Yes to Religious Liberty. But What Does That Actually Mean?

By Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry, October 17, 2016

If asked, most Catholics today would agree that religious liberty is an essential part of the church’s social teaching and most people would identify religious liberty as a constitutive democratic principle.

But questioned further, these same people would offer very different understandings of just what the religious liberty they so affirm actually means. While there are genuine threats to religious liberty internationally, in the United States, religious liberty has become mostly a prominent campaign issue for the right and a puzzling obsession for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Organizations on the left have pushed back against these forces, and even more issues have arisen as civil rights expand for LGBT people.

peaceful-coexistence-report_269_350A new report from the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights explored the complicated questions of nondiscrimination protections and religious liberty in a new report, Peaceful CoexistenceThis 300-page report from the independent and non-partisan federal agency examined issues like the ministerial exemption to employment protections and included statements from noted scholars, as well as these words from Commission Chair Martin R. Castro:

“The phrases ‘religious liberty’ and ‘religious freedom’ will stand for nothing except hypocrisy so long as they remain code words for discrimination, intolerance, racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, Christian supremacy or any form of intolerance. . .

“[T]oday, as in the past, religion is being used as both a weapon and a shield by those seeking to deny others equality. In our nation’s past religion has been used to justify slavery and later, Jim Crow laws. We now see “religious liberty” arguments sneaking their way back into our political and constitutional discourse (just like the concept of ‘state rights’) in an effort to undermine the rights of some Americans.”

Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, in his capacity as chair of the U.S. bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty, joined a handful of more conservative religious leaders in objecting to this report and specifically the words quoted above. Their letter called for President Barack Obama and congressional leadership to reject Castro’s statement and other assertions that religious liberty is being misused.

But new data from the Pew Research Center suggests Catholics in the U.S. are at odds with the bishops’ policies, reported America:

  • 54% of Catholics believe business should not be exempted from LGBT non-discrimination protections, five points higher than the national average;
  • 65% of Catholics do not believe an employer’s religious affiliation should exempt them from providing contraceptive services as part of health insurance coverage;
  • 64% of Catholics believe homosexual activity is either morally acceptable or not a moral issue.

91542022-rev-patrick-mahoney-of-the-christian-defense-coalition-crop-promo-mediumlargeSo what are Catholics to make of religious liberty in the United States, especially if we consider equality and justice for marginalized communities like LGBT people to be high priorities?

Some people might agree with Chairman Castro’s contention that “religious liberty” has become a weapon and a shield used against marginalized communities. Sunnivie Brydum wrote at Religion Dispatches that the use of scare quotes around the phrase now seems appropriate:

“This new, mutant form of ‘religious liberty’ does indeed deserve scare quotes. When Mississippi lawmakers overwhelmingly passed a law that determined what kind of intimate relationships are worthy of protection, they also lost the ability to claim that they were seeking to protect faith-based views broadly speaking. Laws like this have less to do with making sure people can freely practice their faith—they are written to privilege one ideological perspective over all others. . .

“Religious freedom is indeed a central tenet of American democracy. . .But when freedom of religion is used as a weapon to infringe on civil liberties—especially in the public square—it deserves the scare quotes that the Chicago Manual of Style says are ‘used to alert readers that a term is used in a nonstandard (or slang), ironic, or other special use.’ “

More centrist Catholics have cautioned against understanding religious liberty as a zero-sum issue. The editors of Jesuit weekly America called for reasoned discourse that seeks a solution amid the competing goods of religious liberty and non-discrimination protects, concluding:

“But if Catholics are to make a full-throated defense of robust religious liberty, we should also acknowledge the ways the church itself has contributed to the atmosphere of distrust around this cause. Asserting religious liberty primarily on ‘culture war’ issues draws attention only to the church’s policing of moral lines, to the detriment of its proclamation of the good news and service to those in need.

“For generations, the church in the United States has provided succor and support for millions of Americans, regardless of religion. This is not a historical accident but the result of the good works of myriad Catholics and an American context that allows believers to freely practice their faith in all spheres. This tradition must continue.”

