Notes from WATERtalks: Feminist Conversations in Religion Series

“DignityUSA: Passion, Persistence, and Prohpetic Witness. Celebrating 50 Years and Inspired for What’s Ahead” 

An hour-long teleconference with 

Marianne Duddy-Burke

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

1 to 2 p.m.

Mary E. Hunt: WATER thanks Marianne Duddy-Burke for her excellent presentation and discussion on the 50th anniversary of DignityUSA entitled “DignityUSA: Passion, Persistence, and Prophetic Women: Celebrating 50 Yeas and Inspired for What’s Ahead.” We met on September 11, 2019, a day of infamy in the U.S. calendar, a time to reflect on our work for peace and justice. 

Following is the text of Marianne’s opening remarks followed by a brief summary of the discussion period. We are grateful to have this original manuscript and urge wide distribution of it. There are also references to various talks that were part of the celebration. 

Marianne Duddy-Burke: Thank you very, very much to the WATER team, who are cherished and respected colleagues, and who were integrally involved in DignityUSA’s 50th anniversary commemoration in many ways, including both having starring turns in the video on our first five decades, being present with us throughout the gatherings, being key participants in our Women of Dignity caucus gathering, and, of course, with Mary delivering an extraordinary opening keynote, for having me, and to all of you for joining this conversation today. This day is, of course, a day of tender remembrance and reflection on how we as a nation grieve those who were lost, and ponder how we have responded to the threat and realities of terrorism. This is a poignant anniversary that marked turning points for many of us, and I’d just like to hold that reality in our coming together. It is a good day to be in community.

What I’d like to do today is reflect a little on the how and the milieu of Dignity’s birth, discuss some of the ways we chose to mark our Golden Anniversary and the themes that emerged as we reviewed and studied our history, and then talk a little about the ways we are considering how to live our mission in the years ahead. I will note that a significant part of our 50th anniversary gathering included a visioning session, and groups like our Board of Directors are just beginning to analyze and reflect on the amazing input from that session, so my thoughts on this section are very preliminary and have not yet been socialized or validated within our leadership structure. I certainly look forward to the chance to engage with folks on the call during the second half of the hour and expect that to be a rich and fruitful way to have you add to my remarks, which are necessarily limited in scope and perspective. They are also broad-ranging and very high level, so I’d urge you to make a note of anything you’d like to go deeper into, take in another direction, or have me clarify during our dialogue.

So, with that roadmap, I will start in a way familiar to us all, “In the beginning….”

The early weeks of 1969, when Dignity was birthed, was, like now, a time of turmoil for many Americans and American Catholics. The prior year’s assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, the violence of the Chicago Democratic Convention, protests over the Vietnam War, the growing reaction to the signing of the Civil Rights Act, and much more had families and the nation feeling at odds. Within our church, there was ongoing confusion over what the Second Vatican Council meant for individuals, parish communities, and church institutions. If you were a gay, lesbian, bisexual or gender nonconforming person, you were seen by nearly everyone as sick, sinful, and, unless you lived in Illinois, criminal. Into this miasma of tumult, Fr. Patrick F. Nidorf, an Augustinian ministering in San Diego happened to mention during his community Chapter meeting that he was very troubled by what he heard as an “excessive and unreal problem of guilt” among those who identified as homosexual, and that he saw as being too often reinforced in the confessional. He was invited by the members of his Chapter to propose a ministry to this group, which he did. His proposal was affirmed, and Pat started inviting people to gather for conversation and prayer. Reflecting the reality of the day, all applicants were required to have a personal interview with Pat, in order to a) ensure everyone was of legal age, and b) to protect people from “religious radicals.” Initially a dozen or so folks gathered in homes for the monthly meetings, and within months, a second, and quickly larger group started meeting in Los Angeles. That group soon outgrew home-based meetings and in Sept. 1970 started gathering in the auditorium of St. Brendan’s Parish. 

