CATHOLIC LGBT HISTORY: DignityUSA Issues Guidelines for Holy Unions

“This Month in Catholic LGBT History” is Bondings 2.0’s  feature to educate readers of the rich history—positive and negative—that has taken place over the last four decades regarding Catholic LGBT equality issues.  We hope it will show people how far our Church has come, ways that it has regressed, and how far we still have to go.

Once a  month, Bondings 2.0 staff will produce a post on Catholic LGBT news events from the past 38 years.  We will comb through editions of Bondings 2.0’s predecessor: Bondings,  New Ways Ministry’s newsletter in paper format.   We began publishing Bondings in 1978. Unfortunately, because these newsletters are only archived in hard copies, we cannot link back to the primary sources in most cases. 

DignityUSA Issues Guidelines for Holy Unions

It has been two years since marriage equality became the law of the land in the U.S., but it has been twenty years since an LGBT Catholic organization here in the U.S. issued their own guidelines for same-sex marriage, way ahead of the general population.

In August 1997,  The Washington Blade, the LGBT weekly newspaper of the District of Columbia metropolitan area, wrote an article about DignityUSA releasing a new set of guidelines for lesbian and gay couples preparing for a marriage ritual referred to as a Holy Union (which at the time would not have been a legally binding ceremony).  The news article explains:

“At its national convention last week, Dignity released its guidelines for the holy union of same-sex couples.  The guidelines, which also include a registry of couples that have joined in a ho9ly union, stemmed from a two-year research effort.”

Peggy Hayes, who was then a DignityUSA board member and currently the organization’s Operations Manager, explained a bit of the rationale for issuing the guidelines:

“We’d love the Catholic Church to bless our unions, but we’re not going to wait for them.  We believe that Gay and Lesbian couples can express their love for each other. . . Many of the chapters were looking for guidelines and the task force put together some sample services, ince all the chapters do the services differently.”

According to DignityUSA’s current website, the guidelines, known as “The Couples Ministry Resource Guide,” was produced by the organization’s Couple’s Ministry Task Force, comprised of one couple from each of the organization’s seven regions. One of the task force’s first activities was to conduct a survey about “the needs and desires of the local chapters with regard to Holy Unions.”

In addition to establishing rules for eligibility of a couple for a Holy Union ceremony, resources for preparing the ceremony, and ways to support couples both before and after their commitment, the document also established an official registry of couples.  The document describes the need such a record:

“In its effort to support and validate committed relationships, DignityUSA has established a National Registry of Holy Unions. This registry is part of Dignity’s commitment to recognizing and honoring couples who have made a decision to have a Holy Union that satisfies the Holy Union Guidelines set forth in this resource guide. It is also documentation that we, as lesbian, gay, bisexual and, transgender people, do have and desire long-term monogamous relationships that are consonant with Christ’s teaching and Christian values, and are loving, life-giving, and life affirming.”

The guidelines were released at DignityUSA’s national convention in Boston in July 1997, which was entitled “We are called. . .Prophets to the World.”   In the Blade article, Marianne Duddy-Burke, who was then the outgoing President and is currently the Executive Director commented:

“The conference was very energizing and empowering.  We want to answer the question, “What is the unique role of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered Catholics to the world?’ “

In religious contexts, we usually think of a prophet as someone who calls a community to live up to their ideals of justice.   In more common parlance, a prophet is sometimes thought of as someone who can predict the future.  In the case of DignityUSA’s guidelines on Holy Unions, the organization was a prophet in both senses of the word:  they reminded the Catholic community of its responsibility to act justly towards lesbian and gay couples, and they envisioned a world in which same-gender couples would one day be recognized by the world.

Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, August 27, 2017

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