LGBT groups continue valuable work, despite losing space during World Meeting

Editor's note: Jamie Manson is working on several projects over this summer. Jamie has invited NCR Today contributor Kelly Stewart to fill in for her during the weeks that she is particularly busy.

In the lead up to next month's World Meeting of Families (WMOF) in Philadelphia, progressive Catholic corners of the Internet have lit up with news about the presence (or not) of LGBT voices at the meeting. The news has usually been disheartening, if unsurprising. This week's news was no exception.

On Monday Aug. 17, New Ways Ministry and Equally Blessed (a coalition of New Ways Ministry, Call to Action, DignityUSA, and Fortunate Families) learned that the Philadelphia archdiocese would not permit them to use St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church during the WMOF, as previously planned. New Ways and Equally Blessed had arranged for hospitality at the church for a group of 14 families with LGBT members. They had also planned to host a gender identity workshop and other programming at the parish.

The Philadelphia Inquirer reported Aug. 17 that archdiocesan administrators "had looked into the programming and provided guidance but that the final decision on use of space at St. John's was made by the parish." According to New Ways Ministry, "The Moderator of the Curia of the archdiocese phoned the parish's pastor, Fr. John Daya, OFM Cap, to tell him that the archbishop had seen a brochure for the program and did not want it to take place. Fr. Daya informed New Ways Ministry of the decision."

Now that the group has been ejected, they are working to move programming to Arch Street United Methodist Church.

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Both Equally Blessed and New Ways released statements on Tuesday expressing disappointment and frustration with the archdiocese's decision. Both statements noted the absence of any discussion of gender identity or any "realistic presentation about the reality of LGBT Catholics and our families" from WMOF programming.

Further, the statement from Equally Blessed connected their recent eviction by the archdiocese to the long history of bishops barring LGBT Catholics and supporters from "our own Churches, retreat centers and colleges." This decades-old pattern has emerged time and again in the months leading up to the meeting.

In May, Mary Beth Yount, Director of Content and Programming for WMOF, rejected the exhibitor application of Fortunate Families, a group for Catholic parents who "affirm, celebrate and seek equality for" their LGBT children. Meanwhile, the WMOF accepted the exhibitor application of Courage, a Catholic 12-step program that promotes celibacy for gays and lesbians.

In June, Archbishop Charles Chaput stated that "people who have experienced same-sex attraction" were welcome to attend the meeting, but the WMOF would not "provide a platform for people to lobby for a position contrary to the life of the Church." Ron Belgau, a gay Catholic man who practices and advocates celibacy in obedience to official teaching, will give the meeting's only LGBT-themed presentation.

The leaders of the WMOF and the Philadelphia archdiocese had already made clear that progressive LGBT voices would not be welcome at the meeting. This week's eviction news was -- please forgive the joke -- the "strawberry on the cake."

Throughout all of this, New Ways, Equally Blessed, and other LGBT Catholic activists have made sure that their exclusion from the meeting also yielded opportunities: to highlight the heterosexism of the WMOF agenda; to draw attention to the hierarchy's history of silencing, or attempting to silence, LGBT voices; to discuss the discrepancies between official teaching and what many U.S. Catholics believe and practice; and to bring discussions of gender identity and sexuality in Catholicism to religious and secular media.

Even so, there is a danger in talking about the "opportunities" afforded by exclusion. I do not mean to minimize the seriousness of institutional homophobia or to suggest that progressive Catholics search for "silver linings" in the grim picture that is the WMOF 2015 event agenda. My point is that, even when they have been barred from participation in the meeting or forced to relocate from Catholic to Protestant churches, LGBT Catholic groups have still helped shape conversations about family, sexuality, and gender identity in valuable ways.

Still, I wish I were hearing more discussion of whether the WMOF is something LGBT and other progressive Catholic folks ultimately want to take part in.

To the extent that the WMOF is a forum for discussing the lives of Catholic families, LGBT families should, of course, be able to participate fully. But to the extent that the WMOF is a rally to defend the patriarchal ideal of family against the specters of feminism and homosexuality, LGBT Catholics might want to consider embracing their outsider status.

The WMOF was Pope John Paul II's idea and began during his pontificate, and it should be understood in the context of his larger body of work on the family. This body of work includes the Theology of the Body, Mulieris Dignitatem, and the infamous "Letter to Women," with their celebrations of "gender complementarity" and sacrificial motherhood. It includes Evangelium Vitae and the intensification of Catholic anti-abortion rhetoric and politics. And it includes Ordinatio Sacerdotalis and the increasing severity with which the magisterium punished advocates of women's ordination.

This body of work on the family was part of the decades-long conservative Catholic backlash -- against feminism, gay liberation, and aspects of the Second Vatican Council -- that John Paul both represented and led.

The backlash is ongoing, and the WMOF remains a part of it. The themes that dominate WMOF documents and event agendas overwhelmingly focus on "pelvic orthodoxy" and often deploy rhetorics of threat. The threats of abortion and contraception to authentic married sexuality. The threats of divorce and so-called "de facto" unions to family stability. The threat of homosexuality to heterosexual marriage. The threat of "an anti-family feminist agenda" to the family's survival.

The WMOF may be dedicated to celebrating, understanding, or helping families. And it is important and valuable for LGBT Catholic groups to seek fuller participation in WMOF events.

The WMOF is also dedicated to defending the privileged status of a narrow, patriarchal ideal of family against the outside "threats" of feminist and LGBT theology and politics. LGBT Catholics and the people who care about them should consider embracing their position as outsiders -- and the possibilities that position holds for building more just, respectful, and equitable models of relationships.

[Kelly Stewart earned her Master of Arts in Religion at Yale Divinity School, where she studied feminist and queer theory and Catholic sexual and reproductive ethics.]

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