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.”
I’m glad to note here that those 1970s attitudes have been eroding in recent years. The Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), and Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) have recognized the role that religion must play in the secular and political debates about LGBT rights. All these national organizations have developed very strong programs to amplify religious voices on LGBT issues: HRC’s program can be accessed here; The Task Force’s program can be accessed here; GLAAD’s program can be accessed here; PFLAG’s program can be accessed here.
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:
Additionally, the blog QueeringTheChurch.com has a five-part analysis of Bishop Robinson’s Symposium talk:
March 26: Bishop Robinson: The Middle Ground
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry