentance when it comes to LGBT people. We need to see changes in teaching and practice before we can move forward. . .Clearly, Church officials, up to and including Pope Francis, still have little idea of the reality of LGBT people’s faith, lives, and family situations.”

Call to Action said in a statement that, despite the pope’s call for clergy to “see Grace at work in all life’s complicated and complex forms,” the organization was:

“. . .deeply concerned this document results in an institutional and ecclesial status quo that does not make real substantive changes in Catholic structures and practices (e.g., an end to the unjust firings of LGBT Church Workers and discrimination against women, to name only a few examples).”

Terence Weldon

Terence Weldon

Terence Weldon of Queering the Church was similarly dissatisfied with the document’s approach to LGBT issues, but saw hopeful elements as it “created the conditions for change”:

“Closer examination however, reveals some cause for optimism, certainly in the longer term. What is not said may be more important than what is explicitly stated. Most notably, there is no reference at all to the offensive term ‘objectively disordered’, or any hint of opposition to same-sex relationships (as long as they do not claim to be “marriage”).  Although there is a forthright objection to same-sex marriage, this is not listed among the many problems and dangers that are said to threaten actual families, or even the institution of marriage itself.”

Commenting on Pope Francis’ renewed emphasis on the “internal forum,” Weldon added:

“Drawing on a passage from the great theologian Thomas Aquinas, the conclusion we may reach is that even though those who remarry after divorce, or who live openly in same-sex relationships, may appear to be living in conditions of objective sin, their particular circumstances may negate that conclusion.”

Michael Sean Winters

Michael Sean Winters

Michael Sean Winters, columnist at the National Catholic Reporter, commented on several aspects including the following point relevant for LGBT Catholics and their families:

“[T]he Holy Father does not believe the pastor, still less the magisterium, should tell people what to do, but that a pastor should accompany people so that they can discern God’s activity and calling in their own lives. The pastor encourages spiritual maturity, not memorization of a hodgepodge of canonical requirements.”

Father Thomas Reese, SJ

Father Thomas Reese, SJ

Fr. Thomas Reese, S.J., also writing for the National Catholic Reporter, defined success for Amoris Laetitia differently than other commentators. Though he critically engaged the text’s content, he concluded:

“This is a papal document well worth the time to read and reflect on. Parts are dull; parts inspire and delight; parts will give hope; and parts will infuriate. If it brings the conversation about families out of the synodal hall and down to the parish and families themselves, then it will be a success.”

In the days to come, there will surely be many conversations at all levels of the church about how to understand Amoris Laetitia and what it means concretely in Catholics’ lives. Bondings 2.0 will be engaging these conversations and keeping our readers updated.

In the meantime, what are your first reactions to this exhortation? You can leave them in the ‘Comments’ section below.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry


Catholics Plan Sunday Rally to Support Fired Gay Cantor

January 9, 2016

Catholics near Washington, D.C. will rally this weekend in support of fired church worker Jeffrey Higgins, whose dismissal has stimulated reflections from Cardinal Donald Wuerl and others on the crisis with LGBT church workers. Michael O’Loughlin of Crux reported:

“For nearly two years, Jeffrey Higgins led parishioners in song at Mother Seton Catholic Church in Germantown, Maryland, at three or four Masses each weekend. But this Sunday, he’ll find himself outside, joining protesters upset about his firing as a part-time cantor following an anonymous complaint that he married his longtime partner.”

You can read about Higgins’ firing by clicking here. The fired cantor is strong in his Catholic identity. He told Crux:

” ‘I was baptized Catholic, I was confirmed Catholic, and I’m still Catholic. I don’t think this will affect my relationship with the Church. . .I’m hoping the Church will someday be a more welcoming and accepting place.’ “

The rally, scheduled for Sunday, January 10, 2016, 8:30 a.m. to 12:15 p.m,, across the street from Mother Seton Catholic Church, where Higgins worked, located at 19951 Father Hurley Boulevard Germantown, Maryland, is organized by DignityUSA and Dignity/Washington,  You can get more information by clicking here.

Cardinal Wuerl, recently called “The Pope’s Man in Washington” by Religion News Services’ David Gibson, defended Higgins firing in a recent blog post. Wuerl said that while the “outcome is unfortunate,” it is not discrimination and explained:

“However, if one persists or effectively insists that they are right and the Church is wrong, in the face of such irreconcilable differences it is not discrimination or punishment to say that continued ministerial service is not possible. It is not a question of personal private activity, but the social consequences of conduct which undermines the Church’s ability to fulfill her mission. When there is the potential for scandal that might lead people astray regarding the Catholic faith, continued service becomes untenable.”

Citing his own pastoral letter, “Being Catholic Today,” he added that “when we give bad witness, we can lead people away from Christ.” Absent is any pastoral concern for Jeffrey Higgins, his husband, the affected parish community, or Catholics generally who are hurt by discrimination in our church.

Michael Sean Winters of the National Catholic Reporter commented on Wuerl’s post and, more broadly, the firing of LGBT church workers. Winters’ comments are not quite positive for LGBT church workers, but there are some notable points. First, he questioned the scope of what constitutes “bad witness,” to quote Cardinal Wuerl, and concluded:

“If we are going to require all ministers to be upstanding Catholics, it would be good to know that this requirement applies to those who dissent on non-pelvic issues too.”

Second, Winters also picked up on why Higgins was fired, namely stalking by anti-gay parishioners who researched the cantor online after seeing Higgins and his husband at a movie together. Winters wrote:

“This is important because the Church does not want to give a heckler’s veto to anti-gay vigilantes who might comb through court records at the marriage bureau and crosscheck them with parish rolls. . .We are the Catholic Church in 2016 not Salem, Massachusetts circa 1692.”

Winters cited the case of Rick Estridge, a former vice president at Catholic Relief Services who resigned after a right wing activist outed by posting Estridge’s marriage license online. These cases are not isolated incidents, and many of the firings that have happened over the past seven years have been because of “vigilante” snooping. (For all known cases of firings and other employment disputes because of LGBT issues since 2008, you can click here to find New Ways Ministry’s resource page on the issues.)

Third, Winters commented on the ministerial exemption by stating the church leaders should not simply call all employees ministers “in hopes of increasing legal wiggle room to terminate employees as needed.”  Catholics can expect that the church expands its theological and pastoral understandings of ministry without demanding expansions in unrelated legal matters.

Where Winters falls most short is his belief that a case-by-case handling of church worker issues is the right solution to respecting their dignity. Nondiscrimination policies applicable to LGBT and Ally church workers should become standard, so space for discretionary discrimination by a particularly zealous pastor or principal is eliminated.

These firings are now a “major scandal” in the words of Loretto Sr. Maureen Fiedler, who included a condemnation of them from Pope Francis as one of her “Catholic Dreams in 2016,” writing:

“[W]hile 2016 may be a bit early for him to change his views on same-sex marriage, he could make clear that he does not agree with firing personnel in Catholic institutions because of their orientation, or because they married someone of the same sex. These discriminatory firings have become a major scandal.”

Cardinal Wuerl did get one truth (mostly) correct, writing in his conclusion:

“The Church we serve is not ours, but Christ’s. The greatest mercy of the Church is to be faithful witnesses of his truth and love.”

Jeffrey Higgins and other fired LGBT church workers served the church in their positions and they serve the church in protest, as well. The Catholics standing outside Mother Seton Church on Sunday are demanding that the church be a faithful witness to Christ’s truth and love, rather than ceding our institutions to discrimination and prejudice.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry


Catholics Continue to React to Supreme Court Marriage Equality Ruling

June 29, 2015

Bondings 2.0 is continuing its coverage on the historic U.S. Supreme Court ruling on marriage equality.  We are continuing to provide our readers with more responses from Catholic leaders, organizations, and individuals.   If , in your general reading on this topic, you come across a Catholic response that you like, please send the link to: info@NewWaysMinistry.org.  We will try to include it.   Please limit suggestions to responses from Catholics or that discuss Catholic issues.   Of course, feel free to share your own reactions in the “Comments” section of this post.

