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Faithful and Fabulous: Dignity on the Road at Forty

(Keynote Speech by Mary Hunt at the Dignity Convention, San Francisco, July 3, 2009) 

As a member of DignityUSA, let me begin by offering thanks to Marianne Duddy-Burke for marvelous leadership. You and your family are models of the goodness and the generativity that comes with love. You show us what faithful and fabulous look like!

My gratitude goes to the convention committee for all of your work to make this weekend so rich and enjoyable. Special thanks to the local Bay Area members who have made of us feel as if we belong here. Let me also extend a warm invitation from my colleagues in Washington, DC, who are planning a great time for us in the Nation’s Capital for the 29th DignityUSA Convention in 2011. I’m lobbying now for them to invite Michelle Obama to join us. Let’s hope she accepts.

Last night’s opening ceremony was a moving experience. It always is when the banners arrive and we realize how many we are, how varied we are, and how lucky we are to be Dignity. It is especially wonderful to have so many straight allies with us—parents and friends, even some of our children who are heterosexual. One of our great accomplishments in forty years is that heterosexual people have come to a deeper sense of their own faith and commitment to justice because of Dignity. Thank you, one and all.

I am honored to join Richard Rodriguez in offering plenary remarks. I know he plans to talk about love. I have decided to focus more on justice. Between us we will cover the Catholic waterfront. Some of you may have wanted Rachel Maddow to speak this morning. At least you got a liberal lesbian with short, dark hair so you’ll just have to settle for a theologian instead of a journalist. I look forward to our discussion when I am sure your insights will deepen my sense that we are “faithful and fabulous” as Dignity continues along the road at forty.

Forty is the new thirty. In my age cohort, we like to say that fifty is the new forty. So, depending on how we reckon time, we can look back and look ahead and still be right here at the 40th anniversary of the founding of this vital organization.

I will explore how we are faithful and fabulous starting with some reflections on our history. Then I will focus on how the Catholic Church has changed in these forty years, with us in the lead. Finally, I will rejoice without hesitation, apology, or fear of contradiction in what we have achieved as the foundation for a vision of church yet to come which I challenge us to actualize in the next ten years.

Let me add a word about my method, my approach to these matters. I think the very existence of Dignity in the midst of what has been a homophobic, heterosexist, duplicitous Catholic Church is the proof of miracles. It is at least a strong indication of the presence of the Holy Spirit, whether we recognize her or not. Dignity at forty is “faithful and fabulous” because of our hard work and the grace of God.

As a theologian I am trained to be self-critical. So I should really put us under my theological microscope and focus in on what we need to do to be better, more effective in accomplishing our goals. But in my view an anniversary is not a time for self-criticism as much as a time to lift up how and why we have gotten here. After all, as Dignity’s leadership will attest, this organization meets and reports, hires consultants and engages in long term planning to hone its mission and strategies. I suggest we leave that to other times and treat this anniversary weekend as though it were an anniversary with a partner one hopes to stay with for years to come.

Here’s a helpful hint for couples: Don’t use your anniversary as a time for self-criticism. If you do, it may be your last! Instead, go out for a romantic dinner to celebrate your good luck and good love, and save the analysis for another occasion. Then go home and express the love so there will be something to celebrate next year.

Rare are the times in relationships—and rarer still in organizational settings—that we let ourselves bask in the goodness and rejoice in the company of one another. Let us consider this weekend as that romantic dinner when we say thank you to one another for all that has gone into these forty years of common life as Dignity and express what we hope for in the years ahead. Let us thank the Holy One for the grace of these years and pray for more. And yes, let us express our love in actions—I will leave it to your well informed discretion as to how—so that there will be something to celebrate for our fiftieth anniversary in 2019.

1. Dignity’s history—faithful and fabulous

Every group has a myth of origin—a story, probably close to what happened but at least what historians can trace. Ours begins forty years ago when Fr. Patrick X. Nidorf, an Augustinian priest, decided to develop a ministry with gay people. Wisely, he screened those who would join the group to keep out undesirable homophobes. The original Statement of Position and Purpose affirms: "We believe that homosexuality is a natural variation on the use of sex. It implies no sickness or immorality. Those with such sexual orientation have a natural right to use their power of sex in a way that is both responsible and fulfilling... and should use it with a sense of pride." The Statement was written by Bob Fourier, the first General Chair of Dignity, in 1970. It rings true today as it did then, confirming our founders’ insights into the heart of the matter.

