Detroit Families Group Will Continue Its Ministry Separate From National Network

The Fortunate Families group in Detroit, which was recently banned by the Archdiocese of Detroit, has announced that despite this setback they will continue their ministry for LGBTQ+ people and their families. To minister in the manner they discerned to be best, the group is severing ties with Fortunate Families, Inc., a national ministry to which they had been connected. This situation illustrates a tension that exists in LGBTQ ministry with regard to whether a group chooses to express their dissenting views on the church’s sexual ethics teaching or to minister while remaining neutral or expressing support for the church’s teaching on sexual ethics.

Members of Fortunate Families Detroit staff an exhibit booth at Motor City Pride in 2015.

On July 15th, the Detroit group released a press statement which said, in part:

“ ‘We will not be silenced,’ said Linda Karle-Nelson, 80, founder of the group along with her husband, Tom Nelson, 90. ‘It is our duty as baptized Christians to speak out on behalf of our loved ones and for their full inclusion in the Catholic Church.’

“As baptized Christians we are certainly part of the Church, and we will continue to meet with Catholic LGBTQ+ persons and families. We will celebrate God’s acceptance of all our kin in all our variations, just as we are created. We will gather, support one another, and share our stories.”

In a mission statement approved by its members, the group as a whole declared, “The people in Fortunate Families Detroit love and respect the Catholic Church. We are deeply troubled, however, by the Church’s approach to our LGBTQ+ community. As people of faith, we cannot remain silent when damaging labels such as ‘intrinsically disordered’ and ‘objectively disordered’ (and the teachings and behaviors that result from use of this language) are promoted by many in Catholic leadership. This destructive language persists in the Detroit Archdiocesan literature in firm opposition to the long-standing consensus of scientific research and clinical literature, which asserts that LGBTQ+ individuals represent normal, healthy aspects of human sexuality and human bonding [boldface emphasis in original-.The hurtful language wounds us because we know that we are, and have always been, one before our Creator.”

The statement continued by citing the “termination of beloved teachers and church employees, spiritual abandonment, the breakup of families trying to follow Church teaching, internalized shame, blatant homophobia and transphobia, discrimination and oppression.”

While the group will continue their ministry in Detroit, the group’s mission statement provoked a disagreement with Fortunate Families, Inc., based in Lexington, Kentucky, Karle-Nelson said:

“While the time for speaking our truth has never been more urgent, our emboldened voice has created division with Fortunate Families, Inc. As a group, we are taking time to build our future and explore a new name and affiliation. We respect Fortunate Families Inc.’s desire to build bridges from LGBTQ+ and marginalized people to the institutional Catholic Church. However, we need to speak our unencumbered truth.”

On the same day that the Detroit group released their statement, Fortunate Families, Inc., released the following statement on their Facebook page and website:

“The group formerly known as Fortunate Families Detroit has discerned to move forward with their own method of approaching the present challenges with the leadership of the Archdiocese of Detroit. Unfortunately, their method is inconsistent with the approach of Fortunate Families, Inc.

“The group formerly known as Fortunate Family Detroit has been instructed to delete “Fortunate Families” from its name and is no longer affiliated with Fortunate Families, Inc., a Catholic Family, Friends & Allies Ministry, supporting LGBTQ+ sisters and brothers by facilitating respectful conversation with bishops, pastors and Church leadership, through sharing personal stories and by working to establish intentional Catholic LGBTQ+ Ministry Sites in dioceses, parishes, educational institutions, and communities. Fortunate Families, Inc. remains committed to engaging in our ministry within the Archdiocese of Detroit and supporting LGBTQ+ persons, their families and friends.”

On May 28, 2020, the National Catholic Reporter  ran a news story about the Archdiocese’s prohibition against the Detroit group. In that story, there was some evidence  that the local chapter and the national organization had different points of view.  The news story quoted Karle-Nelson, saying “We don’t believe every LGBT person needs to be celibate.”

JR Zerkowski

The same story reported on public comments of Stanley Francis “J.R.” Zerkowski, Executive Director of Fortunate Families’ national office:

“ ‘I would want to straighten out the misimpression that we were operating outside of Catholic teaching,’ he said, noting the group has no position on volatile issues such as same-sex marriage, and sees itself as a bridge between friends and family of gay people and the church. “

In my experience of several decades of Catholic LGBTQ ministry, I have found that parents and family members are strong witnesses to the sacredness of LGBTQ people and their relationships.  In Christianity, the dominant metaphor of God’s unconditional love for humanity is that of a parent’s love for a child.  The bond between a parent and child is sacred. Parents are willing to sacrifice intensely for the love of their children. A theological axiom states, “Grace builds on nature.” So should not the church be open to accept the grace that builds upon a parent’s love for a child?

The journey of acceptance that a parent goes through when learning of a child’s LGBTQ identity is the same journey that the entire church must undergo. Parents can teach the church better than anyone about fully accepting and respecting LGBTQ people.

Like many prophets of the Old Testament, parents often initially would rather not have to deal with the news of a child’s LGBTQ identity. The news is often world-changing for them, and the status quo is a much more comfortable place. But eventually, they come to accept the role to which God has called them. When they do so, they often become the most ardent prophetic voices, calling society, the Church, and civic leaders to honor and respect God’s beautiful creation that is their child. Many have risked places of leadership in Church circles because of their prophetic message, but, like the Old Testament prophets, they will not be silenced.

I have also met many pastoral ministers who work diligently to provide a welcome to LGBTQ people, but feel constrained in doing so by current church teaching on sexual ethics or by other issues of controversy in the Church regarding LGBTQ issues.  These ministers have worked creatively to find ways to send positive and affirming messages to LGBTQ people while refraining from offering their personal opinions on controversial Catholic LGBTQ topics.

Additionally, some pastoral ministers do not feel constrained by the church’s teaching on sexual ethics and feel that they can minister comfortably within those parameters.

Much good work has emanated from both of these groups of ministers.  Many people have felt more welcomed and affirmed by the Church because of the work that they do.

The situation of the Detroit Fortunate Families group, the Archdiocese of Detroit, and the national organization of Fortunate Families is an example of a very old tension that people who care about Catholic LGBTQ issues must resolve.  Finding one’s place within this tension often means answering several types of questions:

  1. If you are engaged in ministry with or on behalf of the LGBTQ community, should you challenge, remain neutral, or support the church’s teaching on sexual ethics?
  2. Is it possible to be prophetic while operating within the institution?
  3. Does prophetic ministry have a role in the Church?
  4. If it does, what limits, if any, should be placed on prophetic ministry?
  5. Where does one draw the lines between submission, accommodation, and opposition to structures and language that many call unjust, hurtful, harmful, demeaning?
  6. Is there an imperative to speak out on all issues concerning LGBTQ topics or can some issues be avoided?
  7. Is it possible to do ministry if one disagrees with the church’s teaching on sexual ethics?
  8. If one disagrees with the sexual ethics teaching, is it permissible to stay silent about dissent while carrying out ministry?

Please share your answers to these questions, or any other thoughts you may have about this situation, in the “Comments” section of this blog post.

Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, July 22, 2020

If you are interested in learning more about Catholic LGBTQ parish ministry, sign up for New Ways Ministry’s online series, Next Steps: Developing Catholic LGBTQ Ministry.  The series is designed for you to work at your own pace to develop ideas for helping your Catholic faith community start or further develop LGBTQ ministry projects and programs.

14 replies
  1. Henry Mascotte
    Henry Mascotte says:

    My understanding of the OT prophet is to speak truth to power. Some in leadership in the Church are not listening to the truth lived out in LGBTQ lives.

  2. Loretta
    Loretta says:

    When I was a child, and did something that my parents did not approve, I was ignored.
    I am saddened, surprised, and disappointed that Fortunate Families, Inc., ignores officially the reality that members within FF have sons and daughters who are married and are parents. Ignoring does not pretend a person does not exist; rather, it says, “you are not worthy of my recognition.”
    FF is thus saying compromising the reality of our married sons and daughters is more important than acknowledging the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. And for what, to appease the hierarchy?

  3. Charlie Sears
    Charlie Sears says:

    Jesus did not hesitate to name as “hypocrites” and “white sepulchers” those who laid unnecessary burdens on people that that sought God. His overturning the tables in the temple is an apt metaphor for “speaking truth to power.” As Walter Brueggemann has written, we have an obligation to “interrupt the silence. “

  4. Sarasi
    Sarasi says:

    The Detroit group correctly describes the “long-standing consensus of scientific research and clinical literature, which asserts that LGBTQ+ individuals represent normal, healthy aspects of human sexuality and human bonding.”

    If it were any other institution, the church hierarchy wouldn’t be able to get away with ignoring the fundamentals or making up their own science, which they keep calling Christian anthropology.

