Saturday, June 15, 2019

John Gehring on Why Catholics Should Participate in LGBTQ Pride Parades

The Wild Reed's 2019 Queer Appreciation series continues with the sharing of author John Gehring's recent Washington Post op-ed, “The Case for Why Catholics Should March in LGBT Pride Parades.” (To start at the beginning of this series, click here.)

As you'll see, Gehring penned this op-ed in response to Roman Catholic bishop Thomas Tobin's recent statement that given the church hierarchy's teaching on homosexuality (i.e., the “disordered” nature of same-sex attraction and the “sinfulness” of any physical expression of such attraction) and its opposition to marriage equality, “faithful” Catholics should not support or attend LGBTTQ Pride events, events which Tobin says, “are especially harmful to children.”

Following is author John Gehring's thoughtful response to Bishop Tobin.


Fifty years after patrons at Manhattan’s Stonewall Inn refused to be silent and sparked a civil rights movement for gay Americans, Pride events are a familiar tradition in many states. Parades, teach-ins and panel discussions throughout June affirm the dignity of people who have been historically marginalized and continue to face discrimination.

While religious leaders take part in LGBT Pride Month celebrations, a Catholic bishop’s tweet last week provoked contentious social media debates about whether faithful Catholics should attend such events, given the church’s opposition to same-sex marriage and teachings about homosexuality.

A reminder that Catholics should not support or attend LGBTQ “Pride Month” events held in June. They promote a culture and encourage activities that are contrary to Catholic faith and morals. They are especially harmful for children.

– Bishop Thomas Tobin (@ThomasJTobin1) June 1, 2019

As a Catholic who loves both my church and my gay friends and family, I’m sickened by this expression of hypocrisy, homophobia and fear-mongering. At a time when the Catholic Church is struggling to reclaim moral credibility after systematically covering up decades of child abuse, the idea that a Catholic leader would declare Pride events “especially harmful for children” reveals a stunning lack of self-awareness.

This is also a particularly tone-deaf and false assertion, given that Bishop Thomas Tobin served as an auxiliary bishop in Pittsburgh in the 1990s, one of several Pennsylvania dioceses included in a devastating grand jury report that found that more than 300 priests were credibly accused of sexually abusing more than 1,000 children over several decades. In an interview last summer, the bishop said that monitoring clergy abuse was outside his scope of responsibility at the time.

Tobin would have been smart to stick with his plans to quit Twitter last summer, when he described the platform as an “obstacle” to his spiritual life and an “occasion of sin for me and others.”

Catholics who attend Pride events are reclaiming their humanity and honoring the basic dignity of those they love in response to a history and culture where gay, lesbian and transgender people have often been discarded by their religiously conservative families and rejected by churches. Those who consider themselves “pro-life” Christians can’t ignore the reality that sexual minorities are disproportionately at risk for self-harm and targeted for violence.

The National Center for Transgender Equality and the National LGBTQ Task Force interviewed more than 6,000 transgender and gender nonconforming people from every state and found that 41 percent reported suicide attempts (compared with 1.6 percent of the general population). High percentages reported bullying in school, harassment on the job, and physical and sexual assault. At least 26 transgender people were killed in the United States last year, according to the Human Rights Campaign. Eighty-two percent of these victims were women of color, and most were younger than 35.

Last Saturday in Dallas, the body of Chynal Lindsey, a black transgender woman, was found by police, at least the fourth black transgender woman killed in that city alone in the past three years.

Any Catholic bishop who doesn’t understand that context, and uses his digital pulpit in ways that wound instead of heal, contributes to a culture where stereotypes are reinforced, discrimination is blessed and extremists feel emboldened to violence.

Catholics who rallied to Tobin’s defense claim he is simply expressing church doctrine. This is a deficient argument that, at best, reveals a limited, mechanical understanding of church teachings and, at worst, distorts it in ways that do real harm.

In his apostolic exhortation, “The Joy of Love,” Pope Francis urges Catholics not to view church doctrine as merely “stones to throw at people’s lives.” This attitude, the pope wrote, reveals “the closed heart of one used to hiding behind the church’s teachings.” While the Catholic Church opposes same-sex marriage and any sexual relations outside of a marriage between a man and a woman, the catechism of the Catholic Church also states that gay people “must be accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity,” and that “every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided.” When a bishop describes a Pride event as dangerous for children, those words threaten to demonize and stigmatize LGBTQ people, a form of unjust discrimination that the catechism forbids.

The good news is that while Tobin received a lot of attention, his views reflect only a vocal minority of church leaders. A developing pastoral theology – modeled by Francis when he meets with transgender individuals and same-sex couples – has encouraged more priests and bishops to build bridges with LGBTQ communities. This requires humility and listening rather than finger wagging.

Cardinal Joseph Tobin, of Newark, two years ago welcomed a pilgrimage of LGBTQ Catholics to the city’s cathedral. “I am Joseph, your brother,” the cardinal told the group. In a 2016 interview with America magazine, a Jesuit publication, San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy described language in the church’s catechism that calls homosexual relations “intrinsically disordered” as “very destructive language that I think we should not use pastorally.”

Catholics from parishes in cities such as Chicago, New York and San Francisco have taken part in Pride rallies over the years. But even in more conservative and rural places, there are Catholics who demonstrate solidarity. Bishop John Stowe of Lexington, Ky., sent a letter to the city’s first Pride Interfaith Service in 2017 that applauded the celebration as “a commendable outreach to people in the community who too often have suffered discrimination from people of faith.”

In the Christian tradition, pride is considered to be one of the “seven deadly sins.” Any follower of Christ should be wary of extreme self-indulgence and excessive individualism. So how can a Christian reconcile that with the libertarian atmosphere at some Pride parades?

Similar to the way that expressions of Black Pride in the 1960s were in response to the oppressive injustice of white supremacy, LGBTQ Pride events were created as safe spaces for people who have reason to wonder whether their bodily integrity will be respected when they walk down the street in some communities.

As a straight white male, I don’t experience that reality. By judging an expression of liberation and joy at a Pride event that some might consider flamboyant and excessive, I would be castigating from a place of comfort and privilege. In my deficit of empathy, I would not go to the margins, where Jesus spent his time. Being vigilant against the human temptation to be prideful is not the same for me as it is for a black transgender woman who fears being beaten up if she turns the wrong corner or who can be legally fired from her job in more than two dozen states because of her sexuality or gender identity.

Before Catholic leaders stand in judgment of Pride events, they might try a more Christian response and be willing to walk in the discomfort of another’s experience.

John Gehring is Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life, and author of The Francis Effect: A Radical Pope’s Challenge to the American Catholic Church.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Gay Pride: A Catholic Perspective
A Catholic Presence at Gay Pride – 2013 | 2012 | 2011 | 2010 | 2009 | 2008 | 2007
Catholic Attitudes on Gay and Lesbian Issues: An Overview
Catholics Make Their Voices Heard on LGBTQ Issues
LGBTQ Catholics Celebrate Being “Wonderfully Made”
Same-Sex Desires: “Immanent and Essential Traits Transcending Time and Culture”
Remembering and Reclaiming a Wise, Spacious, and Holy Understanding of Homosexuality
Trusting God's Generous Invitation
Worldwide Gay Pride – 2017 | 2016 | 2013 | 2012 | 2011 | 2010 | 2009 | 2008 | 2007
Responding to Bishop Tobin's Remarks on Marriage Equality
On the First Anniversary of Marriage Equality in Minnesota, a Celebratory Look Back at the Important Role Played by Catholics
The Journal of James Curtis

Related Off-site Links:
Catholic Composer Pens Inclusive, Pro-LGBTI Song for Pride Month – Stefania Sarrubba (Gay Star News, June 8, 2019).
Listen to the LGBT Person: A Response to the Vatican’s Gender Theory Document – James Martin, SJ (America, June 11, 2019).
Five Trans Catholics on the Vatican's Rejection of Their Gender Identity – Eloise Blondiau (Vox, June 12, 2019).

Image 1: David McCaffrey (Twin Cities Pride, 2007).
Image 2: Michael Bayly (Twin Cities Pride, 2012).

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Rethinking Shepherds and Sheep

By Bill Moseley

Note: The following reflection was delivered before the start of mass at St. Frances Cabrini Catholic Church on the weekend of July 21-22, 2018.

People of God, my name is Bill Moseley and it’s my privilege to reflect with you on today’s readings.

Today’s lessons from Jeremiah and Mark, as well as Psalm 23, are on the Good Shepherd with some passing inferences to sheep. When I met with the Word Team last week to discuss these texts, I learned that the faith formation students in our 5th to 8th grades were critical of this image as a metaphor for our relationship with God. I don’t blame them. Who wants to be compared to dumb sheep that get bossed around by a know-it-all shepherd that supposedly has our best interests in mind? More importantly, hats off to our young people for being critical thinkers and not passively accepting these ideas. That said, what I would like to do today is offer an alternative perspective on sheep and shepherds which might allow us to approach these readings differently.

So, first off, what about these dumb sheep? Are they really so dim witted? When I was younger, I enjoyed a comic strip by Gary Larson entitled the “Far Side.” One of the recurring themes in this strip was the inversion of humans and animals in the intellectual hierarchy, with the idea that animals might actually be much smarter than people thought them to be. Most farmers would concur that sheep really do need to be herded. But, as per Gary Larson, what if the sheep are just channeling their mental energy somewhere else than the everyday practicalities of life? They may look like mindless fluffy eating machines in a pasture, but what if they are really spending their time solving physics equations and can’t be bothered to think about where they are going?

As a quintessential absent-minded professor, I must confess that I have some sympathy for sheep. You may or may not know that I can be pretty spacey. I can get lost in thought and literally become oblivious to where I am and what I am doing. My wife claims that I fortunately found the one and only profession where such a talent is prized: academia. But such a tendency can put a strain on one’s marriage. While there are literally hundreds of family stories in our household about me doing spacey things, I will just share one particularly egregious vignette to illustrate the problem. In the mid-1990s, my wife, Julia, and I were living in Harare, Zimbabwe where we both worked for the international NGO Save the Children (UK) on a large hunger mapping project. We lived in a small, rented cottage behind the main house on a larger piece of property. The property was fenced and gated, which meant that you always had to open a gate before going up a very long drive to our cottage. One day, we were coming home from work and I happened to be driving. As we approached the entrance to our place, Julia got out to unlock and open the gate so that I could drive through. Now, on that particular day, I must have been thinking about something – trying to solve some sort of problem in my head. As such, and very unfortunately, after driving through the entrance I didn’t stop for Julia to get back in the car, but just kept on driving to the back of the property where our cottage was located. I pulled up to the cottage and I looked over to the passenger seat and I was thinking where did Jules go? I literally had absolutely no idea where she went. I got out of the car and started walking back down the driveway when I saw Jules trudging up the hill. I said, very honestly, where were you, where did you go?

Julia, fortunately, has stuck with me. And that’s a good thing. Not just because she keeps me on track with the practical aspects of life, but because she also nudges me in the right direction on so many other fronts. To wit, we recently met a young Ugandan man at Cabrini named James. James had introduced himself to the congregation at the end of the service. After mass we said hello, chatted during coffee hour, and then offered to drive him home. As we got in the car, Julia discretely said to me: why don’t we invite James home for lunch, isn’t that what someone in Africa would do? And to this, I am ashamed to say, I hesitated. I was probably thinking that I had some “really important” thing to do that afternoon. But we did invite James over for lunch and we had a wonderful conversation, learning that James was here for a month as a medical student at the U and that he had come to Minnesota via connections with an orphanage we serendipitously already knew about in Uganda called the Blue House. My point here is that Julia nudged me in the right direction in this particular moment as she has at many other times in our relationship.

Most people don’t like to be compared to sheep because the implication is that we are simple minded followers. But what if the sheep metaphor is just a way of acknowledging our human potential for waywardness? Whether we are pensive, distracted, or worried, we can wander off course and we need good shepherds in our lives to nudge us back in the right direction.

Just as we are re-imagining the meaning of the sheep metaphor, I would also like to examine our conception of the good shepherd. What I want to argue is that we come to our understanding of the good shepherd via our own cultural understandings of this idea.

What is the stereotypical American understanding of the qualities of a good shepherd or herder? The US, as we know, is a majority urban/suburban nation. Increasingly there are very few Americans who have first-hand experience with animal husbandry and farming. As a kid who grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, I probably was first introduced to the idea of the good shepherd in faith formation. I also encountered shepherds and herders in children’s story books. My take-away was that shepherds were above all protectors, they guard the flock from bad things like wolves. In American folklore we also have the iconic cowboy whom, by the way, we often forget is a herder. In fact, cowboys have been so abstracted from their herding context that we tend to focus on their protector role above all us. They almost always carry guns. They are rugged individuals who know best, are only accountable to God, and they protect us from danger. These are the American ideas we often bring to the good shepherd metaphor in today’s readings. We need a good shepherd to protect us from bad things out there, the good shepherd is only accountable to God, and we are lost without such a protector.

My experiences in West Africa with herders shed a different light and interpretation on this metaphor. As you may now, my wife Julia and I met in the Peace Corps in the 1980s in Mali. I served in a small, rural farming community of 200 people in southern Mali. This farming village of Bambara people also had, at its outskirts, 3-4 hamlets of herders composed of another ethnic group called the Fulani. My social life outside of work largely consisted of hanging out in the evenings with young male village friends drinking tea and chatting. There was a Fulani herder man name Sadio who used to come and join us some evenings. Despite the fact that some of the farmers teased Sadio for always smelling like milk and cows, I gradually developed a friendship with him.

