Transgender Day of Remembrance: Beyond One Day

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Around the world, participants in the Transgender Day of Remembrance are attending vigils to commemorate all the transgender and gender-nonconforming people lost to anti-transgender violence in the past year. These vigils will include reading the 87 names of those know to have died this past year, along with the where, when and how they were killed. To find a vigil near you, click here.

As described in a previous Bondings 2.0 post, the Transgender Awareness Week (November 14th-20th) began with a National Catholic Reporter article by Catholic theologians who described our church’s moral imperative to, “promote wholeness for transgender people.” While today’s vigils bring the Transgender Awareness Week to an end, our work to end anti-transgender violence cannot end. These vigils serve to remind us of that moral imperative.

We can all take small incremental steps throughout the year to educate ourselves on the realities of transgender people. Below is a list of actions that New Ways Ministry suggests parishes, schools, and other Catholic communities take to raise awareness of and to support transgender people.  

Following this list is a list of  links to help you continue learning about transgender issues. Click the link to read the material or view the video.

New Ways Ministry’s Suggestions for Including Transgender People and Families in Your Catholic Parish, School, or Community

  1. Have a specific meeting to watch videos and read some of the resources listed below.
  2. If you have a book club, include some of the books on transgender experiences.
  3. Speak about needs, concerns, joys of transgender people in homilies, prayers, group sharing, talks, bulletins.
  4. Be visibly supportive of transgender people in work, prayer, and social environments.
  5. Develop a transgender-friendly resource library; subscribe to transgender-friendly periodicals.
  6. Recognize and/or participate in public transgender events.
  7. Invite support groups for transgender people to use church/community space.
  8. Hold an inclusive Mass celebrating all forms of diversity.
  9. Sponsor a retreat or day of recollection for transgender people and their families.
  10. Include transgender topics in adult religious education and youth ministry programs.
  11. Put an ad in the local LGBTQ paper inviting transgender people to your parish events and liturgies.
  12. Sponsor a panel inviting transgender people to speak about their faith.
  13. Form support groups for transgender people and for their parents, families, and friends
  14. Become involved and/or educate parish around pro/anti-transgender initiatives in legislation.
  15. Work with neighboring parishes to sponsor education days on transgender topics.
  16. Include transgender organizations in potential parish stewardship opportunities as both donors and recipients.
  17. Have your faith community host New Ways Ministry’s “TransForming Love” workshop, which introduces transgender issues from scientific, social, and religious perspectives. Email info@newwaysministry.org for more information.
  18. Provide an all-gender restroom.
  19. Respect a person’s pronoun preference.
  20. Email info@newwaysministry.org for more information on transgender issues.

Online Resources 

What Does the T in LGBT Really Mean?

The Genderbread Person

Trans Teens Tell Their Stories

Trans Identity and Mental Illness

Challenges and Prejudices Faced by the Trans Community

The Human Rights Campaign’s post on Addressing Anti-transgender Violence: Exploring Realities, Challenges, and Solutions For Policymakers and Community Advocates

Learn about six notable “Transgender Heroes.”

Becoming Who God Created Me To Be, by Jes Stevens—Queer Catholic (from Believe Out Loud’s 10 Transgender Christians Share Their Journey Stories)

How To Be A Trans* Ally

CatholicTrans blog

What Does the Bible Say About Gender Identity?

Videos

Transgender & Catholic

DignityUSA’s A message for Roman Catholic bishops from a Transgender Catholic

Is Your Youth Group Trans Friendly?

What Are God’s Pronouns?

How You Can Be an Ally to Trans People and Others

What Is the Gender Binary?

Gender is Complicated: Growing Up Intersex

Laverne Cox on Issues facing the Transgender Community

Jazz Jennings’ 10 Things You Need To Know About Transgender People

A few TED talks on Transgender stories

Beyond the Gender Binary | Dr. Margaret Nichols | TEDxJerseyCity

Books

Trans Bodies, Trans Selves

The Gender Book

 

For Students, Parents, and Schools:

KNOW YOUR RIGHTS A Guide for Trans and Gender Nonconforming Students

How to Be An Ally To Trans and Gender-Nonconforming Students

Connect with Transgender Student Rights (TSR), a community of youth dedicated to creating safe spaces for transgender and gender nonconforming students

Watch the Educators! Support Trans and GNC Students! webinar.