For yesterday’s post, which contains more reactions, click here.  For a prayerful response, click here.  For New Ways Ministry’s official response, click here.

The following are some of the responses we’ve been collecting.  For each excerpted response, we provide the link back to the full statement or article.

Lisa Fullam

Lisa Fullam, Associate Professor of Moral Theology, Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley:

After providing an analysis of how Catholic principles underlie Justice Anthony Kennedy’s judicial opinion in Obergefell v. Hodges, Fullam states:

“Perhaps a good first step for Church leaders would be to applaud the Court’s decision in light of its overlap with Catholic values regarding marriage. Of course, the Church may still refuse to marry lesbian and gay couples, just as it refuses to marry anyone with an un-annulled previous marriage. In time, I trust that Church teaching on sacramental marriage will evolve, too, and take note of the powerful spirit of love and commitment vivifying lesbian and gay marriages as well as straight marriages. 

“But in the meantime, please, please, let’s stand with the Court and celebrate the equal human dignity of ALL God’s children.”   (From a Commonweal magazine blog post)

[Read Professor Fullam’s article, “Civil Same-Sex Marriage: A Catholic Affirmation,” published on Bondings 2.0 on April 15, 2014.]

Bishop Robert McElroy

Bishop Robert W. McElroy of San Diego:

After a statement expressing a desire for government to preserve a unique status for heterosexual married couples, Bishop McElroy stated:

“The Catholic community of San Diego and Imperial counties will continue to honor and embody the uniqueness of marriage between one man and one woman as a gift from God- -in our teaching, our sacramental life and our witness to the world. We will do so in a manner which profoundly respects at every moment the loving and familial relationships which enrich the lives of so many gay men and women who are our sons and daughters, our sisters and brothers, and ultimately our fellow pilgrims on this earthly journey of life. And commanded by the Gospel of Jesus Christ we will continue to reach out to families of every kind who are encountering poverty, addictions, violence, emotional stress or the threat of deportation, and to attempt to bring them faith and care, service and solidarity.”  (From a statement)

(As mentioned in yesterday’s Bondings 2.0 blog post, a number of bishops have issued statements on the court’s ruling, many of which were similar in tone and message.  We provided links to blog posts which contain excerpts and links to these if you would like to read them.  We will try to provide excerpts from bishops’ statements which we consider to have some unique aspect or tone to them.)

Christopher Hale

Christopher Hale, Executive Director, Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good:

“Friday’s Supreme Court decision to legalize gay marriage across the country presents an interesting moment for Catholics in the U.S. The church opposes gay marriage, and this likely won’t change even under Pope Francis the Troublemaker. But we also must acknowledge that this moment is a great joy for many Catholics—gay and straight. In recent history, many upstanding and faithful Catholics have said that they have heard the voice of Jesus say to them that the love between two persons of the same-sex isn’t sinful, but holy, sanctified, and blessed.

“I myself struggle with this conundrum. There’s nothing more important in my life than being Catholic and a part of the universal Church of Jesus Christ. For me, it’s not just membership in a fraternal organization or civic group, but in a family that gives me my identity, my roots, and my wings. I take my faith’s teaching on every issue—including gay marriage—seriously, but I, too, can’t help but feel joy for my LGBT friends who celebrated Friday’s decision.” (From a Time.com blog post)

Archbishop Wilton Gregory

Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta:

After reiterating official Church teaching that marriage is only between a man and a woman, Archbishop Gregory stated:

“This judgment, however, does not absolve either those who may approve or disapprove of this decision from the obligations of civility toward one another.  Neither is it a license for more venomous language or vile behavior against those whose opinions continue to differ from our own.  It is a decision that confers a civil entitlement to some people who could not claim it before. It does not resolve the moral debate that preceded it and will most certainly continue in its wake. 

“The moral debate must also include the way that we treat one another–especially those with whom we may disagree.  In many respects, the moral question is at least as consequential and weighty as the granting of this civil entitlement.  The decision has offered all of us an opportunity to continue the vitally important dialogue of human encounter, especially between those of diametrically differing opinions regarding its outcome.”  (From a statement)

Jason Welle, SJ

Jason Welle, SJ, Contributor, The Jesuit Post:

After describing the challenging closeted situation that Nana and Dot, his grandmother and her lifelong woman companion endured decades ago, Welle reflects on the significance of the court’s ruling:

“This weekend, I’m thinking about Nana & Dot as the Supreme Court has ruled that marriage is to be considered a civil right for all couples, without exception. This week, thousands of couples in the United States will not have to endure a life of secrecy and legal uncertainty. This ruling means that their unions have the law behind them. Their families will be treated equally by the states, they will not risk losing their children and property because someone else disapproves of their union. As of today, as Justice Kennedy notes in his opinion, ‘This Court’s case and the Nation’s traditions make clear that marriage is a keystone of the Nation’s social order,’ and gay and lesbian civil marriages will be respected, as far as the law is concerned, as part of the foundation that contributes to our civil and social order. . . . 

The trending hashtag on Twitter this weekend is #LoveWins. I hope that this will be true for everyone of goodwill in this nation, regardless of their view of this decision. While the legal case may be settled, it does not bring everyone into agreement. But I sincerely believe that when they’re at their best, the United States of America and the Catholic Church are about the same thing: enabling and inspiring people to greater love, fidelity, and mutual care. Nana and Dot were both American and Catholic and these are the things they taught me to value most. It is my prayer that this ruling, which brings gay and lesbian people more openly into the mainstream of American society than ever before, can be an opportunity for greater understanding and mutual love and concern for each other.” (From a blog post on The Jesuit Post)

Michael Sean Winters

Michael Sean Winters

Michael Sean Winters, Columnist, The National Catholic Reporter:

“Yesterday, the Supreme Court issued a decision. The sky did not fall. Young men and women will still fall in love, get married, and make babies. The Church will still be there to accompany them. The fact of sexual difference is not going away anytime soon. But, as in the referendum on this issue in Ireland, yesterday’s decision is a wake up call for the Church. Are we going to continue to fight same sex marriage in the courts and in our words, to the exclusion of other more pressing issues? Are we going to continue to let the egalitarian, and largely secular, left set the Church’s agenda? Or are we going be about our business of accompanying people, all people, and especially married couples, with a teaching about marriage, and with the grace of the sacrament, and with the loving support of the Christian community, all of which are as beautiful today as they were at 9:59 a.m. yesterday. ” (From a blog post on NCRonline.org)

 

Stay tuned for more excerpts from commentary continuing this week.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry


SYNOD: Two Cardinals Make Opposite Statements about Lesbian and Gay People

October 11, 2014

ROME, Italy–At the synod on Friday, a German cardinal made a plea for recognizing the value and worth of committed same-gender relationships.  On the same day, an American cardinal’s comments about gay and lesbian people revealed the prelate’s ignorance more than they revealed any truth about homosexuality.

Cardinal Reinhard Marx

Munich’s Cardinal Reinhard Marx, who is a member of Pope Francis’ advisory council of eight cardinals, gave support for couples, but also offered a qualification.  The National Catholic Reporter carried his comments:

“The church must also take a differentiated view of homosexuality, Marx said.

” ‘One simply cannot say that a faithful homosexual relationship that has held for decades is nothing,’ he said, as that is too ‘forceful’ a standpoint.

” ‘We just mustn’t lump things together and measure everything with the same yardstick, but must differentiate and take a closer look, which doesn’t mean that I endorse homosexuality as a whole,’ he added.”

That final qualification is somewhat curious.  How can Marx support committed relationships but not embrace homosexuality as a whole?  Without further information, I can only speculate.  Does he mean that what is important is relationship, but that non-procreative sexual activity is not approved?  Are his remarks calculated to be provisional so that he might appeal to more conservative bishops who might not yet fully agree with him?  When he says that we shouldn’t measure everything with the same yardstick, does that mean that he is favor of a separate sexual ethic for heterosexuals and homosexuals?

One or more of these may be true. Or perhaps the cardinal means something entirely.  The vagueness of his answer is evidence of the fact that while the discussion of homosexuality at the synod is a welcome change, there still needs to be a more robust discussion of this topic by church leaders.  Let’s hope that this synod is only the beginning of such a discussion, and that future discussions will be more in-depth and will include the voices of lesbian and gay people and couples.

If you have any ideas of what Cardinal Marx might have meant by his remarks, please post them in the “Comments” section of this post.

One cardinal yesterday was very clear and forthright regarding homosexuality, but, unfortunately, his statement revealed his own ignorance about gay and lesbian people than any truth about same-gender relationships.

Cardinal Raymond Burke

Cardinal Raymond Burke, who used to be the head of the St. Louis archdiocese and now has a Vatican office, bizarrely stated that children should be kept away from gay and lesbian family members.  The Huffington Post  reported his comments:

“We wouldn’t, if it were another kind of relationship — something that was profoundly disordered and harmful — we wouldn’t expose our children to that relationship, to the direct experience of it. And neither should we do it in the context of a family member who not only suffers from same-sex attraction, but who has chosen to live out that attraction, to act upon it, committing acts which are always and everywhere wrong, evil.”

Michael Sean Winters, who blogs at The National Catholic Reportersaid that Burke was

“. . . appallingly tone deaf. . . If the rumors are true and +Burke is about to be dispatched to the Knights of Malta, I hope the appointment comes with a ban on giving him a microphone. This man’s inability to speak with even a whiff of human compassion is intrinsically disordered if you ask me.”

The ignorance of such remarks by such a high-ranking prelate remind us that while the synod’s discussion of LGBT issues is very welcome, we still have a long way to go in regard to becoming a more welcome church.  On the positive side, one bishop here in Rome told me that Burke’s comments may do some good by the fact that they highlight the ridiculousness of anti-gay attitudes and that a number of bishops will probably be turned off by such a statement.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry


Is it Possible for Bishops to Move Away from Marriage Equality Opposition?

June 26, 2014

Last week’s appearance of Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone at the National Organization for Marriage (NOM) March in Washington, DC, inspired several journalists to look more closely at the relationship between the Catholic hierarchy and anti-marriage equality groups.

While we’ve noted before that there is a growing trend in the church of some church leaders speaking favorably of lesbian and gay couples, the road to full acceptance still is a long one.  Some of the new insights that these journalists have expressed show that a new relationship between Catholic leaders and the issue of marriage equality, while a challenge, is possible.

The challenge comes from some of the “strange bedfellows” that some bishops are connecting with, politically speaking.  Jeremy Hooper, at the Human Rights Campaign’s NOM Exposed blog, points out that in addition to Cordileone’s appearance at the rally, he also continues working behind the scenes with NOM leaders.   He was listed as a host of a recent strategy meeting in Princeton, New Jersey, with several of NOM’s top leaders and associates.

Will this continued association with NOM continue? The National Catholic Reporter’s Michael Sean Winters says that it shouldn’t.  In a recent column, he questioned Cordileone’s involvement at the rally because he sees NOM as  “dedicated to a strategy that is not only counter-productive, which is bad enough, but a strategy that is profoundly un-Christian.”

Winters offers evidence of NOM’s role in stirring up anti-gay legislation aborad as a major reason Cordileone should not have participated in the event:

“Their president, Brian Brown, spent time strategizing in Russia, encouraging that country’s parliament to enact harsh anti-gay laws that do not reflect the kind of love Archbishop Cordileone called for in his speech yesterday. The Uganda parliamentarian, David Bahati, who authored that country’s truly draconian anti-gay laws acknowledges the influence of U.S.-based groups in encouraging him and helping him, including the shadowy ‘Fellowship.’

“NOM’s stateside efforts are not much better. They are smart enough to know that promoting a law that would call for killing gays is a non-starter. But, they apparently are not smart enough to recognize that the great threats to marriage in our day have nothing to do with what gays do. Among the great threats to marriage is a hook-up culture that is to human love what laissez-faire economics is to the world of commerce and finance, a libertarianism in action which, like all that flows from that ‘poisoned spring,’ as Pope Pius XI termed it, devastates the Gospel.”

Winters concludes with a warning to bishops about how they need to shape their future rhetoric and action on the question of marriage:

“Finally, if the leaders of the Church are to become credible again on the issue of marriage, they cannot simultaneously insist that they are not motivated by anti-gay bigotry and then give speeches at rallies organized by bigots. This is not guilt by association. It is recognizing that such participation is a counter-witness to the Gospel. Archbishop Cordileone’s comments about loving those who do not share the Church’s teachings on marriage are, I am sure, sincere, but he betrays his own words when he demonstrates common cause with the architects of draconian laws that seek to deny the human dignity of gays and lesbians. This is obvious to the rest of us. One wonders why it was not obvious to +Cordileone.”

Pope Francis

The role that Pope Francis is playing in the bishops’ rhetoric on marriage equality and other issues is also an important factor that needs to be considered.  U.S. Catholic’s Scott Alessi notes the ambiguity and ambivalence that seems to characterize the U.S. bishops’ desire to follow Francis’ lead in taking a softer tone in regard to marriage equality and LGBT issues.  Noting that some headlines about the recent United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ meeting proclaimed concord with Pope Francis, while others asserted a striking difference between the bishops and the pontiff,  Alessi writes:

“As is often the case with such things, the reality is somewhere in the middle. The bishops are a large and diverse group, and I don’t think anyone realistically could have anticipated a radical shift in the conference’s overall agenda. Some bishops have surely been taking the pope’s words to heart and thinking about how that impacts their work, while others are much less concerned with what’s being said in Rome than they are with what is happening in their own backyard.”

U.S. News and World Report published an insightful essay with a title that explains the confusion surrounding the “Francis factor”:  “When It Comes to Same-Sex Marriage, Both Sides Claim Pope Francis.”     On the pro-marraige equality side, the article quotes Michael Sherrad, executive director of Faithful America:

“Pope Francis has powerfully inspired countless Catholics and other Christians to a new vision for how the church can be compassionate. Unfortunately too many – not all, but too many – of the bishops in the United States and their conservative activist allies have really flouted what Pope Francis has had to say about gay and lesbian people.”

On the anti-marriage equality side, the writer quotes Chris Plant,  regional director of NOM:

“[Plant says that] Pope Francis’s tone is in line with the approach he sees his organization taking on the issue. ‘He is focusing on the fact that our dialogue ought to be civil,’ Plant says. ‘We absolutely ask for it to be a civil.’ ”

The U.S. News and World Report article also quoted a seasoned Catholic Church observer, noting the pope’s influence on the debate:

“ ‘I think he wants to move a little bit beyond the culture wars, at least certainly key issues in the culture wars,’ says Rev. Thomas P. Rausch, a Jesuit priest and a professor of Catholic theology at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. ‘He can’t simply change the church’s teachings – the whole church has to be involved in that. But he can change the way that the church is perceived in terms of the range of issues it addresses. And I suspect that is what he wants to do.’ “

In a recent interview with Faith in Public Life’s John Gehring, Archbishop Joseph Fiorenza, former president of the USCCB and archbishop emeritus of Galveston-Houston, Texas, offered words of wisdom for how Pope Francis’ more compassionate approach can succeed:

“We have to take what he is saying seriously. We need bishops who reflect his style, and laypeople have to be involved so that this Francis era is not just a passing moment but salt and light for our church for many years to come.”

What I like about Fiorenza’s remarks is that he reminds us that if the more compassionate approach is to come about, it depends on lay people, as much as on bishops.  We need to remind ourselves of this reality when the going gets tough.  A new relationship between marriage equality and Catholic leadership is possible–but we’re the ones who have to help it along.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

 

 

 

 

 


Catholic Schools Week Calls Us to Reflect on Fair Employment for LGBT Educators

January 30, 2014

We are in the middle of Catholic Schools Week here in the U.S., a time to reflect on the importance of Catholic education in the life of the church and society.  This year, the celebration of this week is particularly bittersweet because while we know that Catholic schools have done so much good in our history, we are painfully aware that over the past few years, some (not all, by any means) Catholic schools have committed grave injustices by firing gay and lesbian employees who have legally married their spouses. No response to such actions have been stronger than that of the students of Eastside Catholic Prep School, near Seattle, Washington, where students have been active for over a month in their protest efforts to have former vice principal Mark Zmuda re-instated to his job.  Tomorrow, the students will be hosting #ZDay–a major demonstration of their support for Zmuda who was fired for marrying his husband.  People are encouraged to wear orange as a sign of solidarity with the students and Zmuda.

