When Orlando, Florida newspaper columnist Justin Mitchell visited the Pulse Nightclub memorial this past June, it stirred him to remember the 49 victims who were killed there. It also stirred him to reflect on how gay nightclubs and churches can be quite similar spaces.
Mitchell, writing in the Sun Herald, described his journey as a gay man who was raised Catholic. There were positive moments in youth group when church elevated him in prayer, and there was also “the moment I fell out of love with mass” as pastors criticized marriage equality. There was the progressive church in college that welcomed him, and then the rejection by a former parishioner in his hometown. All of this came back to Mitchell as he watched prayer candles burn at the Pulse memorial. He reflected:
“The point of all of this, though, is that I lit that prayer candle and was brought back to my days in church. Because what many don’t realize is that a gay bar is exactly like church in many ways for the LGBTQ+ community. They both are safe spaces where its members can let go and be vulnerable. They can share their most suppressed feelings, whether it’s holding a man’s hand or praying to the man upstairs. It’s a place where, above all, you don’t feel like anything bad is going to happen to you.”
Many people around the world remembered the Pulse anniversary last month. Catholics lamented one bishop’s decree released on that very day which bans married lesbian and gay people from the most important aspects of church life.
As we move forward, these violations (and others that come to mind) of safe and sacred places are our propellants to work even harder so that there will be places like clubs and churches where all are welcome to be who they are.
This week’s one-year anniversary of the massacre of LGBT people at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, became an occasion for John Gehring to evaluate the relationship between the LGBT community and the Catholic hiearchy in the U.S. His essay appeared in The National Catholic Reporter.
Gehring recalled that only very few bishops publicly noted the LGBT dimension to the Orlando attack. In the past year, some positive and negative things have occurred between church hierarchy and the LGBT community. According to Gehring, who is the Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life, the quality of that relationship is one of “cautious hope,” given the mixed bag of responses on a variety of issues that we’ve witnessed over the past year. For Gehring, the problems are deeply rooted in Catholic hierarchical thought and begin with the issue of “dehumanizing language” to describe homosexuality:
“While the Catechism of the Catholic Church rejects violence and ‘unjust discrimination’ against LGBT people, it also calls homosexuality an ‘inclination’ that is ‘objectively disordered.’ Before he was elected Pope Benedict XVI, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger led the Vatican’s chief doctrine office for more than two decades. In a 1986 ‘Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons,’ Ratzinger described homosexuality as a “tendency toward an intrinsic moral evil.” Seventeen years later, he wrote that growing recognition of same-sex civil unions legitimized the ‘approval of deviant behavior.’ Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Illinois, even celebrated a public exorcism in 2013 to protest the Catholic governor’s signing a same-sex marriage law. The bishop presided over what was formally called ‘Prayers in Supplication and Exorcism in Reparation for the Sin of Same-Sex Marriage.’ When a church leader literally demonizes LGBT people and their commitment, those called to be stewards of a Gospel rooted in the love of Christ send a toxic message about the unworthiness of them.”
But you don’t need to take only Gehring’s word for it. He quoted two Catholic leaders about the destructive effects of this type of language:
Dehumanizing language has consequences. ‘It doesn’t reflect that our experiences as gay and lesbian persons are a gift, something that brings us closer to other people and to God,’ said Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, an organization that works to build bridges between LGBT Catholics and the church. ‘People are alienated by this language and feel rejected. It ends conversations rather than begins conversations.’ San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy, who has played a key role in encouraging the U.S. hierarchy to adopt Pope Francis’ more inclusive attitude, has suggested the church needs to rethink language such as ‘intrinsically disordered.’ In an interview with America, a Jesuit magazine, he called that terminology ‘very destructive language that I think we should not use pastorally.’ He explained that ‘in Catholic moral theology it is a philosophical term that is automatically misunderstood in our society as a psychological judgment.’ “
Such damaging language threatens to force many Catholics out of the church, as they become increasingly more supportive of LGBT issues. This problem is particularly significant with the younger generation who are strongly supportive of LGBT people. Gehring offers the following example:
“Rachel Nagengast, 25, went to Catholic schools from grade school through Fordham University, where last year she earned a master’s degree in theological studies. But as a self-described queer woman, Nagengast increasingly felt alienated by her church’s teachings on homosexuality. She hasn’t gone to a Catholic Mass in years. ‘I feel like an outsider in what should be home,’ she said. ‘LGBT Catholics are expected to be patient, but I was really tired of being satisfied with baby steps or being expected to applaud even the tiniest effort.’
