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Gathering needed for gays, bishops


When the Rev. Jerry Falwell has dinner next month with 200 gay people, the table talk will be anti-gay rhetoric and violence.

This unusual gathering resulted from the efforts of the Rev. Mel White, a former ghostwriter for Falwell and author of Stranger at the Gate: To Be Gay and Christian in America. White asked Falwell: Can we talk?

“Mel sincerely wants to lower the rhetoric on both sides. That is exactly what we want,” Falwell told the Lynchburg, Va., News & Advance.

No doubt about it: Anti-gay rhetoric and violence abound. The murders of Billy Jack Gaither (Alabama) and Matthew Shepard (Wyoming) and that of Pfc. Barry Winchell (Fort Campbell, Ky.) exemplify an increasingly hostile climate.

This dinner discussion -- a hopeful sign on the political and spiritual landscape -- holds potential for stemming a shameful national trend: Ugly, inflammatory rhetoric and its companion, violent actions and in some cases homicide against people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered, or even perceived to be so.

At a recent academic forum at Northeastern University, Fr. Robert Nugent, the priest whom the Vatican ordered to cease a 28-year gay-affirming ministry, had plenty to say about violence.

“One of my road-show sound bites,” Nugent told 400 people, “was, ‘Homophobia is manifested from silence to violence.’ ”

“Silence is a kind of violence,” he said. “We can’t restrict violence just to physical violence. Emotional and psychological violence is also an issue.”

For gay Roman Catholics like me, the church’s violent language is four words: “intrinsically evil,” used to describe homosexual orientation and “objective disorder,” used to describe homosexual acts.

In an apparent effort to impose a hard-line dogma of chastity -- mandatory, life-long celibacy for gays -- this contemptible language prevails in the 1994 version of the Catechism and other texts, including a revision to the U.S. bishops’ essentially gay-positive 1997 pastoral letter, “Always Our Children.”

Most recently, the Vatican Catholics have insisted that Nugent and his ministerial partner, Sr. Jeannine Gramick, sign a written “profession of faith” containing words like “intrinsically evil,” “depraved,” and “intrinsically disordered.”

Such language, especially in a pastoral setting, is at best arcane and irrelevant. At worst it’s counter-productive, insulting, and enraging.

One priest told me: “It’s spiritual abuse.”

Every time I hear those ugly words assault my ears, I feel battered.

The truth is, though, I know that I am neither evil nor disordered per se in my fundamental sexual orientation and expression. Lesbians tell me the same thing about the experience of their sexual orientation and expression.

More of us are mustering the courage to speak. We only wish that church officials would take us seriously and listen to our stories that must inform any honest teaching about human sexuality.

During his recent talk, Nugent quoted from a critique of “Always Our Children,” addressed primarily to Catholic parents of gay sons and daughters. That critique, written by Ed Ingebretsen, a Jesuit priest and tenured English professor at Georgetown University, focuses on a contradiction in teaching on homosexuality -- that curiously Catholic tension of affirming God’s love revealed in gay people, while simultaneously asserting a thoroughly shaming, guilt- and (in some cases) violence-producing doctrine of vile, disordered homosexual expression.

But “we do not love those whom we do not touch. Nor do we care for those to whom we will not listen, regardless of what our words declare. To espouse love for a person while repudiating that person in subtle and not so subtle ways is the worst kind of emotional anorexia,” said Nugent, quoting Ingebretsen.

Surely, homophobia manifested among the faithful -- from silence to violence, with varying degrees of psychological and spiritual abuse and emotional anorexia in between -- cannot be denied.

Don’t you think that White and Falwell will demonstrate true Christian courage if they follow through on their agreement to discuss the tone and tenor of public discourse on homosexuality?

I do. That’s why I am asking my regular dinner companion, a conservative Catholic activist, to request a similar gathering with our spiritual leader, Cardinal Bernard Law.

And I urge other gay Catholics nationwide to request up-close time with their local bishops.

Such a dinner gathering of faithful lesbian and gay Catholics, our families and friends and the cardinal here in the archdiocese of Boston is not only long overdue, but also potentially healing. What a grace-filled opportunity for all to listen and learn, safely and respectfully.

Such an up-close and personal ministerial initiative demonstrates real gospel values. After all, when Our Lord touched and healed people with his message of compassion and love, didn’t he teach us most effectively by example?

Chuck Colbert, who serves on the board of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association, is a graduate student at the Weston Jesuit School of Theology.

National Catholic Reporter, October 1, 1999