Elsewhere, Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese wrote in the National Catholic Reporter that religious freedom and women’s rights could be strengthened together in an argument applicable to LGBT rights as well. Reese, who chairs the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, made this important point:

“A way out of this apparent conflict is to emphasize that religious freedom is a human right that resides in the individual not in a religious tradition. ‘The human right to freedom of religion or belief does not protect religious traditions per se,’ explained Heiner Bielefeldt, the UN special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, ‘but instead facilitates the free search and development of faith-related identities of human beings, as individuals and in community with others.’

“Religious freedom does not protect religious belief or religious institutions from challenge. Rather religious freedom protects the right of an individual to believe or not believe, to change one’s religion if one desires, and to speak and act on those beliefs. It protects believers not beliefs. Religious freedom includes freedom of speech and press on religious topics, which allows individuals to challenge religious beliefs and traditions.”

This understanding, Reese commented, reveals religious liberty “in its true meaning” as a source of empowerment for people to live according to their own beliefs and consciences.

Reese is clear that this approach does not resolve every issue related to religious liberty and gender equity, and therefore neither would it resolve every LGBT-related issue, but it effectively counters the idea that religious liberty and civil liberties are “two essentially contradictory human rights norms.” Much good could come if differing sides focused on points of agreement rather than points of contention.

In the world of U.S. Catholicism, progress on religious liberty seems to be simultaneously advanced and stalled at this moment. On the one hand, the Pew numbers reflect a Catholic faithful who conscientiously discern how to advance the common good while upholding goods that can at times be in tension, and this discernment has led them to positions which affirm LGBT rights in such a way that religious liberty is actually strengthened.

But, on the other hand, the Catholic bishops restrain progress, about which Michael Sean Winters of the National Catholic Reporter cautioned:

“In his response to the USCCR report, Archbishop William Lori, chair of the ad hoc committee on religious liberty at the USCCB, claims that the church only wants the ‘freedom to serve.’ What’s stopping you? As has been argued here and elsewhere repeatedly, there is really no reason, so far as our church’s teaching on cooperation with evil is concerned, for the Catholic church to insist that the accountant at Catholic Charities not get dental insurance for his gay partner. . .

“As they prepare for their plenary session in November, the bishops need to start thinking through two issues if they want to be both serious and successful in their defense of religious liberty. First, they need to abandon the idea that religious liberty extends as far as any particular believer wants it to extend in civil society: The wedding cake baker, bless his heart, is not being asked to participate in anything sinful when he bakes a cake for anybody for any reason. The protections we seek should be for our religious institutions, period. Second, the bishops need to follow the example of their Mormon brethren and reach out to the LGBT community. If this continues as an ‘us versus them’ fight, the bishops will lose.”

The Catholic Church’s endorsement of religious liberty at Vatican II is considered by many theologians to be one of the most notable outcomes of the Council. Dignitatis Humanae, the document on religious liberty, was heavily influenced by bishops and theologians from the United States, especially Jesuit Fr. John Courtney Murray. Where Murray and his collaborators had once been treated with hostility for their views on the issue, they became pivotal in shaping the course of Catholicism in the late 20th century.

LGBT non-discrimination protections are a good affirmed in church teaching, just as religious liberty is affirmed. Our task today is to understand how to strengthen both together. Catholics in the United States should remember the history above, history which calls us to ever more deeply engage and earnestly enact religious liberty in all its complexities.

The only clear answer is that there are no clear answers. We must not only say yes to religious liberty, but come to know more fully that which we are affirming. Bu if we are committed like our predecessors in faith, we can and will find a way forward that is faithful to the church’s tradition while meeting the needs of all in our contemporary world.






Prayers, Please

By Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, October 13, 2016

New Ways Ministry comes to you, our readers, with a request for prayers for a dear friend of our ministry and of LGBT Catholics. We learned yesterday evening that Professor Leslie Griffin, a leading scholar on the intersection of religion and law, was brutally attacked while jogging in her home city of Henderson, Nevada, and is now in the hospital in critical condition.

