The church must not abandon transgender Catholics. This is Fr. Bryan Massingale’s message in his new column published by U.S. Catholic, and it is a poignant message in view of Pope Francis’ recent remarks about gender identity.
Massingale. a professor of theology at Fordham University, New York, begins his essay by referencing a transgender panel discussion in which he participated earlier this year. Hosted by the Los Angeles Religious Education Congress, the largest annual gathering of Catholics in North America, that panel featured to young trans Catholics sharing their stories. Massingale commented on it:
“I was struck by their heartfelt conviction that accepting their true gender identities led them to a deeper and more authentic relationship with God. Hearing their stories of pain and triumph was one of the most privileged moments I have had in 33 years of being a priest.”
But Massingale notes that he questioned his own participation in the event, especially when friends and family asked him about the risks that identifying with LGBT people can have in the church. He explained:
“Space does not allow me to give my full response. But one reason why I chose to be present is because I have a lot to learn. To be blunt, I was at the panel precisely because of my ignorance and discomfort. Transgender issues were never addressed in either my moral theology courses in the seminary or in my graduate studies in Christian ethics. I—and most priests—have not been trained to specifically minister to transgender members of our parishes or to the concerns of their families.
“My personal ignorance is also shared by the church as a whole. There is much that we do not understand about what is technically called ‘gender dysphoria,’ or the lack of congruence between one’s physical body and gender identity. This ignorance leads to fear, and fear is at the root of the controversies in today’s so-called ‘bathroom wars.’ And there lies a major challenge that transgender people endure and that the faith community has to own: the human tendency to be uncomfortable and fearful in the face of what we don’t understand. It’s easier to ridicule and attack individuals we don’t understand than to summon the patience and humility to listen and to learn.”
The church cannot abandon trans Catholics because, Massingale explains, “Jesus would be present to, among, and with transgender persons.” His table ministry with society’s outcasts teaches Christians that we will be judged on “our compassion for the despised and disdained.” Lack of understanding of or comfort with people does not mitigate the obligation the church has to include them and minister to them. Massingale also cited the compassionate side of Pope Francis:
“During Pope Francis’ visit last fall, he repeated on at least five occasions: ‘Jesus never abandons us.’ This is the deepest reason why I chose to be with Anna and Mateo, who spoke so eloquently for so many of our transgender fellow Catholics. Jesus does not abandon us. If we claim to be his followers, we cannot abandon them.”
You can read Fr. Massingale’s full essay by clicking here.
Fr. Massingale has himself not abandoned LGBT Catholics. While at Marquette University, he celebrated monthly Masses for members of the LGBTQ communities on campus because, he says, it is important they “have a Mass where they feel welcome and that God does love them.” He challenged Pax Christi USA members at their 2013 annual conference to increase the organization’s defense of LGBT rights, as both a human rights concern and a necessary part of attracting younger Catholics. Massingale also joined other Catholic theologians and officials in condemning proposed anti-gay legislation in Uganda.
Two plenary speakers from New Ways Ministry’s Seventh National Symposium once again made headlines in national publications, spreading their message of the Catholic call for LGBT equality to a wider and broader audience.
Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, whose Symposium talk was a rousing inspiration at the end of the meeting, condensed her themes into an essay entitled “The Case for Gay Acceptance in the Catholic Church” for The Atlantic magazine. After describing her experience of meeting Catholics of all stripes at the New Ways Ministry Symposium, Kennedy Townsend introduces the main point of her argument:
“New Ways Ministry has a critical mission, since changing the Church will help those who suffer from ill treatment not only here in the United States but around the world, where the Church has so much clout. The Church has millions of members in Africa and South America, where being gay or lesbian can lead to a death sentence.
“Worse, the Church’s own teaching encourages bigotry and harm. Just last year, my father’s memorial, the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights, gave its human rights award to Frank Mugisha, a gay activist in Uganda whose good friend had just been brutally killed in his own home. American missionaries have encouraged the discrimination Mugisha suffers. Refuting their religious arguments is critical, and so is making a moral and religious case for gays. What we need is a transformation of hearts and minds, not merely a change of laws.
“The Catholic Church’s attitude towards homosexuality is at odds with its tradition of tolerance and understanding. The actual practice of the Church is true to this tradition. What other institution separates men and women and encourages them to live together in monasteries and convents where they can develop deep relationships with those who share their kind of love?
“The fight for the dignity of the LGBT community is a fight for the soul of today’s Church. “
Kennedy’s argument is spot on. Catholics who support LGBT rights are doing so not in spite of being Catholic, but because of being Catholic. They are doing so not to destroy their church, but to build it up.
As the daughter of the late Senator Robert Kennedy, one of America’s greatest Catholic civil rights leaders, Kennedy Townsend knows how important the role of religion is in the struggle for the expansion of justice:
“My father grasped, as did John Kennedy and Martin Luther King, that in America the leader who wishes to enlarge freedom’s sphere must appeal to an audience’s religious beliefs as well as to their understanding of American liberty.”
A decade later, however, things had changed:
“. . . in the 1970s, feminists and gay rights activists did not adopt the same strategy and tactics. I think this happened because their movement grew out of the non-religious part of the civil rights movement. Recall that the civil rights movement was split between the followers of Reverend Martin Luther King on the one hand and Stokely Carmichael and the Black Panthers on the other. The latter group felt that religion was weak. Why turn the other cheek? Why not fight back? This secular strain also attracted many intellectuals who were, to put it bluntly, uncomfortable with religion.”
Kennedy Townsend notes that while some progress has been made on women’s issues in the church, we still have a way to go when it comes to LGBT issues. But she has not given up hope. Quite the contrary. Having seen how changes occurred in other areas of church teaching, and how strongly Catholic lay people support LGBT rights, Kennedy Townsend is optimistic:
“That history can continue with its position on gays — and the laity has a critical role to play in pushing for these changes. As Cardinal John Henry Newman, the foremost 19th-century Catholic theologian asserted, bishops have at times ‘failed in their confession of the faith.’ There can be instances of ‘misguidance, delusion, hallucination.’ He said that the body of the faithful has the ‘instinct for truth.’
“Already, I have witnessed that instinct for truth in the argument over contraception. Despite the hierarchy’s position, 98 percent of Catholic women in the United States use contraception. I believe that Human Vitae was the Holy Ghost’s way to teach us that we must use our conscience, and not lazily rely on the hierarchy when it is in error.
“At this time, when the hierarchy does not want to recognize that we are all made in the image and likeness of God, and that the one of the two most critical commandments is to love one another, it is critical to assert that God loves the LGBT community equally. Sometimes the Church moves slowly, sometimes quickly. The point is to make sure the voices of dissent are not quiet and the Holy Spirit can be heard.”
For me, the key points here are that we must use both our consciences and our voices for the Holy Spirit to be heard. If we really believe that the Church is the entire People of God, then we need to accept confidently that, as Newman pointed out, that the Holy Spirit moves among the laity.
The second Symposium speaker in the news again was Bishop Geoffrey Robinson. When he left the Symposium, he embarked on a U.S. speaking tour to Philadelphia, New York, New Haven and Fairfield, CT, Boston, Detroit, Chicago, Santa Clara, CA, which New Ways Ministry organized.
The National Catholic Reporter caught up with him again in Chicago, and reported on his talk there. While at the Symposium, Bishop Robinson focused on rethinking Catholic sexual ethics, in his Chicago talk he highlighted the problems in Catholic law and culture that abetted the sexual abuse crisis:
“. . . other aspects of Catholic culture Robinson said contributed to the abuse crisis are mandatory celibacy for priests, a ‘mystique’ some attach to the priests as being ‘above other human beings,’ and a ‘creeping infallibility’ of papal decrees, which is used to protect ‘all teachings … in which a significant amount of papal energy and prestige have been invested.’
“The application of the church’s teaching on infallibility is a ‘major force in preventing a pope from making admissions that there have been serious failures in the handling of abuse,’ Robinson said.
“Mentioned in particular was Pope John Paul II, who Robinson stated ‘it must be said … responded poorly’ to the sex abuse crisis.
” ‘With authority goes responsibility,’ Robinson said. ‘Pope John Paul many times claimed the authority, and he must accept the responsibility. The most basic task of a pope is surely to be the “rock” that holds the church together, and by his silence in the most serious moral crisis facing the church in our times, the pope failed in this basic task.’ “
In his Symposium talk, Bishop Robinson was clear that changes in sexual ethics need to be accompanied by changes in how the church is governed. Bishop Robinson’s insights are a breath of fresh air in a Catholic atmosphere which has been much too stale.
For summaries and analyses of the Symposium talk, with links to articles about and the text of his Symposium talk, check out these Bondings 2.0 posts:
New Ways Ministry’s Seventh National Symposium in Baltimore two weeks ago continues to make headlines. The National Catholic Reporter (NCR) has editorialized in support of Bishop Geoffrey Robinson’s call to re-think the Catholic Church’s official teaching on sexuality, which he made during a talk at the Symposium. An NCR columnist, Eugene Kennedy, the renowned psychologist and church observer, has also praised the Australian bishop’s proposal.
“Robinson is not the first to articulate the need for a responsible reexamination of sexual ethics, one that takes seriously the radical call to selfless love, but the addition of a bishop’s voice adds new dimension to the conversation. By rebuilding Christian morality in the area of sexuality in the way Robinson suggests, we will achieve a teaching that can better challenge the message about sexuality trumpeted by the dominant culture in television, music and advertising, a sexuality that idolizes self-gratification and that puts ‘me’ before ‘you.’ By placing the needs of the other first, our sexual ethic would reject sexual violence — physical and psychological, the idolatry of self-gratification, the objectification of people, and the trivializing of sex when it is separated from love.”
The NCR rightly points out that Robinson’s approach is not one of a wild-eyed radical:
“In the end, Robinson is making a profoundly traditional suggestion about sexuality, because what he proposes is rooted in genuine personal responsibility. He writes: ‘Many would object that what I have proposed would not give a clear and simple rule to people. But God never promised us that everything in the moral life would be clear and simple. Morality is not just about doing right things; it is also about struggling to know what is the right thing to do. … It is about taking a genuine personal responsibility for everything I do.’ ”
The tradition that Robinson is following is the tradition of Jesus in the Scriptures:
“Robinson’s take on sexuality — that it deserves deeper consideration than the narrow, rule-bound approach that has evolved in Christian circles — takes us to the heart of the radical approach Jesus took toward human relationships.”
“Bishop Robinson’s purpose is, in fact, that set out by Pope John XXIII as his reason for convening Vatican II, “To make the human sojourn on earth less sad.”
“Indeed, in urging a much needed review of what and how the church teaches about human sexuality, Bishop Robinson draws on themes central to Vatican II. The first of these is found in placing the reality of the human person rather than the abstraction of natural law as the central reference point in church teachings and papal pronouncements about marriage and sexual activity.
“The second is found in the shift from an emphasis on objective acts to subjective intentions and dispositions in making judgments on the badness or goodness of how people behave. This rightfully emphasizes the impact that our actions or omissions have on other persons rather than on the ire that has idled within so many church leaders who have been so preoccupied with sin. . . .
“Robinson’s convictions on the need for a thorough examination of the church’s teaching on sexuality are significant in themselves but also because he has found a way to speak about this essential matter from within the church, even if in the mannered traditional way that dialogue moves, however slowly, toward a wider circle of prelates.”
After Bishop Robinson spoke at the Symposium, many people told me that they felt something new and remarkable had taken place. One person told me that it felt like a new chapter had been opened in the church’s discussion on sexuality. His talk offered not only hope, but a way forward that people felt was authentically human and authentically Catholic.
His experience as the Australian Bishops’ Conference coordinator of pastoral responses to that nation’s sexual abuse crisis transformed his thinking on how Catholicism approached sexuality and how that approach can be improved. As was evident from the style and content of his talk, Bishop Robinson had one three things that more bishops should emulate: he opened his ears, his mind, and his heart.
This article contains a precise summary of Bishop Robinson’s talk in which he called on the Catholic church to rethink its teaching on sexuality:
” ‘If [ church ] teaching on homosexual acts is ever going to change, the basic teaching governing all sexual acts must change,’ retired Auxiliary Bishop Geoffrey Robinson told the gathering of nearly 400 Catholics at the Seventh National Symposium on Catholicism and Homosexuality.
” ‘For centuries the church has taught that every sexual sin is mortal sin,’ said Robinson, an auxiliary bishop of Sydney, Australia.
” ‘The teaching may not be proclaimed as loudly as today as much as before, but it was proclaimed by many popes, it has never been retracted, and it has affected countless people,’ Robinson said.
” ‘There is a serious need for a change in the church’s teaching on heterosexual acts,’ he said, adding, ‘If and when this change occurs, it will inevitable have its effect on teaching on homosexual acts.’
” ‘The teaching fostered a belief in an incredibly angry God,’ explained Robinson, ‘for this God would condemn a person to eternity in hell for a single unrepentant moment of deliberate pleasure arising from sexual desire. I simply do not believe in such a God. Indeed, I positively reject such a God.’
Robinson is the author of the 2007 book, Confronting Power in the Catholic Church: Reclaiming the Spirit of Jesus, which addressed the clerical sex-abuse crisis and was controversial among his fellow bishops in Australia who faulted him for a 2008 lecture tour in the United States to speak about the issues his book addressed.
Colbert’s report also contains the perspective of “Chicagoans Karen Allen and her partner, Mary Jo Hoag, attended the gathering, this their second one.
” ‘What brings me here is the chance to be rooted in my faith and with the people of God and to be sent forth to create loving communities,’ said Allen, who leads a gay and lesbian family-and-friends ministry at St. Nicholas parish in Evanston.
“Allen said the parish group grew out the idea she and others got 10 years ago at the Louisville, Ky., New Ways symposium.
“In proposing the idea, she explained, ‘We were welcomed to do so by our pastor at the time, who said, “Where have you been?’ ‘
“The ministry is about education and prayer and not so much advocacy, Allen said, but ‘more about how can we as gay and lesbian Catholics live fully integrated, authentic lives in our tradition.’
” ‘Many have walked away [ from the church ] but returned in mid-life,’ she explained, while readily acknowledging, ‘struggling mightily’ with ‘clericalism and the hierarchy.’ ”
” ‘The church is our church,’ said Hoag, explaining why she stays. ‘Many of us are cradle Catholics who grew up with the rituals, sacraments, and the teachings and feel comfortable. We are gifts to the church and shouldn’t go away, as we provide those gifts of love and understanding and outreach.’
“New Ways Ministry, Allen added, provides us ‘a shot in the arm’ to keep up our work in ministry.
The National Catholic Reporter posted a second article on the Symposium, this one focusing on Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley’s remarks there.
Two weeks before the Symposium began, O’Malley signed marriage equality into law, making Maryland the eighth state (plus the District of Columbia) to legalize unions for lesbian and gay couples.
Introducing the governor, New Ways Ministry’s co-founder, Sister Jeannine Gramick thanked him for
“. . .his service to God’s people who are lesbian or gay, by his signing the marriage equality bill in Maryland. . . . I am proud of him because he is a Catholic. I am proud that the people of Maryland, and this nation, know that a Catholic practices his faith by serving the people, just as Jesus did, even when it may be unpopular or when it may engender criticism from the religious establishment. I am proud that our Governor is giving a lot to the Church through the service of God’s people.”
Colbert’s article quotes from O’Malley’s speech:
“ ‘I am not here as a Catholic, I’m here as the governor of all Maryland,’ he said.
“ ‘At the end of the day, all of us want the same thing for our kids — we want our children to grow up in caring, committed, and loving homes, protected equally under the law,’ said O’Malley, adding, success in the state legislature rested on a ‘belief in the dignity of every individual.’
“O’Malley has framed marriage equality as a balancing of protections for religious liberties and provisions for equal rights.”
Patricia Beattie Jung made a case not only for extending civil marriage to same-sex couples but also to promote the idea that sexual fidelity is an essential part of all marriages, heterosexual and homosexual:
“ ‘Sexuality is ambiguous,’ she said. ‘It can be dangerous and a grace. So we channel it in marriage. Monogamy entails promises to be steadfast and sexually exclusive.’
“ ‘I’m pretty conservative,’ explained Beattie Jung, who said her main reason for promoting sexual fidelity is its service to ‘love’ and to ‘life.’
“ ‘Great sex is wholehearted,’ she said. ‘This is what makes it graceful and us vulnerable and vicious. These promises give us the time and focus to learn how to love.’
“ ‘Can fidelity serve same-sex lovers the same way?’ asked Beattie Jung. ‘Yes!’ ”
Jung’s talk generated a substantial discussion about sexual fidelity both during the question-and-answer period, as well as throughout the Symposium. Colbert’s article highlights some of this discussion.
Those words were spoken by Barbara Johnson, the Catholic lesbian woman who had been denied communion at her mother’s funeral, when she appeared at New Ways Ministry’s Seventh National Symposium on St. Patrick’s Day last week. For many participants, Ms. Johnson’s visit was the highlight of the three-day event.
New Ways Ministry’s Executive Director Francis DeBernardo introduced Ms. Johnson, pointing out how though she had been the victim of this liturgical abuse, she, because of her courage, strength, and faith, was also the main healer of many who experienced her pain vicariously.
After a brief talk to the assembled Symposium participants, Barbara was joined on the stage by her partner, Ruth, DeBernardo presented them with flowers and then led the Symposium participants in a blessing of the couple and of their family.
Excerpts from Barbara Johnson’s talks follow:
“The past several weeks have been extraordinary for me. One day my mother was fine and we were meeting to see the progress on the new house my partner and I are building, and the next day she was in ICU on a respirator after suffering full cardiac arrest.
“After weeks of slow improvement, my partner and I shared a beautiful evening with her and the next day…she lay dying in another ICU bed.
“It’s been difficult to wrap my mind around just these events. But then… No, I don’t want to tell you the story of the woman who was denied communion at her mother’s funeral. As my mom would say, “For heaven’s sake,” you’ve heard or read it enough!
“What I want to share with you today is the story of a daughter, a lesbian daughter, who felt her mother’s love and acceptance deeply.
“I remember when I first came out and my mom was not happy. Each year at the gay pride parade I would stand and applaud those PFLAG moms and dads for their courage and their compassion. And I would pray that one day my mom and dad would walk beside me in that contingent.
“As I got older, I stopped needing parades. And what I got was even better. I got a life where my mother and father adored my life partner. I got a life where my parents walked me down the aisle at our (not so legal) wedding. I got a life where, on our last happy time together, I thanked my mom for accepting and embracing me and for loving my partner so much…and her response was to pat Ruth on the leg as she looked her in the eye with the most beautiful smile and said, ‘I wouldn’t have it any other way…right?’ ”
“It is my mother’s love, compassion, and willingness to stand up for what is right that you see standing before you today.
“You see Midge and Dick Johnson’s youngest daughter who is deeply heartbroken that her parents are no longer on this earth with her and her family.
“You see this daughter who wound up in a whirlwind of media spectacle. You see this daughter who was placed in a state of grace by none other than her beloved mother. For there is no more amazing state of grace than the one I was honored to receive as my mother allowed me to witness her passing from this life and into the dancing arms of my dad.
“Some people have said, ‘How have you done this? How have you maintained your grace and composure during all this?’
“On one level, once you’ve been present at your mother’s dying, nothing else seems to really matter.
“But on the deeper level, I was witness to one of the holiest moments in life. I was present as my mother gently left her body to become spirit. I was given a spiritual gift that night. And I was transformed by the peace I felt in her peace. There is no more fear for me. There is only transformation.
“I admit that my initial response to the ‘events’ was to say that I would never return to the Church. And that’s where each of you, and so many more Catholics and people of many faiths come in.
“I received such an amazing outpouring from so many people of so many faiths, that I couldn’t help but see the error in those thoughts. I couldn’t help but see the love all around me.
“What matters…and all that matters…is love. The love that you, and so many others have shown me during my darkest hours, has been uplifting and healing. . . .
“My mother loved the Catholic Church. I would ask that each of us dedicate some piece of our future work to her and her love of what is good and holy in the Catholic faith and all faiths. She was a mighty, mighty woman. She was a hard worker, she loved a good party, and she loved her family. . . .
“I join you in celebration of St Patrick and offer you my thanks and deep gratitude for being part of my family of the faithful.”
New Ways Ministry’s Seventh National Symposium, From Water to Wine: Lesbian/Gay Catholics and Relationships, ended on St. Patrick’s Day, with plenary talks by Luke Timothy Johnson and Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, who each received richly-deserved standing ovations from the assembled participants.
The largest ovation, however, was reserved for the appearance of Barbara Johnson, the Catholic lesbian woman who had recently been denied communion at her mother’s funeral.
Ms. Johnson thanked the participants for the outpouring of support that she received from them and from Catholics all over the country.
She told how throughout the ordeal she felt the love of her mother leading and guiding her. She told how faith in knowing of God’s love for her and her family kept her strong when the going got rough in recent weeks–including times when she received hate-filled and threatening messages from detractors who were purportedly “defending” the church. Bondings 2.0will provide excerpts from the text of her talk and photos of the event when they become available to us.
After her remarks, Ms. Johnson was joined on the Symposium stage by her partner, and both received a blessing from the assembled participants. The text of the blessing follows:
“For you, Barbara, your partner, and your family, we, the People of God, the Church, raise our hands in blessing.
“We believe our Life-Giver and Love-Maker God is present; may every breath we take, flow into our world full of peace, hope, compassion and courage. Amen.
“We believe that Jesus’ love can heal all our hearts and all our losses. May we be open to the gifts of new life that the Resurrected Christ wants to share with us. Amen.
“We believe all are welcomed and invited in this space and around this table of sharing; may we all become the Church inclusive, where the outcast and the stranger bear the image of God’s face. Amen.
“Go now, in the name of Jesus, Our Christ, who said ‘follow me’ without saying where he was going, just promising transformation and relationship with the Triune God along the way. Amen.
“If I was Cardinal [Donald W.] Wuerl, I’d buy him a one-way ticket to Moscow. . . .These days, arch-conservative priests feel much more comfortable attacking their bishops than do liberals because they feel they’ll get support from conservative Catholic blogs and maybe some in the Vatican.”