Bishops’ Employment Action Against Editor Has Troubling Consequences for U.S. Church

April 26, 2016
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Tony Spence

More than sixty church workers have lost their jobs in LGBT-related disputes since 2008, but the recent news of Tony Spence’s departure from Catholic News Service(CNS) gained wider attention in Catholic media because of his high-profile position.

Spence was director and editor-in-chief of CNS, which is owned by the USCCB. His forced resignation has chilling implications for church workers and for the bishops’ conference. It raises troubling questions for the U.S. church primarily because the USCCB responded so swiftly and completely to accusations leveled against Spence by several small right-wing Catholic groups. The alleged offenses for which Tony Spence was fired are sending tweets about LGBT news stories.  For example, in one tweet he described a story about transgender Catholics sharing their stories as “fascinating.” In another, he called anti-LGBT laws in places like Mississippi and North Carolina “stupid.”

Robert Mickens, writing in Commonweal, said the Spence situation was “further enabling homophobic and hate-mongering heretic hungers” on the church’s right wing.  Mickens said the USCCB caved to the extremist attacks on Spence, and without warning, asked for his resignation, despite his sterling professional record which includes being an advisor to the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Social Communications.

Small organizations like these accusers, some consisting of a single person, have targeted LGBT church workers before and now even attack those Catholics who dare to comment on LGBT issues.

Michael Sean Winters of the National Catholic Reporter, calling the firing “regrettable in the extreme,” echoed the reality that such actions only encourage extremist behavior. He wrote:

“[T]he USCCB has become in thrall to right-wing activists whose ability to weigh competing values is skewed or worse. The bishops have been ill-served, and many of them know it, but no one has taken the lead in seeking to change it. The conference is losing staff faster than the Titanic lost passengers. Now, they will range themselves among that sliver of conservative opinion that believes they must fight and die on the hill of opposition to LGBT rights. Someone should tell them that the country passed that hill five miles back.”

Patricia Miller, writing for Religion Dispatches, said Spence’s firing should not be surprising because it is in keeping bishops’ actions nationally, which have included the monitoring of church workers’ social media profiles:

“Across the country, conservative Catholic bishops have pushed employees of Catholic institutions to sign what are in effect loyalty oaths that promise to monitor the Twitter accounts and Facebook pages of employees of Catholic institutions. . .the bishops’ strategy appears to be ever-tighter wagon-circling, and Spence was definitely on the outside of the circle.”

The Spence situation will also impact CNS. Mickens asserts that conservatives at USCCB have sought to change the news service into “a propaganda wing for the conference’s numerous culture war battles.” He explained:

“But Spence struggled to protect the independence that is written into the news agency’s statutes—one of the features that has made Catholic News Service such a good, reliable, and credible source of church news and analysis.

“But like just about everything else the reactionary leaders at the U.S. bishops’ conference touch these days, it looks like they are determined to ruin this too.”

Winters agreed that CNS would become “worthless” if it loses editorial independence.

Winters looked deeper than the standard claim that Spence was forced out for posting tweets opposing LGBT discrimination. He suggested the USCCB, unable to back down from the religious liberty narrative, is shifting away from contraception issues related to the Affordable Care Act to issues of LGBT civil rights. To support this idea, Winters commented:

“No one likes to admit it, but the Church’s theology related to gays and lesbians is inadequate. For two thousand years, the working assumption was that gays and lesbians were behaving in an aberrational manner but, in recent years, most people have come to accept that being gay is not a choice to act in a certain way, but is constitutional for that person. We have not yet wrestled with that fact, and the changed moral framework it requires, adequately. . .

“I fear, too, that the same psychology at the conference that led them to fire Spence would frustrate any effort to find a compromise formula on the issue of LGBT rights. Unlike the fight over the contraception mandate. . .this time the bishops should start with the theology and let the legal strategy flow from that.”

Finally, and most basically, Winters reminded the bishops that, on seeking to restrict LGBT rights, “[t]hey will lose” and “deserve to lose.” People in the U.S. generally disagree that religious liberty is under attack, and Catholics readily question whether the bishops’ advocacy has crossed the threshold from genuine political participation to partisan campaigning.

In her Religion Dispatches essay, Miller stated the same idea in a different way:

“Spence’s firing, and the lack of respect for both freedom of the press and individual conscience it reflects, shows just how transactional the bishops’ relationship with fundamental American freedoms really is.”

The Spence fiasco raises serious questions for the for the U.S. church. Does the USCCB find that simply listening to Catholics’ lived experiences, something so forcefully witnessed to by Pope Francis, a threatening proposition? Does the USCCB totally reject opposition to discrimination against marginalized communities, an undeniable principle in Catholic social thought? Is an accomplished veteran journalist and Vatican advisor, celebrated by his peers on both accounts, so readily expended to appease extremist Catholic elements?

Without a statement from the USCCB about the Spence situation and the issues that it raises, it seems that the U.S. bishops are answering “yes” to these questions. And to that, U.S. Catholics must respond with a very clear no.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry


Theologians: Catholics Have “Civil Rights Imperative” to Seek LGBT Protections

April 22, 2016
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Todd A. Salzman

Two theologians from Creighton University have called for Catholics to support LGBT non-discrimination protections in a new essay published in the National Catholic Reporter. In it, they specifically target the ill-founded opposition of U.S. bishops to such protections.

Todd A. Salzman and Michael G. Lawler provide an in-depth response to Catholic bishops’ repeated claims at local, state, and federal levels that expanding LGBT protections will infringe on religious liberty. The theologians disprove these claims and conclude further:

“[L]egislation protecting LGBT people from discrimination is a civil rights imperative that the Catholic church is obligated to support in a pluralist society.”

How did they arrive at this conclusion?

Salzman and Lawler begin by noting just how many controversies there presently are over LGBT protections, and that the bishops’ engagement thus far has been inadequate. The theologians identify the bishops’ 2012 statement on religious liberty, “Our First, Most Cherished Liberty,” as a key reason for the bishops’ present failings, and they critique it on three major points.

First, Salzman and Lawler address the bishops’ treatment of secularism and relativism, which they identify as “the basis for both the bishops’ claims that religious freedom is under attack and for their resistance to the Employment Non-Discrimination Act [ENDA].” This concern has deep roots in the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, but is not well understood or engaged by the magisterium, the theologians assert.

Salzman and Lawler point out theological implications of new sociological data.  Specifically, they cite the facts that 73% of U.S. Catholics support LGBT protections and that there is “a growing disconnect between what the Catholic faithful believe about sexual morality and official Catholic moral teaching,”

One implication is that what the bishops call “relativism” is actually “differing perspectives with respect to the definition of human dignity and to what norms facilitate or frustrate its attainment.” Another implication is that sociological data helps to discern the sensus fidelium. About these implications, Salzman and Lawler conclude:

“To present official Catholic teaching on sexual ethical issues as if it were the only morally legitimate perspective, to use that teaching to claim violation of religious liberty if and when legislation conflicts with it, and to discount those Catholic perspectives that disagree with official teaching as manifestations of relativism discount also the rich diversity of the Catholic tradition and the contemporary sensus fidelium.”

Such a dismissal by church leaders threatens ecclesial and societal peace and thereby the common good, which is the theologians’ next area of critique against the U.S. bishops. About the common good, the theologians ask:

“How are we to realize the common good in the public realm, given pluralism within and without the church? What is the church’s proper role for engaging with the public realm to promote its vision of the common good?”

They also question how civil legislation relates to morality, and how to understand this dynamic in a pluralistic society, which Salzman and Lawler called “a hugely complex endeavor.” There are questions of prioritizing competing goods:

“Which is a higher value, respecting human dignity and ensuring non-discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, or attempting to block or repeal legislation that might allow homosexual actions the church deems immoral?”

They also raise the issue of whether LGBT issues are matters of public or private morality, a distinction which will have implications for how these issues relate to the common good:

” If they are about private morality, the church can both teach the possibility of just discrimination based on homosexual orientation and gender identity and can also support laws that prevent discrimination on the basis of homosexual orientation and gender identity.

“If they are about public morality, the church needs to balance its sexual teachings with teachings on nondiscrimination, and grasp the impact of pluralism on definitions of public morality.”

Salzman and Lawler explain that when marriage equality became legalized in 2015,  there needed to be “a corresponding shift in the perception of religious freedom in relation to this evolution” by the church.

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Michael G. Lawler

Finally, the theologians take up the question of just and unjust law in relation to the U.S. bishops’ document. By opposing ENDA, Salzman and Lawler write,  “the bishops’ conference has shifted its religious liberty claims from exemptions from a just law on the basis of conscience to prevention or repeal of an unjust law.”

But how the bishops’ come to define ENDA as an unjust law is flawed itself, say the theologians. Their opposition is rooted in the law’s alleged failure to differentiate between sexual orientation and sexual expression; the bishops desire an allowance of just discrimination based upon the latter. Salzman and Lawler write that the bishops should have argued for religious exemptions to discriminate against heterosexual people who use artificial contraceptives or have premarital sex, too, if that was truly their concern. Having not done so, the theologians conclude:

“The conference has not made this logical argument, which would indicate that its objection is not to immoral sexual acts but simply to homosexual orientation.

