‘No One’s Listening to the Pope’ or What Washington Catholics Taught Us This Election

With marriage equality successfully enacted in Washington State, a former Catholic in Seattle reflected at Salon.com on the growing chasm between episcopal outreach and lay organizing that emerged during this campaign over marriage equality. His article has the intriguing title “No One’s Listening to the Pope.”

Growing up, Dominic Holden emerged in a local church led by Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen where African-American civil rights history was widely active and the Vatican’s attempted removal of Hunthausen for Seattle’s hosting of a 1,000-plus member DignityUSA liturgy triggered massive lay outcry.

After coming out and with changes in the Seattle church, Holden left Catholicism which contains a hierarchy he identifies with anti-equality efforts, evident in the silencing and spending practices of those like Archbishop John Neinstedt in Minnesota or Archbishop William Lori in Maryland.

However, in Washington State he notices a promising movement amongst lay Catholics:

“But here in Seattle, the archbishop is facing a confrontation.

“When conservative activists in Washington sought to suspend and overturn a marriage equality law for same-sex couples in January, Archbishop Sartain started strong…Sartain was clearly spoiling for a fight.

“And he got one, but not the one he expected. It’s not clear that Sartain knew what he was in for. After all, Sartain has only been appointed about 14 months before — by a pope who, it must be acknowledged, may have a vendetta against Seattle’s gay-friendly congregations that rebuffed him 30 years prior — and what Sartain got was an outright revolt from the pews.”

Holden notes the vigorous efforts of Washington State Catholics leading up to yesterday’s vote with Catholics for Marriage Equality raising $38,000, publicly witnessing at Mass and the pride parade, running newspaper advertisements, and challenging the Yakima Diocese for illegal contributions. Elsewhere, 63 former priests from the area came out publicly in support of the referendum and pastors, including at the Cathedral in Seattle, refused to allow anti-equality campaigners into their churches.

The author quotes Fr. John Whitney, SJ, pastor of St. Joseph parish in Seattle,

“…who said circulating the petitions in his parish ‘seems to me inappropriately coercive.’
He added in a statement to his congregation: ‘Although the Archbishop has the right and responsibility to speak and educate the community about legislation, I believe that this level of involvement around the issue of civil marriage is ill-considered, and risks placing the Church on the side of injustice and the denial of civil rights.’ He continued to counter Sartain’s efforts just last month by telling parishioners in an email that ‘authority never supplants conscience.’”

All of this, accompanied by a diminished public effort by bishops in Washington State over Referendum 74, leads Holden to one conclusion:

“I’ll speculate: the flock is taming the shepherds.

“It seems that Sartain and his counterparts have a real crisis on their hands…The problem for bishops shapes up like this: Priests and laity alike are declaring their intent to ignore the bishops’ moral authority on the so-called conscience issues of marriage and contraception, which represent the bishops’ primary political agendas. The risk for bishops isn’t that these Catholics will leave the church like I did…The risk is that they will stay in the church and empower other parishioners to stand up to the bishops on these and other issues, from married priests to the ordination of women.

“Catholics are setting an example for elections to come. They’re refusing to let the hierarchy speak for them, and even reining them in, just as they did back when I was a kid. Given that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has proven it can shift national policy, God bless the laity for keeping them in check. They’re the only people who can.”

In light of a victory in Washington State for marriage equality where Catholics played a key role, Holden’s positive conclusion about these events seems correct. Continued lay involvement that helps to correct and contain the bishops, while presenting a different image of Catholicism in the public sphere is not going away. Hopefully, it has just begun.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry


Marriage Equality Debate Heats Up with 45 Days until Elections

With under 50 days left in the 2012 election season, campaigns on both sides of the marriage equality debate are bolstering their media outreach in four states, and Catholic voters are taking center stage.

