The following is a transcript of the speech for Dignity Los Angeles’ 50th Anniversary Celebration
By Mary E. Hunt
October 12, 2019
There are 3 Bs to after-dinner speeches—Be brief, Be witty, Be seated. Tonight I will add three Cs to the mix—Congratulations, Context, and Challenge in my remarks that I have entitled “Dignity—From Founding to Flourishing.”
I begin by congratulating and thanking you on behalf of the wider membership of Dignity for keeping the flame burning. As the Mother Church, you have the distinction of being the local community whose faithfulness is a model for the rest of us.
Marianne Duddy-Burke, Dignity’s Executive Director, presented insightful remarks about the 50th anniversary of DignityUSA on a recent WATERtalk through my office. She laid out some of the many accomplishments of the national organization.
As I quote her and add my own comments to her insightful remarks, take pride in how you individually and as a chapter have brought about these realities.
Dignity is, she said:
“-The longest-standing LGBTQI Catholic group in the world (MEHunt: Now groups in many countries are part of the Global Network of Rainbow Catholics that Dignity hosted for its 3rd international meeting in conjunction with the 50th anniversary celebration.)
– One of only two pre-Stonewall LGBTQI groups still prominent in the queer community (the other being MCC) (MEHunt: Metropolitan Community Church founder Troy Perry put memorabilia in the Smithsonian Museum of American History this week.)
-The most established network of intentional Catholic faith communities in the US (MEHunt: Others include Women-Church Convergence, Intentional Eucharistic Communities, and more.)
-A group that has maintained our Catholic name and frame despite relentless attacks from the radical right-wing fringe of our church, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops and various Vatican offices (MEHunt: We need not rehearse the many hurtful episodes.)
-A rare Catholic group that models lay governance of administrative, pastoral and liturgical aspects of our work
-An organization that has found a way to allow great diversity within our unity. For example, all decisions about what worship looks like in our local communities (often called Chapters) is based on local needs and local resources. We don’t prescribe how often worship is held, who presides, what texts are used…The only requirement that DignityUSA imposes is that all potential presiders be screened against databases of those credibly accused of sexual abuse, and that no one found to have such allegations be allowed to preside.” (1)
Just take a minute to let all of that sink in. If it were not for you and your predecessors who started this group, virtually none of that would have happened. Please accept our thanks from around the country.
Dignity LA is the epitome of those dynamics of the whole national organization. You are not only where our story began, but how our story emerged. You led the way on buying a building, literally creating a home for many people who had no spiritual home. You made the corporal works of mercy come to life in your care for people with HIV/AIDS, your many forms of outreach to the greater LA community, and especially your pastoral care of your own people over time. I am particularly intrigued by your Familia Guadalupana knowing the many needs today of Latinx immigrants and others.
I was delighted as I surveyed your website and saw so many vibrant pictures of members and guests at your events. Julio Spitalier stood out in several photos and then I read sadly of his passing. I did not know him, nor Bill Noble whom you also lost recently, but their stories touched me. I know from my own long association with Dignity and my local women-church community what it means to be part of a group that sticks together. Burying one another is a sad task of membership, the price we pay for longtime love and friendship. I pay it gladly and sadly, knowing that the spirits of those who go before us are rich resources. I loved the description of your Christmas parties and could only imagine what some of the White Elephant gifts were!
I was edified by your focus on prayer and the sacraments. Obviously these elements of your common life are rich and useful. The fact that your Sunday 5:30 PM Mass is a weekly constant on your calendar says most of what anyone needs to know about Dignity LA. I have every confidence that you have enjoyed a wonderful social life, probably leading to some “meet a nice person in church” moments. But the grounding of your common life in worship and social action, what I call sacrament and solidarity which for Catholics come as a package, is what sets you apart. Such careful attention over the decades to spirituality has had much to do with your fruitful longevity.
I also noted from your website that your Chapter, like so many others, is, shall we say, mostly gentlemen of a certain vintage. Diversity is a common goal and imperative in Dignity, the preferred future for all of us. But please do not let your still partial, but always ongoing efforts to diversify obscure the important fact that you have kept this organization going through thick and thin, surviving the slings and arrows of the institutional Roman Catholic Church that is now visibly falling under its own dead weight. You are an example to the hierarchy that a group that began as mostly, if not exclusively, male can still be a church with integrity, a socially responsible organization known for its charity, not a corrupt club known for its criminal conduct and coverup. You, not the hierarchy of the institutional church, give Catholicism a good name these days. The institutional church would do well to take a lesson from you. Congratulations, and again, thank you.
Fifty years ago the Catholic context was utterly different from what it is today. I try to imagine what my parents and grandparents would think of my religious life—at once Catholic and interreligious, at the same time rooted in the Gospel of Jesus and appreciative of so many other fonts of wisdom. I dare not imagine what my teenage daughter and the generation that follows her will find meaningful. They live with young people of many faiths and none whatsoever. So already their foundational experiences are quite different from most of ours, at least those of us who grew up in ethnic parishes and with strict rules.
One delight of living a long life is that many things change. Some people think of religions as timeless and eternal, set in stone and enduring in one form from cradle to grave. At a minimum, many people think that a religion is what it has been in their lifetime. But religions are dynamic, shifting in emphasis and contours over time. Whether Jewish or Christian, Buddhist or Muslim, the entrance of a significant number of women and people of color into religious scholarship and ministerial leadership has been a game changer in our lifetime.
Images, symbols, and language about the divine are now many and varied. Ways of thinking about ethical issues increasingly reflect more perspectives, especially those of people from racially/ethnically/sexually marginalized groups. Today we have a whole new academic subspecialty called ‘queer theology’ which takes account of the experiences of people who have been marginalized because of sexual orientation or gender identity. This is hardly a Christian-only phenomenon, but one that reaches across most major religious traditions.
These changes are not welcomed by all believers, especially those who hold religious power, nor are they reflected widely in worship and polity. But they are well-grounded academically and deeply felt by those who are newly enfranchised. Just listen to the people from the Amazon speaking in Rome at the Amazonian Synod. An ignorant person made a slur about someone wearing feathers at Mass. Pope Francis was quick to call out the offender:
“Yesterday I was very sad to hear, here inside, a sarcastic comment about that ‘pious man’ who brought up the offerings with feathers on his head. Tell me, what is the difference between wearing feathers on one’s head and the tricorn biretta used by some officers of our dicasteries?” I guess that is what passes for papal shade.
Catholic feminists have long rejected what theologian Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza so helpfully defined as the ‘kyriarchal’ church. ‘Kyriarchy’ or structures of lordship is the inter-structured forms of oppression that create conditions for injustice. (2) The institutional Catholic Church is set up that way with literal ‘lords:’ clergy over laity, men over women, religious over secular. Feminists in religion have joined Professor Schüssler Fiorenza for decades in creating bountiful research and resources for alternative ways of structuring and acting as church that are inclusive, mutual, and egalitarian. We were ahead of the curve on intersectionality that is a cogent and popular form of analysis now, linking race, sex, gender, class, nationality, age, ability, and so forth in trying to do justice.
Feminist work is growing, and Dignity, as a member group of the Women-Church Convergence, is an integral part of that work. Let me bring us right up to date on recent happenings as a way to highlight what bits of progress we have made.
Just last week in Rome there was a forum sponsored by an Austrian foundation-supported group called Voices of Faith. It was entitled, “And You Sister…What Do you Say?” as Catholic nuns spoke their minds within earshot of the Vatican. I only hope the clerics had ears to hear.
A major catalyst for the meeting is the egregious fact that at the Amazonian Synod now in progress in Rome, the voting members are all men. But as in other recent synods, the men are not all clerics. They include at least one brother who is technically as lay as any nun. So, the fact that no women religious in attendance can vote has sparked serious consternation.
U.S. Sister Simone Campbell led off—she of the social justice lobby NETWORK and Nuns on the Bus fame. She asserted, “Silence is not an option.” It went from there.
A Swedish Dominican nun, Sister Madeleine Fredell, made a compelling case for women’s right to preach homilies. She argued that there are no doctrinal reasons, no valid arguments to prohibit women from preaching. Her cogent and easily understood presentation, her Swedish sense of humor and irony, and her deep pastoral commitment added up to as good an ad for women preachers as Madison Avenue could create.
A Spanish Benedictine from Montserrat, Teresa Forcades, (who in not only a theologian, but also a medical doctor, and a Green Party politician involved in the Catalonian succession movement) offered a brilliant analysis. She laid out how 13th century abbesses were forbidden to hear confessions, breaking a long custom in women’s monasteries. But St. Gertrude the Great insisted that they could and would hear confessions. Gertrude was canonized after all, meaning that she was approved by the same institution that she opposed on confession. Teresa Forcades concluded that the Church has always had a variety of approaches to issues. She observed that the church has to run to catch up with society that has been far more welcoming of women. But she said it is not just to be up-to-date that the church must change; it is to be coherent with its own message. That makes good sense.
At the same meeting last week, a German Cistercian sister working in Bolivia, Sister Maria Johanna Lauterbach, made a strong case against the Vatican Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life (known to the nuns as CICLSAL, pronounced “sickle cell”) May 2018 intrusion into the lives and administration of women religious. The document, Cor Orans (Praying Heart), dictates that if a women’s congregation gets too small it must end or federate with other such groups. If it has fewer than five women, it must disband. There are other stipulations too, many of them practical. But what struck in the women’s craws was that the institutional church, and not the sisters, decreed the policies. No such provisions exist for men’s groups no matter how small. She signaled that the days of nuns being told what to do by the Vatican are numbered, if not over completely. This is progress.
There were more such speeches, including one by an Australian nun, Sister Chris Burke, who made clear that the use of terms like God as Father, Lord, Ruler, King were unacceptable without other options for more inclusive forms. She reported that an image of a white male God had devastating effects on colonized people such as indigenous people in Australia.
It went on like that all day. But it is not the usual suspects at work, feminist theologians and our colleagues who are seeking inclusive forms of Catholicism. It was Catholic sisters who continue to be part of the institution’s life but are now calling foul on the hierarchy. It is safe to say that change is nigh.
The rest of the world is now catching up with us and the nuns as the Catholic institution stands in global disrepute and soon in financial ruin. No one takes delight in this. Recent reports of Catholic clergy criminal conduct and its cover-up by church officials cannot be ignored. Catholics were 20% of the U.S. population in 2018, 51 million adults in the U.S., roughly 3 million fewer than in 2007. The percentage of U.S. Catholics who attend weekly Mass dropped by 6% from 2014 to 2017 with current figures well under 40%. (3) Scholars report that Catholics remain the single largest denomination in this country. The second largest denomination is said to be former Catholics.
American Catholics are very similar to those in many European countries like Spain and formerly Catholic Ireland where the church’s market share has shrunk. There are reports that in Latin America as a whole numbers are down 20% in the last few years. (4) Those are noticeable drops that make a difference in revenues and culture, not to mention the moral and ethical support needed at this dicey time in history.
Many U.S. Catholics are disgusted and demoralized by last year’s grand jury report that documented over 1,000 children raped and abused by over 300 priests in just one state (Pennsylvania). There are 49 more states where similar investigations need to be done and some are already in process. (5) Officials give every assurance that the real numbers of victims/survivors are many times higher than reported. The Pennsylvania report revealed that bishops routinely reassigned criminal clergy rather than prohibit them from ministry. This is a national problem as priests have been moved around as if on a giant chessboard from parish to parish within a diocese or from diocese to diocese across the country. While I used to think there were ideological differences between Catholic feminists and hierarchical church leaders, now I realize we were also up against a criminal element.
Former Washington DC Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, now Mr. McCarrick, lives in exile in a Kansas monastery. Former DC Cardinal Donald Wuerl whose resignation was accepted under a cloud (600 plus mentions in the PA grand jury report and documented lies about what he knew in the McCarrick case) is nowhere to be seen. West Virginia Bishop Michael Bransford is being investigated for spending millions of dollars in one of the poorest states in the union on lavish air and limousine travel, hotels, and gifts for his friends, including the Bishop of Baltimore who was in charge of investigating him. That bishop, William Lori, conveniently left out the names of the priests to whom the offending bishop gave money, including himself.
Another nail in the institutional Catholic coffin is the recognition that clergy have perpetrated sexual abuse against women, in particular against Catholic nuns to whom priests have had unfettered access in sacramental situations including in confession. Reports of clergy men raping women, paying for abortions of pregnancies they caused despite the institutional church’s ban on abortion, coercing young women to have sex with them because the women were assumed to be virgins and therefore not HIV infected, are some of the terrible stories just beginning to surface around the world. (6) The Catholic institution is in disrepute, opening a new era for many forms of Catholicism to be taken seriously, including our brand as Dignity.
The moral urgency of ecological destruction, nuclear options, and wars make any future at all for the world doubtful. While this is understandable, it can have an unhelpful way of dwarfing internal religious matters. So, the very raising of the issues of sex, gender, race, class, and more within denominations can seem churlish. At a time when reliable moral compasses are scarce, it is ironic that feminists and our partners in faith persevere. We continue to insist on certain moral imperatives, albeit with new parameters including gender and sexual diversity, and reproductive health options that have been explicitly rejected by the kyriarchal institution. We push for the empowerment of people on the margins.
This dynamic is what moral theologian Daniel C. Maguire means by his felicitous phrase, “the renewable moral energy of religion.” (7) Religious traditions are dynamic with each generation and local community putting its unique stamp on as its needs and insights determine. Our ways of being church as Dignity are part of this renewable moral energy at a time when our Catholic tradition needs it badly.
This leads me to challenge us as Dignity as we move toward our centenary. I know none of us, except the very youngest in the room, will be at the earthly celebration of Dignity’s 100th anniversary. But save me a dance at the celestial party. We are not responsible to do everything under the sun to change the world. But as you, the founding chapter have proved, we are responsible to do our part, during our lifetimes, to be faithful members of our tradition just as we are called to be fully participating, voting members of our nation. To that end, I respectfully venture three challenges for your consideration:
1. Let go of what no longer works; embrace the new from new people who come along
One key to longevity is to change with the times. That happens per force as new people come on board whether in a family or an organization. I know this at home as the parent of a teen.
So please give full consideration to changing your ways: maybe 5:30 is too late/early for Mass; maybe women leading worship will enhance your group’s life; perhaps partnering with one of the Rainbow Catholic groups in another country will stretch you in a new direction; try to increase your partnership with people from another faith tradition, or with people who have no interest in faith whatsoever (nones and never agains). I cannot predict what it will be for you as a group that will refresh and renew you moving forward. But I can say that change is constant. So let your first instinct be to welcome change as those who came before you did. Just as we read so often in scripture about the important role of the outsider, the stranger, the new comer, let us embrace them in our midst and what they have to teach us, how they change us personally and as a group.
2. Live lightly but well
Environmental concerns are a major factor for whether and how the world will exist after we are gone. So living lightly on this planet is not an option if those who follow us are to live here at all. It is our new default mode.
Living lightly does not mean letting go of celebrations and special events, of attending to small details like décor and the niceties of hospitality that give flair and even flamboyance to our scenes. After all, we have a reputation for being fabulous to live up to, especially in LA!
Living lightly can mean being fabulously generous to a smaller, less endowed Chapter or to partner with a Catholic queer group abroad. Especially for those of us who are older, it can mean upping the challenge to put our time and money at the disposition of others while we still can. As my father’s neighbor observed so sagely, if delicately, “You never see the Brinks Truck go out behind the hearse, Mr. Hunt.” She was right!
I suggest that Dignity groups, indeed women-church and other progressive religious groups, need to do an energy audit in light of the unjust allocation of the world’s resources in our favor. How can we cut back on our use of resources, recycle so much of what we have that we do not use, push for legislation that will enforce responsible limits on US consumption? How can we increase what we share and be prudent but not miserly about what we save? How can we carpool and appliance share, fly less and bike more, house swap and otherwise minimize our footprint on Earth? Ecology is a major moral issue of our time. It is typical of Dignity to step up to such challenges as Chapters and as an organization without even knowing what the consequences will be. We do know that if we do not change our individual and collective ways soon, they will be changed for us. Evidence of climate change all around us proves this. Happily, young people are in the lead here and we can follow them.
3. Let the needs of the world not the failings of the church set our agenda
I challenge us as Dignity to “let the needs of the world not the failings of the church set our agenda” (my coinage for Women-Church Convergence which I think applies more broadly). It is self-evident to even the most casual observer that the Roman Catholic Church is imploding. Without in any way disparaging the faith we share, the institution is an easy and proper target of derision and disgust given the number of people whose lives have been made more difficult because of abuse and discrimination stemming from its people and policies. Dignity has played a major role in changing that by our witness to other ways of being Catholic. Catholicism lived well can be an enormous force for good.
Today, we LGBTIQ Catholics and our allies are increasingly being seen as normative. It is striking that James Alison, a British priest who lives in Spain when he is not teaching and preaching worldwide, got a call from Francis. Alison took it an implicit endorsement of his priestly ministry. Jesuit James Martin, who has worked extensively with the Catholic LGBTIQ community, had a private audience recently with a supportive fellow Jesuit named Francis. I guess the Vatican has not heard of lesbians yet, but we keep our cell phones charged! However, these are signs of progress.
Nonetheless, they are still church-focused matters. I challenge us to push well beyond the church, bringing the same savvy with which we have made inroads there to the world’s most pressing needs: ecological destruction, poverty, racism, war, violence, and more.
When the Reverend Patrick X. Nidorf, O.S.A., a priest of the Order of Saint Augustine, responded to the pastoral needs of gay and lesbian Catholics fifty years ago here, he was on the edge. It is our turn to stand at the edge and reach well beyond our own communities to the needs of the world. Never in my lifetime have the stakes been higher and the secular leadership less capable. So let us look toward our centenary by stepping up to save the planet, end poverty, eradicate racism, stop wars. I know it sounds fanciful and a little ridiculous to propose such an agenda. But we never imagined we would live to see inclusive forms of church, yet here we are living one. We never imagined we would have women eucharistic celebrants and we do. We never imagined that we as LGBTIQ Catholics would be married or welcomed in so many places, but we are.
We created all of that in the lifetime of Dignity. With the grace of God, the infusion of the Spirit’s energy, and boundless hard work, we can do the same for the needs of the world. I challenge us to get it done in union with the millions of our siblings whose lives depend on us. What a way to turn one hundred!
Thank you, and enjoy this well-deserved celebration.
1 “DignityUSA: Passion, Persistence, and Prophetic Witness.
Celebrating 50 Years and Inspired for What’s Ahead ,” WATERtalk,
September 11, 2019, Marianne Duddy-Burke, Executive Director, DignityUSA, available at http://www.waterwomensalliance.org/watertalks-2-2/.
2 Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, defines kyriarchy as “constituted by intersecting multiplicative structures of oppression.” Wisdom Ways: Introducing Feminist Biblical Interpretation. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2001, p. 118.
7 Daniel C. Maguire, “renewable moral energy of religion,” Sacred Energies: When the World’s Religions Sit Down to Talk about the Future of Human Life and the Plight of this Planet, Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2000, p.10.