by Estelle Shirbon in London and George Obulutsa in Nairobi
The Archbishop of Canterbury has urged the Anglican Church of Uganda to reject the country’s new anti-LGBT law, saying there is no justification for Anglicans anywhere to support legislation that goes against the Christian teachings of the Gospel.
Under the law, approved by President Yoweri Museveni in May, gay sex is punishable by life in prison while “aggravated homosexuality”, including transmitting HIV, attracts the death penalty.
Justin Welby, leader of the worldwide Anglican Communion, said he had written to Archbishop Stephen Kaziimba, the Primate of Uganda, to express “grief and dismay” at the church’s stance.
“There is no justification for any province of the Anglican Communion to support such laws: not in our resolutions, not in our teachings, and not in the Gospel we share,” Welby said in a statement on Friday.
Kaziimba said in May he was grateful for the new law. He said homosexuality was being forced on Uganda by “foreign actors … who disguise themselves as human rights activists” and went against Ugandans’ religious and cultural beliefs.
The Church of Uganda says 36% of Uganda’s population of around 45 million are Anglicans.
The Anglican Communion, which numbers tens of millions of people across 165 countries, is deeply divided over the ordination of gay clergy by some churches in some Western countries, and attitudes towards same-sex marriage.
The Ugandan church has been at the forefront of the Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON), a conservative group. In April, GAFCON said it no longer had confidence in Welby because of his comments in support of the blessing of same-sex unions in churches.
Welby said in Friday’s statement he was deeply aware of the history of colonial rule in Uganda but “this is not about imposing Western values on our Ugandan Anglican sisters and brothers”.
“It is about reminding them of the commitments we have made as Anglicans to treat every person with the care and respect they deserve as children of God,” he said.
In the Venn diagram of sports and religion, there is no easy overlap. Early in May, the professional baseball team the Los Angeles Dodgers announced that they would be giving a community service award to the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, a group of “drag nuns” who began ministering to people with AIDS decades ago, and who continue to work with the LGBTQ+ community today.
The reaction from conservatives was operatic in scale, with everyone from Sen. Marco Rubio (R.-Fla) to Bishop Robert Barron decrying the invitation. Barron went so far as to refer to the Sisters as an “anti-Catholic hate group.” In other cases, conservatives called the decision “disrespectful” to Catholic nuns. But when the Dodgers rescinded the invitation on May 17, the outrage from liberals was equally strong. Openly gay California state Sen. Scott Wiener (D.-Calif.) praised the Sisters’ “lifesaving work,” and pressure against the Dodgers’ disinvitation was so widespread that team management issued an apology and reinvited the Sisters to the stadium.
As Pride month begins, it’s worth reflecting on some facts about Catholic history that have been lost in the finger pointing. Historically, there have been many Catholics who have pushed back against gender norms. But like modern conservatives who focus on the outrageous aspects of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence while ignoring the group’s tireless work caring for the sick, homeless, and poor, the Catholic hierarchy has also attempted to mute the stories of gender-nonconforming people throughout its history. And in doing so, the church hierarchy has often ignored the acts of mercy so central to Catholic teaching.
In the year 1429, prompted by a voice from God, Joan of Arc rode into battle in men’s armor. After aiding France in achieving multiple military victories, Joan was captured and put on trial for heresy and blasphemy. Among her supposed crimes was dressing like a man. At her trial, she was offered a dress to wear, but she replied that she preferred men’s clothing, because “it pleases God that I wear it.”
Julian of Norwich, a medieval mystic, referred to Jesus as “our precious mother,” and in case anyone missed the message, went even further, saying “God is also our mother.” Saints Euphrosyne, Anastasia the Patrician, Hildegund and others disguised themselves as men to enter monasteries. One of St. Francis’ closest friends was a woman he called “Brother Jacoba,” saints of many gender s were wed in “mystical marriages” to Christ, and some believe it was Mary Magdalene, the first to greet the risen Christ, who really led the church in the days after Easter.
