DignityUSA: A show of fidelity

by Tom Roberts

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Much has been made in recent months of the enormous drain of members from the Roman Catholic Church in the United States in recent decades. The estimated 28 million who have left for an array of reasons would constitute, taken together, the second largest denomination in the country after Catholics who remain.

That statistic occurred to me last Saturday as I sat as one of four panelists during a segment of DignityUSA’s 20th national convention in Washington. Dignity is the major organization of Catholic lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Catholics as well as their friends, families and other allies.

During Independence Day weekend more than 300 gathered at the Renaissance Hotel in Washington for a convention headlined “Love Hopes All Things.”

Hope, indeed, must be the motivation here. The massive number of ex-Catholics occurred to me as I sat on stage before the crowd while moderator Phil Donahue, a pioneer of the TV talk show format showed that he was yet a master of engaging a roomful of people in conversation. So many people leaving the church for so many reasons, and yet this band of the faithful, certainly representative of many more times those in the room and with more reason than most to leave, refuse to go. Of course, their presence is more than a refusal to go. It is also a statement of affirmation, as the brochure said, of “the wholeness and holiness of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Catholics.”

Donahue was quick to pick up on the paradox, a properly biblical one. Members of Dignity, those who persist in staying even as the church levels a cruelest cut at them – deeming homosexuals “disordered “ – are the ones the bishops ought to be celebrating, he said.

I’ve often thought the same. If bishops want to understand fidelity to sacramental life, to the idea of community and to the social justice tradition they really ought to engage in conversation with, not condemnations of, those in the Catholic LGBT community.

Among those in attendance was John McNeill, the former Jesuit who, as author of the groundbreaking The Church and Homosexuality serves as the movement’s theologian and who appeared on Donahue’s show shortly after the book was published in 1976.

McNeill has lived through the waves of initial shock at his book, Vatican outrage, dismissal from his order and some of the ravages of time. He moves slowly now, in his 80s, with the aid of a cane and help from Charles Chiarelli, his partner of more than 40 years. He’s become a revered wisdom figure among the LGBT community. I noted as part of a brief presentation (others onstage were psychoanalyst William Braun of New York, Sister of Loretto Sr. Jeannine Gramick, co-founder of New Ways Ministry, and Georgetown professor Joseph Palacios, co-founder of Catholics for Equality) an interview McNeill had done with NCR’s Robert McClory in 2005.

At that time McNeill said he believed the “whole trajectory of the church is toward the era of the Spirit, when each will know the truth in his heart and there wil be no need for extrinsic authority.” To place that in context, McNeill was referring to the teaching of Joachim of Flora, a 12th century visionary, who spoke of three periods of Christian history: that of the Old Testament, which he called the era of the Father; the second was that of the Son, or the period of the development of the institution church, and the coming era of the Holy Spirit.

“I think we’re moving into that era,” McNeill told McClory. Gays and lesbians are in the vanguard of that era, he suggested. “By being rejected by church leadership, gays and lesbians have had to ask God directly if they can live authentic Christian lives, and they are getting [positive] answers. They’ve come to see church teaching on homosexuality as destroying their self-image, so they’ve had to take direct access to God, based on prayer, spirituality and freedom of conscience.”

It would be a reasonable inference form that to see the LGBT community as one set apart and engaged in a kind of individualistic, perhaps congregational, approach to spirituality and Catholic life. But Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of DignityUSA, said following the convention that there seemed to be a new conviction to “move outward, to take the firm conviction that we’ve all come to about the holiness a nd wholeness of LGBT people and witness to that in the public sphere,” whether in church or the wider community.

She said the group also seemed intent on making greater connection with other individual Catholics and other movements, “at looking at all of our work through the lens of other justice issues – women's issues, immigration issues, ageism, class issues, racism.”

In other words, she said, she sees local chapters connecting with other organizations in the church, partnering with people in parishes who find themselves marginalized in other ways – from women’s issues to the matter of forced parish closings. She sees the LBGT community as part of what is emerging in the church. “It is all that same energy of the gospel,” she said. “The life, death and Resurrection of Jesus is still important in our world. Themodel for how to make that alive is not coming in a satisfactory way from the hierarchy.” Instead, she said, “people are putting their faith into action in ways that matter.”

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