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On Spending Three Days with DignityUSA

The following essay first appeared on Bishop Spong's website, www.johnshelbyspong.com. Reprinted with permission.

"My name is Sam Sinnett and I am a gay Catholic." These words, reminiscent of the way members introduce themselves at AA meetings, opened a luncheon at a gathering of DignityUSA, a national support and advocacy organisation for homosexual members of the Roman Catholic Church. Sinnett, a retired businessman from St. Louis, was completing his four year term as Dignity's national president. This conference, drawing some 250 delegates from across the United States to Austin, Texas, had assigned themselves the task of charting the future for homosexual people in the Catholic Church. This was not an easy assignment since DignityUSA is treated by the hierarchy of this Church as an embarrassing pariah and instead of any recognition or support its members are the recipients of enormous Catholic hostility. By Vatican orders, no Roman Catholic Church in America can allow this group to meet on any Catholic property. When Dignity's leaders picked the Hyatt Hotel in Austin as the gathering place for their national conference, Gary Preuss, a local Dignity leader, as a courtesy, notified the Most Rev. Gregory Aymond, the Catholic Bishop of Austin that they would convene in his See City. The bishop responded with a letter, acknowledging the notification and saying that he would pray for them. There was no word of welcome and neither this bishop nor any of his local Catholic priests made an appearance at the conference. How short the Church sometimes falls in the simple act of showing kindness.

Catholic opposition to homosexuality is so total and unrelenting that any American Catholic priest who says Mass for local Dignity chapters runs the risk of discipline at the hands of his local bishop. Under the auspices of Pope John Paul II, a statement was issued on 30th October, 1986, written by the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, which moved the Roman Catholic Church from benign neglect of gay people into the stance of being a gay oppressor. This "Halloween Letter", as the gay community refers to it, urged all Catholic bishops to oppose every legislative effort, on every level of government, which sought to provide equal rights under the law for homosexual people. This included not just official Church opposition to gay marriage, civil unions and benefits for domestic partners, but also any ordinance that would make it illegal to discriminate against people in the work place because of their sexual orientation. When Cardinal Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI, one of his first acts was to announce his intention to purge gay males from the ranks of the Catholic priesthood. When the fine print was read, however, he limited himself to preventing aggressive or militant homosexual advocates from becoming priests. Even this Pope knew full well that a purge of gay men from the ranks of the Catholic priesthood would decimate the clergy, to say nothing of culling significantly the members of the College of Cardinals, the archbishops and bishops of that Church. The duplicity and dishonesty surrounding this issue in the Roman Catholic Church is breathtaking.

Despite this hostility, these gay Catholics still express genuine love for their Church and work tirelessly for the change that will enable them to find in their Church a place of welcome. They strive to demonstrate their loyalty to the worship tradition into which most of them were baptised. DignityUSA gathers in local chapters all across America and convenes its National Convention once every two years, to nurse the wounds of gay Catholics, to educate and inspire their members and to make people aware of their gay presence inside their beloved Church.

Because the members of Dignity know rejection first hand, they have developed a far more accepting and ecumenical understanding of Christianity than that which is official in Catholicism. Since their chapters, of necessity, are required to meet in non-Catholic churches, ties of friendship have tempered traditional exclusive claims. Dignity members understand what Catholic women have endured. In Dignity's closing Eucharist, women were vested with priestly stoles while serving as full participants and co-presiders over the liturgy. These women's hands were raised as they joined with a priest to bless the bread and the wine and to utter the words of consecration. Catholic rules were clearly being bent here, but the presence of an ordained priest, whose security lay in that he was answerable only to the head of his order not a local bishop, nonetheless guaranteed the "validity" of the Sacrament.

