It’s Holy Week, so as Catholics we are likely meditating frequently on two different ideas: 1) humanity’s propensity to crush God’s offer of abundant love; 2) the fact that suffering can be redemptive.
The news of this week so far is certainly reflecting the first concept. On Monday, Bondings 2.0 carried a story about Catholic educators ignoring the needs of transgender students. Yesterday’s main post focused on a Montana parish funeral which almost turned into a tragedy for the family because of a pastor’s intransigence on LGBT issues. Today’s story, unfortunately, follows the same sort of line as the past two days.
In Evansville, Indiana, a parish ministry for LGBT Catholics was shut down by the parish leaders. The ministry had flourished for 12 years at Sts. Mary and John Parish, and, indeed, the parish had been listed on New Ways Ministry’s LGBT-friendly parish list for many years. The Evansville Courier & Press reported that the Bill Muller, the acting secretary of “Rainbow Catholics in Christ” (RCC) informed the members of the parish leaderships decision in an email which read:
“We are so sorry to inform you that after extensive discussion Father (Gordon) Mann and Deacon (Ed) Wilkerson determined that the Rainbow Catholics in Christ Ministry is no longer welcome to exist at Sts. Mary and John Parish. Father Mann said we are not operating in compliance with the Roman Catholic Church rules.”
The pastor suggested that the group be re-formed under the model of a Courage/Encourage ministry. Courage (for gay and lesbian Catholics) and Encourage (for their parents) is a national ministry whose primary focus is on maintaining the celibacy of its members. Unfortunately, as many have pointed out, Courage uses a 12-step model to help people maintain celibacy, thus viewing sexuality as a problem to be overcome. Many bishops will not allow Courage/Encourage to operate in their dioceses.
At issue was the RCC’s program for 2016, which was described as including “LGBTQ advocacy; fairness in employment and housing; and human sexuality and spirituality.”
The pastor, Fr. Gordon Mann, refused to speak with the newspaper, saying only:
“You know, I’m not going to comment, at all.”
A spokesperson for Diocese of Evansville issued a statement which did not address the parish leadership’s decision about which form of ministry to support:
“The Church’s respect for the dignity of every person as created in the image of God has remained consistent throughout time. Outreach to people across society — including the LGBT community here in the Tri-State and across the world — continues to be founded in that respect for the sacredness of every person. All are welcome.”
The diocesan statement also referenced the Indiana bishops’ 2013 statement which described marriage as “the union of one man and one woman — a natural institution established by God.”
The Courier & Press newspaper also acquired a copy of minutes from the parish council meeting where the closure of RCC was discussed. The newspaper article stated:
“Listed under new business in Feb. 22 pastoral meeting minutes, parish pastoral council member David Nelson addressed RCC’s departure which, according to those minutes, happened during a team meeting in mid-February.
” ‘The team presented their program calendar for 2016, and after review and discussion, it was determined that speakers/topics proposed were contrary to the mission of the supportive role of the group, and instead the group had become political in nature,’ the minutes stated. ‘Its politics could not be supported by a nonprofit entity, nor did they coincide with the teachings of the Catholic church.’
“Mann suggested RCC members research Courage/Encourage to learn more, but members disagreed and ‘the meeting abruptly ended.’ Meeting minutes later noted that Mann, after discussing it with the diocese, declared that Courage/Encourage is ‘not the right program for Sts. Mary and John at this time.’
“However, Mann said the parish must ensure Catholics of any orientation feel welcome.
” ‘The Catholic church supports people with same-sex attraction and does not consider them second-class citizens,’ the meeting minutes read.”
While the decision to shutter the RCC group in its present format is certainly troublesome, what is more troublesome is the decision on the part of the parish and diocesan leadership to be silent or vague about the reason for such a decision. What was wrong with the the program the RCC presented for 2016? Were they not given a chance to amend that program in any way? If the pastor was ambivalent about the Courage/Encourage model after speaking with the diocese, why is he now suggesting that approach? How, specifically, will the parish and the diocese show that LGBT people are welcome in the church in the future? It seems that there was no dialogue in the parish about this ministry.
Wally Paynter, the president of Tri-State Alliance, an LGBT equality organization, said he is helping the 25 members of RCC discern their future direction since many of them want to continue their group’s ministry, even if the parish will not accept them. In the past, Paynter has addressed the group on HIV issues, youth topics, and acceptance in the local community, so he has a relationship with them. He expressed the sentiment that many are feeling:
“I feel like people just really feel hurt, torn down. Something that was so vital to who they were as Catholics and as individuals and to have that group treated in this way — I think people need time to heal.”
One of the RCC members, John Radez, told the newspaper that he does not see the controversy as “us against them.” He explained:
“My issue is not so much confrontational with the church or anything. Mine is more disappointment. The church is missing an opportunity to minister to people who need it. By pushing people away from the table, marginalizing people, the church is missing a golden opportunity to minister. … Which is completely contradictory to what Christ would have done. He invited all of the sinners to the table.”
These are certainly tough times for the RCC members in Evansville, and for many parishioners at Sts. Mary and John parish. I started this post describing two thoughts that we tend to meditate on during this holiest of weeks in the church calendar. I think that as we contemplate this story, we need to remember that second point: that suffering can be redemptive. I’m not suggesting that it was good that this decision was made. It was a very bad decision. Faith tells us that even when human weakness destroys something good, God can bring about a new life from the disaster. While we live in the time of suffering, it is hard to imagine the new life which is possible, but that is the challenge of Easter.
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry
The Evansville Courier & Press: Letter: “Rejection of Rainbow group leaves parishioner without a church”