Watch the Gender Identity and Expression in the Classroom: The Experiences of Gender Nonconforming and Transgender Students in School webinar.

Bondings 2.0 Posts on Catholic Transgender Resources

A Catholic Introduction to Transgender Issues

How the Gender Binary Affects So Much of Catholic Thinking

DignityUSA Highlights Transgender Spirituality in Essay Series

Transgender Awareness Week: Promote Wholeness for All in Our Church

(For all previous Bondings 2.0 posts on transgender issues, go to “Transgender” in the “Categories” section of the right-hand column of this blog or click here.)

–Glen Bradley, New Ways Ministry, November 20, 2016

Transgender Awareness Week: Promote Wholeness for All in Our Church

This week, November 14th-20th is Transgender Awareness Week in the United States–a time to educate and raise consciousness of transgender issues in society.  Of course, we in the Catholic Church need similar education and consciousness-raising.

A new article in The National Catholic Reporter gives readers a new awareness of why, as the headline reads, “The church must promote wholeness for transgender people.” Three theologians, , set the context for their examination of the topic:

“A significant number of people who are part of the church or engage its ministries are struggling with their gender identity, striving to live authentically and find a place in their churches and communities. In local parishes, transgender individuals attend weekly services. They seek to have roles in the ministry of Word or Eucharist. Some work or volunteer in the social ministries of the church, while others receive aid from these services.

“The presence of transgender people within the church and its ministries raises important questions. As a church that seeks to respond to the signs of the times and reach out with openness to vulnerable and marginalized people, we need to think about how we are engaging transgender people and what kind of environment we want to create for those struggling with gender identity.”

They note that in the Gospels, Jesus is always reaching out to the marginalized and stigmatized, “restoring them to wholeness and bringing them back into the fullness of community life.”  The choose the story of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:7-42) as an example of Jesus’ inclusive ministry:

“Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman offers two important insights for the church. First, Jesus reaches out with openness to people on the fringes. Second, Jesus is not fixated on what separates one from community; rather, his focus is on the Samaritan woman’s overall good or well-being and his actions are directed toward helping her grow in faith, restore broken relationships, and participate more fully in community. . . .

“This story is but one example from the Gospels that suggests a church seeking to be Christ-like and to mediate God’s love of humanity must reach out first with openness and compassion, not judgment, to transgender people, who are trying to live authentically. Transgender people . . . make a courageous and difficult decision to transition, often knowing that it may lead to rejection, exclusion and hurt.”

They offer an example of what even the smallest of welcomes would look like on a parish level:

“In imitation of Jesus, the first impulse of the church must be to promote greater wholeness for transgender individuals by listening, caring, supporting and offering community. This means, at a minimum, offering very basic gestures of welcoming respect, such as using a person’s preferred pronoun and addressing a person with their preferred name, recognizing their intent to live as the person they believe God created them to be, and refraining from judgments that might exacerbate struggles with gender identity.”

And for those concerned with magisterial teaching, they offer this information:

“There is no definitive teaching on transgender issues. Even if there were, it could not support treating such individuals in ways that make them feel like outcasts who are beyond the purview of God’s love and the church’s welcome embrace.”

But the theologians, who all have backgrounds in bioethics, also go into the more serious and profound medical questions regarding transgender health and transition surgery.  They acknowledge the complexity of the issue, especially when it is examined in the light of natural law theory, the Church’s traditional basis for such moral questions.  But, they also offer a challenge to this way of thinking:

“If we evaluate transition-related therapies with the natural law approach employed in prominent matters of sexuality and bodily integrity, we run the risk of focusing excessively on the physical and, especially, functional dimensions of transgender persons and could neglect their overall good and need for wholeness and belonging. Additionally, these principles are most easily applied to surgeries, especially sex reassignment surgery, which only a minority of transgender people undertake. These principles are not readily applicable to less invasive forms of treatment, such as hormone therapy, which has proven to be effective in alleviating the symptoms of gender dysphoria.”

