PlanetOut Article: "U.S. Catholic Bishops Protested"

November 14, 2000

PlanetOut News Staff

SUMMARY: The Rainbow Sash has migrated to the U.S. to help apply a little Soulforce to pressure Roman Catholic bishops to treat lesbians and gays with Dignity.

Two gay and lesbian Roman Catholic groups and two interdenominational groups of gays and lesbians and their allies are staging a series of protests as the U.S. National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB) meets in Washington, DC November 12 – 15. So far they’ve succeeded in putting gays and lesbians on the agenda, but not in the way they’d hoped: on November 14, NCCB Bishop Anthony O’Connell issued a unprecedented joint "Christian Declaration on Marriage" with leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention, the National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA, and the National Association of Evangelicals, which defines marriage as "a holy union of one man and one woman."

No Place for Rainbows at the Table
Members of the U.S. chapter of the Rainbow Sash Movement, a gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender (GLBT) Catholic group more familiar for its actions in the Australian city of Melbourne but also a presence in the UK and Canada, were denied communion at Saint Matthew’s Cathedral on November 12 and at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception on the evening of November 13. Their rainbow-colored sashes symbolize a call to the Church to "seek with us a new appreciation of human sexuality in all of its diversity and beauty." Rainbow Sash Movement members "embrace our sexuality as a sacred gift," while the Church believes that homosexual orientation is "objectively disordered," that homosexual acts are "intrinsically evil," and that gays and lesbians should strive to live in celibacy. All of the nearly 300 bishops attending the meeting and thousands of others were at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, the largest Catholic church in the Americas.

Before the service began, Shrine spokesperson Peter Sonski told the crowd, "There are a few here who have said they plan to receive the Eucharist not as a sign of community, but as a sign of protest," but that they would be denied it because they were using the sacrament to advance a cause contrary to the Church’s teachings. Seven rainbow-sashed protesters in their words "attended Mass reverently," but when they approached the priest they were given the blessing of the cross but denied communion wafers. The wearing of the colorful sash was the only difference between the demonstrators and any other person, gay or non-gay, who might seek and receive communion, the denial of which is viewed as a serious punishment.

In a joint statement, Rainbow Sash international spokesperson Michael B. Kelly of Australia and U.S. convenor Joseph Murray said, "We deeply regret this refusal to share the Eucharist with us. This wounds the Body of Christ and reflects the silencing and discrimination experienced by so many gay Catholics. We call our bishops to engage in public dialogue with gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Catholics throughout the United States. Our leaders must not rest content with this refusal of Communion. We must work together in honesty and charity for the day when all of God’s people will be welcomed to Christ’s table and embraced by the Church."

Arrests at the Shrine
Meanwhile, the thirty-year-old U.S. Catholic group Dignity joined in a series of actions with gay Reverend Mel White’s interfaith Soulforce group, which non-violently opposes "spiritual violence" against GLBT people, and with Equal Partners in Faith, a group committed to diversity and inclusivity and to airing views of people of faith other than the anti-gay conservative ones which have dominated media. On the afternoon of November 13, they gathered about 200 strong for a silent march to and vigil at the National Shrine, many bearing the names of individual bishops they’d written to describing themselves, their families and how church policies have failed them. Later that evening, they held a "Justice For All" rally including a civil disobedience training.

That training was put into practice on November 14, as again about 200 held vigil outside the National Shrine, this time in light rain. In an action pre-planned with police, about 100 of the demonstrators were peacefully arrested for blocking the entrance to the shrine, including civil rights veteran and former Yale University chaplain Dr. William Sloane Coffin. Coffin delivered "An Open Letter to the Roman Catholic Bishops of America" declaring that they are "causing much suffering, and prompting countless seekers to say, ‘If this is religion we are better off without it. … The teaching of the Church sanctifies the denigration of gays and lesbians. … For Christians the problem is not how to reconcile homosexuality with the scriptural passages that condemn it, but how to reconcile the rejection and punishment of homosexuals with the love of Christ." Those who chose not to be arrested moved on to hold a further vigil outside the hotel where NCCB is meeting, several miles from the Shrine.

Stop Catholic "Hate Speech"
The message of the demonstration was carried as much in exchanges of letters preceding the conference as in the action itself. When NCCB president Bishop Joseph Fiorenza said the bishops cannot compromise on traditional teachings against homosexuality, White did not hesitate to describe it as "hate speech," even though Fiorenza also mentioned the NCCB’s own condemnation of violence and discrimination against gays and lesbians. Although Soulforce has carried out a half-dozen major actions against other denominations, White is particularly concerned at the impact of the Roman Catholic Church with its more than 60 million members in the U.S.

Soulforce is calling on the bishops "to apologize for twenty centuries of oppression against GLBT people; stop labeling gay men and lesbians as ‘objectively disordered’ and our love as ‘intrinsically evil’ because that language leads to hate and violence; to end the silencing of theologians, nuns and priests who call for sensitive pastoral care for GLBT people; to cease opposition to public health efforts to slow the spread of HIV; to quit funding discriminatory civil legislation aimed at denying GLBT people equal access to housing, employment and health insurance; to allow GLBT Catholics to worship God without having to deny or hide who they are; to end prohibitions against Catholic priests ministering to openly GLBT communities of faith; and to stop denying Dignity, the organization of GLBT Catholics and their supporters, use of Catholic churches for their worship and ministry."

The Vatican has become stricter in the last few years, including ending the United States’ oldest and most famous Catholic ministry to gays and lesbians and their families, that of Father Robert Nugent and Sister Jeanine Gramick. (The original New Ways Ministry that they founded in Maryland and were forced to leave declined an invitation to participate in the protests against NCCB.)

Dignity/USA president Mary Louise Cervone said the demonstration was "a message that our language and our words and our actions have a tremendous effect on the lives of our people" and that GLBT will feel a part of the Church "when we are welcomed in our churches as whole and holy people." Because Dignity does not actively promote celibacy as the only proper lifestyle for gay and lesbian Catholics, it is not recognized by the Church as a Catholic organization and has been denied the use of churches for its meetings for many years. When Dignity held its annual conference in Denver this year, the Archbishop wrote a letter warning clergy to stay away from the meeting and to urge their congregations to do the same.

Marriage For All, Except…
GLBT issues were nowhere on the agenda for the NCCB meeting, which was concerned with ending capital punishment, shifting punishment to treatment-oriented approaches for those convicted of drug offenses, reversing the recent Supreme Court ruling ending a ban on so-called "partial-birth abortions," and improving the treatment of immigrants, among other topics. But a press conference was called to announce the joint declaration on marriage, which called for "a stronger commitment to this holy union" and "practical ministries and influence for reversing the course of our culture" with its high divorce rate, increasing cohabitation by unmarried partners, increasing births to single mothers and "diminishing interest in and readiness for marrying, especially among young people." It’s rather ironic that the document explicitly excludes one group that is seemingly increasingly interested in marriage — gay and lesbian couples — with its "one man and one woman" definition.

Copyright 1995-1999 PlanetOut Corporation. All Copyright & Trademark Rights Reserved.