LGBTQ Catholics must be united in the work of justice for all, says Dignity leader

Views Marianne Duddy-Burke / August 30, 2023 Print this:
Dignity members participate in an LGBTQ pride walk in St. Louis, Mo., in April 1980. (Photo courtesy of Will Wegener)

The following is the second part of a keynote address delivered by Marianne Duddy-Burke, the executive director of DignityUSA, at the Church of St. Paul the Apostle, in New York City, during the 2023 Outreach conference. It has been edited for clarity, length and style. The first part is available here.

Between the people we lost to AIDS, those who left after the 1986 Vatican letter on homosexuality and those who chose to remain in their parishes instead of being expelled, Dignity lost at least a third of our membership. But for those who remained with the organization, we learned one of our most surprising and sustaining lessons.

The church is truly the community, not a building or its hierarchy

Living out this conviction has brought unexpected challenges and gifts to the Dignity community. It has led to the lessons that undergird the ways our ministry, advocacy and inclusion work have all expanded to today.

I do not ever mean to diminish the wrenching pain, anger and rootlessness experienced by our members after being banned from Catholic facilities. Being told you are not welcome in your home because of who you are, whom you love and what you believe is a rejection that wounds at many levels. Yes, even in the face of this viscerally intense wound, we have proven our resilience.

Being told you are not welcome in your home because of who you are, whom you love and what you believe is a rejection that wounds at many levels.

People formerly in the background of Dignity communities stepped up to take on the new responsibilities that arose from this displacement. They made new spaces feel familiar for the Catholic liturgy, worked with new host community leaders, spoke with the press and helped members deal with their personal responses to the transition.

Public acknowledgement of our church’s rejection was a bold act. Most of us in the generations impacted had been raised in an era where church officials were accorded nearly unquestioning respect. Going public with our disagreement with the evictions, and with the 1986 “Halloween” letter, to tell our truth was an assertion of our right to survive and thrive, and to find ways of living our faith in forced exile. 

As a movement and an organization, we believed that persisting through the AIDS pandemic, the Halloween letter and its aftermath marked us as an Easter people—born into new life after our Good Friday. It was the birth of what John McNeill called “freedom, glorious freedom”—the courage to live our faith in conscience-based conviction.

We learned that having no further dependence on the institutional church meant we had the ability to breathe more freely, and to speak our truth more boldly. While the hope for full reconciliation remained, most Dignity members determined that that reconciliation must come with full understanding of, and respect for, the truth of our lives.

At our first national meeting following (not preceding) the release of the Halloween letter, the delegates voted overwhelmingly to include an explicit affirmation of same-sex intimacy in our position statement. At that gathering, held outside of Miami in 1987, we added this sentence to our foundational identity document:

We believe that we can express our sexuality physically, in a unitive manner that is loving, life-giving, and life-affirming. We believe that all sexuality should be exercised in an ethically responsible and unselfish way.

Although Dignity had long quietly affirmed sexual intimacy for LGB people, offered blessings for committed relationships, maintained a registry of couples and urged rethinking of dogma in meetings with church leaders and theologians, this official declaration was a major step for our organization and members. We no longer needed to dance around our beliefs or choose our words carefully. The adoption of this statement was a moment of liberation for us.

The truth really does set us free—and with freedom comes great responsibility

Once we had gone on record as formally dissenting from church teaching on homosexuality, we learned a lot about the responsibility that came with having taken that action. Dignity members became public advocates for a Catholic view on sexuality and relationships that did not have heterosexual marriage and procreation as their only valid ends. This meant learning to articulate principles from our faith.

We became aware of our responsibility to proclaim positive Catholic messages about same-sex intimacy, and the harmful pastoral effects of church teaching, in the public square. We realized that we held this responsibility on behalf people far beyond our own membership. We took on the responsibility of developing a statement of sexual ethics for people in same-sex relationships.

We felt compelled to speak for the growing number of Catholics who believed in expanding civil protections and equality for gay and lesbian people.

We felt compelled to speak for the growing number of Catholics who believed in expanding civil protections and equality for gay and lesbian people, even as many of our bishops were actively working to defeat such laws. We had to find new ways and resources to make advocacy, both within our church and in the civic arena, as much a part of our mission as spiritual support. 

We also began to grapple with the concept that church teaching may also be unjust in other areas. The equality of women became something we were compelled to explore, largely due to increasingly vocal women within our own movement.

While women have been part of Dignity since its earliest days, we were very much underrepresented in most communities. Few women held leadership roles in either local chapters or in the national organization. In some dioceses where priests were banned from serving Dignity, the chapters welcomed married priests—that is, men who had resigned (or been laicized from) the priesthood to marry women. 

Our national conventions and regional gatherings offered opportunities for Catholic women to connect and share their experiences as Dignity members. The Committee for Women’s Concerns raised questions about inequity, encouraged Dignity members to study the work of emerging feminist theologians and promoted use of inclusive language at Dignity events. Some women were so frustrated by their experiences with Dignity that they founded the Conference of Catholic Lesbians.

Slowly, we as an organization began to understand the links between misogyny and homophobia. We started to work with groups like the Women’s Ordination Conference and the Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics, and Ritual. Dignity expanded liturgical and governance roles for women. Understanding interlocking and overlapping oppressions within our church and beyond was an important step that has helped to shape our future. 

Focusing on women’s equality also forced us to look at issues arising from our association with the hierarchical church. What assumptions and practices in our organization reflected “top-down” thinking? We strove to be an organization accountable and responsive to our grassroots members. How well were we accomplishing that? What voices and needs were not being attended to, and which were being privileged? These kinds of concerns led us to question many aspects of our church, and what it means to be Catholic.

Understanding interlocking and overlapping oppressions within our church and beyond was an important step that has helped to shape our future. 

This gave us opportunities to learn from theologians, church historians, liturgists and leaders from other Christian traditions about how our beliefs and practices were developed and transmitted. The more we learned, the more invested we became in discerning what was at the core of our faith, and what we could accept, reject or reshape. For us, the really wonderful outcome of this is a tremendous diversity of how Dignity members gather, pray and live out Catholicism. This is true in liturgical practice, as well as in our structure and governance.

In some communities, you may experience liturgies led by women and nonbinary priests, as well as men. In others, lay members of the community are called on to lead liturgies. Many communities have both lay and ordained presiders, or presider teams. Sometimes you will experience “Share the Word” reflections, where all are welcome to comment on the Scriptures. In some communities, readings by women are proclaimed alongside the canonical Scriptures. Our communities will celebrate same-sex marriages, hold re-naming rituals and baptize children.

Each community must think about its own needs and resources as they determine how they pray and gather together. If something is not working for the group, it must be rethought. Lay-led boards and liturgy committees are responsible for all aspects of the community’s life.

Many see our model as a rejection of the church. However I see it as having lived a synodal church for decades. Ironically, this deeper engagement with the work of living our faith has actually helped many, if not most of us, become even more committed to what we understand as the essentials of Catholicism. We believe that we have the privilege of what some have called “adult Catholicism.”

Questioning the church can deepen faith

Obviously, this is not true for everyone who starts down this path. Some become overwhelmed by hypocrisy and moral failures as they consider church history and theology. But for those who find grace in the striving to live out the Gospel, we are committed to build the church we know can exist.

Another dynamic our entire community has dealt with is our expanding and increasingly complex identity. This is most evident in what some call the “alphabet soup” of our movement. Bisexual people became more vocal and visible in our communities. Transgender and nonbinary people broadened our awareness. Many people embraced “queer” as an identity. The borders of our community became more elastic.

As a multi-generational community, we need to recognize that generations of LGBTQ people and families have different social and spiritual experiences. We must work to understand and to meet those realities. Each addition or shift in our community called us to see a new dimension of humanity, and to embrace that new dimension as reflecting an (until then) unfamiliar image of God. Each time our community grows and shape-shifts, our sense of the divine is challenged.

