Small, well-funded LGBT group to challenge Catholic teaching at World Youth Day

Small, well-funded LGBT group to challenge Catholic teaching at World Youth Day

By Kevin Jones / Catholic News Agency

January 21, 2019

Panama City, Panama

A U.S.-based coalition of dissenting Catholics, whose backers include wealthy non-Catholic funders, is sending a small group of LGBT activists to World Youth Day in Panama to engage with media and pilgrims and to challenge Catholic teaching and practice they say is “harmful.”

The six pilgrims are backed by the Equally Blessed Coalition, currently composed of the groups Call to Action, Dignity USA and New Ways Ministry. The group Fortunate Families had belonged to the coalition for several years but left it in 2018.

This year’s World Youth Day, a major international Catholic young adult event, will take place in the Panama City area Jan. 22-27. It is expected to draw 3 million people, including 200,000 Panamanians, according to local papers. Pope Francis will take part in the events and celebrate a penitential liturgy with juvenile detention center detainees, a Way of the Cross with young people, a prayer vigil with youth, and a Mass for World Youth Day participants.

The Equally Blessed Coalition’s November 13, 2018 announcement cited Pew Research Center and Public Religion Research Institute polling that they said showed two-thirds of American Catholics backed “gay marriage” and a majority oppose “so-called ‘religious freedom’ laws that allow businesses and other public service providers to discriminate against individuals on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.”

“While we raise awareness about issues of gender and sexuality in the lives of Catholics, we will challenge harmful teachings and pastoral practices that dehumanize us rather than celebrate the gifts that we LGBTQI people bring to the church and to the world,” said the coalition on its website. “While our church has repeatedly villainized LGBTQI people as ‘disordered,’ our pilgrims will counter this with a message of love and radical inclusion.”

The Equally Blessed Coalition previously sponsored pilgrims to World Youth Day in 2011 and 2013 and to the World Meeting of Families in 2015 and 2018. Its website says it has raised around $6,000 from about 60 donors for this year’s group visit.

The Arcus Foundation, an LGBT advocacy funder launched by billionaire heir Jon Stryker, is among the coalition’s major backers.

In 2014 the foundation gave a $200,000 grant to Dignity USA for the Equally Blessed Coalition “to support pro-LGBT faith advocates to influence and counter the narrative of the Catholic Church and its ultra-conservative affiliates.” The effort was linked to both the Church’s Synod on the Family and World Youth Day and aimed to “amplify pro-LGBT voices within the Catholic Church.”

According to the foundation, the funding was part of an effort to engage “open-minded religious leaders who can use their influence to shift public views away from prejudice.”

In 2016 the foundation gave a $250,000, two-year grant to Dignity USA to fund the Equally Blessed Coalition, in order to “support and give voice to the growing majority of Roman Catholics who support full acceptance and equality for LGBT people.”

Another grant of $125,000 to Dignity USA for the Equally Blessed Coalition was earmarked for “advocating for LGBTQ acceptance and for an end to harmful religious exemption policies within Catholic communities,” according to the June 2018 grant announcement.

Dignity USA was among the backers of a messaging effort called the Equal Future project, which sought to influence the Catholic Church’s 2018 youth synod. The project contended that the “rules” of the Catholic Church are causing “damage” to those who self-identify as LGBT.

Ann Schneible, communications director for the Courage apostolate, commented on Equal Future last year. She told CNA that Catholic teaching insists that everyone has the fundamental identity “to be the creature of God, and by grace, his child and heir to eternal life.”

“Seen from this perspective, it becomes clear that the Church’s approach provides the most compassionate response to people, including youth and young adults, who experience same sex attractions,” Schneible said. “Far from being a misfortune or a disappointment, their identity as sons and daughters of God – who are made in his image and likeness, and have received divine grace and a call to holiness – is a profound and life-giving joy.”

Those who experience same-sex attraction deserve compassionate outreach from Catholics, she said, adding, “we do so in the belief and hope that following God’s plan will always lead one to happiness and ultimate fulfillment.”

Equally Blessed claims World Youth Day typically “includes sessions sponsored by organizations that oppose any advancement of civil rights for LGBTQI people.” It said the pilgrimage aims to “create the space now for LGBTQI people within the Catholic Church.”

Its objections included the recent synod on young people discussion about LGBT issues “where only (mostly older) cisgender men were allowed to vote.” It objected to what it said was “a recurrence of rhetoric that blames child sexual abuse on homosexuality” and protested what it said was the “attempted erasure of LGBTQI Catholics and same sex couples from the church.”

Equally Blessed objected to “unjust treatment of LGBTQI church workers, “including violence and threats of violence,” citing the case of a pastoral worker at San Diego’s St. John the Evangelist Parish who resigned from his position after he became the focus of strongly critical internet coverage from fringe Catholic blogs and news sites, which said he was in a same-sex union and backed LGBT advocacy. The pastoral worker said he had endured “physical and emotional violence” due to the internet sites and their readers. Extreme harassment, including death threats placed on the man’s car, were reported to police and the FBI, an associate pastor at the parish told Fox 5 San Diego.

Equally Blessed claimed that Pope Francis had shown “public silence” after all these developments.

The Equally Blessed contingent to World Youth Day includes Melissa Barber, who quit her job as a religious education director in Indianapolis to contract a same-sex union; Catherine Buck, an adjunct professor from New Jersey who writes for New Ways Ministry’s blog; and Keith Hall, a federal employee from Washington, D.C. who co-chairs the Dignity Young Adult Caucus.

The self-described Catholic groups in the coalition reject Catholic teaching on the immorality of homosexual acts and have called for same-sex unions to be recognized as sacramental.

In a February 12, 2010 statement, then-U.S. bishops’ conference president Cardinal Francis George of Chicago said New Ways Ministry’s claim to be Catholic “only confuses the faithful regarding the authentic teaching and ministry of the Church with respect to persons with a homosexual inclination.” He rejected claims that it provides “an authentic interpretation of Catholic teaching and an authentic Catholic pastoral practice.” The group has no approval from the Church and “they cannot speak on behalf of the Catholic faithful in the United States,” he said.

In 2016 New Ways Ministry awarded its Bridge Building Award to media commentator and America magazine editor Father James Martin, S.J., who based his book on LGBT outreach on his acceptance speech.

In 2012 the Equally Blessed Coalition issued a report attacking the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Knights of Columbus for their work to maintain the legal definition of marriage as a union of one man and one woman.

The report’s funders included the Human Rights Campaign and the report acknowledged Arcus Foundation funding for the Equally Blessed Coalition.

The Arcus Foundation is also a grant maker to the Catholics United Education Fund and the pro-abortion rights group Catholics for Choice. It has funded groups in other Christian communities, including Episcopalian groups ahead of the breakup of the Anglican Communion over issues such as ecclesial authority and homosexuality.

It has been a partner of the U.S. State Department’s Global Equality Fund.