As October began, I noted that the two Catholic bishops of North Carolina, Peter Jugis of Charlotte and Michael Burbidge of Raleigh, had recently announced they were withdrawing from the ecumenical group North Carolina Council of Churches because, as they maintain, that ecumenical group supports marriage equality and won't endorse Catholic magisterial rhetoric about abortion. The Catholic bishops of North Carolina are willing, that is to say, to unravel years of ecumenical collaboration in their part of the U.S. to score political points around two targeted issues in which they want other churches to toe the Catholic line as a precondition for such collaboration.
And now there's this story from North Carolina: as Tim Funk and Michael Gordon report for the Charlotte Observer, the 38th Thanksgiving Interfaith Service in Charlotte was scheduled to be held this year at St. Matthew Catholic church. It won't be held there, after all.
The reason? In attendance at the service will be Steav Bates-Congdon, whom another Catholic church in Charlotte, St. Gabriel, fired as its music director last year after he married his longtime male partner. Bates-Congdon is on the planning committee for the ecumenical worship service.
I've mentioned Steav Bates-Congdon's story in the past, as I enumerated the growing number of cases in which Catholic institutions in the U.S. are firing or denying the sacraments to openly gay folks or to those supporting gay rights. Frank DeBernardo also points to Steav Bates-Congdon's story in a list Frank compiled last month of those fired by Catholic institutions for being openly gay or supporting gay rights.
What particularly troubles me in the story just breaking in Charlotte is this: when Msgr. John McSweeney, pastor of St. Matthew in Charlotte, was challenged to state unequivocally that everyone, including Steav Bates-Congdon, is unequivocally welcome at the Catholic church McSweeney pastors, he couldn't bring himself to utter those words. Here's what Funk and Gordon report:
[When it became apparent that there was concern on the part of St. Matthew's church about his involvement,] Bates-Congdon contacted the service’s planning committee, offering to bow out because, he said, "the church is making an issue of this, and I’m not."
But at the August meeting of that committee, chairwoman Snow asked Kathy Bartlett, music director at St. Matthew and a member of the planning panel, if she would ask McSweeney to issue a formal invitation to Bates-Congdon to clear up any misunderstanding.
Mecklenburg Ministries also wanted a statement from St. Matthew – Charlotte’s largest church – welcoming everyone to worship.
McSweeney said he had no problem with inviting all to worship. But he said he felt the request to formally invite Bates-Congdon was out of bounds, given Catholic teaching opposing same-sex marriage.
"I don’t think we should have to violate (those teachings). And we were the hosts, and they were the guests," he told the Observer. "Because you are welcome does not mean we have to agree to everything you may hold to."
Compare Msgr. McSweeney's waffling with what Rev. Christy Snow, chair of the planning committee, has to say about when welcome means welcome: "At the heart of our core values is honoring the dignity of all people and not excluding anyone." Welcome means welcome. Period.
For McSweeney, by contrast, the statement "All are welcome in this place," appears to mean something rather different. It appears to mean, "All are welcome. But." "You're welcome here if you fashion yourself into who I choose for you to be before you walk through the doors of my 'welcoming' Catholic church."
Bates-Congdon reports that he has received threatening phone calls from people purporting to represent both St. Matthew and St. Gabriel, the parish that fired him. He states that when it became known he'd be attending the interfaith service at St. Matthew, someone claiming to represent that parish called and told him, "If it’s necessary, we will get a restraining order and have you escorted off campus."
What to say about this deplorable story? Here are several points I'd make:
1. It illustrates in the sharpest way possible that welcome doesn't really mean welcome when many Catholic communities these days speak that word--not when it comes to the gays.
2. It shows the harm that Catholic leaders continue to be willing to inflict both on their own communities of faith and on fragile ecumenical alliances built slowly after many years, to score political points about same-sex marriage.
3. It demonstrates that the Catholic church is now frequently setting itself apart from ecumenical movements in a way that makes the church appear unwelcoming, mean-spirited, and hostile to human rights for all, in contrast to the consensus now being reached in many other communities of faith.
4. It shows a conspicuous lack of pastoral intent and pastoral leadership in a culture in which the clear, unambiguous witness of communities of faith to human rights for all and justice for those on the margins is imperative. North Carolina is currently dominated by a right-wing Republican legislature that has sought to curb the voting rights of people of color and young people, and which has turned back millions of dollars from the federal government that would have made healthcare accessible to economically impoverished citizens.
5. It underscores the way in which the witness of the Catholic church in the public square is being confined, in the minds of many citizens, to the culture-war issues of same-sex marriage, abortion, and contraception--in contradiction to the message Pope Francis himself appears to want to give the world about the church's core message.
6. The tea-party GOP legislature in North Carolina was actively helped to power by the two Catholic bishops of North Carolina, who actively fought for the passing of an anti-gay amendment in their state in 2012.
7. There has been a strong ecumenical movement in North Carolina protesting the laws enacted by the current North Carolina legislature to target the poor and immigrants. The behavior of the two Catholic bishops of the state in undercutting the state's chief ecumenical alliance because of the issues of same-sex marriage and abortion, and the behavior of St. Matthew parish in Charlotte in undercutting its local ecumenical alliance, communicates to the public that the Catholic community stands with the very tea-party legislature whose unjust enactments many other people of faith are now protesting.
8. Put the story of the refusal of St. Matthew Catholic parish in Charlotte to welcome Steav Bates-Congdon at a Thanksgiving interfaith worship service side by side with this report of Manya Brachear Pashman* in the Chicago Tribune, and what's the message you hear? Pashman notes that the Catholic Campaign for Human Development in Illinois is using services to immigrants as a political weapon to punish those supporting gay rights. The Catholic Campaign for Human Development has yanked funding from nine groups assisting immigrants because those groups support the right of same-sex couples to civil marriage.
My conclusion? It's great that Pope Francis has asked what right any of us have to judge those who are gay, and has noted that gay folks have spiritual journeys that should be respected by everyone. It's wonderful that a majority of lay Catholics in the U.S. support gay rights including the right of marriage.
But as long as one story after another hits the press like the one that has just broken in my hometown at Mount St. Mary Catholic school and now this story in Charlotte, the loud, clear, overriding message that the Catholic church in the U.S. will continue to give the American public square is this: welcome doesn't really mean welcome at all, when Catholic institutions deal with those who are gay.
At an institutional level, the Catholic church in the U.S. continues to be what its current episcopal leaders have worked hard for some time to make it: a religious arm of one political party intent on attacking and dehumanizing people on grounds of sexual orientation. And all the pretty words in the world about how it intends to behave differently and prettify its image won't change that reality until places like Mount St. Mary and St. Matthew and St. Gabriel parishes stop the ugly singling out of gay folks for abuse.
*I'm indebted to Dennis Coday in his "Morning Briefing" column at National Catholic Reporter today for this link.