In Minnesota, marriage equality advocates made their case for voting no on the constitutional amendment to define marriage as between one man and one woman by releasing an advertisement earlier this week:

The spot features John and Kim Canny, a Minnesotan Catholic couple married for 13 years with three children and identified as Republican voters. The couple admits the issue of same-sex marriage did not arise for them until a lesbian couple and their son moved into the neighborhood. The ad, the work of Minnesotans United for All Families, continues:

“‘They were the most wonderful neighbors,’ Kim says in the ad. ‘It taught all of us in our little suburban world.’
“‘We did have some good discussions,’ John says. ‘In our daughter’s world, her normal is so much different than ours. It didn’t faze her at all.’“Kim says, ‘It’s okay to take a second look,’ and John adds, ‘And when you do, vote no.’”

Minnesotans United for All Families bought ads on a number of local television stations for $255,000 to be aired leading up to the election.

Catholic voters exist on both sides of the marriage equality debate, as evidenced by the Twin Cities’ Archbishop John Nienstedt joined other religious leaders in a rally supporting the amendment. Nienstedt is an outspoken advocate for what he refers to as ‘traditional marriage’ and the Catholic Church in Minnesota has donated a half million dollars towards this effort.

Catholics who oppose the bishops’ position have been organizing around the state against the amendment. Minneapolis Catholic Ed Walsh told KARE 11 News:

“’I understand where the bishop is coming from but I just feel he’s making a mistake…Committed loving relationships are the life blood of our community.’”
Fr. Mike Tegeder

The laity are not alone, as several clergy have joined the campaign for equality. Rev. Mike Tegeder is vocal about his opposition to the amendment in Minnesota:

“’I support the catholic teaching of marriage, but we’re not talking about catholic teaching on marriage. We’re talking about civil marriage,’ he said.
“And he believes civil marriage should be a right for everyone. While many priests disagree with him, he claims others are on his side.
” ‘I know there are a lot of priests who feel it’s a difficult issue for them to speak out on,’ he said.”

A media campaigns in Washington State has been cranked up, as well.

Support for Referendum 74, which would legalizae marriage equality, tops 50% and leads the opposition by double digits in recent polling. Outfunded opposition groups will now be aided by ad buys from an out of state group that was involved in the successful victory to pass California’s Proposition 8 in 2008.

As the November 6 election date approaches, Bondings 2.0 will continue to update on marriage equality developments in each of the four states.

-Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

Following the Courage of Her Convictions to a New Parish

Debbie Regala’s story is remarkable not because it is unique, but, I suspect, because it is becoming fairly common.  Hers is a story of a strong conviction in faith, and for paying to price of living out that conviction passionately.

Senator Debbie Regala

Ms. Regala, a Catholic, is not an ordinary citizen, but a state senator in Washington State.  Her faith commitment to justice and equality motivated her to vote for the state’s marriage equality law in the last legislative session.  However, after doing so, she received a torrent of negative reactions from fellow parishioners.  The experience made her question whether she and her husband were welcome at their parish, and so they left the community and found another, more welcoming one, in their hometown of Tacoma.

Sen. Regala describes her experience in an interview with Crosscut.com:

“Shortly after that vote [for marriage equality], and to her surprise, Regala received a flurry of emails from fellow parishioners — friends, acquaintances, and lesser-known church members — expressing criticism of her position on this issue. Well-versed in the process of responding to constituents’ feedback, both positive and negative, after almost two decades of experience as an elected official, Regala felt that these messages had entered, literally, a sacred place.

“Comments ranged from general disapproval to disappointment to outrage; according to Regala, one parishioner questioned her right to partake in the Eucharist while another scolded her for the years she had spent counseling engaged couples prior to their wedding ceremonies.

“Shaken by the intensity of these parishioners’ reactions, and uncertain of how her presence would be received the next time she attended Mass, Regala consulted with people she trusted inside and outside her parish; ultimately, these conversations led her and her husband, Leo, to the decision that it was time to move on. Regala’s belief that LGBT couples should be granted equal civil rights under the law, as a matter of conscience shaped by her life experiences, her understanding of democratic values, and her adherence to Christian teaching, wasn’t up for debate. If such a perspective was unwelcome within her faith community, then it was clear to Regala that, by association, she was unwelcome too.”

