November 17, 2000
by Eric Resnick
Gay People’s Chronicle
Washington, D.C.– In an attempt to convince the American Catholic bishops to make the church more inclusive of its lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender members, the interfaith group Soulforce and the gay Catholic group Dignity USA joined in an act of civil disobedience during the bishops’ annual conference.
The November 13 act occurred when 280 protesters blocked the entrance to the basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, the largest Roman Catholic church in the Western Hemisphere.
Police arrested 104 people, including 12 Ohioans. Those arrested were charged with "incommoding," the total blockage of free passage to a public place, a minor municipal offense that carries a fine of $50.
Soulforce has held four other civil disobedience protests this year, in Cleveland; Long Beach, California; Denver, Colorado and Orlando, Florida. Each demonstration was to attempt to influence the leaders of a Christian denomination to make their churches more inclusive of LGBT members. Each act has resulted in arrests.
Arun Gandhi, grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, and Rev. William Sloane Coffin, a distinguished civil rights leader, joined Soulforce and Dignity in the Washington protest. Coffin was among the 104 arrested.
Roman Catholic teaching on homosexuality is often contradicted by the church’s political activity against equality for LGBT people.
The church teaches that "homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered" and can never be approved.
The Catholic church has taken stands against same-sex parenting and adoption and gay teachers. Dignity is not permitted to meet on church property. It has been a major source of financial support for so-called "defense of marriage" initiatives. It entered a friend of the court brief on behalf of the Boy Scout’s fight to ban gays.
But the church also stands by its teaching that homosexual people must be treated with "respect, compassion, and sensitivity" and "unjust discrimination toward them should be avoided."
All this leads to great variations in how gay and lesbian Catholics are treated by individual dioceses and parishes, with some more affirming than others.
Dignity USA has been unsuccessfully attempting to get the bishops to resolve these issues for nearly 30 years.
Prior to this protest, two letters were sent by Soulforce to the president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, Bishop Joseph Fiorenza of Texas asking that the bishops "take a few small steps toward reconciliation and understanding," including opening church property to Dignity USA, serving the Eucharist, apologizing for the injustices of the past, and to appoint a committee to work with LGBT Catholics to bring the issue before the full body of bishops.
Each request was denied by the bishops. Fiorenza wrote, "Those of us who believe that we are bound by the teaching about homosexuality which we find in Scripture and constant Church teaching often feel it is we who are demeaned and looked down upon. Our contemporary culture is skeptical of absolute truth. We feel that we [the bishops] have been the subject even of hatred and violence…"
"Yet we love them," Soulforce founder Rev. Mel White said at a press conference, "more than they love us." Then White called for Roman Catholics to no longer cooperate with the church until the bishops take action.
"That includes no tithes and no organ music," said White.
Unlike the other Soulforce demonstrations where high level clergy who support LGBT equality were among those arrested, there were no active Catholic clergy present.
Bishops knew when the arrests were taking place, but did not acknowledge what was happening in their meeting in any way. However, a statement was presented later that day by Bishop Joseph Galante informing the bishops that he and Bishop A.J. Quinn met with representatives of Soulforce and Dignity on November 11.
Marianne Duddy, the executive director of Dignity, said she thought the meeting could lead to progress at some later time.
A group of pro-gay Catholics were denied communion in the basilica, after an announcement that the Eucharist would be denied to any who tried to take it as a form of protest.
The bishops joined leaders of other, mostly fundamentalist, Christian denominations at a joint press conference announcing a "Christian Declaration of Marriage," which states, "We believe that marriage is a holy union of one man and one woman in which they commit, with God’s help, to build a loving, life-giving, faithful relationship that will last a lifetime."
Soulforce and Dignity USA stood in vigil outside the conference’s hotel until it ended November 16.