Visions of Daniel

DignityUSA: Roman Catholic? LGBT-focused?



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Is Dignity a Roman Catholic organization?

Founded in 1968, Dignity is a national Roman Catholic LGBT support group with local chapters throughout the USA. Over the years, discussion has arisen about Dignity's Roman Catholic identity--because the organization is attempting to address concerns about equality on all fronts, concerns that the Vatican simply does not share. My fear is that Dignity is going too far afield and shooting itself in the foot, self-disqualifying its call for change in Vatican teaching and policy regardins sexual ethics. Below are two statements expresing my concerns.

Quo Vadis?

Plenary Panel, DignityUSA Convention 2011
Washington, DC, July 2, 2011

According to legend, Jesus posed to Peter the question, “Where are you going?” as Peter was fleeing persecution in Rome. Twenty-first-century LGBT Catholics, especially the leading national group, the Dignity movement—including DignityUSA, our chapters, and other local expressions—need to ponder this question. Where are we going, and how do we get there? What paths will allow us to be true to ourselves and also to our faith?

Statement by Daniel A. Helminiak
(edited and expanded beyond the six-minute conference presentation)

I am honored to be asked to address this topic, which, I realized in this preparation, has reached a critical stage. For the first time, I believe Dignity should disband—unless it significantly clarifies its mission. Many of you remember my 2009 article in the DignityUSA Quarterly Voice [see below]: in no way could the Liturgy and statements at the San Francisco convention qualify as Roman Catholic, and the entire nature of the organization is up for grabs.

What needs to be done?

First, to remain true to our founding purpose, Dignity needs to reaffirm unambiguous commitment to Roman Catholic identity. Without excluding others, Dignity must be an organization of Roman Catholics, for Roman Catholics, and among Roman Catholics, explicitly. Variant theologies or ecclesiologies, worthy as they might be in other contexts, are irrelevant here. The oversimplified slogan, “We are the church,” ignoring other church members and agencies, defines Dignity as just one more splinter denomination, making it irrelevant to Roman Catholic renewal. Then Dignity resembles an MCC congregation remarkable for a predominance of former-Roman-Catholic members.

By Roman Catholic I do not mean its narrowest interpretation, but one that takes advantage of all options, openings, technicalities, and loopholes to meet contemporary needs as fully as possible within essential constraints. Paramount would be recognition that the sacramental system—especially Eucharist and Orders, which symbolize and effect communion—is a defining element of the Catholic tradition, Roman or otherwise. There is a difference between basic values, common to most Christian denominations, and the ways, specific to varied traditions, of embodying, symbolizing, fostering, and celebrating those values. A “good liturgy” is not ipso facto a Roman Catholic Mass.

Second, Dignity must become fundamentally a ministry, a service organization, dedicated to selflessly addressing the needs of Roman Catholicism—not to meeting our own religious needs. We who have worked through the challenges of LGBT identity while holding onto our religious identity need now to welcome and minister to other wounded Catholics. We squander our blessings wanting only to create a cozy worship space for ourselves and those like us. For the most part local chapters provide the locus of this ministry.

Third, we need to focus and streamline Dignity's Statement of Purpose. Studying it closely in light of this panel, I find that Statement a product of the exuberance of the early, post-Stonewall, gay liberation movement, and the Statement has grown over the years. It suggests we take on the entire mission of the church! It proposes we transform the whole world! Being realistic, as an organization,

•  we need to limit responsibility for education. No longer need Dignity be responsible for supporting research and generating information. New Ways Ministry, numerous publications, theologians, pastors, the internet, and others now amply cover this base. The fundamental questions are answered. Dignity need only funnel resources to LGBT people.

•  We need to strike explicit involvement with health care. It is obviously beyond our competence and capacity.

•  We need to strike all explicit involvement with the social-justice projects of society at large. HRC, National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, GLSEN, GLAAD, PFLAG, Marriage Equality, and other political and civic groups specialize in these causes.

•  We need to strike any explicit project of advancing women's roles in the church. The Women's Ordination Conference, Catholic Women Priests, Women-Church Convergence, and other groups already target this undeniably urgent need far better than we can. Defended as a gender issue, it has become our biggest distraction. Dignity was not founded to advance women's ordination. Gender roles and sexual ethics are related, but they are not the same thing. All lesbians may be women, but not all women are lesbians. The two issues do not completely overlap. Oppression of women may be related to anti-gay attitudes, but, again, they are not the same issue.

•  Similarly, we need to strike explicit involvement with the closely related issue, overall reform of the church. Call To Action, Catholics Speak Out, CORPUS, FutureChurch, and others already explicitly attend to this complex matter.

I do not say Dignity should ignore those causes. Valid, urgent, and entwined with our own, they all need our commitment. Through partnerships with other organizations, Dignity can advance them. Certainly, too, as individuals, Dignity members should be actively involved in those other groups. But as an organization, Dignity cannot include all those causes, which blur its defining purpose.

Fourth, what is left? Dignity is the only Roman Catholic organization that outright and publically challenges Vatican teaching on sexual ethics. (By Vatican I intend all the hierarchy.) Heterosexuals have already long ignored that teaching in regard to birth control and premarital sex, but they make no noise about it, and the hierarchy turns a blind eye. Except for Catholics for a Free Choice regarding abortion, no Catholics are publically challenging the Vatican on sexuality. To do so is what I see as Dignity's singular mission in accord with its bold declaration at the 1987 Bal Harbour convention.

Dignity must mount an aggressive and relentless campaign of Good News about human sexuality—with a negative and a positive emphasis: negatively, to publically deny, correct, and even ridicule the Vatican's blatantly outdated, dishonest, hypocritical stance on sexuality; positively, by this very process, to offer LGBT Catholics and others a contemporary and responsible Catholic sexual ethics, such as John McNeil proposed in Sex as God Intended. DignityUSA must become an anti-defamation league for LGBT Catholics.

In this way Dignity will serve a second need, which varies in urgency from place to place: in local chapters to offer understanding and guidance to people still struggling with needless Vatican-imposed guilt. Once freed of such guilt, in most cases LGBT Catholics will easily find the spiritual support they need in vibrant Catholic parishes and in all the standard ways: Mass, sacraments, prayer, intimate relationships, family life, honest employment, community service, political involvement—love of God through love of self and neighbor.

In brief, the mission of Dignity will be

•  to advance a wholesome Catholic vision of human sexuality and challenge the skewed Vatican teaching and, thus, by removing the poison of Vatican sex-negativism,

•  to free LGBT people spiritually and, by this very process, Christians overall and our struggling global community, as well.

My vision for a renewed Dignity does apply to all the church and the whole world—but with focus on only one issue: Roman Catholic sexual ethics.

Fifth, why this radical down-sizing of Dignity's mission? Simply, because the times have changed. The war is not over, but the victory is won. History is on our side. Gay marriage will soon be a reality all over this country. Young people now grow up knowing lesbian and gay friends, and they are more and more comfortable with sexual and gender diversity. Many families, Catholics more than others, are supporting their LGBT children from the start and protecting them from the spiritual abuse of religion. Many Catholic parishes welcome and support LGBT people. The tasks of 40 years ago no longer demand Dignity's explicit involvement.

Yet the Vatican continues and even escalates its concerted campaign against LGBT people to our detriment and that of people everywhere. Like it or not, the voice of the Vatican is powerful. In contrast, with focus, discipline, generosity, and affiliations with other LGBT and Catholic organizations, a Roman Catholic Dignity could mount an aggressive and relentless campaign of Good News about human sexuality. Or Dignity could continue its present trajectory of becoming a church unto itself and thereby become irrelevant to the reform of the Roman Catholic Church.

We are at a crossroad. Quo vadis ?


DignityUSA: Roman Catholic? LGBT-focused?

Daniel A. Helminiak
(a statement regarding the July, 2009, DignityUSA convention, San Francisco)

DignityUSA is probably stronger than ever. The superb work of a paid staff and talented Board has given Dignity the stability, efficiency, and competence to be a powerful voice for change. Yet one uncertainty continues to becloud the organization: there is no consensus on what its work should be. Thus, Dignity's impact is scattered, fragmented, and diluted.

Dignity's Statement of Position and Purpose speaks of "reform in the Church" and, specifically, "for the development of sexual theology … and for the acceptance of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered peoples as full and equal members of the one Christ." How much this "reform" has drifted from focus on sexual ethics is unclear. What is clear is Dignity's increasing concern for all-out transformation of the Roman Catholic Church.

Emphasis on such pervasive ecclesial reform dominated our convention in July, 2009. Dr. Mary Hunt's overview of Dignity's history, status, and prospects provided a quotable line to make the point: "Let the needs of the world be our agenda, not the failings of the institutional church." Our national president, Mark Matson, repeated that line and added others like it: we are to be "the church for all who seek full inclusion" and "we must be the change we want to see in the church."

Couched in terms as sweeping as "the needs of the world," the identity of DignityUSA remains uncertain. Despite the upbeat mood of the San Francisco convention, indicators of alienation and fragmentation were also palpable. The multiple constituencies of Dignity have never been easy to manage: chapters appealing only to local affiliation, individuals struggling with coming out or seeking spiritual guidance, people wanting an LGBT-focused Mass, activists committed to challenging Vatican teaching, families of LGBT people needing support, fully out youth claiming a bona fide Catholic identity or else disassociating from the Catholic Church, other national organizations partnering with Dignity, the church and society at large needing an alternative Catholic voice on LGBT issues. One would think that these shifting challenges would be enough to burden any one organization, but now Dignity seems committed to reformation of the Catholic Church itself—and I use the historically loaded word reformation deliberately.

I fear this current emphasis compromises Dignity's original, important, and already overwhelming mission, which becomes increasingly demanding under Benedict XVI's administration. Two questions express my concern: Is reform of the whole church the task of Dignity? And is Dignity still Roman Catholic? My personal answer to both is a firm No. This state of affairs is gravely problematic.

Both those questions hang together, and the same issues tend to provoke them. Paramount among them is feminist theology. As a gender issue, it is surely pertinent to Dignity; misogyny and homophobia do walk hand in hand. Dignity's Statement of Position and Purpose does include concern "to eradicate sexism and particularly in all areas of Church and secular life so that women are wholly included, accepted, and welcome" and "to promote inclusivity in all areas of liturgical and community life." So Dignity has always struggled to do right by women without betraying the focal concerns of the organization. Perhaps it is indeed impossible to change the Roman Catholic Church without confronting head on the "kyriarchy" [rule by the lords] that controls it. Yet when does dismantling the kyriarchy and restructuring the whole church distract from Dignity's LGBT mission? There is no obvious answer; it is always a judgment call. I believe Dignity has already crossed the line.

No one, for example, could have credited the convention's main Eucharistic Liturgy as a Roman Catholic Mass. Was there even a validly and licitly ordained priest presiding at that liturgy? If so, the fact was nowhere determinable. Worse still, the lack of concern over this question was explicit. As Mary Hunt reported, without apparent concern on her part or opposition from anyone, "Many of us have moved beyond dependence on the presence of an ordained cleric, male or female, to authenticate our masses"—although the tradition of apostolic succession and ordination is the backbone of Roman Catholicism. (I say tradition, not fact: we know the inconsistencies in this matter in the earliest Christian century.)

Please, get my real point. My theology is as liberal as they come. In themselves those emphases are fine, but they are out of place in Dignity. Surely, Jesus was really present in that convention Eucharist. Surely, he is really present in non-Catholic gatherings. So the "genuineness" of that Eucharistic experience is not what is in question. Its Roman Catholic nature is.

Vatican II is explicit: one need not be Catholic, nor Christian, nor even theist to be saved, but only a person of sincere good will. Moreover, the Council insisted that Christ is present in the Word, in the priest, and in the congregation as well as in the sacrament on the altar. Christ is hardly "more really present" in one form than another. (What could that possibly mean?) Indeed, through the Holy Spirit, Christ is present and active in myriad ways also in everyday life. However, Christ's presence can be symbolized differently, and the various Christian churches have their own ways of celebrating Christ's presence. What occurred at our 40th -anniversary convention was not a Roman Catholic form of celebrating Eucharist. This failure is what concerns me—in an organization dedicated to influencing Roman Catholic teaching.

Again, Mary Hunt squarely addressed the matter at stake: "There are a range of ways of being Catholic of which 'Roman' is but one….the Roman part of the Catholic tradition is not necessarily the normative one and need not be treated as such." Absolutely! But not in the case of Roman Catholics! This, only this, is my point. Acceptance of the Roman Catholic "style"—the technical term is church order—is precisely what distinguishes Roman Catholicism from other Christian traditions.

DignityUSA is on a path of exit from the Roman Catholic Church. Exit itself is not my concern. Many have left, legitimately and deservedly, and they are the better for it. But rightly, they no longer call themselves Roman Catholic. To part ways with the official church and form one more to one's liking—and even, I fully agree, more in accord with the best of theology—is quintessentially Protestant, and this is what DignityUSA is currently about. People can argue ecclesiology as they wish, but theological correctness does not determine ecclesial affiliation. It's more a matter of politics than theology, and calling it ecclesiology does not change its essentially sociological, business-administrative, or political character. From this perspective, changing churches is like changing parties. All may be American, but Democrats are not Republicans, and the two are American in their own ways.

To put the matter bluntly: if people don't like the way the Roman Catholic Church is currently running, they can leave and join another religion that better meets their spiritual needs. Indeed, already gone so far, why even be concerned whether or not it's "Catholic" in any form, or Christian? Why not Buddhist, Muslim, or Hindu? Even enshrined Catholic teaching allows that all can be saved.

Mark Matson asserts, "If we ARE the Church, then we don't have to sit back and wait for the kyriarchs to make the decisions." True, we are the Church, but so are other believers, including the bishops, and none of us are free to decide for ourselves what the whole of the Church is to be. Are members of Dignity serving, perhaps, only selfish interests by morphing the organization into another church because of dissatisfaction with the current one? Is Dignity re-enacting the Reformation?

Please again, let my point be clear. In decrying reformation, I am not even faulting Martin Luther. He was right in much of his objection to the Roman Church of his day, yet even he lamented the political consequences. Likewise, we are right in much of our objection to the Vatican church of our day.

Indeed, on sexual ethics the Vatican flouts long-standing, solemnly proclaimed—if not, perhaps, actually infallibly defined—Catholic teaching from the First Vatican Council: "Although it is true that faith is above reason, no true conflict between faith and reason could ever occur." This declaration is what keeps me Roman Catholic: the only theological tradition I know that could coherently and respectfully address the needs of a multi-religious, global society—if only it would live up to its heritage. But no! The defensive Vatican "of little faith" (Mt. 14:31, 16:8) flagrantly dismisses overwhelming evidence on every front—biblical, historical, psychological, medical, anthropological, personal—in its crusade against same-sex relationships. Likewise, the Vatican ignores its own teaching on collegiality, subsidiarity, and the rights of the baptized.

Nonetheless, to object to Vatican practice on the basis of solid Roman Catholic teaching and, thus, to offer LGBT people, their families, and society at large an alternative Roman Catholic vision is not to set up one's own church. Yet Dignity appears to be doing so—and, in the process, it is neglecting its founding mission.

The issues that pushed Dignity over the line are real, they are serious, they are legitimate. In no way do I minimize them. But is it Dignity's role to take on the lot and at the expense of the one task that is its alone?

In fact, there do exist many ways to meet the spiritual needs of LGBT people within the confines of the present Catholic system. There also exist many ways to celebrate powerfully meaningful, gender-inclusive liturgies within the present Catholic system. There exist, as well, many Catholic organizations, which Dignity members could and do join, and many partnerships, which Dignity already prizes, that provide venues for Dignity members to advance the many-faceted reformation of the Roman Catholic Church.

No one organization can address all the needs of the Church, however urgent, deserving, and inspiring they might be. Yet Dignity is attempting this impossibility. In fact, other lay organizations already specifically address, one by one, the array of institutionalized flaws in the church. The need for reformation of the Roman Catholic Church is not being ignored in the least. There is no reason under the sun for Dignity to make this overarching task its own. On the other hand, not one of those organizations spotlights the skewed sexual ethics of the Vatican. Not one has proclaimed direct challenges to Vatican teaching on this matter. In this matter Dignity is singular. Indeed, it is the organization to which the others look to "cover" this matter. Yet Dignity is choosing to invest its efforts in structuring for its members a comfortable but non-Roman-Catholic church experience, necessarily, then, short-changing the one mission that is uniquely its own.

Only a truly Roman Catholic organization can challenge the Vatican on sexual ethics, and only an organization actually focused on sexual ethics can mount an effective challenge. Dignity appears to meet these requirements less and less. So I pose again my two questions for consideration, and I add a third: Is the wholesale reform of the church actually Dignity's task? Is Dignity still Roman Catholic? And isn't the LGBT issue worth all-consuming dedication?