LGBT groups protest Catholic hierarchy, seek lay support
When Chicago's Gay Liberation Network picketed outside the city's Holy Name Cathedral on Valentine's Day, 2010, out of indignation at Cardinal Francis George's and other Catholic leadership's frequent opposition to LGBT equality, social conservative groups criticized the action as "angry" and "misguided."
So it should come as no surprise that when GLN repeated the effort this year as a way to highlight the Illinois Catholic Conference of Bishop's pronounced opposition to the state's recently signed civil unions law, the action was again criticized-this time by the cardinal himself.
"Some members of the Gay Liberation Network demonstrated in front of Holy Name Cathedral on Sunday, Feb. 13, protesting against Catholic Church teaching on the immorality of homosexual genital relations and opposition to so called 'gay marriage,' wrote George. "No matter the issue, Catholics should be able to worship in peace, without fear of harassment."
The protest has also been criticized by some Catholics who are working for progress on LGBT issues and other civil rights concerns. Bishop James Alan Wilkowski of the Evangelical Catholic Church's Northwest Diocese told EDGE that GLN's protest "cheapened the movement." Wilkowski's denomination has recognized "gender common" marriages for more than 20 years.
"I really found what they did and how they did it to be extremely unseemly," said Wilkowski. "I think that protesting in front of churches is not the answer. In fact, I think the backlash that Sunday's event will cause will cause more harm and will slow the process for building on the successes that have been made in the area of civil rights."
He further noted many other religious denominations in Illinois and elsewhere have also led anti-LGBT campaigns. "You can't meddle within and tell a religious body what they can or cannot do," added Wilkowski. "It just doesn't work."
GLN co-founder and protest organizer Andy Thayer stressed the demonstration was directed toward the Church and not Catholic laity, who increasingly support marriage equality. A Pew Research Center poll conducted late last year found 49 percent of respondents supported nuptials for gays and lesbians, and other polls put this figure over 50 percent. A 1996 Pew poll found only an estimated 27 percent of Catholics supported marriage equality.
Thayer hopes lay Catholics would begin to assert themselves in pushing back against their church's leadership's stance on the issue.
"We're seeing this increasingly from anti-gay forces who portray themselves as the victims of discrimination," said Thayer. "But any leader, regardless of religious denomination, who lobbies against our rights the way Cardinal George has done is, frankly, an enemy of the LGBT community and it's about time we start treating them as such. Our protest is the kind of shaking things up that's needed."
One of several groups working to help pro-LGBT Catholics across the country further assert themselves within the church is Catholics for Equality. The Washington, D.C.,-based organization hosted a "family conversation" on marriage equality between the National Organization for Marriage's Maggie Gallagher and gay journalist Andrew Sullivan at Georgetown University in December. The event drew more than 300 students during final exams-a rare feat; said executive director Phil Attey.
Attey's group has now turned their eye toward building Catholic support for Maryland's marriage equality bill. The measure appears poised to pass in the state Legislature, and many Catholic lawmakers have pledged their support. Catholic Gov. Martin O'Malley has said he will sign the bill into law.
Attey described American Catholics as "the sleeping giant in the civil rights movement for equality for LGBT people." While the church's leadership has continued to embrace a throwback to "natural law," he said many Catholics are far more independently minded on LGBT issues. And Attey's group hopes to offer leadership to that mindset, giving it a newfound political influence.
"This is the most movable group on LGBT issues in the country," he said. "As soon as Catholics as a body church wake up and realize the people sitting next to them in the pews agree with them that all people, including LGBT people, deserve the same freedoms and responsibilities as every other citizen then game over: We will have full equality in this country."
Attey added he is glad to see more and more LGBT advocacy groups reaching out to Catholics for support, a partnership that would have been far less likely with the previous generation of activists.
Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, a group that's been fighting for a more gay-friendly Catholic ministry since 1977, agreed new partnerships between progressive Catholics and LGBT groups are long overdue.
DeBernardo recently wrote the book Marriage Equality: A Positive Catholic Approach that makes "a Catholic case for gay marriage." He is set debut it at a full-day conference on the issue in Baltimore on Saturday, Feb. 19.
DeBernardo wants to emphasize American Catholics are increasingly supporting marriage equality "because they're Catholic, not in spite of that identity"-a fact often overshadowed by the church hierarchy's vocal opposition to pro-LGBT legislation.
"The Catholic faith and Catholic community have a very strong tradition of social justice and many of the people who are supporting marriage equality are doing it because of their support for social justice, which they learned from Catholicism," said DeBernardo. "There's been a lot of understandable reluctance for LGBT groups to associate with religious groups, but I'm glad that day is over."