Francis DeBernardo is the executive director of New Ways Ministry, a gay-positive ministry of advocacy and justice for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) Catholics. New Ways Ministry is part of Equally Blessed, a coalition of Catholics working for justice for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. Equally Blessed is sponsoring a peaceful campaign of wearing rainbow ribbons to Mass in order to raise awareness about LGBT issues. We spoke earlier this week:
How has the LGBT movement changed and where do you see it going?
It has grown. LGBT issues are now in the mainstream of discussion of Catholic organizations and associations. They are no longer ignored. In terms of ministry, the biggest shift has been from Catholics who first encountered LGBT issues from a place of pity and sympathy. I now see that Catholics are recognizing that LGBT people have a lot to bring to the church and that the church needs those gifts. It’s a more optimistic outlook. It’s gone from a pity-party to recognizing that the church is better because of the presence of LGBT people.
In terms of the future of the movement and church, Catholic lay-people are moving in a direction totally opposite from the Bishops, and if the Bishops do not start to see how the Catholic faith is being manifested, they are going to miss the boat. I believe the Holy Spirit is speaking among the lay people of the church and the Bishops who are not discerning that call, and are not listening to that voice, to their detriment.
I think the illogical statements that bishops make about LGBT people and issues cause Catholic people to question bishops’ moral authority, not only on that issue but on other issues as well. We saw with birth control, for example, when the Vatican maintained its ban on artificial birth-control, more and more Catholics started questioning the Bishops on a variety of issues. This issue will further erode the credibility of Bishops as speakers on moral and social issues.
What is the effect of that on the church as a whole?
One very sad thing we’ve seen is people are leaving the church. Ex-Catholics would make up the second largest denomination in this country, if they were a denomination. People who stay in the church are becoming dispirited, and the bishops need to realize how their intransigence affects church life.
What have been the results of the “rainbow ribbon” campaign. Any negatives?
I’ve only heard stories of support and encouragement. People are supportive of anti-bullying measures. They were moved by the suicide trend this past fall, and agree that the Catholic Church should be responding in a positive way.
The most likely negative consequence is that people might be denied communion for wearing the rainbow ribbon. Two months ago, college students in Minnesota were denied communion when wearing rainbow pins to church. Also, people from another group, the Rainbow Sash Movement, have been denied communion for wearing a rainbow sash on particular days.
How do people feel, wearing the ribbons to church?
It’s a scary thing at first. It’s not like wearing any other kind of ribbon because the rainbow stands out and invites more questions. But people have said that they appreciate the fact that it is a conversation-starter. Those who are wearing the ribbons have wanted to start conversations about these issues but didn’t have a comfortable, non-threatening way to bring it up. This is a friendly form of activism. It offers a message of hope and allows people to ask questions. It’s not preachy, but it gets the ball rolling.
How did this action come about?
It started at a national conference for Call to Action, one of Equally Blessed’s member organizations and a national organization of progressive Catholics. When we launched the campaign only a handful of the 2,000 people in attendance were wearing ribbons, but by the end of the conference almost everyone was wearing them. We’ve been using social media to spread the word, including a video which had over 2,500 hits on YouTube [see below]. The video is of a mom speaking to bishops which is a very powerful and hopeful message. One of the things about this campaign is that it is the people are leading the bishops, because the bishops were very quiet on the LGBT suicide trend that happened this fall. Catholic people are taking leadership in a way that the bishops did not.
What was the catalyst for the creation of Equally Blessed, and what do you hope to accomplish?
Equally Blessed comprises four organizations who represent different contingencies that have been working together for LGBT equality. In the last year and a half, we’ve had many discussions about how the bishops have ramped up their rhetoric against LGBT issues. At the same time we have been recognizing that Catholic lay people are becoming more and more supportive of LGBT issues and people. We wanted to unleash the power of those lay people to make an impact on both the church and society.
One of our goals is to raise awareness among Catholics of the problems that LGBT youth are facing. Sometimes in Catholic conversations, Catholics tend to forget the human realities that LGBT youth face. Catholics can focus too much on sex and forget that being an LGBT youth often means struggling with self-acceptance and self-esteem and feeling marginalized and ostracized. These are the much more important issues [than sex] and require a Gospel reaction and response of acceptance.
At what levels do you think the conversations will take place, and have you seen it work before?
We think conversations will start at the personal level, but we hope they will move towards structural changes. For example, Catholic schools should all have anti-bullying policies and programs in place. The schools could establish safe-space programs on their campuses. Diocese can implement anti-discrimination policies in hiring and employment practices.
Bishop Thomas Gumbleton was once asked, “How can we get more supportive bishops like you?” He said, “tell them to find and talk to the gay and lesbian members in their own families.” He was stating a truth that this is an issue where personal conversations and personal experience can change hearts and minds. Sexuality is a vulnerable part of our make-up. When we start to discuss it in human terms with other people and hear other people’s perspective, it is easier to change hearts and minds and then change policies from there.
What are the biggest obstacles in the way of policy change in the Catholic church?
With LGBT issues, the greatest obstacle is silence, though the obstacles run the gamut from silence to violence. By breaking the silence, even in small ways, we are planting the seeds of change.
The ultimate goal is to have a Catholic church that accepts and respects all of its members. LGBT people and youth are definitely a part of the membership of the Catholic church, and ultimately we want a church where all will be welcome. We want a church that offers hope, not condemnation.
Are there any groups doing similar work, or working against LGBT people? How that is playing out?
There are other groups working on LGBT issues: Catholic Association for Lesbian and Gay Ministry is a national organization of people who minister in the Catholic Church to LGBT people. A new group called Catholics for Equality works on legislative issues.
The National Organization for Marriage, which is not explicitly Catholic but has a lot of Catholic members, is the biggest one against the grain [See our coverage of a recent debate between Andrew Sullivan and NOM’s Maggie Gallagher – Eds.]. Another group called Courage is a ministry group that supports celibacy for lesbian and gay people, and would not support any changes to Church practice or policy. They aren’t waging an anti-rainbow ribbon campaign, but they offer reparative therapy and encourage people to remain celibate or to change their orientation.
The Catholic League for Civil and Religious Rights often speaks out against any progressive groups but mostly targets the US Conference of Catholic Bishops. We would love to have something even as tame as an open dialogue with them. They are one of the strongest Catholic influences on LGBT issues right now, and we are trying to be equally strong…as well as equally blessed.
What would you say to queer Catholic folk who feel disgruntled with the Catholic church?
I would say that the church is yours. You are the church. The church is not just the bishops and the hierarchy, but it is all of the people of God. If the church is a place that gives you life, then you should stay and work to make it a more inclusive place for all people. The other thing I would say is: You are not alone. There are tons of people out here who support you and who welcome you and who want you as full members of the church.