November 10, 2000
By GUSTAV NIEBUHR
NY Times on the Web
A gay rights organization that advocates nonviolent civil disobedience and has been staging demonstrations at meetings of major Christian churches around the country, plans one outside a Roman Catholic shrine in Washington next week, to coincide with a gathering of the nation’s Catholic bishops.
The demonstration, a vigil near the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, will be the fifth such event staged over the last six months by the organization, Soulforce Inc. The organization said Dignity/USA, a 30-year-old group of gay and lesbian Catholics, would also participate.
Earlier this year, Soulforce held demonstrations outside national meetings of four Protestant denominations, the United Methodist Church, the Southern Baptist Convention, the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the Episcopal Church, groups with official views that vary widely in regard to the role that gay men and lesbians may play in church. At each event, some participants were quietly arrested, often on charges of trespassing, by police officers briefed beforehand by the organization of its plans. "We don’t want the police to be surprised by our presence," said a Soulforce spokeswoman, Laura Montgomery Rutt.
Soulforce’s executive director, the Rev. Mel White, said the Catholic Church in the United States, with more than 60 million members, had a greater impact on public understanding of issues related to gay rights than any of its Protestant counterparts. Mr. White, who is ordained but not a church pastor, also said gay and lesbian Catholics had suffered greatly from church teaching that homosexual acts were "intrinsically disordered."
Mary Louise Cervone, president of Dignity/USA, said the demonstration was intended to be "a message that our language and our words and our actions have a tremendous effect on the lives of our people." Ms. Cervone said gay men and lesbians would feel a part of their churches "when we are welcomed in our churches as whole and holy people."
In a recent exchange of letters with Mr. White, Bishop Joseph A. Fiorenza, president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the church’s view of homosexual acts was rooted in its teachings on marriage, that such acts "cannot fulfill the two-fold purpose of sexuality in the God-given order of creation – to build up the community of love between wife and husband and to enable them to be co-creators with Him in bringing children into the world."
But Bishop Fiorenza also quoted the Catholic Catechism as declaring the church’s position that gays "must be accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity." Referring to the Catechism’s statement, Bishop Fiorenza added, "Catholics who do not observe this teaching are not in accord with the mind and the heart of the church."
In planning to gather on Tuesday, the demonstrators have chosen a site high in symbolism, but distant from where the bishops will meet, in a Capitol Hill hotel, from Monday through Thursday. The shrine, the largest Catholic church in the Western hemisphere, stands adjacent to the Catholic University of America.
Some Catholic organizations invited by Soulforce to participate declined to do so, among them New Ways Ministries, which describes itself as a "bridge-building ministry" to gay and lesbian Catholics.
"We didn’t feel that the Soulforce action was going to be in line with our mission of education and promoting dialogue," said Francis DeBernardo, its executive director.