Regala’s faith, and, I daresay, her conscience, have been shaped by her life experiences.  In addition to having a gay brother and a lesbian sister, she states that she has had many conversations over the years about LGBT issues.  The story of her own marriage also she light for her on the issue of marriage equality specifically:

“Though Regala’s parents were influenced to some extent by the stereotypes and prejudices of their time, they raised their children to believe that everyone is equal. It’s why Regala never listened to those who warned her, in 1968, that she shouldn’t marry her husband, Leo, who is Filipino. ‘God never intended for races to intermarry,’ one woman told her, disregarding the fact that interracial marriage had been legalized nationwide the year before. ‘That’s why He made us different colors.’ Confronting discriminatory comments at that time was an experience that deepened Regala’s growing awareness of the ways prejudice and insensitivity can permeate social, cultural, and religious values and mindsets.”

Not surprisingly, her husband, Leo, supports the senator’s thinking and approach to faith:

“. . . Leo learned that Catholic men and women have the responsibility to inform and follow their consciences, and even question elements of their own faith traditions that may contradict personal beliefs or insights thoughtfully and prayerfully arrived at. Their deepening friendship introduced Debbie Regala to new (Jesuit) ways of thinking about faith, public service, and moral conscience that she found, and continues to find, socially inspiring, mentally challenging, and spiritually uplifting. In Leo’s words, ‘The Catholic Church supports free will, and I was taught to question.’ “

The interview with Regala describes leaving her parish as a “wrenching process,” because she never thought she would have to do so.  She has found a new home at St. Leo parish, Tacoma, and has also found the transition helpful to her spiritual journey:

“For Regala, changing locations for attending church hasn’t changed the essentials of her own faith, described simply though meaningfully at different points during our conversations as her ‘personal connection to God.’ Yet the process of rediscovering a community to celebrate this personal faith with has proved an enlightening journey, in that she has continued to learn about herself and others along the way. Parishioners at St. Leo have also affirmed their decision through smiles, embraces, supportive words.”

Regala describes receiving internal confirmation that her parish move was the right decision through a sermon she heard at the new parish.  It is a story worth repeating:

“[Rev. Byrne] told the story of a beloved Quaker nurse who died at the end of World War I in a Polish village. The parishioners asked their priest if she could be buried in the Catholic cemetery, the only one in town. The priest, feeling that the rule that only a Catholic could be buried in the cemetery must be obeyed, suggested the nurse be buried just outside the cemetery’s fence instead. The next morning, the priest discovered that the fence had been moved around her gravesite, so that she could be included among those she had served. Love had had its say. Byrne later explained, ‘Now this all flowed from the Gospel text of Jesus always stretching the boundaries to include those who were outcasts. It is this moving of the fence … that is the call of the Gospel.’ The homily confirmed for Regala what she had sensed in the deepest part of herself: she was right to trust her own conscience. Christ didn’t build fences. Neither would she.”

Have you had to move to another Roman Catholic parish to find a more welcoming atmosphere for LGBT issues?  What has your experience been like?
Please share your stories and experiences, and any other reactions to Regala’s interview, in the “Comments” section of this blog post.

If you are looking for a welcoming parish near you, you can consult New Ways Ministry’s list of gay-friendly parishes and communities.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

Related post:

April 11, 2012:   ALL ARE WELCOME: Going Beyond the Boundaries

Washington State Bishops Issue Pastoral Letter Against Marriage Equality

The bishops of Washington State have issued a pastoral letter urging the defeat of Referendum 74, the ballot initiative  on whether the  state’s marriage equality law should take effect.  Entitled Marriage and the Good of Society, the two-page letter reviews the bishops’ arguments that marriage is the basic unit of society, that procreation of children is integral to marriage, and that religious liberty will be threatened if marriage equality becomes law.

A blog post on the Seattle Post-Intelligencer’s website offers the following opinion on the letter:

“In the most controversial passage of their pastoral statement, the Catholic bishops argue that passage of Referendum 74 would make THEM [the bishops] the objects of discrimination.  [The letter states]:

” ‘The legal separation of marriage from procreation would have a chilling effect on religious liberty and the right of conscience,’ the bishops claim.  ‘Once marriage is redefined as a genderless contract, it will become legally discriminatory for public and private institutions such as schools to promote the unique value of children being raised by their biological mothers and fathers.

‘No institution or individual could propose that married mothers and fathers provide a singular benefit to children without being accused of discrimination.  Recent attacks on churches, businesses and nonprofit organizations that express their conscientious objection to the redefinition of marriage underscore the danger.’ ”

Clearly, this type of argument is fear-mongering. Marriage equality laws will have no effect on religious liberty, other than to strengthen religious liberty by protecting religious institutions’ freedom to decide who they will and will not marry.

The bishops’ hypothetical instances have no relation at all to the marriage law.  The marriage law has nothing to do with what will be taught in school or the legalities of how businesses conduct themselves.   The recent case of a New York lesbian couple suing a Vermont resort that refused to host their wedding is a case in point.  Marriage equality is the law of the land in both New York and Vermont, yet the marriage equality law had no role in the legal proceedings of the suit.  The couple’s case was based on a non-discrimination law, not a marriage equality law.  It is illegal in Vermont for businesses to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation.

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer blog post goes on to comment on the fact, which we have noted many times in the past:  Catholics in the pews are not in line with the bishops’ thinking on this matter:

“The bishops are self-described ‘shepherds’ of a ‘flock’ of more than 800,000 Catholics in the state.

“But Washington Catholics have refused to act like sheep.  Gov. Chris Gregoire, a practicing Catholic, pushed the Legislature to adopt marriage equality.  Its chief sponsor, State Sen. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, is a devout Catholic.

“Murray, reacting to the bishops’ statement, said:  ‘Ultimately this language only leads to marginalizing a group of people, often with tragic consequences . . . hardly reflecting the core Christian message of love.’

“When Archbishop Sartain asked parishes to serve as collection signatures for Referendum 74 — to put the state’s new marriage equality law on the ballot — several large Seattle and Tacoma parishes, including St. James Cathedral, refused to participate in the signature gathering drive.

“Major Jewish and Protestant denominations have endorsed marriage equality, with a notable statement coming from Episcopal Bishop Greg Rickel.  A group called Catholics for Marriage Equality marched in last June’s Seattle Pride Parade.”

New Ways Ministry experienced the strength of Washington State Catholic support for marriage equality at two recent presentations we made in that state.  And their passion for justice and equality is infectious.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

Washington State Catholic Pastors’ Refusal Continues to Inspire

While we were in Washington State last week doing educational programs on Catholic support for marriage equality in anticipation of that state’s referendum on the issue in November,  Sister Jeannine Gramick, co-founder of New Ways Ministry, and I met with several pastors and parish leaders who earlier this year had refused the local archbishop’s request to use their parishes to collect signatures for petitions  to put the new marriage law to a ballot test.

Our discussion was lively and encouraging.  For one thing, we learned that there were many more parishes that had refused to collect signatures than had made the news accounts back in April.  We knew about a handful, but it turns out there were probably close to twenty that abstained from the collection.  In fact in one deanery (a geographic division) of the diocese, the pastors of all twelve parishes had met and agreed corporately not to allow signature collection.

The pastors we met  said they mostly had two reasons for their refusal:  1) they believed that collecting signatures would cause great divisions in the parishes; 2) many of the parishes have an explicit welcome to LGBT parishioners and their families, and they felt that collecting signatures would be a sign of inhospitality.