Professor Leslie Griffin

Professor Griffin, who holds the William S. Boyd Chair of Law at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Law School,  has written extensively on questions of religious liberty. She has defended the rights of religious institutions, but also the rights of LGBT people and other minorities who suffer discrimination because of an institution’s religious identity.  She has also worked on several cases defending people unjustly treated by religious institutions. Professor Griffin is scheduled to be a keynote speaker at New Ways Ministry’s Eighth National Symposium, “Justice and Mercy Shall Kiss: LGBT Catholics in the Age of Pope Francis,” at the end of April 2017.  She will be speaking on the topic “Religious Liberty, Employment, and LGBT Issues,” an area in which she has done much academic and practical research.

According to police reports, Professor Griffin was attacked while jogging near her home, and her attacker lifted her in the air and threw her to the ground.  The brutality of the attack is beyond words.  A good samaritan passing by came to her aid and helped convince the assailant to speak with the police.

In addition to her academic credentials in the field of law, Professor Griffin also has a PhD in Religious Studies from Yale University. She has been an associate professor of moral theology at the University of Notre Dame before turning to the study of law.  While at Notre Dame in the 1980s, she met New Ways Ministry’s co-founder Fr. Robert Nugent, SDS, while he was studying there, and became a decades-long friend and supporter of our ministry.

New Ways Ministry is heartbroken to learn the terrible news of the attack on Leslie Griffin.  Feeling helpless, as many do in similar situations, we turn to prayer. And we turn to you, our friends, for prayers for this  woman who has dedicated her life building a just church and world.  Leslie is a gentle soul, with a big heart, and who despite her academic accomplishments, is a humble and unassuming personality.

Please keep Leslie and her family in prayer.  Please pray for her full and speedy recovery. Please pray, too, for her assailant. Thank you.

Related articles “Law Professor Left in Critical Condition After Brutal Attack” “UNLV law professor in critical condition after brutal attack in Henderson”


Is There an Alternative to the Rigid Orthodoxies of the Religious Liberty Debate?

The United States of America celebrates its Independence Day today, so it seems an appropriate time to turn attention to the thorny question of religious liberty.  The argument for religious liberty is often used by ecclesial institutions to request exemptions from laws which regulate civil rights, access to health care, and labor regulations, among other things.  In the arena of LGBT issues, these exemptions include not being required to marry a lesbian or gay couple in a church, not providing access to gender transition procedures in religious hospitals, and allowing church institutions to fire a lesbian or gay teacher who decides to marry someone of the same gender.

Religious liberty controversies are often framed with church leaders on one side of the issue, defending faith and freedom, and progressive activists on the other side, calling for freedom of conscience and strict government regulation to guarantee individual freedom, on the other.  John Gehring, the Catholic program director for Faith in Public Life, a national advocacy group, recently penned an essay for Commonweal entitled “False Choices & Religious Liberty” which examines another alternative to this deadening dichotomy.

Gehring first notes that the debate about religious liberty has become too hunkered down in opposing camps who won’t acknowledge the legitimate points of one another.  According to Gehring, part of the problem is that the bishops have too often exaggerated the claims of having their religious liberty violated. Similarly, progressives won’t admit that religious leaders may have reason to worry.  Gehring writes:

“Even many faithful Catholicswho should be most sympathetic to the church’s arguments have grown weary of the divisiveness and worry that the all-consuming quality of the religious-liberty battle now seems to define American Catholicism. At the same time, the perversion of religious liberty into a bludgeon against women’s health, workers’ rights, and LGBT equality has caused some progressives to forget that religious freedom is a fundamentally liberal value. Finding a better approach that rescues religious liberty from the culture wars is challenging, essential work.”

