The Vatican’s Secretary of State attempted to tamp down controversy Thursday over a Vatican diplomatic communication to Italy, saying the Holy See was not trying to block passage of a law that would extend additional protections from discrimination to the LGBT community.
Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s No. 2, told Vatican News that he personally approved the diplomatic communication, which was intended to express concerns over the proposed Italian legislation. The Vatican is against any “attitude or gesture of intolerance or hatred toward people motivated by sexual orientations,” he added.
The chief concern, Parolin said, is that “vagaries” in the text of the proposed law could expose anyone expressing an opinion about “any possible distinction between man and woman” to prosecution.
The letter, which has been published by Italian media, claims specifically that the law would violate a landmark treaty establishing diplomatic ties between Italy and the Vatican by putting at risk the right of Roman Catholics to freely express themselves. It cited as an example a clause that would require Catholic schools, along with their public counterparts, to run activities on a designated day against homophobia and transphobia.
The law would add women, people who are homosexual, transsexual or with disabilities, to those protected by a law banning discrimination and punishing hate crimes. The lower house of parliament passed the legislation in November, but it has been stalled in the Senate by right-wing concerns that it would limit freedom of expression.
Right-wing leader Matteo Salvini, for example, has complained that anyone saying that a family is formed with a man and a woman would be exposed to possible prosecution.
Backers of the law have dismissed such concerns, saying that the threshold for prosecution is inciting hatred or violence against the protected classes.
Premier Mario Draghi on Wednesday rebuffed the Vatican’s attempt at influencing the legislative process, telling parliament: “Italy is a secular state.”
But the controversy has ignited outrage over Vatican meddling, with many calling for the cancellation of the so-called Lateran Treaty, originally established under fascism and revised in the 1980s, establishing diplomatic ties between the Vatican and predominantly Roman Catholic Italy.
LGBT activists have vowed to transform Gay Pride events in Rome and Milan on Saturday into protests against what they say is the Vatican’s unprecedented interference in the Italian legislative process.
In decades past, the Vatican objected to Italian laws legalizing abortion and divorce and backed unsuccessful referendums after the fact to try to repeal them.
A CORK priest has written to Bishops asking that a conversation be held in the Irish Catholic Church about a sensitive and pastoral outreach to gay Catholics.
Fr Tim Hazelwood, who is the parish priest of Killeagh, is one of four signatories to the letter sent by the Association of Catholic Priests.
It follows the publication of a document in March by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith which said Catholic clergy cannot bless same-sex unions because God “cannot bless sin.”
Letter to bishops
In the letter, the priests said the need for the conversation “has been underlined recently by the insensitive and unnecessary intervention by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) that has brought such pain and distress to gay women and men, to their families and friends.”
It said that “the content, language and judgemental tone of the CDF’s statement reflect an increasingly out of touch and uncaring Church and exactly the kind of attitude that provokes more and more Catholics into walking away from our Church.
“Messages we have received from gay people and family members spoke of the hurt and anger they are made to feel and they write of the struggle they have remaining part of the church. Only one Irish Bishop had the courage to respond to the CDF statement and his words were deeply appreciated.”
The letter continued: “More worryingly, the CDF intervention runs counter to ‘the synodal path’ that Francis has told us is God’s way of being Church in the future and which the Irish Bishops have recently endorsed through their commitment to move the Irish Church along that pathway in preparation for a national synodal event within the next five years.”
‘A conversation that needs to take place’
In pointing out that times are changing, the priests said that a recent ACP webinar on the pastoral care of members of the LGBTQ+ community as memorable, continuing: “There were many heartfelt contributions from people who continue to feel hurt and shame. Stories that could be replicated in every parish but sadly are often unwelcome or unheard.”
The letter added: “Why are we so cold and uncaring in the Church around this topic? Why the lack of knowledge and understanding that still informs inappropriate sermons and comments? Why are we afraid to welcome gay Catholics? Why are we afraid to listen to their stories?
“There is a listening and a conversation that need to take place in our Church and we respectfully request the Irish bishops to facilitate it and to participate in it. A refusal to engage runs counter to the synodal pathway.”
An outspoken US nun who was recently embroiled in a censorship row with Melbourne’s Archbishop has warned Australia’s Catholic Church it faces an inevitable decline unless it stops suppressing rank-and-file members pushing for reform.
The nation’s bishops are under pressure to overhaul the church after years of sex scandals and internal unrest, and one of America’s most prominent Benedictine nuns, Sister Joan Chittister, has now renewed calls for women to be ordained and for laypeople to be given more power over their parishes, declaring that the church needs to “grow up” if it wants to thrive.
Such reforms were meant to be thrashed out at the most significant conference Australian Catholic bishops have held in 80 years, the Plenary Council, which is scheduled to take place in October.
However, working documents prepared for the event have prompted concerns that some of the more contentious issues on the agenda could be cast aside or not addressed properly by the bishops, despite past assurances that “everything is on the table”.
“Everyone knows that the church in Australia needs a major overhaul of its governance, culture and structures, but instead of setting out a clear, concise and coherent blueprint for reform, this document is a ground plan for inertia,” said Catholics for Renewal president Peter Wilkinson. “It is very disappointing.”
Sister Joan, who this month headlined an event by the Australasian Catholic Coalition for Church Reform, told The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald she shared concerns that “suppression by the bishops” would impede much-needed improvements. This, she warned, would prompt more members to abandon their parishes.
“There are one of two ways that this can end. The bishops can embrace the concerns and the need for resolution or they continue to ignore the laity – at which point the church will some day wake up in the morning and find out that the church is in fact gone.”
In a speech to a 3000-strong audience this month, Sister Joan added: “Catholicism must grow up, beyond the parochial to the global, beyond one system and one tradition to a broader way of looking at life … Why not married priests, women priests, or women cardinals?”
Sister Joan is a writer, feminist and theologian who has spent 50 years advocating for social justice and church reform. However, the prominent US nun found herself at the centre of an Australian censorship saga two years ago, when she was disendorsed from speaking at a Catholic education conference soon after Melbourne Archbishop Peter Comensoli learnt of plans to include her.
The snub prompted a fierce backlash from rank-and-file Catholics, but the Archdiocese initially sought to dismiss the matter as a misunderstanding, saying the Archbishop had simply requested “that more names aligned to the themes of a national Catholic education conference be considered”.
Sister Joan disagreed, describing the episode as an “insult” to the Catholic education system.
“Of course it was censorship; there wasn’t any doubt about that,” she said this week. “Nobody has a right to tell anybody else what to think. That is not helpful to any organisation – state or church. You’re only burning it down from the bottom up if you do that.”
Sister Joan’s appearance in Australia comes at a critical moment for the church ahead of October’s Plenary Council. Expectations were high in the wake of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Abuse, which found the hierarchical nature of the church, coupled with its lack of governance, had created “a culture of deferential obedience” in which the protection of paedophile priests was left unchallenged.
However, rank-and-file Catholics have become increasingly concerned about the church’s will to change. Such fears were compounded in March when a working document prepared for the Plenary Council did not give enough credence to critical issues that members have been seeking to address.
Peter Johnstone, the head of the Australasian Catholic Coalition for Church Reform, urged Australia’s bishops to use the Plenary Council to genuinely tackle the “existential crisis” the church faces.
Medical professionals and Catholic leaders gathered in Denver last week for a conference on health care ethics that promoted anti-LGBTQ and anti-abortion extremism and echoed the Republican Party’s attacks against transgender youth.
The annual conference, called Converging Roads, was hosted by the Denver Archdiocese, regional Catholic hospitals SCL Health and Centura Health, and the St. John Paul II Foundation, a national Catholic apostolate whose mission is to “proclaim the Good News about life and family through education and formation,” according to its website.
The yearly conference is aimed at guiding Catholic health care professionals through the “ethical challenges” presented by the convergence of their medical profession and church’s teachings on issues like abortion, end-of-life care, and sexual orientation and gender identity.
“We help professionals to understand the issues, and we give them tools to think through the multiplying ethical challenges in a careful and systematic way,” said Arland K. Nichols, President of the St. John Paul II Foundation, in an interview with Denver Catholic. “Families are relying on them to not only know their core practices, but to be able to advise them on the best and most morally sound way forward.”
The Catholic Church and its stance on health care issues have a major impact on the United States healthcare system. According to a 2016 report from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), one in six hospital beds in the U.S. are in Catholic facilities, representing a 22 percent increase from 2001.
These hospitals operate under “Ethical and Religious Directives” that are put forth by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and place restrictions on reproductive health care including contraception, sterilization, many fertility treatments, and abortion. The directives also restrict end-of-life care and gender-affirming care for transgender patients.
Despite the pervasiveness of Catholic health care providers, studies show that most patients are unaware of how their medical options are limited by the church’s teachings when they visit such facilities for care.
Last week’s conference illustrates just how deeply connected the church’s social teachings on everything from LGBTQ issues to abortion are to the medical care patients can expect when they visit Catholic providers.
Among the speakers at the April 10 conference was Denver Archbishop Samuel Aquila, a highly active anti-abortion and anti-LGBTQ advocate.
Aquila was particularly focused on gender identity, saying at one point in his speech, “I can identify as 6’ 4” but I still have trouble putting luggage in the overhead bins of airplanes,” eliciting chuckles from the crowd.
“It’s important to note that the conversation around these conflicts is informed by a secular mentality that sees freedom as the ability to do whatever one wants rather than the Catholic understanding of freedom as the ability to do good,” Aquila continued. “When we don’t choose the good as defined by God, we become slaves of the devil and we never realize true happiness.”
Aquila also suggested that marriage without procreation can be used to justify bestiality.
“Once you remove children from the equation you can justify anything, so you get the polyamorous, you get polygamy, you can have your pet dog as your spouse, and it’s insane,” Aquila said.
Aquila has long been outspoken in his disdain for the LGBTQ community, and even once suggested that “active homosexuality in the priesthood” is a contributing factor for widespread child sexual abuse by Catholic preists.
In December, an investigation from the Colorado Attorney General’s office concluded that 52 Colorado priests abused at least 212 children between 1950 and 2000. The church paid out $7.3 million in settlements to survivors as a result.
Between digs at LGBTQ individuals, Aquila offered guidance for the health care professionals in his midst for operating in what he referred to as a “post-Christian” era.
“As cultural support for religious liberty erodes, Catholic providers will be scrutinized for not conforming to the secular code of belief, likely under the damning label of discrimination,” Aquila said.
“We will only succeed in maintaining a position of influence in our culture by becoming more Catholic,” Aquila later said. “One of the downfalls of Christendom has been that we have become lukewarm in our beliefs.”
Aquila urged Catholic health care providers to hold true to the church’s teachings on reproductive health and LGBTQ issues despite pushback from other doctors or the hospitals where they work.
“Having that kind of belief and attitude and speaking up even though some of the doctors or some of the hospital staff may not appreciate it is essential and giving witness to it,” Aquila said.
Keeping with the Republican Party’s talking points on transgender individuals, Aquila criticized the Equality Act, which would prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity. “It will force girls and women to compete against boys and men for limited opportunities in school sports and to share locker rooms and shower spaces with biological males who claim to identify as women,” Aquila said.
Although frequently parroted by conservatives, there’s no basis for the argument that children are less safe when transgender individuals have equal access to bathrooms and locker rooms.
Also in attendance at Converging Roads as a keynote speaker was Dr. Paul Hruz, a professor and pediatric endocrinologist at Washington University in St. Louis who frequently serves as an anti-trans mouthpiece for conservative and Christian publications.
Hruz has provided testimony for the Alliance Defending Freedom, an anti-LGBTQ organization classified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, in favor of banning transgender youth from using the bathroom that is consistent with their gender identity.
“Dr. Hruz is NOT a member of our [Differences of Sex Development] team, NOR is he an expert in transgender health as he has never taken care of a transgender person,” Washington University officials told the transgender rights blog Planet Transgender, adding that Hruz “is not a psychiatrist, a psychologist, nor mental health care provider of any kind, who could speak knowledgeably of transgender health.”
At the root of Hruz’s anti-trans rhetoric is the implication that divergent gender identities should be fixed, ideally through “counseling,” parents “setting boundaries,” and a “reparative” approach.
Just like Aquila, Hruz didn’t neglect to bring up the bathroom/locker room issue.
“We are told that we need to engage in affirming [transgender youth] in their transgender identity and that to do otherwise is going to be harmful, meaning that we can use different names, pronouns, give them access to sex-segregated facilities like bathrooms and locker rooms,” said Hruz. “We are being told that we shouldn’t question this at all.”
Gender affirmation is the medical standard for treating youth and adults who are experiencing gender dysphoria and/or gender divergence, says Dr. Elizabeth Kvach, Medical Director of the LGBTQ Center of Excellence at Denver Health and Associate Professor of Family Medicine at the University of Colorado. Kvach told the Colorado Times Recorder that the “vast majority of literature” supports “overall improved mental health outcomes in transgender and nonbinary youth who are appropriately allowed to transition.”
Kvach said that includes allowing transgender and nonbinary youth to choose what name they wish to be called, how to dress, and use the pronouns they want to use. “All of those things have been supported in the literature with improving mental health outcomes, reducing rates of depression, anxiety, and reducing rates of suicidality both in youth and adults,” Kvach said, pointing to a large-scale national study that reported a staggering 41% attempted suicide rate among transgender adults.
“Treatment with puberty blockers and hormone therapy for youth who are appropriately diagnosed with gender dysphoria have also been shown to improve mental health outcomes,” Kvach continued.
Hruz’s opposition to the affirmative approach hinges on child desistence rates, or the rate at which those who experience gender dysphoria eventually cease to identify as transgender.
He claimed during his speech that normal child desistance rates are around 85%, a statistic that serves as his basis for why minors should not be given puberty blockers or hormone therapy.
“That [statistic] is not based on current evidence or data,” Kvach said, citing studies in the Netherlands and a multi-state study in the U.S. “Right now, there aren’t any large U.S. studies, but the desistence rates are certainly not that high.”
Kvach cited an article from the International Review of Psychiatry that debunks the high desistence myth.
Kvach explained that medical providers who diagnose and treat youth with gender dysphoria are careful in providing appropriate treatment that serves their overall health and wellbeing.
“It’s our job as clinicians to really dig down in collaboration with mental health providers who have expertise in working with gender-diverse youth to make sure that we have accurate diagnoses of gender dysphoria, and that’s part of the reason for recommendations of using puberty blockers in children who have entered the early stages of puberty,” Kvach said. “…Youth who are started on blockers are generally on them for a few years, and then we’re working very closely with mental health providers to ensure that this is consistent, persistent, and insistent behavior that is part of who they are, and that they are appropriate candidates for moving forward with hormone therapy.”
Another significant way to support children who are experiencing gender dysphoria is to, well, support them, according to Kvach, who says that family support can help shield against the harmful mental health outcomes associated with negative messaging from society and bullying.
Hruz, on the other hand, suggested that parents should be “setting boundaries” around gender expression that might prevent kids from getting the affirmation they may need.
The anti-trans attitudes promoted by the Catholic leaders, health providers, and hospitals at the conference are far out of step with the mainstream medical community.
“Everyone should be able to access healthcare easily, including those who are transgender,” said Rodrigo Heng-Lehtinen, Deputy Director of National Center for Transgender Equality, in a statement to the Colorado Times Recorder. “All leading medical institutions have studied transition-related healthcare and found that it’s essential primary care. This includes the American Medical Association, American Academy of Family Physicians, and American College of Physicians. Furthermore, people of faith increasingly recognize the humanity of their transgender neighbors, including trans people who are faithful themselves. It’s about treating others as you would like to be treated.”
The church’s attacks against LGBTQ people are, however, consistent with Republican lawmakers, who are pushing bans on gender-affirming care in 15 states.
For the past three years, Eder Díaz Santillan has hosted a podcast on which he interviews LGBTQ people on how they’ve coped with their gender and sexual identities while being raised in traditional Catholic upbringings. He also openly discusses his own identity as a Latino and gay Catholic man.
To Santillan, being gay and Catholic has meant reconciling with the reality the church has never fully accepted his LGBTQ identity. However, he’s recognized there’s a difference between his own relationship with God and the priests who have condemned homosexuality from the altar. It took years, but Santillan realized he could maintain his faith and his LGBTQ identity.
