American Solidarity

— Reflections on a changing Catholic Church

Cardinal Robert W. McElroy

by Nell Porter Brown

Like many Americans during this fractious election year, Cardinal Robert W. McElroy ’76 has been focused on politics and the state of the country. “We can idealize, as if times in the past were all graced with tremendous solidarity,” he says. “But I think we are in a profound moment of crisis on that question in our society. Individualism is corrosive from both ends of the political and ideological spectrum. And we have to really recover a sense of common identity, common purpose and mission on certain fundamental levels.”

A lifelong Catholic and a close collaborator of Pope Francis since 2022, McElroy’s approach to ministering is based in the more practical pastoral theology than a strict rule-bound Catholicism. It’s also been shaped by studying American history at Harvard, earning doctoral degrees in moral theology and political science, and experiences as a young priest in San Francisco during the AIDS epidemic. All have been integral to his longstanding push for greater social inclusion, in society and within the Church. Solidarity, he says, is “the principle that all of us are beneficiaries of the society to which we belong, and everyone has an obligation to all the members.”

That cohesion informed his childhood. He grew up with four siblings in San Mateo County (south of San Francisco) in a neighborhood that revolved around the thriving local parish. McElroy recognized his calling as a boy and studied at a high school seminary. Ordained in 1980, he was soon ministering in San Francisco and ultimately spent 15 rewarding years as the pastor at St. Gregory Church in San Mateo. He had always hoped to spend his life in parish ministry “because it is so directly rooted in the hearts and souls of real people,” he says. But Church leaders, valuing his intellect, tapped him for larger roles, and when he was appointed auxiliary bishop in 2010, he knew the rest of his life in the Church “would be rooted in pastoral service to my diocese and in contributing to the global dialogue about the Church’s future, both in its internal life and its outreach to the world.” In 2015 Pope Francis appointed him bishop of San Diego—where he oversees 96 parishes and a community of 1.4 million Catholics—and then appointed him to the College of Cardinals.

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Cardinal McElroy processing into St Peter’s Basilica for his official appointment as a cardinal in August 2022

That has meant continuing the duties of bishop but also spending more time in Rome and supporting the pope’s vision, especially his global Synod on Synodality, a multi-year process of reform that began in 2022. This “listening and dialogue” via meetings, following the Second Vatican Council’s proposed “renewal,” brings Catholics together to discern unified paths forward. McElroy, always a broad thinker, is integral to the pope’s efforts to effect changes in the Church—among them, more “accompaniment and support for” the LGBTQ+ community, lay leaders, and the role of women—that have been welcomed by many, but also vociferously opposed by other Church leaders, both in Rome and in the United States.

It is an extraordinary and pivotal time for the Church. Most Catholics “admire and cherish” Pope Francis, McElroy says: They agree with his focus on pastoral theology, “his notion that the Church is a field hospital bringing healing to souls, all in need of grace and support from one another, not condemnation.” Nevertheless, on issues like climate change, economic justice, poverty, LGBTQ+ rights, and war and peace, “The ideological polarization that cripples our society at this moment shapes divergent responses to the pope’s teachings,” he adds. “Many bishops who oppose the direction in which Pope Francis is leading the Church worry that his pastoral approach undermines the dedication to truth that is part of Catholic faith. Francis tells us that for the Christian, truth is not an idea, but a person—Jesus Christ—who calls us to conversion in love and mercy.”

The same political tribalism that’s “sapping our energy as a people and endangering our democracy…has entered destructively into the life of the Church.”

McElroy influences the reform process in person, but also through articles and speeches. America Magazine (led by the Jesuits) published an article headlined “Cardinal McElroy on ‘Radical Inclusion’ for L.G.T.B. People, Women, and Others, in the Catholic Church,” in which he addresses feedback from the synodal dialogues. He asserted that the same political tribalism that “is sapping our energy as a people and endangering our democracy…has entered destructively into the life of the Church.” The need to reform “our own structures of exclusion,” he concludes, “will require a long pilgrimage of sustained prayer, reflection, dialogue, and action—all of which should begin now.”

Just as crucial, however, he says, are the continuing issues of abortion and climate change, especially in this election year. He’s deeply concerned about forces threatening the fate of “democratic institutions, the Constitution, and the role of law. Catholic teaching has a particular perspective that those institutions are important.” The global escalation of violence—he has consistently called for a cease-fire in Gaza—is disturbing “not just for us as a country, but for so many people who get victimized by war,” he notes. “And our participation in it is such an important moral question.” He laments that conflict is so easily sown, and that civil conversation and disagreement, nearly impossible across partisan and ideological lines, impedes functional progress. Social media, despite their advantages, share considerable blame for that: “We move more and more into our own feedback loops, those we are comfortable with, and we think ‘Oh yeah, everyone agrees with me.’ It’s a huge problem.”

Seeking exposure to fresh and diverse perspectives led McElroy to choose a college outside of the Church—specifically, Harvard and its renowned history department. In 1972, never having traveled east of Nevada, he formed a close circle of friends (two of whom traveled to Rome to watch him become a member of the College of Cardinals), concentrated in American history, and graduated in three years.

Especially formative was “Themes in Comparative World Social History” taught by Loeb University Professor Oscar Handlin, the pioneering historian of American immigration. McElroy says that only four students took the year-long seminar because Handlin required them to read four books a week (no trouble for McElroy, who had taken a speed-reading course). “The other students could also do it and were really bright and interesting,” he says. “Their perspectives on everything were just enlightening to me. And Handlin? He had an encyclopedic knowledge of everything.” When McElroy had to write a paper on comparing nineteenth-century miscegenation laws in Brazil and Virginia, Handlin recommended three or four books, “just off the top of his head,” he recalls, “and they were the best books on the topic. And he did that with everyone in the class.” The depth and intensity of learning were thrilling, and spawned not only McElroy’s enduring interest in immigration but his continuing prioritizing of the Church’s role in aiding migrants and refugees.

Aside from classes, two shows of solidarity on campus also stand out. First: the legal drinking age was lowered to 18, which led “to the largest block party all over the place,” McElroy says, laughing. The second, more sobering, was the agreement that ostensibly ended American participation in the Vietnam War. “That was a moment of great thanksgiving and gratitude from the whole community because we had been facing the reality of the draft, for one thing, and the tragedy of the war for so many people as a whole. The University came together and there was a sense of unity.”

McElroy went on to earn a master’s degree in American history from Stanford, then a master’s in divinity from St. Patrick’s Seminary in 1979 before he was ordained. Among his other degrees are two doctorates (in political science from Stanford and in moral theology from the Gregorian University in Rome), both of which yielded books: The Search for an American Public Theology: The Contribution of John Courtney Murray (1989) and Morality and American Foreign Policy: The Role of Ethics in International Affairs (1992).

Academic work has always fed his mind—and his spirit. “Harvard honed my ability to write with greater clarity and elegance,” he says, and “the level of passion and self-assurance (sometimes justified and sometimes not) in the debates on myriad subjects that we had in the classroom, the dining hall at Mather House, or at parties taught me a great deal about speaking and listening and genuinely learning amidst all the bravado.” The combined experiences of Harvard, Stanford, and the seminary “introduced me to a wide diversity of human experiences, cultures, and social environments. Hopefully, this created in me a greater empathy, a willingness to listen, and an understanding that my own experience was just a small microcosm of the human reality in our world.”

That certainly came to bear while serving as a young priest in the 1980s at Saint Cecilia Church in San Francisco, where he was also secretary (and later vicar general) to Archbishop John R. Quinn, a leader in the Church’s stands on war and peace, poverty, and racial justice. As early as 1983, Quinn reached out to gay Catholics and supported a Castro neighborhood parish that held vigils for HIV-positive parishioners and their caregivers. McElroy co-wrote a diocesan report stating that homosexuality is not held to be a sinful condition and that homosexuals should be helped to follow the principle of “gradualism”: “the notion that Jesus called men and women as they were in real lives and recognized that their call to enflesh the gospel was a lifelong project,” he explains now. He also remembers visiting parishioners—“young people dying of this terrible and unknown disease. And very often their families refused to embrace them in their illness. I think it was then that I began to seek ways to show that LGBTQ+ persons are truly, equally members of the Catholic Church and that all dimensions and attitudes of exclusion should end.”

Throughout his cherished years as a parish pastor—the role he originally sought as a boy with a calling—he was moved and nurtured by “the way in which people allowed you into their lives to walk their journey with them.” Back then, he was sometimes asked if he ever got tired of listening to people’s problems. The answer was, and is, no. “It was inspiring…and you saw how difficult it was but how heroically so many people strive to live as they should.” To be let into others’ anguish is a privilege, he agrees, “and priests must be careful in presenting the image of God in a way that’s proper, too. The God who embraces us, who loves, is not diminished by our failures.”

Complete Article HERE!

The Vatican’s Statement on Gender Is Unsurprising, and a Missed Opportunity

— A new document that strives to reconsider matters of human dignity nevertheless echoes Church rhetoric from decades ago.

By

The arc of Vatican rhetoric on sexual issues is long, and it doesn’t bend much at all. On October 30, 1986, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith released a letter to bishops, “On the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons,” which was signed by the office’s prefect, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. In 1975, the C.D.F., formerly known as the Holy Office, had made a distinction between the homosexual “condition” and homosexual acts, calling the latter “intrinsically disordered.” A result, the 1986 letter lamented, was that in the following years “an overly benign interpretation was given to the homosexual condition itself, some going so far as to call it neutral, or even good.” Then the C.D.F. got to the main point: “Although the particular inclination of the homosexual person is not a sin, it is a more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil; and thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder” and as “essentially self-indulgent.” The October 30th document came to be known as the Halloween Letter. At a grim moment in the aids pandemic, the Catholic Church, with an opportunity to show compassion to gay men, instead used terse, forbidding language to reaffirm its teaching against gay sexual activity and “the homosexual condition itself.”

Much has changed in the Church’s approach in the thirty-eight years since. The U.S. bishops eventually issued a statement framed as “a response to the H.I.V./aids crisis,” taking a kinder, gentler tone than that of the C.D.F. letter. Lesbians and gay men, including the Catholic writer Andrew Sullivan, initiated a movement for gay marriage, and it gained force, with gay marriage eventually becoming recognized by the U.S. government, and by nations worldwide. Pope Francis, four months after his election, in 2013, said, of gay clergymen, “Who am I to judge?” He spoke approvingly of civil protections for a gay couple in a 2019 interview with a Mexican broadcaster. He met with transgender women in St. Peter’s Square and received them again at a luncheon in the Vatican. In October, the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, or D.D.F.—an office that replaced the C.D.F., as part of a reorganization of the Roman curia—answered a Brazilian bishop’s query by affirming that transgender people can be baptized and can serve as godparents “under certain conditions.” In December, the D.D.F. issued “Fiducia Supplicans,” a document authorizing priests to bless people living in “irregular situations” and “couples of the same sex.” Catholic traditionalists decried the document; a group of bishops in Africa issued a joint statement saying that they would not allow such blessings in their dioceses. Yet, through all this, the Vatican did not alter its official characterization of homosexuality as an “objective disorder,” nor its declaration (found in “Catechism of the Catholic Church,” from 1992) that “everyone, man and woman, should acknowledge and accept his sexual identity”—the biological sex he or she is born with, that is.

When Francis was elected, the doctrinal office was run by Archbishop Gerhard Müller, a traditionalist who had been appointed by Pope Benedict XVI—the former Cardinal Ratzinger. Müller eventually set himself against the new Pope, suggesting, for example, that Francis’s apparent solicitude, in the 2016 apostolic exhortation “Amoris Laetitia,” toward Catholics who divorced and remarried was at odds with Church teaching. In 2017, Francis declined to renew Müller’s appointment, and promoted his deputy, Luis Francisco Ladaria Ferrer, a Spanish Jesuit. Finally, last July, after the D.D.F. was reorganized, Francis appointed his own close associate, Víctor Manuel Fernández, a fellow-Argentine who was then an archbishop, to lead it. In a public letter to the new prefect, Francis warned against a “desk-bound theology” infused with “a cold and harsh logic that seeks to dominate everything.” He urged the D.D.F. to be open to fresh “currents of thought in philosophy, theology, and pastoral practice” and stressed that the office must maintain Catholic doctrine, “but not as an enemy who critiques and condemns.” Francis made Fernández a cardinal in September. In October, the Vatican hosted a monthlong Synod on Synodality assembly, which brought some four hundred and fifty Church leaders from around the world to Rome, to take part in daily sessions meant to foster a “listening” and “discerning” Church. The synod process (which began in local churches worldwide in 2021) was promoted as a key initiative of Francis’s pontificate, and as a new way of proceeding for the Vatican.

This Monday, the D.D.F. released “Dignitas Infinita,” a document, five years in preparation, about “the dignity of the human person in Christian anthropology.” Its release was expected, and it was characterized by the press as unsurprising—“something of a repackaging of previously articulated Vatican positions, read now through the prism of human dignity,” as Nicole Winfield, an Associated Press correspondent based in Rome, put it. The document reiterates the Church’s stands against abortion and euthanasia, and amplifies its opposition to surrogate motherhood and what it calls “sex change” procedures. But, for the first time in a document of this stature, it groups those practices with broader phenomena that the Church opposes, such as war, economic inequality, human trafficking, “the marginalization of people with disabilities,” cruelty to migrants, violence against women, sexual abuse, and the death penalty, among others. According to Fernández, last November Pope Francis urged the office to make the document present issues connected to matters of human dignity, the personal and the social, as parts of a whole—a striking departure from the Church’s way of framing issues involving the body in terms of individual moral conduct. This approach has upset many for seeming to establish false equivalences. But the document has been praised in the Catholic press: the news site Crux saw it “uniting Pope Francis’s progressive social agenda with the traditional moral and ethical concerns of his predecessors.

The document is thick with citations of past statements by Francis, Benedict, and Pope John Paul II. Building on last December’s blessing of “couples of the same sex,” it affirms the Church’s opposition to discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. But it complains that “the concept of human dignity is occasionally misused to justify an arbitrary proliferation of new rights.” It denounces “gender theory” for seeking to obscure, or do away with, the “foundational” quality of “sexual difference,” which belongs to the body created “in the image of God,” and it rejects any “sex-change intervention,” insisting that respect for one’s humanity must begin with respect for the body “as it was created.”

While “Dignitas Infinita” is the most important statement to be issued by the D.D.F. under the new prefect, it is best seen as a final expression of the old C.D.F.’s admonitory approach. For example, the fresh social emphasis Francis evidently sought to give it by grouping sex and gender with affronts to human dignity serves instead to point up the offhand, ad-hominem quality of its remarks on gender identity. Consider this passage: “Desiring a personal self-determination, as gender theory prescribes . . . amounts to a concession to the age-old temptation to make oneself God, entering into competition with the true love of God revealed to us in the Gospel.” In the nearly twelve-thousand-word text, that passage stands out both for its extreme rhetoric and its denunciation of individual behavior. It comes amid a dense, footnoted passage about the interaction of gender theory and human rights; suddenly the reader is presented with a citation-free sketch of an abstract individual, as imagined by a curial official. This individual is not credited with any effort of reflection or discernment—not seen as striving to join the physical and social aspects of personhood to the inward person (which some trans people identify as the God-given person), or as seeking to reconcile body and soul, as Christian believers have always sought to do. This individual is simply said to be succumbing to the temptation “to make oneself God.” Thus gender identity, whose complexities call for a complex response informed by emerging currents of thought, is fit into the Vatican’s textbook critique of post-Enlightenment social movements, and reduced to one more iteration of individual self-determination run amok—the way the Vatican characterized gay life a generation ago.

At a press conference about the new document, when Winfield from the A.P. asked Cardinal Fernández whether the Church might consider withdrawing the term “intrinsically disordered,” the prefect admitted that the phrase “needs to be explained a lot” and added, “Perhaps we could find a clearer expression.” Indeed, the arc that the Vatican’s approach to homosexuality has taken in the past four decades—from a “condition” to be dealt with to a way of being that can be blessed—might have prompted the D.D.F.’s theologians, as they give greater attention to gender-identity issues, to consider adopting some nuance and a stance of humility toward them.

Fortunately, there is an opportunity for the Vatican to really change its approach. At last October’s Synod gathering, participants discussed sex and gender intermittently, but their comments were largely kept out of the summary document, which emphasized procedural matters. This October, the participants will return to Rome for another month of collective listening and discernment. This time, gender identity should be firmly on the agenda. With that singular passage in the new document, the Vatican has put it there.

