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DignityUSA Book of Intentions Spotlighted at American Academy of Religion Conference

DignityUSA's Book of Intentions, a sacred object familiar to conference attendees, was featured in a workshop entitied, "Catholicism in 10 Objects," which was part of the Roman Catholic Studies Unit of the American Academy of Religion during its 2020 Annual Meeting. The following reflection on the Book of Intentions was presented by Dugan McGinley, a Teaching Professor in the Department of Religion at Rutgers University. He is the author of the book Acts of Faith, Acts of Love: Gay Catholic Autobiographies as Sacred Texts. He earned his PhD at Temple University and is also an active Catholic church musician. He is affiliated with the Philadelphia and Denver chapters of DignityUSA. 

“Catholicism in Objects: Dignity’s Book of Intentions” for the American Academy of Religion Annual Meeting 2020

by Dugan McGinley, Rutgers University

 

Catholics seem to share an inclination to invest material objects with meaning. Rooted in incarnational theologies through which the profane/mundane is sanctified by the sacred, Catholic individuals and communities utilize physical objects as focal points wherein the human and divine come together in unique and revelatory ways. These material objects emerge from particular social and cultural contexts and thus reflect the diverse ways the Catholic imagination is exercised.

The material object of my focus is the Book of Intentions of the LGBTQIA+ Catholic community of Dignity USA, of which I am a member. For those who do not know, Dignity has been in existence for over 50 years. Formed in those heady but turbulent days when the reforms of Vatican II were taking hold and the gay rights movement was finding a new level of visibility, Dignity claims a space for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersex Catholics to live the sacramental life of the church, as a “right, privilege, and duty.” (www.dignityusa.org) Because of Dignity’s insistence upon the recognition of the full range of sexual and gender identities, along with the affirmation that non-heteronormative sexual activity can be morally good, the organization is not officially recognized as Catholic by Vatican authorities; but Dignity claims its Catholicity by virtue of baptism and the authority of the Holy Spirit. I submit that Dignity’s engagement with the material culture of Catholicism is yet another indication of just how deeply Catholic this community really is.

Dignity is a national organization with local chapters throughout the United States. The chapters organize liturgies and other events reflective of their local members’ concerns. Every two years, they gather nationally to celebrate, worship, and reflect together on the mission and future of the organization. The structure mirrors the dialectic between subsidiarity and unity that is so endemic to Catholicism. While there are always an array of meaningful symbols deployed both nationally and locally (such as rainbow stoles, logos, and special songs), the Book of Intentions is the one material object that travels to every national conference. The book was created by Dignity members Muggs Regan and Bill Treloar and first used at the Seattle convention in 1983. It has been present at every conference since then. As such, it physically marks the tradition of bringing this diverse and dispersed community together. It is kept in whatever space has been designated as the “chapel,” so it can be a focus of meditation and continuity for members who wish to contemplate in that otherwise temporary space.

The Book itself functions as a receptacle (both literally and figuratively) of the hopes and dreams of the gathered members. As each member writes their own intention in the Book, it represents the belief that the written word has the power to carry and transmit prayers of petition and thanksgiving to God. This links it directly to other sacred books used in the context of Catholic liturgy. More than that, people write their prayers next to others’ and all the intentions are literally bound together by the strap binding the pages. This functional ability of the Book to combine the individual and the collective is a symbolic assertion of faith in intercessory prayer. It is deeply Catholic to join one’s prayers with others across time and space and to believe that our prayers bridge the gap between the living and the dead. Each petitioner is linked not only to those who write in the book this year but also to those who have written in previous years, many of whom have died; but in the Catholic theology of the Communion of the Saints, death is not a barrier to their intercession for us nor our calling upon them. This supernatural connection is all the more poignant for this community given the number of members lost to AIDS since the book first came to fruition in the early years of that pandemic.

The image I’ve submitted shows the Book of Intentions being carried in procession in its liturgical/sacramental context. I love this image because it highlights so many markers of the “Catholic-ness” of this object. First, it is easy to see the sacred status this Book holds for this community. It is being held up not by one but rather two people who will take the book to its place in the “chapel.” The candle signals that this Book is the focus of the moment and most eyes are fixed on this procession. I also like that this ritual is taking place in a hotel conference room and being carried out by people wearing rainbow lanyards for their name tags. Even though this sacramental moment is happening outside the bounds of typical Catholic buildings and vesture, the community has no doubt of their Catholicity. The Book’s organic origins from within a marginalized group reflect the history of popular movements in Catholicism whereby local figures and practices are lifted up by a community that recognizes something holy in their midst. They assert what they know to be true, despite official objections, with the assumption that eventually church authorities will recognize and canonize their truth.

Dignity’s Book of Intentions is a mark of the Catholic imagination. This material object, fashioned out of the most mundane of materials, is sanctified by this community’s shared Catholic belief that there is more going on with this Book than meets the eye. In this, it is directly related to the sacraments: it is a visible sign of an invisible grace at work. In its power to convey a sense of both memory (past) and vision (future) while being grounded in the present, it reflects hope for reconciliation as it points toward communion, just as Catholics do each time they gather for liturgy. Representative of the liturgical Prayers of the Faithful – or Universal Prayer – it situates Dignity within the larger Catholic, Christian community. In the words of Dignity’s Statement of Position and Purpose, LGBTQIA+ Catholics “are members of Christ's mystical body, numbered among the People of God.” (www.dignityusa.org) The Book of Intentions is the physical “evidence” of this inclusion, boldly asserting, “We were here, we are here, and we will continue to be here.”