The World Meeting of Families’ (WMF) only session on homosexuality was held Thursday afternoon, drawing more than 750 people to the talk featuring a Catholic celibate gay man, Ron Belgau, and his mother, Beverley.
Their aim, according to an interview in Slate, was to “help Catholic families to be better at loving LGBT people.” In the session, the Belgaus shared their personal stories, this being the first time since WMF began two decades ago that an openly gay person has spoken. Beverley Belgau called Ron’s coming out “the worst day of my life.” They also reiterated current teachings on homosexuality which mandates celibacy, though they admitted church leaders’ response to LGB Catholics could be improved.
The Belgaus’ session was standing room only, due in part to a last minute room change that left hundreds of would-be attendees standing outside, reported Religion News Service. World Meeting of Families officials did not comment on why a session concerning homosexuality was shifted from a plenary hall capable of holding 10,000 to a much smaller room with the capacity for only 1,000. Call To Action’s Ryan Hoffman commented:
” ‘We are just trying to understand and give [World Meeting of Families officials] the benefit of the doubt. . .This just speaks to the fact that people want to talk about LGBT Catholics and their relationship with the Catholic Church.”
Following the lecture, a question and answer period lasted two hours, at which point those still present were asked to leave the room, reported the Philadelphia Inquirer. Some questions were concrete, like whether a Catholic could attend a family member’s same-sex marriage to which Beverley Belgau suggested that whatever the questioner decides to “do it with love.” Others challenged Ron Belgau’s underlying assertions, like Fortunate Families board member Ed Buechel’s criticism of mandatory celibacy:
” ‘That’s fine for somebody who has been given the gift from God of chastity and celibacy. . .I’m the father of a gay son. . .He’s 34 years old. He loves his church and he loves his God. But because of the conflict between the teachings of the church and his wanting to stay a good Catholic, he had a nervous breakdown 12 years ago.’ “
Titled “Always Consider the Person: Homosexuality in the Family,” critics claim it failed to consider the person and focused primarily on enforcing rigid understandings of sexuality. Marianne Duddy-Burke of DignityUSA wrote on Facebook:
“[T]he problems started for me when they spoke of Ron as having ‘same-sex attraction.’ This immediately takes it/us to a place of disorder, illness, defect. That leads to dehumanization, a sense of moral inferiority, and assumption of sinfulness. From there we get to discrimination, exclusion and violence. That whole chain was never addressed. There was no sense of identity as intrinsic to personhood, or of our sexual orientation as blessed gift. The view of ‘Church’ presented was also disempowered and hierarchical.”
delfín bautista, another Equally Blessed pilgrim, said in the session that LGBT Catholics are not struggling with who they are, but “with the rejection and marginalization that exists within society and also within the church.”
The lack of LGBT Catholic perspectives, except for Ron Belgau’s celibate life, was striking. Ronnie Polaneczky, columnist for the Daily News, called it a “wasted opportunity,” writing further:
“Really? This is the best that the church has for LGBT Catholics – the expectation that they be celibate? At this extraordinary meeting of Catholics from around the globe, why is this celibate gay man the only representation of the church’s LGBT members?”
LGBT Catholics Respond
The opportunity was not entirely wasted because LGBT Catholics and their families associated with the Equally Blessed pilgrimage kept the conversation going during a Thursday evening panel.
Featuring Claire Dente, John Freml of Equally Blessed, and Marianne Duddy-Burke of DignityUSA, the conversation became an honest and at times heated dialogue on not only Ron Belgau’s talk but broader questions in the Catholic LGBT movement.
One theme panelists picked up on was the need to positively appraise and present diverse sexual and gender identities.
Freml said homosexuality is “not a disorder, a curse, a birth defect. It’s a gift. It’s cause to celebrate.” Duddy-Burke spoke about coming out as a Resurrection experience, adding LGBT folks need to be more outspoken in celebrating their fabulousness. Dente pointed out that though God’s voice is speaking through same-gender relationships, when LGBT people are excluded from the table that part of God’s voice is stifled.
Those in attendance added to the conversation for more than an hour, respectfully, though honestly, dialoguing about sensitive topics. These included the need to diversify the LGBT movement, incorporating global perspectives as well as centering communities of color in the U.S. Greater solidarity by LGBT communities with those movements for racial, economic, or migration justice was requested by several attendees.
Others highlighted the pain Catholics feel when their priests and religious remain silent in the face of injustice. Sr. Jeannine Gramick, co-founder of New Ways Ministry, spoke movingly about the fear that keeps many from taking prophetic action and emphasized the need to educate church leaders.
Having attended this response period, I witnessed in the church hall an embodiment of precisely the loving dialogue called for repeatedly by Pope Francis during his U.S. visit. As they have for a long time, LGBT Catholics and their families are fostering encounters in the church–a very hope-filled witness. I was also aware of the deep pain all too present for LGBT Catholics and their family members–a pain church leaders are not only inattentive to, but too often inflict. It cannot be forgotten even for those of us who find hope in what has happened this week.
Mustard Seeds Planted
The Eighth World Meeting of Families with all its LGBT-related controversies and failure to welcome all families has concluded at last. Equally Blessed pilgrims generally reported respect from WMF participants in the many one-on-one conversations held, but there were also moments of hostility. Fortunate Families board member Tony Garascia told NBC 10 that some at the WMF asked why Catholic parents of LGBT children even bothered attending and claimed gay children were perverted.
Still, from my perspective, we must focus on the seeds of love and faith planted all over the Philadelphia by Equally Blessed’s pilgrims. Their deep sharing in conversation, challenging questions, and rainbow witness are the mustard seeds by which God’s inclusive grace will expand narrow-minded areas of our church increasingly into a Catholic Church that is, to quote Pope Francis, “home for all.”
To read Bondings 2.0‘s full coverage of and from the World Meeting of Families, click the appropriate category to the right or you can find it here.
–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry