Detroit Catholic LGBTQ group grapples with isolation beyond COVID-19

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View from back of church up main aisle toward altar

Courtesy of Frank D'Amore.

The Sacred Heart Chapel at Marygrove College has been used for Dignity/Detroit's services for decades.

As Detroiters self-isolate to prevent the spread of  COVID-19, the Archdiocese of Detroit has isolated a longstanding  LGBT Catholic advocacy organization, ordering it off Catholic grounds.

Bishop Gerard Battersby wrote a letter which was sent to all diocesan clergy on March 9 forbidding Dignity/Detroit gathering on archdiocesan grounds.

“Dignity/Detroit has long operated its ministry in the Archdiocese of Detroit while rejecting some of the church’s teachings on sexual morality,” Battersby wrote. “These teachings, though challenging, promote human flourishing and bring joy when received with open hearts. This situation is thus a source of sadness, for those who reject the teachings deprive themselves of the blessings that come with living a life in Christ.”

Dignity/Detroit, an affiliate of DignityUSA, has been active in the city since 1974. DignityUSA is an advocacy organization that serves around 7,500 people across the country. It works to change church teaching to no longer recognize homosexuality as a disorder and for acceptance of sexual relationships and marriage between those of the same sex, among other issues. 

Dignity/Detroit, which has 68 members, was one of the few DignityUSA chapters still allowed to meet on Catholic premises after the Vatican’s 1986 “Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons,” called for the disavowel of groups that did not explicitly reaffirm church teachings on the immorality of same-sex sexual relationships.

Decision of archdiocese shocks Dignity/Detroit

President Frank D’Amore has been in the group for 35 years. He said news that priests would no longer be allowed to say Mass for Dignity/Detroit shocked the organization. He acknowledged that right now, to help slow the spread of COVID-19, no Catholics in the archdiocese are gathering for Mass anyway.

“The archbishop is cancelling everything except funerals and weddings,” D’Amore said. “And you can’t be very popular because it has to be less than 100 people. I know I sound flippant to joke about it, but it’s the only way I can get through this.”

D’Amore said the relationship between the archdiocese and Dignity/Detroit has been peaceful for 40 years. D’Amore said Dignity/Detroit exists to provide LGBTQ Catholics with a place to gather with people who understand each others’ experiences. 

“Not every archdiocese is like this,” D’Amore said. “In some places, the bishops themselves say Mass for same-sex attracted individuals. If the church hierarchy would get to know us, they would see it’s the same exact liturgy you would hear or experience in any other Catholic church. Everything is exactly the same, we’re just together with people we have stuff in common with.” 

Group enjoyed a history with support of priests, religious sisters

 The Rev. Victor Clore, pastor of Christ the King parish on the northwest side of Detroit for  the past 30 years, has said Mass for Dignity/Detroit for decades. After Dignity/Detroit was given permission to use Most Holy Trinity Parish in 1974, Clore signed on to help.

Dignity’s home at Most Holy Trinity would not be permanent. By the early 1980s, it needed a new gathering place. Clore remembered the transition.

 “Then, there was a kerfuffle, and they weren’t allowed to use a parish church,” Clore said. “They got Marygrove College’s chapel, which was owned by the IHMs, and several of us take turns to say Mass for the group there.”

The IHMs are the Sister Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. The sisters ran Marygrove College from 1905 until 2019 and allowed Dignity/Detroit to use its Sacred Heart Chapel until the college’s closure. From that point, the group continued to use it with the permission of a historical preservation group which now owns the campus. 

Sister Andrea Lee was a senior administrator at Marygrove when the decision was made to welcome Dignity/Detroit in 1997. 

“There was not extended deliberation about whether we were going to do this,” Lee said. “It wasn’t maybe we should or maybe we shouldn’t. It seemed like the right thing to do, so we did it … I attended that liturgy myself many times. It was not politicized. It was just Mass.”

Sister Barbara Beeseley has attended the Dignity/Detroit Mass for decades. While she initially feared she wouldn’t fit in, she felt it was right to support those society marginalizes. While she had heard about “wild behavior” of activists on the news, what she found were regular Catholics who built a welcoming community. 

“It was like I realized it was the media and the messages I’d gotten through society in general that were screwed up, not the people,” Beeseley said. “I was niceley accepted and I felt very at home. It kind of took away my anticipation of it being very strange and different. It was ordinary people trying to live their lives.”

Lee reaffirmed that. 

 “There was nothing even in the homilies that I would consider to be poking at church teaching or anything like that,” Lee said. “I’m proud to take part of the responsibility for allowing them to be there.”

Archdiocese promotes Courage and EnCourage self-help groups instead

Holly Fournier, spokesperson for the Archdiocese of Detroit declined to be interviewed but said in an emailed statement that while the clergy recognizes the positive work Dignity/Detroit has done on poverty, the church cannot condone an organization that goes against its teachings.

She said the ouster of Dignity/Detroit is part of a larger push to minister to “same-sex attracted” individuals in the archdiocese that came out of a 2016 synod. After the synod, archdiocesan leaders decided to welcome Courage, a program to teach LGBTQ people give up sexual activity with those of the same sex.

“The archbishop last summer published a pastoral note, ‘Imitating Christ’s Charity and Chastity,’ in which he discussed longstanding church teaching and affirmed the importance of ensuring all ministries appropriately accompany the faithful along the path provided to us by Christ,” Fournier said. “To that end, the archbishop has appointed three priest chaplains for our local chapters of the Courage and EnCourage apostolates to minister to those who experience same-sex attraction and their friends and families.” 

Fournier said the archdiocese did this to help LGBTQ Catholics, and that it requested Dignity to help introduce the program.

“We seek to provide pastoral care for and to ensure the salvation of all the faithful, including those who experience same-sex attraction,” Fournier said. “Those individuals, like anyone, are cherished children of God. And, like all the faithful, their salvation relies upon the embrace of Christ’s teachings and his plan for his people.”

Dignity/Detroit and others see Courage as offensive, harmful

D’Amore called the “same-sex attracted” label offensive.

“They won’t say LGBT,” D’Amore said. “Their idea of ministry is to make sure we’re welcome in any parish in the archdiocese and if [a Catholic] is having trouble dealing with their sexuality, they’re pushing a group called Courage, and EnCourage for the friends and family. It’s basically a 12-step program for sex addicts. It’s an insult.”

Clore said that while misguided, he believes the archdiocese is attempting to help LGBTQ Catholics. He said clergy are treating LGBTQ Catholics like they have sex addictions, a misunderstanding of what the lives of LGBTQ people are like.

“Most LGBT people are not out looking for sex every night of the week,” Clore said. “They fall in love and they want to live with someone. When they go to a Courage meeting, they get browbeaten for not believing that their sexual activities are a mortal sin.”

Clore said there are differences between these terms, and that they’re often used as synonyms.

Clergy supporters of Dignity take issue with judgment of archdiocese

For decades, retired Auxiliary-Bishop Thomas Gumbleton has worked on social justice issues in the church, including acceptance of LGBTQ Catholics.

Gumbleton sees the prohibition of Dignity/Detroit as inappropriate. While members of the group will be able to attend regular Masses and receive the Eucharist, he believes they should be able to have Mass as a group.  Others  he perceives as living in opposition to church teaching receive the Eucharist together. He cites the military.

“You certainly are judging when you say people are not welcome at the Eucharist,” he said. “They will say they are living in public sin. But so are people on nuclear submarines.”

Gumbleton, the founder of Catholic peace activism group Pax Christi, said that if there are chaplains on nuclear submarines to minister to sailors prepared to cause massive destruction, which would be a public sin, he doesn’t understand how allowing Dignity/Detroit to gather is dangerous to church teaching.

  Clore, who sent a response to Battersby and the diocesan clergy,  said he will continue to say Mass for the group.

“Two or three priests I’ve talked to have said that they say Mass for Dignity, and they will probably just keep doing it,” Clore said. “I’m almost 80, and I’m past retirement. They could force retirement. I’ve assured the bishops that I don’t preach this every Sunday from the pulpit. I know there are some priests who feel they need to preach against birth control and homosexuality every two weeks, but when I read the weekly scriptures, I see a lot more than sex.”

While Clore posited that forced retirement was a possibility, Fournier said the archdiocese recognizes that priests who have said Mass for Dignity/Detroit have done so out of pastoral care, and stressed that the archdiocese wants to encourage unity instead of discussing punishments.

“We have been in conversation with them to clarify any points of confusion and to invite them to join efforts to offer pastoral care in harmony with what we believe as Catholics,” Fournier said. “We have confidence that, for the sake of our brothers and sisters who experience same-sex attraction, our priests will cooperate with the archbishop’s plan of accompaniment.”

Beeseley, Gumbleton don’t find biblical support for prohibition of Dignity/Detroit

Beeseley said that this stance isn’t one she sees in the Gospels.

“For me, when I think about the Last Supper and Jesus at the first Eucharist, among his disciples was one who had betrayed him, and Jesus handed him the bread and wine,” Beeseley said. “He didn’t forbid him and say ‘you’re guilty of attempted murder — leave’. I think about clergy today who say because you don’t do this or that you can’t come to Mass. I wonder where they’re getting this. I would like to send them back to Christology 101.”

Gumbleton said it is ironic that the Gospel the Sunday after clergy received Battersby’s letter was the story of Jesus speaking with the Samaritan woman at the well. 

“He was a Jew and she was a Samaritan, and they had no social contact whatsoever,” Gumbleton said. “There was extreme animosity. Jesus crosses those barriers and starts up a conversation. It turns out she’s married to five husbands … but they get to the point where she believes he’s the messiah and goes to the village and starts to proclaim him. He uses her as a disciple to proclaim the Gospel. That shows me how Jesus would act to homosexual people.”

Dignity/Detroit, supporters have hope for the future

To remedy this situation, Beeseley suggested the Vatican should create a pontifical academy of social sciences, as it has for other scientific areas.

“They’re so afraid to change, but the scientific teaching has changed, the ordinary, believing Catholic has changed and, as people have come out of the closet, people’s attitudes have changed,” Beeseley said. “A good-faith effort of church leaders to reexamine the church teaching and be open to what the social scientists have to say about sexual orientation, sexual preference and sexual identity is what’s needed. It’s going a very different direction from where Catholic teaching has been.”

D’Amore said he hopes Dignity/Detroit will continue despite the archdiocesan  prohibition and that the group’s traditions can be adapted.

“Heck, yes, we have not disbanded. We are still a vibrant organization, and we’re going to do our best to work this out in a way that’s acceptable or tolerable with the people downtown,” he said in reference to church offices, which are in downtown Detroit. “What that is, I don’t know. Maybe we do what everybody is doing and use Zoom and have the priest say Mass in his residence or rectory.”

Clore said the archdiocese made this a public issue. He said he also understands why LGBTQ Catholics would feel further isolated by this news.

“It’s very hard to hear people say ‘Oh, I love you but –.’” Clore said. “I’m sad that they’ve decided to take such a hard stand around such a technical difference.”