Response from parishioners has been universally positive about the decision not to support the signature campaign.  A number of the priests said that the announcements of the decision received standing ovations from their congregations.  The few parishioners who disagreed expressed their thoughts quietly and respectfully, and the priests felt that the decision helped to open up avenues of dialogue.

Fr. John Whitney, SJ

During our discussion, we learned about one pastor, in particular, who has been very public and vocal about not supporting measures to defeat marriage equality.  Fr. John Whitney, SJ, of St. Joseph Parish, Seattle, has added a section to the parish’s website about the upcoming referendum.  In that section, he includes a letter describing his decision as well as his perspective on Referendum 74.    He begins:

“Many of you may have read in the media that St. Joseph, among other parishes, has decided not to allow the gathering of signatures for Referendum 74, which aims at repealing the marriage equality bill passed by the State of Washington. This referendum is supported by the Archdiocese of Seattle, who has asked the Knights of Columbus to collect signatures at various parishes. Although many of you have offered support for the decision not to allow signature gathering here, I believe all of you deserve an explanation of the reasoning behind the decision.

“The primary reason for not allowing this petition is the nature of the worshipping assembly. Women and men of all opinions, orientations, backgrounds, and motivations are welcomed at this altar, and are encouraged to pray for wisdom and unity, even as we all work to create social policies that respect our faith and support each other. The Church should not be a place of coercion, but of discernment, as each member of the Church (as well as each citizen), decides whether a proposal such as Referendum 74 makes us more or less like the Kingdom described by Jesus. To have petitioners at the doors seems to me inappropriately coercive and contrary to the mission of the Church, especially in the Sunday assembly.”

Fr. Whitney goes on to describe why he feels the church is not the place to debate the referendum:

“Further, the nature of the piece of legislation makes it inappropriate to be brought into the context of our worship, I believe, since Referendum 74—like the marriage equality act it seeks to overturn—concerns civil marriage, not the covenant of Catholic marriage, which is a matter of faith and exists in the Church through the ministry of every couple. Although the Archbishop has the right and responsibility to speak and educate the community about legislation, I believe that this level of involvement around the issue of civil marriage is ill-considered, and risks placing the Church on the side of injustice and the denial of civil rights. Thus, I cannot in conscience allow such signature gathering at St. Joseph. I am not telling others how to vote, but I think that a Catholic, in good conscience, can oppose this referendum and should not be pressured to support it in the context of Sunday mass.”

In addition to his statement on the parish website, the pastor also posted Archbishop Peter Sartain’s letter requesting signatures,  and an FAQ sheet from the  Washington State Catholic Conference on why Catholics should oppose marriage equality.  Fr. Whitney explained his approach:

“Finally, I want to be clear that the Archbishop empowered pastors to make the decision about whether or not to allow signature gathering, and that we are not acting in opposition to his leadership. I am committed to offering his words directly to this community, when that is requested, and to encourage all members of the community to read them respectfully and thoughtfully, as part of the formation of conscience for any Catholic. In those rare situations where I may disagree with the Archbishop’s conclusions, I do not intend to use the pulpit or bulletin to debate, since that is not the place. As I have said, I think such debates belong outside the Church.”

He closes with a hope and prayer for unity among Catholics, even those divided by the marriage equality issue:

“It is of primary importance in all this, however, that we know we can be one community, united in heart and mind, only if we believe that every person is loved by God and valued in his or her humanity. We must listen to one another with respect—to the reality of our experiences and the grace of our call, in Christ. Hearing and loving each other is the root to true discernment, for it is in this communion that the Spirit is present and the Church—the true Church, for whom Christ was crucified and to whom he gave his body and blood—made flesh.

“May we hear God in our midst and always live to do God’s will in our world.”

On the website, Fr. Whitney provided a link for people to easily respond to him and/or to the archbishop.

We need more pastors like Father Whitney who speak forthrightly and who encourage respectful dialogue among their parishioners and between parishioners and their pastoral leaders.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry