Fr Timothy Radcliffe OP on ‘LGBT+ Catholics in a Synodal Church’

Fr Timothy Radcliffe OP

Hello. I am so sorry that I cannot be with you today. I have such happy memories of the time when I was on the rota to celebrate Mass for our LGBT+ brothers and sisters in Soho before the Mass moved to the care of the Jesuits in Farm Street.

I have been asked to say something about the place of LBGT Catholics in a Synodal Church. I am sorry that my talk will be so short. I have just returned from a lecture tour in Italy and France and I am off in a couple of days to Israel, to be with the Dominicans in Jerusalem at the Ecole Biblique so, to be honest, I feel rather rushed off my feet.

A few days ago, the Vatican asked me to do something which was unimaginable a few years ago. I was asked to write a foreword for the English translation of a book by a young Italian, Luigi Testa. It is called Via Crucis di un Ragazzo Gay (The Way of the Cross of a Gay Lad). The Italian preface, which is marvellous, was written by an Italian bishop, the vice-president of the Italian Bishops’ conference. We follow Luigi’s sufferings as young gay person as he walks the way of the Cross, accompanied by Jesus. It is deeply moving. The book is part of a series promoted by the Vatican, of theology from the peripheries. It is a sign of the profound conversion which is taking place at the centre of the Church, as she reaches out to people who have been marginalised and rejected, and says ‘This is your home. We are incomplete without you.’

Before the Synod, Pope Francis frequently stressed that all are welcome. Last August in Portugal, he underlined this at the World Youth Day. ‘All, all, all; todos, todos, todos!’ The divorced and remarried, gay people, transgender people. He wrote earlier ‘The Church is called on to be the house of the Father, with doors always wide open … where there is a place for everyone, with all their problems and to move towards those who feel the need to take up again their path of faith.’

When the Synod opened in October, many of the participants shared Pope Francis’ eagerness to affirm that the Church really is for us all! It is where we should all be at ease. It was this message of hope and love which led to the foundation of those Masses in Soho twenty-five years ago.

At the Synod, this message was repeated, but it was evident that many people were nervous of it. Some participants felt uneasy at even sitting next to Father James Martin SJ, who has been for many years a brave champion of the warm inclusion of gay people in the Church. One person even refused to sit next to him. Others of us too felt the chill as I did. During the Synod, Pope Francis again signalled his welcome by publicly inviting to lunch Sister Jeanine Gramick and Francis DeBernardo, founders of the New Ways Ministry. I had lunch with them the next day and they felt enormously affirmed.

But in the document produced at the end of this first session, the Synthesis, the term LGBT+ was dropped although it has been used in other Vatican documents and by the Pope. So there seemed to be a certain retreat from the openness we had hoped for. Still the Assembly did vote almost unanimously for this proposition: ‘In different ways, people who feel marginalized or excluded from the Church because of their marriage status, identity or sexuality also ask to be heard and accompanied. There was a deep sense of love, mercy and compassion felt in the Assembly for those who are or feel hurt or neglected by the Church, who want a place to call “home” where they can feel safe, be heard and respected, without fear of feeling judged. Listening is a prerequisite for walking together in search of God’s will. The Assembly reiterates that Christians must always show respect for the dignity of every person.’ (Synthesis, 16. h)

Given that in so many countries, homosexuality is still criminalised and despised, this was encouraging. But here the Church faces a challenge to which I hope that you will be able to help us respond. The Church is called to be open to all people, whatever they love and live, and to all cultures. What if some cultures are not open to gay people? How can we embrace in the universal Church cultures which exclude people?

This issue exploded last year. On December 18th, the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a document called Fiducia Supplicans. I confess that, to my shame, I have not studied the text closely. It gives permission for priests in specific situations to bless people in what are usually called “irregular situations”, the divorced and remarried, gay couples. Pope Francis stressed that we all need to be blessed as we seek to find our way forward in love.

Every attempt was made to play down the crisis. The Pope accepted the document. Cardinal Ambongo maintained that the African exceptionalism was a good example of Synodality. Unity does not mean uniformity. The gospel is inculturated differently in different parts of the world.

But it is more complex than that. After the Fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Francis Fukuyama published The End of History and the Last Man arguing that we had entered a new era, the triumph of Western liberal democracy. Every nation seemed destined to ‘evolve’ into our way of life. Some countries, especially in the global South, just had to catch up. If they did not agree with us on, for example, the welcome of LGBT people, they would surely do so eventually.

We were wrong. We have not the time and nor I have the expertise to analyse where we are now, but we seem to be entering a multipolar world, with the rise of Russia, China and India, and all of the BRICS countries. Many people in the Global South think of the West as having a morally decadent culture, doomed to collapse. Cardinal Ambongo of Kinshasa said a couple of months ago:

Cardinal Ambongo of Kinshasa, President of the organisation which represents all of the Catholic bishops of Africa, came to Rome to present their firm rejection of the proposal. He recognised that it was not the intention of the document to change Church teaching on sex but, he said, ‘The episcopal conferences across Africa… believe that the extra-liturgical blessings proposed in the declaration Fiducia Supplicans cannot be carried out in Africa without exposing themselves to scandal… The language of Fiducia Supplicans remains too subtle for simple people to understand.’ Never before have almost all the bishops of a continent rejected a Vatican document.

[the Westerners] will disappear. I wish them a good demise’ Putin is weaponizing the gay issue as emblematic of all that traditional culture opposes, as he seeks to spread Russian influence in other parts of the world, along with the Wagner militia. Putin is always showing his virility, taking off his shirts. He has been described as the most topless leader in the world! But this issue is also being used by Islamicist

“Little by little, they groups with Middle Eastern money, by Evangelical groups with American money “and so on.

As I said, I am no expert on this cultural battle which is being fought out everywhere, whether in the USA or Africa. I just wish, ever so briefly, to signal that the Synod faces this double challenge, of a proper gospel openness to all with an openness to all cultures. How are we to live both? This will be a major challenge for the next session of the Synod. It is not about how does our side win. That is the game of competitive politics. It is how can the Church fulfil her vocation to be the place in which all of humanity finds home and joy. Here, as St Paul says, ‘there is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male nor female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus’ (Galatians 3.28).

My favourite image is of St Peter in John 21. They have fished all night without catching anything. Then they see a stranger on the shore who tells them to cast the net on the other side, and the net is full almost to bursting. Peter hauls the net to the shore and it contains 153 fish. This probably represents all of the nations of the world. The net is not broken. Jesus said before his death, ‘When I am lifted up, I shall draw all people to myself.’ Peter helps in this with his drawing the net to the shore to present it to Jesus.

So how are we to haul in the net without it being broken? The Church is just at the beginning of thinking about this and I hope that you will help us. A starting point is a fascinating lecture by Cardinal Ratzinger before he became Pope. He gave it in Hong Kong in 1993 on what he called Interculturality. He argues that every culture is potentially open to the fullness of the truth. When cultures encounter each other, ideally they should be able to correct each other’s biases and share the truths they embody. So when

African and Western cultures meet, ideally both should be challenged and enriched. In one of his lectures, Albert Nolan, OP of South Africa remarked: “Our question about the impact of Christianity upon Africa will always be incomplete unless we also ask `what is the impact of Africa upon Christianity?”‘

It has been argued that if Western cultures bring a deep sense of the dignity and freedom of the individual, African cultures bring a sense of how being human is rooted in our relationships: Ubuntu. I am because we are. Asian Catholics invite us to learn the value of harmony as Latin American cultures invite us to hear the voice of the poor.

Every culture offers gifts and is challenged. The gospel is to be inculturated in every culture but it challenges every culture. So some people, like Cardinal Ambongo, will argue that homosexuality is foreign to African cultures and so cannot be welcomed. I would say that here the gospel offers a challenge.

So the encounter of cultures is at the heart of many debates in the Synod, and above all the embrace of gay people. And we have to be aware that the encounter of cultures is never just innocent. Other cultures come to Africa, for example, with guns and money. Power dynamics are at work. African bishops shared with us how deeply they feel the humiliation of aid being tied to the acceptance of Western values. Multinationals corrupt and destroy local cultures. Foreign powers do so too. Just as the hunger for gold, led to the destruction of Caribbean cultures in the sixteenth century, so does the search for rare earths and diamonds today. Remember, the strange who stood on the beach had been executed by the Imperial power of his day.

So working for a Church which truly has open doors is inseparable from addressing the ways in which countries in the Global South face unjust economic exploitation, ecological devastation and cultural destruction. No wonder we of the North are thought of as decadent. We all advance on the path to liberation together or not at all.

Forgive this short and superficial presentation. I do so wish that I could have been with you to hear what you think on these complex issues. May you have a wonderful joyful day. And pray that the Synod may open all of our hearts minds and challenge all of our prejudices.

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In year of our Lord 2024, teachers are still losing jobs for being gay

1 of 3 | Even the pope suggested it’s time to let gay couples live in peace. But another local Catholic outfit, St. Luke School in Shoreline, is ousting a lesbian teacher for the crime of getting engaged.

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Sometimes a news story seems so behind the times that I find myself double-checking the date. As if maybe it’s one of those items that’s still bouncing around the internet from another decade.

Such as: “Catholic school teacher tells parents she is being forced out because she is gay.”

You’re still at this, local Catholics? Still ousting gay employees, in the Seattle area, in 2024?

The news is indeed from this week, with the story that a kindergarten teacher at St. Luke School in Shoreline is not having her teaching contract renewed for next year because she’s gay and getting married.

“Father Brad does not approve of my upcoming marriage and feels it is best for the St. Luke community if I no longer teach at St. Luke,” the teacher, Karen Pala, said in an email to kindergarten parents. (A copy was forwarded to me by a parent.)

“Father Brad” refers to Brad Hagelin, the parish priest.

Fr. Brad Hagelin

“This news has been extremely difficult for me,” Pala went on. “I am a faithful practicing Catholic and I was ready to spend the next 30 years of my career at St. Luke.”

Predictably — because this is what happens every time local religious schools do this — many parents responded with anger. They said driving out the teacher is mean and discriminatory in spirit, even if it isn’t against the letter of the law. It reminds me of when Kennedy Catholic High School in Burien ousted two gay teachers in the middle of the 2019-20 school year for the crime of getting engaged — touching off schoolwide protests.

“It’s a real shock, because this isn’t what St. Luke’s represents to a lot of folks,” one current parent there, Nick Beyer, told me. “It’s a liberal, accepting place — or so we thought.”

“Has the diocese not learned from its history?” wondered Gary Johnson, a St. Luke’s alum, writing on a petition set up to protest the teacher’s ouster.

Added a “disheartened” Jennifer Keough, another St. Luke’s alum: “This type of action is what is driving people away from the Catholic Church.”

A spokesperson for the Archdiocese of Seattle said they couldn’t talk specifics about a personnel matter. In a statement, Archbishop Paul Etienne did some hemming to go along with some hawing:

“The reality is that we live in a tension,” he said. “After more than a year of study in 2020-2021, the covenant taskforce concluded that there is no clear, consensus for how to apply the covenant clause. … Because there isn’t a single defined answer, we must dialog like Jesus did. This is why the application of our covenant clause is handled at the local level…”

The covenant clause he’s referring to is whether Catholic schools should require teachers or other employees to adhere to a “lifestyle” contract, in which they’re expected to adhere to all church teachings, including in their personal lives. In some parishes, this means teachers can lose their jobs if they enter a same-sex marriage or cohabitate outside of marriage, among other things.

“No one is fired or non-renewed from employment due to their orientation, identity, desires, or ideas,” an archdiocese report on the issue summed up. “Rather, it is the breaking of the covenant through actions, public witness, and lifestyle choices.”

I think that means you can technically be gay, so long as the church feels it can look the other way. Getting married is a public act, with a license, so the teacher’s out.

It’s sort of like the old discredited “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. Which even the military ended because it called on gay people to deny or hide their existences.

The church has a right to do this because religious groups are exempt from some parts of anti-discrimination policy. But is it the right thing to do? As the archbishop acknowledges above, the flock seems increasingly skeptical.

“This is a shameful hypocrisy and a contradiction to the message of love and tolerance that characterizes the Catholic faith,” wrote Forest Hoag, a Seattle U grad. “I am embarrassed to even hear about this.”

Beyer, who has a son at St. Luke, said it feels most tone-deaf coming right after the pope himself said it was OK to bless same-sex couples. That doesn’t mean the church endorses the marriages, let alone performs them. But the people involved are simply loving one another, the pope said. They don’t deserve to be punished.

“That’s the ultimate big boss saying it’s OK, that we should move past this,” Beyer said. “So shouldn’t it be OK in Seattle?”

This is what I wonder every time another gay employee is run out of a job in the name of religion, just for being.

Discrimination against gays and lesbians was banned here 18 years ago. Don’t ask, don’t tell ended 13 years ago. Same-sex marriage has been the law here for 12. Given all that progress, all those years ago, shouldn’t we be better than this by now?

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Why faith-based groups are prone to sexual abuse and how they can get ahead of it

— As Sexual Assault Awareness Month comes to a close, there are a few steps experts say every faith group can take to improve safeguarding protocols.

A woman holds signs about abuse during a rally outside the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention at the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex on June 11, 2019, in Birmingham, Ala.

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Hollywood, the USA Gymnastics team, Penn State, the Boy Scouts: Sexual abuse has proved pervasive across institutions. And when it comes to faith groups, no creed, structure, value system or size has seemed immune.

“We’ve got to stop saying that could never happen in my church, or my pastor would never do that,” said David Pooler, a professor of social work at Baylor University who researches clergy-perpetrated sexual abuse of adults.

With more victims coming forward and more research done on abuse within religious contexts, the evidence has shown that when sexual abuse happens in a place designated not only safe, but holy, it’s a unique form of betrayal — and when the perpetrator is a clergy member or spiritual leader, the abuse can be seen as God-endorsed.

As the scope of this crisis has been revealed, houses of worship and religious institutions — from Southern Baptists to Orthodox Jews to American atheists — have looked to shore up their safeguarding protocols and protect their constituents against abuse.

But rather than scrambling to respond in the wake of a crisis, faith groups need to adopt policies tailored to their setting and connected to their mission, says Kathleen McChesney, who was the first executive director of the Office of Child Protection for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Kathleen McChesney. Photo courtesy of McChesney
Kathleen McChesney.

“When you do that, people will have a greater understanding of what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, and how you’re doing it,” said McChesney, one of a growing group of abuse experts and survivor advocates consulting with religious institutions.

As Sexual Assault Awareness Month comes to a close, there are a few steps these experts say every faith group can take to improve safeguarding protocols.

Accept it can happen anywhere

One of the most dangerous — and common — assumptions religious groups make is to think of sexual abuse as a “them” problem. As the founder of international nonprofit Freely in Hope, Nikole Lim has worked for years to combat sexual violence in Kenya and Zambia, and more recently has been helping U.S.-based groups prevent sexual abuse locally. For Lim, the reality that 1 in 3 women and 1 in 6 men worldwide are survivors of sexual abuse is evidence this is a problem that permeates every level of society. “That’s a global statistic that doesn’t only exist in poor communities,” said Lim. “That also exists within your family, within your congregations.”

Nikole Lim. (Courtesy photo)
Nikole Lim.

Experts agree that faith groups often embrace the myth that good intentions, theology and ethics can stop sexual abuse from landing on their doorstep. Amy Langenberg, a professor of religious studies at Eckerd College, along with her research partner Ann Gleig, a religious and cultural studies scholar at the University of Central Florida, have shown that Buddhist ethics about doing no harm and showing compassion are insufficient to prevent abuse in Buddhist contexts.

“You really do need these other ways of thinking about ethics, which are coming from outside of Buddhism, and which are coming usually from feminism, from advocacy, from the law,” said Langenberg.

Because faith communities often think of themselves as the “good guys,” they’re vulnerable to blind spots. That’s why conducting a risk assessment, much like you’d do for fire insurance, can help pinpoint what protocols are most needed, according to McChesney, who now leads a firm that consults on employee misconduct investigations and policy development. Once concrete anti-abuse measures are in place, ongoing education can remind people at all levels of the organization to remain vigilant.

Define abuse

Faith groups often struggle to respond effectively to sexual misconduct because they lack consensus on what “counts” as abusive. Gleig, who is teaming up with Langenberg on a book-length study called Abuse, Sex, and the Sangha,” told Religion News Service that in Buddhist contexts, the category of abuse is often contested. In some cases, Gleig said, “abuse can be framed as a Buddhist teaching — for example, that this wasn’t abuse, it was actually some kind of skillful form of pedagogy.”

Amy Langenberg, left, and Ann Gleig. (Photos courtesy Rice University)
Amy Langenberg, left, and Ann Gleig.

In churches, Lim has found that loose definitions of abuse can lead to a form of “spiritual bypassing,” where abuse is framed as a mistake to be prayed about, rather than an act of harm that requires tangible accountability.

Conversations about sexual abuse in religious settings are often framed around clergy abuse of children. But faith groups must also account for peer-on-peer violence among children and teens, as well as abuse of adults. Key to preventing such abuse, Pooler said, is having a robust definition of sexual abuse that goes beyond mere legal metrics and includes things such as sexual conversations, nonconsensual touch and sexual jokes and language.

Recognize power dynamics

The unequal power dynamics inherent to religious settings are an enormous barrier to equitably addressing sexual abuse. But the law is beginning to account for this imbalance. In at least 13 states and the District of Columbia, it’s illegal for clergy to engage in sexual behavior with someone in their spiritual care — and many experts believe this standard, which is widely embraced when it comes to doctors and therapists, should be universal in religious settings, too.

According to Pooler, religious groups should work to share power among multiple leaders and ensure that the broader community has decision-making authority. And when sexual abuse allegations involve a religious leader, “the person should be placed on some type of leave where they are no longer influencing or speaking,” said Pooler, “because what I have seen is abusive people will try and grab ahold of the microphone and shape a narrative immediately.”

Rowena Chiu, from left, Jean Nangwala, Irene Cho, and facilitator Bigad Shaban participate in a panel during the Freely In Hope event titled "Redeeming Sanctuaries: Ending Sexual Abuse in the Church" in San Francisco in June 2023. (Photo courtesy Freely in Hope)
Rowena Chiu, from left, Jean Nangwala, Irene Cho, and facilitator Bigad Shaban participate in a panel during the Freely In Hope event titled “Redeeming Sanctuaries: Ending Sexual Abuse in the Church” in San Francisco in June 2023.

Center survivors

Experts commonly observe a default reaction in religious settings to to protect the reputation of the faith group or clergyperson over investigating an abuse allegation. But defensive postures often overlook the person who, at great risk, reported the abuse in the first place.

Navila Rashid. Photo courtesy Rashid
Navila Rashid.

When a survivor shares abuse allegations, faith groups often fear what will happen if they take the report seriously. For example, Navila Rashid, director of training and survivor advocacy for Heart, a group that equips Muslims to nurture sexual health and confront sexual violence, said Muslim communities can be hesitant to address sexual violence because they don’t want to add to existing Islamophobic narratives about the violence of Islam. But Rashid told RNS it’s vital to believe survivors. “If we can’t start off from that premise, then doing and creating preventative tools and methods is not going to actually work,” she said.

Pooler advises groups to make sure survivors “sit at the steering wheel” of how the response is handled — if and when personal details about the survivor are shared, for example, should be entirely up to them. Caring for abuse survivors requires taking their needs seriously at every juncture, even before abuse is reported, according to Pooler and other experts. That’s why background checks are vital.


“You don’t want to put somebody that has abused a minor ever in a role of supervising minors,” McChesney told RNS.

Get outside help

Faith communities are known for being close-knit, which makes avoiding conflicts of interest difficult, if not impossible, when it comes to holding offenders accountable. That’s why many experts recommend hiring outside groups to hold trainings, develop protocols and steer abuse investigations.

“They don’t have any investment in the church looking good or their leaders looking good,” Pooler said about hiring groups such as GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment) or other third-party organizations that investigate abuse allegations. These organizations, he said, are committed to laying out the facts so faith groups can make informed decisions. Groups that are trauma-informed can also ensure that gathering testimony from survivors doesn’t cause additional harm.

David Pooler. (Courtesy photo)
David Pooler.

Rashid recommended that faith communities create a budget line for hiring outside groups who focus on addressing sexual abuse. Rather than offering quick fixes, she said, such groups are designed to help faith communities unlearn biases, recognize power dynamics and adopt long-term solutions at individual, communal and institutional levels that prioritize the safety of all community members.

“What we want to see with policies is pushing for a culture shift,” she said, “not a Band-Aid fix.”

Complete Article HERE!

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.”

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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.

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(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.

Complete Article HERE!