“Frankly, I was sickened.”
That was Marianne Duddy-Burke’s response to “Created in the Image and Likeness of God: An Instruction on Some Aspects of the Pastoral Care of Persons with Same‐Sex Attraction and Gender Dysphoria,” a 15-page document that outlines new guidance issued by the Marquette Diocese, the Roman Catholic body that oversees Michigan’s entire Upper Peninsula. Duddy-Burke is executive director of DignityUSA, a national organization that advocates for LGBTQ+ Catholics.
Not only does the ruling ban all transgender and nonbinary Catholics from receiving sacraments unless they “repent,” it also affects any individual living in a sexual relationship outside of a heterosexual marriage. The sacraments in question may include baptism, confirmation and Holy Communion, as well as anointing of the sick.
It’s believed to be the most severe ruling regarding LGBTQ+ Catholics of any diocese in the U.S.
While the policy was issued in July, it didn’t come to light until LGBTQ+ Catholic advocate Fr. James Martin wrote about it on Twitter in December. Signed by Bishop John Doerfler and Diocesan Vice Chancellor MaryAnn Bernier, the guidance refers to LGBTQ+ people as “persons with same-sex attraction” and “persons with gender dysphoria.” “It is best to avoid identifying persons merely using labels such as ‘gay’ or ‘transgender,’” it reads. Duddy-Burke points out this is not the kind of language anyone in the queer community would use.
“It’s a demonizing kind of label,” Duddy-Burke said. “It makes our identities into some kind of an illness. It’s very pejorative.”
Duddy-Burke agreed that fear of a rapidly changing culture may be part of what’s driving the ruling. The bishops in the U.S. preside over a Church that’s lost anywhere from 30 to 50 percent of its adherents in recent decades, “and rather than reflecting on what’s causing the people to turn away from the church,” she said, “there seems to be this knee-jerk reaction to say, ‘If only people understood our teaching better. If only we live our teachings more purely…’” When it comes to women’s equality, LGBTQ+ issues or anything having to do with sexuality, Duddy-Burke called many parts of the Catholic Church “ill-equipped” to address the realities of people’s lives.
While we can’t know Doerfler’s mind, we do know his history. In a 2010 deposition, Doerfler admitted to destroying documents related to priests accused of sexual abuse. His actions, reportedly done in compliance with federal privacy laws, occurred before his appointment to Bishop of the Marquette Diocese by Pope Francis in 2013.
Additionally, in his conclusion to the new guidance, Doerfler recounts his previous experience as a chaplain for Courage International, an organization that advocates for celibacy among LGBTQ+ Catholics. It is based on a 12-step recovery model. Some chapters promote conversion therapy. Doerfler states, “I am inspired by their faith and desire to live chastely. It was one of the most joyful and meaningful ministries that I had as a priest, and a true exercise of spiritual fatherhood.”
There is widespread criticism against the practice of withholding sacraments as punishment for apostasy. In response to that issue, Pope Francis in September said he had never denied the Eucharist to anyone.
“This thought that if someone is not proclaiming adherence to church teaching, you can exclude them from sacraments has some traction in the highest level of church leadership in the U.S.,” Duddy-Burke said. “And I find that very disturbing.”
‘Do we stay or do we go’
Renee Richer is similarly disturbed by the latest communication from the Marquette Diocese. Richer, an assistant biology professor who lives on a family farm in Gladstone, is also a married lesbian with a 10-year-old daughter in Catholic school. Generously supporting the local Catholic school and parish is a family tradition.
“Being LGBTQ and Catholic in the Upper Peninsula is really difficult,” Richer said. “There are other Catholic communities that are certainly more welcoming. I feel that the Marquette Diocese — and our Bishop in particular — has embraced a vision of Catholicism that loses the vision of Christ.”
Richer said she feels “pigeonholed” into certain others’ ideas of what it means to be LGBTQ+. Instead of being viewed simply as the active church members and good neighbors that they are, “We’re being set up as not being Catholic and not being Christian, and it’s disappointing,” she said.
The situation has led to some troubling questions for Richer and her family. She said now she wonders whether she’s welcome at her church and whether she should continue bringing her daughter to Mass.
While Richer said her church experience had been challenging all along, the dynamic really changed when she married.
“Shortly after I got married, [Bishop Doerfler] came to the church and while I sat in the pew, he gave a sermon on gay marriage,” Richer said. “And I looked around and wondered if that was specifically targeted at me. I could only guess it was.”
