Australian Catholics Host First LGBTQ National Symposium in 30 Years

For the first time in 30 years, Catholic organizers across Australia convened a national symposium on LGBTQ+ pastoral care to discuss ways that organizers can better serve LGBTQ+ Catholic communities.

In a press release posted on the Global Network of Rainbow Catholics’ website, the organizers shared their goals for the historic weekend, including a hope for “greater momentum for better ministry, where the spiritual well-being and health of LGBTQIA+ Catholics, their families and communities will be properly cared for and addressed.” 

The theme guiding participants was “I am about to do a new thing,” drawing from scriptural wisdom and a papal message of anti-discrimination. The press release quotes Pope Francis’ remarks that “The goodness of God has no limits and discriminates against no one. Because of this, the banquet of the Lord’s gifts is universal, for everyone.”

During the January 31 – February 1 summit, held in Sydney, pastoral leaders discussed ways that they could reach the ‘existential peripheries’ of their ministry, “where pain, suffering, [and] healing alongside great faith and new ways of flourishing is being found.” 

Hosted by Rainbow Catholics InterAgency for Ministry, other groups represented at the conference included Acceptance Sydney, Inclusive Parishes & Schools Working Group, Supportive Catholics’ Parents and Families Network, and Australian Catholics for Equality, as well as individual diocesan priests, sisters, pastoral organizers, and youth leaders.  

The keynote address was given by renowned social justice advocate Sr. Susan Connelly, RSJ. Titled Scapegoating: Pointing the Finger of Blame, the talk covered the philosophical and anthropological work of René Girard whose vision helped the participants to “speak of the way scapegoating deflects issues and anesthetizes communities against systemic erasure, invisibility and discrimination.”

The last time such a conference was held in Australia was in 1990. Joey (only first names were provided in the press release), a committee member from Acceptance Sydney, notes that the earlier conference  “was at the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, of which pastoral groups such as Acceptance chapters around the country were pivotal to the response and care of those most affected by it.” 

Today’s needs have shifted considerably. Benjamin, the co-chair of host organization Rainbow Catholics InterAgency for Ministry, notes that in the years since “much has changed in the understanding and attitude of Australian Catholics which can be seen in the growing number of Catholic churches who are not just inclusive and welcoming of LGBTQIA+ Catholics, but also affirming of their diverse stories, realities, gifts and experiences.”

The symposium also comes ahead of October 2020’s Australian Catholic Church Plenary Council, the country’s first since Vatican II. As pastoral leaders prepare for the larger conversations surrounding church ‘reform and renewal,’ they are working to keep issues of LGBTQ+ justice at the forefront. 

In 2017, Australia voted for marriage equality, with a large number of Catholics joining the majority of the country in affirming the new legislation. Francis, a co-convener of the Inclusive Parishes and Schools Working Group, noted that “Catholics were the single largest religious population who supported marriage equality,” and argued that this showed an ethical consistency: “Australian Catholics voted Yes to civil marriage equality, not despite, but because of, their faith and values. Like the majority of Australians, we wanted to see our LGBTI family members and friends marry the person they love.”

While civil marriage equality is law across Australia, many LGBTQ+ Catholics still have reason to fear for their rights and well-being in church spaces. Father Peter, a diocesan priest, reports that a lesbian couple was denied the ability to baptize their child “because they were married under civil law, and that their child was an act of abomination. Luckily, with some persistence, they found a very affirming Catholic church and pastor through one of our groups and have been able to hear from that traumatic encounter and continue to live out their faith.” 

Paul, a member of a diocesan pastoral group and long-time Catholic educator, worries that his job may be in jeopardy if people discover his civil marriage to his partner of 20 years. He said, “I have taught wonderful students who have left school, married, and are now in full-time work and ministry in the church, yet I face being fired for whom I love.”

Civil laws are indeed a great win, but these do not reflect the workings of the institutional church, nor are they enforced in many local communities. Sue, Co-Convenor of the Supportive Catholics’ Parents and Families Network, shared her perspective: 

“Whilst positive law reforms now reflect the Australian community’s recognition of the historical injustices and current challenges faced by LGBTQIA community members, parts of the institutional church have not adequately responded to established scientific understanding or the pastoral needs of LGBTQIA Catholics and our families.” 

On a more local level, young people are increasingly recognizing the need for fuller support in their parish communities. Says Jas, an active youth leader: 

“I am heartened by Pope Francis’ message on social justice, climate ecological justice, and his seemingly pastoral sensitivity toward LGBT people, but his message is not taken seriously by my local bishop or my parish community. They continue to demonize me as a young queer Catholic, and I am scared of what will happen if I come out as transgender and bisexual.”

Jas is not alone in this worry. Mary, a pastoral organizer in Western Australia, shared: 

“As someone who works in youth ministry, I am deeply concerned about the mental and spiritual health of LGBTQIA+ Catholic youth I work with. Some of them tell me how some church leaders’ anti-LGBTQIA messages get repeated by their parents and family members, and how badly it affects them.”

As Australian Catholic leaders prepare for their 2020 Plenary Council, we hope that the efforts of all participants in this symposium can provide a framework for placing the needs of LGBTQ+ Catholics at the forefront of pastoral care initiatives. Beyond this, though, the unity shown by so many members of Australia’s Catholic community during this weekend is a bright light for the future of LGBTQ+ activism in the country. 

Catherine Buck, New Ways Ministry, February 12, 2020

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