An Interview With “Hidden Mercy” Author Michael O’Loughlin

By Andru Zodrow

On Nov. 12, The Spectator had the privilege of conducting a phone interview with Michael O’Loughlin, a national correspondent at America Magazine. As a gay Catholic journalist, he has spent the past several years exploring the intersection between these identities. His new book, “Hidden Mercy,” uncovers the response of the Catholic church to the AIDS crisis, including the inspiring acts of priests, nuns and laypeople who ministered to and assisted young gay men that were marginalized in the church and larger society during the turbulent 1980s and ’90s.

Just three days after that interview in which O’Loughlin shared his thoughts about LGBTQ+ issues in the church, he published a guest column in the New York Times sharing that the Holy Father himself had congratulated him on his new book. Pope Francis reflected upon the importance of accompanying the marginalized, and thanked O’Loughlin for his work.

“Thank you for shining a light on the lives and bearing witness to the many priests, religious sisters and lay people, who opted to accompany, support and help their brothers and sisters who were sick from HIV and AIDS at great risk to their profession and reputation,” Pope Francis wrote.

Given that the book merited the praise of the Vicar of Christ, “Hidden Mercy,” is a must-read for anyone interested in LGBTQ+ issues, the Catholic church or both. Here is a lightly edited transcript of The Spectator’s interview with O’Loughlin.

AZ: Could you explain your initial inspiration for writing this book? 

MO: I’ve been reporting on the Catholic Church for about a decade now, and a lot of my reporting was focused on LGBTQ+ issues. Partly because the debate about same-sex marriage was heating up when I started reporting, but a big part was because I’m a gay Catholic myself, and I was just really curious what church leaders were doing in this area, and how other gay Catholics felt about whether they were welcomed in the church or were finding a place in the Church.

It felt new, and like I was the only person who had done this because I didn’t have any understanding of the history of the fight for gay rights in the Church, and I wanted to fix that.

I was trying to just look at this time in the 1980s and ’90s, because there was this big clash between the LGBTQ+ community and the Catholic Church, at a time when HIV and AIDS was really taking a toll on the gay community. I hadn’t known that history. So I started reaching out to people who lived or worked through that time to just ask them, ‘what was it like back then, what was it like to be a gay Catholic faced with the brutality of HIV and AIDS, but also dedicated to your Church, which is fighting against gay rights,’ or ‘what was it like to be a priest ministering to people with AIDS?’ I was learning a lot of this history and realized that there was this whole generations-worth of wisdom that had been cut off for me, so my goal was to capture some of the stories and then present them in a way that might benefit other people as well.

AZ: You managed to compile all of this reporting several decades after the crisis itself. Can you explain what kind of challenges reporting on a decades-old event posed for you as a writer? 

MO: That’s a great question. One of the decisions I made early on in the project was, I wanted to include interviews and meet with people who are still alive. So, unfortunately with HIV and AIDS, that cut out almost an entire generation of gay men, because they just simply didn’t survive. We’ve lost all of that wisdom unless their story has been told in other ways. It’s a limited set of experiences, but important nonetheless. I did go into some history, I used a lot of newspaper archives, and there was some great documentary material, audio, news reports—things like that, but ultimately, I decided, the most fruitful endeavor would be to talk to people who are still living.

AZ: In the “Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons,” or the ‘Halloween Letter,’ which was indirectly aimed at groups like Dignity, Cardinal Ratzinger (the future Pope Benedict XVI) stated that homosexuality is “a more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil.” Do you think that this is still the way the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith thanks about homosexuality today?

MO: I can’t speak for what any Vatican official or the Congregation thinks, but I think there is a sort of implicit homophobia that permeates a lot of discussion in the church around this issue. Some people would prefer that we just don’t talk about it because it is still taboo, both here in the U.S., and especially around the world where the Church is growing.

I think there’s a fear that if we talk about this too much, who knows where it will lead, and I think that’s what’s been so refreshing about Pope Francis—he’s actually encouraged us to talk about this issue, dating back to the earliest days of his pontificate, but also, especially during the Synod of Bishops on the family in 2014-2015. The Pope is simply saying, ‘don’t be afraid of this,’ he hasn’t changed church teaching, but he says ‘let’s listen to people’s lived experiences and see what their stories have to teach us about our faith.’

AZ: There’s a point in the book in which Fr. Bill McNichols says “the church will come around when it discovers that there are gay people who have lived full Christian lives and faced death with courage.” What work do we as Catholics need to be doing now to realize this reality in the future? 

MO: I think being intentional about collecting stories while people are still with us because we’re more than three decades out from the crisis now, and if you were in your ’30s or ’40s, you’re getting up in age now. I think part of my project has been preserving these stories. Let’s make sure that they are part of history, because I think there’s still a fairly un-nuanced understanding of this time, especially when it comes to the Catholic Church.

Collect these stories by forming intergenerational friendships: younger people being intentional about reaching out to older people and asking about their experiences. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard from either listeners of the Plague Podcast or people who have read early copies of the book, who have said that they haven’t been asked about their experiences in decades. These were harrowing, difficult times for people and to just see society move on so quickly, I imagine, could be difficult. I think Catholics should be intentional about not being afraid of what they might uncover when looking at this time in history, because there was a lot of shame and stigma, but [we should] be unafraid to deal with that, because there are inspiring stories like the ones I’ve collected in the book.

AZ: Why was Cardinal O’Connor on the Presidential AIDS Commission

MO: There was a sense that the Reagan Administration didn’t want to deal with this issue because their base found the topics of homosexuality, IV drug use and the sexual revolution to be morally taboo, and they didn’t want to talk about it.

Now, the public health angle was, ‘we have to talk about how slow the spread of HIV,’ whether that’s the use of condoms or drug treatment programs, and Reagan was trying to appease his base by appointing a religious figure to the AIDS Commission to say that ‘the moral dimension of this public health crisis will be taken seriously in the White House.’

O’Connor himself was skeptical of the idea, but he accepted the invitation after a couple meetings. But ultimately it didn’t satisfy critics who said that the White House failed to treat this as a public health crisis, and you can’t attach morality to those kinds of things, so it was a complicated thing. It does show the political power that someone like Cardinal O’Connor has. I think it’s difficult for younger Catholics today to understand the political influence of Catholic bishops in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, and O’Connor’s inclusion on that commission shows that he had a direct line to the president, and that’s important to understand when we look at the church’s role in shaping the public health debate in the ’80s and ’90s.

AZ: Do you think that the Church has grown better at listening since the AIDS crisis?

MO: I asked Father Bill McNichols if he thought it was easier to be a gay Catholic or a gay Catholic priest today because of how much society has advanced, and he told me he didn’t. He thought it was actually easier in the ’80s because there was almost more of a willingness to look at people’s experiences, whereas today there seems to be more fear around the issue, so I think I agree with him on that.

I think figures like Pope Francis certainly show that there are church leaders who want to engage in dialogue and listening, and that’s been a major theme of his papacy, but I think there might be a tendency to be afraid as society changes its views on homosexuality. I think we see a lot of that in the Church in this country.

AZ: A major study of American Catholic priests was released just last week, and some information I found dismaying was that American priests ordained after 2010 are far more likely to believe that homosexual behavior is “always sinful,” compared to priests ordained prior to 1981. It seems the clergy is growing less tolerant while society becomes more inclusive of LGBTQ+ people. Do you think this will impact the relationship of the church with LGBTQ+ Catholics in the coming years and, if so, how? 