In place of natural law theory to settle the question of the question of the morality of transition therapies, they offer a Gospel-centered perspective, which looks at the whole person, not just the physical level:

“People who transition are seeking to overcome what they experience as an impediment to living, loving and interacting from an authentic place. They are aiming toward the kind of wholeness and integration in body, mind and spirit that Jesus also affirmed in his teaching and healing ministry.

“If we think about the human person holistically and if we strive in imitation of Christ to help people flourish as whole, embodied persons, we might feel compelled to think differently about transition-related therapies. Rather than fundamentally altering a transgender person’s God-given nature or destroying reproductive function, we might see such therapies as fundamentally aligning the person’s body with their sense of self and restoring the person to greater wholeness.”

In their conclusion, they bring out both the similarities that transgender and cisgender people share with one another, as well as the gifted challenge that transgender people offer the larger community:

“Like all people, transgender individuals come to the church and its ministries in need of acceptance, compassion, love and care. They are often seeking shelter and support on the all-too-often lonely and confusing journey on which they find themselves.

“Because the causes of gender dysphoria are not well understood and transgender persons may challenge our conception of sex and gender, our first inclination might be to judge, even condemn. However, the Gospel calls us to love and be of service to these vulnerable and often marginalized individuals who are striving to be true to who they believe they are and are called to be.”

How we treat those who are marginalized is often an important test of how we are living the Gospel. The theologians conclude:

“As a church and through its ministries, we are called to reach out to transgender persons with a love through which God’s healing and reconciling presence may be revealed. If we fail in this task, we fail the test of the Gospel.”

I’ve only excerpted the bare-bones highlights of this informative and enlightening article.  I strongly encourage Bondings 2.0 readers to spend some time to read the whole thing.  You can access it by clicking here.   It would be a good way to celebrate Transgender Awareness Week.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, November 16, 2016

Dutch Cardinal’s Gender Request May Be Impossible to Fulfill

A Dutch cardinal has asked the Vatican for what is seemingly impossible to do.  He wants the pope to write an encyclical or other high-end church document condemning so-called “gender theory.”  The reason that this is impossible to do is that nobody really understands what church officials mean when they talk about gender theory.  It’s like a monster under the bed.  It sounds scary, but does it really exist?

In a recent interview with Catholic News ServiceCardinal Willem Eijk of Utrecht, Netherlands, said:

“It (gender theory) is spreading and spreading everywhere in the Western world, and we have to warn people.

“From the point of moral theology, it’s clear — you are not allowed to change your sex in this way.”

Of course, even though gender theory is a red herring, it’s obvious what the cardinal is referring to is gender transition.   And it might be good for the Vatican to issue a document about gender transition, but it should be a document which supports it, not condemns it.

Cardinal Willem Eijk

Like so many other church leaders in the past year, including Pope Francis, Cardinal Eijk reveals that he does not understand what gender transition is all about.  For Eijk and others, they view gender transition as a choice, and what’s worse, they seem to consider it a frivolous choice.

The cardinal’s words reveal that he does not have a clear understanding of gender transition. The Catholic News Service article reported that Eijk wants to “counter the spread of the new theory that gender can be determined by personal choice rather than by biology.”  The article further reported:

He said even Catholic parents were beginning to accept that their own children can choose their genders partly because “they don’t hear anything else.”

The problem with this line of thinking is that people are not choosing their genders.  They are responding to self-discoveries where they come to realize that the gender they were assigned at birth, based on their genitalia, is not the gender that they recognize that they are.  Instead of being a “choice vs. biology” situation, when a person decides to transition, it is often based on biological facts such as hormones, genetics, and psychological and emotion compositions.

Obviously, if the cardinal sees gender transition as a choice, and a frivolous one at that, he has not sat down and spoken with transgender people, and has not come to realize the often painful struggles they experience before reaching the fulfilling joy of living their true gender.

Eijk made his remarks in an interview before delivering the Anscombe Memorial Lecture at Blackfriars, a Dominican house of studies in Oxford, on the theme, “Is Medicine Losing its Way?”

