As a busy fall for Catholic LGBT advocates winds down, its time for reflecting about what happened–and forecasting what might come. This post focuses in on World Meeting of Families (WMF) and Pope Francis’ visit to the U.S. as they related to LGBT issues, looking both back at the past and what these actions might mean for the future.
Equally Blessed Pilgrims Reflect on Experiences
Several members of the families with LGBT members who participated in Equally Blessed’s pilgrimage to WMF (and to concurrent “outside the walls” LGBT-related events) have shared their experiences and reflections from the week-long even on video.
The Equally Blessed coalition, which includes, Call to Action, DignityUSA, Fortunate Families, and New Ways Ministry, produced a series of videos from the pilgrimage, one of which you can view below and you can find the others here.
Ryan Hoffman of Call to Action wrote in the National Catholic Reporter about the exclusion pilgrims experienced having been “dismissed from giving workshops, rejected from having a presence in the exhibit hall, relegated to a Methodist church across the street, and nearly shut out of the one presentation on ‘same-sex attraction’.”
These acts impeded “authentic dialogue and genuine encounter,” but did not stop such moments. Hoffman observed:
“Francis has asked Catholics to work on the margins. Equally Blessed boldly occupies this space, on the periphery and in the field hospital of the Catholic church. Once again, we found ourselves on the front lines of compassion and justice. . .The pilgrims’ prophetic ministry was not in what they were able to say, but in who they were able to be — their whole and holy, complete and healthy selves — amidst a backdrop of hierarchical control tactics and fear.”
LGBT pilgrims and their families prophetically witnessed to their faith, despite Meeting organizers’ best attempts to shut them out. Catholics at the event, overall, noticed the pilgrims and many affirmed them. Indeed, WMF participants overwhelmingly agreed that openness, honesty, and safe spaces for dialogue were desired by WMF attendees, regardless of where their positions on gender or sexuality.
Absent, too, at WMF were discussions about institutional matters in the church. Fired lesbian educator Margie Winters identified a hoped-for conversation that was not included on the agenda. She told the National Catholic Reporter:
“We ask the church to reflect on its own identity, an identity now associated with the discriminatory treatment of the LGBT community. We are your sisters and brothers in faith.”
The Philadelphia Inquirer reported on Winters reiterating this sentiment at an LGBT Family Papal Picnic held in Philadelphia, saying the exclusion of people “impacts the integrity of the church as a whole.”
Equally Blessed partners hosted events where more inclusive and honest conversations could happen. Writing at the Human Rights Campaign’s blog about New Ways Ministry’s workshop on gender identity, Lisbeth Melendez Rivera said:
“Their stories were heartbreaking and hopeful. Contrary to the tone of sanctioned workshops, these messages were ones of inclusion and acceptance. They represented the success of our work.”
Stories shared included those of Nicole Santamaria, an intersex woman from El Salvador, and her mother, Vilma. Nicole noted that rather than condemn intersex people, the Catholic Church is entirely silent on this community, and silence is problem for intersex people in heavily-Catholic nations like hers. An asylum seeker to the U.S. after she suffered multiple physical attacks, Nicole told NewsWorks:
” ‘The point of having the Lord’s love in our life is to create the space for people to be [themselves]. . .If people believe that they have the Lord’s right to attack you, they are going to attack you and they are going to be celebrated.”
You can read more about Nicole’s story in an interview she offered to The Washington Post.
WMF pilgrims also shared their experiences on an installment of DignityUSA’s “Queer Catholic Faith” webinar series last month, which you can view here.
Lingering Questions About the World Meeting of Families
Those involved with Equally Blessed’s pilgrimage were not the only voices questioning and even critical of the World Meeting of Families.
Jake Kohlhaas, a theologian at Loras College, Dubuque, Iowa, who attended WMF, wrote at Daily Theology about an “exclusivist tone” which marked the Meeting’s programming that “works against even legitimate diversity and complexity within the accepted moral tradition of the church.”
In Kohlhaas’ estimation, WMF speakers appealed to inclusivity only in instances where it strengthened their position, while jettisoning it for rigid exclusivism when their perspective on church teaching was challenged, such as being faced with U.S. Catholics overwhelming support of marriage equality. He questioned whether the use of dubious social science findings by WMF presenters is analogous to intelligent design theorists’ discussing evolutionary biology:
“That is, while the approach in general presents itself as receptive to the findings of non-theological disciplines, when the data challenges basic commitments it is glossed over with affirmations of Catholic teaching. . .Selective uses of observed data undermine this commitment by allowing a prevailing hermeneutic of fidelity to church teaching to obstruct legitimately challenging questions.”
More fundamentally, Kohlhaas expressed concern about WMF’s failure to acknowledge the realities of Catholic families in their diversity today, and he concluded with an important question:
“This is not simply a question about the possibility of certain strategic reforms, it is a question about how we balance a commitment to inclusivity with the specific moral teachings of the Church. If simply acknowledging legitimate diversities and challenging realities proves difficult for many Catholic leaders, how are we as Catholics to respond mercifully to the world’s needs?”
Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, summarized the approach of WMF organizers and the U.S. bishops in this way, reports KEPRTV:
“They see LGBT issues as a problem to contain rather than to explore. . .The entire Catholic community in the U.S. is having a discussion on this now. Why can’t the World Meeting of Families?”
Papal Visit Generally Praised
Pope Francis’ visit, despite the Kim Davis controversy which erupted shortly afterwards, has generally been praised. Denise Hinds, a self-described “Catholic-nun-turned-lesbian-mom,” wrote in The Huffington Post about seeing the pontiff at the White House. Describing the scene as “electric,” she explained:
“[Pope Francis] spoke of family and marriage, and his comments were heard by some LGBT advocates as opposing my family and those like mine. But I heard them differently. In the context of the long hard walk to equality and justice for so many people, this pope chose not to defame me. He chose to honor family and marriage, not limit which families and which marriages. And for this church, in the context of this pope’s choices, that is progress. . .
“I felt happy and overwhelmingly proud of the pope, being Catholic and being gay all at the same time. I think his words and deeds will also give my daughter hope that she can have a place in a church that welcomes, accepts and respects her family.”
Victoria Brownworth, a Catholic lesbian as well, also wrote about the papal visit for The Huffington Post and said:
“If I have learned anything from watching Pope Francis up close and personal in Philadelphia over his two days here, it is that my Catholic faith and my lesbian identity are inextricable from each other. I have been reminded that I am uniquely blessed to be a Catholic lesbian and that my lesbianism and my faith are gifts. . .
“And so I come away from Pope Francis’s visit not embittered by his failure to speak to me, a lesbian Catholic, but assured by every action and speech of his that I witnessed, that he is more human than God, more conflicted than sure, more searching than settled.
“That reaffirmed for me what I have always known to be true: That I am no less a member of my Church than anyone else, that being a lesbian requires no imprimatur from the Church, because I am, according to the Church’s own theology, made in God’s image.”
Much has happened since the World Meeting of Families and Pope Francis’ visit: the Kim Davis controversy, news of the pope’s meeting with a gay couple, and the Synod on the Family. Yet the good news shared by Equally Blessed’s pilgrims and the encounters they experienced should not be forgotten in the near future. Indeed, their example of dialogue and witness, accompanied by Pope Francis’ vision for the church, constitute a path forward for U.S. Catholics when it comes to LGBT issues.
To read Bondings 2.0‘s full coverage of the Equally Blessed pilgrimage, the World Meeting of Families, and/or Pope Francis visit to the U.S., you can click here.
–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry