‘Discrimination is Wrong, No Matter Where It Exists’: Conflict Between LGBTQ Catholics and Church Leadership

By |2020-08-28T11:16:08-04:00August 28th, 2020|Michigan, News|

It’s not news that the Catholic Church has a long history of discrimination against LGBTQ adherents of the faith. What Between The Lines took notice of in particular, however, was a trio of recent events in Michigan. Back in March, the Archdiocese of Detroit announced that Dignity/Detroit and Fortunate Families faced expulsion. Several months later, a music director was fired from her job at a parish in Auburn Hills because she is married to her same-sex partner. And, refused Communion last fall — also for her same-sex marriage — a lesbian judge in Grand Rapids has decided to leave her church. With the above in mind, BTL spoke with two individuals who have knowledge in the field.


“What a Failure of the Church’s Core Mission”

Dignity USA is an LGBTQ-inclusive Roman Catholic organization, which, in some regions, offers Mass by ordained Catholic priests. Because Dignity/Detroit — the Detroit affiliate — has “reject[ed] Church teaching on human sexuality,” the Archdiocese of Detroit recently cut ties. Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of Dignity USA, had a few things to say about that, and she commented on the firing of church music director Terry Gonda and the denial of Communion to Judge Sara Smolenski as well.

“Every one of these firings just rips my heart out, honestly,” Duddy-Burke said, in reference to Gonda. “This is an issue that has been going on for decades. At least since the 1970s, [there have been] documented cases, and probably long before that. Then it was about being gay or lesbian; now they’re sort of saying that the folks who enter into civil marriage publicly flaunt Church policy, and that’s the reason. It’s homophobia, and it’s transphobia, and it’s discrimination, pure and simple. There’s no excuse for this.”

Duddy-Burke contrasted the firings with being denied Communion.

“Cases of LGBTQ people being denied sacraments are, I think, a less publicized but also deeply scarring kind of exclusion that is becoming a lit bit more public,” Duddy-Burke said.

Then, echoing Smolenski’s own words about her heartbreak regarding the prospect of being denied Communion at a funeral, she said, “What a failure of the Church’s core mission to have somebody told, ‘You cannot come to the table and be fed while you are mourning your mother.’”

Duddy-Burke suggested there’s a campaign by the AOD to push LGBTQ people back in the closet or to “live the kinds of lives that have proven over and over to be absolutely damaging to our mental, physical and spiritual health.”

“There is just this clear message that is coming from the chancery, from Archbishop Vigneron, that we are evil and damaged people incapable of God’s love unless we comply with rules and thoughts about who we are that are absolutely cruel and inhumane,” she said.


Why Target LGBTQ Catholics?

We questioned why LGBTQ Catholics are being targeted. And why now.

One reason, Duddy-Burke said, is that many bishops are taking their cues directly from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops who gather annually to decide on policy agendas.

“Abortion and anti-gay are their top two,” Duddy-Burke said. “Not immigration, not poverty, not climate change, not racial justice — it’s anti-abortion and not allowing the spread of ‘deviant lifestyles.’ It’s a campaign against our community. It’s written into their priorities.”

In addition, there is a group of bishops who oppose Pope Francis’s papacy and who see him as too “permissive” on LGBTQ issues. Duddy-Burke said Pope Francis’ oft-cited, “Who am I to judge?” quote was like a panic button for them.

A third reason is that many bishops “are totally incapable of comprehending much less leading with the social changes,” Duddy-Burke said. “The idea of gay marriage as being on the same par as heterosexual marriage is literally incomprehensible to them.”

While Duddy-Burke allows that sometimes change is gradual and it may take time for top church leaders to age out, she’s not taking it sitting down.

“The damage is being done now,” she said, adding that it’s neither fair nor ethical to be expected to wait for change to come.

“It speaks to a huge gap between the people of the church and the church leaders in terms of their attitudes on LGBTQ people and our place in the church and our place in society,” Duddy-Burke said. “Since just the 1980s, we’ve seen that — it used to be a little crack, but now it’s huge.”


The Small Church with the Big Heart

Like Duddy-Burke, Father Harry Posner is similarly dismayed by what happened to Smolenski and Gonda at the hands of church leadership. Posner is an Old Catholic priest at Christ the Good Shepherd in Berkley, where one of the other pastors is his husband.

“I think it’s a travesty,” Posner said. “And I think it’s a sad day when people are fired for living authentic lives. [Terry Gonda] is being true to herself as God created her and to be fired for that from a religious institution is outrageous.”

He likewise called Smolenski’s treatment by the priest at St. Stephen “a travesty” in that religion was being used as a weapon.

“Jesus never denied anybody his love,” Posner said. “No matter what the cause was. He encouraged people, he invited people with kindness and with love. He never said, ‘You’re not worthy; you can’t come.’ And so I just think it’s so far from a pastoral way or Christ-like way of behaving. It breaks my heart to see churches use faith as a weapon to gain compliance. The Eucharist should strengthen us.”


How They Differ

Christ the Good Shepherd, located in the former Doll Hospital on 12 Mile Road, is not a Roman Catholic Church and is therefore not recognized by the Archdiocese of Detroit. On theological issues, the Old Catholic Church is very similar to the Roman Catholic Church. However, there are key differences.

“The main difference between the Roman Catholic Church and the Old Catholic Church is the Old Catholic Church is much more progressive and open on social issues,” Posner explained. “And so we have women priests, married clergy, full inclusion of people in the LGBT community.

“Basically, everybody is welcomed to full membership to participation to all sacraments and so we don’t determine who can receive Communion and who can’t receive Communion,” he continued. “We don’t fire people because of their sexual orientation or ban anybody from participation in the church … all are welcome.”

Posner explained further that the Old Catholic Church can be thought of as the “old faith” or the early church, and it harks back to a time when individual churches had a certain level of autonomy and the pope was first among equals with the bishops, not in charge.

In terms of whether Old Catholic priests could perform a Mass for the Dignity/Detroit, which can no longer worship on AOD property, Posner said at first they held back, but now it’s different that the expulsion is in effect. He said they would be open to working with them and even offered a separate Mass for their members.

Posner then pointed to an interesting distinction between how their Church is viewed in the U.S. as opposed to Rome.

“Rome looks on us very differently from the Archdiocese of Detroit,” Posner said. “The Archdiocese of Detroit looks on us kind of like with suspicion, and we have no relationship whatsoever with them. But in Rome, there’s Papal documents that, in the absence of a Roman Catholic priest, Roman Catholics can receive sacraments from Old Catholic priests in good conscience. So there’s a provision in Rome; the Archdiocese of Detroit has just chosen to ignore us for the most part.”


A Growing Church

Christ the Good Shepherd opened its doors in 2013 with 13 individuals and now has 85 member families, Posner reported. And he extended a warm welcome to Catholics who may be looking for an alternative — but no less legitimate — form of Catholicism.

“Our church is growing because we are open and loving,” Posner said. “We call ourselves the small church with the big heart, because it really is about the heart. It’s about love. And the faith is about love. And compassion and understanding and caring for one another, not building up artificial walls that separate us for whatever reasons. Discrimination is wrong no matter where it exists. Whether in a church or in society, discrimination is wrong.”

We are all equal in God’s eyes, Posner said.

“I would invite any Catholic — Roman Catholic — that’s feeling ostracized or alienated because they’re a woman that wants to become a priest or someone that’s been married or a former priest that has left because he felt called to marriage they can check out an Old Catholic Church,” Posner said. “It’s a new way of living the faith. You can be yourself.”

About the Author:

Ellen Knoppow is a writer who believes in second acts. She is the recipient of the 2022 award for Excellence in Transgender Coverage by NLGJA: The Association of LGBTQ Journalists.