The Detroit chapter of DignityUSA, an LGBTQ-affirming Roman Catholic ministry, has been forbidden to hold Mass in Catholic spaces in the region, and priests within the Detroit archdiocese barred from serving the group.
Dignity chapters in other cities have received similar orders over the years, but Detroit has been one of the few exceptions, holding services in a chapel at a Catholic college (Sacred Heart Chapel at Marygrove College), with some local priests participating, according to the National Catholic Reporter.
However, in a letter dated March 9, Detroit Auxiliary Bishop Gerard Battersby wrote, "I wish to communicate through this letter that a Mass for Dignity Detroit members -- one which rejects Church teaching on human sexuality -- is not possible in any parish church, chapel, or diocesan facility, and is indeed forbidden everywhere in the Archdiocese of Detroit."
"The organization's rejection of the Church's teaching on chastity is incompatible with the path of sanctification on which Christ bids his Church to travel and is at odds with the important work of the Courage and EnCourage apostolates," he continued. Courage and EnCourage are programs designed to help those experiencing "same-sex attraction," as the church calls it, to live celibate lives in accordance with Catholic teaching. Some LGBTQ Catholics have likened them to 12-step programs, treating homosexuality as an addiction.
The letter came after Dignity/Detroit leaders had several communications with Battersby beginning in mid-January about an initiative called "Unleashing the Gospel," which supports the work of Courage and EnCourage, notes a press release from DignityUSA and the Detroit group. The communications were "cordial," Dignity/Detroit leaders said, and they were scheduled to meet with Battersby in late March. But then the letter was sent to all priests in the archdiocese March 9.
"It is extremely disappointing that the archdiocese moved forward with these drastic measures before we had a chance to have this important conversation," Frank D'Amore, president of Dignity/Detroit, said in the press release. "We truly believe that it is impossible to learn anything about our community and not be moved by the love our members have for the Catholic faith, and the integrity with which they live their lives. It is hard to understand why church officials would cast out people struggling to remain connected with the church while so many are leaving."
D'Amore said the group still plans to meet with Battersby. "We believe strongly in our responsibility to speak out on behalf of LGBTQI Catholics and our families," he said. "Archdiocesan officials clearly do not understand the truth of what it means to be gay or transgender, and how integral these components of our identities are. For many of us, it took years of struggle with what we'd been taught to be able to embrace our identities as grace, as blessings from our loving God. Dignity/Detroit's work helps save many people from shame, and many families from the kinds of divisions that used to be the rule among Catholics. Our ministry literally saves lives."
Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of DignityUSA, which is supporting the Detroit chapter, said nearly all Dignity chapters have already been expelled from Catholic space and had priests banned from serving them in the 1970s and 1980s. "There are few experiences as devastating as being kicked out of your family home and being told you are not worthy of being fed," she said in the release. "That is what has happened to Dignity members all across the country. Yet we have persisted in sustaining communities that are graciously hosted by other denominations and have found ways to continue to celebrate the sacraments of our church. We will do that in Detroit, if necessary, and will not allow church leaders to deny LGBTQI Catholics our human right to our faith."
When Dignity chapters were thrown out of Catholic churches, NCR columnist Jamie L. Manson noted, they continued holding services, often doing so online -- as so many congregations of all faiths are doing now due to the disease outbreak.
D'Amore said the archdiocese's order is particularly hurtful coming in Lent, the period of repentance observed by Catholics leading up to Easter, and at the time of the COVID-19 crisis. "This experience of exclusion, which is currently happening to all Catholics and others because of COVID-19, is causing great pain," he said. "However, we firmly believe in Resurrection, and look forward to the triumph of love over prejudice, community over isolation, life after death."
Manson agreed, writing, "It is a particularly callous act to eject faithful people from their sacred space during a pandemic, a time in which our senses of space, location and home are already in anxious and disorienting flux."
"Because we are LGBTQ Catholics who have integrated our sexualities with our sacramental faith, we are treated like damaged goods by our church leaders," she continued. "Because we are working toward and achieving happiness and peace with our sexual orientations and gender identities, the hierarchy want us shipped off like some kind of island of misfits.
"Ultimately, it is the institutional church's loss. But that realization doesn't lessen the pain of exclusion."