On September 26, 1970, Dignity held its first meeting on Catholic Church property at St. Brendan's Parish in Los Angeles. Meanwhile, the great and good Jesuit John McNeill, then of New York City and now of Fort Lauderdale, wrote articles in professional ministry publications which began to lay the foundation for a gay-friendly Catholic theology. We are fortunate to have John and his longtime partner Charlie Chiccarelli with us this weekend. We honor you, John and Charlie, for your faithfulness and for how fabulous you both are!

So, Dignitarians, try to recall where YOU were forty years ago, indeed IF you were forty years ago. Try to remember what it meant to be a gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender Catholic in those days. It was not easy to be considered mentally ill, a social pariah, a sinner, and a spiritual deviant. It was unjust to be thrown out of seminary or the convent, often under cover of darkness, just because of love. Many of us remember the pain of parents and siblings who rejected us because of who we were. Still others can tell stories of jobs lost, promotions denied, military service cut short, children taken away because of their parents’ sexual choices. All of us can recall, because it has not changed much, the rhetoric of the institutional Catholic Church that insulted and denied our love. But the harder it is for you to recall that time, the more you can thank Dignity and our friends for undoing the hideous homophobic theology and providing the foundations for viewing same-sex love as healthy, good, natural, and holy. Now we can say, “Look at those queer people, how they love one another” and thank Dignity.

Dignity began in 1969, the year of the Stonewall events, shortly after the end of the Second Vatican Council. It was a time when the Catholic community was approaching its peak of openness—liturgical reform that featured mass in the vernacular, nuns leaving aside their habits and taking up social justice work, lay people embracing ministerial roles, men leaving the priesthood in record numbers for marriage and for other men (and sometimes both), theologians finding their voices in opposition to Humane Vitae, the so-called birth control encyclical. Yet it was a courageous few (and I don’t mean a few members of Courage) who had the moral insight and the personal integrity to speak the truth on same-sex love. They were faithful and fabulous.

Our founders acted on a faith in things unseen, on love they could only imagine because they were not shown any by Catholic leadership. They acted on a commitment to justice for themselves and those who would follow them because they knew, despite all false teachings to the contrary, that love and justice are the bedrock values of Catholicism.

Our Dignity ancestors started us on the road toward the Promised Land seeking justice. In the Exodus story God said, “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their oppressors, and I am concerned about their suffering” (Exodus 3:7). We too have had our share of pain. We have wandered in the desert, suffering and losing some of our people along the way. It is those people whom we thank and bless today, without whom we could never have trod the road ourselves.

Many LGBTQ Catholics have been so hurt and so scandalized by the institutional church that they have left the Catholic community. I respect them for their refusal to be abused in the name of God and for their choices to be faithful in other ways. After all, we live in what Catholic feminist theologian Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza has so aptly named “kyriarchy,” those interstructured forms of lordship—racism, sexism, heterosexism, colonialism, economic disparity, ageism—that privilege some and oppress others.1

Our institutional church is the quintessential incarnation of kyriarchy—still rigidly hierarchical with a few men pretending to make decisions for the rest of us, still sexist in the extreme in that women are prevented from exercising our baptismal call to ministry, still homophobic and duplicitous to the core given what Catholic historian Mark Jordan named the “honeycombed closet” that is the clerical club.2 Yes, many left for their own spiritual survival. We miss them but they remain part of us. In fact, it is the institutional Catholic Church that has left all of us, not any of us who have really left the Catholic community.

Other friends became ill and died along the way. Our history is replete with the names of scores of our best and brightest who died of AIDS since the 1980s. I bless the names of Kevin Gordon and Kevin Calegari, to mention just two local men. Still others, like beloved Sister Eileen DeLong, grew old and died without seeing the fruits of their labor. They remain a part of us as well.

Let us call out the names of the ones who went ahead of us. Let us weep for those who died alienated from the tradition that they called their own. Let us praise God that we were privileged to know them. Let us embrace them now in the communion of saints, the cloud of witnesses who call us to follow them “into a good and gracious land, a land flowing with milk and honey” (Exodus 3:8). Let their names be heard because they led the way on the same road we travel.