But for those who are appalled by the sight of “drag nuns” in full beards and makeup, the most revealing story from Catholic history might be the medieval tale of St. Wilgefortis. The daughter of a king, Wilgefortis was promised in marriage to a man she didn’t want, and in answer to her prayers for liberation, God caused her to sprout a miraculous beard. Not only was this enough to repel her suitor, but it has also made her into a contemporary heroic figure for queer Catholics and women trying to kick off the shackles of misogyny and homophobia alike. Scholars sometimes arguethat these gender-nonconforming Catholics were more myth than reality, but regardless of the historical veracity, they remain beloved examples of courage and vocation, of living out a call to be their authentic selves while living a life of service.
Strikingly, “call” is the same word many members of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence use to describe their own vocations. There is an 18-month process of becoming a Sister, including doing charitable work in the community, which they call a “mission.” Sister June Cleavage told the LA Times: “You don’t come to this organization without understanding, without compassion and without having fought these kinds of battles before on a smaller scale.” And many of the Sisters have emphasized they are not anti-Catholic. In poking fun at the church, they believe they are helping to call out its hypocrisy; the Catholic Church has exhibited plenty of that — especially in terms of how it deals with gender.
But while many are rushing to defend Catholic nuns from the Sisters’ parody, the voices of Catholic sisters have been largely overlooked in this conversation. And Catholic sisters’ views on the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, as it turns out, are much more nuanced than those of Catholic leadership who claim the Sisters are dangerous.
In America magazine, Sister Jo’Ann De Quattro, a member of the Catholic order the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary, said the Dodgers made a mistake in disinviting the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence because they engage in works of mercy. “It’s about trying to embrace people who might be different from us, because Jesus said, ‘Come to the table,’” she told journalist Michael O’Loughlin. “Not, ‘You don’t deserve a place at the table.’”
Sister Jeanne Grammick, the founder of Catholic LGBTQ+ support group New Ways Ministry, echoed this, saying in a statement that “there is a hierarchy of values in this situation. The choice of clothing, even if offensive to some, can never trump the works of mercy.”
As a Catholic born and raised in the Bay Area, for me, the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence have always been a welcome sign of hard work, acceptance, and tolerance. In the ’90s, when Catholics largely turned their backs on people with AIDS, the Sisters rolled up their sleeves and got to work. Today, when queer kids turn up in the Bay Area having been rejected by their families and churches, the Sisters are there for them. The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence marched with me and my friends at ACT UP rallies in the worst days of the AIDS epidemic; I once saw a Sister in full drag garb picking up trash in a park while rich techies tossed garbage onto the grass.
Of course, Catholic nuns have done this kind of work on the margins for centuries — and they have also been the subject of the church’s critique. In 2012, Cardinal William Levada accused U.S. nuns of disobedience and espousing “radical feminist themes” and subjected the nuns to a multi-year investigation supported by recently deceased Pope Benedict XVI. Women and gender-variant people, it seems, will always make the church uncomfortable. But we are often also the ones who hold the church accountable.
Meanwhile, the male hierarchy of the church is driving people away at unprecedented rates. Bishop Salvatore Cordileone of the archdiocese of San Francisco, where the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence were founded, has doused the homeless with water to stop them from sleeping outside of the city’s cathedral; excommunicated politician Nancy Pelosi (D – Calif.) because of her support for abortion rights; called trans people a “threat” to the church; and tried and failed to force Catholic school teachers to sign a “morality clause” that would have, in part, effectively forbidden them from coming out at school. The Catholic church in the U.S. is hemorrhaging members, with younger Catholics the most likely to say that the church’s attitude toward LGBTQ+ people is a primary reason they leave.
It’s too soon to tell if this kerfuffle will push even more Catholics out of the church. But what it reveals about the lack of mercy many Catholics have in their hearts should be far more shocking than the sight of anyone dressed like an old-fashioned nun with a beard.
— A former diocese organist filed suit in February 2022. Some laity and priests are unhappy with Stika’s staunch defense of a seminarian accused of rape.
