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Catholics for Choice president on religion and LGBT individuals
Special to the online edition of Windy City Times
by Kate Sosin, Windy City Times

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Jon O'Brien, the president of Catholics for Choice whose pro-gay and pro-choice stances have put him at odds with some church leaders, is Chicago-bound this week. O'Brien is among the featured speakers at this year's Personal PAC Annual Awards Luncheon Oct. 30.

Windy City Times caught up with O'Brien to talk about his views on the Catholic hierarchy's anti-gay positions and the future of Catholicism in light of those controversies.

Windy City Times: So Jon, what do you think should be on our radar right now?

Jon O'Brien: Well, religious liberty, religious freedom, religious discrimination. They're very much touchstone-type words at the moment.

I'm an Irish Catholic and, as an Irish Catholic, I'm looking forward to coming to Chicago because I think that folks in Chicago do remember real discrimination against Catholics. What's actually happened at the moment is that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops claims that religious discrimination is happening to them. They don't have any substance to those claims. What they're actually trying to do is discriminate themselves against those of the Catholic faith who don't agree with them, and to discriminate against those of other faiths and no faith. These bishops believe that their consciences should trump the rights of other folks.

They're pressuring the Republican Party and the Democratic Party to concede to their demands that basically they can take taxpayer money, but they don't have to adhere to the same rules as everyone else in the United States of America.

The bishops in Illinois were busy comparing President Obama to Stalin and Hitler. They condemned a Catholic governor [Pat Quinn] for celebrating the bravery of a rape survivor, and crying religious discrimination when there's none to be found. So I think in Chicago, I think that there's a lot of folks who should be concerned about this effort that the bishops are making and its impact on our joint civil liberties.

WCT: In Illinois and Chicago, in particular, we've been talking about the religious-freedom issue a lot. Why do you think that is?

O'Brien: I think the bishops are very conscious of the fact that they really have been losing ground in the last couple of years. You know that Catholics are gay and lesbian. Ninety-eight percent of Catholic women have used a method of birth control that the bishops don't like. Catholics have abortions in the same way as those of other faiths or no faiths do. And Catholics are divorced. So, Catholics have been making decisions for themselves for a long time.

Coupled with that, a number of high-ranking American church members have found themselves in very powerful positions in Rome. Those particular bishops happen to be bishops that were not able to convince the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops to take a hard line many years ago on things like refusing communion to pro-choice politicians. So, with those powerful Americans now installed in Rome, they're using their leverage with Pope Benedict to really add pressure back here in the United States.

WCT: Do you think there will come a point when the Catholic hierarchy will have to change course on LGBT issues and reproductive-rights issues? And if so, when?

O'Brien: Yeah. In one way, the battle has been won because I believe that public opinion is definitely shifting towards that more generous view of the other and of society. The idea here in America is freedom of religion and freedom from religion.

You can't have religious freedom without ensuring that your religious freedom doesn't encroach on somebody else's. Otherwise, it's not real religious freedom. There's more and more people that actually believe that is the case. The Catholic hierarchy has become increasingly conservative and marginalized. I think it's possible that the hierarchy won't change, but I think what is important is that Catholics have changed.

WCT: For people who are still on the fence about some of these issues—who have a hard time reconciling their faith with their feelings about LGBT people, etc.—what do you say?

O'Brien: I think there's a lot in Catholic teaching that people can find comfort in. Just because a bishop is on TV and he's saying something, we're not required to follow [those], very often, hate-filled comments. I think what Catholics have been doing increasingly is having a look for themselves at what the church teaches and what the church says. Catholics have a right to dissent from non-infallible church teaching.

WCT: What stake do you think the Church has in maintaining stances against LGBT people?

O'Brien: I think that the authority that they've lost within the church, they're trying to balance on the backs of women and on the backs of gays. This is a real attempt by them to exert control and authority. They can't stop the wave of LGBT rights within the country and the way Catholics feel about it within our church. So, they're going to stop people from having marriage equality. There was a time when the bishops felt that they had this great authority and respect. I think, increasingly, we're Catholics despite the hierarchy, not because of it.

WCT: We have talked a lot about what Catholicism is not. What do you think are the tenets of Catholicism for you at the end of the day?

O'Brien: I think it's a particular experience of your relationship with God and spirituality. I also think that one of the important tenets of Catholicism [is that] it is not just a theoretical or Biblically-based religion. It's a religion that very much sees itself lived in everyday life through social justice.

See O'Brien at the Personal PAC luncheon Tuesday, Oct. 30, at the Hilton Chicago, 720 S. Michigan Ave., at 12 p.m. Ticket prices start at $150; call 312-422-0005 or visit .

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