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.
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More than 100 Roman Catholic parishes in Germany held services to bless gay couples, in defiance of the Vatican’s refusal to recognize same-sex unions.
More than 100 Roman Catholic parishes in Germany offered blessings to gay couples on Monday in defiance of church teaching and their own bishops.
The call for nationwide blessings came in response to a decree issued by the Vatican on March 15, reinforcing the church’s prohibition of priests asking for God’s benevolence for gay couples, stating that God “does not and cannot bless sin.”
A group of 16 German priests and volunteers organized a petition that within days collected more than 2,000 signatures. Encouraged by the response, they decided to take their action one step further and declare May 10 — chosen because of its association with Noah, who in the Bible is recognized by God with a rainbow, a symbol that has more recently been adopted by the L.G.B.T.Q. community — as a day to hold blessing ceremonies for any and all couples, but especially those in same-sex unions.
“In view of the refusal of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to bless homosexual partnerships, we raise our voices and say: We will continue to accompany people who enter into a binding partnership in the future and bless their relationship,” the group said in a statement. “We will not refuse a blessing ceremony.”
The Vatican had no comment on Monday, but the head of the conference of Roman Catholic bishops in Germany, Georg Bätzing, who is also the bishop of Limburg, rejected using public blessing ceremonies as what he called “instruments for symbolic actions on church policy or for protests.”
“It is part of the pastoral ministry of the church to treat all of these people fairly in their respective concrete situations on their life’s journey and to accompany them pastorally,” Bishop Bätzing said in a statement, speaking for the country’s bishops. “In this context, however, I do not consider public actions such as those planned for 10 May to be helpful or a way forward.”
The Roman Catholic Church teaches that marriage can only be between a man and a woman, because that is God’s plan for the creation of life. Church doctrine says that while gay people must be treated with dignity, homosexuality is “intrinsically disordered.” Pope Francis has not changed this teaching, but has occasionally raised the hopes of gay Catholics by speaking of the need to love and welcome gay and transgender people.
The German church is among the most powerful and liberal in the world, and Roman Catholics everywhere were watching the response to the blessings for signals of how the church might respond to attempts at reform from those in the pews and from the priests who are often among those most active in finding ways to include gay men and lesbians in the church.
“There has been this incredible discussion in Germany about same-sex couples specifically that has not taken place anywhere else,” said Francis DeBernardo, the executive director of New Ways Ministry, which represents gay and lesbian Catholics in the United States. “No other group has done something like that.”
A few German parishes held blessing services on Sunday and dozens more took place Monday, many of them in churches in the heavily Roman Catholic western regions of the country, home to many of Germany’s most liberal Catholics. Some were streamed live, while others offered virtual blessings over social media, “whenever and wherever you want.”
By contrast, only a few parishes in the heavily Roman Catholic southern state of Bavaria, the more deeply conservative region where Pope Benedict XVI grew up, held services.
Churches that were not offering ceremonies were encouraged to fly a rainbow flag or other banners recognizing and celebrating love in all of its forms as worthy of God’s graces.
The Rev. Bernd Mönkebüscher, pastor in the Church of St. Agnes in the western town of Hamm and one of the initiators of the campaign, said that every Valentine’s Day, his parish holds blessings for all couples, including those from same-sex unions and those who remarried after a divorce.
“We held a blessing service this Valentine’s Day, but it was important to us in view of this story from Rome to send a clear signal that the church must recognize, honor and appreciate life in all of its many colors,” said Father Mönkebüscher, who identifies as gay. “It is an important gesture toward those people who the church for years, if not decades, has viewed as second-class citizens.”
At least 30 couples had registered to take part in the ceremony in his parish on Monday, he said, adding that the number of participants was limited because of restrictions to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. “We are fully booked out,” he said.
During the ceremony, Father Mönkebüscher walked around the nave, approaching couples who sat in pairs, socially distanced and masked. They rose as he placed a hand on their shoulders and spoke a blessing as they bowed their heads. After one lesbian couple had received their blessing, they dropped their masks and shared a kiss, wiping away tears.
Not everyone has been receptive of the initiative. One parish in Bavaria received threats from members of an arch-conservative Roman Catholic group and had to call the police to ensure the safety of participants at their ceremony.
The initiative is the latest strain between the Vatican and the Roman Catholic Church in Germany. Many parishioners in Germany have left the church, including those frustrated with what they see as an outdated approach to sexual morality and a failure to punish priests accused of abusing children.
According to official statistics, 272,771 people formally quit the Church in 2019, a record number that helped to galvanize efforts among the bishops to discuss with the church a series of issues they believe were contributing to the loss of members. Among them were the role of women in the church, its teachings on sexual morality, priestly celibacy and clerical power structures.
In 2019, they began a series of talks on these topics, discussions of which would be off-limits for the church in many other countries. The talks were to take place among the faithful and church leaders over the course of two years but were extended because of restrictions on gatherings that were introduced last year at the outbreak of the pandemic. They are now to continue into February 2022.
Among those leaving the Church in Germany are many same-sex couples, who are tired of feeling they are not accepted for who they are, said the Rev. Reinhard Kleinewiese, who held a blessing at the Church of St. Mary in the western town of Ahlen on Sunday evening. Ten couples attend, all of them heterosexuals.