Our history is the story of a people who faced obstacles but who believed when God said, “I will be with you” (Exodus 3:12). Kyriarchal Catholicism has tried our faith in many ways, and each time we have been nothing short of fabulous in our responses. I will mention two defining examples, and invite you to add your own in our table dialogues later this morning.

The first is the infamous “Halloween Letter” of October 1986 (“Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons”), which came out under the signature of then Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger and was made worse by its timing in the midst of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. The writers reiterated that “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered” and that the very inclination toward same-sex love is “an objective disorder.” We said: “Hogwash.” That document was issued because the 1975 “Declaration on Certain Questions Concerning Sexual Ethics” was, as Kevin Gordon of this city demonstrated, a classic case of “non recepcionis.” The false teaching about us was simply not received by the larger church and therefore, according to some canonists, did not have the force of law.

The practice of non-recepcionis, when the faith community does not receive a teaching promulgated by those in authority, is rooted in the work of John Gratian, the early canonist, in the 12th century.3Non-recepcionis” is not an angry, bitter response of the disenfranchised, though it can appear that way. Rather, it is a legitimate and responsible way of participating in the governance of the community. It is incumbent on those who are subject to the law to evaluate and discern for themselves whether the law as stated is conducive of the common good, whether it makes sense in the context in which it is found. If so, they assent by receiving, that is, obeying it; if not, they withhold their assent by not receiving, that is, not obeying it. As contemporary canonist James Coriden notes, “For a law or rule to be an effective guide for the believing community it must be accepted by that community.” 4 We led the way in rejecting the false teaching on same-sex love, and many have come to see the wisdom of our ways. We were right and we were church.

Another example of our faith being tried and our response being fabulous is what I have come to think of as “location, location, location,” or the great real estate purge. It began in earnest after the Halloween Letter when Dignity groups were unceremoniously kicked out of the very churches our parents and grandparents built. Local bishops, under Vatican pressure, directed that our chapters be barred from meeting in the space that our Sunday offerings support. This may seem a small matter, especially to new Dignity members who have only enjoyed the hospitality of others. But it continues to stick in the craw of many of us who realize how unjust it is to be personae non gratae in our own churches.

Once again the response of Dignity has been nothing short of fabulous, darlings! We have located our worship and programs at local Episcopal, Unitarian, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Metropolitan Community Church, UCC, American Catholic, Methodist, and Quaker facilities, among others. We have gone to local LGBTQ centers to engage in worship when “their own receive them not.” 5 These are the words of the title of Episcopal priest Horace Griffin’s work on African American Gays and Lesbians in Black Churches, and they apply to us as well.

I recall (in Washington, DC) a procession from the old meeting space in a church to the welcoming and homey sanctuary of St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church just north of Dupont Circle, where Mass is celebrated every Sunday evening. The DC chapter bought, rehabbed, and now staffs a building, conveniently located across from the Marine Barracks. The Dignity Center houses movies, bridge, spiritual direction, and a book club; for many years it offered hospitality to other groups including Women-Church on occasion and Communitas, a local Catholic community.

This pattern of being rejected by the kyriarchal church yet rising up with integrity on our own terms is how many Dignity chapters responded to kyriarchal inhospitality. We have been pioneers as Catholics in interfaith work, realizing by their goodness that those places that welcome us are part of our church and we of theirs. Not content to simply fulfill their own needs, chapters went the extra mile to create spaces that make room for other people as well (twelve-step programs, women’s groups, to mention just a few). This is a hallmark of Dignity’s fabulous ways, reason for my insistence that we celebrate this weekend rather than critique ourselves.

This history of pain and loss, of pride and integrity is forty years in the desert finding water and sustenance along the way from a variety of sources. It is the fulfillment of the Spanish saying, “Caminante, no hay camino, se hace camino al andar,” which means "Traveler, there is no road; you make your path as you walk." We and our Dignity ancestors did exactly that. As in the Exodus story, we believed that change would come, and it has. We are living proof. God said, in Exodus 3:21, “I will make the Egyptians favorably disposed toward this people, so that when you leave you will not go empty-handed.” Nor have we gone empty-handed. In fact, ours is a legacy of plenty and success to which I turn our attention now.