Gehring offers the following advice to stave off this mass exodus:
“If they want to retain the next generation of Catholics — including LGBT people and their allies — Catholic leaders should listen more closely and learn from the experiences of gay and transgender people. . . . Church leaders can’t stand with LGBT people without taking the time to listen to them. Bishops could take a simple but powerful step by setting up forums to meet with and learn from LGBT Catholics. Vatican officials also need to take seriously the need to update and humanize language in church documents that don’t reflect the fullness of LGBT people’s lives. While making official revisions to the catechism is a complicated and lengthy process, bishops communicate through pastoral letters, op-eds and increasingly through social media. These opportunities present a chance to ditch language that casts LGBT people to the peripheries and bring them to the center of authentic conservations.”
The author suggests that bishops not only follow the example of Pope Francis, but also heed advice from a U.S. Catholic deacon who spoke at New Ways Ministry’s Eighth National Symposium, and who also has contributed essays to Bondings 2.0:
“If Catholic bishops really want a church that listens, heals and goes to the margins as Pope Francis does, it’s far past time to build a culture of encounter with the LGBT community. I recently met a Catholic deacon from St. Petersburg, Florida, who had a wake-up call after his son transitioned to a transgender woman. ‘I was blissfully ignorant of all things LGBT until it came to my family,’ Ray Dever told participants at a conference, ‘LGBT Catholics in the Age of Pope Francis.’ The Catholic father and others like him have a lot to teach bishops and priests who have rarely if ever sat down with a gay or transgender person. ‘There are so many families who reject their LGBT kids and that’s tragic, especially when that is done in the name of faith,’ Dever said. ‘I’m no expert, but what these families need to hear is God created these kids just the way they are and that God loves them.’
“Then they sat down upon the ground with [Job] seven days and seven nights, but none of them spoke a word to him; for they saw how great was his suffering.” –Job 2:13
In moments when hatred and pain coalesce, and violence erupts, like last year’s massacre of LGBT people at Pulse Nightclub, Orlando, year, the shock and grief do not easily leave us. This lingering pain is felt profoundly by those who lost a loved one and by survivors who escaped. Even as we mark the one year anniversary of this tragedy, few words encapsulate well all that is still felt by these mourners, by LGBT communities, and by a shaken society.
The mass shooting in Orlando was not unique, given the regularity of mass shootings in the United States, but it was especially shocking. It reminded us that anti-LGBT violence is not a history lesson. Queerphobia and transphobia still underpin horrific acts. Church leaders silent after Orlando remain silent about such violence despite Catholics’ cries for justice.
Today, in remembering the 49 people killed and 53 people wounded, perhaps it is best we just sit together in community, like Job’s friends, silent before inexplicable suffering and offering prayers of lamentation. I offer this prayer today:
God who is ever with us,
We are hurting today, hurting deeply. Afraid and in mourning, we come to you in prayer because words fail us and justice seems distant. We place ourselves in your embrace, and we trust you because you never abandon those whom you love.
You are God, the Creator. In radiant diversity, you made each one of us like you. Each person is created to be exactly who you made them to be, made so we can share in your divine life by reflecting the glorious array of sexual and gender identities which shine forth from you. May we cherish human dignity, especially the dignity of those who are marginalized and of those people who have caused grave harm.
You are God, the Christ. In Jesus, you dwelt among us. And you were present at Pulse as raw violence shattered lives, just as you have been present when so many LGBT people are crucified because they lived and loved openly. It is only the center of your Cross, in your Sacred Heart, which can hold the world’s suffering when we feel weak before it. Be with us now.
You are God, the Consoler. Pour forth your grace which is our sustenance. Plant within us holy anger at the injustices which compound LGBT people’s suffering: racism, migration justice, ableism, Islamophobia, sexism, economic inequality, and more. Help us cultivate this holy anger with prudence and perseverance such that, through reconciliation, we may help bring about the fruits of justice.
