By FAITH HEAPHY and RAY WALSH
Editor-in Chief and Contributing Writer
Published: Sept. 21, 2011
On Sept. 16, Fordham sponsored a conference about sexual diversity and the Catholic church, the first time the topic has been publicly addressed in a large public setting on campus.
The event, called “Learning to Listen: the Voices of Sexual Diversity and the Catholic Church,” was first in the “More Than A Monologue” series, which seeks to present new perspectives on issues of faith and sexual orientation.
“The conversation has been happening, but it hasn’t happened in a significant way publicly,” said Jeannine Fletcher, associate professor of theology and moderator of a session at the event. “Theologians and thinkers involved in Catholic tradition said, ‘You know what, no one’s really addressing this in a substantial and public way and we think it’s time.’”
Christine Hinze, professor of theology and spokesperson for the conference, said the idea for this had been in the works for a few years, but came to fruition after a group of faculty members from the Union Theological Seminary, Yale Divinity School, Fairfield University and Fordham decided to seek resources to aid the conversation in a large-scale way.
The Arcus Foundation provided those resources, giving Fordham around $15,000, according to Hinze. Arcus is an organization that works specifically “to advance Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender equality,” according to their site.
The other three universities involved in the discussion received funding as well as part of the series.
“It’s an event that says we are Catholic theologians and we can see and hear what the church has said and we can see the ideas that are being presented there but how does it match with people’s experiences?” Fletcher said.
Hinze said that in providing spaces for listening, the conferences will open a forum for the personal stories of people who are dealing with problems raised by their sexuality within a religious setting.
“There’s so much back and forth in the public sphere—and the impression one can get even with the issue of civil marriage is that the Catholic church may be completely inhospitable to people caring about these issues,” Hinze said. “We’re trying to hit that bull’s-eye of those who love the church and experience the truth of their own love in a significant way, but it’s a hard thing to do.”
The full day conference was held in Fordham College at Lincoln Center (FCLC)’s Pope Auditorium and featured a panel of speakers who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer, as well as others in the field of academics and the clergy. The conference was divided into three sessions, with time after each for audience members to email, tweet or hand in paper slips with specific questions directed toward the panelists.
According to Benjamin Dunning, professor of theology and member of the conference’s planning committee, the goal in putting together the panel of speakers was to maximize diversity “in a number of different ways, to spread things out” in terms of the panelists’ relationships to the church.
The first session of the conference, entitled “Identity and Practice in Everyday Life” sought to address the issues created by the intersection of sexual diversity and lived Catholic faith. Each panelist drew from personal experience to discuss their identities as Catholics navigating their faith in spite of the difficulties raised by the church’s stance—or, sometimes, lack thereof—toward sexual diversity.
Panelist Hilary Howes, a transgender activist, recounted difficulties she faced within the Catholic church. “I am blessed by our creator with male genitalia and a female brain,” Hoews said. “This has been seen as a political act, weakness, perversion, even sin. In the Catholic church, I don’t exist officially. There is a rigid hierarchy ruled by one sex. The problem is that it empowers the church hierarchy to follow the most reactionary course.”
The second session, “Work Lives, Work Places, Public Spaces,” addressed ways in which panelists from different sexual backgrounds were affected in their work and professional lives. Like the morning session, individuals spoke from experience, citing how overlaps between work, faith, and sexual orientation have served both to cause conflicts and to provide opportunities for conversation.
Panelists in this session discussed the need for parishioners, especially the youth, to speak their minds to effect change. “It’s up to the people in the pews to get off their duffs and start speaking up,” said speaker Rev. John P. Duffell from the Church of Ascension. “All religion is local, and that’s where we have to bring out the change.”
The evening forum took a more intellectual turn, bringing in recent developments in sociology, philosophy and politics—while still including the personal experiences of the panelists. Speakers dealt with questions of how marginalized groups perceive themselves, how the Church’s language about marginalized groups informs those perceptions and how speaking out may have negative consequences.
The panelists agreed on the need continue to create dialogue within the church, especially among young Catholics, as well as the need of young Catholics to use their numbers to effect change. “This is not a small group,” Jerome P. Baggett, professor of sociology at Santa Clara University, said. “Younger Catholics are much more open to this than other generations.”
While students in attendance saw the conference as a positive event overall, it did not go entirely uncriticized.
Some, like Libby Gatti, FCRH ’12, were excited by the ideas expressed by the panel. “This is a part of the Catholic church standing up and saying not only that we love gays, but that many of us are gays,” Gatti said.
Others, like Dorothy Goehring, FCLC ’13 felt differently. Although she expressed her support for the conference, Goehring offered some criticism, saying, “I believe that it’s slightly biased towards LGBT groups, I have not heard anyone who is providing counter arguments towards anything but LGBT reform. In order for this to be a real dialogue, you need to have both sides, whether for right or for wrong.”
Bob Najdek, FCLC ’12, agreed. “I was very glad that there was such a tolerant, understanding view of homosexuals in the church and their experience in the conference, Najdek said. “I would’ve liked a few more conservative voices, just to produce a more open debate. I think it would help move it along more.”