Each time our community grows and shape-shifts, our sense of the divine is challenged.

As much as we believe ourselves to be created in the divine image, we know that, due to the limits of human imagination, we also create the divine in our own image. I have come to believe that embracing a sense of the sacred that is as expansive, ever-changing and surprising as the queer community is a lifelong journey. And as our spiritual imagination grows, how we pray, the language we use, the way we program, how we ensure our spaces are welcoming—all of this must change, too. We must be flexible in our ministry, our worship and our advocacy.

This is much easier for a small group like Dignity to accomplish than it is for a religious order or a diocesan parish. Even for us, it is not always simple. It is difficult to give up familiar, comfortable rituals and patterns. Changes often require new resources and work, and the fear of not doing things perfectly can paralyze us with indecision. However, as we have seen our communities expand, we have been blessed with the graces of unexpected friendships, new spiritual wisdom, the excitement of dreaming new realities and the blossoming of people who did not know they could find community.

Living into beloved community require openness to continuous transformation

We can never believe we have reached the Promised Land, as we are always pilgrims on the way. There will always be needs we have not yet met, people we do not serve well and gifts we don’t even know we need. We see through the glass darkly; our vision is limited and cloudy. If we accept this, we can then embrace each new call as a way to know God, the source of our being, a little bit better. 

The expansiveness of the LGBTQ and ally Catholic community represented by Dignity, along with the ways we’ve learned resilience in the face of insult and oppression, leads me to a final thought about our potential during this particular moment.

In our country, and in other parts of the world, the LGBTQ movement is being met with powerful backlash. This is true in politics and in our church. To be clear, we are not the only targets of this hostility. Women, immigrants, Jewish people and Black and Brown citizens are also threatened by Christian nationalists and white supremacists. But the scapegoating and targeting of the queer people, especially young transgender and nonbinary people, has been particularly virulent and vicious. Many may feel they have no option but to hide.

But this is not the time for us to return to the comfort of living in a progressive state or community. It is not the time to “lay low” and protect what we have. We need to proclaim the wind and fire of Pentecost. Much like the apostles who feared that the authorities might come for them following Jesus’ crucifixion, we need to call on the wisdom and fortitude gifted to us by the Holy Spirit for all who are persecuted and oppressed.

LGBTQ Catholics should be seen by the larger church as vitally important partners in the work of justice.

Our mission to achieve irrevocable justice, equality and full inclusion of LGBTQ people and allies is inextricably linked with all kinds of justice work, happening in many ways and in many places. I believe we have learned much about what it means to be a People of Pentecost, bringing God’s unequivocal love to all. In fact, I believe that LGBTQ Catholics and allies have a particular call to the work of justice.

The struggle of everyone is our struggle. LGBTQ people are found in every human demographic. We are every age, every race, every ethnicity, every gender. We live in every nation; we are migrants, seeking safety and a place to thrive. We are part of every faith and spiritual tradition. We are in positions of great power; we are enslaved and trafficked. We are well-educated, and we are deprived of the opportunity to learn.

Given this reality, LGBTQ Catholics should be seen by the larger church as vitally important partners in the work of justice, and even as having a unique and special ability to further this mission. We can build and strengthen the Body of Christ, helping to unite people by embracing and honoring the diversity of humanity. Even if the institutional church takes many more decades to act on this truth, wouldn’t it be amazing for us to take on this work, and bring a new Pentecost to birth? 

Marianne Duddy-Burke

Marianne Duddy-Burke is the executive director of DignityUSA and co-chair of the Global Network of Rainbow Catholics. She has written for numerous publications, including The Washington Post, the New York Times, the National Catholic Reporter and The Advocate.

All articles by Marianne Duddy-Burke

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1 Comment
  1. Bravo to Marianne for her so perceptive and insightful remarks. And Bravo to Outreach for sharing them with so many people. This is real progress in the evolving of a better LGBT ministry.

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