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LGBT Catholics say world meeting is missing an opportunity

As the World Meeting of Families, the world's largest Catholic gathering of families, draws near, there's a split in the family.

Margie Winters has garnered widespread support since being fired and vows to seek out the pope's ear on LGBT issues when he visits Philadelphia next month. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
Margie Winters has garnered widespread support since being fired and vows to seek out the pope's ear on LGBT issues when he visits Philadelphia next month. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)Read more

As the World Meeting of Families, the world's largest Catholic gathering of families, draws near, there's a split in the family.

Advocates for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Catholics say the meeting is missing an opportunity by offering just one session on LGBT concerns out of dozens of panels over four days in Philadelphia. The event's organizers say the one-hour session - led by a gay, celibate man - is part of their efforts to keep the programming balanced.

The tension reflects the church's ongoing struggle to test the waters on how to talk about same-sex marriage and other LGBT issues, while frustration grows among some Catholics who plunged into that conversation years ago.

"The entire Catholic Church in America is having the discussion about LGBT issues, and yet there's no real discussion happening at the World Meeting of Families," said Francis DeBernardo, head of New Ways Ministry, a national group pushing for greater inclusion of LGBT parishioners. "It really gives a very inaccurate view of where the Catholic people are in regard to this issue."

DeBernardo's is one of 30 groups that signed a letter to Pope Francis asking to meet with him when he comes here for the World Meeting in September. The group is also one of several planning workshops that week at a church a few blocks south of the main event, at the Convention Center.

Sponsored every three years by the Vatican's Pontifical Council on the Family, the meeting comes as divides have deepened in the church worldwide over how to deal with LGBT issues - especially after Francis set off a buzz in 2013 by saying, "If a person is gay and seeks the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge him?"

In Philadelphia, as his visit nears, that buzz is approaching a roar. LGBT groups have rallied behind a teacher fired by Waldron Mercy Academy, a nondiocesan private school in Merion, for her same-sex marriage - even as Philadelphia Archbishop Charles J. Chaput praised the school for upholding church doctrine.

Chaput, who has also decried the Supreme Court's decision legalizing same-sex marriage, said during a June visit to Rome that the world meeting was open to all - "certainly [to] people who have experienced same-sex attraction - but we don't want to provide a platform at the meeting for people to lobby for a position contrary to the life of our church."

Sister Mary Scullion, founder of Project HOME and cochair of the world meeting's committee on the hungry and homeless, coauthored an open letter lamenting the Waldron firing. "We love the Church," the writers said, but they called on it to heed Francis, who they said "has insisted that the true character of the Church is not limited to a set of beliefs; while the doctrines of faith are important, they find their true expression in lived experience."

Keeping a 'global' focus

The debate over doctrine is the backdrop to a more immediate one over the Sept. 22-25 meeting's speakers and topics, the result of decisions by the Vatican, the Philadelphia Archdiocese, and the World Meeting of Families Philadelphia 2015 organization.

The lineup is meant to reflect global issues of family life, said Mary Beth Yount, director of content and programming for the meeting and an assistant professor of pastoral and theological studies at Neumann University.

Yount said LGBT groups are not the only ones critical of a schedule limited by time and space.

"There's no discussion about adding more sessions dealing with same-sex attraction," she said. "We want to balance the program and we don't want to over-focus on issues many would perceive as maybe more American-oriented - we really want to keep the focus on our global programming."

The word global is important: To many traditional Catholics attending from the meeting from countries as far-flung as Vietnam and Nigeria, LGBT issues are not a high priority.

Yount noted that there will be just one session on divorced and remarried Catholics, one on disabilities, and one on family finance - and one on homosexuality.

Ron Belgau, editor of a website called Spiritual Friendship, is to speak, along with his mother, at a session titled "Always Consider the Person: Homosexuality in the Family." He is gay and celibate.

"I accept and try to advocate for the church's teaching on sexual ethics," Belgau said in an interview from St. Louis, "But I am also not banging people over the head with that - I do advocate for celibacy, but I do think there's a tendency in the current conversations to make a much bigger deal of that."

Belgau said he thinks LGBT Catholics are cast out of the church more than others who do not live in accordance with its teachings, such as by divorcing or using contraception.

Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of DignityUSA, a national Catholic LGBT group, said Belgau's role in the meeting is a step, if a small one.

"The good news is, gay issues are going to be talked about openly - it's on the official agenda, and that's a step forward, and I want to make clear we have no objection to gay people who choose celibacy," Duddy-Burke said. "But it presents a limited view, to say the least, and an unrealistic view of how most gay Catholics and their families live."

She said gay Catholics don't check their activism at the church door anymore: "Over the past 45 years, we've become more visible and more vocal and have sort of said to the church, 'You can't just deal with us as sinners, you need to hear our stories.' "

Controversy and Courage

On one contentious issue, there is some accord: conversion therapy, the theory that homosexuality can be "cured." The practice has been outlawed in New Jersey, California, Oregon, and Washington, D.C., and condemned by President Obama after the suicide of a 17-year-old transgender girl who left a note saying religious therapists had tried to convert her back to being a boy.

Yount said World Meeting of Familíes organizers rejected putting this topic on its schedule.

Even so, one critic of the lineup says some speakers previously advocated the therapy in books or blogs, some dating back 10 or more years. Michael Sherrard, executive director of the online Christian activist group Faithful America, compiled and sent to reporters a memo describing several speakers' ties to Courage - a Catholic organization that ministers to people "experiencing same-sex attraction" and encourages them to lead chaste lives.

Helen Alvaré, a George Mason University law professor who is a scheduled keynote speaker at the meeting, wrote a 2012 book that quoted advocates of reparative therapy, but said last week that it was unfair to say she favors such therapy.

"I'm not qualified medically to speak on it, but I am in favor of letting people on all sides tell their personal stories and present their scientific evidence," she wrote in an email.

Alvaré spoke at a July 2014 conference at Villanova University by Courage. The group's website offers articles with titles such as "Coming out of the gay lifestyle" and "Why is homosexuality a sin," as well as a videotape of the speech at the same conference by Chaput, who celebrated the opening Mass.

Chaput's spokesman, Ken Gavin, said the archbishop was unavailable to be interviewed for this article. But in his homily to the Courage audience last summer, Chaput spoke of the "burden" of same-sex attraction and the challenge same-sex marriage issues pose for the church.

"For those who stand against the church on teaching about same-sex marriage, the teaching of the church is a huge burden. . . . For them, gay marriage has become a human-rights issue," he said.

"For those of us who are called on to teach joyfully the teachings of Jesus and the church when it comes to human sexuality, I don't think there's a greater burden in the world today than the issue of gay marriage."