Mary Hunt on the State of the Global LGBTI Catholic Movement

Mary E. Hunt
at DignityUSA's Forum
July 4, 2019

Good morning; buen dia; Guten Tag; Bonjour; Happy 4th of July. It is a pleasure to be together on this U.S. holiday. Where I live, in Maryland near Washington, DC, we always have a funky parade with Girl Scouts and politicians, animal rights advocates and steel bands from Trinidad and Tobago, people pushing lawn mowers in precision drills and folks in wheelchairs moving along the route. Unlike what President Trump will do in Washington downtown with tanks nearby when he is expected to coopt this holiday for political purposes, my neighbors use this day to celebrate our diversity as a country. It is in that spirit that I wish you a Happy 4th of July.

I offer gratitude to Dignity USA for hosting this event and to the Global Network of Rainbow Catholics for inviting me to be part of it. I am grateful to the Carpenter Foundation and to Dignity DC for their generous funding. Let me thank Miguel Diaz and Bryan Massingale for our collegiality as we bring our various voices into the conversation.

I offer in great humility some theological foundations for our common work, knowing that each context around the world has its own particularities and contributions to make to the emerging and ever more inclusive Catholic community. My remarks come from a white, cisgender, lesbian, US-based, middle class experience open to learning and sharing with global colleagues.

I want to make one simple point: The damaging Roman Catholic theology about sexuality creates a clear and present danger to the well-being of millions of people. It cannot be wished away or simply ignored. It must be dismantled and replaced by love-centered, sex-positive, community-grounded, and justice-driven pastoral and theological resources that we the people are developing together. I will address how.

I begin with a font of wisdom, the late Audre Lorde, an African American lesbian, who wrote, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.” [i] Catholic theology is in this no-way-out situation. The traditional sources of institutional theology are inadequate to provide the foundations for a 21st century moral theology. Lorde stated, “ What does it mean when the tools of a racist patriarchy are used to examine the fruits of that same patriarchy? It means that only the most narrow parameters of change are possible and allowable.”  In our time, if we want small, incremental changes that work for a few privileged people, then we can tinker with the institution’s theology. But if we want, as I do, a wholesale rewrite that welcomes all to the table without distinction of sexual orientation, gender identity, marital status, or any other particularity, then we need new tools and new people who are not masters but colleagues.

Power and authority are the crux of the matter. Simply put, who gets to say what is of God and on what basis do we take them seriously? Our church, at the macro level, operates with impunity when it comes to theology. Proclamations that do not bear the faintest resemblance to the contemporary experience of good people living loving lives are common. Church authorities with power exert pressure on theologians, clerics, and the rest of us to comply. Negative economic, social, and spiritual consequences result for those who refuse.

Take the recent trial balloon from the Vatican Congregation for Catholic Education entitled "'Male and Female He Created Them': Toward a Path of Dialogue on the Question of Gender Theory in Education." It is an intellectually embarrassing document that makes clear that the writers have no concept of contemporary social and biological data on sex and gender, and even less inclination to use them as foundations for useful moral theology. The proof is in the footnotes—citations of John Paul II, Benedict XVI, Francis; references to earlier Vatican statements and encyclicals. There is no mention of the sources for other views of sex/gender even to refute them. This is far from the gold standard in theology simply on methodological terms.

One could be forgiven for ignoring this document except that trans and intersex people are written off as if they did not exist as we know them, robust and respected members of our communities whose struggles we share. Moreover, the negative consequences of this teaching are playing out in U.S. Catholic schools. In the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, at least three Catholic high schools have been pressured to fire teachers who are legally married to same-sex spouses. A Jesuit school (Brebeuf) because of its autonomy refused and is now not considered ‘Catholic’ by the Archdiocese; a diocesan-owned but Holy Cross brothers/fathers-run school (Cathedral) fired a teacher rather than lose not only its Catholic name, but also its 501(C)3 status as a tax exempt educational institution, meaning it was threatened with closure; and a diocesan owned and run high school (Roncalli) fired its staff person despite widespread community outcry. All of these cases of institutional theology written and imposed without concern for real people’s lives have negative educational and economic consequences for those fired and their families. Members of the school communities are scandalized and ashamed of such treatment in their names, but they are powerless and without authority to do much to change the situation except take their money and leave. We have to change this power dynamic that dictates that integrity is only for those who can afford it.

The good news is that there are many and varied theological resources by Catholic writers (see hand out) to construct new theological paradigms. There is also much insight to glean from Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, and other scholars and activists whose traditions are grappling as ours is with what it means to live rich and full lives in postmodernity given what we now know about the fluid, dynamic, changing, and diverse dimensions of human sexuality and gender.

A great new resource is a recently published New York Times study of 5000 people who responded to the question: “Tell us who you are: We want to know how you identify yourself.” The answers are wonderfully diverse with lists of words most common to various generations—from gay/lesbian/straight/queer in the baby boomer generation to bisexual, gay, queer, and especially nonbinary for Generation-Z people. The New York Times writer Dan Levin concludes: “The words they use tell us that ‘the human experience is infinite.’” [ii] Our task is to develop theologies together than take account of this reality.