That’s why it may have been a surprise to his listeners when he announced in mid-March he would no longer identify as Catholic. The announcement came just days after the Vatican’s decree it wouldn’t allow priests to bless same-sex unions, saying “God cannot bless sin.”
“It took me this long to recognize that I can let go of anything that hurts me,” said Santillan, 35, on Instagram.
Pope Francis’ rejection of proposals that would allow priests to bless same-sex couples has left many LGBTQ Catholics feeling disappointed and demoralized by an institution they felt recently represented a softening toward LGBTQ marriages within the church. As a result, some have decided to leave their Catholic identities behind, while others remain hopeful the church will eventually become more accepting. Though some have said Francis later distanced himself from that decision, some, like Santillan, say “that’s not enough.”
After the Vatican’s statement, Santillan felt an urgent need to break from his Catholic identity. He realized he could no longer “normalize being Catholic and gay to my audience,” adding that he had become accustomed to the church’s “condemning narrative.”
The fact the church would not bless same-sex unions was nothing new to Santillan, but what struck him was the Vatican felt the need to “be so explicit” about it.
It was shocking,” he said.
To Santillan, the church’s stance is more than just an opinion of what is right and wrong; it fuels faith-based conversion therapy and the backing of laws that discriminate and criminalize LGBTQ people in Latin American countries. It has repercussions, he said. The Vatican’s “God cannot bless sin” statement took him back to his childhood, when he considered himself a sin due to the church’s rhetoric. He feared he was going to hell.
While Santillan figures out what it means to no longer identify as a Catholic, he said, he will always work to help those “who like me have to live with the trauma of the Catholic Church.”
Since the Vatican’s declaration over same-sex unions, the Rev. James Martin, an American Jesuit priest, said he’s heard from a number of LGBTQ Catholics whose reactions have “ranged from anger to hurt to frustration to disgust to despair.”
He said about a dozen have explicitly told him they were leaving the church as a result.
“Among that group the general response was, ‘I’m done.’ Or ‘This was the last straw,’” Martin told Religion News Service via email.
“The main reason that LGBTQ people felt hurt was not simply that priests were forbidden from blessing same-sex unions, a decision that many people may have expected, but that the statement went beyond that and talked about their love as ‘sin,’” said Martin, an advocate of the LGBTQ community.
As he listens to LGBTQ Catholics, Martin said he reminds them “they are, by virtue of the sacrament of baptism, as much a part of the church as their pastor, their bishop or the Pope.”
He also invites LGBTQ people to see the church “in its totality,” noting Francis’ appointment of Juan Carlos Cruz, an openly gay man, to a papal commission, as well as the number of European bishops who criticized the Vatican’s language.
“I invite them to see themselves as full members of the church, even a church that seems not to know how to welcome them,” Martin said.
For queer Catholics like Xorje Olivares, 32, it’s about making individual choices around what their Catholicism looks like. Spirituality, he said, doesn’t need to be a “one size fits all.”
“Everybody’s journey toward their acceptance of the Catholic faith or the role of the Catholic Church in their lives is their own, very much like everyone’s journey to their queerness is their own,” Olivares said.
Olivares, a former altar boy, hosts the podcast “Queer I am, Lord,” where he talks with LGBTQ Catholics about why they’ve stayed in or left the church.
While Olivares said many queer Catholics grew up conditioned to fear God and to believe they are going to hell, “we’ve gone past that.” Meanwhile, he also acknowledged many still find it difficult figuring out “what to believe, when they have a church saying one thing and their bodies telling them another.”
“I sympathize with their struggles because those are very real,” he said.
Olivares often thinks about the kind of message they would send to the Catholic institution if every single LGBTQ person decided to leave the church, but he remains grounded by the Bible verse “knock and the door shall be open to you.”
“Here I am, me and all my queer friends. We’ve been knocking on the door over, and over, and over again, and I would be so upset with myself if the door finally opens and the church becomes a little more welcoming, and I’m not there because I decided to walk away,” he said.
“I don’t know if the church will be the safe space that I need it to be, or if it ever will be, but I know that I still find some joy referring to myself as a Catholic,” Olivares said.