The makers of the documentary Building a Bridge, which makes its debut on streaming platforms and video on demand on May 3, hope the film will extend the Church’s outreach to LGBTQ Catholics.
“I really want this film to be accessible in any part of the world, for that matter. We’re hoping that we’re going to launch educational opportunities to show in different high schools and colleges and universities and hopefully maybe have it at libraries,” said Evan Mascagni, one of two co-directors of the movie.
“Hopefully, we’ll be able to do a lot of those grassroots community screenings, and follow that up with Q-and-A’s,” Mascagni added. “Hopefully our film can be a resource or a tool for a parish, like someone who wants to start their own LGBTQ ministry in a place like Kentucky,” from which he hails.
“I really hope that the film can reach young people, and people who might not know any other clear path and feel they can joining a community or even start a community like Out in St. Paul,” a gay Catholic ministry featured in Building a Bridge, said Shannon Post, the other co-director, during an April 28 conference call with Catholic News Service.
Building a Bridge is based on the book of the same name by Jesuit Father James Martin, editor at large of America magazine and a consultor to the Vatican’s Dicastery for Communication as well as being the author of several books.
Father Martin, who admitted being “uncomfortable” being the focus of the film — “the film should be about the ministry, not me,” he said on the conference call — added, “parishes, too,” as an important point outreach with the movie.
Post had wanted to make a documentary about the shooting rampage at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, which killed 49 people, including a college classmate of hers
“My real target is the LGBTQ Catholic youth, who is wondering if there really is a place in the church for LGBTQ people,” Father Martin said. “They will see this and know that God loves them, and to quote Cardinal (Wilton D.) Gregory (of Washington), know that they are at the heart of the church.”
Post and Mascagni co-directed the 2015 documentary Circle of Poison, about the manufacture and sale in the United States of pesticides banned by the federal government for use in other nations.
Post had wanted to make a documentary about the shooting rampage at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, which killed 49 people, including a college classmate of hers. Mascagni, who had pretty much turned his back on the Catholic Church in which he was brought up, relented to his mother’s importuning that he go to a talk given by “a cool priest” she’d found on Instagram.
The priest was Father Martin. “It was one of his first Building a Bridge talks, Mascagni recalled. He then went to Post and said, “I think there’s a story here.”
They convinced Father Martin to let himself be filmed. When he was invited to speak at the Vatican’s World Conference of Families in 2018 in Dublin, Mascagni and Post told him: “We’re going to Dublin.” “Why are you coming to Dublin?” he remembers asking them. “They said, ‘We’re making a documentary,'” which is when he realized “this wasn’t going to be a fly-by-night operation. This was going to be a serious documentary.”
Three years later, Building a Bridge had its cinematic debut at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York. Assessments by many of those featured in the movie had good things to say. Critics of Father Martin’s ministry — among them Michael Voris of Church Militant, who is featured in the documentary — have yet to weigh in.
But Mascagni said: “In the film, we point out all the trolling that happens on Father Martin’s social media. Now that we’ve announced the film on social media, we’re starting to get a tiny part of that.”
In addition to Post and Mascagni’s “impact plan” to take the movie on the road with post-screening question-and-answer sessions and LGBTQ profiles they couldn’t jam into a feature that already was running 90 minutes long — America Media is introducing in May a new website called https://outreach.faith.
Father Martin will coordinate news and resources to be posted on the website, as well as details for a new “Outreach” conference for LGBTQ Catholics in June at Jesuit-run Fordham University.
“Parishes, particularly in the West, are realizing they have to deal with LGBTQ kids — as well as LGBTQ parishioners themselves,” he said. “That trend is not going to change. People are not going to stop coming out.”
Building a Bridge will be available on video on demand May 3, followed by a launch on AMC+ June 21 and broadcast premiere on Sundance TV June 26.
Parishioners worshipping at St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church in Harlem are greeted by a framed portrait of Martin Luther King Jr. — a Baptist minister named after a rebellious 16th century German priest excommunicated from the Catholic Church.
The Rev. Bryan Massingale, who sometimes preaches at St. Charles, pursues his ministry in ways that echo both Martin Luthers.
Like King, Massingale decries the scourge of racial inequality in the United States. As a professor at Fordham University, he teaches African American religious approaches to ethics.
Like the German Martin Luther, Massingale is often at odds with official Catholic teaching — he supports the ordination of women and making celibacy optional for Catholic clergy. And, as a gay man, he vocally disagrees with the church’s doctrine on same-sex relations, instead advocating for full inclusion of LGBTQ Catholics within the church.
The Vatican holds that gays and lesbians should be treated with dignity and respect, but that gay sex is “intrinsically disordered” and sinful.
In his homily on a recent Sunday, Massingale – who became public about being gay in 2019 — envisioned a world “where the dignity of every person is respected and protected, where everyone is loved.”
But the message of equality and tolerance is one “that is resisted even within our own faith household,” he added. “Preach!” a worshiper shouted in response.
Massingale was born in 1957 in Milwaukee. His mother was a school secretary and his father a factory worker whose family migrated from Mississippi to escape racial segregation.
But even in Wisconsin, racism was common. Massingale said his father couldn’t work as a carpenter because of a color bar preventing African Americans from joining the carpenters’ union.
The Massingales also experienced racism when they moved to Milwaukee’s outskirts and ventured to a predominately white parish.
“This would not be a very comfortable parish for you to be a part of,” he recalled the parish priest saying. Thereafter, the family commuted to a predominantly Black Catholic church.
Massingale recalled another incident, as a newly ordained priest, after celebrating his first Mass at a predominantly white church.
“The first parishioner to greet me at the door said to me: ‘Father, you being here is the worst mistake the archbishop could have made. People will never accept you.‘”
Massingale says he considered leaving the Catholic Church, but decided he was needed.
“I’m not going to let the church’s racism rob me of my relationship with God,” he said. “I see it as my mission to make the church what it says it is: more universal and the institution that I believe Jesus wants it to be.”
For Massingale, racism within the U.S. Catholic Church is a reason for the exodus of some Black Catholics; he says the church is not doing enough to tackle racism within its ranks and in broader society.
Nearly half of Black U.S. adults who were raised Catholic no longer identify as such, with many becoming Protestants, according to a 2021 survey by the Pew Research Center. About 6% of Black U.S. adults identify as Catholic and close to 80% believe opposing racism is essential to their faith, the survey found.
The U.S. Catholic Church has had a checkered history with race. Some of its institutions, such as Georgetown University, were involved in the slave trade, and it has struggled to recruit African American priests.
Conversely, Catholic schools were among the first to desegregate and some government officials who opposed racial integration were excommunicated.
In 2018, U.S. bishops issued a pastoral letter decrying “the persistence of the evil of racism,” but Massingale was disappointed.
“The phrase ‘white nationalism’ is not stated in that document; it doesn’t talk about the Black Lives Matter movement,” he said. “The problem with the church’s teachings on racism is that they are written in a way that is calculated not to disturb white people.”
At Fordham, a Jesuit university, Massingale teaches a class on homosexuality and Christian ethics, using biblical texts to challenge church teaching on same-sex relations. He said he came to terms with his own sexuality at 22, upon reflecting on the book of Isaiah.
“I realized that no matter what the church said, God loved me and accepted me as a Black gay man,” he said.
His ordination in 1983 came in the early years of the HIV/AIDS epidemic that disproportionately affected gay men and Black Americans. Among his first funerals as a priest was that of a gay man whose family wanted no mention of his sexuality or the disease.
“They should have been able to turn to their church in their time of grief,” Massingale said. “Yet they couldn’t because that stigma existed in great measure because of how many ministers were speaking about homosexuality and AIDS as being a punishment for sin.”
Pope Francis has called for compassionate pastoral care for LGBTQ Catholics. However, he has described homosexuality among the clergy as worrisome, and Vatican law remains clear: same-sex unions cannot be blessed within the church. Some dioceses have fired openly LGBTQ employees.
Massingale has a different vision of the church: one where Catholics enjoy the same privileges regardless of sexual orientation.
“I think that one can express one’s sexuality in a way that is responsible, committed, life giving and an experience of joy,” he said.
Massingale has received recognition for his advocacy from like-minded organizations such as FutureChurch, which says priests should be allowed to marry and women should have more leadership roles within the church.
“He is one of the most prophetic, compelling, inspiring, transforming leaders in the Catholic Church,” said Deborah Rose-Milavec, the organization’s co-director. “When he speaks, you know very deep truth is being spoken.”
Along with his many admirers, Massingale has some vehement critics, such as the conservative Catholic news outlet Church Militant, which depicts his LGBTQ advocacy as sinful.
At Fordham, Massingale is well-respected by colleagues, and was honored by the university with a prestigious endowed chair. To the extent he has any critics among the Fordham faculty, they tend to keep their misgivings out of the public sphere.
He says he receives many messages of hope and support, but becoming public about his sexuality has come at a cost.
“I have lost some priest friends who find it difficult to be too closely associated with me because if they’re friends with me, ‘what will people say about them?’” he said.
Massingale remains optimistic about gradual change in the Catholic Church because of Pope Francis and recent signals from bishops in Europe who expressed a desire for changes, including blessing same-sex unions.
“My dream wedding would be either two men or two women standing before the church; marrying each other as an act of faith and I can be there as the official witness to say: “Yes, this is of God,” he said after a recent class at Fordham. “If they were Black, that would be wonderful.”
Around 125 people including former and current priests in Germany came out as gay and queer and demanded an end to institutional discrimination against the queer community.
Over 120 priests and employees with the Catholic church community in Germany came out as queer and launched a campaign demanding an end to institutional discrimination against LGBTQ people.
The Roman Catholic Church in Germany on Sunday faced renewed calls for better protection of LGBTQ rights and an end to institutional discrimination against queer people.
Around 125 people, including former and current priests, teachers, church administrators and volunteers, identified themselves as gay and queer, asking the church to take into account their demands and do away with “outdated statements of church doctrine” when it comes to sexuality and gender.
The members of the church community published seven demands on social media under the “OutInChurch” initiative. These demands range from queer people saying they should be able to live without fear and have access to all kinds of activities and occupations in the church without discrimination.
They said their sexual orientation must never be considered a breach of loyalty or reason for dismissal from their occupation. They ask the church to revise its statements on sexuality based on “theological and human-scientific findings.”
Besides asking for equal rights, employees also put down demands that the church takes accountability for their discrimination against people of the community throughout history, calling on the bishop to take responsibility on behalf of the church.
What has been the Vatican’s stance?
The Vatican, home of the pope and the Roman Catholic Church, ruled last year that priests cannot bless same-sex unions and that such blessings weren’t valid.
But the ruling also reignited a debate on the matter, and there was considerable resistance against it in some parts of Germany.
Last year, at least two bishops in Germany, including Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich, one of the pope’s top advisers, showed some support for a kind of “pastoral” blessing for same-sex unions.
In Germany and the United States, parishes and ministers also began blessing same-sex unions in lieu of marriage, with growing calls for bishops to institutionalize gay marriage.
However, in response to formal questions from a number of dioceses on whether the practice was allowed, the Vatican’s doctrinal office, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) made clear it wasn’t, ruling: “negative.”
Pope Francis approved the response, adding that it was “not intended to be a form of unjust discrimination, but rather a reminder of the truth of the liturgical rite” of the sacrament of marriage.
I wanted to keep him out of trouble with the Church, but he shows no evidence of wishing the same in this impassioned plea for love & justice
By James Finn
Fr. Andy Herman is a Roman Catholic priest who corresponds with me about LGBTQ issues. I have sometimes observed that Catholic priests are reluctant to publicly criticise Church teachings and practices.
Andy is a remarkable, refreshing exception. He offered to be interviewed. I asked him to write up a first-person story. This is it, after I edited and polished it. I wanted to keep him out of trouble with the Church, but he shows no evidence of wishing the same, which you’ll see in this impassioned, earthy plea for love and justice.
If this story inspires you, ask him for more, especially accounts of his youth rescue work in Los Angeles, which is hair-raising love in action.
Hi! My name’s Andy!
(“Hi Andy!” )
(“Welcome, Andy!” [Applause.])
And I have been “intrinsically disordered” for… 74 years!
([Applause picks up, whoops & shouts of encouragement and congratulations.])
I know that’s tweaked a bit, because to be honest I’m not personally familiar with 12-step meetings. But the real problem is, it’s ass backwards.
My real name IS Andy. Andy Herman. Father Andy Herman. I’m a Roman Catholic priest.
I retired myself from public ministry with the institutional Catholic Church, because many years ago I vowed to make sure my mom and dad would never have to go into a nursing home as they declined in age. Which vow I was able to keep.
I was also canonically bounced out of my religious community, because I decided not to return to them while I was taking care of my parents. It was all very friendly. Honestly. I have the documentation to prove it.
But I’m not here to talk about me.
I am here to talk about the ass backwards garbage coming out of the Catholic Diocese of Marquette, Michigan.
I’m sure those of you who keep up with Catholic news know what I’m talking about. Members of the LGBTQIA+ community in that diocese have, in essence, been told to go eff themselves.
LGBTQ Catholics are not wanted in Upper Michigan in any way, shape, or form. They will not be permitted to take part in most (or any) of the sacramental and communal life of the Church.
What I do now is try to help homeless people on the street, most especially homeless kids, and really most especially, LGBTQ kids.
The Marquette Diocese is led by a Bishop whose name I will not utter, in the manner of news organizations not repeating the name of a perpetrator of a particularly terrible crime. That’s what’s going on in Upper Michigan — crimes against LGBTQIA+ people, especially Roman Catholics.
Let’s call him Bishop ID, Intrinsically Disordered, because that’s what the Catechism of the Catholic Church calls US. Or better yet, let me refer to him as Bishop AB. Sure you get that one right off.
I ranted about this situation in a letter to the Prism & Pen editors, when it was first reported here. I was told maybe I could pen something, but just shave off some of the rougher ranting edges. So, I think I’ve un-ranted pretty much, and also don’t want to go into some analysis that’s already been done.
I just want to present a couple of points to the people of Upper Michigan, especially those of you who may be LGBTQ+ Catholics, and, I guess, particularly to those of you who may want to remain in the Church.
I’ll also presume that latter description is one that many of you have already answered. Like so many of us, you’ve already left a place where you’re not wanted.
Let me just briefly tell you what these points are, and, if you think they’re worth something, please share them if it’s at all appropriate, especially with young people who are on the LGBTQIA+ spectrum.
I grew up in Chicago and have been out here in Los Angeles for many years. What I do now is try to help homeless people on the street, most especially homeless kids, and really most especially, LGBTQ kids.
So I am sick and tired — to put it mildly — to have to, for the 3 millionth time in my life, explain THIS to kids who are of our community:
There is not a damn thing wrong with you.
God does love you, and Jesus never said an effing thing against you.
Period. But let me not rant further.
Let me, as a trained Roman Catholic priest, make the following points:
1.) Apparently, the Bishop of Marquette, and so many others like him, have spent not one moment praying, meditating, contemplating, experiencing, talking about, or studying anything of any consequence regarding the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
What the Bishop is perpetrating is utterly opposite to that Gospel. I’m wrong about a lot of things in life, but I damn well know what I just said is accurate. The only persons who are “intrinsically disordered” here are Bishop AB and his cohorts.
To my fellow LGBTQ people, I say continue to be safe, protect yourselves, and THRIVE in all the practical ways you can, especially you who are our children. Never be the victims of this garbage, inside or outside yourselves.
2.) Pope Francis has called for a two-year process of synodality, and especially asked that people whose voices are opposite to, or never heard in the context of the Catholic Church, be given a seat at the table to discuss where the hell the Church should be going in years to come.
So, if you have the inkling to, speak up and tell Bishop AB that the Pope has personally invited you to sit at the table and give, even if that giving is seen as opposing the traditional, death-encrusted way talking about our faith that our Catholic leaders have indulged in for far too long.
3.) What Bishop AB has done is absolutely and utterly in contradiction to the morality of the Gospel, and certainly to the best pastoral practice of Catholic Church teaching. More than anything, he stands in utter defiance of Pope Francis’ attitude, which puts caring about people in front of stagnant, dormant, full-of-crap definitions of dogma and Catholic practice.
Bishop AB has declared dangerous nonsense against our community in the Diocese of Marquette, and if you want to get involved, please, you should immediately contact the Office of the Apostolic Nuncio to the United States, Archbishop Christophe Pierre. Ask that a canonical investigation of Bishop AB be initiated, and ask that — if the findings are as accurate as they are publicly presented now, and he is in egregious violation of the teachings of Jesus Christ — that he be removed from office immediately.
With a sigh, I would also suggest that you might recommend an investigation to determine if Bishop AB is something like a “Bishop Roy Cohn,” a name I would give him if he, sadly, is a self-hating member of our community, just like the notorious lawyer on the national scene years ago.
4.) No matter what you want to do, please always realize you don’t have to celebrate sacraments to get into heaven, if that’s the way you think about things, especially if the people who are supposed to guard the integrity of your “immortal soul” refuse you access to those very sacraments.
You can really get in contact with Jesus with the same surety as they supposedly offer, by simply sitting and praying — or gathering together with priests who have the cojones to offer Mass and celebrate the other sacraments, with and for you.
And if none of those “guys” up there in Michigan’s UP will do this, do it yourselves. Baptize one another. Confirm your kids reaching adulthood into belief that Jesus loves them. Forgive one another.
And most of all, consecrate bread and wine under the aegis that if two or three are gathered together in Jesus name, he is absolutely and uncontestedly present with and to you.
This is not BS passing for shallow theology. It is based in the Gospels.
5.) My last point is an old one from a most moldy and oldie traditional pastoral theology of the Sacrament of Penance, but it bears looking at. If a penitent is not able in some ways to recognize that he or she has sinned, or there are other confusions and concerns about whether or not the sins can be forgiven, a confessor can take upon himself the sins of the penitent, in order that the penitent be freed and given absolution.
So all of you LGBTQ people out there who make love, get married, and have great and loving sex, all of which are considered grievous sins by the Catholic Church, send the damn things over to me, because I sure as hell WILL accept them without any fear of ending up in hell myself. (If you even talk in language like that, because I don’t.)
Even if you don’t go to confession anymore, that’s my offer as a priest. Just sit down, get yourself into a state where you can think about these things, and send them over to me.
I will absorb them, and you are free to go about your normal, regular daily life. But please only do this if it really bothers you and you think that way. Otherwise, who cares?
Do you really think Jesus is sitting at the prosecutors’ table or even behind the bench as the judge, and wants to forgive you for stuff that, even to a nitpicker, isn’t worth being denied 10 nanoseconds of eternity without being completely wrapped up with God?
Remember who’s intrinsically disordered.
You may be an ass, you may be a jerk, you may be evil as hell, you may be lots of things, but you are not an evil person just because you are LGBTQ. You/We are exactly the opposite: we are the sons and daughters of a loving God, brothers and sisters of Jesus of Nazareth, the Anointed One.
If that’s how you want to phrase it.
The only kind of sex that is ever evil or sinful is coercive sex, otherwise known as assault and/or rape. That includes trafficking, but cannot include sex workers themselves, per se.
If someone is forced to do that to stay alive, or doing it for some negative psychological or emotional reason, the situation is evil, not the people forced into it. Gay, straight, or anywhere on the spectrum.
Let’s not get confused about this. Jesus never said anything about this.
Back when the early church sought to make itself more credible, it adopted certain forms of Greek philosophy, including this idea known as the “Natural Law.” Saint Thomas Aquinas adopted and pushed these ideas. He was apparently not a bad guy, but he cannot possibly stand in as a substitute for Jesus.
All that extra-Biblical natural law business, mixed up with the rather primitive prescriptions against any kind of same-sex anything, especially in the Jewish scriptures — well, that leads to the wondrously inhumane, tragically harmful attitudes and behaviors we see too often in the Church today.
Stay away from this thinking, these attitudes and actions.
Read the Gospel. Talk to people who don’t like being cruel and hateful to others, especially to kids. Band together with them. I think you’ll find that the brief analysis I’ve given here on these points is accurate.
Stay away from those who are the opposite, like Bishop AB and his followers. If you feel like telling them to go to hell, I don’t think it’s going to really matter because they may be on their way anyway.<
But everyone, even the most horrible sinners, can be forgiven. So I say, “Look in the mirror, Bishop AB.”
In the words of Pope Francis, “Who am I to judge?” I don’t know who any of you are in person, but I send you my love and my support and my prayer and I ask you, please — for me and most especially for the homeless LGBTQ youth I work with — to throw it all back at me.
In the name of Jesus of Nazareth, Son of God, Son of Man, or whoever you really think he is: Love one another, unconditionally, as he loves us.
Thanks for reading.
Fr. Andy Herman ***********************
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
This year, like every year for the past 20, Szymon Niemiec will wear a rainbow-colored stole at the Equality Parade in the Polish capital of Warsaw on June 19. “I won’t have a banner because I will be leading the entire parade. I can’t keep my hands full,” says Niemiec. The 43-year-old has seemingly contradictory roles — one as a prominent LGBTQ rights activist and the other as a priest, in a country where church and government are united in condemnation of and hostility towards the LGBTQ community.
Niemiec organized Poland’s first Equality Parade in Warsaw in 2001, which drew a crowd of 300 people. Each year, the crowds have grown bigger (with the exception of the 2020 parade, which was hosted virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic). By 2003, thousands joined and in 2019, 50,000 people marched in the largest Pride event in central and eastern Europe. Now, in at least 20 cities across Poland, the parades are taking place throughout June albeit with limited numbers owing to the pandemic.
But this year’s events are taking place at a time when homophobia is on the rise in Poland, fueled by hateful comments from the government and Roman Catholic Church (RCC) leaders. According to a 2020 survey by ILGA-Europe, a Brussels-based advocacy group, Poland ranks as the most homophobic country of the E.U.’s 27 member- states. In the past two years, 94 local authorities have adopted non-binding resolutions opposing what they call the “LGBT ideology”, labelled “humanity free” zones by E.U. president Ursula von der Leyen. “It has a chilling effect on people living there, who are now even more scared to come out. Those who bully LGBTQ people are emboldened by homophobic politicians,” says Bart Staszewski, a Polish director and LGBTQ rights activist.
The nationalist Law and Justice party (PiS) has rallied its conservative support base first by targeting migrants and then the LGBTQ community since taking office in 2015. Last summer, Polish President Andrej Duda declared that “LGBT are not people; they are an ideology.”
PiS echoes the views of Poland’s Catholic church, which often takes a stronger stance than the Vatican on social issues. After Pope Francis said same-sex couples should be supported by civil union laws, a spokesperson from the Polish Bishops Conference declared that the Pope’s words were not part of the Church doctrine. “The board that presides over the Polish Bishops’ Conference is dominated by the most conservative bishops. The negative attitude towards the more liberal currents in the Church is tangible,” says Marta Kotwas, a doctoral researcher specializing in Polish politics and society at University College London. Many Polish catholics oppose Francis’s attempt to move away from the Vatican’s firm adherence to traditional doctrine and deeply conservative stance on sexual morality under Pope John Paul II, the Polish former archbishop of Krakow. The late pontiff is seen as a national hero in his homeland for supporting the pro-democracy movement that overthrew the communist government in 1989.
In deeply devout Poland, where 87% of the population identify as Roman Catholic, activists are trying to create a space for people to be openly LGBTQ and also Christian. They are part of a growing international movement of churches and religious organizations that advocate LGBTQ rights. In recent years, clergy have begun blessing same-sex marriages in New Zealand’s Anglican Church, Germany’s Catholic Churches and U.S.’s Presbyterian Churches. In Poland, it’s almost impossible for openly LGBTQ people to remain an active part of the Roman Catholic Church, which, according to activists, excommunicates people who are openly LGBTQ. Marek Jedraszewski, the current archbishop of Krakow, referred to LGBTQ people as “the rainbow plague” in 2019. “Just holding a rainbow umbrella or bag could get you kicked out from the church,” says Niemiec.
At the same time activists say the LGBTQ community can be very critical of openly religious members. “It is generally anti-clerical, and often anti-religious”, because of the “damage” that the RCC has done to them, says Uschi Pawlik, a co-leader of a local group at the Faith and Rainbow Foundation, which aims to promote acceptance LGBTQ people in Poland’s Christian churches. Niemiec and the foundation’s 20 active members are practically the only people in Poland trying to promote full acceptance of the Christian LGBTQ community. “It’s an enormous job with very few human resources,” says Pawlik.
How an activist became a man of the cloth
In 1998, when Niemiec became an activist, the country’s LGBTQ rights movement was only just beginning to emerge. At that time, the 21-year-old was working as a journalist for a weekly newspaper covering news of Warsaw. His editor in chief sent him to report on what Niemiec calls one of the first gay demonstrations in the city. “Two men and a lot of journalists attended,” he says. For reasons he says he can’t explain, he decided to join the demonstrators. “It triggered something in me,” he says. Like the two men, he covered his face with a scarf and put on sunglasses. The spontaneous decision was both his coming out as gay and first act of LGBTQ activism.
Niemiec says the next day he was fired from his job. “My boss told me that I crossed a line by joining the demonstration,” he says. In 1998, five years before the passing of anti-discrimination legislation in Poland’s labor code, he says it was possible for someone to lose their job for being openly LGBTQ or being seen to support this community’s rights.
Later, he began training as a psychologist while working as a cultural ambassador of Poland to the International Lesbian and Gay Culture Network, a post he held from 2000 to 2006. The Network aims to bring together groups and individuals around the world to end homophobia through culture. One of his main goals, in addition to launching Poland’s first Equality Parade, was to find churches that welcomed the LGBTQ community. He wrote to every church and religious association in the country, he says, but did not receive a single response. “We were rejected,” he says.
Recognizing that Poland’s LGBTQ Christian community lacked leaders and spokespeople is what prompted Niemiec to become an independent Catholic priest. In 2006, bishop Paul David C. Strong from the Christian United Church and an independent Catholic Church, ordained him deacon, a low ranking member of the Christian ministry. Independent Catholic denominations are made up of clergy and non-clergy that self-identify as Catholic but are not affiliated with historic Catholic churches, such as the RCC. Followers often choose independent Catholicism as an alternative way to express their beliefs because they reject some traditional Catholic teachings. As a deacon, Niemiec began holding public masses in rented rooms and a house chapel. “It was a church for everyone,” he says. In 2010, Strong ordained him priest and in 2012, bishop.
Inclusive churches are crucial for LGBTQ people who have been expelled from their church and want to remain active Christians. For people living outside big cities, being kicked out of a church means being ostracized from an entire community. “It is extremely painful. There is a huge difference between a big city like Warsaw and Krakow, where you can hide, but what about small villages or small cities where everyone knows each other? Some priests have outed the name of a gay person from the pulpit and described them as a danger to the community,” says Niemiec.
The Faith and Rainbow Foundation has been trying to hold parishes and priests to account over public homophobic statements. Members of the foundation, set up ten years ago and formalized in 2018, regularly write letters and individual emails to churches and the clergymen about the effects such rhetoric can have. “Their messages are broadcast in catholic media, it trickles down onto ordinary people and it results in individual tragedies,” says Pawlik. Roman Catholic officials have never replied to their letters, nor have they responded to their dozens of requests to meet with the foundation, she says.
‘I am now an openly gay Catholic and I stand with my head high’
The most important aspect of the group’s work, says Pawlik, is local meetings for LGBTQ Christians, many of whom “are in difficult situations and deeply in the closet.” Twice a month, the foundation organizes local meetings in six cities across the country, where some 150 members discuss passages from the bible and LGBTQ issues. “I can see that for many people, this is the only context where they can really be themselves,” she says. Kazimierz Strzelec, a member of the foundation’s Advisory Committee and mechanic from a town near Lublin in the country’s east, says the foundation “changed his life.” It taught him “what the bible really writes about LGBT people and how to interpret it,” he says, “I am now an openly gay Catholic and I stand with my head high.”
With just 20 active members, the foundation is restricted in how much it can do. But if there is a possibility to expand, Pawlik says she would like to team up with professional psychologists to run a mental health support program. The activist says there is also a need in Poland for clergy-run pastoral care specifically for LGBTQ Catholics as an alternative to the pastoral initiatives sponsored by the Roman Catholic Church, which, according to her, places an emphasis on “curing” people from homosexuality. Last August, Poland’s Catholic episcopate came under fire from activists after releasing a “position on LGBT+”, which called for the creation of therapy centers for “people wishing to regain their sexual health and natural sexual orientation.” Bishops later clarified that they would not force LGBTQ people to undergo therapy.
Niemiec was forced to stop holding public masses after a public prosecutor in October 2019 accused him and two of his colleagues of “offending religious feelings” in connection to his services. The offence is punishable by up to two years in jail. The police have not banned Niemiec’s services, but he says the negative media coverage surrounding the case has put him and people attending his services at greater risk of anti-LGBTQ aggression or violence.
The priest has long been aware of the dangers that come with being an prominent LGBTQ activist in Poland. Over the past two decades, he says he has been depicted as an “enemy” in the state media and been the target of physical attacks on three occasions, which he believes were motivated by anti-LGBTQ hate. There is no official data on hate crimes based on sexual orientation or gender identity, as they are not recognized in Polish law. But activists say that violence against LGBTQ people in Poland has increased in the last year, and included cases of physical violence.
Although Niemiec no longer holds public masses, he still conducts private weddings, funerals and other services. “If anyone needs me to make sacraments, I will be there,” he says, “there are people like me all over the world”. A sense of international solidarity seems to be important for Niemiec, who speaks about his friends in the U.S. and Europe, and the Faith and Rainbow Foundation, whose social media account posts daily updates about positive developments in LGBTQ rights movements around the world.
After a year of restricted religious services and virtual meetings due to the pandemic, this year’s Equality Parade is an especially significant celebration for activists of faith. “We will be visible with our banners and our flags, showing the public that LGBT Christian people do exist,” says Pawlik. “We’re making a space for ourselves.”
On a sunny Sunday evening in May, 80 people gathered in a Berlin church for a calm Catholic revolution. At 6pm the 11 metre-high wooden doors of the modernist church of St Canisius were opened for an inclusive Mass of blessing. Spaced out in pairs around the airy church were mainly same-sex couples, all looking ahead at the lanky Jesuit priest.
With expectation in the air, Fr Jan Korditschke removed his face mask and, wearing a broad smile, spread his arms and invited all present to join him in celebrating love. His sermon drew on John’s Gospel, that love is from God, and that it is not in the purview of a priest or a pope to deny the God-given blessing of love.
“God is present in love and and loving couples are already blessed with the presence of God. I am just giving it a framework through this rite,” he said.
Afterwards, with two assistants Korditschke worked his way through the church, talked briefly to each couple before praying together. Behind medical masks many tears flowed.
“It was such a relief, like a stone was rolling away from my heart,” said one man, Georg, alongside his partner afterward.
The Berlin Mass was the last in a series of services across Germany under the banner #liebegewinnt – love wins. The services were triggered by a Vatican document from March restating Catholic teaching that homosexual acts are disordered and blessings for same-sex unions are impossible.
One attendee, Robert, said he came with his partner in protest at the document’s key sentence that “God does not and cannot bless sin”. “By posing a question no one asked, just to answer it in such cold language,” he said, “Rome tried to ram home its point but have triggered a reaction they didn’t expect.”
A few feet away 15 young men and one middle-aged woman held a large hand-written banner reading “God cannot bless sin” and recited the rosary during the Mass. One protester, who declined to give his name, said that obedience to papal teaching is what has held the Catholic Church together for two millennia.
“I worry that carry-on like this,” he said, with a nod to the emerging massgoers, “will bring us toward another schism.”
Exactly 500 years ago, the renegade Augustinian monk Martin Luther was ordered in public to submit to this absolute papal authority by recanting his claims of corrupt church practice and flawed teaching.
Luther turned the tables on Rome by demanding they prove that his scripture-based understanding of the Christian faith was false. The confrontation spiralled and his challenge became a channel for a host of political and modernising forces. Western Christianity split and the world was never the same again.
History doesn’t repeat itself; in a largely secular Europe, most people would struggle to spell schism, let alone see any relevance for their lives. Still, something is brewing in the land of the Reformation as individual protests within the church of Rome feed into each other to create a crackling, Catholic conflagration.
German bishops appear unsure like never before as to where their loyalties lie. Should they deploy the Roman fire blanket, suffocate the flames and denounce critics as arsonist apostates? Or does their survival hinge on embracing the protest and facing down Rome?
Like their Irish colleagues, the German bishops’ fumbled response to clerical sexual abuse allegations and their cover-up in the past decade has drained away credibility and public support.
Nowhere is the struggle more visible – or the stakes higher – than in the western city of Cologne. For centuries its hulking Gothic cathedral has been a touchstone of German Catholicism. For many German believers, though, Cologne is now the epicentre of institutional dysfunction and denial, in particular over the scale of clerical child abuse and the systematic nature of its cover-up.
Last year Cologne’s conservative archbishop, Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki, came under fire for suppressing a report he himself commissioned into clerical sexual abuse. A replacement report followed this year and triggered two bishops’ departure, but critics say this document was careful to avoid any analysis of whether church structures were a contributory factor to abuse. Tensions continue to build.
In January a local priest, Klaus Koltermann, wrote to Cardinal Woelki, warning of “disquiet among the greatest believers” in his parish of Dormagen, 20 minutes north of Cologne. When a local newspaper reprinted his letter, Koltermann’s superiors warned of “possibly serious breaches of your service obligations . . . that could have consequences”.
The threat was withdrawn when the priest went public with their correspondence, a stand-off he describes as a learning experience. “A new solidarity has to grow amongst us,” he told The Irish Times. “We have to become more courageous. Sadly, we priests never learned to stand up for our faith – in the church.”
Such cases of conscience-led insubordination are gaining momentum. Two weeks ago Catholics at an ecumenical gathering with Germany’s Lutherans held joint eucharistic celebrations in defiance of their bishops.
This week a parish in Düsseldorf wrote to Cardinal Woelki disinviting him as celebrant at their confirmation Mass next month. Woelki once served as a deacon in the parish, as did two abusing priests. In their letter, some 140 parishioners said they feared the cardinal would “instrumentalise” their children’s confirmation to hit back at his critics.
“You are for us, sadly, no longer credible, we have lost our trust in you as a bishop,” they wrote.
Unlike in other countries, German Catholics have a clear way to express a vote of no-confidence with the Kirchenaustritt (church departure). All Christian church members in Germany automatically pay a so-called “church tax” in a system dating back to the 19th century, calculated at 8 per cent of their income tax. Effectively a membership fee, it earns Germany’s Catholic Church some ¤6 billion annually. Revoking the payment is seen as revocation of church membership.
The number of annual departures in 2019 was 218,000, twice the number of a decade ago. Numbers for 2020 have yet to be collated but, based on anecdotal evidence, the ongoing abuse debate has prompted an unprecedented rush for the exits.
Already facing a ticking demographic time bomb, Catholic bishops announced a “synodal process” in 2019 to discuss the road ahead. With 230 members (lay and religious) discussions are under way in four groups examining the role of priests, church power, sexuality and women in ministry. The pandemic shifted discussions online but organisers hope in-person gatherings can begin from September, with the first votes on proposals by Christmas.
For Bishop Georg Bätzing, head of the German episcopate, the “synodal path” is a balancing act between church liberals and traditionalists – with Rome looking on warily.
His relief was palpable this week when Pope Francis announced plans for a worldwide synodal consultation. This, said the German bishop, was proof that “we are neither schismatic nor do we as a German national church want to loosen ourselves from Rome”.
Expectations of the process are modest, however, given two emergency brakes built into the process: any decisions from the synodal path require unanimous backing of bishops, then approval from Rome.
Rather than wait for reform from within, Lisa Kötter began a church strike two years ago, out of which has grown a grassroots movement called Maria 2.0. Two years on, with regular protests and prayer services, Maria 2.0 has gone global with its demands for the inclusion of women in all church functions, an end to mandatory celibacy, and a consequential response to clerical sexual abuse.
“We see the entire patriarchal basis of the Catholic Church as wrong and not inclusive, out of step with the teaching of Jesus,” said Kötter.
It’s a measure of the movement’s effect that it already has a conservative countermovement, Maria 1.0. And, after initial icy silence, Kötter has been invited to private meetings with bishops. But the friendly conversation always reaches a dead end, she says, when conversation turns to the main bone of contention: church privileges and power that men claim for themselves.
With calls for women priests and blessing same-sex couples, Kötter and Fr Korditschke push back against the idea that they are part of a Luther 2.0 movement. Neither wants a break with Rome but, then again, neither did the man who became the face of the Reformation.
Korditschke says Germany’s Lutheran churches, with more liberal positions on women ministers and social questions, have raised expectations among local Catholics — and tensions when change comes slowly, or not at all.
“I look to Jesus, who was respectful of religious leaders and the sabbath but not afraid of conflict when it came to prioritising the good of people,” said Korditschke, who was baptised Lutheran, converted to Catholicism aged 16 and has no plans to return.
“I don’t see myself at odds with the Catholic Church and, unlike Martin Luther, I pray every day for the pope and serve my church. This is my home.”
After lighting a fuse in Germany two years ago, Kötter sees neither the structural means nor political appetite for reform among German Catholic bishops. She dismisses the synodal path as a “simulation”.
“They haven’t heard the sign of the times, the demands for change. Their ears are trained to hear nothing except their own hymns.”