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Catholic conference confronts marriage
by Chuck Colbert
2012-03-21

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Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley. Photo by Chuck Colbert


BALTIMORE—A Catholic case for same-sex marriage took center stage over the weekend during a national conference when a church theologian advocated marriage equality from faith-based perspective and a bishop called for a "new study of everything to do with sexuality," which he suggested, "would have a profound influence of church teaching concerning sexual relationships, both heterosexual and homosexual."

Martin O'Malley, the governor of Maryland, addressed the gathering at New Ways Ministry's Seventh National Symposium on Catholicism and Homosexuality. A niece of President John F. Kennedy, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, also spoke, providing additional star power.

Barbara Johnson, the lesbian recently denied communion at her mother's funeral, addressed the closing session, rounding out the event headliners.

New Ways Ministry—based in Mt. Rainier, Md.—is a gay-positive advocacy organization of justice, healing and reconciliation for LGBT Catholics and the church.

If [ church ] teaching on homosexual acts is ever going to change, the basic teaching governing all sexual acts must change," retired Auxiliary Bishop Geoffrey Robinson told the gathering of nearly 400 Catholics at the Seventh National Symposium on Catholicism and Homosexuality.

"For centuries the church has taught that every sexual sin is mortal sin," said Robinson, an auxiliary bishop of Sydney, Australia.

"The teaching may not be proclaimed as loudly as today as much as before, but it was proclaimed by many popes, it has never been retracted, and it has affected countless people," Robinson said.

"There is a serious need for a change in the church's teaching on heterosexual acts," he said, adding, "If and when this change occurs, it will inevitable have its effect on teaching on homosexual acts."

"The teaching fostered a belief in an incredibly angry God," explained Robinson, "for this God would condemn a person to eternity in hell for a single unrepentant moment of deliberate pleasure arising from sexual desire. I simply do not believe in such a God. Indeed, I positively reject such a God."

Robinson is the author of the 2007 book,Confronting Power in the Catholic Church: Reclaiming the Spirit of Jesus, which addressed the clerical sex-abuse crisis and was controversial among his fellow bishops in Australia who faulted him for a 2008 lecture tour in the United States to speak about the issues his book addressed.

A high point of the March 15-17 conference came when O'Malley, who weeks earlier signed a same-sex marriage bill into law, briefly addressed the faithful—but without ever saying the words "gay" or "lesbian."

"I am not here as a Catholic, I'm here as the governor of all Maryland," he said. "Each of us in the public arena brings with us our own perspectives, our own traditions, our own faith traditions, and our own perspectives. We hope and what we should expect of all our leaders is when they look at the Constitution is to protect equality among all people."

O'Malley received a sustained, standing ovation at symposium, held at the Renaissance Inner Harbor Hotel.

"At the end of the day, all of us want the same thing for our kids—we want our children to grow up in caring, committed, and loving homes, protected equally under the law," said O'Malley, who went on to say success in the state legislature, rested on a "belief in the dignity of every individual."

In advocating equal marriage rights, O'Malley has framed the issue as a balancing of protections for religious liberties and provisions for equal rights. He is not alone among other Catholic governors, including New York's Andrew Cuomo and Washington's Christine Gregoire, both of whom have recently signed same-sex marriage into law.

However Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn ( also Catholic ) , while favoring civil unions, which he signed into law, falls short in his support of full marriage equality.

New Ways Ministry advocated equal-marriage rights in Maryland, with representatives of the group testifying on their behalf in Annapolis, the state capital, during legislative hearings.

The new law in Maryland does not take effect until 2013 and is almost certain to face a referendum drive, a rollback fight.

For now, Maryland is among eight states and the District of Columbia that have legalized marriage for gay couples.

Meanwhile, Patricia Beattie Jung, a professor of Christian ethics at the St. Paul School of Theology, Kansas City, Mo., presented a theological argument for same-sex marriage, which relied on the Catholic tradition and church teaching.

While a Catholic argument for same-sex sacramental marriage has yet to be fully developed, Beattie Jung makes a strong case for embracing at least same-sex civil marriage.

"Sexuality is ambiguous," she said. "It can be dangerous and a grace. So we channel it in marriage. Monogamy entails promises to be steadfast and sexually exclusive."