“By rejecting the federal non-discrimination legislation, the bishops’ conference is violating the common good, the protection of individual human dignity, on the basis of a generalization that homosexuals might engage in immoral sexual activity, and it is promoting unjust discrimination against even celibate homosexuals performing no homosexual acts.”

Citing Catholic moral principles, Salzman and Lawler also clarify that a moral end, such as protecting religious liberty, can never justify an immoral means, the discrimination of LGBT people, and that, according to double-effect principle:

“The direct consequence of the federal legislation is the protection of LGBT individuals against discrimination because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. An indirect consequence is that homosexual persons might engage in what the bishops deem immoral homosexual acts.”

Such principles are cited to reveal why Catholic support for ENDA is not only permissible, but should be encouraged. Yet Salzman and Lawler do not stop there, writing that a “more fundamental response. . .challenges the very claim that homosexual activity is intrinsically immoral and destructive of human dignity.” They continue, acknowledging Catholics’ widespread disagreement with the bishops over matters of sexuality:

“The burden of proof is on the church to demonstrate that homosexual acts are destructive of human dignity and cannot serve'”the good of the person or society.’ So far, it has not offered a compelling argument. An unproven assertion should not be advanced as the basis for an abusive use of religious freedom aimed at preventing or repealing nondiscrimination legislation and imposing the church’s morally questionable doctrine on the broader society.”

In short, the bishops “do not have the right to impose their moral teachings legislatively in a pluralistic society.” Salzman and Lawler convincingly argue that, not only should U.S. bishops not act thus, but they and the church actually have “a civil rights imperative” to advocate for LGBT non-discrimination protections. Their essay is well argued and grounded in reality, worth reading in full which you can do here. And there is one final note with which Salzman and Lawler, and now this post, conclude:

“The bishops should be ashamed of themselves for citing Martin Luther King Jr., the genuine and undisputed ‘conscience of the state’ for civil rights, to trample on the equal civil rights of homosexual, bisexual and transgender citizens.”

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry


Head of Catholic News Service Resigns After Right-Wingers Complain

April 16, 2016
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Tony Spence

The head of Catholic News Service (CNS), a news organization owned by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops,  has resigned, after being asked to do so by U.S. church leaders.

Tony Spence resigned on Wednesday as director and editor-in-chief of CNS, having served twelve years in that position. The National Catholic Reporter explained:

“Spence attended a regularly scheduled staff story meeting at 2 p.m. on Wednesday. Sometime later, after meeting with Msgr. J. Brian Bransfield, the general secretary of the bishops’ conference, Spence was escorted from the conference office building without being allowed to speak to his newsroom staff.”

A memo sent the same day from Chief Communications Officer James Rogers to CNS staff said Spence was “stepping down,” but the reasons behind his departure are more problematic. Spence, who colleagues describe as “shattered” by his resignation, faced criticism from right wing organizations for LGBT-related tweets he sent out during February, March, and April. Spence told NCR:

“The far right blogsphere and their troops started coming after me again and it was too much for the USCCB. . .The secretary general [of the U.S. bishops’ conference] asked for my resignation, because the conference had lost confidence in my ability to lead CNS.”

The tweets in question include Spence’s comments on state religious liberty laws targeting LGBT people, Catholic efforts to welcome trans people, and Italy’s debate over civil unions. A sampling of the tweets includes, as available from National Public Radio :

get flushed as NC governor signs bill over

“Stupid evidently contagious. Tennessee tries to join MS, NC, IN in passing pro-discrimination laws.”

“Italy postpones voting, at risk. Opposition from church cited.”

“Fascinating story from #LACongress: #TransgenderCatholics hope to build bridges in church”

Spence told America magazine he never expected that commenting on developing news stories would provoke the backlash it did. The right wing campaign included emails “urging his excommunication and calling him a traitor to the faith.”

Spence has been in Catholic journalism for three decades, serving the church at diocesan and national levels, as well as being a consultor to the Pontifical Council for Social Communications. Calling his time at CNS “the best 12 years of my professional life,” Spence will return to his home state of Tennessee and “start over.”

Tony Spence joins more than 60 church workers who have lost their jobs in LGBT-related disputes since 2008. His forced resignation is particularly troubling because it is another incident where right-wing Catholics were able to force a church worker out based upon trivial claims.

Last May, Rick Estridge resigned as a vice president at Catholic Relief Services (CRS) after a right-wing organization publicly released the gay church worker’s marriage license. Estridge resigned as an alternative to being fired after 16 years of celebrated service to CRS whose leadership refused to stand beside their longtime employee against the right-wing attacks.

