PROUD AND PROPHETIC—A Rainbow Reflection
For Global Network of Rainbow Catholics Third Assembly
Author: Mary E. Hunt
Date: Wed. July 3, 2019 10 AM, The Cenacle, Chicago
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Thank you to the Global Network of Rainbow Catholics for inviting me to share in your wonderful meeting. I thank Dignity USA for their leadership this weekend. My gratitude goes to the generous funders who have helped to bring us together. The Sisters of the Cenacle welcome many and varied groups to this Retreat and Conference Center. For example, it was here at the Cenacle in a blizzard in 1985 that Catholic signers of a famous ad in the New York Times calling for discussion on abortion met to develop strategies in response to the Vatican’s harsh reaction to our claims. You can imagine in those days that it was, as it is today on LGBTIQ+ issues, courageous and Gospel-inspired for Catholic facilities to host groups like ours. Thank you, Sisters and Staff of the Cenacle.
As a United States citizen, I welcome you to my country. I offer you a sincere apology on behalf of our people for the ways in which some of you have been treated by our government, both in the process of coming to this meeting and as your countries deal with the impact of US foreign policy. I assure you that many of us in Dignity, women-church, and related Catholic social justice groups are working as hard as we can to end the Trump Administration and to turn back the many injustices, beginning at our borders, that it perpetrates. I confess that we have not been very successful thus far, but please know that you are in the company of many who are trying.
Let me say a word about myself and then a bit about our context as I reflect on our theme, “Proud and Prophetic”. I am what we call in the U.S. a ‘cradle Catholic’. I was born and educated in an Irish Catholic family in Syracuse, NY. This is a cold and snowy city that has produced many progressive, some would say radical, Catholics. John McNeill, a Jesuit priest who wrote early and honestly about the Catholic Church and homosexuality, taught at Syracuse’s LeMoyne College in the 1960s. While I was too young to know John then, I like to think that the good energies he was producing in his prophetic work somehow wafted across town to me, a Catholic high school student soon to come out.
I studied theology at the Jesuit Marquette University, as well as at the interreligious Harvard Divinity School. I completed the Masters of Divinity, the degree for priestly ordination, at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley despite the non-ordination of Catholic women. I did a PhD in theology at the religiously diverse Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley so I have been very fortunate in my formation to enjoy a broad and respectful view of religion writ large.
After my formal studies—God knows how little I knew when I graduated now forty years ago—I began my real education in Buenos Aires, Argentina. I was part of the Frontier Internship in Mission, an ecumenical training program meant to prepare future ecumenical leaders to work in a global church. I was the first Catholic. I was in no danger of being named to the papal diplomatic corps despite the fact that some of my Frontier Internship colleagues went on to become, for example, the General Secretary of the World Council of Churches (Sam Kobia of Kenya) and denominational leaders.
Teaching theology and working on women’s and human rights in Argentina during a military dictatorship in the 1980s was a life-changing experience. I came to appreciate the many and varied ways in which people of faith live out our commitments. I grew to understand the nature of white, US, cis privilege at the same time that I experienced the profound sexism and homohatred, especially in the Roman Catholic Church, that persists with few changes to this day.
These experiences shaped my career choices. I used my privilege with my partner Diann Neu to set up a modest non-profit organization, the Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics, and Ritual (WATER), inside the Washington, DC Beltway. I used my oppression to ground and expand an intersectional commitment to justice that has shaped WATER’s agenda for 35 years.
In the intervening decades, I have continued my love affair with Latin America and the Caribbean, especially Argentina, but also Chile, Uruguay, Ecuador, Brasil, Guatemala, and Cuba among other countries. In every instance, LGBTIQ+ people have been my teachers as I learn what it means to be “Proud and Prophetic” in settings where our ways of living and loving are despised and in some cases illegal.
As this group knows so well, despite the progress that we celebrate this week as World Pride, the situation remains fluid at best around the world. Likewise, things are dicey here in the United States where, for example, we are one Supreme Court decision away from losing marriage equality. You hear the term ‘Stonewall’ a lot, the name of a Mafia-owned bar in New York City where queers fought back against police injustice. It is considered the start of the then-called gay liberation movement. ‘Stonewall” is a useful but inadequate shorthand given the many other fronts on which the struggle for queer rights was waged, including in religious circles. Dignity is as old as Stonewall, founded in early 1969; the Metropolitan Community Church was founded in 1968. Despite the pride-themed ads for vodka and expensive clothes modeled by beautiful queer people, our trans and intersex people, our young and poor queer folks, our people of color and those coming across the border live their queer lives precariously and proudly, in well justified fear, making them amazing prophets.
Many of us know this experience firsthand. I am just back from a week in Matanzas and Havana, Cuba where some evangelical Christians are working hard to undermine that country’s social progress for LGBTIQ+ people. The religious right bases their efforts on the Vatican-generated arguments against what Rome calls “gender ideology,” which I call the observable fact that sex and gender are fluid, diverse, and varied. The religious right in Cuba is setting up a rival council of churches to the progressive one that has been in favor of marriage equality and women’s rights as the new constitution takes shape. Just as we see in parts of Africa, the export of what I call “theological pornography,” namely teachings that objectify bodies, trivialize sex, and lead to violence, is having this kind of destabilizing impact on Cuban churches, theological education, and society at large. Cuba is typical of the global context in which millions of our siblings try to love with integrity.
The Vatican’s role in these issues is clear. The most recent example is a very dubious document published just in time for Pride by the Vatican Congregation for Catholic Education (dated February 2, 2019) “‘Male and Female He Created Them’: Toward a Path of Dialogue on the Question of Gender Theory in Education.” It makes clear that the Vatican is digging in its heels as the evidence mounts about how little its people understand about sex and gender. Trans and intersex people are the primary target of this new document.
In my reaction to the document I observe that:
“There is a certain desperation in the tone and content of the Catholic Education piece. It suggests an admission that efforts to stop same-sex love have failed miserably, starting with the majority-gay male clergy. What’s a few lesbian, gay, and bi people after all, the institutional church seems to be saying; at least they know the players without a score card. The real game changer is that claims that sex/gender are fixed, defined, and limited pale before the reality of changing, fluid, varied sex/gender as the human norm. Eeeeeks—what to do about male-only priests, mom and dad-only families, and laws that result from Catholic influence on private matters? That swishing sound is a Roman Catholic house of cards falling in on itself. Left standing are all queer Catholics and allies who will struggle as hard for trans and intersex rights as we have for LGB ones.”
Indeed because we ‘speak Catholic,’ that is, we understand the institutional church’s rhetoric and tactics, I believe we have a special responsibility to unmask and replace person-demeaning theology with rich and embodied, Gospel-resonant ideas if our faith is to have any meaning in the future.
- Each person has a story to tell about their struggle to be “Proud and Prophetic”. We gather to hear those stories. Let me share three short ones that will give you the sense of why I believe it is so crucial that we act insofar as we are able—asking martyrdom of no one—to be Proud and Prophetic. In the 1980s, when HIV/AIDS was killing children in our cities, some lesbian friends of mine adopted a baby who was living with the virus. His birth mother was unable to care for him due to her own health. Shawn lived several years longer than doctors anticipated due to the quality of his medical care and the abundant love of the moms and friends. He died at age four. The mothers said he loved a local Catholic seminary chapel and they wanted his funeral led by women to be celebrated there. My task, a fool’s errand, was to persuade the seminary president of the extraordinary nature of the situation and get permission for the feminist farewell eucharist that this family, in their deep grief, requested. Needless to say, the priest claimed to sympathize with the family’s plight, but informed me that the local bishop watched carefully what vestments celebrants wore in that chapel—much less having women celebrants—and he could not risk it. We had a beautiful eucharistic celebration of Shawn’s life in a local Episcopal church. I learned what being prophetic does not look like.
- Around the same time, the Conference for Catholic Lesbians (1983-96) was a wonderful women’s group founded in part because in those days many Dignity chapters were mostly male. CCL put ads in women’s publications making the community and its resources available to a wider public. Leaders told me that they had heard from a Catholic lesbian in the south of Chile who wanted to meet her sisters. They knew I was travelling to Santiago and we agreed that I would have coffee with her. The woman came by overnight bus to that capital city just to meet a real live Catholic lesbian. There I stood, at the agreed on place downtown, waiting for her. I could not help but notice the many and large tanks and other armored vehicles that stood at the ready for protests and other expressions of resistance to the military’s rule. Suddenly I felt a sense of panic. What if I had been set up? My imagination ran wild. Happily, the woman arrived, we had our coffee, and I assured her that her sister Catholic lesbians were everywhere, including in Chile, and I knew some! We went our separate ways, and I do not even recall her name. But I can still feel the fear of that day. I work so that no one else will ever have to fear love again. Pride costs.
- In 2019, some friends of mine, a lesbian couple who recently moved to an assisted living center, awaited a Eucharistic minister who would bring them communion. When she arrived, she asked them if they were sisters. They replied that they were married. She said she had to ask the pastor to give them Communion. These two women, both proud and prophetic over their faithful lifetimes, were shaken as am I by the abysmal ignorance and the unacceptable pastoral practice of the minister and those with whom she works.
I share these quite different stories for two reasons. First, I want to underscore the commonness of LGTBQ oppression. Even fifty years after Stonewall, let no one labor under the delusion that anyone is safe. In no way do I equate my white, cis, U.S., well-educated, middle class experiences with far more dangerous and deadly ones, but I underscore that our lives, all of our lives, inform our commitments. Our work is of a piece on racial, economic, national forms of discrimination just as sex/gender forms of oppression. Second, my concern is how we Catholics from around the world can learn from and with one another, especially how we can build new forms of church going forward that will transform a global top down church into a “cosmic Catholicism” that reflects the many and varied ways that we are church around the world with attention to our planet and with gratitude for our Creator.
We Catholics are what I think of as ‘in extremis’ on questions of sexuality. Recall that when a baby is in danger of death and there is no validly and licitly ordained priest to baptize the infant, any baptized Catholic is authorized to baptize ‘in extremis,’ that is, in a situation of such extreme urgency that the usual rules do not apply. I think that same reasoning is helpful for us when thinking about sexuality.
The institutional Roman Catholic Church is simply unable to provide any leadership or moral guidance on what it means to live a good life in the 21st century, so we have to do that work as church. Put succinctly, we have to be “Proud and Prophetic”. Let me explain three key factors:
- The global epidemic of sexual abuse by clergy and its coverup by bishops and cardinals, perhaps even by Pope Francis, renders the institutional leadership morally incapable of saying anything meaningful about sexuality. This is not because the majority of clergy are gay until proven otherwise, though that is surely the case. Nor is it because there is any connection between homosexuality and sexual abuse because there is not. Rather, it is because duplicity, lying is normative. Good ethics are not based on lies. While there are some fine and even outstanding members of the clergy, I think it is time to admit that the cohort has been so tainted by the behavior of so many of its members that there is little credibility left for any of them. All clergy who participate in clerical privilege have some responsibility in this epidemic. The only solution is to build new structures based on shared leadership, community decision-making, and mutual ministry.
- The institutional church’s teachings about the subordination of women persist long after the case has been made for gender equality. This is sometimes spoken of jesuitically by Pope Francis and others as “women’s special nature.” While seeming to elevate women over brutish men (which is unfair to both), in fact it consigns women to limited roles (for example, motherhood not priesthood; women prohibited from making choices about birth control and abortion) and maintains male hegemony in church and in society. Countless negative results accrue from this posture, not least of which are persistent wage gaps between women and men worldwide, oppression of lesbians, and the continued violence against women. How could one take seriously any moral guidance about living a good life from people who do not recognize something as basic as human equality across genders?
- The third chink on the Catholic armor is the increasingly desperate effort to keep boys on one side and girls on the other, to deny and negate the reality of trans and intersex people by calling the many advances in the social and biological sciences on sexuality “gender ideology”. Another letter is allegedly forthcoming from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith which will probably attempt to codify the misinformation in the letter to which I referred from the Education office. Expect bad things to get worse.
So what do we as Proud and Prophetic Catholics do? If people were not being harmed, young people committing suicide, and families being torn apart, frankly my dear I wouldn’t care what Roman officials were teaching. But because people are hurt, governments feel empowered to pass laws that oppress and even kill us, young people are left without moral mooring, and good parents do not know how to love their children and practice their faith, in my view we have no choice but to act. As we say in the women-church movement, “it is the needs of the world not the failings of the church that set our agenda.” Our work is not simply to make our love licit, but to assure the survival of our planet. I conclude with some ideas of how to go about that work.
- We are the theologians we have been waiting for. We need to ask and answer questions of ultimate meaning and value, reading the scriptures and our tradition in a sex-positive, queer-affirming way. We cannot allow out children to be lied to in the name of God. We need to connect those insights about our love with the crying needs of an unjust world where war, famine, and water shortage are increasingly normative.
- We need to share our experiences widely, letting the truth of our own lives stand in sharp contrast to oppressive institutional church teachings. This is more feasible for some of us than for others. I am not suggesting that anyone needs to put themselves in harm’s way. But for those of us with symbolic capital to spend—white skin, cis gender, economic privilege, especially those of us with age and experience—we need to speak more loudly and more often than ever before.
- We can learn from and join with people of other faith traditions and of no faith whatsoever who are doing this work in their settings. Jewish, Buddhist, Protestant, Wiccan, Pagan, Hindu, Muslim colleagues are all in this struggle in their own faith contexts. We can make common cause and build new interreligious movements that are not only queer, finally, but intersectionally anti-racist, pro-ecology, peace building efforts.
- Finally, we can proudly and prophetically construct new forms of liturgy and ritual that bring our uniquely queer Catholic sensibility to sacrament and solidarity. One of the great privileges in my life was to stand at a rainbow covered table with a dozen queer Spanish Catholics in Madrid last fall as we collectively presided at an inclusive Eucharist. It was not at a LGBTIQ+ conference, but at a meeting of progressive Catholics, most of whom were aged fifty and above. They have been meeting for years to study and strategize as Catholics, creating new networks and structures to do the social justice work that is integral to our tradition. Imagine those folks stretching their minds and hearts to now include our struggles, to include us. They did it with gusto because they are Catholics—people of love and justice.
That is the proud and prophetic life to which we are called in the 21st century. I am utterly delighted to embrace it with each of you and committed to living it to the fullest, thanks be to God. Happy Pride!
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Global Network of Rainbow Catholics / Las visiones y opiniones expresadas en este articulo son de exclusiva responsabilidad de quienes las emiten y no necesariamente reflejan la postura oficial de la Red Global de Católicos Arcoíris.