Rick Garnett

A wealth of interesting commentary has developed around this case and around the growing trend of such firings.  Rick Garnett, who contributes to Mirror of Justice, a blog about Catholic legal theory, has provided some important questions for reflection on the issues in this case.  Garnett writes:

“As a legal, constitutional, and political-theory matter, I guess I am committed to the view that a Catholic high school is and ought to be able to decide (a) that teachers and administrators must teach and form students in accord with the Church’s proposals and teachings and (b) whether or not a particular teacher or administrator is failing to do so.  That said, cases like these are . . . tricky for several reasons:   Even those Catholic schools that are most committed to tethering hiring and firing decisions to their Catholic mission and character do not, generally speaking, investigate employees’ private lives to be sure they are entirely consistent with the Church’s moral and other teachings.  (Phew!).  What’s more, failures to live in accord with the Church’s teachings regarding sexuality are failures, but they are not necessarily, as a category, more ‘serious’ or ‘grave’ failings than the failure (of so many of us!) to live in accord with the Church’s teachings on charity and humility, and yet we don’t hear about many Catholic school teachers being fired for exhibiting insufficient joy. “

I disagree with Garnett’s claim that not living in accord with Church teachings are “failures.”  After all, a person may have made this decision after serious conscience reflection, and, thus, are not “failing,” but actually “succeeding” in doing what they believe God has said is right.  Despite that disagreement, I think he is right to point out that adhering to rules about sexuality should not be the litmus test for whether or not one is a good role model as a Catholic educator.

Eduardo Moises Penalver

Eduardo Moisés Peñalver, a blogger at dotCommonwealcommented on Garnett’s post by offering an alternative course of action that the schools could have taken:

“Although I am inclined to agree with him [Garnett] that (at least for Catholic elementary and secondary schools who do not accept state funding) this is a choice for the Church to make, it seems to me that the Church has left itself the space to make a different choice in these situations.  It could choose to view the injustice it sees in gay marriage as (in its view) one that is perpetrated by the state, and not by the participants in gay marriages. Consequently, as to actual gay couples, it could simply treat the marriages as a nullity and ignore them.  On this view, the Church’s beef is with the state, not with the gay couple.  If it is willing to hire someone who is gay, it should not fire him/her for taking advantage of a set of secular benefits that the state has chosen to exend to him/her.”

Michael Sean Winters, a columnist for The National Catholic Reporter, responded to Garnett’s blog post by teasing out many of the other moral issues at work in this case.  For instance, he writes:

“As a matter of law, Garnett is undoubtedly correct that there is no real debate: Eastside Catholic has the right to terminate any school employees it wishes. Teachers are certainly within the compass of the ministerial exemption from anti-discrimination laws, and even other staff members could seriously disrupt a parochial school’s mission if they wished in ways that would extend the ministerial exemption to them as well. The Church is free to fire and hire free from government interference, which does not mean it is smart to do so, only that it is undoubtedly within its legal rights to do so. “

Michael Sean Winters

Michael Sean Winters

I think this is an important distinction to make because it addresses the issue of what the school is teaching the students by its actions.   Though they may have had a legal right to fire Zmuda, did they stop to think what lesson they would be sending to students with such an action?  From the response of the students, they have learned a terrible lesson about Catholic institutional discrimination, what columnist Jamie Manson has termed “a vaccine against faith.”   Who did more damage to the students’ lives as Catholics:  Mark Zmuda for marrying his husband or school administrators for responding so harshly to such an action? Winters makes another important distinction relevant to this case:  the difference between violating church teaching and undermining church teaching:

“Here is the rub for me. It is true that marriage is a public act. It entails official government recognition. You can look it up on a government register. But, most people do not spend their time sorting through government records to see who is, and is not, married. If Mr. Zmuda began bringing his husband to the school and introducing him as his husband, I do not see that as any different from a straight woman bringing in her live-in boyfriend or a straight man bringing in his mistress, and introducing them as such. In all three cases, I think the school would be within its moral as well as its legal rights to fire them. The offense, however, is not that they violated Church teaching, but that their announcement of their violation can be considered an effort to undermine Church teaching.”

Winters concludes with an appeal to the example of Pope Francis, whose style would be welcome in cases such as these:

“Blessings upon the gay rights leader who stands up for the constitutional right of a Catholic school to fire whom they wish. Blessings upon the Catholic prelate who admits that civil marriage for same-sex partners is not the threat it has been painted as. And, blessings upon everyone who helps to restore a greater appreciation for the idea that one’s private life is best kept private, that the personal is not necessarily the political, and that it is possible, at the same time, to both cling to the Church’s teachings and be generous and merciful with those who cannot or will not share them in their entirety. Isn’t that what Pope Francis has been trying to remind us these past few months?”

Ken Briggs

Ken Briggs

Ken Briggs, who also blogs for The National Catholic Reporter, has a more pessimistic view about Pope Francis’ influence on firings.   Briggs feels that Catholic institutional leaders have their hands tied by church law, and that they can’t do anything until the law changes.  He writes:

“Francis’ sentiments have become a mantra for many lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender advocates as meaning gay and lesbian sexuality is within the bounds of moral approval. The anathema visited upon homosexual acts by the Vatican (‘intrinsically disordered’) is believed to have been superseded by the pope’s tolerance in the view of these hopeful thinkers. And who’s to blame them for the optimism in that ray of hope? “But in the real world of the Seattle archdiocese, decisions are supposed to be guided by official church teaching. The Catholic church’s opposition to same-sex marriage isn’t just advice. Practically speaking, it’s church law. What option do Archbishop J. Peter Sartain and the Eastside administration have but to follow the rule? “Nothing the pope has said gets to a particular case such as this and others that are cropping up. Perhaps that’s what the pope intends. He utters a personal vision of how things should be, even contrary to church teaching, hoping it will spark a grassroots debate that will eventually bring about change. Let a wholesale discussion work it out. He has endorsed a much more communal, conciliar church, so maybe he’s playing the role of catalyst.”

I disagree with this more pessimistic view.  I think that church leaders have the right and responsibility to weigh all factors in any situation and that they have an obligation to do what they think is right, not just what they think an authority is telling them to do.   People have a lot more freedom than they give themselves credit for.  Of course, they also have to be willing to live with the consequences of their decisions, but that is what a life of faith is all about. Moving past the culture of blindly following authority is something that Catholic leaders and people need to do.  We also need to move past a culture in which people courageously do what they think is right only up to the point where they may get in trouble.  Robert McClory touches on this topic in a National Catholic Reporter analysis of the Zmuda case.  McClory notes:

Robert McClory

Robert McClory

“Now that gays are marrying their longtime partners thanks to changes in federal and state laws, they are facing dismissal from their jobs. The alleged reason for dismissal is the fact that they are not following the church teaching on homosexuality. The real reason is that the word is out; the public knows they are gay — and the church is embarrassed. “But the affected employees weren’t following church teaching on this issue before, and somehow pastors and bishops were able to live with this less-than-perfect situation. Now, they feel, it’s time to impose a strict interpretation of the law. That’s where the hypocrisy, the double standard, is so obvious. Secrecy has been the chronic disease of Catholicism for a long time.”

There are many lessons to be learned from the Zmuda case about how church leaders can constructively respond to LGBT issues as they arise in Catholic institutions.  Let’s hope that the next time such a situation arises, the leaders involved will be able to look at some of the broader issues involved, and not narrowly focus on just the sexual issues that may be involved.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

Related articles 

For an excellent timeline about the Zmuda case, visit QueeringtheChurch.com

For learning how to establish non-discrimination policies in Catholic institutions, click here.


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