Feminist theologian Dr. Mary E. Hunt kicked off DignityUSA's three day conference, "True to the Spirit, True to Ourselves," with a keynote address July 5 at The Westin Michigan Avenue Chicago. The conference marked the 50th anniversary of DignityUSA's founding.
Hunt, a lecturer and prolific writer on theology and ethics, also co-founded and co-directs the Women's Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual ( WATER ).
Dignity/San Antonio Co-Founder and former DignityUSA Board Member Nickie Valdez introduced Hunt to rapturous applause and a standing ovation.
Hunt told the 325 attendees how happy she is that Dignity is celebrating 50 years as an organization, especially because each LGBTQ member continues to live their truth. She spoke about what Dignity's history means, looked at how things have changed over the past 10 years and remarked on what her dreams are for the centenary of the organization.
"I am reminded of the verse in Acts 5:38-39, 'Leave these people alone. Let them go. For if their purpose or endeavor is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop them,'" said Hunt. "Let history decide, but as I read our history, no one has stopped us yet."
Hunt spoke about the origins of Dignity in Southern California and the ad that was placed in the Advocate magazine to have LGBTQ Catholics join the group in 1970.
"Our collective truth has set us free," said Hunt. "It is not often that we are privileged to see ourselves in a chapter of church history. But this … is one of those moments to be savored and to be used as a springboard for the next chapter. God knows we need it now at least as much as we needed it in 1969."
Hunt said that when she graduated from high school 50 years ago, she could not have imagined celebrating being a lesbian and receiving support from an organization like Dignity. She explained that finally, LGBTQ Catholics like herself could meet each other out in the open and worship without being insulted.
"In the early years, there were some welcoming parish and university-based churches and some courageous priests," said Hunt. "But by the time the Halloween letter debuted in 1986the 'Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons' approved by John Paul II and signed by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, then Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, later Benedict XVIthe tide turned against us. I have come realize that the punitive reaction was a kind of collective gay panic by clergy who worried that having us around might reveal their own rainbows."
Hunt explained that this letter caused many LGBTQ Catholics to leave the church behind forever or, if they stayed, reject this letter's doctrine outright and seek out Catholic groups like Dignity, Conference for Catholic Lesbians, New Ways Ministry, WATER and others.
The HIV/AIDS epidemic that began in the '80s, Hunt said, also caused LGBTQ people to leave the Catholic Church since some priests would not provide basic pastoral care to those who contracted the disease.
Hunt looked back at the keynote address she gave at Dignity's conference ten years ago. She said she was correct about the pervasiveness of pedophile priests and spiritual bankruptcy of the institutional church. Hunt also explained that she was naive then, because she did not see "the implosion of the institutional Roman Catholic Church, and the wholesale breach of U.S. democracy that has resulted in shameful, dangerous policies."
"Instead, we have witnessed a level of ecclesial corruption rivaled only by the Mafia, a degree of moral depravity rarely seen in religious circles, and a shrouding of truth, indeed cover ups, in so many layers of lies that most will never be excavated in our lifetime," said Hunt. "Criminal, not just ideological, matters are at play."
The church has become even more anti-women, anti-LGBTQ and anti-reproductive justice in recent years to hide the cover-up of pedophile priests at all levels by church leaders, Hunt said.
The recent Vatican letter "'Male and Female He Created Them': Toward a Path of Dialogue on the Question of Gender Theory in Education," Hunt said, is another way the church is turning backward with its binary, heterosexist tropes about men and women that exclude transgender and intersex people from the human experience.
Hunt said that now there is a push by church leaders to fire LGBTQ Catholic school teachers/staff who are in same-sex marriages.
"The Roman Catholic Church has imploded at the same time that the U.S. democratic electoral process has been infected by Russian influence, fanning the flames of white supremacist, anti-women, climate-change denying, homo-hating and immigrant rejection," said Hunt. "The 2016 election results were, in my view, disastrous beyond imagining. The bishops support so many of the policies of the current administration … that they have no moral standing. LGBTQI+ Catholics and our allies have to say no to tanks on our streets, deaths at our borders, ecocide and racism and nuclear war."
Hunt explained that Dignity's message is sex and gender discrimination can never be separated from combating racism, xenophobia and Islamophobia as well as fighting for healthcare access, economic justice and the survival of planet Earth.
As for Hunt's dreams for Dignity's centenary, she wants the organization to be seen as leaders in truth-telling and world changing work as justice-seeking Catholics.
A Q&A session followed.
An opening ceremony also took place ahead of Hunt's remarks. It featured readings; the Book of Intentions procession and blessing; songs from the choir; and remarks by DignityUSA Executive Director Marianne Duddy-Burke. Other speakers included DignityUSA President Chris Pett; DignityUSA Vice President Lauren Carpenter; Dignity/Chicago President RamÃ"n Rodriguez; Conference Co-Chairs Marty Grochala and Lewis Speaks-Tanner; and Global Network of Rainbow Catholics ( GNRC ) Co-Chairs Ruby Almeida and Christopher Vella, among others.
DignityUSA also hosted the third biennial Assembly of GNRC from June 30-July 3. Additionally, on July 4, DigntyUSA held a day-long "Forum on the State of the Global LGBTI Catholic Justice Movement."