    Unfortunately, there is no sea change among the hierarchy regarding this subject outside of Germany or maybe Switzerland (notably, it was a German-speaking diocese that recently endorsed blessings for same-sex unions) so that the effect of pushing back or even just arguing for WWJD rarely results in an invitation to genuine dialogue. No one can make them confront the issue; the laity simply does not have the power to force this reckoning.

    For this reason I believe the workaround chosen by the Detroit group is the best one. I also appreciate the term “prophetic ministry”. A resounding “yes” to questions 2, 3 and 7; a resounding “no” to 8. The other questions could be answered in different ways depending on the context.

  5. William I Brown
    William I Brown says:

    My pastor and I formed a support group for parents of gays about six years ago at our parish and it is still meeting, tho we were asked to not meet on church grounds. I think what is missed by the Church is that the Church, like so many of us, is on a journey of Faith and as on any journey, the scenery changes. Unknown to Catholics are the many changes of teachings have occurred over the centuries, after major discussions and disagreements; and despite those changes, the Church lives on as the One Holy Catholic Church. We are in the midst of another monumental change when it comes to the teachings of the Church about human sexuality. The Church has been mired in the dark views of human sexuality dating back to the fourth century. now, with the emergence and acceptance of gay love, the Church is back on its journey to take a look at human sexuality. I am reminded of the momentous change around the theological teaching that Earth was the center of the universe. It took over a century for the Church to acknowledge that the sun was the center. The Church continued on its journey with such a theological change and remained the One Holy Catholic Church. And here we go again, with human sexuality, a deeply complicated subject going well being binary thinking. Sadly, it will take another century to develop the teaching around human sexuality. In the meantime, it becomes our obligation to embrace our fellow human beings who do not fit into the teachings of the Church, as Jesus taught us to embrace (the tax collector, the woman at the well; no wonder Jesus got murdered!) while the Church sorts out what this human sexuality is all about and completes another critical part of Her journey.

    • John Hilgeman
      John Hilgeman says:

      The first thing I thought of when I read your words – “My pastor and I formed a support group for parents of gays about six years ago at our parish and it is still meeting, tho we were asked to not meet on church grounds…” – was that the people are the church. Wherever the people meet, they are on church grounds. So though you were asked not to meet on the grounds owned by the institution, you create your own church grounds wherever you meet.

  6. Michael Evernden
    Michael Evernden says:

    I am so tired looking at this face of the Church. We’ve been dancing around this issue for decades. There is one important name missing in the article – Jesus – and that’s the problem. It is all about the institution and its very distorted view of sexuality. The institution is just dead wrong – there is no way around it. I can’t imagine Jesus ever having a discussion like this one – trying to figure out who’s acceptable and who’s not.

  7. Annette Magjuka
    Annette Magjuka says:

    It’s time to stand and be counted. Should the church all LGBTQ people “intrinsically disordered”? Of course not. Should the church define all intimate contact between two loving adults as a sin? Of course not. Should the church fire beloved LGBTQ employees and their supporters? Of course not. Should LGBTQ people be able to receive all sacraments, including matrimony? Of course. Should the church marginalize, diminish, name call, and scapegoat LGBTQ people? No. Should the faithful stay silent in the face of said marginalization, diminishment, bullying, and scapegoating? Of course not. Begging bullies to “please stop” doesn’t work. Waiting for bullies to have a change of heart does not work. The time is now to stop
    Being complicit with the discrimination. It is time to stop
    Trying to “stay within the letter of the (bullies’) law.” The bully bishops must stop the bullying. The faithful must stop being silent and complicit.

  8. Keith Henry
    Keith Henry says:

    I appreciate Frank’s eight questions. Here’s how I would answer them.

    (1) I don’t think it is helpful to frame the church’s teaching on sexual ethics negatively. One side tends to say, “The teaching means XYZ are banned,” and the other side, “The teaching needs to change.” I support the church’s teaching on sexual ethics, because it’s a beautiful and rich tradition. It’s prophetic. It’s liberating. It sets us apart from secular culture and even from most Protestants. We should explore our Catholic identity, not weaponize it.

    (2) The difference between prophecy and dissent? A prophet calls out leaders who compromise Church teaching; a dissenter rejects the teaching. (3) This is the role of prophetic ministry in the Church. Both sides of Fortunate Families are being prophetic. All are dissatisfied that Church teaching on LGBTQ families is being misrepresented. (4) Such prophetic ministries will thrive to the extent that their words and deeds reflect the mind of the Church. It’s unfortunate that Archbishop Vigneron has been able to portray Fortunate Families as dissenters. It is the perception of dissent that limits such ministries. Breaking the constraint, and winning the support (or mere tolerance) of the archbishop is a task of re-branding.

    (5) Hurtful, harmful and demeaning language are not Church teaching, but awkward language can be found. Unfortunately, the playbooks of certain bishops contain tactics for using awkward language in ways that distort the truth rather than inspire. “Objectively disordered” is, with skill and grace and a Catholic understanding of Aristotelean virtue theory, the beginning of a conversation about the many benevolent “objects” and well-“ordered” elements of LGBTQ lives. When we draw lines around our ministry to accommodate awkwardness, we can do it in a way that serves to illuminate.

    (6) We also have a habit of making “issues,” when LGBTQ lives bump up against awkwardness in the Church. I hope we focus on people first. It’s awkward when a gay couple approaches the parish for a blessing after their civil marriage, for example. Any pastor worth his salt will welcome that couple in a way that is appropriate to the circumstances and sensitive to their situation and avoid making an issue of anything. (7) This is true even of a pastor who disagreed with Church teaching. An issue would result if a homophobic pastor refused to engage them, or if a dissenting pastor insisted on offering a sacramental same-sex marriage. (8) LGBTQ ministry is done in the name of the Church. Discretion in sharing our personal opinions about issues is helpful, since focus should be on serving those to whom we minister.

  9. A. Perez
    A. Perez says:

    1. If you are engaged in ministry with or on behalf of the LGBTQ community, you must challenge any teachings which depart from the truth and are fundamentally harmful to the LGBTQ community. Intentionally teaching falsehoods to vulnerable souls seeking guidance is the precise antithesis of ministry. Plus, the internalization of negative messages is a major problem among LGBTQ people. Therefore, if you support negative messages from the church, it does not simply impact LGBT people. It often becomes *part* of them. In the absence of true guidance, these negative messages will color their understanding of themselves, their role of the church, and their relationship with God. I don’t think that is the kind of faith formation you want in LGBTQ ministry.
    2. Perhaps. Prophetic ministry, by definition, comes from beyond the bounds of the functioning of the church. It often serves as a wake-up call or alarm bell regarding problems which can cause the church to steer away from the right path. Prophetic ministry serves to direct the church, and so can not follow the church’s direction. However, prophetic ministry can operate within an institution if it serves as a guiding force towards change.
    3. Always. Prophetic ministry was the entirety of Jesus’ mission on earth. It is nothing more and nothing less than God’s direct instruction to the church and to humanity, especially when other forms of communication have failed.
    4. None. Prophetic ministry comes from God, and it is His own message. It can not be diminished or censored to suit the needs of people in the church.
    5. Submission and accommodation may defer conflicts, but they are never good options. When it comes to injustice, the greatest harm is not committed by the minority who are hostile. It is committed by the majority who are silent and complacent. Enabling those who are content to turn a blind eye to their neighbor’s suffering is fundamentally detrimental. It is also unfair to them, because it gives the wrong impression that they are justified in their behavior and robs them of an opportunity to change.
    6. Issues can be prioritized. It is not wise to fight on too many fronts. Also, it is reasonable to specialize in one particular issue. But they can’t be avoided. Issues pertaining to fundamental human rights and dignity can never be avoided. Plus, the harm that they do will not cease simply because you don’t want to confront them.
    7. Yes. Catholic leadership has been grossly negligent in seeking out spiritual truths regarding LGBTQ people – on purpose – despite the fact that it creates widespread confusion among LGBTQ and cisgender heterosexual Catholics alike. This in and of itself is a severe form of oppression. However, a minister is not responsible for that negligence. On the contrary, ministers are often called to fill in the gaps and make sure the spiritual needs of LGBTQ people are met when the church has failed to do so. They care for the sheep who have been left behind.
    8. No, you can’t. The primary reason LGBTQ Catholics would come to a ministry is to seek guidance on how to manage the polarity between their faith and their identity. You can not help them if you are not willing to confront this issue within yourself.

  10. Rev. Steve Wolf
    Rev. Steve Wolf says:

    One of my favorite understandings of prophecy is when the present is so accurately described that it becomes obvious what is going to happen. The deposit of faith does not change, but the way we articulate the deposit of faith develops over time, and we call that “development of doctrine.” And so from time to time a particular teaching of the church will be correct but still incomplete. My heart breaks when Catholics are disrespected in the faithful following of their conscience. But I take solace in the awareness that most development of doctrine has happened after faithful Catholics have patiently followed their conscience. The sciences and our young people have been telling church leaders that these teachings are incomplete, and they are ignored. For how long? For how long?


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