“We can’t ignore the fact that a lot of homosexual couples have already left the church. There are many who don’t come anymore,” Father Kleinewiese said. “Nevertheless, it is good and important for this situation and beyond that we make clear that we are not in agreement with Rome on certain issues and prohibitions.”
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Priests across Germany will publicly bless same-sex partnerships on Monday, May 10
A group of German Catholic priests will publicly bless same-sex couples across the country on Monday in defiance of the Vatican’s decree in March that the Catholic Church cannot bless same-sex marriages.
“In view of the refusal of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to bless homosexual partnerships, we raise our voices and say: We will continue to accompany people who enter into a binding partnership in the future and bless their relationship,” the statement says. “We do not refuse a blessing ceremony. We do this in our responsibility as pastors, who promise people at important moments in their lives the blessings that God alone gives. We respect and value their love, and we also believe that God’s blessings are on them.”
“Theological arguments and knowledge gained are sufficiently exchanged,” the statement continues. “We do not accept that an exclusive and outdated sexual morality is carried out on the back of people and undermines our work in pastoral care.”
The priests have also organized several church services, including live-streamed blessings of same-sex couples, to take place on May 10 across the country.
One of the organizers, Klaus Nelissen, told the Wall Street Journal that a Monday was chosen because that is traditionally a priest’s day off: “No bishop can tell them not to do it, since they are doing it on their own time,” he said.
The correlating events on Monday are making public what has been a quiet defiance over the last several years.
“It always has been a little bit kind of a secret,” Rev. Christian Olding told the Wall Street Journal of German priests’ blessings of same-sex couples. “This is the first time that we are going this way in society, to do it visibly for everyone.”
In March, the Vatican said in a statement approved by Pope Francis that the Catholic Church cannot bless same-sex unions because God “does not and cannot bless sin.”
While the community should welcome gay people with “respect and sensitivity,” their unions would not receive the same embrace, as under Catholic teachings, marriages as per “God’s plan” should be between a man and a woman to create new life, said the statement, which was a formal response to a question regarding the Church’s power to bless same-sex marriages.
“For this reason, it is not licit to impart a blessing on relationships, or partnerships, even stable, that involve sexual activity outside of marriage, as is the case of the unions between persons of the same sex,” the statement said.
In October, he said he would support a civil union law, saying in a documentary that gay people are “children of God and have a right to a family.” And he famously said in 2013: “If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge?”
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By Jack Jenkins
To Christie Leonard, working at Gospel Crusade was the perfect fusion of vocation and spiritual call, where her talents and her faith could work in tandem.
“I was doing my dream job,” she said in a recent interview with Religion News Service.
Besides providing her income, Gospel Crusade, which does international mission work and runs a conference center from its Bradenton, Fla., base, had immense spiritual significance for Leonard. Her family had attended classes at Gospel Crusade’s church, and since 2000, Leonard had worshiped at the Family Church, a religious community at the conference center, called the Christian Retreat. She cites attending there as cementing her decision to become “a follower of Christ,” and her attachment only deepened when she began working at the Christian Retreat a few years later.
Which is why, she told RNS, she felt crushed when she was fired in 2019, despite giving what she said were 15 of her “best years” to the organization.
Worse, she claims her firing had nothing to do with her work ethic or her spiritual devotion, but rather rumors surrounding her sexuality and her relationship with a co-worker.
She said the firing felt as if “God was throwing me away
Leonard is now suing Gospel Crusade, claiming her termination was driven by discrimination based on her gender and presumptions about her sexual orientation. The church has disputed her account in court, but the case is one of several that could test the reach of the “ministerial exception,” a legal workaround that exempts faith groups from nondiscrimination laws in hiring and firing as long as the employees in question are considered ministers — including, according to recent Supreme Court decisions, staffers such as Leonard who are not clergy
Like many who work for small religious organizations, Leonard juggled multiple jobs at Gospel Crusade. Initially hired as an hourly employee to help with video production, she later found herself assisting the group’s accounting team as well as working in human resources. By the time she was brought on as a salaried employee in 2017, she kept a cot under her desk for late nights spent editing video.
“I basically lived there,” she said.
About the same time, Leonard began working closely with a female colleague. According to Leonard, the two were in constant conversation and over time, she said, “we became almost inseparable.”
Their connection became a flash point, professionally and personally. Leonard said her colleague’s husband “became jealous in some ways” of their relationship. Rumors began to circulate that the two women, who Leonard said were both struggling with marital difficulties, were in a “romantic relationship or a sexual relationship.”
The colleague’s husband, who served on the church’s staff, then allegedly took his concerns to the senior pastor of the Family Church at Christian Retreat, Phil Derstine, who reached out to Leonard’s husband
Leonard insisted it was only after consulting with the two husbands that Derstine allegedly met with both women — not to talk about the situation, but to announce his decision: They could not spend any time together for 30 days. If they managed that, they could both attend a planned mission trip to Uganda in September 2018
Leonard said she and her colleague did as instructed and were able to take the trip together. But at a meeting while they were away, Gospel Crusade board members allegedly heard testimony from the colleague’s husband.