MO: I think data like that shows how important it is that LGBTQ+ Catholics who want to stay part of the church make that decision and then stay, and make sure that their voices are heard, because something I’ve learned is that any welcoming Catholic space—any place which embraces and welcomes LGBTQ+ people—it was never inevitable. We look at places like Most Holy Redeemer in San Francisco, or St. Vincent’s Hospital in New York, or affirming parishes anywhere in the U.S., it was never inevitable that would be the case. It took hard work from LGBTQ+ Catholics and their allies to form those places into spaces that were safe and welcoming. Regardless of the views of young priests, I think that will be necessary work over the coming decades. But I am encouraged that there are visible and articulate young LGBTQ+ Catholics who are saying that they aren’t leaving, that they are staying in the Church, and these are the kind of spaces they are demanding. I think it’ll be an ongoing conversation for decades, regardless of the views of younger clergy.

AZ: What does making your voice heard as a gay Catholic look like today? 

MO: That’s a great question, and one I haven’t thought about much. I guess for me, it’s been this notion of forging ahead with these projects, even if sometimes there’s some pushback that we shouldn’t explore too much of this history, because there is some shame and stigma still attached. I think it means going to mass and being part of the community, not being afraid of the resistance you might encounter. I understand that for some LGBTQ+ people, being part of a Catholic community might not be a healthy decision, especially if there’s one that’s particularly intolerant, but if you are called to take your faith seriously and you’re able to find a community that works for you, I think showing up is the first important step. Being visible, joining parish activities, engaging Catholic media—all the things that other Catholics are doing, who are making their view known, I think younger LGBTQ+ people have the same calling.

AZ: Did writing this book change the way you approach your own faith at all? 

MO: It did. When I started writing probably five years ago or so, I had an initial conversation with Sister Carol, and I was afraid to tell her that I was gay because I didn’t know how she would react, which in introspect, is completely absurd because she had been caring for gay men dying from AIDS for more than a decade, and she’d become an ally for the LGBTQ+ community. But there was still something internal within me that made me clam up and be unsure about how much of myself I should reveal to her. After meeting people like Sister Carol and other advocates now for the past five years, doing dozens and dozens of interviews, I really internalized this idea that I can be honest about myself and be totally committed to my faith at the same time and that’s been a journey. I don’t think it ever goes away. Father Bill told me that it doesn’t get easier to come out, it just means you have to keep doing it and doing it, and eventually you come out, but you still have that fear, so I do think it will be an ongoing process. But there is this sense that knowing the history that I write about in the book does give me—and I think it gives other people—the ability to see that they do have a place in the church and to make them understand their faith in a different way.

AZ: The theme of frustration or hurt with the institutional Church seems to have emerged over the course of the book. Did you notice any patterns of how priests and nuns and laypeople were dealing with that frustration, or is it an individual journey for everyone? 

MO: What I took away was that it was an individual journey for everyone. What I tried to do in the book was profile people who approach that journey in a different way or in various ways, so there’s someone like David Pais, who I chronicle throughout the book, who was very active in the church, very active in Dignity, ultimately steps away from the Church, is away for several years, then he gets a degree in theology and he returns to the Church. It sort of has this stepping in and out, which I think is a fairly common thing for not just LGBTQ+ people but young people in general, and then as they advance in the years, they have a different relationship with the church, so that’s one example. I interviewed Sean Strub, who grew up in a very Catholic household and was very devoted to his faith, but when HIV hit, he saw the hypocrisy, was turned off by that and ultimately left the Church. Today, while he still understands why Catholicism is important to people, he is not a practicing Catholic himself. So, between David and Sean, there’s all kinds of people. People deal with this hurt they feel because they are LGBTQ+ from Catholic leaders in different ways.

Some people say they just ignore the statements that are hurtful and they find a parish that works for them. I hope I offered different models of how to deal with that because I don’t think it’s an issue that’s going to go away anytime soon.

AZ: Thank you so much for your time. 

O’Loughlin is a sterling example of how LGBTQ+ journalists are documenting the interactions between the Church and queer Catholics. Pope Francis’ support of his work ought to serve as a source of hope and inspiration for gay Catholics, even as Church teachings regarding homosexuality remain static. As the global Church and LGBTQ+ Catholics learn how to interact more productively, journalists like O’Loughlin will continue to serve as an important source for information and analysis.

Complete Article HERE!

National Day for Truth & Reconciliation: Universities and schools must acknowledge how colonial education has reproduced anti-Indigenous racism


Protesters march to Parliament Hill in Ottawa in response to the discovery of unmarked Indigenous graves at residential schools on July 1, 2021.

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As we move towards Sept. 30, many schools and universities will be talking about observing the new National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.

Many schools formerly observed this day as Orange Shirt Day to acknowledge the intergenerational impacts of the residential schooling system — but Sept. 30 has now been declared a statutory holiday by the federal government in response to calls by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

When it comes to all of our institutions — and educational institutions in particular — it’s critical to move far beyond a single day of remembrance.

We are educational researchers who seek to understand how teacher education programs are — or aren’t — addressing truth and reconciliation education. Reconciliation in education begins by acknowledging how educational systems — in particular, our universities, teacher education programs and curricula — have reproduced systemic anti-Indigenous racisms across Canada.

There are many First Nations, Inuit and Métis-led grassroots social justice activities and campaigns that teachers can take up during and after Sept. 30th. It will be important to reconsider how respecting relationships and honestly examining and sharing our histories might guide the educational work ahead of us this school year.

Dismantling myths

A misconception that remains about the Indian Residential School system is the myth of its beneficial, benevolent intentions.

This myth that continues to be put forth by some settler Canadians avoids acknowledging the intergenerational trauma stemming from residential schooling. It also denies that residential schooling was part of a larger settler colonial system.

This settler colonial system was driven by the expropriation of land and institutionalized genocide designed, as Duncan Campbell Scott, deputy superintendent of the Department of Indian Affairs (1913-32), stressed, to “get rid of the Indian problem.” It was a means for seizing and securing land for the expansion of a commonwealth empire.

As political commentator and journalist John McGrath writes: “Residential schools were as much a part of the Canadian national project as railroads, medicare or fighting in two world wars.”

‘Restorying’ settler colonial legacies

Greater and specific understandings of who designed, administered and taught at these institutions is needed to help people understand the specific ways we can become more accountable to redress their harms.

For example, two of the authors of this story research and teach at the University of Ottawa. The Oblates of Mary Immaculate, a Catholic order from France, founded the educational institution which later became our university. The Oblates ran at least 34 per cent of the Indian Residential Schools in Canada, including the Kamloops Residential School, where the remains of 215 children were discovered in May.

People standing on steps in front of a university building set back from a large grassy area in a black and white photo.
Grounds of the current University of Ottawa seen about 1920.

This past September, on the front lawns of University of Ottawa’s main building, Tabaret Hall, representatives of the Algonquin First Nations and Elder Peter Decontie lit a ceremonial fire. This occasion was named Pinzibìwin | Amitié | Friendship and sought to acknowledge and renew our relations for moving forward together in a good way.

At the University of Ottawa’s faculty of education, one way we can respond to the responsibilities we inherit to uphold the spirit of Pinzibìwin is by seeking to understand interconnections between the role that the Oblate religious order had in founding the University of Ottawa and in operating residential schools. More information is needed to move towards deeper understanding and accountability, particularly as we seek to educate teachers about standing in classrooms and discussing truth and reconciliation.

The past is present

Teachers and leaders in educational institutions must continue to question and address how teacher education programs, as well as provincial curricula, continue to be largely framed by settler colonial worldviews, histories and perspectives.

Normal schools were 19th-century institutions designed to train school teachers for the one-room schoolhouse model of education. At the turn of the 20th century, normal schools participated in advancing racialized narratives of settler colonial progress.

Dwayne Donald, Papaschase Cree scholar at the University of Alberta, emphasizes how settler myths in curriculum continue to deny Canadian and Indigenous relationships and to have “divisive and damaging” effects. These settler myths, he notes, deny Canadian and Indigenous relationships. Donald urges educators to reflect on new stories that repair these “colonial divides.”

Complete Article HERE!

Catholic Officials on Edge After Reports of Priests Using Grindr

A conservative Catholic media organization, The Pillar, has published several reports claiming the use of dating apps at several churches and the Vatican.

The Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Newark. One report made claims about the use of Grindr by unnamed people in unspecified rectories in the Archdiocese of Newark.

By Liam Stack

The reports hit the Roman Catholic Church in rapid succession: Analyses of cellphone data obtained by a conservative Catholic blog seemed to show priests at multiple levels of the Catholic hierarchy in both the United States and the Vatican using the gay hookup app Grindr.

The first report, published late last month, led to the resignation of Msgr. Jeffrey Burrill, the former general secretary of the U.S. bishops’ conference. The second, posted online days later, made claims about the use of Grindr by unnamed people in unspecified rectories in the Archdiocese of Newark. The third, published days after that, claimed that in 2018 at least 32 mobile devices emitted dating app data signals from within areas of Vatican City that are off-limits to tourists.

The reports by the blog, The Pillar, have unnerved the leadership of the American Catholic Church and have introduced a potentially powerful new weapon into the culture war between supporters of Pope Francis and his conservative critics: cellphone data, which many users assume to be unavailable to the general public.

“When there is reporting out there that claims to expose activity like this in parishes around the country and also on Vatican grounds, that is a five-alarm fire for church officials, there is no doubt about it,” said John Gehring, the Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life, a progressive advocacy group.

The reports have put church officials in an awkward position: Priests take a vow of celibacy that is in no way flexible, and the downloading or use of dating apps by clergy members is inconsistent with that vow. But officials are also deeply uncomfortable with the use of cellphone data to publicly police priests’ behavior. Vatican officials said they met with representatives from the blog in June but would not publicly respond to its reports.

“If someone who has made promise of celibacy or a vow of chastity has a dating app on his or her phone, that is asking for trouble,” said Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin of Newark at a Zoom panel organized by Georgetown University. (He declined to be interviewed for this article.)

“I would also say that I think there are very questionable ethics around the collection of this data of people who allegedly may have broken their promises,” he said.

The only app explicitly named in the reports has been Grindr, which is used almost exclusively by gay and bisexual men, although The Pillar has made vague references to other apps it says are used by heterosexuals. Only one of the reports directly links an app to a specific person, Monsignor Burrill.

The reports have been criticized by Catholic liberals for tying the general use of Grindr to studies that show minors sometimes use the app as well. That conflation of homosexuality and pedophilia is part of a longstanding effort by Catholic conservatives to blame the church sex abuse crisis on the presence of gay men in the priesthood.

The reports have raised a host of questions: How did The Pillar obtain the cellphone data? How did it analyze the data, which is commercially available in an anonymous form, to identify individual app users? How widespread is the use of dating apps among Catholic priests, and how much has The Pillar been able to learn about specific individuals?

The editors of The Pillar, J.D. Flynn and Ed Condon, have refused to answer any of those questions and did not respond to a request seeking comment for this story. They have also declined interview requests from other news media.

In a podcast, Mr. Flynn and Mr. Condon said their work was motivated by a desire to expose a secretive culture of wrongdoing within the church.

“Immoral and illicit sexual behavior on the part of clerics who are bound to celibacy, but also on the part of other church leaders, could lead to a broad sense of tolerance for any number or kinds of sexual sins,” Mr. Flynn said on the podcast.

They said Newark was the only American diocese they wrote about because it was once led by the former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who was defrocked in 2019 and charged last month with sexually assaulting a child in Massachusetts in 1974.

But their decision to investigate the use of a gay dating app in suburban New Jersey, instead of a city with a large gay population, has raised suspicion that their real goal may have been to undermine Cardinal Tobin, an ally of Pope Francis.

Mr. Flynn and Mr. Condon’s former employer, the conservative Catholic News Agency, published a report the day before the first post on The Pillar that said it had been approached in 2018 by “a person concerned with reforming the Catholic clergy.”

That person offered them similar cellphone data and also provided specific information about a nationally prominent priest who was not Monsignor Burrill, the executive editor of the agency, Alejandro Bermudez, said in an interview. He declined to name that priest.

At that time, Mr. Flynn and Mr. Condon were both editors at the agency, but Mr. Bermudez said he did not discuss the offer with them.

Mr. Bermudez said he thought the data was accurate but he ultimately declined to accept it because he thought it had been gathered in a “sketchy” way. He also said he thought using it to expose the private lives of priests would not be an effective or ethical way to reform the church.

The Pillar’s reports have been based on what it describes as “a very large data set” derived from data signals from multiple smartphone apps that were collected over two 26-week periods, one in 2018, and one in late 2019 and early 2020.

Until 2020, Grindr routinely provided user location data to freewheeling online ad exchanges, where it could be harvested by data brokers.

In January, Grindr was fined $11.7 million by the Norwegian Data Protection Authority for its history of providing user data, including precise locations, to advertising companies that later shared it with potentially more than 100 other entities.

In a statement, Grindr said it was trying to determine how The Pillar had acquired its user data. But it said those efforts were complicated by the writers’ “vague and incomplete descriptions of their work.”

“What is clear is that this work involved much more than just a small blog,” Grindr said in its statement.

The complexity and size of the data set makes it likely that The Pillar’s source had money and analytical skills, said Ashkan Soltani, a former technology adviser to the White House and the Federal Trade Commission.

Cellphone app data is often purchased from data brokers by corporations and political groups who analyze it to determine patterns of behavior. They can also use location filters to find users of a certain app in a certain location, like Grindr users within the compact borders of Vatican City.

Some firms specialize in de-anonymizing cellphone data, and a user’s identity can sometimes be determined by following their movements, said Mr. Soltani. That may be how The Pillar identified Monsignor Burrill, who the blog said it tracked to his home and office as well as to gay bars and a bathhouse.

“This is a cottage industry, and all of this stuff is really available out there,” said Mr. Soltani. “There is a risk for anyone who uses these apps. This could potentially happen to anyone.”

The reports have set the Catholic Church on edge.

Matteo Bruni, a Vatican spokesman, said that Vatican officials, including the powerful secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, met with “representatives from The Pillar” on June 17.

But he said the Vatican had decided not to respond to the report and did not say whether it planned to investigate the claims. It is unclear how church officials might punish the use of a cellphone app, if The Pillar’s reports were to be confirmed.

In Newark, church officials instructed priests not to speak to journalists. Several who spoke, on condition of anonymity, expressed dismay at the use of cellphone data to track priests. Even lay leaders were reluctant to discuss the controversy on the record, although not many parishioners appear to be aware of it.

The Pillar has not said whether it plans to publish more reports using cellphone data, but priests in other dioceses have waited anxiously to see whether it would publish anything about their communities.

Father Bob Bonnot, the executive director of the Association of U.S. Catholic Priests, said the use of cellphone data to track the movement of Monsignor Burrill had deepened a sense of vulnerability many priests feel.

“It can be terribly threatening,” he said. “It can make all priests uncomfortable and worried.”

Mr. Flynn and Mr. Condon are canon lawyers well known for their work at the Catholic News Agency, which is owned by the right-leaning Eternal Word Television Network, and their ties to conservatives in the church.

The Pillar provided information about its findings to the Archdiocese of Newark after church officials spent several weeks asking for details, said Maria Margiotta, an archdiocese spokeswoman. She said church officials were reviewing the findings.

“It is not acceptable for any member of the clergy to use any app, social media or website in a way that is inconsistent with Church teachings and their own religious vows,” she said. “We are committed to protecting the faithful, and when we learn of immoral behavior or misconduct, we immediately respond appropriately to address concerns.”

Complete Article HERE!

The Deep Strangeness of the Catholic Church’s Latest Scandal

The outing of a top administrator of the nation’s conference of Catholic bishops as a regular Grindr user was clearly a story. But what kind?

By Peter Steinfels

Once, it was said that the eyes were the windows to the soul. Now the cellphone is. Consider Jeffrey Burrill, a man who regularly logged in to the gay dating app Grindr and whose cellphone emitted signals marking his visits to gay bars and a Las Vegas gay bathhouse. Hardly a story there, you might say.

Except Jeffrey Burrill was Monsignor Jeffrey Burrill, the secretary-general of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. And his July 20 resignation was forced by a newly founded Catholic online newsletter using commercially available data to trace his calls, movements, and behavior since 2018.

The outing of a top administrator of the nation’s conference of Catholic bishops was clearly a story. But what kind? A story about high-tech surveillance and invasion of privacy? About a new breach of journalistic ethics? About the Catholic Church?

Much of the national attention to this unusual episode focused on privacy issues. The basic problem is not complicated. In principle, data from mobile devices are “anonymized” by substituting a unique numerical identifier for users’ names and phone numbers. But mobile-phone location information and app usage is often recorded. A sufficiently interested party, with some additional information about residences, workplaces, and other data points, can connect the dots (or in this case the pings) to tie specific devices to specific individuals, such as Burrill.

“There’s not much to stop similar spying on politicians, celebrities and just about anyone that’s a target of another person’s curiosity—or malice,” Maggie Gile noted in Newsweek. Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, recalls years of warnings that data harvested from phones could be used to track their users and “reveal the most personal details of their lives.” A “vast and largely unregulated” industry assured the public that the information it collected was anonymous, he says. “As this awful episode demonstrates, those claims were bogus.”

The difficulty of safeguarding privacy from invasive technology cries out for remedies. But as a journalist and a Catholic (who has covered and written extensively about religion), I am even more interested in the other two stories, about journalistic ethics and about the Catholic Church.

I can reasonably be ranked among those labeled liberal Catholics. I am on record arguing that the Church should thoroughly rethink its teachings on sexuality, including contraception, same-sex relationships, and priestly celibacy. But I have little patience for the thankfully few dismissals of Burrill’s “indiscretions” on the grounds that “we are all sinners.” We are indeed all sinners, but we are not all secretaries-general of the United States Conference of Catholic bishops. Those of us who make solemn promises, whether of priestly celibacy or marital fidelity, should keep them. All the more so when our vows bear directly on our public roles.

If Burrill was in fact regularly violating his public commitment and leading a double life, it does not pain me that he was forced from office. What does pain me is how that came about, setting, as it does, dangerous precedents for both journalism and Catholicism.

The Pillar, the online newsletter that outed Burrill, was founded last January by J. D. Flynn and Ed Condon, two Catholic crusaders for a purer Church. Its founding statement promised to uphold “the highest standards of journalistic independence and craftsmanship.” The newsletter’s reporting on Burrill, though, has prompted questions about whether it has lived up to that mission.

The Pillar story acknowledged that the data it had obtained contained “no evidence to suggest that Burrill was in contact with minors.” But from the opening paragraph, the story missed no opportunity to mention the Church’s sex-abuse scandal, charges that Grindr and other “hookup apps” are used to facilitate sex with minors, and unrelated cases here and abroad of such criminal behavior by priests. Responding to protests that the exposé dwelled on a homophobic stereotype of gay predators, Flynn and Condon went on Twitter the day after it was published to repeat that no evidence linked Burrill’s use of gay dating apps to minors, and that they had had no intention to “insinuate” otherwise. Fair enough, if you don’t consider devoting more than 1,100 words of a 2,900-word article to that kind of linkage an insinuation.

Criticism of The Pillar’s journalism did not end with complaints about its use of innuendo. The newsletter’s resort to an ethically disturbing, even if legal, high-tech method to expose private behavior was also clouded by unanswered questions. In their lengthy exposé, Flynn and Condon went into detail about how the hookup app’s signals indicated Burrill’s systematic violation of his vow of celibacy. But they were vague about the source of this data. “The data obtained and analyzed by The Pillar,” they wrote, “was obtained from a data vendor and authenticated by an independent data consulting firm contracted by The Pillar.”

Who was the data vendor? Were the data purchased or volunteered? How were they analyzed to pinpoint a particular individual? And who funded this possibly expensive process? To critics of The Pillar’s journalism, these are key questions. Relying on anonymous sources is legitimate, and sometimes necessary. But good journalism requires giving readers some indication of the reason for anonymity and what it might suggest about the source’s perspective or motives.

Questions about the data source are underlined by another article, published at 3 a.m. on July 19—one day before The Pillar’s July 20 exposé—by the Catholic News Agency (CNA), a similarly conservative outlet where Flynn and Condon had previously worked. Written by Alejandro Bermudez, the agency’s executive director, the story said that in 2018, CNA had been approached by someone claiming “to have access to technology capable of identifying clergy and others who download popular ‘hook-up’ apps.” The person’s aim, Bermudez wrote, was to save the Church from clergy engaged in scandalous conduct. Recognizing the potential for blackmail in such data, however, the source wanted to keep them from falling “into the wrong hands.” Bermudez met with the person, who named “high-profile Catholic personalities” that the technology identified. Nonetheless, Bermudez said, he distrusted the offer and turned it down.

This is a tantalizing story, and I phoned Bermudez about it. “Chatter” from friends, he told me, about a coming revelation of online activities by major Church figures had brought to mind the 2018 offer and moved him to rush out his account. “It was important for us to say as a news organization that from a Catholic journalists’ standpoint this was a dangerous door to open.” The 2018 offer, he explained, was not only for a “whole package” but for an ongoing relationship with a steady flow of information from the source. This was hardly an ordinary offer, I noted. Was it believable, as his story claimed, that Bermudez couldn’t recall the name of the person who made it and never mentioned it to Flynn, who was CNA’s editor in chief at the time? Bermudez did not budge from his previous explanation that “crazy” accusations against Church leaders were so commonplace that they were not a matter of conversation. Avoiding any mention of The Pillar, he was simply adamant about rejecting, in 2018 and today, this way to reform the Church.

In view of the CNA story, one naturally wonders whether its unnamed source is the same person who was anonymously peddling a pre-targeted and tailored data set, indeed a working relationship, in 2018. The Pillar won’t say. (I emailed the publication to ask for comment, but received no reply.)

There is another eyebrow-raising aspect of The Pillar’s successful identification of a single individual from a data set that might have begun with billions of signals from millions of users: It’s costly. It may require a team of researchers. Not everyone agrees, but several technical experts have estimated the cost at hundreds of thousands of dollars. One data expert, Zach Edwards, the founder of an analytics firm, even said millions.

This story has opened an entirely new, scorched-earth stage of the decades-long conflict between Catholic conservatives and liberals that began after the 1962–65 Second Vatican Council, simmered for decades, and has broken into civil war since the election of Pope Francis in 2013. The issues at stake in this struggle include changes in the liturgy authorized by the Council, questions about sexual morality that the Council never considered, and the relationship between the papacy and bishops around the globe. Should the priesthood continue to be open only to celibate males? What priority should the Church give to issues of personal, especially sexual, morality compared with those of social justice?

These debates are not new. But what was once jousting among theologians, intellectuals, and papal authorities, as the laity silently aligned themselves with one side or the other, has become a battle between Pope Francis and a phalanx of high-ranking bishops. In August 2018, the retired Vatican diplomat (and onetime Vatican ambassador to the U.S.) Archbishop Carlo Viganò even demanded that Francis resign.

When Flynn and Condon, both trained as canon lawyers—specialists in Church law—started The Pillar in January, they declared that the newsletter would be “independent of any ecclesial agenda but the holiness of the Church.” Yet their take on “the holiness of the Church” implies a definite “ecclesial agenda,” on which few concerns rank higher than sexual morality, at least as I read it. To Flynn and Condon, a major threat to that holiness is tolerance of homosexuality and homosexual conduct, particularly among the clergy and bishops.

For decades, Catholic ultraconservatives have charged that the Church’s American hierarchy was being manipulated by a gay cabal. The same note has been sounded by Archbishop Viganò, who extends this charge to include Vatican circles. In a different register, it has been sounded by gay advocates, including gay priests and ex-priests, who argue that the hidden lives compelled by the Church’s strictures against same-sex relations are responsible for grave pathologies among the clergy. Even some advocates of a married (heterosexual) priesthood have echoed something similar: The requirement of celibacy has made the Catholic priesthood a refuge for many gay men who have not come to terms with their sexuality.

Nothing in such critiques of Church teaching on homosexual relations is more inflammatory than linking them to the scandal of sexual abuse of minors by clergy, despite the fact that the most extensive study of that scandal, by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, rejects the connection.

For The Pillar, Burrill was no one-off. It had already taken its data set to the archdiocese of Newark, headed by Cardinal Joseph Tobin, a strong supporter of Pope Francis, and to the Vatican itself. The Pillar claimed that signals from both homosexual and heterosexual hookup apps going back to 2018 could be traced to “more than 10” Newark rectories and clerical residences, including “several” with a frequency indicating use by residents. (The Newark archdiocese has 212 parishes.) As for the Vatican, The Pillar reported that over six months in 2018, at least 32 mobile devices emitted signals from dating apps, including Grindr, within areas of Vatican City not accessible to the public. By The Pillar’s standards and my own very traditional ones, all these hookup efforts in Newark and Rome were regrettable, but whether their numbers should be considered extensive or whether they came from clergy or lay employees, the newsletter did not say.

One wonders if the bishops conference, like so many corporations confronting charges of sexual impropriety, might not enlist an independent investigator to shed light on the whole episode. Who, for example, promoted and vetted Burrill for his post? How did his quite extensive double life escape notice? It is an unnoted irony that Burrill was ordained in the diocese of La Crosse, Wisconsin, when its bishop was Raymond L. Burke, today an archbishop, a leading opponent to Pope Francis, and an outspoken advocate of Church teachings on homosexuality, divorce, and abortion. Nothing in Burrill’s subsequent career steps marked him as anything but a conventional doctrinal conservative.

Questions about Burrill are only the starting point. What are the implications for Catholicism if the traditional surveillance of theological ideas and pastoral practice by Church authorities is replaced by the high-tech surveillance of moral failings by freelance journalists? The implications for journalism and personal privacy are serious. Even the person peddling the surveillance technology back in 2018 recognized its potential for blackmail. Without either strong professional censure or legal regulation, tech-savvy and scoop-hungry reporters on the brawling frontiers of online journalism are likely to make this kind of personally invasive technology part of their tool kit. A thoroughgoing inquiry and report could be a service well beyond the Church.

Defenders of The Pillar’s actions have shrugged off these concerns about privacy, journalism, and the Church. Stephen P. White, of Catholic University and the Ethics and Public Policy Center, dismissed those “ticked off” by The Pillar’s reporting—including “data-security gurus, would-be gatekeepers of the journalistic guild,” and “the usual voices on Catholic social media who cry ‘homophobia’ every time it is suggested that an unnatural vice among clerics might be a problem worth addressing.” The real problem was that “ecclesially minded journalists like Flynn and Condon” were being treated as “pariahs” for exposing “inconvenient truths about clerical sins.” In the defenders’ confidence that no ominous red lines are being crossed here, they seem to be forgetting one fundamental component of the Catholic teaching to which The Pillar pledged itself at its founding: Original Sin.

Complete Article HERE!

‘Outing’ of priest shines light on power – and partisanship – of Catholic media

By

It had all the hallmarks of a sensationalist tabloid sting.

On July 21, 2021, an article appeared alleging that a senior U.S. priest, Monsignor Jeffrey Burrill, had used the hook-up app Grindr, with data from the app placing him at a number of gay bars. Burrill, the now former General Secretary of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, promptly resigned.

But the report was not published by an outlet that many Americans would associated with such sex “exposés.” Indeed, most would have never have heard of it at all. It was The Pillar, a small newsletter founded in early 2021, that makes up just a tiny part of the Catholic media landscape in the U.S.

As a scholar of American Catholicism and culture, I take a keen interest in Catholic media. My recent book, “Follow Your Conscience: The Catholic Church and the Spirit of the Sixties,” draws upon dozens of articles in the Catholic media as primary sources for historical analysis. While many Americans may be familiar with evangelical outlets like Christianity Today or the Christian Post – not to mention the hundreds of evangelical radio stations across the nation – the Catholic media seems to have less prominence on the national stage.

But as The Pillar’s reporting on Burrill shows, Catholic journalism can nonetheless be influential – and can split opinion in just the same way as media with a wider audience.

A newspaper for every diocese

The Catholic mediascape is made up of a series of publications at the local, national and global level. Almost every diocese has its own newspaper that covers local events like first communions – when a Catholic receives the Eucharist, the bread and wine transformed into Christ’s body and blood, for the first time – or the construction of a new school gym.

But many Catholic readers also like to be informed on the bigger picture of Catholicism, and notably the Pope. In 2014, the Boston Globe, with the help of journalist John Allen, founded Crux to report on the Vatican for an American Catholic audience.

Catholic journalists not only report on the church itself, they aim to offer a Catholic perspective on broader American stories. That was the founding premise behind important Catholic magazines like Commonweal, founded by laypeople in 1924, and America, a monthly publication run by Jesuits in New York City.

Increasingly, like the secular media, Catholic outlets have been polarized and drawn into the culture war. They too have taken positions that divide readers and win constituents with particular worldviews. National Catholic Reporter, in the spirit of the Second Vatican Council – the meeting of the world’s bishops 1962 to 1965 that introduced changes like Mass in the vernacular and a new respect for the religious liberty of members of other faiths – is a liberal outlet that cut its teeth on criticism of the Vietnam War and continues to promote social justice.

Its counterpart, the National Catholic Register, prefers the moral clarity and conservative positions offered by Popes like John Paul II and Benedict XIV, particularly on matters of gender, sexuality and politics. Its readers overlap with viewers of the Eternal Word Television Network, a network critical of the more liberal Pope Francis.

On the issue of homosexuality, Catholic media similarly expresses a variety of views. America magazine consistently features the writings of Father Jim Martin, a Jesuit priest who has encouraged the church to treat the gay community with more dignity. The periodical First Things, meanwhile, delights in offering readers searing critiques of secular modernity by Catholic conservative writers.

Ethical concerns

Into this partisan media mix emerged The Pillar in 2021 and its recent report on Burrill. The investigation prompted ethical concerns over the use of data privacy – The Pillar’s report relied on geolocation data from the Grindr app that it legally bought. There were also complaints that the reporting appeared to conflate Burrill’s apparent homosexuality with the child abuse scandal in the Catholic church.

The ethics of The Pillar’s article aside, the reporting does tap into a tradition of Catholic media shining a light on church issues and elevating it to national attention.

A generation ago, Catholic media reporting was crucial in helping expose the sexual abuse of children by priests.

On June 7, 1985, an article by investigative journalist Jason Berry in the National Catholic Reporter exposed not only the pedophilia of priest Gilbert Gauthe, but also the church’s complicity to cover it up. Berry, a practicing Catholic who covered the case initially for a local Louisiana paper, detailed for a national readership how Gauthe had abused dozens of children in the Diocese of Lafayette starting in 1972. He charted the local hierarchy’s efforts to keep the case out of the public eye and how church officials ignored reports of the abuse. Berry’s article ran for several pages, replete with headlines like “PEDOPHILE PRIEST: STUDY IN INEPT CHURCH RESPONSE” and “MANY KNEW OF FATHER’S PROBLEM BUT NO-ONE STOPPED HIM.”

The national press picked up the story only after it appeared in National Catholic Reporter.

The publication of Berry’s writings on Gauthe marked the beginning of a new, vigorous mode of national criticism in the Catholic press of church hierarchy for allegedly covering up sex abuse scandals.

Reporting on scandals

Without journalists like Jason Berry, the exposure of the clergy abuse crisis may have played along very different lines. To put it simply, it moved the interpretation of the crisis away from a “bad apple” paradigm – it which individual priests were to blame – towards a much more systemic approach which looked at a Catholic culture that facilitates abuse.

The Pillar has tried to frame its investigation of Burrill in a similar light. It implies that Burrill’s use of hookup apps might further develop a culture of abuse in the church. The Pillar’s article quotes moral theologian Father Thomas Berg and the late psychological and clergy sex abuse expert Richard Sipe, both of who argue that there is a connection between a cleric violating his vows of celibacy with other adults and a potential abuse of adolescents. The suggestion is that it encourages “networks of protection and tolerance among sexually active clerics,” as The Pillar suggests.

But this argument requires a fine dance that risks falling into the trap of connecting the act of homosexuality with pedophilia. Not everybody is convinced that The Pillar’s article drew this line sufficiently.

Nonetheless, it has rekindled a debate over the role of Catholic media.

In his 1996 book, “Pedophiles and Priest,” historian Philip Jenkins criticizes Berry’s landmark reporting for making it appear as if everyone in Louisiana Church structure, from the bishops to fellow priests, were at fault for Gauthe’s prolific abuse. Jenkins argues that the June 1985 article provided a formula for future reporting: first a journalist details some rumors, then he or she writes about how the allegations troubled parents, then the reporter mentions a transfer of a priest to a new parish and, finally, the investigator quotes an expert who comments on the structural nature of the crisis. In this way, Jenkins suggested, journalists make abuse appear more pervasive than it is. Although Jenkins book was written in the mid-1990s, his analysis, while problematic, remains important.

The abuse crisis is not the only challenge the Catholic Church faces – it is currently in the midst of struggle between conservative and more progressive elements. In tying to draw a connection between Burrill’s apparent homosexuality and his potential future complicity in the clergy abuse crisis, The Pillar, one of the newest entrants in the Catholic media landscape, has waded into the church’s culture war and placed itself among the outlets that will be reporting on it in the months and years to come.

Complete Article HERE!

Catholic priest who wants to prevent Biden from receiving communion resigns in sex scandal

Msgr. Jeffrey Burrill.

By

Last month, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) approved a measure that could prohibit President Biden, a devout Catholic, from receiving communion. Conservative bishops do not wish Biden to receive communion because of his support for abortion rights.

Monsignor Jeffrey Burrill, general secretary of the USCCB, was a strong supporter of the measure, but he has resigned due to allegations of “serial sexual misconduct,” as reported in The PIllar, a Catholic publication. Burrill was allegedly using Grindr for sex hookups, which goes against Catholic priests’ vow of celibacy.

From The Pillar:

Use of location-based hookup apps is inconsistent with clerical obligations to continence and chastity, according to Fr. Thomas Berg, a professor of moral theology at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers, New York.

Berg told The Pillar that “according to canon law and the Church’s tradition, clerics are obliged to observe ‘perfect and perpetual continence,’ as a reflection of what should be our lived pursuit of our spousal relationship with the Church and with Christ.”

Calling it “obviously a scandal” that a cleric would use location-based hookup apps, Berg said there is “a real disconnect between the appearance of a man who presumably is earnestly striving to live the life of chastity, when it becomes glaringly evident that he is dramatically failing at that because he’s gone to hookup apps to look actively for sexual partners — that itself is an enormous scandal.”

As Upworthy points out, you’d think Monsignor Burrill would have more empathy toward President Biden:

Burrill appears to be an even bigger hypocrite because the USCCB has opposed LGBTQ equality, same-sex adoption, and the development of an LGBTQ suicide hotline. It has also promoted anti-trans legislation.

It always seems to be that the religious folks who judge the harshest always wind up having something to hide. It’s a shame that Catholics such as Burrill are forced by doctrine to live their lives in the shadows. But shouldn’t that make them more compassionate towards fellow sinners instead of the first to judge?

When it comes to LGBTQ Catholics, what Pope Francis giveth, the Vatican taketh away

Pope Francis meets with German bishops during their ad limina visit Nov. 20, 2015.

By Claire Giangravé

At last month’s Pride parade in Rome, members of the city’s LGBTQ community waved rainbow flags, strewed glitter and generally exuded love to fellow marchers and those along the route. When they occasionally showed flashes of ire, their mockery and ridicule were aimed at some of Rome’s most familiar figures: Pope Francis and the Vatican hierarchy.

Some shouted at the churches they passed; others held sparkly signs with double-entendres aimed at the pontiff. Still others strutted their stuff dressed as Francis himself.

What angered Italian LGBTQ citizens was what they considered undue interference by the Vatican in its attempt to stall a controversial bill being debated in the Italian Senate that would criminalize homophobia. Named for its author, politician and activist Alessandro Zan, the bill would also institute a day aimed at raising awareness of sexuality and gender issues in schools.

Italian bishops have twice voiced their concerns about the Zan bill, claiming it would violate the religious freedom of Catholic schools, hospitals and other institutions. When that admonition fell on deaf ears, the Italian bishops’ conference sent a diplomatic note to the Italian government on June 22. The Zan bill, the bishops argued, violated the accords signed in 1929 between Italy and Vatican City, known as the Lateran Treaty, that set expectations for mutual noninterference.

In the middle of this heated debate, Francis sent a letter to the American Jesuit priest James Martin, about Martin’s efforts to promote inclusivity and to welcome LGBTQ individuals in the church.

“Our Heavenly Father comes close with love to each one of his children, each and everyone,” Francis wrote in the letter, praising Martin’s work.

Ever since Francis answered a question about a gay priest in 2013 with his own now famous question, “Who am I to judge?,” many Catholics have hailed the pontiff as a beacon of hope for LGBTQ inclusivity.

But while Francis has often shown in his words and personal acts of charity that he is close to LGBTQ individuals, the Vatican as an institution has done little to recast its hard doctrinal line, which views homosexuality as sinful and as “intrinsically disordered.”

“I can understand that it’s very confusing for people,” said Juan Carlos Cruz, a clerical abuse survivor and member of the LGBTQ community who frequently meets with Francis at the Vatican.

Despite the Vatican’s recent interference on the Zan bill, “that’s not who Pope Francis is,” Cruz said, adding that in private conversations the pontiff makes it clear that not only did God make the activist gay, but loves him the way he is.

Cruz made it clear that while he enjoys a personal relationship with the pope, and while Francis appointed him to the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors in 2020, he is not a papal spokesperson.

Jamie Manson, president of Catholics for Choice and a longtime activist for LGBTQ rights in the Catholic Church, believes that Francis “wants to be compassionate and merciful to marginalized people — he sees us as marginalized people — but he doesn’t want to change the teachings that will free us from marginalization and get us justice.”

Catholic LGBTQ organizations are divided, Manson explained, between those who believe that “appealing to mercy and pulling at heartstrings” will lead to change in the Vatican and those who “have run out of patience.”

Occasionally the pontiff’s statements on homosexuality seem to contradict themselves. He has personally supported LGBTQ individuals in Italy and in Argentina — and last September, speaking to Italian parents of LGBTQ children, Francis said that “God loves their children as they are” and so does the Catholic Church. But he has also criticized gender theory, comparing it to nuclear weapons and calling it a form of ideological colonization.

The dynamic can be attributed to a “hate the sin, not the sinner” approach, but according to Cruz, it also suggests that there is not a little opposition to Francis’ support for LGBTQ Catholics among Vatican officials.

“I’ve never seen in my life a more political and LGBTQ-obsessed Curia,” he said. “It is sad to see how much Pope Francis wants to support and open his arms to the LGBTQ community and how much they put land mines in his path to be able to do it,” he added.

Concerning the CDF’s ban on the blessing of same-sex couples, which occurred shortly after Francis returned from his historic trip to Iraq, Cruz said he believes that “in some way (the pope) is going to try to repair the harm that document did.”

The CDF document, approved by Francis, seemed to be an attempt to rein in the discussions taking place in Germany known as the Synodal Path — a series of conferences involving local bishops and laity that has taken a progressive line on questions regarding sexuality and power structures in the Catholic Church. But LGBTQ Catholics in other countries regarded it as a gratuitous slap, and despite the ban from the Vatican, some German clergy have continued to bless same-sex couples.

Manson praised the pope for opening the conversation on LGBTQ issues in the church, which she believes has led to “meaningful change,” but she added that the time for talk is over. She called for the pope to meet with members of the LGBTQ community at the Vatican and publicly acknowledge his private statements on LGBTQ issues.

Cruz said that he known he’s “lucky” to be able to speak to the pope directly on these topics, praising Francis’ efforts to evolve the Vatican’s understanding of LGBTQ individuals, while adding that “we cannot change church teaching in a minute.”

He also longs for the pope to speak openly on these topics, he said, and for him not to “let others define it for him.”

Complete Article HERE!

Pope Sends More Mixed Messages on L.G.B.T.Q. Rights

An encouraging note from Pope Francis capped an especially disorienting week on the Vatican’s stance toward gay rights.

Pope Francis last month at the Vatican.

By Jason Horowitz

A leader in the Roman Catholic Church’s effort to reach out to L.G.B.T.Q. Catholics revealed on Sunday that Pope Francis had sent him a deeply encouraging note, capping an especially disorienting week on the Vatican’s attitude toward gay rights.

On Tuesday, the Vatican confirmed that it had tried to influence the affairs of the Italian state by expressing grave concerns about legislation currently in Parliament that increases protections for L.G.B.T.Q. people. And days later, the Vatican’s second in command insisted the church had nothing against gay rights, but was protecting itself from leaving the church’s core beliefs open to criminal charges of discrimination.

Nearly eight years after Pope Francis famously responded, “Who am I to judge?” on the issue of gay Catholics, it has become increasingly difficult to discern where he stands on the issue. A growing dissonance has developed between his inclusive language and the church’s actions.

The result is confusion and frustration among some of the pope’s liberal supporters who wonder whether the 84-year-old Argentine remains committed to a more tolerant church and is simply struggling to grasp the rapidly shifting contours of a difficult issue, or is really a social conservative trying to please everyone.

What is clear is that the new note will serve as fresh fodder in a battle within the church between frustrated progressives who hope the pope’s inclusive message will finally lead to change and wary conservatives, who are hoping the church will maintain its traditions. The Vatican’s own news service later reported that the pope had sent the letter.

In the handwritten letter dated June 21 and made public on Sunday, Francis praised and thanked the Rev. James Martin, a prominent Jesuit and the author of a book about reaching out to L.G.B.T.Q. Catholics.

“I see that you are continually seeking to imitate this style of God,” the pope wrote. “You are a priest for all men and women, just as God is a Father for all men and women. I pray for you to continue in this way, being close, compassionate and with great tenderness.”

Those words will almost certainly give succor to Francis’ liberal supporters, many of whom were deeply disheartened by a March response by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the church’s top doctrinal office, to an inquiry about whether Catholic clergy have the authority to bless gay unions.

Negative,” was the answer, which Francis approved.

Two people who support gay rights and are close to the pope say he told them that he relented under pressure from the congregation, a decision he regretted and hoped to rectify. The Vatican did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the accounts.

But Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Müller, whom Francis fired from his position as the chief doctrinal watchdog in 2017, said that idea was absurd.

“The pope is the pope,” he said, adding that Francis was clearly in charge on such matters.

Cardinal Müller and other prelates say that Francis, on a personal level, simply does not like to hurt people’s feelings.

“He wants to be pastoral and he wants to be close to the people. It’s his specialty,” Cardinal Müller said. “It’s easier to be everybody’s darling than to say the truth,” he added. “He doesn’t like direct confrontation.”

Father Martin, who is often attacked by church conservatives, made the letter public after revealing it at a virtual conference for pastors and laypeople who administer to L.G.B.T.Q. Catholics.

In the letter, Francis said the Jesuit priest echoed Jesus in that his teaching was “open to each and everyone.” He concluded with a promise to pray for Father Martin’s “flock.”

But that flock has been led this way and that by the pope’s mixed signals over the years.

Francis stunned the faithful and a secular audience more accustomed to scolding about homosexuality and gay marriage when asked by reporters about a priest who was said to be gay, he responded, “Who am I to judge?”

His landmark 2016 document on family — titled “The Joy of Love” — rejected same-sex marriage but called on priests to be welcoming to people in nontraditional relationships, like gay people.

More recently, Francis expressed support for same-sex civil unions. His comments did not change church doctrine but amounted to a significant break from his predecessors.

Francis had made the remarks in a 2019 interview with the Mexican broadcaster Televisa, but the Vatican censored the report, and the footage emerged only in an October 2020 documentary.

For liberals, all of that seemed to be building momentum to real progress on L.G.B.T.Q. people in the church, which made the Vatican’s March rejection of the blessing of gay unions so much harsher.

Juan Carlos Cruz, a Chilean sexual abuse survivor and gay person whom the pope befriended, wrote an opinion article in a Chilean newspaper that criticized the doctrinal watchdog’s rejection of blessings as insulting to L.G.B.T.Q. Catholics.

The church’s doctrinal office is led by Cardinal Luis Ladaria, who was handpicked by the pope and is seen as in lock step with him.

In an explanatory note, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith said that while welcoming gay people, who have a right to be blessed, the church will not bless same-sex unions because God “does not and cannot bless sin.” Blessing a same-sex union, it added, could give the impression of putting it on the same level as marriage.

“This would be erroneous and misleading,” the note said.

Vatican officials with knowledge of the document said that the pope did not at any time oppose the decision, and that he was absolutely clear on questions of church doctrine.

The decision prompted widespread disappointment, even disgust, among gay Catholics and their advocates.

Liberal Catholics were disappointed again this past week when the Vatican confirmed that the Holy See’s foreign minister, Archbishop Paul Richard Gallagher, had hand delivered a letter to the Italian ambassador to the Holy See expressing reservations about the bill that would add L.G.B.T. provisions to an existing law that makes discrimination, violence or incitement based on race or religion a crime punishable by up to four years in prison.

The church intervened early to change the bill because it feared the law might legally oblige it to conduct same-sex marriages or teach more liberal ideas about gender in Catholic schools, according to an official inside the church.

Alessandro Zan, the bill’s sponsor, said such concerns were outlandish and not reflected in the legislation.

But the pope clearly approved the intervention, Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re told Rome’s Il Messaggero newspaper on Thursday.

The reaction was intense and angry from Italians who accused the Vatican of impinging on the state’s democratic process and from frustrated and confused gay Catholics who again saw the pope, despite everything he had said, as acting against them.

In an apparent effort at damage control, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s secretary of state and the second highest-ranking official after the pope, released a statement on Thursday.

He said that the Vatican was not seeking to block the legislation but worried that the vague draft language, and the enormous latitude of Italian judges, could lead to criminal discrimination charges for basic church practices. He insisted that hostility toward gay people did not motivate the Vatican opposition.

“We oppose any behavior or gesture of intolerance or hate toward people because of their sexual orientation,” he said.

Liberal supporters of Francis argue that letters like the one revealed by Father Martin on Sunday give them space to push ahead in their outreach. But Cardinal Müller said nothing of substance had changed since he left, and if anything, Francis had become stronger in his defense of the church’s core beliefs.

“The last signs were a little bit significant,” he said.

Complete Article HERE!

Italy is debating an LGBT anti-hate law.

The Vatican just took a rare step to protest it.

People rally during a pride parade in Turin, Italy, on June 5, 2021, to support the Zan law, a bill that imposes harsher penalties for anti-LGBT hate crimes.

By Chico Harlan and Stefano Pitrelli

The Vatican has taken a highly unusual step against its neighbor, sending a diplomatic note to the Italian government that protests a draft law aimed at preventing hate and violence against LGBT people.

The complaint marks a formal effort by the Vatican to influence Italian lawmaking and could provide a test for how forcefully the church can exercise its clout on culture war issues — not just as a religion but as a state.

While it’s common for church figures to take stances on affairs in other countries — whether on same-sex marriage, LGBT rights or abortion — in this case the Vatican is invoking its prerogatives as a nation, arguing that the law, if passed, would violate the “concordat” that provides the framework for its relationship with Italy.

“Some current contents of the draft being debated by the Senate reduce the freedom granted to the Catholic Church,” the Vatican’s note said, according to the Corriere della Sera newspaper, which first reported the letter.

The Vatican’s press office confirmed that the city-state sent a note to the Italian ambassador to the Holy See last week but did not provide more details. Benedetto Della Vedova, an Italian foreign ministry undersecretary who has read the document, called the message “heavy interference” and said the Vatican city-state had not previously attempted to influence the Italian government on highly contentious issues such as abortion and divorce.

“The effects of this escalation aren’t positive for anyone,” Della Vedova said. He declined to share a copy of the letter with The Washington Post, but he described the core of the Vatican’s contention — that the draft law would violate specific aspects of the concordat dealing with religious freedom and freedom of expression. The Vatican’s goal is to have the draft bill amended.

The law, known as the Zan bill, after gay activist lawmaker Alessandro Zan, was approved last year by Italy’s lower house and has since been under debate in the Senate, amid fierce national discussion. The bill would explicitly categorize violence against LGBT people as a hate crime, making it akin to racial or antisemitic attacks, while establishing harsher penalties than those currently on the books.

Members of far-right political parties have said the legislation would suppress opinion. The leader of the far-right League, Matteo Salvini, said it would punish those “who think a mom is a mom and a dad is a dad.”

Advocates say that the law would merely put Italy in line with other Western European countries and provide belated safeguards after a series of murders and assaults targeting transgender people. According to Rainbow Europe, an LGBT association, Italy provides some of the weakest legal protections on the continent for LGBT people.

The explanation for that is based partly on the Catholic Church’s deep historical influence on Italy. When Italy was first considering granting legal rights to same-sex couples, the powerful Italian bishops’ conference sponsored protests, and Pope Benedict XVI helped lead a campaign to stop it. (When Italy approved civil unions in 2016, Pope Francis took a more hands-off approach.)

But even though Francis has at times signaled a more welcoming church stance on homosexuality, the church has not shifted its official teachings and laws. In March, the Vatican made explicit its position that priests cannot bless same-sex marriages. The church has also taken a clear stance on gender issues and said in 2019 that people do not have the right to choose their own gender.

The Zan law provides protection to people based on gender identity, among other factors.

Crux, a Catholic news outlet, noted Tuesday that Francis has called gender theory “dangerous” and an example of evil at work.

“It is an attack on difference, on the creativity of God and on men and women,” the pope said in a book released last year.

But supporters of the Italian bill say the Vatican, even if concerned about the changing cultural perception of sexuality and gender, should not feel threatened by the proposed law. They note that any viewpoint is protected, as long as it does not “incite a concrete danger of discriminatory or violent actions.” They also note that the law will not force any school — including private Catholic ones — to participate in events teaching about transphobia and homophobia.

“The worries here are absolutely groundless,” Zan, the lawmaker, said in a phone interview.

Gabriele Piazzoni, secretary general of Arcigay, Italy’s largest gay rights group, said the church was perhaps more worried about public opinion — and the fact that some Catholics disagree with church teaching. According to the Pew Research Center, 75 percent of Italians say homosexuality should be accepted, a proportion lower than in other Western European countries but slightly higher than in the United States.

“The dissonance I see is between this kind of behavior by the Vatican and the majority of the Catholic world and of Catholic public opinion,” Piazzoni said. “Maybe they are afraid that the [Catholic school] students, parents and teachers may be the ones asking to hold initiatives against discrimination or violence. There could be a groundswell of requests that they want to prevent at all costs.”

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