Eijk’s further comments show that he thinks that people are not clearly understanding Church leaders.  The article reported:

” ‘It is like euthanasia and assisted suicide,’ Cardinal Eijk continued. ‘When people first began to discuss them they were unsure,’ but many people have now become so acquainted with such practices they are now deemed ordinary.”

However, as with many gender and sexuality topics in the Church, people do understand the magisterium’s position clearly.  They just don’t accept it because it does not account for more complex understandings of gender and sexuality which people have come to realize.  More importantly, the teaching does not fit with people’s lived experiences.  People aren’t believing “gender theory” the way they accept an academic theory.  Instead, they have accepted “gender reality” because of the many ways they have come to see that newer ideas about gender and sexuality help them live more healthy and holy lives.

Eijk explained that even though the Church’s teaching may not be popular, he believes it should still be taught, and that the result will be, as in Pope Benedict XVI’s vision, a smaller, “purer” Church. Eijk stated:

“It will be a tiny church, but a convinced church, and it will be willing to suffer.”

The Catholic Church has historically been a “big tent” church, until prelates appointed by Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI started realizing they were losing “culture wars,” and opted instead for this minimized vision.

The 2014 and 2015 synods on the family brushed against questions of gender, but they did not take them up for a full examination.  So, yes, I agree with Eijk that the magisterium should study this issue.  But it should be a study which includes opinions on many sides of the issue, that takes into account new understandings of gender instead of immediately condemning such views before even knowing what they say.  Most importantly, any study of this sort needs to listen to the voices of people who experience gender outside of what has been the traditional, and often stultifying, binary.

So many of the Church’s vexing discussions from a truly open and unbiased examination of gender.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, November 14, 2016

 

Reaching Out to Trans People Should Be Done with Humility, Not Pity

Two days ago, I posted a critique of Austen Ivereigh’s Crux essay entitled “Transgender debates require distinction between theory and principle,” in which he gave what I thought was a faulty definition of the ideas that some church officials label as “gender theory” or “gender ideology.”

Although I thought that Ivereigh’s essay had some faults, I thought it also contained some positive recommendations, which I would like to examine in today’s post. Along with these positive points, I’ll also continue to point out weaknesses.

First of all, Ivereigh rightly points out that often church officials and pastoral leaders are sometimes more concerned with critiquing so-called “gender ideology” than they are with providing pastoral care to transgender people.  He cites several examples–including from both Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis–to support his claim.  One example that he looks at more carefully is a letter from Bishop Mark Davies of Shrewsbury, England, in which the bishop warned Catholic schools against “gender ideology.”  Ivereigh says of Davies’ letter:

“. . . [S]uch statements have mostly ignored the reality and plight of transgender people. Of the 17 paragraphs in Davies’s letter to schools ‘on the truth of the human person,’ only the first acknowledges what he calls ‘individuals who, for a variety of complex reasons, experience difficulty identifying with their biological sex, be that of male or female.’

“But after calling for ‘respect, compassion and understanding’ for such people (he never describes them as “transgender” or suffering from gender dysphoria) the remainder of the letter is a cogent summary of papal arguments against gender ideology.

“It is as if transgender people themselves are absent.”

It is good that Ivereigh highlights this glaring omission, as it is an omission from which many hierarchical statements suffer.  I’m not sure what Ivereigh’s intention is in making this point, but from my perspective, it highlights the fact that church leaders have mostly been unwilling to listen to the experience not only of transgender people, but of all LGBT people.  In one sense, Pope Francis, who has been spouting messages against “gender theory,” is the rare exception in this case, since he met with a transgender man at the Vatican, and has spoken openly about discussions with gay and lesbian people, even making public his meeting with a former student who is gay.

Ivereigh rightly notes that church leaders are following the same method that they used in dealing with gay issues–avoiding personal dialogue:

“As with the Church’s response to gay people, whose experiences have so often been ignored in the process of resisting homosexuality, this lopsided response can make the Church seem more interested in defending doctrine than in responding to concrete human suffering.”

