Charlene Strong, a Catholic in Washington State, lost her spouse to torrential flooding in 2006 – and from this tragedy began her personal struggle to legalize marriage equality.
Strong’s trying experiences surrounding the death of her spouse, Kate Fleming, included hospital administrators who called family hundreds of miles away instead of asking her about Kate’s last wishes and a funeral director who denied Strong a role in planning final arrangements.
Since Fleming’s death, Strong has spoken about her ordeal to over 40 colleges and universities nationwide, most recently at Gonzaga University Law School as reported in The Washington Post:
“‘They were willing to take the word of someone on the phone, 300 miles away,’ Strong said. ‘Who knew her allergies? I did. Who knew what her wishes were? I did’…
“That’s when Strong decided that she would do whatever she could to make sure other same-sex couples would have equal rights in Washington state.”
Strong also assisted a successful 2007 initiative for domestic partnership rights and now works diligently to help pass Referendum 74 on November 6, 2012 so other couples do not face unnecessary obstacles in times of crisis as she and Fleming had to.
Central to her efforts for marriage equality, Strong continues to support the Catholic Church and considers her speech at Gonzaga the response to Spokane Bishop Blase Cupich’s call for an honest conversation on equality. As for her faith personally, as reported in SpokaneFavs, a community-based blog:
“Strong was closeted until she was 33 years old and said she felt more connected to her faith when she was finally honest about her sexuality and who she was. She and Fleming attended a Catholic parish in Seattle together and were welcomed by those in the pews.
‘The church kept me from going crazy after my wife died,’ Strong said. ‘They were there to help bury her with tremendous compassion’…
“The Catholic Church’s call to social justice is why Strong loves her faith.
“’When you leave the church you can’t fix the church,’ she said. ‘You can’t be part of the discussion.’”
Charlene Strong’s witness both to the challenges same-sex couples experience and in her persistence in Catholicism should give pause to all sides of the marriage equality debate.
In his blog on the National Catholic Reporter website, Michael Sean Winters rightly praises Spokane’s Bishop Blaise Cupich for a rare, and perhaps unique, bit of civility from a member of the Catholic hierarchy in discussing marriage equality for lesbian and gay couples. While praise is certainly due to Bishop Cupich for his compassionate approach, his way of dealing with the issue also highlights that what is still missing from the Catholic hierarchy in their dealings with LGBT people is the message of justice.
“I would like to call readers’ attention to a pastoral letter read at all Masses this past weekend in the Diocese of Spokane from Bishop Blase Cupich. Washington State will have a referendum on same sex marriage this November, even though Washington State already has civil unions that confer all the rights that attend to marriage on same-sex partners. The debate has generated a lot of strong feelings and, in his letter, Bishop Cupich addresses those feelings:
Admittedly, the conflicting positions of this issue are deeply held and passionately argued. Proponents of the redefinition of marriage are often motivated by compassion for those who have shown courage in refusing to live in the fear of being rejected for their sexual orientation. It is a compassion that is very personal, for those who have suffered and continue to suffer are close and beloved friends and family members. It is also a compassion forged in reaction to tragic national stories of violence against homosexuals, of verbal attacks that demean their human dignity, and of suicides by teens who have struggled with their sexual identity or have been bullied because of it. As a result, supporters of the referendum often speak passionately of the need to rebalance the scales of justice. This tends to frame the issue as a matter of equality in the minds of many people, a value that is deeply etched in our nation’s psyche.Likewise, many opponents of the law redefining marriage have close friends and family members who are gay or lesbian. They too recognize the importance of creating a supporting environment in society for everyone to live a full, happy and secure life. Yet, they also have sincere concerns about what a redefinition of marriage will mean for the good of society and the family, both of which face new strains in our modern world. They are asking the public to take a serious and dispassionate look at what a radical break with centuries of marriage law and practice will mean.
“What is remarkable about these paragraphs is that Bishop Cupich does not demean those whose views are different from his own. He does not distort or mischaracterize those views. Indeed, he recognizes that, seen from a certain point of view, these attitudes are entirely understandable. I dare say that any proponent of same sex marriage would have to allow that the bishop’s words are not only not incendiary, they are the fruit of a desire to understand, evidence of a stance of primordial respect for all people.”
I, too, want to praise Bishop Cupich for inserting some reasoned compassion into this contentious debate. His statements, however, also serve as a reminder that what he said is not really enough at this time. Catholic supporters of marriage equality alreadyknow what motivates their passion for the issue. But hearing their motivations characterized by someone who opposes their position is not completely satisfactory, especially when the motivations are characterized as simply having soft hearts.
Catholics who support marriage equality indeed are motivated by compassion, but they are more strongly motivated by justice. Marriage equality is not simply a matter of feeling sorry for people, but about the passion for justice that the Catholic social justice tradition has burned into their hearts. Catholics who support marriage equality do so because they want to see human dignity protected, families strengthened, and equality promoted.
More importantly, Bishop Cupich’s statements beg the question: If he understands that marriage equality supporters have sincere motivations for their positions, why doesn’t he and other bishops meet with such supporters to dialogue about their deeply-held and faith-filled ideas? Catholic marriage equality supporters don’t need or want acknowledgement from bishops that their ideas are valid. They already know that. What they want is an opportunity to share those ideas with church officials in adult conversations, guided by both faith and reason.
Winters concludes his blog post on Bishop Cupich’s statement by praising the model of civility and compassion that the Spokane bishop offers, particularly in reminding all Catholics that the magisterium condemns discrimination against LGBT people:
“He then goes on to cite a document issued by the bishops, Ministry to Persons With a Homosexual Inclination, which in turn cites both the Catechism of the Catholic Church and a document from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. This last is especially bracing given the usual media narrative that the Catholic Church hates gays.
It is deplorable that homosexual persons have been and are the object of violent malice in speech or in action. Such treatment deserves condemnation from the Church’s pastors wherever it occurs.
“Sadly, too many Catholics, on the blogosphere, in the pulpit, and at the water cooler, do not echo these words from the CDF, still less that kind of language found in Bishop Cupich’s truly remarkable letter. I am not a fan of the culture warrior model, but admit there are times when I wonder if the culture is not moving in certain ways that are so hostile to the Church, that such a model will become unavoidable. But, now, when I despair that such may be the case, I can re-read this letter to the Catholics of Spokane and take heart. We can be faithful and reasonable, faithful and respectful, faithful and persuasive. We must, as Catholics and as Americans, care about our culture, but we don’t have to dress up as warriors to express our concern, and Bishop Cupich has shown the way.”
Again, while I would like to join in the praise of the bishop’s even-handedness, I take exception to Winters’ analysis of it. Catholics who support marriage equality do not want or need “kinder, gentler” bishops whose compassion for LGBT people can be used to more persuasively argue against justice and equality for LGBT people. While we certainly need fewer bishops who are culture warriors, we don’t need any whose compassion can be used as a persuasive tool to win people over to positions which are unjust.
What we doneed are bishops who will open their minds and hearts to the Catholics who disagree with them. We need bishops who are not merely defensive, but proactive in seeking out solutions that respond to the active faith of all Catholics. We need bishops who not only feel sorry for LGBT people, but who respect their consciences and their faith journeys. We need bishops who respond positively to Catholic people crying for justice, instead of identifying such people as enemies.
Bishop Cupich has certainly taken a first step in these directions, and he rightly deserves praise for his efforts. I hope that he will be encouraged to take bolder ones in the future.