You are God. We are only able to spread love because we know your profound love for us, and even as we hurt, we desire for others to know your presence. God, be with us anew today.
LGBT Catholics and their supporters will gather in vigil at the U.S. Bishops Conference November meeting to remember the victims of the Orlando nightclub massacre and to call on the bishops to acknowledge the reality of LGBT lives.
The vigil, sponsored by DignityUSA, will be held on Tuesday, November 15, 2016, 10:30 AM – 2:00 pm, outside the Baltimore Marriott Waterfront Hotel, 700 Aliceanna Street, Baltimore. Maryland. The demonstration’s twin themes are “A Vigil to Remember the Pulse Victims And Our Murdered Transgender Kin” and “A Call to our Bishops to Dare to Speak our Names:
Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender/Gender Queer”
An announcement from DignityUSA explained the purpose of the vigil:
“The Catholic Bishops response (or lack thereof) to the Pulse [the name of the Orlando nightclub] shooting demonstrated that most Bishops still refuse to even say the words ‘Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer’ and refuse to acknowledge the reality of LGBT lives. The bishops have also ignored the crisis of violence against our transgender siblings. In response, DignityUSA is calling on the bishops to ‘call us by name.’ “
Participants at the rally will pray the rosary. Many will be holding rainbow rosary bead sets. More information can be found on the event’s Facebook page. For more information, send email to firstname.lastname@example.org .
With few exceptions, most of the U.S. bishops who responded to the nightclub shooting in which 49 people were killed did not make mention of the fact that the targeted victims were LGBT people. In his official response to the shooting, U.S. Bishops Conference President Archbishop Joseph Kurtz did not mention the LGBT factor in the incident and made only a general call to an “ever greater resolve in protecting the life and dignity of every single person.”
San Francisco’s Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone’s statement made the LGBT people even angrier than statements that made no reference to the the victims’ gender identity or sexual orientation. He said: “[R]egardless of race, religion, or personal lifestyle, we are all beloved children of God.”
Even Orlando’s local Catholic leader, Bishop John Noonan, of Orlando did not acknowledge the gay and lesbian dimension of the attack in his response. A diocesan Vigil to Dry Tears, which took place soon after the event, had no evidence that the victims were members of the LGBT community.
There were exceptions, of course. Chicago’s Archbishop Blase Cupichwas one of the first to speak up, addressing the regular Sunday Mass of the Archdiocesan Gay and Lesbian Outreach:
“For you here today and throughout the whole lesbian and gay community, who are particularly touched by the heinous crimes committed in Orlando, motivated by hate, driven perhaps by mental instability and certainly empowered by a culture of violence, know this: the Archdiocese of Chicago stands with you. I stand with you.”
Similarly, Bishop Gerald Barnes of San Bernadino, California, said in his response statement that he wanted to “make clear our condemnation of discriminatory violence against those who are gay and lesbian, and we offer our prayers to that community.”
Bishop Robert Lynch of St. Petersburg, Florida, indicted the Catholic community as partly responsible for anti-gay violence:
“[S]adly it is religion, including our own, which targets, mostly verbally, and also often breeds contempt for gays, lesbians and transgender people. Attacks today on LGBT men and women often plant the seed of contempt, then hatred, which can ultimately lead to violence.
‘This tragedy is a call for us as Catholics to combat ever more vigorously the anti-gay prejudice which exists in our Catholic community and in our country.”
The Catholic community in the pews, and around the world, however, were much more supportive of LGBT people in the wake of the shooting. The following blog posts recount some of their actions and statements :
Many bridges still need building when it comes to LGBT people, their families, and the Catholic Church. Where can Catholics turn for models of bridge building, especially after the mass shooting in Orlando which left 49 people dead and 53 more wounded?
Lay people and religious have offered some compassionate models of how this reconciling work can be done. For instance, the Sisters of St. Agnes in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin organized a vigil shortly after Orlando. Sister Sally Brickner told the Fond du Lac Reporter that 150 vigil attendees “really do feel that discrimination is wrong . . . hate crimes are wrong.” This vigil was the most well attended of any which the sisters have held for other causes, revealing both the deep need for such an action by a Catholic group.
The Orlando incident and the sisters’ response helped to shine the spotlight on two Wisconsin parishes that offer welcoming ministries. The same article which reported the sisters’ vigil took a look at the week-to-week ministry that goes on in Catholic parishes that welcome LGBT people. At Holy Family Catholic Community in Fond du Lac, a group called All God’s Family meets every couple of months. There, according to pastor Fr. Ryan Preuss, lesbian/gay people and their families share their stories and discuss how they engage church teaching. Barbara Lent, the group’s coordinator, told the Reporter:
” ‘Everyone’s the same. . .It’s just who you love. You really have a right to love who you want to love. . .Sometimes [change] takes time, but you got to keep doing it.’ “
Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Menomonee Falls hosts Gay and Straight in Christ, about which founder Ann Castiglione said:
” ‘It’s just important that everyone be welcome in our church. . .[LGBT people don’t] feel welcome, so we’re trying to do something about that in our little corner of the world.’ “
Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, explained to the news reporter the background motivation that inspires such groups:
“Catholic support of LGBT people is done because the people are Catholic, not in spite of being Catholic.”
DeBernardo, however, was critical of bishops who “have been very negative in their approach to LGBT issues.”
The majority of U.S. bishops’ responses to Orlando seriously challenges their claims of engaging LGBT people with “respect, compassion, and sensitivity.” Just a handful of bishops acknowledged the targeting of an LGBT nightclub, and even fewer admitted the church’s complicity in encouraging anti-LGBT prejudices. In its editorial on the mass shooting, the National Catholic Reporter stated:
“The massacre in Orlando was a heinous hate crime, a moment screaming out for moral outrage, for the words to match the horrific reality. What the Catholic community in the United States received from the president of its bishops’ conference was a three-sentence serving of sanctimonious boilerplate that, except for the use of the term ‘violence,’ might have been referring to a natural disaster or a plane crash. . .
“It is good to have the language of a few members of the hierarchy who understand that intolerance breeds contempt and violence, but we can’t and don’t need to wait for bishops to speak. The laity are leading the bishops on this issue, and with a strong, persistent voice, we can and must advocate against discrimination based on sexuality and gender in society and in our church.”
It is not too late for more bishops to engage positively with LGBT people and their families, in the church and outside of it. Bishop Dennis Sullivan of Camden wrote about Orlando in the Catholic Herald, saying:
“Just as heart wrenching as the deaths themselves, I am troubled that the victims were specifically targeted because of their sexual orientation. No human being should ever suffer the hate of others. Hate is an affront to God.
“As Christians we are subject to the Law of Christ. “Love one another as I have loved you.” This is His new commandment. ‘One another’ includes gay people. A Catholic who demonstrates hate toward a person — because of his or her sexual orientation, religion, or the color of his or her skin — needs to seek the forgiveness of God. From where does such hate originate? And, why are homosexual persons too frequently its victims?
“Our LGBT sisters and brothers are as much made in the image of God as I am. Their sexual orientation does not make them less in the eyes of God. As someone who is loved by gay relatives and friends, and who loves them equally, I fear that they too could be victims of such hatred.”
In a letter to those Catholics who gathered for prayer about Orlando, Archbishop J. Michael Miller of Vancouver expressed particular sadness because the victims were “targeted for being identified with the LGBT community.”
The lesson about building bridges after Orlando may be that acts are more necessary than words if the church is going to be in real solidarity. This is a point driven home by Caitlin Opperman, a queer Latina student at Georgetown University, Washington, DC, who write in campus newspaper The Hoya:
“We cannot forget Pulse was an LGBTQ club. We cannot forget it was Latin night. We cannot forget Latinxs, specifically Puerto Ricans, were most affected by this tragedy. We cannot let people use this massacre as an excuse to engage in Islamophobia. We cannot stay silent on the issue of gun control. We have to acknowledge that masculinity is toxic. We have to accept that queer people of color need safe spaces. But most of all, we need to act. Silence and inaction perpetuate violence against members of my communities and other oppressed groups. We are living in fear. We are out of safe spaces. We need more than thoughts and prayers.
“To the 49 beautiful queer folks whose lives were taken on June 12, rest in power. Que en paz descansen [Rest in peace]. I hope wherever you are, you keep dancing.”
TheNational Catholic Reporter’s editorial emphasized that lay people need to lead the way if church leaders remain unresponsive. The editors said that Catholics do not “have to wait for approval or direction from on high to know what to do in this extreme circumstance.” They continued:
“The Catholic community knows a hate crime when it sees it and should do all it can to promote understanding and tolerance. . .The Catholic community, making the case from the church’s social justice tradition and the inherent Christian concern for the common good, can become a formidable influence in challenging the status quo. Standing together, we can say no to a culture of gun violence. We can say yes to gender justice and inclusivity.”
How have you or your faith community responded with a yes to justice and inclusivity after Orlando? How have you witnessed bridges being built between LGBT people and church leaders? Please let us know in the ‘Comments’ section below.
Weeks after both the Orlando massacre and the pope’s call for an apology to lesbian and gay people, I’m still wading through articles and commentaries about both incidents. It’s no wonder. For entirely two different reasons, both events certainly touched deep emotions in many people.
Because I’m reading about both events almost simultaneously, I’d like to report on a little linguistic oddity that I found, though I’m not quite sure what it means.
On June 22nd, Jesuit Father Russell Pollitt, the director of the Jesuit Institute of South Africa, reflected on Orlando, noting that organized religion, and Catholicism in particular, needs to take some responsibility for propagating the hate which causes violence. Pollitt ends his reflection with what I consider the most powerful and blunt observation I’ve yet to read:
“Bad religion, which includes bad religious language, is an assault rifle – and it is used often. Some pulpits are assault rifles. We need an urgent discussion in our church about the way we speak about and treat gay people. We need a conversion of mind, heart and language.”
On June 26th, just a few days later, Pope Francis uttered his now famous call for the church to apologize to lesbian and gay people. Probably in the interest of journalistic brevity, usually only the main sentence of his interview was reported:
I think that the Church must not only ask forgiveness from the gay person who is offended, but she must also ask for forgiveness from the poor too, from women who are exploited, from children who are exploited for labour.
But later accounts also took note of the sentence which immediately followed these words:
“She [the Church] must ask forgiveness for having blessed so many weapons.”
Assault rifle? Many weapons? Coincidence?
Honestly, I’m not quite sure. I will admit that the first time I read the pope’s full quotation, before reading Pollitt’s essay, I assumed that Francis was referring to the fact that churches, historically, have literally had blessing rituals for weapons of war. After reading Pollitt’s reflection, I started to wonder if there was a different way of interpreting the pope’s remarks. Was he saying that some of the church’s language and messages about gay people, the poor, women, and exploited children can be compared to weapons?
I acknowledge that I may be stretching it a bit. I was an English major, after all, and we are known for sometimes finding meanings where none were intended. But Pope Francis is a Jesuit. Is it too much of a stretch to think that just a few days before he uttered his call for apology he might have read the online reflection of Pollitt, also a Jesuit and the head of an influential Jesuit agency? Even if Pollitt were not involved with the pope’s language, the question still remains if he meant “weapons” literally or metaphorically.
It may be impossible to discern Francis’ intentions from the linguistic evidence, and I do not want to stretch the point beyond credibility. What I do know, though, is that many LGBT people–and women–have experienced the church’s language and messaging as weapons. For some, their experience has shown that weapon is not just a metaphor. Pollitt describes an incident:
“When I was working in a parish community I remember being called to the emergency room of a local hospital one night. A young man had been admitted, hardly recognisable, because he had been beaten to a pulp. Earlier that evening he had “come out” to his family. His father justified the assault saying that it was against his religion to have a ‘moffie’ in the family. The family was deeply involved in the Catholic Church.
“While religion and religious language cannot be used as the sole motivating factor for this killing, it seems appropriate that believers interrogate the words they use and the positions they take. Religious positions and language contribute to a cocktail in which homophobia is incubated and bred. The kind of language, for example, which is used in official texts of the Church powerfully shapes perceptions, attitudes and actions. After all, isn’t that what religious teaching strives to do – shape perceptions, attitudes and actions – hopefully for the good? Phrases such as ‘objectively disordered’ are not helpful.”