2. How the Catholic Church has changed in these forty years, with us in the lead

On this 40th anniversary of Dignity, we can point with pride to many accomplishments that have changed Catholicism in material ways and changed us too. God knows the work has just begun, but let me reprise what I think are the most outstanding changes as they ground our vision of church for the decade ahead.

(1) A great myth has been exploded in our time. It is the mistaken notion that the Roman articulation of Catholicism is the normative one. How often we confuse the Roman Catholic Church with what it means to be Catholic. I prefer to be polite and honest about the reality of Orthodox Catholics, Anglo Catholics, Old Catholics, American Catholics, Women-Church Catholics, Dignity Catholics, among others. There are a range of ways of being Catholic of which “Roman” is but one. Despite the Vatican’s efforts and the collusion of an often under-informed press, the Roman part of the Catholic tradition is not necessarily the normative one and need not be treated as such. It is simply one expression of the tradition. Given its kyriarchal expression in the moment, it is not one that best exemplifies the values of love and justice. I hope for its radical reshaping but in the meantime I am Catholic in quite a different way, happy to clarify that Rome does not speak for the whole church.

I see Dignity living out this new Catholic reality in myriad ways. We neither ask permission nor beg forgiveness as we go ahead with liturgy with more concern for effective ritual than conformity to rubrics. Many of us have moved beyond dependence on the presence of an ordained cleric, male or female, to authenticate our masses. We see the community gathered as the ordinary ministers of the Eucharist rather than objectifying our priests as sacramental guarantors. We look to local communities for decisions about their own well-being and for financial solvency. We expect individuals to be active participants, thinking adults in their communities, not passive recipients of wisdom and laws from on high. This does not mean we are no longer Catholic. It means we are Catholic in the deeper, richer sense of the Greek word katholicus, meaning broadminded, inclusive, encompassing of all.

(2) Dignity is an integral part of the larger church, albeit not the kyriarchal

institution. In the forty years since our founding and since Vatican II, the kyriarchal institution we call Rome has become bankrupt morally, spiritually, and, in some dioceses, financially. We need not rehearse all of the sordid details, but three flagrant examples are enough to make the case.

a) Priest pedophilia and episcopal cover-ups in this country ended the kyriarchy’s claim to the moral high ground. Allowing illegal sexual behavior, countenancing and moving around on a national interdiocesan chessboard priests who bishops should have known would be serial offenders, and having to spend more than a billion dollars in reparations to survivors when no amount of money will ever compensate the survivors is the end of Roman Catholic credibility as we knew it. The Ryan Report released recently in Ireland catalogues that country’s parallel experience. Now the Irish bishops are blaming religious orders. Several survivors have committed suicide since the report became public. The pattern of sadistic behavior toward children and sexual violence against teens is rooted in a homophobic theology that justifies a perverted morality. Enough is enough.

b) The current Vatican-directed witch hunt of American nuns is surely the sign of spiritual bankruptcy. Concerned about the decline in the number of nuns in American orders, an Apostolic Visitation was ordered of all the communities. The Vatican enlisted conservative nuns to “visit” more progressive ones and report to the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life about the “quality of life” of the 59,000 women religious who belong to 400 congregations. The stated goal is to find out what they are doing and to help them to grow. In reality, I believe it is to force them to toe the Vatican line.

The nuns’ median age is well over 70, meaning that religious life as we knew it is all but over. The Vatican conveniently ignores the major factor in the decline in numbers in women’s religious orders, namely, its Neanderthal treatment of women in general and women religious in particular. Catholic women have many options for community and ministry that do not necessitate putting ourselves under the thumb of patriarchs. Meanwhile, our sisters continue to do exemplary work in social justice and other forms of ministry, putting the high-living kyriarchs to shame by their simple lifestyles, impressive stewardship of resources, and generous care of their many elderly members.

At the same time, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has acted on concerns of the Committee on Doctrine of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to begin a “doctrinal assessment” of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the organization that provides resources and support for the leaders of women’s orders. The areas of Vatican concern are familiar—homosexuality, women’s ordination, and Dominus Iesus, the declaration by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith that was issued in response to growing religious pluralism and the fact that many Catholics believe that salvation is possible through more paths than our own. By the way, LCWR learned about the investigation in the National Catholic Reporter, another sign of disrespect.

Women like Jeannine Gramick, popular writer Joan Chittister, tireless justice seeker Donna Quinn, and the legendary leader Theresa Kane are all implicated in the Vatican’s worries about nuns. It is extraordinary that women of this caliber would be subjected to attacks on their good names. But Catholic women are all oppressed by the kyriarchy.

Both Vatican struggles with women in religious communities are expensive, labor intensive wastes of time for good women whose ministry and social justice work will be interrupted insofar as they have to respond. I read these scandalous actions against progressive American nuns as a reliable indicator of just how spiritually bankrupt the kyriarchy has become. When they have to go after their own, in this case women who have vowed obedience to them, it makes one realize how tenuous is their claim on being church.

This view is only reinforced by the third constellation of changes, financial bankruptcy that involves the closing of parishes without consultation and the firing of church personnel without due process. An epidemic of church closings, especially of older, poorer parishes in inner cities, is causing many Catholics in the pews to wake up and smell the incense. In diocese after diocese, financial necessities related to settlements of pedophilia cases as well as lowered incomes and deferred maintenance have resulted in decisions, made at the diocesan level, to close local parishes. These decisions are often taken with little or no input from those parishioners most deeply affected. The arbitrary closings have left a reservoir of ill will among many well-intentioned Catholics who have come to realize how kyriarchy functions, how little power they have. Many people have struggled valiantly, sitting in their own churches, carrying out vigils and proposing alternative ways of operating. Most of it has come to naught.

Likewise, many ordinary Catholic have been shocked by how the institution treats its workers. Whether trying to keep unions at bay in Catholic hospitals or firing lay ministers who think for themselves, greater transparency about personnel matters has given more people a glimpse into how not to run an institution. Sister of Charity Louise Lears was put under interdict in St. Louis and effectively run out of town by Archbishop Raymond Burke. The so-called “delicts” against her focus on her attendance at and support for the ordination of Roman Catholic WomenPriests. Virtually the same day that he laid down the law, Archbishop Burke hightailed off to Rome to become the head of the Apostolic Signature, the supreme court of the Roman Catholic Church.

These three examples—the pedophilia crisis, the outrageous treatment of American nuns, and the discontent sowed by parish closings and personnel matters about which rank and file Catholics have no say lead me to conclude that Dignity’s relationship to the kyriarchal church was a harbinger of things that have now come to pass in the larger church. Just as LGBTQ Catholics were mistreated, so too were countless children and young people abused, and women disrespected as well, all in the name of a God I do not recognize and a theology I do not accept. Just as LGBTQ Catholics and our colleagues like the Conference of Catholic Lesbians and New Ways Ministry were maligned and rejected, so too are Catholic nuns being subjected to similar indignities. And just as the parents and friends of LGBTQ Catholics gradually came to understand our oppression and join us in our struggle, so too are millions of Catholics in parishes all over this country claiming their baptismal rights to ministry and meaning through processes in which they participate.

Dignity has remained faithful and fabulous as the rest of the church catches up. I fully expect this transformation of the kyriarchal model to continue as it dies of its own dead weight, and as new forms of community emerge. Meanwhile, Dignity is church in the good company of Catholic Organizations for Renewal (COR), which includes Catholics for Choice, Federation of Christian Ministers, Women’s Ordination Conference, and the National Coalition of American Nuns, among other dedicated colleagues. As part of COR, Dignity is engaged in church reform work.

Dignity is church as part of the Women-Church Convergence, which includes some of those same groups plus the BVM Network for Women’s Issues; Mary’s Pence; the Loretto Women’s Network; the Sinsenawa Dominican Women’s Network; A Critical Mass; 8th Day Center for Justice; and the Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual (WATER); among others. As part of Women-Church Convergence, Dignity is engaged in being church as if women’s well-being mattered.

Dignity is also part of the larger LGBTQ religious movements representing Catholics in the National Religious Leadership Roundtable of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. There groups from mainline Protestant denominations as well as Soulforce, Jewish, Buddhist, and pagan groups, among others, seek to amplify the voices of LGBTQ people of faith and promote social justice. As part of the Roundtable, Dignity is living out its Catholic vocation in the delightful mix that is our religiously pluralistic society.