By John North
Knoxville Catholic Bishop Richard Stika is facing increasing criticism and scrutiny over his leadership, including how he’s handled accusations that a former seminarian raped a church musician, newly gathered documents show.
The musician is suing Stika and the Catholic Diocese of Knoxville in Knox County Circuit Court. Judge Jerome Melson is expected to hold a hearing Friday for the musician’s lawyers and diocesan attorneys.
The hearing comes as local and national attention grows about the diocese, the boundaries of which stretch from Chattanooga to Knoxville and on up to the Tri Cities. An online publication called The Pillar has published numerous stories critical of Stika’s leadership since 2021.
Complaints against him gained even greater prominence May 11 when the National Catholic Reporter published a lengthy story about the bishop and his leadership.
WBIR previously has reported about the ex-organist’s February 2022 lawsuit as well as a federal complaint filed in November 2022 against the diocese by a Honduran woman who alleges a Gatlinburg priest sexually battered her.
In recent weeks, however, numerous internal documents including emails, reports and handwritten notes from 2021 and 2022 have surfaced as the organist’s lawsuit slowly advances through the legal system.
They show priests in the Knoxville Diocese expressing increasing complaints about Stika, 65, and his handling of a rape allegation made against the Polish seminarian. They’ve been baffled by his persistent support of the seminarian, records show.
Many of the documents appear to serve as the basis or source of allegations in the musician’s February 2022 lawsuit, which alleges defamation and negligence. The organist is suing the diocese and Stika; he is not suing the seminarian.
Records and two secret audio recordings from 2021 also show Stika steadfastly defending the now former seminarian and at times scolding and criticizing those who have questioned him.
“Bishop Stika has a history of intimidating people he does not agree with or like,” one priest wrote in October 2019 as tensions mounted within the diocese.
“We humbly ask for appointment of a new Bishop who we can believe in, put our faith in, and who can appropriately guide us in our Catholic lives,” a 2022 petition on change.org from a lay member and Chattanooga area attorney states.
Appointed in 2009 to come to Knoxville, the bishop previously has told priests that he is staying right where he is.
“I ain’t going anywhere,” Stika told the men during a meeting May 25, 2021, after controversy over the Polish seminarian arose. “I haven’t done anything wrong.”
In May, three priests in the diocese also met with WBIR to express their concerns.
The diocese said it could not comment because of the ongoing litigation.
HOW IT STARTED
The organist worked in the diocese from 2015 until August 2019.
WBIR is not naming him because he alleges he is a rape victim. WBIR is not naming the former seminarian — whose name is widely known within the diocese — because he has not been charged with a crime.
In January 2019, the freshly arrived seminarian struck up a friendship with the organist.
According to the lawsuit, the musician alleges the seminarian sought a sexual relationship. He states in his complaint that he was “pressured into brief sexual touching and oral sex on isolated occasions. Plaintiff did not feel particularly attracted to (the seminarian) and was not interested in a sexual relationship with someone so forceful and aggressive.”
The Polish man would at times forcefully kiss the organist, the lawsuit alleges.
The organist is seven years older than the seminarian, Stika has said.
The seminarian wanted to keep his physical relationship with the musician secret, according to the lawsuit.
According to the complaint, the musician kept up his association with the Polish man “because he felt bad for him as a gay seminarian.” He also alleges he felt obliged to stay on good terms because the seminarian had a close relationship with Stika, who had taken him in. Stika has said the seminarian came recommended by the late Pope John Paul II’s personal secretary in Poland.
On Feb. 5, 2019, the organist alleges, the seminarian came on to him aggressively, pinned him down and raped him to the point that he suffered bleeding.
The musician alleges he went to bed that night “in shock and pain” and that the seminarian spent the night with him in bed.
Five days later, the seminarian left a Catholic prayer book for the organist with an inscription of well wishes from Stika. Four days later — Valentine’s Day — the Polish man handed him a card and a bottle of Champagne. In the card he expressed thanks for his friendship and added, “And for what was wrong — I apologize with all my heart.”
According to the lawsuit, the musician went to the Knoxville Police Department on Feb. 25, 2019, to report the rape. But the lawsuit states that a KPD officer told him if he pursued the criminal case the church would “come after” him and he’d lose his job. It would be his word against the seminarian’s, the plaintiff says he was told.
No rape charge was ever filed.
The musician alleges he tried to avoid the seminarian but the Polish man “stalked” him.
On March 29, 2019, some six weeks after the alleged rape, the two young men had dinner at a restaurant with Stika. Because of Stika’s position as bishop, the musician alleges he felt he had little choice but to go along with the dinner.
A photo — submitted with the lawsuit — was taken of the trio, with Stika on one side of the table and the two younger men on the other.
“At the end of dinner, Stika asked (the organist) if he ever had any trouble with his co-workers,” the lawsuit states. “(The musician) felt constrained to answer no, given (the Polish man’s) relationship with the bishop.”
In August 2019, six months after the alleged rape, the musician moved on to Atlanta. He filed his lawsuit 18 months later in Knox County.
During 2019, the seminarian lived at Stika’s West Knox County house along with retired Cardinal Justin Rigali, a longtime mentor of Stika’s. The seminarian drove the older men around as needed. Stika would later say — at a 2021 meeting secretly recorded in Knoxville — that he’d lost sight in one eye and didn’t trust his driving.
The seminarian also traveled with Stika and Rigali, including joining them on a trip to the Vatican.
In the fall of 2019, the seminarian went off to Saint Meinrad seminary school in Indiana. By early 2021, however, he’d been dismissed, records reviewed by WBIR show.
Some of his fellow seminarians in Indiana reported that he’d touched them inappropriately or acted inappropriately around them.
In one encounter in January 2021, he tickled and grappled with a student who was visiting Tennessee from out of town. He also sent unwanted and invasive Snapchat messages about his penis, documents reviewed by WBIR state.
Another seminarian reported that while at Saint Meinrad in February 2021, he caught the Polish man spying into his room from across the courtyard.
The seminarian was dismissed from the Indiana school that month, an email shows.
On March 1, 2019, Meinrad President-Rector the Very Rev. Denis Robinson wrote Stika that the school had decided to dismiss the Polish man because of what his fellow students had experienced and also because of online accusations that had emerged about the 2019 alleged rape.
“While we have no way of adjudicating the reliability of this case, its presence on the internet is very damaging to a seminarian,” Robinson wrote. “Once again, many of the interactions we have had with (the Polish man) in the past have been quite positive, but I do believe that the issues raised by the seminarians need to be addressed and corrected before (the Polish man) can re-enter seminary formation.”
In two years’ time, Robinson wrote, they’d be willing to review his case “if you (Stika) see that as a proper move.”
A QUICK INVESTIGATION
Emails, notes, reports and the two audio recordings from spring 2021 show rising skepticism, even anger, about the way the bishop handled the Polish seminarian.
Reports about the man’s conduct with the organist began circulating in the diocese in early 2021.
On Feb. 26, 2021, after dismissal from Saint Meinrad, Stika sent a note to priests in the diocese stating that the seminarian had entered a “two-year period of discernment,” meaning he would be reflecting on what God wanted him to do. He wrote that the man would be helping him in the Chancery in Knoxville and helping the octogenarian Cardinal Rigali.
His note offended some priests in light of allegations about the seminarian’s aggressive, sexual conduct, documents show. Priests complained Stika was giving him special treatment.
A formal investigation was needed, one priest wrote. Furthermore, he wrote, Stika needed to be held accountable.
A March 11, 2021, email from the bishop to an attorney and senior members of the diocese stated, “I have informed the individual of his need to return home. I am working with his former school on when this would be necessary.”
Any assumption that the Polish man would be sent home to Eastern Europe, however, proved false. Instead, Stika sought to have him go off to Saint Louis University in St. Louis, Mo., Stika’s alma mater and hometown, to enroll at the diocese’s expense, a letter shows.
Carleton E. “Butch” Bryant, a church member and former staff attorney for the Knox County Sheriff’s Office, notified Stika and members of the diocese’s internal Diocesan Review Board that he was calling a March 25 meeting to consider whether they should formally investigate allegations against the seminarian, records show.
The board is a “confidential consultative body” to the bishop, according to the diocese.
An investigation was indeed launched, with George Prosser, a former Tennessee Valley Authority inspector general, tapped to do the investigative footwork.
Stika, however, as he would later say at a May 2021 meeting with area priests, didn’t like the way Prosser conducted the inquiry. He asked questions that confused and upset people in the diocese, he said. Prosser was a nice man, he’d say later, a 75-year-old neighbor, but he wasn’t the man to handle the investigation.
He removed Prosser.
Diocesan Review Board member Christopher J. Manning took Prosser’s place.
Manning’s report shows he interviewed the Polish seminarian April 16, 2021. He did not talk with the former church organist or the students in Indiana at Saint Meinrad.
Three days before, however, Bryant sent an email to members of the Diocesan Review Board stating that Stika had informed him the investigation “is closed.” They could all talk about it at an upcoming meeting later that month, Bryant’s email states.
After his interview, Manning prepared an April 16, 2021, report for Stika, Bryant and Vicar-General Doug Owens.
In his interview, the seminarian said he’d been friends only with the musician and that there’d not been mutual sex. He said the musician told him he was gay, the report states.
He alleged that the musician initiated sex with him during a trip in late January or early February to Atlanta, Manning’s report states. The seminarian said he resisted the overture. The seminarian told Manning they shared a king-size bed in Atlanta and that the musician tried to perform oral sex in the middle of the night.
The pair traveled to Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon in May 2019, according to Manning’s report. While in their Las Vegas hotel, the seminarian claimed he saw the musician and a young Hispanic man kiss and have sex.
In June 2019, according to his conversation with Manning, the seminarian said the musician told him he was moving to Atlanta. They had dinner and the musician gave him a shirt as a gift, the report states.
The seminarian denied any inappropriate conduct with the men at the Indiana seminary school, the report states.
“There is no indication that Mr. ——— was untruthful during this interview. He did not hesitate (sic) any of the questions and provided specific details when those were requested,” Manning wrote.
Bryant sent the Manning report to the Diocesan Review Board on April 28 ahead of that night’s meeting. Emails show some in the diocese strongly disagreed with the conclusion of the investigation and lack of action against the seminarian. It was one-sided, they said.
One priest wrote that Stika had impeded the investigation. He wrote that the bishop had a history of “intimidating” people who disagree with him, records show. The bishop had even threatened to resign because he thought it wrong to send the seminarian back to Poland, according to the priest.
In a letter dated April 12, 2021, four days before Manning talked with the Polish seminarian, Stika wrote “To Whom It May Concern” at Saint Louis University that the Knoxville Diocese would cover room, board and tuition for the seminarian in the amount of $48,258 for the fall 2021 school year.
“(He) will not in any way be a burden to the United States of America or the State of Tennessee,” the letter stated.
‘DRIP, DRIP, DRIP’
Stika addressed priests in the diocese in meetings in May and June 2021. A priest recorded the gatherings, and they’ve now become part of the allegations contained in the organist’s lawsuit.
The meetings came soon after another critical online piece by The Pillar.
The bishop told the men he regretted having invited The Pillar to come to Knoxville and see the work of the diocese for itself. He warned against speaking to the media because the priests wouldn’t be able to control that outcome.
“He (The Pillar writer) doesn’t care about us. He just wants to sell subscriptions,” Stika said in the June 8, 2021, meeting. “He moves on, and here we are.”
He told the men he believed the musician was the sexual aggressor, not the Polish seminarian.
By September, some priests in the diocese had begun putting together a letter seeking action by Archbishop Christophe Pierre, the apostolic nuncio in Washington, D.C. They expressed their reservations about Stika’s leadership. The nuncio acts as a liaison and formal representative of the pope.
