For over 50 years, DignityUSAwhich has a prominent Chicago-based chapter, Dignity/Chicagohas been the "go-to voice for gay Catholics," said Chicago-based national President Chris Pett.
The national organization organization will hold its 24th organizational conference, titled True to Ourselves, True to Our Spirit, in Chicago, beginning Friday, July 5, at the Westin Michigan Avenue downtown. Speakers include feminist theologian Mary Hunt and attorney/activist Urvashi Vaid, the co-founder of the Creating Change conference.
Many LGBT Catholics have a frustrating and difficult relationship with their church, should they even choose to retain their membership. Even as church laity in many nations become accepting of LGBT persons and their issues, the Vatican has frequently dug in its heels, opposing their rights and issuing potentially harmful directives.
Helping bridge that gap between the institutional church and the Catholic community is where the Dignity chapters come in, Pett said.
"Catholic identity is deeply cultural for someone like me," said Pett. "It's a strong and embedded part of me. The institutional church is not reflective of so many of us. I still will claim that identity."
He further asked, "Shouldn't we try to change from within?"
DignityUSA chapters predated the Stonewall uprising, having started in early 1969. Chicago's chapter began in 1972; the local organization was inducted into the Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame ( now the Chicago LGBT Hall of Fame ) in 1997.
The real origins of the Chicago chapter began in 1970, when Chicagoan Mary Houlihan, a member of the Legion of Mary, began to consider the spiritual need of gay Roman Catholics. The first mass was held in October of that year. Eventually the group settled into a longtime home at St. Sebastian Church.
Great strife came in the '80s, however, when the Archdiocese clamped down especially hard on its anti-gay stance and said that members should accept teachings on homosexuality. A number of individuals simply walked away from the church after that. But Dignity/Chicago refocused its energies on not just on observances and community projects but in effecting change in the church itself.
The organization plays an active role in advocating for various progressive stances; among those causes, for example, is supporting the idea of female priests.
"People were very responsive to that idea," noted Pett. "When we made the decision, the majority of the people asked, 'What have we been waiting for?'"
Another longtime principle has been using gender-inclusive or gender-neutral language in the liturgy, he added. The group now is based at Broadway Methodist Church in Lake View, and has been active in supporting Bonaventure House and the Legacy Project, among other causes.
When the late Cardinal Francis George, members of the organization was in office, Dignity/Chicago members met with him three times. They've tried to meet with Cardinal Blase Cupich three times, but have been turned down, Pett said.
Pope Francis came into his role years ago seeming to want to "bridge the pastoral and doctrinal" roles of the church, Pett noted. But the pope nevertheless has done little but reinforce the church's already-established stances on LGBT issues. In early June, he released a guidance decrying contemporary views on gender identity that many saw as potentially harmful to transgender persons; activists noted that choosing to release the guidance during Pride month functioned as an extra slap in the face to the community.
"If they can put out these statements, we need a Dignity," said Pett, who added that, for the LGBT Catholics to claim their identity, "There needs to be voices and a witness."