As I began to learn the Fulani language, I spent more time with Sadio and his family. I learned to milk cows by hand and even spent a couple of nights in the bush with the herders and the cows. Herding was not an easy life. During the rainy season, the young men would take the cows far away from the village so the animals wouldn’t get into people’s farm fields. The herders didn’t eat very well, consuming mostly milk and some grains. The mosquitos were rapacious in the evening and the social isolation was challenging for these young men in a society where human relations meant everything. These herders tended to the cows like their children, carefully removing ticks from them in the evenings so they would not catch diseases. Above all, however, I learned that the herders’ main job was not to protect the cows from predators because there are almost no big predators left in this part of West Africa. No, their main job was to keep the cows out of farm fields. This task could become very challenging in the fall when the rains stopped, grass cover declined, and the crops were still in the field before the harvest. Hungry cows that see green in a distant field can be extremely determined to get there and eat as much greenery as possible. Allowing cows to wander astray could lead to serious altercations with the farmers in the area - and a potential for conflict that could sometimes escalate to violence.

In sum, the West African view of a herder or shepherd is quite different than the American one. Here the cultural reading of the metaphor is not that of the great protector. Rather, it’s a humble, hardworking person who tends to the health of his or her animals and adroitly steers them away from trouble, even if the instincts of the herd are to satisfy their hunger by feasting on a farm field – an event which would undoubtedly lead to conflict.

I want to conclude by suggesting that we can potentially use these different understandings of shepherds and sheep to sift through today’s readings. After reading and re-readings today’s passage from Mark, I was struck by how Jesus led by example. He mostly taught/led/shepherded by the way he lived his life rather than didactically telling people what to do. In Mark, we see how his active compassion for the masses and the marginalized was a lesson to others. Jesus’ ideas about how to live differently were revolutionary for his time. His thoughts on living in community, loving thy neighbor as thyself, & welcoming the outcast constituted a new “way.” Jesus, to the chagrin of some of his followers, was no gun toting, ruggedly individualistic cowboy with righteousness on his side, riding in to save the day. Rather he, like the lowly West African herder, was trying to lovingly shepherd people along this path to longer term peace and happiness.

Lastly, what to make of the penultimate sentence where Mark writes that the people who came to see Jesus “were like sheep without a shepherd”? Yes, we can read this as simple-minded people who were lost. But we can also read this as people who were mature enough to recognize that they needed a little help getting back on track or staying on track. Furthermore, these people didn’t just flock to anyone. They had choices. There were plenty of other prophets around at the time exuding strength, who were quick to lay the blame at the feet of others, or who promised material wealth. No, they came to see Jesus and I am guessing they did so because they recognized in him a different kind of wisdom. Indeed, these lessons about thoughtful sheep and the good shepherd are helpful guidance for the long but important task of making heaven on earth.

The author may be contacted at or may be found on twitter at

Monday, March 5, 2018

Lessons in Power, Humility & Collective Learning

By Bill Moseley

Note: The following reflection was delivered before the start of mass at St. Frances Cabrini Catholic Church on the weekend of January 20-21, 2018.

People of God, my name is Bill Moseley and it’s my privilege to reflect with you on today’s readings.

I would like to start with a brief story that was shared by the New York Times columnist David Brooks when he gave a talk at the Aspen Ideas Festival this summer. In that talk, Brooks tells a story about President Abraham Lincoln. When Lincoln was fighting the Civil War, one of his early general-in-chiefs was General George McClellan. President Lincoln sought to see McClellan because he wanted him to fight a little harder, so Lincoln invited McClellan to the White House. But McClellan wouldn’t come, so Lincoln went to McClellan’s house. Lincoln arrives at McClellan’s house and the butler indicated that McClellan was out. Lincoln said that this was okay, he would wait. I little while later, McClellan came in the back door and went up the stairs. Lincoln waited for another 45 mins and the butler came down and said I’m sorry but General McClellan’s is too tired to see you. So this is the president of the United States sitting in the living room. He is with his assistant John Hay who says this is an outrage, he is insulting you. And Lincoln says it’s okay, I will sit here all day if I can get him to fight harder. Now Brooks’ point in telling this story is that it illustrates a man who is at peace, patient and persistent. Lincoln, the president and arguably most powerful man in his country, had no problem putting aside his ego for a higher cause, in this case unifying his country and putting an end to the horrendous practice of slavery.

What I am going to suggest today is that our readings have a lot to say about power, and more specifically, the insights and knowledge that is generated when power is inverted and humility is practiced. For that matter, I would argue that a significant portion of the gospel readings are actually radical and unconventional lessons for those who hold power and privilege. This seems more important than ever given the current #metoo movement, aimed at exposing abuses of power, and the temperament of some of our current leaders who lack sufficient peace to practice a Lincolnesque or gospel story approach to power.

In today’s Gospel reading from Mark, we learn about Jesus’ early ministry, a time when Jesus is assembling his disciples. More specifically, Jesus is walking along the sea of Galilea and he encounters several fishermen. In each case, he calls to them, midstream in their work, to stop what they are doing and follow him. And, remarkably, they do. They stop casting or mending their nets and follow him.

My initial instinct when reflecting on this Gospel reading was to focus on the disciples. How did they process this call and respond so quickly? But this is not where I am going with my reflection today, because I was drawn back to Jesus and his simple act of walking along the shore and recruiting followers. There is a certain humility involved in having to recruit one’s own followers. In my mind at least, great teachers don’t have to actively recruit because their reputations precede them - and followers or students just go to them. In fact, this is what happened in last week’s Gospel reading from John. In this instance, two disciples of John the Baptist approach Jesus and ask where he is staying. These disciples took the initiative and wanted to be with Jesus.

But while last week’s story featured a regal and wise Jesus – to whom followers flocked, the Jesus in today’s readings is much more humble, a guy who chooses to pound the pavement in order to attract followers and develop a community. This version of Jesus is also fairly consistent with many of the other stories passed down to us in the gospels.

From day one, Jesus’ very existence seems to be an exercise in humility. For starters, the gospel stories are about an almighty and all powerful God who decides to lurk among us in human form. If you were impressed by Lincoln’s ability to patiently wait in General McClellan’s living room, then what about God stepping down from her heavenly thrown to be among us, and with us, in our often crazy world. From there forward, Jesus’ life and comments - as shared in the gospel stories - are often unconventional lessons in how to practice leadership. In fact, Jesus often frustrates his followers by not exercising authority in the traditional way or fawning before conventional power.

While we traditionally think of Jesus as transcendent, all knowing and wise, I want you to imagine for a moment that perhaps Jesus, the teacher or rabbi, was a co-learner with his disciples. In other words, maybe his disciples were less followers or students in the traditional sense, and more members of an active learning community facilitated by Jesus. As such, perhaps divine insight or the divine itself is co-produced and among us – rather than an external force.

This idea is a hard thing to wrap one’s head around, the notion we are part and parcel of the divine. In today’s Old Testament reading from Jonah, we learn how Jonah wrestles with this in his own comical way. Jonah, after spending three days in a whale or giant fish, gets burped up on a beach after he agrees with God to go to the city of Ninevah. Jonah, the reluctant prophet, is to tell the people of Nineveh to repent or they and their city will be destroyed. Amazingly, the people listen to Jonah, change their ways and God does not destroy the city. But, ironically, Jonah is disappointed that God does not destroy the city because he thinks it makes him look bad because he foretold the end of the city and then it did not happen. Jonah can’t get his head around the fact that he was part of the divine process – people listened to him and they changed. Jonah can’t get beyond this me-centric idea that he is an autonomous actor that exists outside of the divine, rather than an active participant in the process.

So how does inverting power, practicing humility and co-producing the divine potentially play out in our own lives? Let me share a brief story with a couple of caveats. First, this is not to suggest that I have it figured out, but to imply that even very flawed people like myself can engage in such a process. Second, I realize that I am blessed with extreme privilege given my race, gender, economic status and education. As such, I likely can pursue ways of inverting power differently than those with less privilege.

My story dates from the time when I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Mali, West Africa in the mid-1980s. I was stationed as an agricultural volunteer for two years in a small community of 200 people. I was the first volunteer to live in the community and they welcomed me with open arms. I suspect, however, that they also had a lot of ideas about me and how I would pursue development. I was white, from the United States, the richest country on the planet at that time, and presumed to possess a lot of relevant technical knowledge. Some aspects of my life were perplexing to my village, including my desire to live with a local family, eat local food , wear local clothing, and learn the local language (all of which were part of the Peace Corps approach and philosophy at that time). But other aspects of my life were completely consistent with their expectations for an American, including some of my possessions, such as a short wave radio and a motorcycle given to us for work. Early in my Peace Corps tenure I used the motorcycle a fair bit to get around. The young men in my village really liked the fact that I had this motorcycle. It was relatively small by American standards, but actually quite large, flashy (painted red) and substantial compared to the local mopeds. I believe they liked the bike because it conformed to set of expectations for young males or machismo.

Early on in my tenure as a volunteer, an unfortunate incident occurred which even further endeared me to my young, male, village friends. One lazy Saturday afternoon, I was in my courtyard doing periodic maintenance on my motorcycle (I think I was cleaning the carburetor). After completing this task, I wanted to merely start the engine to see how it sounded – not to drive anywhere. Well, for reasons that I have never been quite able to figure out, the motorcycle immediately began to rev at full speed, and engaged, with me on top of it. I then proceeded to literally race, at a terrifyingly high speed, in the wheelie position, straight through the middle of town. The miracle is that I didn’t injure myself or anyone else, somehow managed to hit the kill switch, and the motorcycle decelerated, and turned off three quarters of the way though my small village. I then got off the bike and walked back to my house, trembling after what had just happened. Back at my house all of my young male friends were clapping and cheering. I was one cool cucumber for that fleeting moment. In their minds, I was like the Sylvester Stallone’s character Rambo and I had come to live in their village.

The problem was that the motorcycle represented power and wealth – and it put distance between myself and members of the community, especially older people and women of all ages. So after a few months, I made the decision to park the motorcycle. I would use it once every few months to go to the capital city some three hours away, but the rest of the time I would walk or ride a bicycle. Of course, this was deeply disappointing to my young male friends. If I had this symbol of power and wealth, why not flaunt it? However, over time, this decision yielded tremendous results, especially when combined with my insistence that I was a facilitator rather than a development expert who had all of the answers. I just became Mambi (which was my local name). I was the American guy who lived in the community, spoke the local language, hung out in the evenings drinking tea with his village friends, and who liked to talk to old people and work on gardening projects. I proactively decided to let go of the trappings of power and it enabled me to do better work by learning from my village friends. This led to tremendous personal growth and to shared development efforts rather than imposed ones.

Let me end with a couple of thoughts. First, while there is a lot in the Christian tradition about justice for the poor, marginalized and disenfranchised, Jesus had just as much to say about the exercise of power. In fact, Jesus’ life is a lesson in how to lead differently by building a community of learners and leaders, rather than exercising top down control.

Second, places like Cabrini can and do model different approaches to power when they engage in learning and spiritual growth as a shared exercise. When we hear someone on this podium share a reflection, this person often imparts the thoughts of an army of people behind them. Our liturgist feeds us relevant background information, we hash out our ideas with the Word Team, we talk it over with our spouses, and they critique our rough drafts. While I am the messenger when I share reflections, and take full responsibility for any poor word choice or potentially offensive comments, anything of value that I have to offer almost always comes from this community that helps me shape a reflection.

Lastly, let us just imagine that Jesus operated in a similar fashion. Perhaps his pearls of wisdom, handed down to us as his parables and stories, were the result of a collective and shared process of co-learning with his disciples. This makes his stories our stories. These are stories which offer insights born of unconventional leadership, the inversion of power, humility, and the embrace of the wisdom of everyone. Indeed, we are all people of God. Thank you.

The author may be contacted at or may be found on twitter at

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Archbishop Bernard Hebda Has Embraced Minnesota – and His Flock

– Brian Peterson, Star Tribune
By Jean Hopfensperger

NOTE: The following is excerpted from Jean Hopfensperger's October 11, 2017 Star Tribune article/interview. To read By Hopfensperger interview with Archbishop Hebda in its entirety, click here.

Archbishop Bernard Hebda did not see it coming. The day the Vatican announced he would become the Twin Cities’ new archbishop, he stood before a hastily prepared news conference inside the Cathedral of St. Paul and quipped that if he’d been warned, “I would have brought a better suit and made sure I had a haircut.”

His sartorial selection was the least of his worries on that day last year. The gregarious Hebda, sent to Minnesota months earlier for what was to be a temporary assignment, was suddenly in charge of an archdiocese reeling from a priest sex abuse scandal, bankruptcy, criminal charges filed by Ramsey County, and distrust in the pews. The previous archbishop, John Nienstedt, had resigned under controversy.

More than a year later, the ship has reached calmer waters. The Pittsburgh-born prelate has gained a reputation for spiritual and intellectual depth, thanks in part to degrees from Harvard University and Columbia Law School as well as working 13 years at the Vatican. Although he was being groomed to be archbishop of Newark, New Jersey, when he landed here, Hebda is now planted firmly in his 800,000-member Twin Cities archdiocese. He has embraced Minnesota living, including the Minnesota State Fair, Basilica Block Party, Red Bull Crashed Ice race and countless parish festivals. This interview has been condensed from a longer discussion with the archbishop.

[. . .] Have you met Pope Francis?

I’ve only met him a handful of times. I had the chance to meet him when he came to the United States [in 2015]. I had introduced myself as the coadjutor in Newark and as the [temporary] administrator in St. Paul and Minneapolis. He said, “I know. I did that to you!” That was a great laugh. I think it’s amazing with all his responsibilities, he has a sense of what’s going on.

And when I was sent to Newark, I just happened to be in Rome with a pilgrimage group [and met him]. I said “Do you have any advice?” He said “Talk talk talk. Listen listen listen.” It was great advice in Newark and great advice here as well. When we were doing those listening sessions, that’s what I had in mind.

You landed here as the St. Paul and Minneapolis Archdiocese was making national headlines for a sex abuse scandal. What were the toughest decisions you made?

Some of those major decisions were when we were entering into the settlement agreement with Ramsey County. (The county had filed criminal charges against the archdiocese for failure to protect children — a first in the nation.) Trying to discern what was the right path. I think part of it was being willing to recognize that we had hurt people in the past and being willing to say that, which I think made some people nervous. Certainly some lawyers. But at the same time it seemed the right thing to do. And as we were in discussions with the Ramsey County attorney’s office, that was important for them that we would do that.

When lawyers revealed that more than 400 clergy sex abuse claims had been filed over the three years ending in May 2016, you looked a bit shell shocked. How did that affect your faith?

It didn’t really shake it at all. It did give me a strong conviction that the task here is not only to prevent abuse but also to sustain our priests in a way that they’re able to lead healthy lives.

Have you met any survivors of clergy sex abuse? What did you learn from them?

The first thing I’ve learned is that no two survivors are the same, that you can’t lump people into one category. Especially with those that I’ve been working with recently, it’s learning from them how the past abuse continues to have an impact on their lives — whether it be in their marriages, whether it be in their relationship to God. And then in a positive way, to know there are many [survivors] who are really committed to helping the church not only do better but also to reach out to others in a way that’s helpful.

So there’s a group of survivors you meet with regularly?

There’s a little group, and I’ve met with them. Other people on my staff meet with them more frequently. Some of it is just individuals, as well, who just want to come talk to the bishop. Often they have suggestions for what we need to do moving forward in a positive way.

What is the best and hardest part about being an archbishop?

The difficult part is when you’re asked to lead a church that you don’t really know that well. It obviously takes time to get to know not only the people but also the history, and what’s distinct about it. And to see how the limited gifts God has given me were intended to help the church. I had the experience when I was sent to Gaylord, a rural diocese, and then when I was sent to Newark, a very urban diocese. In each of those cases you’re kind of plucked out of your comfort zone and then asked to lead.

The good part is you have the opportunity to see how it is that the Lord uses your gifts, how the Lord guides his church even in difficult times. One of the things that I’ve seen is that in spite of the great needs that we have, we also have people who are really very well prepared to begin to address them.

[. . .] The archdiocese filed for bankruptcy in January 2015. What are your priorities for an archdiocese on more stable financial footing?

During the listening sessions [held last year with area Catholics] we heard about the need for transparency and we’ve already been trying to address those things. People were concerned that we need to do more evangelization. So the question of Catholic schools is pressing. One idea we’ve talked about here is a diocesan synod. It would be a way to get broader input on our priorities. It’s a huge undertaking. That would be one of the first things we want to do, and would set the stage moving forward.

Is there anything else you’d like to say?

Just that I’m really happy to be here. Granted this isn’t all about my happiness. But I really felt very welcomed here, even by those people that disagree with some of the things that the church might teach. Even in some of those difficult conversations with survivors of abuse, I always get the sense that people are interested in really entering into dialogue. For me, that’s great.

See also the previous posts:
A Message from Archbishop Hebda Regarding President Trump's Executive Order on Immigration Ban
Bernard Hebda Named Archbishop of Twin Cities Archdiocese
Twin Cities Catholics Get Rare Chance to Make Archbishop Recommendations to Vatican
CCCR Representatives Meet with Archbishop Hebda

Monday, August 28, 2017

Who Are We In This Charlottesville Moment?

By Bill Moseley

Note: The following reflection was delivered before the start of mass at St. Frances Cabrini Catholic Church on the weekend of August 26-27, 2017.

People of God, my name is Bill Moseley and it’s my privilege to reflect with you on today’s readings. I have always been enamored with the human side of Jesus. I know theologians have long debated the exact nature of his divinity, and some scholars and church officials over the centuries have sought to minimize or erase his human side. I prefer to think of him as someone fully human that achieved great insights.

In today’s Gospel reading from Mathew, Jesus asks his disciples, “who do people say that I am?”and then more directly “who do you say that I am?” What is going on here? To be clear, most Jesus seminar scholars believe these are not the words of Jesus, but the construction of Matthew, written some 80-90 years after Christ’s death. As such, what these words likely reflect are the conditions of a budding institution in this period and the struggles of a community to portray Jesus. They may also, I would argue, give us some insight into the human side of Christ, a person whose very human questions may be particularly relevant to us today.

I can imagine at least three possibilities for ways to think about Jesus’ questions. First, is this a moment of self-doubt for Jesus? Is he wondering what have I gotten myself into, where is this going, who am I, and what am I to do? Or, second, is he concerned about what others think about him? That is, is he essentially asking what are the popular kids saying about me? Or, lastly, does he already know the answer to these questions and is he simply querying his disciples’ understanding?

I’m skeptical of the second and third possibilities. I believe that Jesus was sufficiently grounded that he would not have been too concerned about what others were saying about him. The third option, that Jesus knew the answer and was simply probing the disciples, seems to be the favored explanation by several scholars I read in preparation for today’s reflection. But this explanation annoys me. In large part because what follows is Peter’s response: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Here Peter purportedly gets it right with his mentor, effectively becoming the class brown noser (and can’t you just imagine the other disciples rolling their eyes while this happened). Jesus then goes on to say that Peter “is the Rock, and upon this rock I will build my church.” He is promised the keys to the reign of heaven, and furthermore, considerable power: “Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” It’s this text that often has been used to justify the church hierarchy, as well as the authority to determine who is welcomed and not welcomed into the divine. This foundation for institutional power makes me uneasy and I also question whether Jesus, a fierce critic of the religious authorities of his day, would have ever spelled out so clearly a vision for institution building.

I like the first explanation, that Jesus is asking these questions in a moment of self-doubt. For me, this is a particularly human moment. Here we have the most grounded of people, a man with powerful spiritual insights, essentially asking his friends, who am I? Where is this all going?

Who am I, who are we? What are we to do in this particular moment? I have been thinking a lot about these questions recently, especially in the wake of the events two weeks ago in Charlottesville, VA. At that time, neo-Nazis and white supremacists marched. They carried guns, burning torches and shouted slurs of hate. Then one in this group got in his car and drove into a crowd of counter-protesters, wounding dozens and killing a young woman. Our president then vacillated, alternating condemning and excusing what happened.

The first part of what happened is not that unusual. As a kid in Chicago in 1977, I remember neo-Nazis marching in the suburb of Skokie, Illinois, a predominantly Jewish community. While the community sought to bar the march, the Supreme Court upheld the neo-Nazis right to free speech and allowed the march to go forward. No, the expression of hate is not new. But the unabashed violence which ensued in such a public space in Charlottesville, and the way our president reacted, is different. Our president equivocated in condemning those who perpetuated the violence that day, violence committed in the name of hate.

Who am I? Who are we? What are we to do in this particular moment? Part of me wants to focus on the failings of the president and, like the Matthew community, focus on institution building. We need strong institutions that endure over time so that less than perfect individual leaders do not drive our collective train off the rails. I get why the Matthew community wanted to build a church. I understand why we need government institutions that transcend individual propensities.

But I am not sure if this is where Jesus would have focused his energies. To be clear, Jesus was not shy about calling out the failings of those in power. This is also a theme that runs through the Old Testament. In fact, in today’s reading from Isiah, we hear about Shebna, the manager of the palace, who is prone to excess, and is therefore removed in favor of Eliakim. But, as we learn time and time again in the New Testament, Jesus’ focus was more often on the community, on teaching people how to live together, how to love, how to forgive one another, and always welcoming the outcasts into the fold.

Like the human Jesus, it is natural to ask at a difficult juncture who we are and what we are to do. I believe Jesus would have held the perpetrators of violence accountable for their actions, and then encouraged us to love, forgive and welcome the alienated and those troubled by hate. Of course, loving and forgiving those afflicted by hate is no easy task, especially when they commit acts of violence. But love and forgiveness can come from unexpected places. The father of Heather Heyer, the woman killed in Charlottesville, VA, said that “people on all sides need to learn to forgive each other.” He then said, “I include myself in forgiving the guy who did this . . . I just think about what the Lord said on the cross, ‘Forgive them. They don’t know what they’re doing.' I hope that there comes a positive change in people’s hearts, in their thinking, in their understanding of their neighbor.”

I don’t know, if put in a similar situation, I could be as forgiving as Heather’s Dad. I am, frankly, challenged to understand and forgive white supremacists and racists. It helps me to start with empathy, to imagine myself in the shoes of such a person. This is not to condone their thoughts and actions, but simply to try to understand how one could get to this place.

If I’m honest, I must admit that my maternal grandmother was a racist. She was a hard scrabble woman who grew up in western Pennsylvania and was the first person in her family to get a college degree when she became a registered nurse. Unfortunately, my grandmother also would occasionally make racist comments, which thankfully, my parents would challenge. My parents would also take me aside after the fact and explain that her comments were wrong and inappropriate. I loved my grandmother unconditionally, yet I also knew that she had this inappropriate, racist side. But what if my parents had not challenged her, what it they reinforced what my grandmother had said? This helps me begin to imagine that I could just have easily been raised a racist. As the character Mrs. Pell in the film Mississippi Burning said: “Hatred isn’t something you’re born with, it’s taught. At seven years of age, you get told it enough times, you begin to believe it. You believe the hatred, you live it, you marry it.” This allows me to begin to understand & empathize with those afflicted by hate. This is not to excuse any violent actions, but I can imagine myself being in their shoes, full of rage. Seething with hate and resentment is not healthy for oneself or the community. In this case, I would need help. I would eventually be grateful for those who reached out to me from other side.

President Obama has said that “while we are taught to hate, we can learn to love.” For example, “Life after Hate” is a non-profit in Chicago, founded by a former skinhead, which works with former neo-Nazis to help them shed their hateful ideology. This group shows people love and compassion, exposes them to the people they once hated in productive and constructive ways, and helps them build self-confidence. Groups like this are showing us a different way forward.

In conclusion, we are a Christian community. We are all human. We are all imperfect. While we need to hold each other accountable for our actions, we also need to empathize, forgive, and help people to learn to love, even in trying times like these. While we should expect appropriate behavior from our leaders, we must also acknowledge that they may be a symptom of deeper problems in our community. Jesus calls on us to welcome and forgive the estranged and the lost. It is in this healing of uniquely human problems that lurks the divine – the essence of Christ.

Thank you.

I may be contacted at or may be found on twitter at I am grateful for the input I received from the Cabrini Word Team, and the valuable feedback from my spouse, on my thinking in this reflection.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Monday, January 30, 2017

A Message from Archbishop Hebda Regarding President Trump's Executive Order on Immigration Ban

Related Off-site Links:
Archbishop Hebda Joins Minnesota Faith Leaders in Opposing Trump’s Immigration Ban – Matthew Davis (The Catholic Spirit, January 30, 2017).
Trump Bars Refugees and Citizens of 7 Muslim Countries – Michael D. Shear and Helene Cooper (The New York Times, January 27, 2017).
Trump's Immigration Ban Ban Excludes Countries with Direct Links to Terrorism and Where Trump Has Commercial HoldingsThe Real News, January 27, 2017).
Trump's Muslim Ban Triggers Chaos, Heartbreak, and Resistance – Ryan Devereaux, Murtaza Hussain and Alice Speri (The Intercept, January 29, 2017).
Judge Blocks Trump Order on Refugees Amid Chaos and Outcry Worldwide Michael D. Shear, Nicholas Kulish and Alan Feuer (The New York Times, January 28, 2017).
Judge Halts Deportations After Protesters Swarm Airports Over Trump’s Order Barring Muslims – Robert Mackey (The Intercept, January 28, 2017).
Donald Trump, the Refugee Ban, and the Triumph of Cruelty – Dylan Matthews (Vox, January 28, 2017).
Donald Trump Fires Acting Attorney General Hours After She Refuses to Defend His Immigration Ban – Leon Neyfakh (Slate, January 30, 2017).
Trump Refugee Ban Clashes With Faith-Based Groups' Religious Missions – Tom Gjelton (NPR News, January 27, 2017).
Pope Francis: You Can’t Defend Christianity by Being “Against Refugees and Other Religions” – Catholic News Service via Catholic Herald (October 13, 2016).
USCCB Speaks Out Against Trump’s Immigration Orders – Mary Pezzulo (Patheos, January 25, 2017).
Responding to Trump's Ban, Top Catholic Bishops Pledge Solidarity with Muslim Refugees – Michael O'Loughlin (America, January 30, 2017).
Bishop McElroy: Trump’s Executive Order is Rooted in Xenophobia and Religious PrejudiceMillennial (January 29, 2017)
Chicago's Archbishop Calls President Trump's Immigration Order a “Dark Moment in U.S. History” – Madeline Farber (Time, January 29, 2017).
LGBT Catholics Stand with Immigrants, Refugees, Visitors from Banned Countries — DignityUSA (January 30, 2017).
Twin Cities Clergy Join Protest Against Trump Immigration Ban — Jean Hopfensperger (Star Tribune, January 30, 2017).
A Message from Archbishop Hebda Regarding President Trump's Executive Order on Immigration BanThe Progressive Catholic Voice (January 30, 2017).
On Holocaust Remembrance Day, James Martin Labels as "Appalling" President Trump's Plan to Demonize ImmigrantsThe Wild Reed (January 27, 2017).
550 Attend Mass Outside White House in Solidarity with Refugees – Teresa Donnellan (America, January 30, 2017).
How the Catholic Mood About the Trump Administration Shifted in Just a Week – Michael O'Loughlin (America, January 30, 2017).

Saturday, January 28, 2017

100 Years Ago, Americans Talked About Catholics the Way They Talk About Muslims Today

An example of how xenophobia has appeared
time and time again throughout US history.

By German Lopez

NOTE: This article was first published January 18, 2017 by Vox.

About a century ago, millions of Americans feared that members of a religious group was amassing an arsenal of weapons for a secret, pre-planned takeover of the United States.

The feared religious group wasn’t Muslims. It was, as Los Angeles Times reporter Matt Pearce wrote in a great piece in 2015, Catholics:

Hatred had become big business in southwestern Missouri, and its name was the Menace, a weekly anti-Catholic newspaper whose headlines screamed to readers around the nation about predatory priests, women enslaved in convents and a dangerous Roman Catholic plot to take over America. . . .

America’s deep and widespread skepticism of Catholics is a faint memory in today’s post-Sept. 11 world. But as some conservative politicians call for limits on Muslim immigration and raise questions about whether Muslims are more loyal to Islamic law than American law, the story of Aurora’s long-ago newspaper is a reminder of a long history of American religious intolerance.

Today, there are calls for federal surveillance of mosques in the name of preventing terrorist attacks; a century ago, it was state laws that allowed the warrantless search of convents and churches in search of supposedly trapped women and purported secret Catholic weapons caches.

This may seem absurd today, but there was a real fear among Protestant Americans back then that Catholics were planning to take over the country. As Pearce reported, the fears led to serious violence: Lynch mobs killed Catholic Italians, arsonists burned down Catholic churches, and there were anti-Catholic riots. It was a similar sentiment to the kind of Islamophobia today that’s led many Americans to call for shutting down mosques, forcing Muslims to register in a national database, and even banning Islam.

The point of the comparison is not to say that the US faces the same problems today as it did a century ago, or that the discrimination toward Catholics back then and Muslims today is exactly the same. But when looking back at the history of the US, it’s easy to see a pattern of consistent xenophobia and fears of outsiders.

Xenophobia is a staple of American history

In response to terrorist attacks across the globe, much of the conversation has focused on refugees and immigration. This conversation has been tinged by xenophobia toward Muslims, with President-elect Donald Trump once calling for a ban on Muslims entering the US.

But this sort of rhetoric is not new to the US. As the Pew Research Center found, Americans have generally opposed taking in refugees even as they went through abhorrent, well-known crises. (Dara Lind reported for Vox that America even rejected some Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany.)

Xenophobia has fueled other policies too. In the late 19th century, the US passed the Chinese Exclusion Act to stop the flow of Chinese laborers into the US. During World War II, the US put Japanese Americans in internment camps after the country declared war on Japan. Throughout the war on drugs, lawmakers have regularly tapped into xenophobic sentiments to prohibit certain drugs — such as when San Francisco banned opium smoking that was perceived as popular among Chinese immigrants, and when prohibitionists built up opposition to marijuana by fear-mongering about its use among Mexican immigrants.

Throughout all of these periods and policies, the public and lawmakers cited genuine policy interests: national security, keeping American laborers competitive in the job market, and preventing drug abuse. But underlying such policy stances were obvious signs that Americans were simply scared of foreigners who weren’t like them.

By and large, we tend to recognize the underlying xenophobia today, and that the policies it produced were wrong, bigoted, and self-destructive.

As Islamophobia rears its ugly head in the US again, it’s worth thinking about how we now look back on those moments of American history — and whether we’re making the same mistakes again.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Building Bridges as an Exercise of Hope

By Bill Moseley

Note: The following reflection was delivered before the start of mass at St. Frances Cabrini Catholic Church on the weekend of January 21-22, 2017.

People of God, my name is Bill Moseley and it’s my privilege to reflect with you on today’s readings.

Most Americans pride themselves on a constitution and set of laws that facilitate the peaceful transition of power from one administration to the next every four to eight years. That said, these changes are never easy, and some would argue that this particular shift, given the political divisions in our country, has been more challenging than others. These past few hours, days, weeks and months have been an emotionally fraught time for many of us. In monitoring my own feelings, talking with family and friends, interacting with colleagues and students at the college where I teach, and watching the reactions of others on the news, I have witnessed the entire panoply of human emotions: from depression and despair, to anger and protest, to joy and jubilation.

My family and I happened to be visiting my parents in Milwaukee the week after the election this past November. My father had poured his heart into the campaign. For someone approaching 80, I marveled at the hours and miles he logged walking the streets of his city to canvas and knock on doors. He was now deeply depressed, more depressed, frankly, than I had ever seen him before. When he and I stayed up late that first night chatting, he shared with me that he had a plan to move to Canada. While many of us have said we might move to Canada in jest, my father had actually worked out the details of such a move. He had identified a small town over the border from Niagara Falls, explored the real estate market, and calmly explained that they would only be a few hours from where my brother lives in Northeastern Ohio. Now, thank God for my mother, who had the fortitude to tell him that he’s nuts and they’re not moving anywhere. To be clear, I think my Dad had a right to be depressed. He had worked far harder than I to get out the vote, only to see his efforts come to naught.

Many of my students and co-workers were also deeply depressed after the election. I recall taking a photo of my female colleagues in their pant suits the day of election. There was a sense of anticipation and optimism in the air. The next day could not have been more different. Some students were crying and others were genuinely scared. In some cases this depression and fear would eventually turn to anger and then calls for political organizing. On Thursday and Friday of this week I found myself in the heart of a teach-in on my campus, and yesterday I marveled at the tens of thousands of people who gathered for women’s marches in DC and Saint Paul, including my wife and many of you.

I have also read in the papers, and heard on the news, the joy and jubilation of those who supported this election result. While there is a dark element to our new president’s constituency (a group motivated by racism, misogyny and xenophobia), let us not forget that there are also folks who have been left out of the new knowledge economy, who have seen their livelihoods unravel as manufacturing jobs have left the country, and who have felt looked down upon by urban elites. For them, they are elated because they feel like their voices have finally been heard.

Not unlike our contemporary political climate, today’s readings are also filled with darkness, division and hope.

In our first reading from Isiah, we hear about areas near the Sea of Galilee (Zebulun and Naphtali), a land that was “humbled and in gloom, darkness and anguish,” yet a land that will also experience a light that will bring them joy and rejoicing.

In our second reading from Corinthians, we learn about divisions and quarreling in the early Christian community. These tensions are clearly troubling to Paul. The source of these divisions has to do with people lining up behind different leaders in an emerging Christian tradition. Paul confronts these divisions with two arguments. First, he suggests that his role, and those of other preachers, is both minor and in service to the same, larger Christian message. As such, their work and message must not become a source of division. Second, he argues that we are all one. We might imagine critical and consequential differences among ourselves that are worth fighting and dying for, but these divisions are illusory and we must recognize that we are all connected. We are all one in our common humanity.

Lastly, in our gospel reading from Matthew, we learn about the beginning of Jesus’ ministry which, frankly, is not a very happy story. Jesus’ spiritual mentor, John the Baptist, has been arrested and, we know, murdered. God did not intervene to save Jesus’ beloved John. This had to have been a very difficult moment. How do we have faith, how do we believe that there is good in the world, when bad seemingly triumphs over good? It is at this point, I imagine, that Jesus could have made the decision to move – metaphorically - to Canada. He might have been deeply depressed and it would have been quite normal to just want to escape.

Alternatively, Jesus could have fomented violence. These were, after all, challenging economic times for everyday working people. The area where Jesus retreats to after John’s arrest, to the western shores of the Sea of Galilee (the same lands mentioned in today’s old testament reading) were hit hard by the extractive practices of the Roman Empire. Farmers were losing their lands and becoming sharecroppers who were barely able to survive. People living in communities on the shores of the Sea of Galilee were losing their rights to fishing. It is here that Jesus started his ministry and recruited his early followers. These lands were ripe for an insurrection and Jesus could have chosen to channel peoples’ economic anxieties with a message of hate and violence.2

What ensues, instead, is something remarkable. Rather than retreating from the world, or being fueled by anger over the murder of John the Baptist, Jesus appears to have had an epiphany that God does not intervene from on high, but that he works through us. And so he begins his ministry as an itinerant preacher, spreading the good news and curing people of diseases. Furthermore, his philosophy and message is completely counter-intuitive for his time. As we willlearn next week in the Sermon on the Mount, and in Sundays thereafter, he has a message of hope for the poor and the downtrodden. His message is also not solely reserved for those in good standing with his group. He understands that he needs to cross social boundaries, to cross party lines, in order to build his vision for the future.

I’ve been thinking a lot about these readings and how Jesus started his ministry this past week. I’ve also been asking myself what a person of faith should do in this particular moment of our nation’s history. Clearly, after taking some time to reflect, we need to move forward. Working peacefully for what we believe in is important. For me, this means fighting for political change and not accepting the normalization of racism, misogyny, homophobia and xenophobia.

But if Jesus could acknowledge the common humanity of tax collectors, prostitutes and lepers (the untouchables within his community at that time), then we can also engage outside of our own political and cultural comfort zones. Jesus was roundly condemned for consorting with the outcasts of his era, and many today may scoff at efforts to reach across deeply entrenched political divides. But as the Apostle Paul suggests, we likely imagine our differences to be greater than they really are. Despite the invocations of some political leaders, I believe there is much common ground and shared concern over issues like inequality, under-employment and trade. While there may be disagreement about the best way to address these issues, we can’t have a thoughtful, provocative and transformative dialogue about them if we don’t recognize our common humanity and engage.

My favorite example of this approach is the marriage equality movement in Minnesota. This movement started with the basic premise that change is not just about partisan politics, but about getting to know the other side. Once you acknowledge family members, neighbors and friends in same sex relationships, once you recognize their common humanity, hopes, aspirations and concerns, then it is much more difficult to see them as an abstract ‘other’ and to demonize their perspective.

Like a shroud torn asunder, the current political rifts in our social fabric may seem insurmountable. And while clearly there are some who stand to profit from such cleavages in the short term, and they will do everything in their power to deepen them, we all stand to lose if these differences are left to fester. While Jesus was not afraid to speak truth to power, and to hold those in power to account, he was also a social bridge builder. He was willing to sit down with anyone regardless of their past. It is never easy to build bridges, to understand the hopes and fears of our enemies, to see the divine in all of us, but it’s the only way forward. As Paul Wellstone said, “we all do better when we all do better.”

The author may be contacted at or may be found on twitter at

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

It Is Time to Revisit Church’s Stance on Contraception

By Celia Wexler

NOTE: This op-ed was first published September 6 by The Huffington Post.

In the immortal words of John Oliver, “How is this still a thing?”

The “this”, in this case, is the Catholic church’s official stance on contraception. Since most American Catholic women clearly have decided that the institutional church was out of touch when it deemed artificial birth control, “intrinsically wrong,” many of us believed that battle largely was won, if only by attrition. (Even by conservative estimates, it appears that about seven out of ten Catholic women in the U.S. have used artificial birth control.)

But, of course, that’s not true. Contraception, which could do so much good, continues to be a religious minefield. In Africa and Latin America, millions of Catholics follow the church on this issue.

Catholic hospitals and women religious, who should be at the forefront helping the disadvantaged plan their families, are stymied by the wrongheadedness of a long-dead pope.

The church has long had concerns about the morality of contraception, but so did the rest of society. In 1916, birth-control advocate Margaret Sanger was jailed for her advocacy. It took Congress until 1971 to actually repeal provisions of the federal law imposing restrictions on contraception. Courts invalidated many state laws.

As women pushed for equality and autonomy, scientists were developing a birth control pill that would place the decision solely in women’s hands. The problem was, the church was not progressing along the same timeline, although there was reason to hope for change.

In 1930, Pope Pius XII had strongly condemned artificial birth control, when there was worry about a declining birthrate after the deaths of so many young men in World War I. But by the 1950s, the church had relaxed that ban to permit natural family planning, which allows couples to schedule intercourse when the woman is not fertile.

In 1962, Pope John XXIII convened a commission to examine the ethical implications of birth control, a commission which was expanded and continued under Pope Paul VI. The commission, which included Catholic married couples and physicians, reportedly voted overwhelmingly to lift the Vatican’s blanket ban on artificial birth control, and to permit married couples to prudently plan their families.

But that hope was dashed in 1968, when Paul VI, writing in his encyclical, Humanae Vitae, once more declared artificial contraception “intrinsically wrong.”

A re-thinking of the church’s official position is long overdue. The progressive Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research, recently issued a lengthy and detailed rebuttal to Humanae Vitae, which has done so much harm in the fifty years since it was issued — harm not only to women, but to the church itself. To date, the statement has been signed by more than 80 scholars, ethicists and scientists.

Effective birth control gives women control over their own bodies, helps lift families out of the poverty caused by too many children, and shows careful stewardship of our over-taxed planet.

In this time of Zika, contraception may be the most effective way to prevent tens of thousands of infants from being born with serious, debilitating birth defects. As long as AIDS continues to threaten African women, including married women, and their offspring, condoms are vital.

Contraception may also limit the collateral damage of rape and sexual assault in countries where women have few defenses against predators.

The institutional church itself has suffered from this papal decision. Twenty-five years after Humanae Vitae was released, the late Jesuit moral theologian Richard A. McCormick regretted its aftermath — a cleric’s position on birth control became a “litmus test” for priests who aspired to be bishops; it discouraged theological discourse on sexual ethics, and it caused many Catholics to no longer rely on the church for moral guidance.

The scholars’ recent statement notes that a quarter of the world’s health-care facilities and schools are run by Catholic institutions, making a reversal of the church’s position very urgent.

The scholars contend that if the church permits natural family planning, which is a way to prevent conception, it should realize that other forms of birth control are equivalent.

They ask that the institutional church make clear that all birth control methods that do not induce abortions are approved for use by Catholic healthcare providers. (Birth control methods that do induce abortions should be evaluated on a case by case basis, applying ethical principles such as whether their use would be the “lesser evil.”)

They also urge that Catholic theologians whose opposition to Humanae Vitae caused them to be censured have their reputations restored.

A half a century is a long time for a mistake to go uncorrected. If Pope Francis really wants to leave behind a reform legacy, this would be a good place to start.

Celia Wexler is a free-lance journalist and author living in Alexandria, Virginia. Her book, Catholic Women Confront Their Church: Stories of Hurt and Hope, will be published September 30. Follow her on Twitter at

See also the previous posts:
Dear Pope Francis: Saving the World Requires Contraception
We Are the 98 Percent
Contraception's Con Men
Out of Step With the Flock: Bishops Far Behind on Birth Control Issues
Church's View of Sex the Root of Its Troubles
Overpopulation and the Catholic Church: Can't We Become Part of the Solution?
Quote of the Day — February 12, 2012