Much more has changed about the kyriarchal church. But one thing that is certain is that in forty years the acceptance, indeed celebration, of same-sex love has increased geometrically in the Catholic community. For this we can congratulate ourselves and thank our parents, siblings, and friends who have changed their minds in light of the witness of our lives. I do not want to overstate the case, and I am fully aware of the many people and organizations that seek our return to the closet and continue to denounce what they consider our moral and spiritual turpitude. But their numbers are dwindling and their voices quieting in the face of ordinary people like us who simply want to love as we will and who complexly want all of the rights both civil and religious that accrue to that love.

The theological questions have changed as well. No longer do we debate the goodness or sin involved in same-sex anything. That work—including solid scriptural and moral theological study—has been done and done well.

Today the theological question is the nature of heterosexism: What makes people discriminate against us? What motivates the fear and hatred? What kind of a God undergirds a sex-positive ethic? How do we teach our children to love safely and well whomever they choose? Scholars from a range of traditions are exploring heterosexism (not homosexuality) in all the major world religions. We have succeeded in shifting the theological paradigm from homosexuality to heterosexism—no small accomplishment.

Our work is far from over, but we engage it from a new starting point with an ever increasing group of allies. So I turn in conclusion to the kind of church we want to be now that we are part of a new mainstream that is reformed like the COR groups, pro-women like Women-Church, and part of the larger interreligious fabric of our society like the National Religious Roundtable.


3. Vision of church

On Monday, June 29, 2009, President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama welcomed 250 LGBTQ people to the White House, including some high-dollar donors and many activists who are pressing the President to repeal “Don’t ask, don’t tell” and the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), and to move proactively on our rights that are too long in coming. Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson got a shout-out from the President at the event. I could not help but think it could have been so many of ours bishops. Oh, well, next time, Rembert! We need to have high expectations of the Obama administration, but I think we can rejoice at the fact that we are on the road.

The President reviewed some gay history, reiterated some promises, and concluded, “Now, even as we take these steps, we must recognize that real progress depends not only on the laws we change but, as I said before, on the hearts we open….” This, Dignity, is our work as religious people. The President went on to say, “As we’ve seen so many times in history, once that spirit takes hold there is little that can stand in its way. And the riots at Stonewall gave way to protests, and protests gave way to a movement, and the movement gave way to a transformation that continues to this day. It continues when a partner fights for her right to sit at the hospital bedside of a woman she loves.  It continues when a teenager is called a name for being different and says, ‘So what if I am?’  It continues in your work and in your activism, in your fight to freely live your lives to the fullest.” Yes, these words were spoken at the White House this week, in case you think I am exaggerating our accomplishments. I repeat, much more needs to be done to stop “Don’t ask, don’t tell” and repeal DOMA, but we are on the road.

The President continued: “The truth is when these folks protested at Stonewall forty years ago no one could have imagined that you—or, for that matter, I— would be standing here today.  So we are all witnesses to monumental changes in this country.  That should give us hope, but we cannot rest.  We must continue to do our part to make progress—step by step, law by law, mind by changing mind.” 6

I think we are in a similar situation as Dignity. Forty years ago no one could have imagined that we would gather today in such good company, with so much progress that polls show us that same-sex love is of minimal concern to most young Catholics who accept it along with iPods and the Internet as just how life is. That does give me hope. But neither can we rest, because simple acceptance of us is not enough when it comes to love and justice. Our faith demands a great deal more than simply making the way safe for us. It compels us to make the road wider and more accessible for all.

I believe the easy work is behind us and the heavy lifting is ahead. We have made a way out of no way for some LGBTQ people, especially those who look like me—white, middle class, well educated, born in this country. But there are many, whether straight or gay, who still find no welcome in church or society, who have no dignity in any sense of the word. Our sisters and brothers of color, especially African Americans, Native Americans, Asian Americans, and Latinos, live with racism that remains an indignity in our nation. New Americans, those that some persist in calling immigrants as if most of us weren’t a generation or so ago, people who lack only papers—not promise—deserve dignity. Persons with disabilities who still can’t get to work or to church because we have not found ways to include them on their own terms demand dignity. Our own trans people have legitimate claims on their dignity that we must pledge ourselves to assure. Women require reproductive health care that is under continual threat. The social justice agenda is long and unfinished. While civil marriage is important, I am even more concerned that we create full civil equality as colleagues in Utah are doing so that everyone—single or coupled—has rights.