Gehring thinks Catholicism, which too often has misused religious liberty issues, can lead the way to a better approach to this national question.  He proposes:

“The nation’s largest church needs to lower the temperature and elevate the conversation. In his visit to the White House last September, Pope Francis affirmed that religious liberty is “one of America’s most precious possessions.” American Catholics, he added, are equally “committed to building a society which is truly tolerant and inclusive, to safeguarding the rights of individuals and communities, and to rejecting every form of unjust discrimination.” To state what should be painfully obvious, Catholics are not living in an era of despotism or facing tyrannical assaults, as some church leaders have claimed. . . .

“If conservatives need to do some soul searching about how they often set back the important cause of religious liberty, progressives also need a better approach that fosters dialogue and common ground instead of division.”

For LGBT issues, the stakes are high around the religious liberty question.  Gehring points out:

“Along with battles over contraception coverage that are both technically complicated and politically fraught, there’s been a flurry of state legislation suggesting that religious freedom can be used to justify the withholding of civil rights from LGBT people. The Indiana legislature proposed a bill last year that would have allowed any for-profit business to assert a free exercise of religion argument to deny services. We’ve seen this before; religious claims were once used to deny African Americans basic rights. A restaurant owner should not be able to refuse breakfast to a gay couple on religious grounds. The misuse of religion was wrong in the 1960s, and it is wrong today. After swift backlash erupted from corporate, civic, and faith leaders, the bill was revised to include protections for sexual orientation and gender identity. However, similar legislation has been proposed in Georgia, North Carolina, and Mississippi. Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam even signed legislation that allows mental-health counselors and therapists to refuse to treat patients based on religious objections or personal beliefs.”

In Georgia, at least, Catholic bishops were on the side of limiting religious freedom in favor of protecting against LGBT discrimination. Gehring quotes the Georgia’s Catholic bishops’ statement against the strong religious liberty legislation:

“While we and the other Catholic bishops in the United States support the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, we do not support any implementation of RFRA in a way that will discriminate against any individual.”

Gehring proposes that both sides of the debate listen to one another’s concerns, and come up with new solutions, instead of continuing to push forward their own agendas:

“It’s wrong to pit religion against equality for all Americans. False choices box us into suffocating corners. Saving religious liberty from the quicksand of reckless rhetoric and political posturing won’t be easy. Progressives and conservatives squaring off in public debates have a choice. We can continue to exchange dueling press releases and self-righteous tweets—or sit down, humble ourselves, and search for common ground. ‘Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord,’ the prophet Isaiah tells us. The comfortable and convenient path is well worn. Taking a harder road is worth the struggle if it leads to principled conversations and respect for the complexity of conscience.”

Dialogue and discussion are always good alternatives, especially when sides have become entrenched.  True religious freedom, which respects institutions and individuals, is a reachable goal for our nation and our church.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry


Reconciliation Desperately Needed Between Spanish Cardinal and LGBT Community

Cardinal Antonio Cañizares

The latest place where reconciliation between the Catholic hierarchy and the LGBT community is desperately needed is Valencia, Spain, where the two groups are coming to legal loggerheads over negative comments the cardinal of that city made about LGBT people and family.

Crux reports that a group of LGBT and women’s organizations have threatened to file a “hate crime” complaint against Cardinal Antonio Cañizares for remarks he made in a homily at the University of Valencia:

“In his remarks, titled ‘In defense and support of the family,’ Cañizares said ‘the future of society is played out’ in the family, and, because of that, it’s become a target.

” ‘On the one hand, it’s the most valued, at least in the polls and even among young people, social institution, but it’s shaken to its foundations by serious, clear or subtle, threats,’ he said.

” ‘The family is haunted today, in our culture, by an endless threat of serious difficulties, and this is not hidden from anyone,’ Cañizares continued.

” ‘There we have legislation contrary to the family, the action of political and social forces, with added movements and actions of the gay empire, of ideas such as radical feminism, or the most insidious of all, gender theory.’ “

The cardinal’s inflammatory remarks were met with an equally inflammatory response:

“Soon after Cañizares’ remarks, several pro-LGTB and feminist organizations, such as Lambda, the LGBT collective of Valencia, the Collective for the Sexual-Affective Diversity and the Association of Families with Transsexual Minors announced they were going to file an official complaint with the ‘Office of Hate Crimes.’