The LA Dignity group wanted to push for formal recognition from the Archdiocese, and despite Fr. Pat’s hesitations, leaders sent a letter about Dignity and its work to then Archbishop Timothy Manning. He was incensed that a ministry led by a priest unaccountable to him had been taking place in his territory, and he summoned Fr. Pat and his superior to a meeting. Unsatisfied with their report on Dignity, Manning ordered Pat to step down from the ministry. I think this is where the story of Dignity takes that turn that no one realized at the time set us on a path that determined so much of our future. At the meeting where Fr. Pat announced that he must resign, those present decided to continue as a lay led group. They start developing a Statement of Position and Purpose, a constitution, a leadership team, and a plan for responding to the ever-increasing number of inquiries they were getting from all over the country about how to start Dignity in other areas. They developed materials, many inspired by the writings of Jesuit John McNeill, that insisted lesbian and gay people (to use the terminology of the day) were numbered among the people of God and had the right and duty to participate fully in the life of the Church. They further insisted that Dignity members had obligations to the church, to society, and to homosexual individuals, and that these obligations included spiritual development, education, social justice, advocating for equality, and social events that provided opportunities for inclusion and affirmation. 

The decision by some of the most marginalized, demonized, invisible Catholics in the nation to take ownership of their own faith, and even further, to infuse a mission that reached beyond themselves into foundational documents has had truly unimaginable ramifications. As we pondered all that has transpired in the organization’s first five decades, we realized that we are, among other things:

  • The longest-standing LGBTQI Catholic group in the world
  • One of only two pre-Stonewall LGBTQI groups still prominent in the queer community (the other being MCC)
  • The most established network of intentional Catholic faith communities in the US
  • 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
  • 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. 

One of the major things that I realized as we dove deep into historical narratives, documents and the reflections of our members is that we are the very antithesis of what I have over the last few years come to term “Catholic, Inc.” Like the so called “Nones—N-O-N-E-S” or people who choose not to affiliate with any religious denomination, Dignity has rejected the institutional corruption of a religious structure that has damaged and betrayed so very many people. Unlike the Nones, we have done so without rejecting the core aspects of Catholicism—profound faith in life’s triumph over death and love’s conquering of hate, the profound and transformative power of sacrament, preferential mandate for the poor–and the passing of the faith from generation to generation through the ages. We have found a way to maintain and to continue to shape our religious and spiritual heritage that no one told us existed. That is perhaps not what our founders set out to do, but I think that is the essence of what we have done through these decades.

So how do you mark 50 years of being the church you were never told could exist?

I’d like to speak a little about what the commemoration of DignityUSA’s 50th anniversary looked like. It had five components that were all designed, not just to celebrate our accomplishments, but also to propel us into a future that we all recognize must be very different from our past and present. 

First, the organization declared 2018 through mid-2019 a Jubilee Period. At our 2001 conference, we had examined the Judeo-Christian tradition of Jubilee—a period of restoring right relationships, including forgiveness of debt, land redistribution, and release of slaves and prisoners so they could return home—and reflected on what that might mean for the LGBTQI community. We returned to that concept and invited our entire community to a 3-phase reflection period, where we discussed our past, our present and dreams for our future. Each participating community submitted a written summary of each phase of the discussion, and every single summary is posted on our website. The Board studied these reports carefully and developed an executive summary of what we heard in each stage, which are also posted. We used this material to develop four “Great Ideas” about our future which were the themes of an engaging Visioning Session at the heart of our 50th anniversary conference this summer. 

Second, we reached out to our entire organization inviting special contributions to help develop a strong financial base for future initiatives. Entitled “Fifty and Forward,” members, friends, and communities were invited to donate either towards a specific initiative (say a film documenting our first five decades, our global engagement, or an Emerging Leaders program) or to a general fund the Board could use to initiate new priority programs. Close to $200,000 has been raised through requests with gifts ranging from $5 to $20,000, and we invite gifts through Sept. 30. Our community has been generous, indeed.

Finally, we held three special events in Chicago this July that were intentionally sequenced to help us dream and then live into our future. DignityUSA hosted the Third Assembly of the Global Network of Rainbow Catholics (also known as GNRC). GNRC is a relatively new organization, long in the dreaming and officially created as an international NGO in 2017. It brings together more than 40 LGBTI Catholic organizations from six continents, providing opportunities for networking and collective action.  As the oldest LGBTQI Catholic organization on the planet, we wanted to better understand the triumphs and challenges, struggles and dreams of our siblings around the world, and to deepen our sense of what it means to be part of a global church. We sent a large delegation of current and emerging leaders as participants in the Assembly and provided opportunities during the Assembly for social interaction among the leaders of the international organizations and DignityUSA. 

The second event was a daylong Forum on the State of the Global LGBTI Catholic Movement attended by over 130 movement leaders. The event kicked off with 10 panelists from all over the world. Each was asked to outline the greatest challenges and accomplishments of the LGBTI Catholic movement in the region they represented. This was followed by addresses by the esteemed Mary Hunt, Bryan Massingale, and Miguel Diaz. As far as I know, this is the first time three out queer Catholic theologians have gathered to present affirming Catholic theology on LGBTQI issues. Their speeches were so well received that they are in the process of being translated into at least six languages and we’ve had reprint and usage requests from as far away as South Africa. After a working session where international and US attendees delved into a range of issues including theology of gender, models for effective pastoral care, women’s issues, and interactions with church officials, we celebrated a liturgy presided by people from Brazil, the Philippines, the US, and Zimbabwe. We continued our Eucharist at a truly festive dinner.

Finally, we had the official DignityUSA conference. We were thrilled to have many GNRC delegates stay on for this event and join Dignity members and colleagues from our movement for three days of celebration, work and prayer. We premiered a film highlighting how DignityUSA has lived out its mission and whether we still have relevance, heard amazing and challenging addresses from Mary Hunt and Urvashi Vaid, prayed with sacred texts created by our community throughout our history, engaged in dreaming, visioning and prioritizing our future work, shared meals, and played really, really hard. We remembered so many brave and beautiful souls whose generosity of time, talent, and treasure built our movement. We celebrated how DignityUSA has transformed our US church—and to be clear, I am speaking of the people of God church, not the institutional leadership—into an LGBTQI-affirming community, sparking legal and cultural changes that were absolutely unimaginable at our genesis. We rearticulated our faith in the possibility of a world and church that where LGBTQI people fully included, experience equality, and know justice. 

Forward from Fifty

We left Chicago energized and inspired, but for what? As I said early on, the specifics are still being worked through, but we know that our work will continue to revolve around the four focus themes of 1) being the authentic voice of Catholics committed to equality, justice and full inclusion of LGBTQI people, 2) being the go-to resource for reform of church teaching and pastoral practice on LGBTQI issues, 3) building and sustaining affirming faith communities that live Catholicism with integrity and accountability, and 4) developing a diverse team of leaders for our movement, nationally and globally. But one line from Mary’s keynote has lived in my imagination and soul since it caught me up short as she gave it voice during our opening gathering. In speaking about how the implosion of the institutional Roman Catholic Church and its decades of criminal misconduct have robbed millions of a spiritual home and left them bereft when they encounter life’s crises and sacred joys, Mary said, to be religious on one’s own terms is a human right that is being annulled for many Catholics.” Let’s hear those words again. “To be religious on one’s own terms is a human right that is being annulled for many Catholics.” What a stunning way of expressing the ramifications of this travesty. Mary spoke about how those of us who are part of Dignity, the women-church and church reform movements, and the nuns (this time the N-U-N-S) now have greater responsibility to be visible and vocal for the multitudes who have never been exposed to other ways to live Catholicism. This resonates with me, and while not changing DignityUSA’s mission, is forcing me to think about how to expand the boundaries we’ve put around it. 

It is an outrage to realize that the same evil faced by those early organizers of Dignity, and by its members and supporters through the years, the evil of having their human rights denied by our church, has been amplified to such an extent that billions of people could find themselves spiritually homeless. And it is a sobering responsibility to think that their visionary response could be a model for creating new forms of community that provide sanctuary, community, and sacramental response to the needs that arise throughout the lives of all kinds of humans from all around the world. Our model, which replaces hierarchy with mutual accountability, supports an incarnational faith lived in our bodies, our relationships and communities, and transforms Catholics from passive recipients of ministry into the rulers, priests and prophets we were baptized to be, is far from perfect, but it does allow people their religious heritage and tradition on their own terms. 

