Today’s blog post is by guest bloggers Casey and Mary Ellen Lopata, founders of Fortunate Families, a ministry with Catholic parents seeking justice for their LGBT daughters and sons in Church and society. Casey has an MDiv, and Mary Ellen an MA in Liberal Studies focusing on homosexuality and the family. They have four children (one is gay), grandparents of 11 (one is transgender), and Godparents of two sons of a loving, married gay couple. The Lopatas were consultors to the developers of Always Our Children. New Ways Ministry presented them with its Bridge Building Award in 2005.
Today’s post is adapted from a workshop on Always Our Children at the July 2017 DignityUSA Conference in Boston.
Twenty years ago today, on October 1, 1997, the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Marriage and Family issued Always Our Children: A Pastoral Message to Parents of Homosexual Children AND Suggestions for Pastoral Ministers (AOC). This document was long overdue given the pastoral damage caused by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s (CDF) 1986 letter, On the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons. The harmful language in the 1980s document — e.g. newly characterizing a homosexual orientation as an “objective disorder” — still arouses rage in many people.
After 1986, advocates slowly began to challenge the CDF’s soul-sapping letter. Of significance was the 1992 New Ways Ministry Symposium. There, Bishop Tom Gumbleton told of his mother asking if her gay son, Dan, would go to hell. Gumbleton replied: “No…. That is the way God made him, and God wouldn’t make people a certain way that means inevitably they’re going to hell.”
In 1993, New Ways Ministry wrote to Gumbleton saying it was time “to study, discuss, and draft a document on gay and lesbian issues as they relate to family life.” Gumbleton, with 13 other bishops, officially proposed this to the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Marriage and Family, and the project that would culminate in Always Our Children was born.
As consultors, we provided initial input during the document’s preparation and we commented on a draft. Understanding that the bishops were limited in their purpose– to reach out to parents based on the “Church’s teaching” and to not “break any new ground theologically” — we were still elated when the final draft was issued. To the New York Times Mary Ellen said: “… many parents struggle with the conflict between loving their child and their understanding that church teaching condemns their child. For them to hear the bishops say to love their child first…can go a long way to help them resolve those conflicts and begin some healing.” We know many parents shed tears of reassurance and hopefulness upon reading the bishops’ closing words: “to our homosexual brothers and sisters…. In you God’s love is revealed.”
The National Catholic Reporter stated: “Parents and activists generally welcomed…[AOC] for its appeal to parents to place support of gay and lesbian children first, above moral condemnation of homosexual activity….”
The Bishops’ Conference reported more than 500 letters were received expressing support and gratitude. No more than 50 criticized and found fault with AOC.
However, strong protests from supporters of Courage, a Catholic ministry which views a gay and lesbian orientation as a defect, resulted in AOC being reissued in June 1998 with several modifications. The Committee reported: “The core message, tone, and direction… remain the same….the [CDF] has reviewed [it] and… is satisfied with the result.” But to LGBTQ advocates, adding footnotes citing Church documents that call homosexual orientation a disorder and say sexual orientation can be taken into account in opposing nondiscrimination legislation significantly diluted AOC’s intent “to speak words of faith, hope, and love to parents who need the Church’s loving presence…” Also, a description of sexual orientation as a “fundamental” dimension of a person was changed to “deep-seated.” This change discredited actual gay and lesbian experiences.
These changes compounded AOC’s original shortfalls:
1) no mention of Catholic teaching on the primacy of conscience and how it can and does save families and lives
2) the institutional Church’s failure to promote the statement.
Despite these issues, AOC was and still is significant for these reasons:
- SILENCE BROKEN. Major media coverage of the document shattered silence in the Church about homosexuality. AOC humanized this “issue” that is too often buried in theological jargon and abstract rules.
- BEST POSSIBLE. Despite zealous opposition from Courage, enough dedicated gay-supportive bishops
- had enough savvy to produce the best possible document at that time.
- GAY-FRIENDLIEST/INVALUABLE. Arguably the most gay-friendly official document from the U.S. bishops or Vatican, AOC’s overall tone and its sensitive language send a powerful message. An affirmative pastoral ministry tool for parents, church ministers and allies, AOC’s welcoming pastoral focus continues to challenge the doctrinal severity of the institutional Church.
- VATICAN “SATISFIED”. Of major significance, the CDF said it is “satisfied” with the modified 3rd In effect, AOC now conveys the influence of a CDF document.
- EMPOWERED PARENTS/MINISTERS. By our count, the “official” recommendations enabled parents, ministers, allies to begin and enhance at least 76 ministries (not counting Dignity chapters) during these 20 years. AOC’s official language and compelling quotes provided a foundational support for these ministries.
AOC was a significant response to the heartlessness of the CDF’s 1986 letter. Strategically developed by some courageous bishops and staff, AOC’s tone and message is reminiscent of the 1976 U.S. Bishops Call To Action Conference that prophetically called for justice for homosexual persons. Despite a passive launch by most bishops and strong criticism from Courage, AOC’s compassionate, pastoral approach has inspired and has empowered many supportive ministries. Today, AOC lives comfortably in the Catholic world of Pope Francis.
—Casey and Mary Ellen Lopata, October 1, 2017