“Technically, they intend to charge Cañizares with ‘apologia,’ a term in Spanish law for encouraging or defending a criminal act.”

The cardinal went on to defend his words,  summoning memories of censorship under Spain’s dictator Francisco Franco, and using remarks from Pope Francis’ exhortation Amoris Laetitia to support his ideas.

I hope that both sides of this dispute would see this event as an opportunity to dialogue with one another.  While the cardinal uses religious liberty arguments to defend his words, does he not see that his language is, at the very least, pastorally insensitive?  Perhaps the LGBT and feminist organizations needed to threaten legal action to get the cardinal’s attention, but do they not see that such action is only heightening the antagonism, instead of remedying it?  I hope the better angels of the folks on both sides of this dispute would come to see that peaceful dialogue with one another could be an opportunity for opening their horizons.

The Crux news report placed a strong emphasis on the cardinal and his supporters using Pope Francis’ words in his exhortation and in other settings as a justification for the ideas expressed.  Yet, clearly, they have not followed all of Pope Francis’ ideas.   While the pope has in fact supported marriage and family as exclusively heterosexual institutions,  and while he has spoken against new understandings of gender identity, he has also shown that dialogue and encounter are primary ways of being a merciful and accompanying church.  No matter how strongly the Pope has ever defended heterosexual marriage, he has never used phrases like “gay empire.”  Instead, he has met with LGBT folks, sent them letters, called them on the phone, and insisted that bishops be less political in areas of sexuality.

Terminology such as “gay empire” appears to be designed to instill fear, not to offer logical argument.  Like the similar term “gay lobby,” it conjures images of a vast network of powerful people who are manipulating the future.  If any of the advances for LGBT equality in recent decades were manipulated by gay people alone, they surely would have failed.   By the most generous estimates,  gay people are only about 10% of the population.  Hardly an empire.  It was the recognition by larger segments of the population that LGBT people should not suffer discrimination which have brought about the positive changes we have witnessed.

The news report noted that Cañizares used his homily on the feast of Corpus Christi to defend the idea that religious people have a right to speak their opinions in the public square.  He ended with the following statement:

 “[The] culture of the Eucharist promotes a culture of dialogue, which in it finds strength and nourishment.”

He used that sentiment to justify the idea that religious people should be part of the public dialogue.  However, it equally applies to the cardinal himself when he finds himself discussing LGBT issues.  “A culture of dialogue” is the culture of respect and mutual exchange, not a culture of name-calling and fear-mongering.  If the cardinal wants to live the Eucharistic culture of dialogue, he should open his doors to leaders of LGBT and women’s organizations to respectfully express his thoughts, and, more importantly, to hear their concerns.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

North Carolina Bishop Distances Himself from HB2 Support

Bishop Michael Burbidge

A North Carolina bishop has distanced himself from initial support offered by the state’s Catholic conference for an anti-LGBT law the legislature is considering. The bishop is now saying the law, which criminalizes public restroom use according to one’s gender identity rather than assigned sex at birth and bans local LGBT non-discrimination protections, raises concerns that should be remedied.

Bishop Michael Burbidge of Raleigh said legislators should rework problematic parts of the law, known as HB2, and he called for mutual respect and dialogue between opposing sides. Burbidge said “another remedy to the unfortunate situation created by the Charlotte Ordinance and HB2 should be considered.” The Charlotte Ordinance is an LGBT non-discrimination law passed in the state’s largest city.

The bishop suggested that a remedy should be guided by a respect for human dignity, the avoidance of bigotry, and a pursuit of the common good, among other factors. He told WRAL 5 that legislators could “come up with something better” that is not understood to be bigoted or misconstrued. His statement at a media luncheon continued:

“No person should feel as though they are unwelcome in our communities of faith. The priests of this Diocese, myself included, remain committed to speaking with anyone who has concerns about how we operate or what we believe. This applies regardless of one’s gender or gender identity. Building strong relationships is fundamental to healthy faith communities. All people are made in the image and likeness of God as man and woman, and we stand ready to continue accompanying all people in their faith walk.”

Burbidge, however, defended the diocese’s policies for “gender specific multi-stall bathrooms and said organizations’ decisions about their own operations “should be respected.” He closed with an appeal for civility in what has become a most contentious debate:

“My hope and call, is that before this issue takes another step in either direction, both sides will treat one another with decency, love, and mutual respect.”

These are Burbidge’s first public comments on HB2 since it was passed in April, although it should not be considered his first time weighing in on the matter. Catholic Voice North Carolina, the bishops’ public policy arm, asked Catholics to oppose the Charlotte LGBT protections ordinance to which HB2 was responding, and said the state law had “yielded a favorable outcome for religious liberty.” Later, a spokesperson for the Raleigh diocese then said that “the Diocese does not have a position on HB2.”

Attacks continue against HB2. The U.S. Department of Justice notified Governor Pat McCrory that this law violates federal civil rights laws, specifically the rights of state workers and students who should be able to access public restrooms. The federal Departments of Transportation, and Housing and Urban Development are inquiring as to whether their civil rights policies are being violated too. Whether Bishop Burbidge’s distancing is tied to the shifting realities in law and in public opinion, or whether he is waking up the fact this law is unjust discrimination is not clear.

Thankfully, as with marriage equality, U.S. Catholics are among the most supportive religious adherents for non-discrimination of LGBT people. New polling from Reuters/Ipsos showed U.S. Catholics evenly split on the question of whether restroom use should be according to one’s gender identity or assigned sex at birth. While more education is needed to improve these numbers, Catholics are more supportive of transgender protections than religious people overall and mirror trends which find people in the U.S. overall split on the issue.

One high-profile Catholic from the Carolinas is speaking out for LGBT equality. Stephen Colbert who hosts CBS’ The Late Show shared his thoughts about the restroom controversies, saying, “And to all those lawmakers out there who are so obsessed with whose using what bathroom and what plumbing they’ve got downtown, newsflash, you’re the weirdos.” You can watch Colbert’s thoughts below or by clicking here.

Ellen K. Boegel, a legal scholar at St. John’s University, wrote in America that these anti-LGBT laws really reflect “a deeper societal divide and [illustrate] the need for reasoned use of political power.” She continued:

“Regardless, politicians and advocacy groups serve their constituents best by avoiding unnecessary controversy and looking instead for mutually beneficial solutions. . .Focusing on outcomes that are universally beneficial will not end all disputes regarding the appropriate balance between civil rights and religious rights, but it would be better government.”

Passing laws which are blatantly unconstitutional undermines government credibility and faith in the democratic process, Boegel wrote, especially when religious liberty is already well-protected. She pointed out, too, that non-gender-specific facilities benefit women, families, and persons with disabilities, in addition to trans* people.

Most bishops, led by the USCCB’s partisan fight over religious liberty, have thus far refused to admit the harm that anti-LGBT state laws can cause.  They do not see that these laws as violating the common good. Protecting LGBT people from very real and harmful discrimination is not on the bishops’ agenda. They seem to forget the many times in the 1970s and 1980s when their episcopal predecessors supported ordinances and laws aimed at curtailing discrimination against people based on their sexual orientation.

But this admission from Bishop Burbidge that HB2 is questionable and may indeed advance discrimination could be the first sign of a shift. His outreach to dialogue with people of all gender identities may open the door for further progress. Let us hope so.  In the meantime, lets keep focused on what we as Catholics can do to ensure every person is protected under the law and respected as a child of God.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

Related article:

National Catholic Reporter: “North Carolina bishop calls for bathroom bill alternative”

A Look Into What Drives the Conservative Public Policy of the USCCB

Tony Spence’s forced resignation from his position as editor-in-chief of Catholic News Service is indicative of a greater disturbing trend at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.  That’s the claim made by John Gehring, the Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life. In a Commonweal article, Gehring lays out the USCCB’s recent trend of digging deeper into culture war battles, just at the time when Pope Francis has been calling church leaders to put aside such strident partisan involvement in favor of a method which engages culture and differing opinions.

Tony Spence

Spence left his job a little over two weeks ago, primarily because tweets he sent out from his personal Twitter account in which he criticized some state legislative battles involving LGBT issues and religious liberty.  The USCCB, which owns Catholic News Service, forced him to submit a letter of resignation.

Gehring spoke with Spence after his sudden departure and reported that the former editor has observed much anxiety and tension among Catholic leaders.  Spence told Gehring:

“I think it’s a very tense time in the American church and some things are off limits for discussion in any kind of rational way. It’s difficult to talk about religious liberty, sexuality, women’s issues. But we don’t live in a Catholic bubble. We’re a country of 320 million people.”

Spence observed that the USCCB’s agenda would often creep into the editing of Catholic News Service pieces, which traditionally had editorial independence from the bishops.  Spence said:

“When you reported on positions that politicians took on health care or issues of sexuality even neutrality was seen as an implied endorsement. We really had to be careful about the language we used and how we wrote things. Eventually you start to do that so much you look up and you’re self-censoring and you almost don’t realize how you got there. There was never any direction from the leadership of the conference not to report on something. We had editorial freedom, but there were a lot of battles fought over it.”

Through research for his book The Francis Effect, Gehring interviewed a number of high-ranking conference staff members who gave him a picture of what he calls “the larger, systemic changes at the USCCB in recent years.”  Moreover, many of those interviewed “lamented the all-consuming focus on religious liberty fights, and expressed concern that a hunkered-down approach is limiting the bishops’ effectiveness.”  Not surprisingly, LGBT issues are often at the center of these battles:

“Whether it’s decrying as “extreme” President Obama’s 2014 executive order prohibiting federal contractors from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation, comparing American disputes over religious liberty to the persecution of Christian martyrs, or publicly opposing the bipartisan reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act for including LGBT protections, the conference often seems determined to box itself into a corner.”

Citing Cathleen Kaveny, a legal scholar, Gehring notes that the U.S. bishops agenda is in opposition to the new agenda which Pope Francis is trying to set for the church, described as “a clear desire to recalibrate the Catholic public voice in a way that doesn’t reduce those moral teachings to a short list of hot-button sexual issues.”

John Gehring

One of those interviewed was Dolores Leckey, the first head of the Secretariat for Family, Laity, Women and Youth.  Leckey told Gehring:

“There is now a kind of unspoken test, and if anyone has a perceived taint of not being on target with every single element of Catholic doctrine, it just doesn’t fly. The church gets cut out of all kinds of effective partnerships. It’s crimping our ability to make a difference.”

Gehring also examines the handful of conservative Catholic websites who have had undue influence on the USCCB, including prompting the ouster of Spence.  Among those mentioned is “Church Militant,” anchored by Michael Voris, who has been notoriously anti-gay in many of his commentaries.  Gehring points out an interesting development about Voris’ personal life:

“. . . [Voris] last week acknowledged for the first time that in the past he had been in sexual relationships with men. He accused the Archdiocese of New York of preparing documents to publicly discredit him, a claim the archdiocese denies.”

Spence acknowledged that these conservative groups often have an immense amount of influence at the USCCB and on individual bishops.  He told Gehring:

“What blows my mind is these groups are given so much credibility and have influence. They are destructive. We’re only talking about a few hundred people in a very big church, but church leadership sometimes doesn’t have confidence in its own voice and these shrill challenges make them jump for cover.”

Gehring’s article is well worth reading in its entirety, and you can do so by clicking here.  He offers many more examples of the culture war mentality at the USCCB.  The stories show that it will take much work and prayer for Pope Francis’ proposed reforms to take root in this institution.

Still, of all the chilling examples he offers, for me the idea that I find the most dangerous is the one that Spence himself warned against:  “self-censorship.” In days gone by, silencing by the Church was accomplished by imprisoning people, exiling them, and, in the worst cases, execution.  Today, silencing is achieved by instilling an atmosphere of fear in church officials, lay leaders, and people in the pews.  The best way to prevent such self-censorship is through overcoming the fear that motivates it.  The best way to overcome fear is through contemplative prayer.

In order to change the culture of the USCCB, we need to keep speaking out truthfully and courageously, and we need to continue to pray to overcome our own fear and to ask that others are able to overcome theirs, too.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry



Top Gay Rights Campaigner in UK Speaks Movingly About Her Catholic Faith

Ruth Hunt

In an interview with The Scottish Catholic Observer, a leading gay rights advocate in the United Kingdom spoke movingly about her faith, while at the same time she appealed again for more common ground between LGBT and religious communities.

Ruth Hunt, head of the LGBT rights organization Stonewall, and a Catholic lesbian woman, gave the interview to coincide with LGBT month in Scotland, which this year celebrates the theme “faith, religion and philosophy.” In the interview, Hunt spoke about being raised Catholic, and she said of the faith which she still practices:

” ‘I was brought up Catholic, I believe in one Holy Roman Catholic Church. . .I believe it is where Christ is most accurately reflected. I feel at home there, I maintain a good relationship with the Church, I am pleased to be part of it. . .

” ‘I never felt the need break away. . .In the past, when I didn’t go I found I missed it, it provides community and creates a space that is very profound and spiritual for me.’ “

Hunt later said she “never felt excluded from the Church I attended. . .never felt I wasn’t welcome.” Like many Catholics, though, Hunt has questioned the church, yet remaining Catholic was a “very important thing” in her teenage years and was reaffirmed during her college studies of medieval English.

Hunt acknowledged that some sharp divisions and deep hurt exist between LGBT and religious communities, which can create further difficulties for LGBT people of faith. She explained:

” ‘I do meet people who have had different, difficult experiences though who’ve been damaged by being told to deny their sexuality, who felt rejected by God. . .That’s saddens me, and at Stonewall we often talk about the need for “kind eyes,” when we listen to people.'”

But too often these divisions are “something artificially constructed,” particularly the “over inflated” conflict between religious freedom and LGBT rights that some propose. Hunt noted:

” ‘There are many LGBT people of faith and many LGBT people have lots of friends and family in faith communities. To think in terms of binaries and opposites is not helpful. . .It does concern me the way some opposition is expressed. I don’t think it is Christian to be harmfully offensive. I think there’s always room to disagree with compassion.’ “

Working towards more inclusion in religious communities and more common ground between LGBT and religious communities remain an important task, according to Hunt, because “legal rights only go so far.” She offered advice on how LGBT advocates could proceed as they seek greater justice and equality:

“Hearing the truth of people’s testament is very important. . . A lot can be achieved if you start on basis of love but it’s difficult when people are utterly determined not to hear each other. . .

“We need to reach deeper into communities, to help people be accepted as they live, work, socialise and pray. . .

“The rights of LGBT people don’t get in the way of people of faith who practice that faith.”

This interview is not Hunt’s first time speaking about the need to overcome divisions between LGBT and religious communities. When she was appointed Stonewall’s director in 2014, Hunt recognized that despite legal advances, there was still much work to do to bring about religious and cultural acceptance of LGBT people and their relationships. Last year, Hunt reaffirmed to The Tablet that changing attitudes rather than legislation was her priority. She welcomed Archbishop Vincent Nichol’s support of monthly LGBT outreach Masses near London as an effort to overcome the deep chasm that may exist between faithful Catholics and their church institutions.

Her wisdom is again insightful in this interview with the Observer, and LGBT advocates, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, would do well to read it. Hunt, who recommends listening to the truth of people’s lives, witnesses powerfully by living her own truth as a lesbian Catholic woman refusing to compromise on either her faith or her sexual orientation.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry