As coronavirus continues to alter the way life is lived across the globe, its impact has reached into all facets of everyday life, and that includes religion. Though virtual means of worship have been put in place for many, across the U.S. and beyond, the routines of thousands of congregations have been upset because of suspended services to prevent the spread of COVID-19. But for Southeast Michigan's LGBTQ Catholic community, this period has proved especially tumultuous because of a March 9 order from the Archdiocese of Detroit that prohibits Dignity/Detroit from offering LGBTQ-inclusive Catholic liturgy anywhere on Church property.
"As you know, Dignity Detroit has long operated its ministry in the Archdiocese of Detroit while rejecting some of the Church's teachings on sexual morality. These teachings, though challenging, promote human flourishing and bring joy when received with open hearts. This situation is thus a source of sadness, for those who reject the teachings deprive themselves of the blessings that come with living a life in Christ," read the letter from Bishop Gerard W. Battersby. "In response to Synod 16's call to offer the Holy Spirit our 'whole-hearted yes,' I wish to communicate through this letter that a Mass for Dignity Detroit members – one which rejects Church teaching on human sexuality – is not possible in any parish church, chapel, or diocesan facility, and is indeed forbidden everywhere in the Archdiocese of Detroit. This will no doubt be difficult for some to hear, but it arises from heartfelt pastoral concern for members of Dignity Detroit."
Though this decision came as a shock to many members of Dignity/Detroit, which has been operating for 46 years as a recognized LGBTQ-affirming Catholic entity, the organization has publicly pledged to "provide an affirming and welcoming Catholic liturgy to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex (LGBTQI) Catholics, along with their family members and supporters" in a statement.
Marianne Duddy-Burke is the executive director of DignityUSA, the national branch of the organization. She said that DignityUSA will support the Detroit branch in its decision, and noted that the timing of this order has been "terrible in terms of the pastoral responsibilities that the archdiocese has toward the people of the church."
"I don't think the archdiocese could have predicted how quickly [coronavirus] was going to move, but Lent is such a sacred time for all Christians," she said. "It really is a time of reflection and deep connection with our faith and getting ready for the largest, most joyous mystery of our faith happening at Easter that I do think that more care should have been given. … There is a level of pain that is inflicted by cutting people off from the sacraments or attempting to cut people off from the sacraments during such a pivotal season for our church."
She went on to say that the impacts of these actions extend far beyond directly impacting LGBTQ Catholics because of the domino effect on their Catholic family members and friends.
"We've seen so much public data that shows that Catholics are overwhelmingly supportive of LGBTQI people," Duddy-Burke said. "I think what's complicated about that is because of the public health crisis that we're in, it's hard for people to find ways to show their support. They can't turn out at a Dignity liturgy as they've done in the past when the chapter was under threat. There was a time when Dignity was going to celebrate its 40th anniversary and some of the right-wing groups in the Detroit archdiocese called for protest … and hundreds of Catholics turned out to support the chapter."
In the Works for a While
When asked if she knew why the church put forth this hard-line stance, Duddy-Burke said she wasn't certain. However, she did point to the beginning of 2020 when Dignity/Detroit President Frank D'Amore was "notified by Bishop Battersby that there were going to be changes coming."
"And that the archdiocese was really going to be taking really a harder stance on LGBTQI people to make sure that the official church teaching was being upheld," she said.
D'Amore said that it was mid-January when he first learned of these plans that revolved around a program called Unleash the Gospel, which does not use the term LGBTQ but refers to the community as "those who experience the challenges of gender identity and same sex attraction."
"It's all about evangelization and reaching out," D'Amore said. "… They're pushing a program called Courage and Encourage. Courage is for the LGBT person and EnCourage is for friends and family."
These two programs, D'Amore said, function largely as a support group with "no liturgy" and encourages celibacy for LGBTQ who do participate. He said that though he knew of the plans for the program earlier in the year, Bishop Battersby had scheduled a meeting with him for the end of March to discuss the new policy, but it was since moved to the middle of April.
"His first note was so cordial I really had high hopes we were going sit, we were going to talk, we were going to get to know each other," D'Amore said. "Well, before we even had that meeting, on March 9 he sends this letter out to all of the clergy, whether it's diocesan or religious order, and says, 'You are hereby forbidden to say mass for Dignity Detroit and Dignity Detroit cannot meet on any Catholic Church property in the archdiocese, whether it's a church, a chapel, whatever.'"
At this time, D'Amore said Dignity/Detroit has not consulted a legal expert and that he still intends to meet with Bishop Battersby at the end of the month. He said that he "will not do" the Courage and Encourage programs. Duddy-Burke called the program "warped thinking" that "dehumanized and disrespected the reality of peoples' lives."
Between The Lines has reached out to Bishop Battersby for comment.
Part of National Trend
Duddy-Burke said that this action, though jarring to many locally, mirrors similar anti-LGBTQ actions across the U.S. by Catholic leadership in recent years, like the tightening on health restrictions at Catholic hospitals and the firing of LGBTQ employees.
"I can say in the national context that it is very, very clear that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is taking more and more aggressive action to limit the civil rights of LGBTQI people," she said. "For example, this Fulton v. Philadelphia case that's going to the Supreme Court where Catholic Social Services of Philadelphia is fighting for the right to discriminate against gay and lesbian couples or individuals or transgender individuals who want to apply to be foster or adoptive parents."
But just as there have been nationwide efforts to discourage LGBTQ Catholic worship, there have also been supportive causes. Duddy-Burke said that affirming priests have written letters to the archdiocese expressing concerns and that she foresees an "outpouring of support" from other chapters.
For now, though Dignity/Detroit is unable to meet because of coronavirus concerns, it is offering two virtual liturgies to its members.
"There's Dignity/Washington on Facebook Live at 6 p.m. on Sundays and Dignity/New York is doing a virtual liturgy that's going to be more of a modified liturgy that will allow for more time for people to share their thoughts, and that will be available both online and on telephone for people at 6:30 p.m. on Sunday," she said. "People just need that sense of being connected right now. And as more of our communities are able to pull something together, we're just going to keep widening the circle and inviting people in."