Complete Article HERE!

Thomas Gumbleton, Catholic Bishop and a Progressive Voice, Dies at 94

— He was arrested protesting war and clashed with fellow bishops in supporting gay marriage and the ordination of women and championing victims of sex abuse by priests.

Bishop Thomas Gumbleton in 1992. He celebrated his 80th birthday in a pup tent in Haiti after delivering medical supplies following a devastating earthquake there in 2010.

By Trip Gabriel

Thomas J. Gumbleton, a Roman Catholic bishop from Detroit whose nationally prominent support of liberal causes often clashed with church leadership, but who grounded his views in the 1960s Vatican reforms that promoted social justice, died on Thursday in Dearborn, Mich. He was 94.

His death was announced by the Archdiocese of Detroit, where he served for 50 years.

Bishop Gumbleton protested the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War and U.S. foreign policy regarding Central America in the 1980s. He opposed fellow Catholic bishops by speaking out in favor of same-sex marriage and the ordination of women. He championed victims of clergy sexual abuse and blamed that advocacy for his ouster as pastor of St. Leo Catholic Church in Detroit in 2007, a contention that the archdiocese disputed.

A man with graying hair wearing a priest’s collar, black blazer and large, square-framed glasses sits at a table with papers in front of him. He is looking at the camera.
Bishop Gumbleton during the 1983 National Conference of Catholic Bishops in Chicago. In 1968, he became the youngest bishop in the nation at age 38.

As an activist for the sick and the poor, Bishop Gumbleton visited more than 30 countries, including Haiti, where he celebrated his 80th birthday in a pup tent after delivering medical supplies following a devastating earthquake in 2010. In El Salvador, he bore witness to the condition of villagers during the civil war there in the 1980s. He later protested outside the School of the Americas in Georgia, an Army facility that trained Salvadoran military leaders tied to death squads.

In the preface to a biography about him, “No Guilty Bystander: The Extraordinary Life of Bishop Thomas Gumbleton” (2023), by Frank Fromherz and Suzanne Sattler, Bishop Gumbleton wrote of a formative experience visiting Egypt as a young priest.

While looking for a place where Catholic tradition held that Mary and Joseph took Jesus after fleeing to Egypt, he entered a neighborhood in Cairo teeming with people living in the street, dressed in rags and hungry and thirsty. “I grew up in Michigan during the Depression,” he wrote. “It was a struggle for my parents to pay their bills and keep us dressed and fed. But our poverty was nothing like that which I experienced that day.”

“This was the first opening I had to the idea of trying to do justice in the world,” he added.

Bishop Gumbleton in 1972 became the first president of Pax Christi USA, a Catholic peace movement that promotes nonviolence and rejects preparation for war. In the preceding years, he urged the National Conference of Catholic Bishops to pass a resolution condemning the Vietnam War, but the majority opposed him.

“Obviously, for one who would follow the earliest Christian tradition, supporting the Vietnam War is morally unthinkable,” he wrote in an opinion essay in The New York Times in 1971.

He was later arrested at antiwar demonstrations, in 1999 protesting NATO bombing in Yugoslavia and in 2003 opposing the Iraq War.

An older man with glasses wearing a priest’s collar and a woman stand at a gate, speaking to a uniformed security guard, who is holding onto one of the wrought iron bars. Overhead, boom microphones hover, catching their words.
Bishop Gumbleton and a Dominican nun, Sister Ardeth Platte, of Baltimore, presented a letter to White House security for President Bill Clinton in 1999 to protest American involvement in the war in Kosovo. They were later arrested during a demonstration.

In 1979, Bishop Gumbleton was one of three U.S. clergymen who traveled to Tehran for a Christmas Eve meeting with captive Americans in the U.S. Embassy during the Iranian hostage crisis. They held religious services and sang carols.

Despite his globe-trotting, Bishop Gumbleton considered himself an introvert and lived a spartan existence. He would often stay at a local Y.M.C.A. when traveling to church meetings. At St. Leo’s church, he had a bed on the floor in a room next to his office. In his car, he kept cash in the visor to give to homeless people.

Thomas John Gumbleton was born on Jan. 26, 1930, in Detroit, the sixth of nine children of Vincent and Helen (Steintrager) Gumbleton. His father worked for a manufacturer of car and truck axles. Thomas and three brothers attended Sacred Heart Seminary, a secondary school, though only Thomas continued on to become a priest. A sister, Irene Gumbleton, who survives him, became a nun, according to the National Catholic Reporter.

Thomas was ordained in 1956 after completing college-level work at St. John’s Provincial Seminary in Plymouth, Mich. In 1961, the Detroit diocese sent him to study in Rome, where he earned a doctorate in canon law. In 1968, at age 38, he was named an auxiliary bishop, the youngest bishop in the country at the time.

Detroit Catholic, a digital church publication, wrote of Bishop Gumbleton last week that his “early life and ministry were significantly influenced by the Second Vatican Council, which called upon the laity to take up a greater role in the Church, and for the Church to take a greater role in speaking out against injustice.”

His pacifism and other views were part of a progressive tradition in the Catholic Church. He was one of five bishops who, in 1983, drafted a landmark statement by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops that excoriated nuclear weapons.

But in later years his views diverged more acutely from the church mainstream, and he stopped attending the annual bishops’ conferences. He was never promoted above auxiliary bishop.

His views on gay and lesbian people, which he acknowledged had been stamped with the homophobia of his time, evolved faster than church doctrine, beginning when his youngest brother, Dan, came out as gay in the 1980s in a letter to family members. At first, Bishop Gumbleton feared that having a gay brother might affect his standing in the church, he told PBS in 1997, and he threw the letter aside without reading it to the end.

But when his mother asked him if her gay son would go to hell, Bishop Gumbleton said no, and he began a journey of acceptance that led him to speak to NPR about “the beauty of gay love” and to urge the church to accept same-sex marriage.

A man in a priest’s collar with rectangular glasses and a hearing aid looks at someone speaking out of the camera frame. In the background, a backdrop reads “SNAP” and “Protect children,” and includes black-and-white portraits.
Bishop Gumbleton at a news conference in Columbus, Ohio, in 2006. He supported a bill in the Ohio State Legislature that would have extended the statute of limitations for sex-abuse victims to file lawsuits.

In the early 2000s, as scandals over sexual abuse of children by clergy convulsed American Catholicism, Bishop Gumbleton spoke out for victims and criticized church leaders for not openly confronting the problem. In 2006, he endorsed a bill in the Ohio State Legislature that would extend the statute of limitations for sex-abuse victims to file lawsuits.

Ohio’s bishops opposed the legislation, in line with Catholic leaders across the country who had resisted similar measures; they feared financial ruin, knowing that California dioceses were inundated with more than 800 lawsuits in 2003 during a one-year extension of limits on old sex-abuse claims.

In his testimony, Bishop Gumbleton revealed that as a teenager in high school he had been “inappropriately touched” by a priest.

“I don’t want to exaggerate that I was terribly damaged,” he told The Washington Post in 2006. “It was not the kind of sexual abuse that many of the victims experience.” But he said it had made him understand why young victims did not come forward for years.

In January 2007, during his last Mass as the pastor of St. Leo’s, Bishop Gumbleton told parishioners that he had been forced to step down in retaliation for speaking out.

The Detroit archdiocese disputed that assertion, saying that he had been removed because all bishops were required to submit a resignation at age 75, and that his had been accepted the previous year, though he had asked to continue as pastor of St. Leo’s. Replacing Bishop Gumbleton, a diocese spokesman said at the time, was not related to his political activity.

“I did not choose to leave St. Leo’s,” Bishop Gumbleton told parishioners. “It’s something that was forced upon me.”

Several accounts of his career emphasized that his outspokenness had thwarted his chances of ever being given a diocese of his own.

In a statement, Bishop John Stowe of Lexington, Ky., the current president of Pax Christi, the peace group, said Bishop Gumbleton had “preferred to speak the truth and to be on the side of the marginalized than to toe any party line and climb the ecclesiastical ladder.”

Complete Article HERE!

He spent 17 years as a priest in exile.

— His final act: a scorching ‘farewell letter’ to the Catholic Church

Tim Stier poses in his condo at Rossmoor in Walnut Creek , Calif. on Saturday, July 9, 2022. Stier was defrocked in March by the diocese for reasons such as protesting the diocese’ cover-ups of sexual abuse, their treatment of women and LGBTQ practitioners.

By Rachel Swan

He spent 17 years as a priest in exile, railing against what he said were the misdeeds and cover-ups of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Oakland, until the Vatican finally cut him loose in March.

Months later, Tim Stier delivered his final salvo: a scorching “farewell letter” that condemned several bishops, criticized the Catholic clergy for retrograde attitudes toward gender equity and LGBTQ civil rights, and cited specific allegations of sexual abuse that Stier says the church ignored or tried to conceal.

His missive became a new flare-up for an institution grappling with public controversies over abortion and civil rights, and with the fallout from a painful history of abuse that has jolted parishes throughout the country.

“Dear No-Longer-Fellow Priests,” it began, “this will likely be my farewell letter to most of you, which may be glad tidings to those of you who did not enjoy hearing from me.”

In recent interviews with The Chronicle, Stier reflected on the blistering critique he wrote and distributed widely, an apogee to nearly two decades of protest, penned four months after his defrocking on March 19.

The ousted priest counts himself among a small community of early whistleblowers who have tried to persuade Catholic clergy to atone for past wrongs and to pull the church into modern times.

“If you speak out on these issues, you’re going to be crushed,” Stier said.

A spokesperson for the Oakland diocese did not respond to specific allegations in Stier’s letter, but sent a statement to The Chronicle about his ouster.

“We wish Mr. Stier all the best in this new chapter in his life,” the statement read. “The process by which the pope removes a man from the clerical state, which you reference as the ‘defrocking process,’ is extensive and thorough. Therefore, it can take considerable time.

“You’ll need to ask Mr. Stier why he made the decision to abandon his priestly vows and ministry many years ago.”

Pelosi vs. Cordileone

Tension between church leaders who wish to preserve rigid doctrine and parishioners who want a more open dialogue has been playing out in the largely liberal Bay Area. San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone, who previously served as bishop in Oakland, recently denied communion to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a San Francisco Democrat, saying she must renounce her support of abortion rights.

Pelosi later received communion during a trip to the Vatican last month.

By standing up against the system, Stier speaks for a majority of Catholics who support LGBTQ rights and the ordination of women and denounce sexual abuse, said Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of DignityUSA, an organization that advocates for equal treatment of all of the faithful in the Catholic church.

Most of the nation’s 433 active and retired bishops follow the official teaching that gay and lesbian relationships are “objectively disordered,” and some have passed policies against the use of pronouns that don’t reflect the gender a person was assigned at birth, Duddy-Burke said.

She views Stier as a symbol at a moment of upheaval in the Catholic church — an outlier among diocesan priests, many of whom behave as “company men,” intent on ascending the hierarchy. Yet the positions Stier represents are “very valid and well within the Catholic mainstream,” Duddy-Burke said, even if the average parishioner or clergymember does not feel empowered to express them.

Over the years, Stier said, “I would get cards and letters from priests supporting what I was doing. I invited them to come (demonstrate) on Sunday mornings, but none of them were willing to risk that.”

He said a system committed to top-down authority, mandatory celibacy and the subordination of women’s voices may have to collapse before it can evolve. The church’s resistance to change may be its undoing, he said, “either through bankruptcies” from lawsuits “or disgrace.”

Stier has cast himself as an agitator from within, sustaining his Catholic faith even as he published op-ed pieces about the alleged hypocrisy of the church, or picketed outside Oakland’s cathedral on Sundays, with signs that demanded inclusion and structural reform.

“He’s been very consistent from the beginning about what his views were,” Stier’s friend, Margery Leonard, said.

Leonard, a retired teacher, met Stier when he served as pastor of Corpus Christi, her parish in Fremont, during the 1990s. Even then, he was outspoken, she said, delivering homilies that applied scripture to contemporary issues, such as homelessness or racial diversity, and trying to engage clergy in discussions about over-eating and alcoholism among priests.

“The clergy are very efficient at giving directions, but it’s just not a democratic group,” Leonard said.

Bishop Michael Barber

She became an ally of Stier during his two decades on the margins, after he became disillusioned with the church and refused a parish assignment from Bishop Allen Vigneron in 2005.

At the time, Stier said, he insisted that Vigneron publicly confront “three issues roiling the Church”: the sexual abuse of minors by clergy and bishops’ efforts to hide it; the refusal to ordain women and treat them equitably; and the cruel treatment of LGBTQ parishioners “based on an outdated theory of human sexuality.”

The diocese “didn’t know what to do with me,” Stier said. “They were hoping I’d come back. I was a well-respected, competent pastor.”

Bishop John Cummins
What began as a standoff became a protracted stalemate. From 2010 to 2021, Stier stood on the sidewalk during each Sunday mass, holding his signs and hoping that Bishop Michael Barber would emerge from the cathedral to speak with him. And during all that time, the bishop never did, he said.

He surmised that Barber was embarrassed by the public crusade, and by Stier’s demand for Barber to “hold accountable” retired Bishop John Cummins, who had ordained Stier in 1979, but who Stier later accused of abetting sexual abuse of minors by moving predatory priests from one parish to another.

Representatives of the Archdiocese of Detroit, where Vigneron now serves as archbishop, declined to comment, deferring to their counterparts in Oakland. Attorneys for Cummins did not return phone calls, and a spokesperson for the Oakland diocese declined to comment on the retired bishop’s behalf.

Stier cited several examples in his letter of priests who served during Cummins’ tenure and who the Oakland Diocese subsequently deemed “credibly accused of sexual abuse by a minor.” One of them, Stephen Kiesle, pleaded no contest to charges of lewd conduct in 1978, for allegedly tying up and molesting two boys at Our Lady of the Rosary Parish in Union City, where he was a priest and teacher.

Two years ago, one of Kiesle’s alleged victims sued him, the diocese and Cummins, claiming the retired bishop knew Kiesle was a danger to children but allowed him to work with them anyway. The suit is part of a coordinated action involving more than a hundred plaintiffs against various dioceses and other church entities, with the first case set to go to trial next year, said Kiesle’s lawyer, Mark Mittelman.

Stephen Kiesle
Attorneys for Cummins and Kiesle have denied all of the allegations, according to court filings.

Separately, Kiesle was arrested this year on charges of killing a pedestrian while allegedly driving drunk in a Walnut Creek retirement community. He was freed on $250,000 bail in April and the case is pending.

Stier succeeded Kiesle at Our Lady of the Rosary in 1979, the year he was ordained. At the time, parishioners informed him of Kiesle’s misconduct, he said, but he heard nothing from the pastor or the diocese.

“It was so secretive in those days,” he told The Chronicle, noting that, before 1979, he had no inkling that priests had used their position to victimize others.

In interviews, Stier pointed to two factors that motivated him to write the letter. The first, he said, was a desire for closure. Second, he wanted to leave a record “of what I learned during my 17 years of voluntary exile from active priesthood,” working with abuse survivors and other people he views as marginalized by the archdiocese.

Once he’d finished and signed the missive, he printed out copies and mailed them to 60 priests. Fifty-nine didn’t respond; one sent a short, polite acknowledgment.

This month the letter appeared on BishopAccountability.org, a website and database that tracks alleged abuse by clergy.

The nonprofit Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, defended and praised Stier in a statement.

“It is ironic that a priest who showed integrity has been defrocked for taking a stand for what he believes is just,” the statement read, “while priests who molested children were hidden, paid and never forced to leave the church.”

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Conflict and profound loss

— The AIDS epidemic and religious protest

The Washington National Cathedral has been home to numerous affirming services over the years.

BY

(Editor’s note: Although there has been considerable scholarship focused on LGBTQ community and advocacy in D.C., there is a deficit of scholarship focused on LGBTQ religion in the area. Religion plays an important role in LGBTQ advocacy movements, through queer-affirming ministers and communities, along with queer-phobic churches in the city. This is the final installment of a three-part series exploring the history of religion and LGBTQ advocacy in Washington, D.C. Visit our website for the previous installments.)

Six sisters gathered not so quietly in Marion Park, Washington, D.C. on Saturday, October 8, 2022. As the first sounds of the Women’s March rang out two blocks away at 11 am, the Sisters passed out candles to say Mass on the grass. It was their fifth annual Lavender Mass, but this year’s event in particular told an interesting story of religious reclamation, reimagining a meaningful ritual from an institution that seeks to devalue and oppress queer people.

The D.C. Sisters are a chapter of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, an organization of “drag nuns” ministering to LGBTQ+ and other marginalized communities. What first began as satire on Easter Sunday 1979 when queer men borrowed and wore habits from a production of The Sound of Music became a national organization; the D.C. chapter came about relatively late, receiving approval from the United Nuns Privy Council in April 2016. The D.C. Sisters raise money and contribute to organizations focused on underserved communities in their area, such as Moveable Feast and Trans Lifeline, much like Anglican and Catholic women religious orders.

As Sister Ray Dee O’Active explained, “we tend to say we raise funds, fun, and hell. I love all three. Thousands of dollars for local LGBTQ groups. Pure joy at Pride parades when we greet the next generation of activists. And blatant response to homophobia and transphobia by protest after protest.” The Lavender Mass held on October 8th embodied their response to transphobia both inside and outside pro-choice groups, specifically how the overturn of Roe v. Wade in June 2022 intimately affects members of the LGBTQ+ community.

As a little history about the Mass, Sister Mary Full O’Rage, shown wearing a short red dress and crimson coronet and veil in the photo above developed the Lavender Mass as a “counterpart” or “counter narrative” to the Red Mass, a Catholic Mass held the first Sunday of October in honor Catholics in positions of civil authority, like the Supreme Court Justices. The plan was to celebrate this year’s Lavender Mas on October 1st at the Nuns of the Battlefield Memorial, located right across the street from the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle, where many Supreme Court Justices attend the Red Mass every year.

As Sister Mary explained, this year “it was intended to be a direct protest of the actions of the Supreme Court, in significant measure their overturning of reproductive rights.”

Unfortunately, the October 1st event was canceled due to heavy rain and postponed to October 8th at the recommendation of Sister Ruth Lisque-Hunt and Sister Joy! Totheworld. The focus of the Women’s March this year aligned with the focus of the Lavender Mass—reproductive rights—and this cause, Sister Mary explained, “drove us to plan our Lavender Mass as a true counter-ritual and protest of the Supreme Court of who we expected to attend the Red Mass,” and who were protested in large at the Women’s March.

The “Lavender Mass was something that we could adopt for ourselves,” Sister Mary spoke about past events. The first two Masses took place at the Lutheran Church of the Reformation, right around the corner from the Supreme Court. The second Mass, as Sister Mary explained, celebrated Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg; “we canonized her.” Canonization of saints in the Catholic Church also takes place during a Mass, a Papal Mass in particular.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Sisters moved the Mass outside for safety, and the third and fourth Masses were celebrated at the Nuns of the Battlefield Memorial. “It celebrates nuns, and we are nuns, psycho-clown nuns,” Sister Mary chuckled, “but we are nuns.” After the Mass, the Sisters would gather at a LGBTQ+ safe space or protest at the Catholic Church or Supreme Court. Although they often serve as “sister security” at local events, working to keep queer community members safe according to Sister Amore Fagellare, the Lavender Mass is not widely publicly advertised, out of concern for their own.

On October 8th, nine people gathered on the grass in a circle—six sisters, myself, and two people who were close with professed members—as Sister Mary called us to assemble before leading us all in chanting the chorus to Sister Sledge’s 1979 classic song “We Are Family.” 

Next, novice Sister Sybil Liberties set a sacred space, whereby Sister Ruth and Sister Tearyn Upinjustice walked in a circle behind us, unspooling pink and blue ribbons to tie us together as a group. As Sister Sybil explained, “we surround this sacred space in protection and sanctify it with color,” pink for the choice to become a parent and blue for the freedom to choose not to be a parent but also as Sybil elaboration, in recognition of “the broad gender spectrum of people with the ability to become pregnant.” This intentional act was sought to fight transphobia within the fight for reproductive rights.

After singing Lesley Gore’s 1963 song “You Don’t Own Me,” six speakers began the ritual for reproductive rights. Holding out our wax plastic candles, Sister Sybil explained that each speaker would describe a story or reality connected to reproductive rights, and “as I light a series of candles for the different paths we have taken, if you recognize yourself in one of these prayers, I invite you to put your hand over your heart, wherever you are, and know that you are not alone – there is someone else in this gathered community holding their hand over their heart too.”

The Sisters went around the circle lighting a candle for those whose stories include the choice to end a pregnancy; those whose include the unwanted loss of a pregnancy or struggles with fertility; those whose include the choice to give birth, raise or adopt a child; those whose include the choice not to conceive a child, to undergo forced choice, or with no choice at all; those who have encountered violence where there “should have been tenderness and care;” and those whose reproductive stories are still being written today.

After each reading, the group spoke together, “may the beginnings and endings in our stories be held in unconditional love and acceptance,” recalling the Prayer of the Faithful or General Intercessions at Catholic Masswhere congregations respond “Lord, hear our prayer” to each petition. Sister Sybil closed out the ritual as Sister Mary cut the blue and pink ribbons between each person, creating small segments they could take away with them and tie to their garments before walking to the Women’s March. The Sisters gathered their signs, drums, and horns before walking to Folger Park together into the crowd of protestors.

At first glance, the Lavender Mass may appear like religious appropriation, just as the Sisters themselves sometimes look to outsiders. They model themselves after Angelican and Catholic women religious, in dress—they actively refer to their clothing as “habits,” their organization—members must also go through aspirant, postulant, and novice stages to be fully professed and they maintain a hierarchical authority, and in action. Like white and black habits, the Sisters all wear white faces to create a unified image and colorful coronets, varying veil color based on professed stage. Sister Allie Lewya explained at their September 2022 meeting, “something about the veils gives us a lot of authority that is undue,” but as the Sisters reinforced at the Women’s March, they are not cosplayers nor customers, rather committed clergy.

As such, the Sisters see their existence within the liminal spaces between satire, appropriation, and reimagination, instead reclaiming the basis of religious rituals to counter the power holders of this tradition, namely, to counter the Catholic Church and how it celebrates those in positions of authority who restrict reproductive rights. Similarly, the Lavender Mass is modeled after a Catholic or Anglican Mass. It has an intention, namely reproductive rights, a call to assemble, setting of a sacred space, song, chant, and prayer requests. It even uses religious terminology; each section of the Mass is ended with a “may it be/Amen/Awen/Ashay/aho.”

While this ritual—the Lavender Mass—appropriates a religious ritual of the Catholic Church and Anglican Church, this religious appropriation is necessitated by exclusion and queerphobia. As David Ford explains in Queer Psychology, many queer individuals retain a strong connection to their faith communities even though they have experienced trauma from these same communities. Jodi O’Brien builds on this, characterizing Christian religious institutions as spaces of personal meaning making and oppression. This essay further argues that the fact this ritual is adopted and reimagined by a community that the dominant ritual holder—the Catholic Church—oppressed and marginalized, means that it is not religious appropriation at all.

Religious appropriation, as highlighted in Liz Bucar’s recent book, Stealing My Religion (2022), is the acquisition or use of religious traditions, rituals, or objects without a full understanding of the community for which they hold meaning. The Sisters, however, fully understand the implications of calling themselves sisters and the connotations of performing a ritual they call a “Mass” as women religious, a group that do not have this authority in the Catholic Church. It is the reclamation of a tradition that the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence understand because some were or are part of the Catholic Church.

Some sisters still seek out spiritual meaning, but all also recognize that the Catholic Church itself is an institution that hinders their sisters’ access and actively spreads homophobia and transphobia to this day. As such, through the Lavender Mass, the sisters have reclaimed the Mass as a tool of rebellion in support of queer identity.

Just as the Sisters recognize the meaning and power of the ritual of a Mass, along with the connotations of being a sister, the Lavender Mass fulfilled its purpose as a ritual of intention just as the Sisters fulfill public servants. “As a sister,” Sister Ruth dissected, “as someone who identifies as a drag nun, it perplexes people, but when you get the nitty gritty, we serve a similar purpose, to heal a community, to provide support to a community, to love a community that has not been loved historically in the ways that it should be loved.

The Sisters’ intentionality in recognizing and upholding the role of a woman religious in their work has been well documented as a serious parody for the intention of queer activism by Melissa Wilcox. The Lavender Mass is a form of serious parody, as Wilcox posits in the book: Queer Nuns: Religion, Activism, and Serious Parody(2018). The Mass both challenges the queerphobia of the Catholic Church while also reinforcing the legitimacy of this ritual as a Mass. The Sisters argue that although they would traditionally be excluded from religious leadership in the Catholic Church, they can perform a Mass. In doing so, they challenge the role that women religious play in the Catholic Church as a whole and the power dynamics that exclude queer communities from living authentically within the Church.

By reclaiming a tradition from a religious institution that actively excludes and traumatizes the LGBTQ+ community, the Lavender Mass is a form of religious reclamation in which an oppressed community cultivates queer religious meaning, reclaims a tradition from which they are excluded, and uses it to fuel queer activism (the fight for reproductive rights). This essay argues that the Lavender Mass goes one step further than serious parody. While the Sisters employ serious parody in their religious and activist roles, the Lavender Mass is the active reclamation of a religious tradition for both spiritual and activist ends.

Using the celebration of the Mass as it was intended, just within a different lens for a different purpose, this essay argues, is religious reclamation. As a collection of Austrian and Aotearoan scholars explored most recently in a chapter on acculturation and decolonization, reclamation is associated with the reassertion and ownership of tangibles: of rituals, traditions, objects, and land. The meaning of the Lavender Mass comes not only from the Sisters’ understanding of women religious as a social and religious role but rather from the reclamation of a physical ritual—a Mass—that has specific religious or spiritual meaning for the Sisters.

When asked why it was important to call this ritual a “Mass,” Sister Mary explained: “I think we wanted to have something that denoted a ritual, that was for those who know, that the name signifies that it was a counter-protest. And you know, many of the sisters grew up with faith, not all of them Catholics but some, so I think ‘Mass’ was a name that resonated for many of us.”

As Sister Ray said, “my faith as a queer person tends to ostracize me but the Sisters bring the imagery and language of faith right into the middle of the LGBTQ world.” This Lavender Mass, although only attended and experienced by a few of the Women’s March protests, lived up to its goal as “a form of protest that is hopefully very loud,” as Sister Millie Taint advertised in the Sisters’ September 2022 chapter meeting. It brought religious imagery and language of faith to a march for reproductive rights, using a recognized model of ritual to empower protestors.

The Lavender Mass this year, as always, was an act of rebellion, but by situating itself before the Women’s March and focusing its intention for reproductive rights, the Sisters’ reclaimed a religious ritual from a system of authority which actively oppressed LGBTQ+ peoples and those with the ability to become pregnant, namely the Catholic Church, and for harnessing it for personal, political, and spiritual power. In essence, it modeled a system of religious reclamation, by which a marginalized community takes up a religious ritual to make its own meaning and oppose the religious institution that seeks to exclude the community from ritual participation.

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