But then Ivereigh makes a point, which, may seem on the surface to be positive, but, because it is incomplete, may not actually be so:

“In rejecting a theory or movement, Catholics can seem to reject the person – or at least to be unconcerned by them. God’s mercy, as a result, is subsumed by the focus on law and truth, creating a lopsided picture of Christianity which in Pope Francis’s view has been the principal obstacle to the Church’s evangelization.”

He’s right, of course, that the Church needs to be more concerned with people, but what he doesn’t seem to acknowledge is the fact that the Church, too, may have to develop because of the encounter with people, gaining new knowledge and perspectives as it accompanies people.  In Ivereigh’s view, mercy appears to be something that the Church dispenses to the downtrodden. I tend to think of mercy as also being an attitude of humility with which to approach the people one is ministering to, not just a balm to be offered, which can sometimes appear to be condescending.

As one of Bondings 2.0’s commenters mentioned in regard to yesterday’s post, the suffering that transgender people experience is “not from any intrinsic quality of transgenderism, but from negative and misrepresentative social reaction.”

Another weakness is that Ivereigh seems insistent on labeling “gender theorists” as the enemy.  While critical of church officials for their blind spots, he is equally harsh in describing “gender theorists”:

“Ironically, this Catholic response mirrors the way gender-theory activists attempt to harness transgender people to their cause. In both cases, the people at the center of the issue – the victims, if you like – have been largely passed over.”

I don’t know any transgender people who think they have been victimized by people who promote non-traditional views of gender.  The victimization argument fits in well with Ivereigh’s general direction in the essay of seeing transgender people as pitiable, with which I disagree.  No doubt that transgender people suffer, but to characterize them only in terms of their problems and not in terms of their strengths and gifts diminishes them.

I look forward to reading the second part of Austen Ivereigh’s analysis on Crux.  I am hoping that he will build on his positive contributions and revise some of the more negative ones.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, October 28, 2016

 

 

 

 

Just What Is the Definition of “Gender Ideology”?

Crux, a Catholic news website, recently published an analysis essay on transgender issues and Catholicism, written by Austen Ivereigh, one of the site’s regular contributors.  Ivereigh’s essay, the first of two parts (no indication of when the second part will appear), sets out to examine some of the current debates in what he calls a topic on which the church is “developing.”  The essay contains some weaknesses and some strengths.  Today, I will look at some of the weaknesses, and later this week, I will offer a post on its strengths.

The biggest weakness is that the author has a skewed interpretation of the term “gender ideology,” which is understandable given the fact that although church officials, even the pope, toss this term around, they have never offered a plausible definition of it.

Ivereigh lays out the problem of  Catholic discourse about transgender issues, noting that the “transgender issue is in reality two discrete phenomena”:

“On the one hand, it involves the growing awareness of a suffering group that often has been marginalized and brutalized. On the other, it is an academic theory that has grown out of feminism and gay rights that challenges the notion that gender is rooted in biological sex.”

Ivereigh is correct that this two-fold approach is what is causing so much confusion about transgender issues.  Where he misses the mark though, is in his analysis of “gender ideology,” which he explains this way:

“A person’s gender, in this thinking, is an arbitrary social construct, the result of social conditioning that can (and should be) thrown off in the quest for self-realization. Expressed in political action, it demands not just ‘rights’ for transgender people – their own bathrooms, and so on – but the abolition from public documents and passports of the very notions of masculinity and femininity.”

The problem with Ivereigh’s thinking is that he reduces the whole field of gender theory to social constructionism.  Not all people who argue for rights for transgender people hold this view. Most trans people and theorists affirm the fact that gender identity is, in fact, a psychological experience, not one defined by social roles.

Similarly, not all trans people and theorists are pushing for the erasure of masculinity and femininity.  What they are asking from governments is their right to be accurately described in official documents.   And trans people are not asking for “their own bathrooms,” but for the ability to use whichever bathroom available is appropriate for them.

Ivereigh’s big weakness becomes magnified even worse when he claims:

“The task for the Church is to work out how, on the one hand, to critique the theory as false and to resist this new public ideology, while on the other mercifully to embrace those suffering from gender dysphoria as vulnerable people in need of pastoral care and the Church’s protection.”

As for the first part of the claim,  I ask a simple question:  “Why?”

