In the News 2008
National Catholic Reporter

Unruly Americans vie for attention


When Pope Benedict XVI arrives in Washington April 17 for his first visit to the United States he’ll be greeted by that unruly American church whose deviances he has decried. Groups are preparing to rally, pray and speak out about the church’s policies and teachings on accountability and lay leadership; contraception; war; pastoral care for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered Catholics; and the role of women in the institution.

But in a striking departure from often angry demonstrations marking past papal visits, several groups are aiming for a tone of celebration in greeting Benedict.

Leaders said the purpose of their activities during the pope’s April 15-20 visit to Washington and New York City will be to inform, educate and celebrate. The goal, they said, is to show the pope how the church in the United States lives and sees itself, to celebrate its vibrancy and to share the ways their understanding of church differs from the Vatican view. Other Catholics and non-Catholic Americans are as much a target as the pope, organizers said.

“Our perspective is that change is already happening,” said Bridget Mary Meehan, spokeswoman for Roman Catholic Womenpriests. The movement trains and ordains women as priests and deacons and argues the ordinations are valid under canon law (NCR, Dec. 7, 2007).

Women priests plan to celebrate a Mass at Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington April 14, the eve of the pope’s arrival there. Women’s Ordination Conference, which has advocated women’s ordination for a generation, is sponsoring the female-led Mass, publicizing the event as a birthday gift to Benedict, who turns 81 on April 16.

“We are giving the gift of women. We really think this is one of the major gifts that our church needs right now,” said Aisha Taylor, executive director of the 33-year-old Women’s Ordination Conference. “The failure to ordain women is a visible failure, but it points to all the other ways the church fails women.”

The conference plans to have a presence on the pope’s route through Washington. “We will most likely be out with a banner calling for women’s ordination. We’ll be a prayerful, quiet presence,” Taylor said.

Voice of the Faithful, which has spearheaded calls for institutional reform in the wake of the sexual abuse cover-up, plans to place newspaper advertisements calling on all Catholics to transform the church. The ads will run in newspapers in Washington, New York and in other cities throughout the country, said newly elected president Dan Bartley.

Pax Christi USA is working on a letter to the papal representative in Washington, urging Benedict XVI to speak against the occupation of Iraq with the same clarity when he visits the United States as he has on other occasions, according to Marie Dennis, Pax Christi International spokeswoman. The letter will caution the pope to be aware that the Bush administration may attempt to stage Benedict’s meeting with the president as an endorsement of Bush’s political views.

Dignity USA, the largest group of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered Catholics, is approaching the papal visit with prayer and joy, executive director Marianne Duddy-Burke said. “As we’ve thought about this we’ve really seen this as an opportunity to celebrate the tremendous gains LGBT Catholics have seen in the past few years. Catholics are embracing the lesbian and gay members of their communities, their parishes, their families. We’re calling on church leaders to follow that lead and to embrace the holiness and wholeness of gay people.”

In addition to praying publicly and holding signs along the route of the pope’s travels in Washington and New York, Dignity plans to hold a news conference at the United Nations before the papal visit to draw attention to dangers the institutional church’s position on homosexuality poses for gay and lesbian people around the world. The organization will argue that, however unintended, the official stance appears to condone anti-gay bigotry. The event will underscore the toll of the Vatican’s ban on condoms for HIV/AIDS-ravaged nations.

When Benedict is speaking to presidents of Catholic colleges and universities at The Catholic University of America April 17, Dignity will hold a prayer vigil and release a letter to the educators stressing the importance of creating a supportive environment for gay and lesbian students at their institutions. “We’ll also be calling on the presidents of Catholic colleges to take a stronger stance against violence towards our community,” Duddy-Burke said, pointing out that youth is one of the themes of the pope’s visit and that gay and lesbian youth continue to have higher rates of depression and suicide.

“Too many people identify the position of Catholics with the pope’s position and that causes untold suffering for individuals,” she said. “I don’t know that we’re going to reach the pope, but we try and live out a vision of the church as a people of God.”

Catholics for Choice, which supports reproductive rights, doesn’t expect to change Benedict’s mind on the immorality of contraceptive interventions, but the group is organizing an educational campaign to inform younger Catholics of the debate that accompanied the development of the church’s teaching — a teaching that is widely ignored by U.S. Catholics. This year is the 40th anniversary of Humanae Vitae, the Vatican document that upheld the church’s ban on contraception.

When the policy was debated by a Vatican commission in the 1960s, the majority of the members voted to permit contraception, Catholics for Choice president Jon O’Brien said. However, a minority opinion of the panel prevailed, and the ban on contraception was reaffirmed.

On April 14 Catholics for Choice will host a public conference call in which several theologians will discuss the development of Humanae Vitae and its divergent impact on Catholics in developed and developing countries. The conversation will be available as a podcast on Catholics for Choice’s Web site.

The group is also authoring a booklet recounting the development of Humanae Vitae, the Catholic critiques of it and its current implications for nations with epidemic levels of HIV/AIDS transmission. For instance, O’Brien said, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops lobbies the U.S. Congress to ban condom distribution in HIV/AIDS relief work it funds in southern Africa and bars the staff of Catholic Relief Services from distributing condoms in its HIV/AIDS programs, perpetuating the risk of disease, O’Brien said.

One group that will depart from quieter means of communicating with the pope is the Rainbow Sash Movement. Its members, who advocate for the embrace of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered Catholics by the institutional church, will be making noise. In a news release, the group said activists will blow whistles and shower the pope’s motorcade with ashes during his appearances in Washington and New York.

“Ashes are an ancient and appropriate greeting for a sinner who has caused the church so much division and pain,” the statement said.

“We will also be greeting him with whistles; these were used by the Polish people to show shame for the violation of human rights by the communist government prior to the end of the Cold War,” the statement said.

At the other end of the spectrum, SNAP, Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, has no plans to protest or lobby during Pope Benedict’s tour, according to David Clohessy, national director. Many members feel their efforts are better spent lobbying state governments than shouting at what they view as an intransigent institutional church, he said.

For instance, SNAP hopes to effect changes in criminal laws, such as extending the statutes of limitations that currently protect many sexual abusers from prosecution.

Like other Catholic organizations whose vision of church differs from the Vatican’s, O’Brien of Catholics for Choice said he hoped the pope would learn from the American church.

“I think he’d have a lot to learn about the church lived as opposed to the church imagined from the lofty heights of the Vatican,” he said.

This article originally appeared in the 4 April 2008 edition of the National Catholic Reporter.

Catholics for Choice