Responding to right-wing trivial claims only encourages such operatives to continue their tactics. Tony Spence’s forced resignation is a concession to those who wish to harm LGBT people and any Catholics who stand with them.

My prayer now as Tony Spence resigns, as it was when Rick Estridge was forced out, is that as our church confronts attacks on its faithful workers, we may we all listen to Scripture’s most repeated theme: “Be not afraid!”

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

 

 

 

 


Will U.S. Bishops Finally Affirm Pope Francis’ Agenda This Week?

November 15, 2015

Pope Francis arriving at St. Matthew’s Cathedral, Washington, D.C. before his address to U.S. bishops

U.S. bishops will gather for their fall plenary this coming week, the outcomes of which will clearly indicate whether they are finally ready to affirm Pope Francis’ agenda or pursue more of the same. Either way, decisions made in Baltimore will impact LGBT Catholic issues in this country for the next several years. So what is at stake?

Strategic Priorities

First, bishops will vote on the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ strategic priorities through 2020.

The discussion around these goals may be the “most explosive” debate of the entire meeting, observed Michael Sean Winters of the National Catholic Reporter. The current five priorities are: family and marriage; evangelization; religious freedom; human life and dignity; vocations.  In one sense,  all of these topics touch, in varying degrees, upon LGBT issues.

A draft of new priorities during their June meeting received heavy criticism, with Burlington’s Bishop Christopher Coyne saying it was “the same thing we’ve always done” and other Pope Francis appointees–Archbishop Blase Cupich of Chicago and Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego–added their own sharp criticisms.

With marriage equality a settled matter politically, will the bishops keep this issue and potential opposition to other LGBT advances, like nondiscrimination protections, at the top of their priorities? With a refugee crisis abroad and economic injustices rampant at home, will bishops continue prioritizing opposition to LGBT rights? Answers to these questions and the broader agenda-setting conversation will have a major impact, directing the USCCB’s significant resources and setting a public tone for ecclesial leadership.

Elections

Second, the bishops will vote on key positions in committee leadership.

There is “a real choice” in these races, according to Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese of the National Catholic Reporter. Four of Pope Francis’ personal appointees are in races and almost all contests are between a bishop more in the style of Francis and a bishop who is less so.

Most relevant is the election for chair of the Committee on Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth between Philadelphia’s Archbishop Charles Chaput and Bridgeport’s Bishop Frank J. Caggiano. Chaput is a noted culture warrior, whose city hosted the World Meeting of Families in September and who is fresh off the Synod on the Family where he showed few signs of prioritizing mercy and inclusion. Alternatively, Caggiano believes “that which unites us is greater than that which divides us.”

The chair of the Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development is contested between Venice’s Bishop Frank J. Dewane and San Diego’s Bishop Robert W. McElroy. Dewane has been publicly criticized by his own priests, while McElroy has been hailed as a leader of a more welcoming Catholic Church. Other elections include the chairs for committees tasked with Catholic Education, Divine Worship, and Clergy, Religious Life, and Vocations.

With LGBT issues rapidly increasing their visibility in the church as well as the world, these committees could impact how the U.S. bishops respond to the persecution of LGBT people globally, the firing of LGBT church workers, or the acceptance of openly gay priests. Who is elected will, ultimately, be a referendum on whether the U.S. episcopacy wants leaders focused on mercy and encounter or those focused on legalism and confrontation.

Faithful Citizenship

Third, the bishops will vote on minor revisions to their document, “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” which outlines political engagement for Catholics and is released before major elections.

This document has been criticized for its overemphasis on “culture war” issues, including opposition to marriage equality, while downplaying more pressing social justice issues. Unfortunately, the expected changes to this document will be minimal, according to Stephen Schneck of U.S. Catholic. Noting this document was last revised in 2011 before Pope Francis was elected, Schneck wrote:

“Faithful Citizenship, as it has come to be called, reads like something from another age. . .Its tone is juridical, and does not convey the merciful and pastoral message of His Holiness. In form, it is an un-Francis-like assemblage of pronouncements for judging citizens, politicians, and officeholders. . .

“Our bishops should be reminding Catholic voters and officeholders of the church’s insistence that government itself (and not just charitable individuals) has a responsibility to address poverty, injustice, environmental degradation, and to provide for a moral economy. Our bishops do a disservice to their flock if American Catholics imagine that the church’s teachings for citizenship and government are restricted to matters like abortion, marriage, or religious liberty.”

From his earliest interviews, Pope Francis has criticized certain Catholics’ “obsession” with issues like same-sex marriages. Marriage equality is now legal nationwide without any realistic challenges for its reversal. The U.S. bishops should not just make limited changes, but totally overhaul Faithful Citizenship to reflect both Pope Francis’ agenda and the political realities of the nation in which they minister–particularly climate change.

Were the Bishops Listening to the Pope in D.C.?

Finally, there is the broader question of how the U.S. bishops will relate to Pope Francis and his agenda moving forward. Michael Sean Winters of the National Catholic Reporter recalled Pope Francis’ words addressing the U.S. bishops at St. Matthew’s Cathedral, Washington, DC, during his papal visit, writing:

“There, [Francis] confronted the dominant culture warrior approach the USCCB too often has displayed, most notably this year in their reaction to the Supreme Court decision on same sex marriage. The pope said, ‘Harsh and divisive language does not befit the tongue of a pastor, it has no place in his heart; although it may momentarily seem to win the day, only the enduring allure of goodness and love remains truly convincing.’ “

Pope Francis added a strong appeal for dialogue, and at this upcoming meeting, in Winters’ estimation, the U.S. bishops have an “opportunity to demonstrate that they heard the Holy Father” or choose to remain “out of touch with their own flocks” about which Winters wrote:

“The sad and regrettable fact is that the USCCB of late has acquired only the smell of the neo-conservative, upper middle class Catholic sheep and the Republicans for whom they vote.”

But Pope Francis’ criticism of the U.S. bishops, and his call for them to restructure their priorities, did not end in September. The pontiff’s particularly strong words about change in the Catholic Church earlier this week make the U.S. bishops’ choice next week all the more meaningful. Winters suggested:

“When the session opens on Monday morning, the bishops should set aside the agenda, read this entire talk, pray over it, maybe have small group discussions of it, and then return to their agenda in the afternoon. How do they evaluate their ministry, individually and as a conference, in the light of the pope’s remarks? The Holy Father said this morning, ‘We are not living an era of change but a change of era.’ Will that change of era be manifest in Baltimore next week?”

In recent weeks, both at the Synod and and in the wake of Vatican financial scandals, Pope Francis has made clear that little will stop his reform agenda for the Catholic Church. He has said, “Today is a time of mercy!” and that he wants a church that is “home for all.” The question in Baltimore next week is whether U.S. bishops will agree with these words and evolve, or clarify their resistance to Pope Francis and double down on their anti-LGBT obsessions.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

Related Article:

Crux: “US bishops to consider priorities and pornography


Father Martin’s Viral Facebook Post on ‘So Much Hatred From So Many Catholics’

July 1, 2015

Perhaps the biggest Catholic post-Supreme Court decision news is not what Catholic bishops have been saying, but a social media controversy that has focused on Jesuit Father James Martin’s Facebook page.

Father James Martin, SJ

David Gibson, on his blog at Religion News Service, reported on the issue which is causing millions–yes, millions–of people to flock to the Facebook page of the popular Jesuit author and speaker.

The “offending” post which is causing the controversy, was put up by Fr. Martin just before 3:00 pm on June 26th, the day that the U.S. Supreme Court legalized marriage equality nationwide. In the post, Fr. Martin said:

“No issue brings out so much hatred from so many Catholics as homosexuality.”

“Even after over 25 years as a Jesuit, the level of hatred around homosexuality is nearly unbelievable to me, especially when I think of all of the wonderful LGBT friends I have.”

Earlier in the day, Martin had made three posts about the Supreme Court ruling.  The first was a post announcing the decision.  The second was the response to the decision from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB).  The third was the response of New Ways Ministry.   For each of the posts, he added the following prefatory guidelines to his followers who would want to comment on them:

“No ad hominem. No uncharitable remarks. No homophobic remarks. Mo more than one or two posts per person. And Catholics who disagree with the Supreme Court decision must treat gays with ‘respect, compassion and sensitivity,’ as the Catechism asks.”

In both the USCCB post and the New Ways Ministry post, he provided links so that his readers could, if they wanted, easily see both points of view.

Later in the day, probably due to many negative comments he received, Fr. Martin posted the message, quoted above, about how homosexuality brings out an immense amount of hatred.

The statistics for each of these posts tell an interesting story:

  • Announcing court’s decision: 9.603 Likes; 746 Shares; 1,088 Comments
  • USCCB reaction: 1,662 Likes; 215 Shares; 535 Comments
  • New Ways Ministry reaction: 6,635 Likes; 881 Shares; 879 Comments
  • Martin’s 3:00 pm post on negativity: 402,328 Likes; 141,108; Shares; 18,229 Comments

[Facebook statistics are from late in the evening on June 30, 2015]

Gibson reports that the result of all that sharing of the 3:00 pm post, already over 28 million people have viewed it.

The rest of Martin’s 3:00 pm post reads like a sermon:

“The Catholic church must do a much better job of teaching what the Catechism says: that we should treat our LGBT brothers and sisters with ‘respect, sensitivity and compassion.’

“But God wants more. God wants us to love. And not a twisted, crabbed, narrow tolerance, which often comes in the guise of condemnations, instructions and admonitions that try to masquerade as love, but actual love.

“Love means: getting to know LGBT men and women, spending time with them, listening to them, being challenged by them, hoping the best for them, and wanting them to be a part of your lives, every bit as much as straight friends are part of your lives.

“Love first. Everything else later. In fact, everything else is meaningless without love.”

Fr. Martin has taken the venom spewed towards him in stride, it seems.  At about 10:00 pm on the same day, he posted his reaction to the immense negative response he received.  He offered screen shots of three of the attacks on him, and then humorously commented:

“Dear erstwhile ‘friends,’

“If you are currently composing a Facebook message to describe how much you disapprove of me–like these from three separate Catholics–wouldn’t it be better simply to hit the ‘Unfollow’ key? Not that I don’t enjoy such notes, including the frequently amusing misspellings and delightfully creative grammatical mistakes. But it would save us both a lot of time.

“Many thanks!

“Your pal,
James Martin, SJ,
or as one of you styled me,
‘Father’ James Martin, SJ”

Martin, who posts on a wide variety of church, social, and cultural issues, was not daunted by the criticism.  Since this controversy, he has already posted twice more on the Supreme Court decision. Martin is one of the most popular Catholic commentators on Facebook, with over 277,000 followers.

I think there are three lessons in this story.  The first lesson is that this Facebook incident illustrates both how passionate Catholics–on both sides of the issue–are about the Supreme Court’s decision. While the strong majority of U.S. Catholics support marriage equality, there are still many who are equally strongly opposed to it. These groups need to be reconciled to one another.

The second lesson is the need for civil discourse as Catholics continue to discuss this topic.  The Supreme Court decision resolved the legal and political questions of same-gender marriage.  The moral and religious questions will continue.  It will be imperative for both sides of the debate to treat one another respectfully, as a number of U.S. bishops have pointed out in their reaction statements.

The third lesson is that the negative reaction to Father Martin’s post shows how poorly educated Catholics are on the basics of church teaching about accepting gay and lesbian people with “respect, compassion, and sensitivity.”  Connected with this teaching, and equally as poorly taught by bishops and leaders, is honoring the human dignity of gay and lesbian people. Father Martin pointed out the reality of this deficiency in his post.   Much more teaching about how the Catholic social justice tradition applies to gender and sexual minorities is greatly needed.  Now, more than ever.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

Related post:

Queering The Church: “Catholic Responses to Homosexuality:  Hatred or Simple Disagreement?”

 


“Francis Bishops” Question U.S. Church’s Priorities, But Is This Real Change?

June 14, 2015

Bishops gathered in St. Louis, MO

Rare public controversial discussions erupted at the U.S. bishops’ spring meeting in St Louis this past week, as newly appointed prelates questioned whether the bishops’ recent priorities aligned with Pope Francis.

Particularly criticized was the U.S.bishops’ religious liberty campaign which is at the forefront of their opposition to LGBT rights.

Although these discussion are a hopeful sign for progress in the church, other events raises questions about whether the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops is really changing.

A Thursday morning discussion about conference priorities for 2017-2020 prompted a flurry of concerns, causing Chicago’s Archbishop Blaise Cupich to request a full discussion of the various items. Committee on Priorities and Plans Chair Archbishop J. Peter Sartain of Seattle claimed this unusual debate was planned, but the National Catholic Reporter observed:

“Even with that [Sartain’s] explanation, one by one, numerous bishops voiced concern with the perception and direction of the priorities.”

Bishops questioned whether they had focused sufficiently on poverty and economic justice, along with issues championed by the pope like immigration, climate change, and the persecution of Christians in the Middle East.

Some bishops wondered aloud why, in the age of Francis, the Committee had not proposed newer and bolder priorities. Bishop Christopher Coyne of Burlington, Vermont, who said they appear to be “the same thing we’ve always done.” Archbishop Joseph Tobin of Indianpolis said the drafted priorities “were quite closely a restatement of the priorities that this body has adopted in the past.”

Overall, their comments revealed a growing disillusionment with previous agendas that were largely limited to opposing abortion, same-sex marriage, and contraception. It was during this part of the discussion where the criticisms of the religious liberty campaign as a response to LGBT equality initiatives arose.

Bishop Robert McElroy

San Diego’s Bishop Robert McElroy, expressing his desire for Francis’ priorities to be “amped up” in the U.S., said a clearer and more Catholic articulation on the topic was necessary. He requested an understanding of religious liberty “that is ‘nuanced’ and essentially three tiers: the individual conscience, religious communities and secular employers,” according to the National Catholic Reporter.

In addition, Archbishop Cupich added his own comments on the priorities:

“Cupich in his own comments said he found it ‘stunning’ that the priorities’ only use of the word ‘advocacy’ came in regard to religious freedom, and he raised the immigration issue as another area where advocacy is warranted. . . He said he thought they might also want to consider whether religious freedom should be a singular priority or better fit within the scope of evangelization.

“It is a concern. We need to make sure that religious freedom is protected, but whether or not it is above the status of poverty is I think something for further debate.”

Yet, the three-day meeting also included troubling signs that many U.S. bishops were clearly disregarding Pope Francis’ exhortations and stuck on opposing LGBT justice.

The bishops heard from right-wing couples about improving pastoral care around marriage. There was no acknowledgment of same-gender relationships in this discussion, an issue which Cardinal Walter Kasper has said should be the “central issue” at the synod this fall.

Screen Shot 2015-06-12 at 11.26.24 PM

Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone

Those present also heard from embattled Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco, addressing the conference in his role as chair of the Subcommittee for the Promotion and Defense of Marriage. Noting the Supreme Court’s upcoming decision, Cordileone stated:

“Nothing the court says can change what marriage truly is, and we will continue to promote and defend it…We may have to suffer this lie about marriage in the law, but we must not participate in it or keep silent about it.”

This line received sustained applause from those gathered, according to the National Catholic Reporter. Cordileone also warned about alleged discrimination anti-LGBT people will face as marriage equality expands and promised to continue pressing for broad religious exemptions, including yet another Fortnight for Freedom this year. Attempting to claim Pope Francis for his cause, Cordileone cited the pontiff’s critiques of yet undefined “gender ideology.”

Archbishop Kurtz praised Cordileone for “courageous leadership,” ignoring the thousands of Bay Area Catholics who have protested the archbishop’s leadership in recent months, most recently for attacking trans* people as undermining faithNCR columnist Michael Sean Winters questioned the other bishops’ silence around Cordileone’s controversies, writing:

“I also wish one of the bishops had manifested the courage to confront the sometimes offensive, sometimes bizarre comments of Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone, entrusted with the “defense of marriage” by the conference, especially when it came to the subject of transgendered [sic] people…My heart grieves for what they must endure to be sure, although there was little sense of sympathy coming from His Grace of San Francisco.”

Little compassion came from Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore as well who said, in a post-meeting interview, that Catholic social service providers may halt operations serving the poor if LGBT rights become law, reported Crux.

I have several reactions to this news from the bishops’ meeting. First, I am thrilled to see bishops openly critical of the narrow and misguided priorities dictating the bishops’ conference activities in recent years. Pope Francis is providing cover for bishops pushing the American hierarchy to be in greater solidarity with the poor and the marginalized, setting aside cultural issues like LGBT rights about which the conference has obsessed. If the Supreme Court rules for nationwide marriage equality, the bishops should drop their campaigns quickly and take up the actual Gospel work towards which the pope and his appointees are calling the USCCB.

Second, it seems that this is an uncertain moment. The priorities are not settled and conservative bishops controlling the process seem ill-inclined to make the radical shifts for which some are calling. Cordileone’s statements about Christians being persecuted in America are demeaning to those actually suffering for their faith in other parts of the globe.  It is sadly disappointing that Lori does not see how devastatingly unjust and shameful it is each time the church shutters social services to the poor because LGBT employees or clients seek equal protections under civil law. Even though some of their peers interject with fraternal corrections, it is unclear where the wider conference would ultimately line up.

Still, slow as it may be emerging, this minor debate in an otherwise mundane spring meeting is proof the much celebrated “Francis Effect” may finally be breaking into the American hierarchy.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry


WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE? U.K. Bishops Open Dialogue; U.S. Bishops Should Do the Same

November 17, 2014

“WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?” is  Bondings 2.0’s series on how Catholics–the hierarchy and laity–can prepare for the Synod on Marriage and Family that will take place at the Vatican in October 2015. If you would like to consider contributing a post to this series, please click here

The news of a slate of mostly conservative bishops being elected to represent the U.S. church at the synod on marriage and the family in Rome next October was disappointing.  However, across the Atlantic, news about the synod preparatory plans of the bishops of England and Wales are much more optimistic.

The Tablet reports that these British bishops are going to “launch a wide-ranging consultation of parishes and clergy ahead of next year’s Synod on the Family.”  The article reports:

Cardinal Vincent Nichols

“Following their biannual plenary meeting in Leeds this week, the bishops would like a period of spiritual reflection in each parish and, separately, to hear the experiences of clergy on the main “pastoral challenges” they encounter with families.

“Speaking at a press conference on Friday Cardinal Vincent Nichols said that material would be sent out to parishes and clergy after Christmas. The period of reflection should go on until June or July of next year ahead of the synod in October 2015.

“ ‘It is not so much a request for opinions as a request for testimony,’ Cardinal Vincent Nichols said at the bishops’ conference offices in London.

“ ‘You will recall that the two great features of the synod in October was on the one hand for it to give a resounding trumpet call in support of marriage and stability of family life, and on the other hand express and strengthen the pastoral response of the Church in a wide variety of difficult and pressurised situations. We hope the material we prepare will find that same balance.’ ”

Nichols also made a point of saying that the results of such discussions should be made public.  When a synod organizer sent a questionnaire to bishops last year to disseminate to the laity, the Vatican asked that the results not be made public.

Such an open discussion is what is needed here in the United States, and it was exactly that kind of discussion that Equally Blessed, a coalition of Catholic groups that work for LGBT equality, asked of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) last week.  Coalition members–Call To Action, DignityUSA, Fortunate Families, New Ways Ministry–sent a letter to the conference last week in which they asked the bishops the following:

Equally Blessed Logo“To prepare for this upcoming event, we urge each of you to initiate a wide conversation with Catholics in your dioceses on marriage, sexuality, and family life, so that so that you can better understand how these realities are experienced by people of faith who actively work to discern how to follow God’s Will.  Since LGBT issues figured so prominently in this past October’s sessions, and since no openly LGBT person provided testimony at these events, it will be necessary to initiate those conversations with LGBT Catholics and their families, in particular. . . .

“Now is the time for bishops in the U.S. to replicate Pope Francis’ process on the local level by opening up a conversation on marriage, family, and sexuality. Many Catholics, especially LGBT people and their families, have waited decades for such an opportunity, and have been heartened by the fact that this year’s synod opened up this much needed discussion.”

New Ways Ministry’s Executive Director Francis DeBernardo, writing for the Equally Blessed coalition, posted an essay on Advocate.com explaining the importance of such a dialogue:

“Since LGBT issues caused so much discussion and disagreement, it will be especially important for U.S. bishops to open a dialogue with LGBT Catholics and their families. This synod showed that there were a majority of bishops who were willing to recognize that lesbian and gay people “have gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community,” in the words of an early draft report. Similarly, that same report noted that the “mutual aid to the point of sacrifice” that same-sex partners offer one another “constitutes a precious support” in the couple’s life. It’s important for U.S. bishops to explore these ideas, and the best way of doing so is to listen intently to those closest to these issues. . . .

“The synod’s free and open discussion among bishops must be replicated in local churches. The Catholic laity are an educated and insightful resource. More importantly, they are the true experts on the topics of marriage, family, and sexual expression, since they are the people who live these realities every day, not the bishops. While Catholics develop their theology from scripture, tradition, and nature, they also develop it from examining the lived experience of people of faith. What leader of any organization would want to ignore the perspectives of the people who know an issue because they live it? . . .

“Last year a number of bishops complained that they could not gather input from laity because they only had two months to do so. Now they have 11 months, which is plenty of time to circulate surveys, hold listening sessions, meet with leaders, and post response forms on diocesan websites. When the bishops want to get a message out about opposing some legislative or judicial measure, they do not seem to lack in creativity in using all sorts of media to alert Catholics. Let’s see them use the same creativity to gather opinions on these matters.”

The U.S. bishops need to be encouraged to open such a dialogue, therefore we urge you to write to your local bishop and ask him for such a possibility.  Use some of the arguments and language from this blog post, the Equally Blessed letter, or the Advocate.com essay to make your point.  You can even start the dialogue yourself by sharing your personal story with your bishop so that he can see the faith lives of LGBT people and families, and also see the situations, positive and negative, that they encounter in their local churches.

#BishopsListen model sign. A blank form can be downloaded from the Equally Blessed website.

Equally Blessed is also promoting a Facebook  and Twitter campaign to encourage people to contact their local bishops.  Here’s how it works:

“Take a photo with a #BishopsListen sign to ask your local bishop to listen to families like yours. Then post your photo on facebook or twitter with the hashtag #bishopslisten, or email your photo to coordinator@equally-blessed.org.”

You can read more about the campaign by clicking here.

The U.S. bishops need to follow the example of the U.K. bishops.  But it is probably going to take the encouragement of the laity to get them to do so.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

Related posts

Queering the Church:  “For English Catholics, a ‘Request for Testimony’ ”

Bondings 2.0: “WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE? Writing Letters to Our Bishops

 

 


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