Why does the church have to critique this theory as false and resist new accommodations that make trans people more integrated into social and civic life?   I think the church could learn a lot if it paid more positive attention to these theories and learned from them.  Learning more about these theories could help end the stifling and deadening gender discrimination which infects our church at all levels.

As for the second part of the claim, it is true that the church needs to reach out to trans people more, but not just to give them  comfort, as Ivereigh suggests, but also to learn from their experiences and unique spiritual and personal gifts.

As I mentioned above, Ivereigh’s essay does make some good points, and I’ll look at them in the second part of this blog post, later in the week.

Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, October 26, 2016

 

Catholic School Apologizes to, Accommodates Transgender Student

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Lily Madigan

A Catholic school which had suspended a transgender student for wearing a uniform consistent with her gender has apologized and implemented new accommodations.

St. Simon Stock Catholic School in Kent, England, apologized to student Lily Madigan. The school said in a letter that she may wear a female uniform and use female restrooms and locker rooms, reported the Daily Mail.

Madigan was sent home and threatened with suspension in March for wearing the “wrong uniform,” having worn a female uniform to school as part of her transition. School officials told the student she would not only be forced to wear a male uniform, but would have to use male restrooms and be called by her legal name, Liam. Madigan said wearing a female-appropriate uniform as part of her transition “made me feel so happy, until I was sent home,” and told Buzzfeed:

” ‘It made me feel that something was wrong with me. You think maybe you’re the problem. It’s alienating. You think school is supposed to be there for you and when that happens it breaks your trust.’ “

A meeting with Madigan, wearing the male uniform, her mother, and school officials was unsuccessful at resolving the situation. She was presented with, in her words, “an ultimatum” from the school which told her to either comply with their policies or leave. Unable to leave, Madigan wore a male uniform for several weeks which caused her depression to worsen and energy to weaken.

Responding to the school’s decision, Madigan organized a Change.org petition and received support from more than 200 classmates. That petition stated, in part:

” ‘Transgender students make up some of the most vulnerable students in schools. . . Changing these policies wouldn’t affect other students but not doing so clearly and greatly affects trans students.

“The school already has an equality and diversity policy (created in response to the equality act 2010) so treating us equality should be a no issue. . .This is about trans people presenting how they feel they should be, how they want people to see them, to recognise themselves when they catch their reflection.”

Madigan also retained a lawyer who reminded school officials of the UK’s Human Rights Act and 2010 Equality Act, which says no one may be discriminated against “because of their gender reassignment as a transsexual.” The Act has over authority over the Catholic school because it is state-funded, and it seems efforts by the law firm which took the case pro-bono were key to the reversal.

In addition to the apology and accommodations for Madigan, school staff will receive training on transgender issues. St. Simon Stock’s spokesperson said supporting trans students “is an important issue for us, as for schools up and down the country.” They continued:

” ‘As an inclusive, Catholic academy, we are confident that the attention we have given to transgender, including carefully listening to students, has been invaluable in us going even further to make sure all students are happy and comfortable, so that they can be as successful as possible.’ “

Madigan was pleased with the school’s decision, but said she “felt it was something I shouldn’t have had to fight so hard for, if at all” and further:

” ‘I’m encouraged in that I’ve seen what I’m capable of achieving and I’m proud, but I’m not encouraged about the school’s attitude to equality.’ “

It is unfortunate when politics about school uniforms and gendered spaces impair Catholic education from enacting its true mission, which is the formation and flourishing of its students. Lily’s initially painful story is reminiscent of other extreme decisions here in the U.S. In the Diocese of Little Rock, Arkansas, a new policy threatens LGBT students with expulsion for coming out.  And earlier this year in Pennsylvania, a Catholic high school ejected a lesbian student  from prom because she wore a suit.

Policies are about matters such as wearing pants or a skirt are only important to the degree in which they harm students. Nothing in church teaching mandates clothing along a gender binary, and church teaching would actually affirm helping students become their authentic selves. Efforts to police gender are becoming outdated, and Catholic schools should give up these attempts to suppress the signs of the times in favor of supporting every student.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry, October 22, 2016

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.