We Catholics say that God, the divine experience, is infinite. Now we know that our experiences are infinite too when we see ourselves as one human family and not as finite individuals. Far from eroding our human uniqueness, this understanding makes it more and more clear that humankind is “made in the image of the divine,” which is to say that taken together, we, too, are infinite. Catholics call God ‘love,’ and we say that the Gospel mandates of love and justice are humankind’s common threads. Imagine if we were to promote moral theologies that focused on love and justice, including the right to sexual pleasure, rather than focusing on the gender constellation of those involved and whether their love making is procreative. That new theology is our work. It will not emerge from tinkering with statements about how a male God created Adam and Eve.

Fortunately, we have myriad resources from feminist and now queer studies in religion that, like other liberation theologies, include the data of the social and biological sciences as resources. These writings, especially from women and people of color, project an interstructured analysis that takes racism, xenophobia, climate change denial, war, and economic injustice as seriously as sex/gender issues. Biblical resources are key to such new theologies, but only when the texts have been subjected to a thorough-going hermeneutics of suspicion so that they are  understood in the various contexts of contemporary faith communities.

Those in power and who claim theological authority will not give it up easily. Showing the limits of their arguments and the absurdity of their making them is a good first step. The institutional Roman Catholic Church is imploding with literally hundreds of priests discredited, many bishops under a cloud for covering up illegal behavior, cardinals resigning, and one holed up in prison in Australia awaiting appeal. On what authority do these people and their colleagues speak in the name of God? Not that we have any more claim, but I am proposing an overhaul of the way we do theology, not simply a replacement of the people who do it in the traditional way. Clergy are welcome to join us but they have no privileged place in the work. I think of theology as a team sport. I suggest we play like the US women’s soccer team, but as a global team.

I conclude my current favorite example of this approach in which many people are involved given their experience, commitment, and common sense. Georgetown Visitation Preparatory School in Washington, DC, is run by the Salesian Sisters of the Order of the Visitation of Holy Mary. These educators came into conflict with Roman Catholic institutional theology—some of their alumnae have married women. It is the custom of this school to publish the happy news of unions in their alumnae magazine. Faced with this new reality—the public nature of legal same-sex marriages—the school had to decide whether to discriminate against their own lesbians or reject the Church’s discriminatory policies.

The school’s decision to publish information on same-sex marriages was made and announced by Monastery Superior & President Emerita, Sister Mary Berchmans Hannon, VHM. In a May 2019 letter to alumnae she wrote:

“As a professed Sister of the Visitation for 67 years, I have devoted my life in service to the Catholic Church. The Church is clear in its teaching on same-sex marriages. But, it is equally clear in its teaching that we are all children of God, that we each have dignity and are worthy of respect and love. I have been blessed to live my vocation here at Visitation, where I have welcomed and come to know, respect, and love thousands of unique, intelligent, passionate, and faithful women, each made in the image and likeness of God.

As I have prayed over this contradiction, I keep returning to this choice: we can focus on Church teaching on gay marriage or we can focus on Church teaching on the Gospel commandment of love. We know from history - including very recent history - that the Church, in its humanity, makes mistakes. Yet, through the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit, it learns and grows. And so, we choose the Gospel commandment of love.

Beginning with the fall issue of our alumnae magazine, we will publish news of our alumnae’s same-sex unions, along with all updates our alums choose to share with their classmates.

We reached this decision as a school and Monastery leadership after much prayerful consideration and thoughtful dialogue. We welcomed - as we always do - the respectful, earnest, faith-filled comments of several community members who contacted us directly. We encourage each of you to reach out to us when you have a question or concern. We all can grow through these courageous conversations.” [iii]  I say, Amen, Sister.

In this case, you have an example of a theological method for our work in our respective communities around the world. After all, Sister Berchmans is in her late 80s, so she has rich life experience, and she lives in community so she hears many views. She sees the contradictions between what the institution teaches on the basis of its perceived power and authority, and how good people live in her midst. She educated these girls after all. She can read church history and see how wrong the church has been on slavery, usury, science, among other themes. So after “prayerful consideration and thoughtful dialogue” she and her colleagues opted for “the Gospel commandment of love.” They model a way forward.

The Archdiocese of Washington, DC expressed its disappointment that they had not been consulted but could do little else. Their Cardinal Theodore McCarrick is laicized and in exile; their Cardinal Donald Wuerl tendered his resignation with over 600 not-so-flattering mentions of his name in the Pennsylvania Grand Jury findings on sexual abuse and coverup as well as later revelations that he personally received money from a corrupt bishop of West Virginia who squandered millions in diocesan funds, and that he lied about what he knew when. The Archdiocese was not, shall we say, in much of a position to contradict an octogenarian nun who decided to publish news of lesbian marriages. Let us have some sense of proportionality in all of this.

Let us also note that wealthy, well established schools like Georgetown Visitation and the Jesuit school in Indianapolis continue their work unimpeded in large part because of their privilege, because they can afford to do the right things in institutions that they own. But the goal of our work is to make that kind of integrity possible, affordable for all.  So let us take up our theological tasks with plenty of resources, a serious commitment to listen and learn to contextualized experiences, and an equally firm resolve to let love and justice flourish. I am in. I am on the team. Are you?

Thank you.

[i] Lorde, Audre. “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.” 1984. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Ed. Berkeley, CA: Crossing Press. 110- 114. 2007. Print.