Dignity USA celebrated its 50th anniversary with a conference over July 4th weekend, a moment in which many members reflected on not only the organization’s past but its future as well.
Dignity members and friends from all over the country attended the Chicago gathering, titled “True to Ourselves, True to the Spirit,” to honor what the National Catholic Reporter (NCR) described as the organization’s “challenging but hope-filled five decades.” Theologian Mary Hunt, one of the keynote speakers, said the conference was a moment for “rejoicing” because Dignity members had helped shift Catholic attitudes. “People in the church went from seeing same-sex love as something unspeakable and sinful to now being rather normative and mainstream,” said Hunt.
Getting to this point, however, has involved a complicated history since it was founded in 1969 by Augustinian Fr. Patrick Nidorf. A part of Dignity’s work has been an attempt to dialogue within the institutional church, but there has been tremendous resistance on the part of the hierarchy.
One moment that had a profound effect on Dignity members was the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s 1986 “Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons.” While not mentioning Dignity explicitly, the document motivated many bishops to expel the organization’s chapters from church properties where they had been meeting. Jeffrey Stone, the organization’s media relations director, told NCR the letter was “cruel”:
“Dignity had frequently been isolated, demeaned and attacked for its Catholic identity by secular LGBTQ groups, Stone said, offering context for the ’86 letter reaction. ‘The reason is that many LGBTQI individuals never had a good experience with religion. Because of the Vatican statement, Dignity took a tremendous hit. Dignity had welcomed LGBTQI Catholics and was a unique haven for them.’ . . .Being expelled by the church became even more painful in the ’90s at the height of the AIDS crisis, Stone added. Dignity members died of AIDS feeling that they had been rejected by the church.”
But despite the challenges, today’s Dignity members are planning for a bright future and spent much of the conference’s final day in small groups discussing just that. NCR reported:
“At tables of eight to 10, Dignity participants, including many from its Young Adult Caucus, discussed and shared ideas about what it will mean to be a voice for future LGBTQ Catholics and how they could help to create welcoming faith communities for all gender identities and all kinds of families. They pooled ideas about how Dignity could become a stronger national resource for LGBTQ concerns. They talked and prayed about developing new generations of Dignity leaders.
“[Duddy-Burke commented,] ‘Our young members are trying to figure out how they will keep their faith as they start families of their own. The issues are some of the same things that we’ve been dealing with for the past 50 years.'”
These conference discussions were grounded in a much longer process of reflection carried out by DignityUSA beginning in fall 2017. “Jubilee Discussions” invited members nationwide to reflect on lessons from the past, realities of the present, and hopes for the future. To learn more about this process, click here.
One final item from the conference was an 18-minute video, “In Our Own Words: 50 Years of DignityUSA” that was screened. You can view it below or by clicking here.
Congratulations to DignityUSA’s members for a successful jubilee celebration and an inspiring fifty years!
—Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, July 30, 2019