When the women returned, they did not immediately go to their respective homes. According to Leonard, her colleague went to a wedding while Leonard visited family out of state.
According to Leonard, Derstine promptly fired Leonard’s colleague but allowed Leonard to remain on staff — albeit as an hourly employee instead of a salaried one, and with a caveat: She could not move in with her colleague.< “He said, ‘I have one other condition: You cannot live with that woman,’ ” Leonard recalled, adding that he suggested she live with her brother. This time, Leonard did not comply. The two women secretly moved in together, coinciding with what Leonard described as a campaign of harassment led by Derstine and others at Gospel Crusade. “[Derstine] continued to ask me every single day that he called me, ‘Where are you living?’ ” she said. “I got text messages at all hours of the night asking me how my living situation was. I believe there were people that were following us. It was just a very stressful situation.” Allegedly at Derstine’s urging, family members contacted Leonard to inquire about the living situation. A Gospel Crusade board member allegedly confronted her to say that he knew where she lived. In early 2019, during a counseling session with Derstine’s wife, Leonard revealed a desire to live with her former colleague, noting she was now unemployed and separated from her husband. A few hours later, Derstine convened a meeting with Leonard to inform her that she was fired. Leonard said she was told she was fired for poor job performance. But she alleges that “I was having close to my best year” and that Derstine even asked her more than once after she was fired to assist with video production. Instead, Leonard believes she lost her job for very different reasons. She said Derstine hinted at larger subtext during the firing meeting, when he allegedly said the mere suggestion of Leonard moving in with her female co-worker was “a dealbreaker.” “I was fired for sex discrimination,” Leonard said. “They believed that I was in a lesbian relationship with my former co-worker.” The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission agreed: That same year, they found probable cause that she had been discriminated against based on her gender, as well as the perception that she was involved in a same-sex relationship. Gospel Crusade declined to settle, and Leonard filed her lawsuit in federal court in October 2019, with the help of the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund. “The worst part for me is that these were my spiritual leaders . . . and that somehow God was throwing me away,” Leonard said, “that he didn’t love me, or value me or my service.” Gospel Crusade did not provide on-the-record responses to requests for comment. However, court documents show lawyers for the group repeatedly denying Leonard’s allegations, arguing that text messages and emails she supplied as evidence were taken out of context. The court documents also feature Gospel Crusade invoking the “ministerial exception,” a focus of a landmark 2012 U.S. Supreme Court case, Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical v. EEOC.
That case featured a dispute between a school affiliated with the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod and a former teacher who was fired when she attempted to return to work after being diagnosed with narcolepsy. The court sided with the school, which argued that the teacher was a minister and thus exempt from nondiscrimination laws. The ruling was seen as expanding the ministerial exception to include religious workers who are not ordained clergy.
Since 2012, religious institutions have invoked the ruling to justify the firing of LGBTQ employees. In 2019, a Catholic high school in Indiana fired a gay teacher after the Archdiocese of Indianapolis threatened to strip the school of its affiliation with the church. Explaining why he believed the fired teacher’s spouse — who taught at a nearby Catholic school — should also be fired, the archbishop argued the archdiocese “recognizes all teachers, guidance counselors and administrators as ministers.”
But the ministerial exception is complicated by the Supreme Court’s 2020 decision in Bostock v. Clayton County, in which the majority argued that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — which prohibits hiring discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin — also protects employees against discrimination because they are gay or transgender.
In his majority opinion, Justice Neil M. Gorsuch argued that the court is “deeply concerned with preserving the promise of the free exercise of religion enshrined in our Constitution,” and suggested that laws such as the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act might allow religious groups to avoid nondiscrimination statutes and “supersede Title VII’s commands in appropriate cases.”
The arrival of Justice Amy Coney Barrett has potentially tipped the balance of the court toward a more conservative understanding of religious liberty and the exception.
Cases such as Leonard’s may be used to reconcile the Tabor and Bostock rulings. “If [religious] organizations are allowed to simply do whatever they want to when it comes to employment,” said Kevin Sanderson, Leonard’s attorney, “and aren’t held to the same standards as other employers despite what our laws say, you could have millions of people who are really unprotected in the workplace.”
Leonard remains concerned about others who could face her same situation. “What scares me a little bit is the idea that this ministerial exception — that they’ve now decided I’m a minister — has a growing reach to affect more people,” she said. “Because [Derstine] would say every believer is a leader.”
She also expressed deep frustration with what she described as the church’s patriarchal bent. “Somehow, a room full of these guys get together, say they speak for God and get to treat people however they want?”
The whole ordeal has frayed relationships with friends and family and taken a toll on her faith, but Leonard managed to find a new religious home. She now attends an Episcopal Church, where she says she feels supported and where the priest appears to be “completely different” than the “businessman” she said she worked for at Gospel Crusade.
She also takes comfort in the Episcopal Church’s long-standing support for LGBTQ rights: Should a situation like what happened at Gospel Crusade arise at her new church, she feels more protected.
“That denomination would stand by me,” she said.
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By Alejandra Molina
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.
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