Yes, we have been faithful and fabulous, my friends, to get where we are today, But the best is yet to come. Now is our chance to be church, to act on the values of love and justice so that those who suffer the marginalization we know only too well will get a welcome, a hand, a check, and protective laws, nothing less than what justice requires. That is our work now as Dignity—to let the needs of the world and not the failings of the institutional church set our agenda in the years to come.

Odd as it may seem to bring up his name, I want to cite Pope Benedict XVI in his forthcoming encyclical on the economy entitled Love in Truth (Caritas in Veritate). Without reinforcing papal authority, we can be proud as Catholics that some of our people have stated intelligently what needs to happen to change the world’s economy. The letter, to be released soon, in time to influence the G8 Summit meeting, focuses on the limits of unchecked capitalism. It rejects financial paradigms that have been dominant in recent years and calls for new models. This document encourages “social responsibility” and “conscience and honesty.” International agreement on globalization based on “the principles of subsidiarity and solidarity” and “the values of charity and truth” is envisioned. 7 I applaud this work though I am not in agreement with the sections on women and reproductive choice. Perhaps there is even hope that the kyriarchy can figure out how to extend its radical economic analysis to the business of being church.

Not holding my breath, I suggest we help a little by turning those same values on the sexual and ecclesial front as we envision a church for us and our children. “Social responsibility” is our middle name as Dignity. We need to be churches where outreach extends to those who need. We must insist on a just economic order to end the need for such outreach but in the meantime provide for those who lack health care, food, jobs, housing, and education. That is church work until it becomes government responsibility, until there is justice for all.

“Conscience and honesty” are minimal conditions for being church. As we take increased leadership in the larger community, we want our churches to operate collegially and with transparency lest we replicate old models. Imagine if we had an annual conference or general assembly to go to like our Protestant friends where decisions are made and bonds strengthened. We can help to create such gatherings.

“Subsidiarity and solidarity” shape a new model of church. Subsidiarity means that local communities make their own decisions and communicate them using technology. Solidarity means that we act as catholics, small “c,” as those whose concerns are universal as the nuns taught us, seeing what happens in Iran, Gaza, and Darfur as if it were in Chicago, New York, or San Francisco. Then we will be a church that learned something from forty years in the desert, namely, that we are one creating one planet, one people.

If “charity and truth” are necessary for reconstructing our global economic system, surely they are the hallmarks of our vision. Charity is love’s alias. It is love that propels us to the Eucharist, toward one another, and in longing toward the Divine. Truth is justice’s companion. It is the need for justice that brought Dignity into being in the first place. The infinite expansion of justice is our mission as church.

These values—social responsibility, conscience and honesty, subsidiarity and solidarity, charity and truth—come from a familiar but frankly unlikely source when thinking about church. But the Spirit always has her way. Rejoice with me! How Catholic we are forty years later, and how Catholic we will be a decade from now when these values are actualized in church as well as in the global economy! This is a vision worthy of a God who said to Moses (Exodus 3:14): “I am who I am” or, as we have come to sing it, “I am what I am….” Then my daughter, and Marianne and Becky Duddy-Burke’s girls and their friends, can be faithful and fabulous too.

Thank you. Let us continue on the road to the fiftieth anniversary with much more to celebrate.

1 Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, Discipleship of Equals: A Critical Feminist Ekklesia-logy of Liberation. New York: Crossroad, 1993; and her Wisdom Ways: Introducing Feminist Biblical Interpretation. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2001.

2 Mark D. Jordan. The Silence of Sodom: Homosexuality in Modern Catholicism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002, p. 89.

3 See my lecture, “‛Thanks, but No Thanks’: The Canonical Doctrine of Reception,” at Call To Action Upstate NY, Syracuse, May 2, 2009.

4 Coriden, James A., “The Canonical Doctrine of Reception,” in The Jurist: Studies in Church Law and Ministry, Vol. L, published by the Department of Canon Law, The Catholic University of America, 1990, Number 1, pp. 58-82.

5 Horace Griffin, Their Own Receive Them Not: African American Lesbians and Gays in Black Churches. Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 2006.

6 President Barrack Obama, White House, June 29, 2009.


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