Multiple priests signed the letter sent to Pierre. They did not get a response, according to three priests who asked that their names be withheld to avoid possible retaliation.
A Vatican investigative team did end up traveling to Knoxville and interviewing various people, according to the priests and several Catholic media reports. But there’s been no obvious action.
In addition, records show, respected priest Father Brent Shelton quietly drafted an email to Stika, circulated among various priests, that questioned him about the church investigation and what Stika was doing to serve the diocese. Shelton ended up leaving the diocese this spring after Stika proposed moving him from his Oak Ridge church.
The “drip, drip, drip” of new allegations was worrisome, the draft email circulated among some priests states.
“We are losing parishioners; parents are questioning whether to entrust their children to our schools and we are given little guidance into how this matter is progressing and when and how it will end,” the email stated.
In October 2022, Chattanooga area attorney and lay diocese member Theresa Critchfield also prepared a letter on her TLC Law stationery about Stika’s leadership. It was uploaded as a petition to change.org.
The Oct. 3, 2022, letter was directed to Pierre in Washington as well as Jose Horacio Gomez Velasco, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and to the Rev. Shelton J. Fabre, the archbishop of Louisville, which presides over the Knoxville Diocese.
According to the letter, members of the Chattanooga Deanery had lost faith in Stika “as our shepherd.” The letter cited among other things church finances and Stika’s handling of the seminarian’s time in Knoxville.
There’s been little movement with the organist’s lawsuit since it was filed in February 2022.
Judge Melson has granted the defendants’ request that the organist amend his lawsuit to identify himself by name rather than as “John Doe”. The amended complaint was filed in January.
The former seminarian moved to St. Louis and is believed to still live there, according to the three priests.
On May 11, the independent National Catholic Reporter, which has reported for decades on the church, published a lengthy story that included an interview with Stika, Critchfield and unnamed priests, among others. The story detailed multiple concerns among parishioners and priests about the state of the diocese. It reported some in Knoxville feel “demoralized” by the ongoing turmoil.
Stika told the newspaper he didn’t practice retribution. He said he also saw great progress across the diocese, which has some 70 priests and more than 70,000 parishioners.
“I see growth, I see financial stability, I see vocations and I see happiness,” he told the paper.
The organist’s lawsuit is the second to challenge Stika’s leadership in recent years. A complaint filed in November 2022 on behalf of a Honduran woman alleges she was sexually battered by priest Antony Punnackal in 2020 inside a Gatlinburg church.
The federal lawsuit names the diocese, Punnackal and the Carmelites of Mary Immaculate as defendants.
The complaint also alleges the diocese tried to discredit her and to silence her when she began making accusations against Punnackal. The complaint is on hold while a criminal case against the priest proceeds in Sevier County Circuit Court.
Punnackal was removed from active ministry in January 2022, according to the diocese. He appeared earlier this month at a court hearing in his case in Sevier County.
News: Fr. Bryan Massingale, a Black, gay priest and theologian at @FordhamNYC dreams of a church that celebrates and embraces LGBTQ people. An incredible talk given to LGBTQ students from Jesuit colleges and universities…. https://t.co/oa1ec2feFQ
As a child in inner-city Milwaukee, Father Bryan Massingale’s grandmother gave him a leather-bound copy of The New Webster Encyclopedic Dictionary of the English Language, along with a dream that he might need it someday.
“My grandmother was not delusional. She did not live in denial of reality,” said Massingale, a Jesuit priest who holds an endowed chair in ethics at Fordham University, in New York City. “Her gift was a vision, an act of hope. It was a dream, a hope, a reminder that the neighborhood, with its drugs, violence and rodent-infested corner store with overpriced goods, did not define or limit who I could be.”
That’s important to know, he declared, since he was speaking as “a Black, gay priest and theologian” at Fordham’s recent Ignatian Q Conference for LGBTQ students from Jesuit campuses. This event was a “space for our dreaming, for queer dreams” of hope for “despised and disdained and stigmatized peoples,” he added.
“I dream of a church where gay priests and lesbian sisters are acknowledged as the holy and faithful leaders they already are,” he said, in a published version of his address. “I dream of a church where LGBTQ employees and schoolteachers can teach our children, serve God’s people and have their vocations, sexuality and committed loves affirmed. …
“I dream of a church that enthusiastically celebrates same-sex loves as incarnations of God’s love among us.”
Theological visions of this kind inspire hope for some Catholics and concern for others.
Thus, the North American phase of the Vatican’s global Synod on Synodality found “strong tensions within the Church,” while participants in the virtual assemblies also “felt hope and encouragement and a desire for the synodal process to continue,” according to the 36-page report (.pdf here) released on April 12 by U.S. and Canadian Catholic leaders.
Catholics are “called to act co-responsibly in a synodal fashion, not to wait until we know how to do everything perfectly, but to walk together as imperfect people,” said one group, in its summary of the process. Another group added: “When Church structures and practices are dynamic and able to move with the Holy Spirit, everyone is able to ‘use their gifts in service of the Church and of each other.'”
Calling for “greater inclusivity and welcome” within the church, the final report said this was especially true with “women, young people, immigrants, racial or linguistic minorities, LGBTQ+ persons” and “people who are divorced and remarried without an annulment.”
But the report also warned about the “danger of false or unrealistic expectations regarding what the synodal process is meant to be and to ‘produce,’ since people living in “North American culture” tend to focus on “measurable results and … winners and losers.” Some participants, for example, questioned calls for “radical inclusion,” while asking about the “pastoral and even doctrinal implications” of that term.
The explosive nature of these debates jumped into the news weeks later when the Church of St. Paul the Apostle in New York hosted, next to a side altar, a “God is Trans” exhibit.
In his written explanation of his art, Adah Unachukwu said this display “maps the queer spiritual journey” through “Sacrifice, Identity and Communion.” There is, he added, “no devil; just past selves” and “Communion rounds out the spiritual journey, by placing God and the mortal on the same plane.”
After seeing headlines, Archdiocese of New York officials promised to investigate the exhibit at the Paulist Fathers parish. The congregation also offers, on its website, an “Out at St. Paul” ministry to the “Gay, Lesbian, Bi, Trans and Queer community.”
Media reports early this week noted that parish leaders changed the name of this art exhibit, but that it remained in place.
Massingale delivered his Fordham address before that controversy. However, he did stress that Catholics must dare to share dreams of change – even those with “an inherently subversive quality” – while seeking a “new and more just social order.”
Referring to the “wedding banquet at Cana,” when Jesus turned water into wine, the Jesuit theologian called for a changed church in which “people of all races, genders and sexualities rejoice at the presence of love” and a world in which “spiritual wounds will be healed, where faith-based violence will be no more, where fear and intolerance are relics of history.”
It’s time to take a clear look at the far-right politics of U.S. Catholic bishops. They won a 50-year campaign to turn back legal abortion, but they will not rest, it seems, until the country becomes a Christian nationalist state, with their moral principles codified into law. The religious right has long been identified with white evangelical Christians, but the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, some 250 men, mostly white and past middle age, ranks among the nation’s most formidable reactionary forces. As a Catholic, I must protest.
There was a time when I was proud of the principled but often unpopular positions of my faith leaders. During the Cold War, they spoke out against nuclear proliferation. When neoconservatives rose to power in Washington, the bishops issued a powerful letter on the economy, reminding government of its responsibility for making a “preferential option for the poor.” They stood against Ronald Reagan’s support for autocrats in wartime Central America — I was covering the region as a reporter and met several bishops who traveled south to see for themselves before making the policy decision.
Since those days, the proportion of conservative U.S. prelates has increased with nominations by the two pontiffs who preceded Pope Francis, and the USCCB drifted far to the political right, narrowing its focus to the “preeminent threat” of abortion. Its members lead the country’s largest and hardly monolithic faith group — 73 million American Catholics — but it also attempts to sway the law with amicus curiae briefs on cases from gay rights to prayer in schools, and with a powerful lobbying arm, its Office of Government Relations, tasked with influencing Congress. The bishops are driving the U.S. church to the point of schism with opposition to Pope Francis, who emphasizes pastoral care more than doctrine, and who virtually slapped down their attempt to forbid Holy Communion to lifelong Catholic Joe Biden, who is pro-choice.
What shaped the conservatism of the America’s bishops?
The roots of today’s right-wing church hierarchy go back to the 1970s when Catholic activist (and Heritage Foundation co-founder) Paul Weyrich persuaded evangelical minister and broadcaster Jerry Falwell to join forces in a “moral majority” — Weyrich suggested the term. As a movement, ultraconservative Catholics and evangelicals would restore the values and morals of the founding fathers as Weyrich, Falwell and their followers saw them, a promise taken up by Reagan, their favored presidential candidate. Abortion became the Moral Majority’s flagship issue.
That highly politicized obsession has put U.S. Catholic bishops sharply at odds with the global church (and public opinion) in their animus to Pope Francis, who calls capital punishment, euthanasia and care for the poor equally important “pro-life” issues. For moderate Catholics like me, the deviation hits close to home, pushing the U.S. church too far from too much of Christ’s most elemental teachings while engaging in modern culture wars.
About sexual orientation, Francis, who recently celebrated 10 years as pope, famously said, “Who am I to judge?” but U.S. bishops rail against the “intrinsic disorder” of homosexuality. They ignore his urgent call for action on climate change and its existential threats. They drag their feet on his unprecedented process to prepare for a global Synod this year in Rome, which asks people, and in particular women, at every level of the church’s life — not just bishops — to contribute assessments and aspirations meant to define the mission of today’s church.
During the COVID pandemic some U.S. prelates tried to undermine the authority of both church and state. Francis encouraged vaccination, but San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone distributed communion unmasked and unvaccinated and played the aggrieved victim (a Christian nationalist trope), claiming that “cultural elites” treated Catholics with “willful discrimination” by limiting public gatherings. Timothy Broglio, archbishop for the Military Services USA, contravened the pope by saying Catholic service members could request a religious exemption to the shot, despite Pentagon orders they get it. Broglio is the newly elected president of the USCCB.
The U.S. church has a history of discrimination against Black Catholics in parishes and seminaries, and now the bishops go wrong, with notable exceptions, by failing to adequately condemn white supremacy. After Black Lives Matter protests, Los Angeles Archbishop José Gomez — president of the U.S. bishops for three years until late 2022, and vice president of the group before that — called out social solidarity movements as “pseudo-religions” that are part of “a deliberate effort … to erase the Christian roots of society and to suppress any remaining Christian influences.”
Wealthy laity support the vision of far-right prelates. Southern California billionaire Timothy Busch, for example, is the founder of the Napa Institute and its influential summer conference where well-to-do conservative Catholics hobnob with bishops, archbishops and right wing politicians. Archbishops Gomez and Cordileone are advisors; last year Trump administration Atty. Gen. Bill Barr was a keynote speaker. Busch, who sees unregulated free markets as congruent with Catholic teachings, has little to say about Francis’ attack on the “sacrilized workings” of the global economy.
Perhaps of greatest concern, the USCCB has been increasingly willing to render the wall between church and state a mere gossamer curtain. Invoking novel theories of “religious liberty,” the bishops have fought legislation and court decisions most Americans support, notably laws protecting same sex marriage and access to contraceptives.
At age 86, Pope Francis is close to the end of his pontificate. Among American Catholics, a stunning 82% view him favorably. But he may not live to appoint enough like-minded cardinals to elect a similar successor.
Moderate U.S. prelates do not go along with the USCCB right-wing hardliners, but they are a minority. I can only hope their numbers grow in time, providing the church with the leadership devoid of political considerations that American Catholics deserve.