In the Scriptures we share as Christian people, the Gospel messages are often revealed in the actions of those on the margins, the vilified, the overlooked, the despised. They can be children, foreigners, members of the invading army, those whose religious beliefs are scorned, those seen as unclean, even… women. Perhaps this remains true today, and it is those ways in which the powerless and the oppressed experience and form spiritual community that will be how Catholicism is transfigured, resurrected. So seeing our mission as striving for inclusion, equality and justice not only for LGBTQI people, but for everyone, in a way that honors the wisdom and integrity of each unique reflection of the Divine, regardless of locale, identity, or other characteristics, is the true mandate I carried from Chicago. 

Before I stop, let me just mention that many of the events, documents, and speeches associated with DignityUSA’s 50th anniversary are available on our website,, and/or on the DignityUSA YouTube channel for those who might be interested in reading or viewing any of this material. And, with thanks again to WATER for the invitation to share this reflection, I now look forward to hearing from you.

Summary of Question and Answer Session:

  1. Appreciating the “amazing grace of Dignity,” one caller asked about prayers and songs and other art forms that sustain. Marianne spoke of how Dignity has created space for so many and such a varied group of people. She affirmed the need to expand the table when oppressed people decide on strategies, marveling at how a tiny group of Catholic men took ownership as Dignity came into existence. Others can claim their faith as well. 

She talked about the Opening Liturgy at the 2019 50th Anniversary Convention that included readings from key historical documents from lived faith of communities. She mentioned beloved songs/hymns including “Be Not Afraid,” “We Shall Not be Silenced,” “Prophets to the World, “Let Justice Roll like a River,” and the new “Jubilee” song as sources of inspiration. 

  1. Another caller expressed awe at Marianne Duddy-Burke, having herself let go of Catholicism even though she is still a Catholic nun. She inquired about resources for people who have let church go, including trans people and families. 

Marianne talked about taking baptism seriously and being adults about our faith. It is important to honor the reality of people’s pain and take seriously their responses. She talked about needing to claim communities in which we do practice faith as ‘Catholic’ rather than letting the institution be the only expression of the faith. See her open letter — “The Church You Long for Already Exists” 

  1. Another question focused on interreligious work in the context of the implosion of the institutional Roman Catholic Church due to sexual abuse and coverup, discrimination against women, LGBTIQ people etc. What role is Dignity playing in all of that? 

Marianne discussed the pervasiveness of clericalism, the identification of church with hierarchy. She hopes it will change more quickly than many assume though she acknowledges that it will take decades for clericalism to be replaced. Even in the LGBTIQ justice movement when there is an interreligious event staff, often still people want a priest or a nun as the Catholic representative. It will still be some time before other voices carry the same authority. 

  1. Yet one more question had to do with the impact of the slow but steady dissolution of the gender binary. 

Marianne spoke about high school students moving through identities and gender definitions with comfort and fluidity that amazes. She talked about how unruffled they are by variations people present, so there is lots to learn from young people. One challenge is how to find worship music that does not have gender binary: Sons/daughters; brothers/sisters. Just as we have included women it is time to think again! It is important to see how language limits full access to so much including health care, social services, even feeling fully included in worship. It is important, she said, to stay grounded in the fact that questions around gender are ways to think of the creator’s immense creativity and imagination. Inclusive language is a way to see more of the Divine.

  1. The final question was an appreciation for Dignity’s 50 years and Marianne’s presentation in which she carried forward the group’s creation story from a feminist lesbian perspective. 

Marianne offered kind words about WATER. She said that WATER has pushed Dignity to remember that a feminist lens is so crucial to all of our work. 

The Moderator remarked that Dignity and WATER provide space and resources to be used to access the human right to be religious on one’s own terms. 

WATER thanks Marianne Duddy-Burke for her wonderful, insightful presentation and for her tireless work with DignityUSA.  


Mary E. Hunt’s keynote: at Dignity’ 50th Anniversary Convention:

Community Jubilee reflections:

 The Church You Long for Exists by Marianne Duddy-Burke 

Miguel Diaz remarks at Global Network of Rainbow Catholics 3rd International Meeting:

 Mary E. Hunt remarks at Global Network of Rainbow Catholics 3rd International Meeting:

DignityUSA history: