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DignityUSA: Roman Catholic? LGBT-focused?

By Daniel Helminiak

DignityUSA is probably stronger than ever. The superb work of a paid staff and talented Board has given Dignity the stability, efficiency, and competence to be a powerful voice for change. Yet one uncertainty continues to becloud the organization: there is no consensus on what its work should be. Thus, Dignity’s impact is scattered, fragmented, and diluted.

Dignity’s Statement of Position and Purpose speaks of “reform in the Church” and, specifically, “for the development of sexual theology…and for the acceptance of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered peoples as full and equal members of the one Christ.” How much this “reform” has drifted from focus on sexual ethics is unclear. What is clear is Dignity’s increasing concern for all-out transformation of the Roman Catholic Church.

Emphasis on such pervasive ecclesial reform dominated our convention in July 2009. Dr. Mary Hunt’s overview of Dignity’s history, status, and prospects provided a quotable line to make the point: “Let the needs of the world be our agenda, not the failings of the institutional church.” Our national president, Mark Matson, repeated that line and added others like it: we are to be “the church for all who seek full inclusion” and “we must be the change we want to see in the church.”

Couched in terms as sweeping as “the needs of the world,” the identity of DignityUSA remains uncertain. Despite the upbeat mood of the San Francisco convention, indicators of alienation and fragmentation were also palpable. The multiple constituencies of Dignity have never been easy to manage: chapters appealing only to local affiliation, individuals struggling with coming out or seeking spiritual guidance, people wanting an LGBT-focused Mass, activists committed to challenging Vatican teaching, families of LGBT people needing support, fully out youth claiming a bona fide Catholic identity or else disassociating from the Catholic Church, other national organizations partnering with Dignity, the church and society at large needing an alternative Catholic voice on LGBT issues. One would think that these shifting challenges would be enough to burden any one organization, but now Dignity seems committed to reformation of the Catholic Church itself—and I use the historically loaded word reformation deliberately.

I fear this current emphasis compromises Dignity’s original, important, and already overwhelming mission, which becomes increasingly demanding under Benedict XVI’s administration. Two questions express my concern: Is reform of the whole church the task of Dignity? And is Dignity still Roman Catholic? My personal answer to both is a firm No. This state of affairs is gravely problematic.

Both those questions hang together, and the same issues tend to provoke them. Paramount among them is feminist theology. As a gender issue, it is surely pertinent to Dignity; misogyny and homophobia do walk hand in hand. Dignity’s Statement of Position and Purpose does include concern “to eradicate sexism and particularly in all areas of Church and secular life so that women are wholly included, accepted, and welcome” and “to promote inclusivity in all areas of liturgical and community life.” So Dignity has always struggled to do right by women without betraying the focal concerns of the organization. Perhaps it is indeed impossible to change the Roman Catholic Church without confronting head on the kyriarchy that controls it. Yet when does dismantling the kyriarchy and restructuring the whole church distract from Dignity’s LGBT mission? There is no obvious answer; it is always a judgment call. I believe Dignity has already crossed the line.

No one, for example, could have credited the convention’s main Eucharistic Liturgy as a Roman Catholic Mass. Was there even a validly and licitly ordained priest presiding at that liturgy? If so, the fact was nowhere determinable. Worse still, the lack of concern over this question was explicit. As Mary Hunt reported without apparent concern or opposition, “Many of us have moved beyond dependence on the presence of an ordained cleric, male or female, to authenticate our masses”—although the tradition of apostolic succession and ordination is the backbone of Roman Catholicism. (I say tradition, not fact: we know the inconsistencies in this matter in the earliest Christian century.)

Please, get my real point. My theology is as liberal as they come. I do not fault efforts at all-out reform in themselves, but they are out of place in Dignity. Surely, Jesus was really present in that convention Eucharist. Surely, he is really present in non-Catholic gatherings. So the “genuineness” of that Eucharistic experience is not what is in question. Its Roman Catholic nature is.

Vatican II is explicit: one need not be Catholic, nor Christian, nor even theist to be saved, but only a person of sincere good will. Moreover, the Council insisted that Christ is present in the Word, in the priest, and in the congregation as well as in the sacrament on the altar. Christ is hardly “more really present” in one form than another. What could that possibly mean? Indeed, through the Holy Spirit, Christ is present and active in myriad ways also in everyday life. However, Christ’s presence can be symbolized differently, and the various Christian churches have their own ways of celebrating Christ’s presence. What occurred at our 40th-anniversary convention was not a Roman Catholic form of celebrating Eucharist. This failure is what concerns me—in an organization dedicated to influencing Roman Catholic teaching.

Again, Mary Hunt squarely addressed the matter at stake: “There are a range of ways of being Catholic of which ‘Roman’ is but one….the Roman part of the Catholic tradition is not necessarily the normative one and need not be treated as such.” Absolutely! But not in the case of Roman Catholics! This, only this, is my point. Acceptance of the Roman Catholic “style”— the technical term is “church order”—is precisely what distinguishes Roman Catholicism from other Christian traditions.

DignityUSA is on a path of exit from the Roman Catholic Church. Exit itself is not my concern. Many have left, legitimately and deservedly, and they are the better for it. But rightly, they no longer call themselves Roman Catholic. To part ways with the official church and form one more to one’s liking—and even, I fully agree, more in accord with the best of theology—is quintessentially Protestant, and this is what DignityUSA is currently about. People can argue ecclesiology as they wish, but theological correctness does not determine ecclesial affiliation. It’s more a matter of politics than theology, and calling it ecclesiology does not change its essentially sociological, business-administrative, or political character. From this perspective, changing churches is like changing parties. All may be American, but Democrats are not Republicans, and the two are American in their own ways.

To put the matter bluntly: if people don’t like the way the Roman Catholic Church is currently running, they can leave and join another religion that better meets their spiritual needs. Indeed, already gone so far, why even be concerned whether or not it’s “Catholic” in any form or Christian? Why not Buddhist, Muslim, or Hindu? Even enshrined Catholic teaching allows that all can be saved.

Mark Matson asserts, “If we ARE the Church, then we don’t have to sit back and wait for the kyriarchs to make the decisions.” True, we are the Church, but so are other believers, including the bishops, and none of us are free to decide for ourselves what the whole of the Church is to be. Are members of Dignity serving, perhaps, only selfish interests by morphing the organization into another church because of dissatisfaction with the current one? Is Dignity re-enacting the Reformation?

Please again, let my point be clear. In decrying reformation, I am not even faulting Martin Luther. He was right in much of his objection to the Roman Church of his day, yet even he lamented the political consequences. Likewise, we are right in much of our objection to the Vatican church of our day.

Indeed, on sexual ethics the Vatican flouts long-standing, solemnly proclaimed—if not, perhaps, actually infallibly defined—Catholic teaching from the First Vatican Council: “Although it is true that faith is above reason, no true conflict between faith and reason could ever occur.” This teaching is what keeps me Roman Catholic: the only theological tradition I know that could coherently and respectfully address the needs of a multi-religious, global society—if only it would be true to its heritage. But no! The defensive Vatican “of little faith” (Mt.
14:31, 16:8) flagrantly dismisses overwhelming evidence on every front—biblical, historical, psychological, medical, anthropological, personal—in its crusade against same-sex relationships. Likewise, the Vatican ignores its own teaching on collegiality, subsidiarity, and the rights of the baptized.

Nonetheless, to object to Vatican practice on the basis of solid Roman Catholic teaching and, thus, to offer LGBT people, their families, and society at large an alternative Roman Catholic vision is not to set up one’s own church. Yet Dignity appears to be doing so—and, in the process, neglecting its founding mission.

The issues that pushed Dignity over the line are real, they are serious, they are legitimate. In no way do I minimize them. But is it Dignity’s role to take on the lot and at the expense of the one task that is its alone?

In fact, there do exist many ways to meet the spiritual needs of LGBT people within the confines of the present Catholic system. There also exist many ways to celebrate powerfully meaningful, gender-inclusive liturgies within the present Catholic system. There exist, as well, many Catholic organizations, which Dignity members could and do join, and many partnerships, which Dignity already prizes, that provide venues for Dignity members to advance the many-faceted reformation of the Roman Catholic Church.

No one organization can address all the needs of the Church, however urgent, deserving, and inspiring they might be. Yet Dignity is attempting this impossibility. In fact, other lay organizations already specifically address, one by one, the array of institutionalized flaws in the church. The need for reformation of the Roman Catholic Church is not being ignored in the least. There is no reason under the sun for Dignity to make this overarching task its own. On the other hand, not one of those organizations spotlights the skewed sexual ethics of the Vatican. Not one has proclaimed direct challenges to Vatican teaching on this matter. In this matter Dignity is singular.  Indeed, it is the organization to which the others look to “cover” this matter. Yet Dignity is choosing to invest its efforts in structuring for its members a comfortable but non-Roman-Catholic church experience and necessarily, then, shortchanging the one mission that is uniquely its own.

Daniel Helminiak, DignityUSA member since 1976, is currently Professor of Psychology at the University of West Georgia, near Atlanta. He holds PhDs in both theology and psychology, is author of the Dignity pamphlet “Catholicism, Homosexuality, and Dignity,” and is best known for What the Bible Really Says about Homosexuality. His latest book is Spirituality for Our Global Comm- unity: From Traditional Religion to a World at Peace. His website is www.visionsofdaniel.net.