According to the ruling, “Parents and those taking the place of parents are to be informed that the children will be instructed according to the Church’s teaching on marriage and sexuality…” In her own experience of Catholic education, Richer said it was “really a school of amazing love and amazing community.” Now she calls it divisive. Her daughter has nightmares and fears she will burn in hell.
“We try to present a vision of Christ that’s more accurate,” Richer explained. “The person that stood up for the poor and the marginalized and the sick, and who was welcoming to everybody and loved everyone, regardless of their faults — that is what we try to present in the household.”
Presently, it is unknown whether Richer would receive sacraments because her family is avoiding all gatherings due to the risk of Covid. They haven’t yet made a decision about the future with their church. “We sit around the table all the time and ask: ‘Do we stay or do we go?’” she said.
‘God is everywhere’
In 2014, Bobby Glenn Brown was faced with a dilemma similar to the one Richer’s family faces today. A Marquette-area vocalist and actor, Brown is also known for launching the LGBTQ+ student union at Northern Michigan University when he attended in the 1980s. Brown converted to Catholicism as an adult, soon thereafter joining the parish council and choir at St. Michael’s. But when church “busybodies” caught wind of the commitment ceremony he celebrated with his partner of 30 years, word got around.
“The next Sunday I went to church just like I always did,” Brown recalled. “[The pastor] stopped me and asked me about my fake wedding. And told me that I was no longer able to minister in any way: no more singing, no more cantoring. I should resign from the parish council and that if I wanted to participate, I could sit in the crying room with the children and observe — not sit in a pew, not able to have Communion.”
What followed was a silent protest by hundreds of parishioners in support of Brown, media coverage, and a letter to petition the Pope.
Still, Brown didn’t wish to leave his church. However, “I attempted to try to stay and then had a meeting with the ‘beloved’ Bishop Doerfler and found out that just was not an option,” Brown said. “And my whole point was, ‘You can’t take something away from me that I’ve already done.’”
“When I went through the [conversion] process, everybody in that church knew who I was,” he added. “There is not one person in that church who did not know I was gay.”
Brown pointed out he’s accepted at other Catholic churches. “When I go to Las Vegas periodically or other places, there’s absolutely no problem. I am welcomed with open arms,” he said.
Perhaps what’s saddest for Brown relates to his husband’s father, who told Brown he wished his other children’s spouses had converted, too. Upon his death, in a letter signed by Doerfler and others, Catholic leaders in the diocese were instructed that they were forbidden to hold a funeral for Brown’s father-in-law at a Catholic church if Brown participated. The service was held at the funeral home and gravesite. “One of the things that still hurts me is that man didn’t get the funeral he deserved,” Brown said.
In a meeting with the church deacon and Doerfler, Brown was informed that the only way to remedy the situation would be to leave his home, disassociate from his husband and publicly proclaim his chastity.
“I know several people in the same situation I am,” Brown said. “I’m sorry, my ‘most reverend’ Bishop, you cannot take away the sacraments that I have already participated in. God is everywhere, and you don’t need a church or a building to believe. It’s not a priest or bishop who’s going to be with you when you come to your judgment. It’s you and God, so hold strong and have faith.”
Duddy-Burke can’t say whether the Marquette Diocese is an outlier or if the kind of ruling issued last month will become more commonplace. The Pillar, a Catholic media project focused on investigative journalism, refers to existing drafts of guidance relating to transgender Catholics. According to their report, the Vatican has asked the bishops to hold off on publication because Rome has guidance in the works.
Since the Marquette ruling, the leadership of the Episcopal Diocese of Northern Michigan responded in an email to local media stating they were “saddened by the news” from the Marquette Diocese and “We assert and affirm that no one needs to explain themselves: their bodies, their pronouns, and who they love — or meet any other requirement — to be God’s beloved.” In a more recent development, Doerfler has agreed to meet with a group of the faithful who petitioned the Diocese over the new ruling.
“It just shows how much your experience of church depends on your geography and who happens to be in charge,” Duddy-Burke said. “And you know, if we believe in a God who is universal and that all of us are following Jesus, these kinds of inconsistencies are incredibly hard to reconcile.”
Sign DignityUSA’s petition to tell Bishop Doerfler to withdraw this harmful and exclusionary policy.