I was invited to this gathering to give the keynote address, to conduct two workshops and to lead the assembly in a brief liturgy of installing, blessing and dedicating their newly-elected officers for the next four years. I was also present to listen as they recounted their struggles against their rejection by the Church they love. In the course of these three days I found myself counselling some on vocational decisions, asking God's blessing on some of their committed unions, laying my hands in prayer on one who had just received a serious, perhaps fatal, diagnosis and sharing with this incredible group of men and women their study, worship, eating, dancing and leisure. It was one of the greatest assignments of my life. This conference offered a number of workshops on such topics as: "Science Meeting Spirituality", "The Revolutionary Nature of Early Oriental Christianity", "A Gay Man's Guide to Prostate Cancer" and "Challenging Hierarchical Structures". Among the workshop leaders were three people whose names might be recognised outside the borders of gay Catholicism. One was the Rev. John J. McNeill, a former Jesuit priest and scholar, whose book "The Church and the Homosexual" was authorised for publication in 1976 only after a three-year delay for study by the Vatican. That authorisation was then removed in 1978. McNeill was among the first voices from within the Christian Church to challenge the Church's attitudes toward homosexuals, refuting that position with scientific, psychological and biblical scholarship. McNeill shattered the inadequate and prejudiced definition that upheld the Church's prejudice. All prejudices die when the definition on which the prejudice is based is challenged. That was true in the battle against racism and in the battle for the equality of women.

McNeill cited new data from science, brain studies and medicine that destroyed the foundations of homophobia and started its inevitable retreat into death. It was thus a seminal book, which opened the heretofore closed ecclesiastical closets and offered incontrovertible evidence that homosexuality is now and always has been a major part of the Catholic priesthood. For most people in the early 70s this was a startling idea. In an interview on NBC, Tom Brokaw asked this priest: "Are you gay?" and John McNeill came out of the closet to 30 million viewers. He was expelled from the Jesuit Order at the direction of Cardinal Ratzinger, but his influence has been beyond the Church's power to control. McNeill began to lead conferences across this nation on homosexuality among priests. One of those conferences, held at the Kirkridge Centre in Pennsylvania, drew a married New Jersey Episcopal clergyman who, unknown to his congregation, was wrestling with both his vocation and his sexual identity. His name was Gene Robinson and today he is the openly gay Episcopal Bishop of New Hampshire. A second Dignity workshop leader was Sister Jeannine Gramick, the nun who developed a significant ministry to gay and lesbian people in Baltimore until she was forced to resign from her order by the same Cardinal Ratzinger. A third was Daniel Helminiak, a priest, scholar and noted author, whose books have given hope to thousands of gay and lesbian Christians.

For me, this conference was both humbling and exhilarating. Seldom before have I been so warmly welcomed, fully included and graciously engaged by members of this faith tradition. Seldom have I been so moved by worship as I was at this conference. The hierarchy of the Catholic Church needs to understand that these people are dedicated and committed Catholics who can neither be expelled nor driven away. Dignity's members are not threatening to leave their Church, they are threatening to stay! "This is our Church too", they say and "the hierarchy cannot define Catholicism in such a way as to exclude us". They live out their Catholic lives in faithfulness, not in order to be troublesome, but to help to bring to Catholicism the inclusion that is called for in the gospel of Jesus. They are confident they will win this struggle for the soul of their Church and are encouraged by the incontrovertible fact that changes in consciousness are never reversed. Inevitably every part of the Christian Church will lay aside its homosexual prejudices and embrace its gay, lesbian, transgender and bi-sexual brothers and sisters as the creation of God, the beloved of Christ and as those empowered to be all that they can be in the Holy Spirit. Benedict XVI is not the voice of the Catholic future; indeed, he will ultimately be little more than a negative footnote in Catholic history.

Every prejudice that is publicly debated is already dying, so this victory is inevitable. Diehard, retrogressive elements in every Christian Church lose ground daily. They will not prevail in this struggle. Christians cannot continue to sing, "Just as I am without one plea, O Lamb of God, I come" and not live out that invitation. The embarrassment of the Christian Church in our time will not result from the feared split over homosexuality; it will result rather from those Christian leaders who continue to value unity and institutional peace over truth and justice. Those are the people destined to discover that they do not, cannot and will not own the future. That future will belong to DignityUSA, to John McNeill, Sister Jeannine, Daniel Helminiak and their counterparts in every Christian tradition, who act without fear to make the Christian Church whole and to call it to be a sign of the Kingdom of God in our divided world. Indeed we live today at the dawn of a new era.

— John Shelby Spong

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