I'm pretty conservative," explained Jung, who said her main reason for promoting sexual fidelity is its service to "love" and to "life."

"Great sex is wholehearted," she said. "This is what makes it graceful and us vulnerable and vicious. These promises give us the time and focus to learn how to love."

"Can fidelity serve same-sex lovers the same way?" asked Jung, who taught for 13 years at Loyola University Chicago from 1995 to 2008. She was tenured there in 1998.

"Yes!" Jung said.

"Fidelity in service to life," she said, means "marriage is good for the life of spouses, children, and elders bonded together as kin by marriage."

For these reasons, "The state promotes marriage by linking to it a broad array of economic and legal benefits and rights that cannot be accessed any other way," said Jung, who also said that same-sex marriage does not harm children or opposite-sex marriage. Nor will it unduly violate religious liberty.

Jung's talk generated a variety of responses during a question and answer session following her presentation.

One gay man, Arthur Fitzmaurice, 31, of Los Angeles, Calif., who attends St. Monica parish, asked her about same-sex divorce, wondering if same-sex and opposite sex couples break up for the same or different reasons.

Another gay man asked about emotional fidelity or steadfastness in same-sex marriages, but not necessarily sexual exclusivity.

"I asked the question because there is an acceptance, at least among my young gay male community, mostly secular, of open relationships that are emotionally committed but sexually open," with "a variety of rules about threesomes or whatever," said Kenneth Dowling, a member of Dignity Washington, D.C.

"And that's pretty well accepted," he said afterwards in a short interview.

"I think it comes from an attitude that fidelity is for straight people, for women, for lesbians," said Dowling, 22, who recently graduated from the University of California at San Diego.

"I am caught in the middle and don't know what is actually right, and I am still figuring this out," he said. "While I appreciate Catholic moral teaching, I also know it has been wrong, especially on the gay issue."

"Open relationships, with lots of rules. It's playing with fire," Dowling said. "I just wanted her to know that some people, including Catholics, do not rule out sexual openness and emotional fidelity and are exploring it."

In her reply, Jung said sexual exclusivity is "not just an issue in the gay community."

"I truly believe because of human finitude and limits, we really don't have the time and energy to give people what they deserve," she explained.

"I understand the appeal and attraction to other people and know that would energize my life," Jung said, adding, "I don't think I can be fair to my spouse in terms of loving."

It's an "important question," she said. "Why would anyone promise to be exclusive? Steadfast maybe, but exclusive—that's a question for gay and straight alike."

The New Ways Ministry symposium drew attendees from 35 states, including a dozen from Illinois and Chicago, the District of Columbia, Canada, England and Scotland, said Francis DeBernardo, the organization's executive director.

About 10 percent, he added, were under the age of 30.

In addition to plenary speakers, the event included workshops dealing with lesbian nuns, gay priests, Catholic marriages through gender change, LGBTQs among Latinos and African Americans, and coalition-building among gay-affirming advocacy organizations.

Chicagoans Karen Allen and her partner, Mary Jo Hoag, attended the gathering, this their second one.

"What brings me here is the chance to be rooted in my faith and with the people of God and to be sent forth to create loving communities," said Allen, who leads a gay and lesbian family-and-friends ministry at St. Nicholas parish in Evanston.

Allen said the parish group grew out the idea she and others got 10 years ago at the Louisville, Ky., New Ways symposium.

In proposing the idea, she explained, "We were welcomed to do so by our pastor at the time, who said, 'Where have you been?'"

The ministry is about education and prayer and not so much advocacy, Allen said, but "more about how can we as gay and lesbian Catholics live fully integrated, authentic lives in our tradition."

"Many have walked away [ from the church ] but returned in mid-life," she explained, while readily acknowledging, "struggling mightily" with "clericalism and the hierarchy."

"The church is our church," said Hoag, explaining why she stays. "Many of us are cradle Catholics who grew up with the rituals, sacraments, and the teachings and feel comfortable. We are gifts to the church and shouldn't go away, as we provide those gifts of love and understanding and outreach."

New Ways Ministry, Allen added, provides us "a shot in the arm" to keep up our work in ministry.

-Copyright. Chuck Colbert. All rights reserved.


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