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.
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.”
“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.”
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:
- 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?
- Is it possible to be prophetic while operating within the institution?
- Does prophetic ministry have a role in the Church?
- If it does, what limits, if any, should be placed on prophetic ministry?
- Where does one draw the lines between submission, accommodation, and opposition to structures and language that many call unjust, hurtful, harmful, demeaning?
- Is there an imperative to speak out on all issues concerning LGBTQ topics or can some issues be avoided?
- Is it possible to do ministry if one disagrees with the church’s teaching on sexual ethics?
- 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.