I would like to think that Pollitt’s metaphor of bad religious language as an assault rifle is an overstatement, but I’ve heard too many painful stories over the years of physical, emotional, and spiritual violence to be able to convince myself of that position. Similarly, I would like to think that Pope Francis’ use of the church having “blessed so many weapons” might indicate that the pontiff was making an extremely strong statement about the harm the Church has caused people, but I don’t have enough evidence of that for certainty.
What I can be sure of, though, is that whatever Pope Francis meant by his words, he did call for the Church to apologize, and it is now incumbent on our leaders to begin this process of apology before more people are needlessly harmed.
An African proverb says the following, “When you pray, move your feet.” It captures well the reality that prayer is not platitudes, but an act of one’s whole being. Even in his brief tenure, few bishops have lived this truth as well as Bishop Robert McElroy when it comes to LGBT issues in the church.
Following the massacre at an LGBT nightclub in Orlando, Bishop McElroy was one of less than ten U.S. bishops who acknowledged the victims’ targeted identities. He said LGBT people had been “specifically targeted and victimized,” and called on Catholics to root out anti-gay prejudices in church and in society.
McElroy expanded on this statement in an interview with the Jesuit-weekly, America. He affirmed Pope Francis’ recommendation that the church should apologize to LGBT people and others it has marginalized, saying:
” ‘When I go out and meet with laypeople. . .so many of them have family members, brother and sisters and sons and daughters, mothers and fathers who are gay or lesbian.’
” ‘For them it is a great and painful thing to feel excluded from the life of the church, and for that element. . .we are not moving fast enough.’
” ‘What we need to project in the life of the church is “You are part of us and we are part of you.” [LGBT Catholics] are part of our families. . .[An apology could] create an understanding and a reality in the life of the church that members of the [LGBT] community are welcome, and genuinely so.’ “
Treatment of LGBT issues in the church has been too limited, McElroy said, and too many pastoral workers have felt they must choose falsely between upholding church teachings and caring for marginalized peoples. He continued:
” ‘My own view is that much of the destructive attitude of many Catholics to the gay and lesbian community is motivated by a failure to comprehend the totality of the church’s teaching on homosexuality. . .
” ‘[Sexual activity exclusively in the context of heterosexual marriage is] not a teaching which applies just to gay men. . .It is teaching across the board and there is massive failure on that.’ “
Integral, but often lost in Catholics’ consideration is the Christian call “to build a society in which people are not victimized or violence visited upon them or unjustly discriminated against because of their sexual orientation.” Acknowledging existing Catholic efforts towards this end, McElroy called the church to “step it up.” He said bishops should not only issue institutional apologies, but “seek to collaborate with those in society who are working to banish discrimination and violence leveled against people because of their sexual orientation.”
McElroy also criticized language used in church teaching on homosexuality that is deeply harmful, like describing lesbian, bisexual, and gay people as ‘intrinsically disordered’:
” ‘We are not talking about some group or person who is the ‘other’. . .It has to be language that is inclusive, embracing, it has to be pastoral. . . [What exists is] very destructive language that I think we should not use pastorally.’ “
Bishop McElroy is backing his words with action. He participated in a San Diego memorial for the Orlando victims last night, hosted by Latinx and LGBT organizations. About his participation, LGBT Weekly columnist Nicole Murray Ramirez wrote:
“[McElroy’s attendance is] especially historic as is his statement on the Orlando attack; his outreach and compassion for the LGBT community has touched many of us gay Catholic’s hearts, and given us hope of a better relationship with the San Diego Catholic Diocese.”
[Editor’s note: We will try to provide coverage of McElroy’s participation in this vigil in the next few days.]
McElroy’s prayers for the LGBT victims in Orlando are backed by his movements towards reconciliation. He clearly believes in Pope Francis’ welcoming approach, and is seeking to live it out in the local church which he oversees. We hope his efforts will be received well. and that improved relationships between Catholic communities, LGBT communities, and LGBT Catholic communities will come to San Diego.