— I feel like a second-class citizen in the Church of England
The church made me answer prurient questions in order to be ordained – and if I were to enter a civil marriage, I’d essentially be sacked
In many ways, my partner and I are quite boring and conventional. We may have met through a dating app – very 21st century – but otherwise there’s been nothing particularly scandalous or unusual about how we do things. Quite frankly, most people wouldn’t bat an eyelid.
Except, of course, for the fact that I’m a priest in the Church of England – and that’s where the problems begin. For while the rest of the country seems able to see the clear and unambiguous good that springs from same-sex relationships, the church continues to drag its heels. For years, in fact, it has told us that there’s nothing good at all about our love for one another – that it’s something to be shunned, embarrassed about, even erased. Our love is, ultimately, a problem.
The poverty of such a view has become increasingly obvious to those within the church and without, but the bishops of the C of E have resolutely refused to say anything at all for years. They – including those bishops who are secretly gay – have been cowed into silence by threats from those who oppose same-sex marriage. A few years ago, in 2017, they finally said something – recognising that the church’s record had hardly been positive towards LGBTQ people but coupled with a firm refusal to do anything about it. And the clergy of the C of E told them to get stuffed.
So we find ourselves here in 2023, at the end of a long and, at times, tedious and painful process of thinking and discernment about sexuality across the church. We all knew something was coming, whether it was to keep the status quo or to make some kind of change. What we weren’t expecting was the inability of the House of Bishops to keep stumm before the official announcement.
And so, on Wednesday, we woke up to news that the bishops had decided that our love wasn’t all that bad after all, and that we may be allowed to have our relationship blessed in a church in the near future. As a priest, too, I may finally be able to support the same-sex couples that come to us asking for blessings or for marriage, and who we have to turn away.
And perhaps, at last, the prurient and strange questioning that we face as clergy could soon be a thing of the past, because at the moment people outside the church would genuinely not believe the kind of things we are asked about our love lives, and the things we have to commit to in order to be ordained – among them an almost obsessive focus on celibacy. Our priests, deacons and even bishops either put utterly unacceptable and unsustainable pressure on their relationships and on their partners, or they are actively encouraged to lie. And if we enter into civil marriages with people of the same sex, we are essentially sacked too. We are in one hell of a mess.
The problem, though, is that while the bishops have offered us blessings, they’ve stopped short of offering us marriage. There are all kind of complicated political and pragmatic reasons for going no further than blessings, but somehow that doesn’t quite make it better. It still feels like crumbs under the table. We remain second-class citizens.
For me, and for many of my clergy friends and colleagues, we may understand the politics and the pragmatism, and the reality of the situation we find ourselves in. We may know it will only ever be a slow process towards inclusion, and this is the next stepping stone on the journey. Yet it still feels like a gut punch. It still feels like we are begging for our place at the table. It still feels like we’re worth fighting for, but only so far. The church may indeed be planning to apologise, but it continues to do the damage.
So Piotr and I won’t be getting married any time soon. The C of E doesn’t want us to just yet. But change is coming, however slowly and painstakingly – and we aren’t giving up the fight for justice. And one day, the church may just recognise our love for what it really is – a love that moves mountains, and a love that changes everything.
Charlie Bell is an Anglican priest in the diocese of Southwark and a Fellow at Girton College, Cambridge
Gian Luca Rodrigues Cavallaro has a unique claim to fame: he’s a gay Catholic bishop who’s happily married – and he’s got a powerful message of love and inclusivity for the world.
by Patrick Kelleher
It should go without saying that Gian isn’t a bishop in the Roman Catholic Church – homosexuality is strictly frowned upon by the church, and gay sex is still viewed as a sin.
Instead, he’s a bishop in the Inclusive Portuguese Catholic Church, where he preaches his message that love is for all.
Gian was just eight years old when he felt the calling to become a priest, he tells PinkNews. Before long, he started to realise that he was also gay – and spent his next few years tormented.
“On the one hand I wanted to become a priest, but on the other, I didn’t want to give up on the idea of a relationship,” he says.
“My dream was to become a priest and marry at the same time with my future boyfriend, but I thought this was not possible.”
After he finished school, Gian went to a Roman Catholic seminary to train as a priest.
“I was willing to even renounce my emotional sphere,” he says. But after six months, he left the seminary due to what he describes as “the hypocrisy of some superiors”.
It was shortly after he left the seminary that he met a female priest from another church (Roman Catholicism doesn’t allow women to become priests). That chance encounter made him see another way was possible.
“That meeting, as if by magic, opened me up to a completely new world,” he says.
“Finally, I saw the plan of God, that was already written. My path was to be a priest without renouncing my emotional sphere.”
At first, Gian became a priest with the Reformed Old Catholic Church in Italy. In 2019, he moved to Portugal, but he struggled to find others there who wanted to be part of an inclusive Catholic Church.
“It was difficult and, in the beginning, I was a bit demoralised because without structure and without resources, it was difficult to reach people,” he says.
“But, with the grace of God, I was able to meet some people that were willing to share this path with me.”
It wasn’t until 2022 that Gian and others who believed in his mission decided to set up the Inclusive Portuguese Catholic Church. Shortly afterwards, members chose him to serve as a bishop within the group.
Gay Catholic bishop believes he and his husband were ‘predestined’ to be together
It was also in Portugal that Gian met Robson, the man who would go on to become his husband.
“He is Brazilian and I am Italian so it is curious that two people born in far-off countries could meet, but God chose us before the foundation of the world,” he says, referencing a passage in the New Testament.
“I am convinced that we were predestined to be together.”
Gian’s husband hasn’t always shared his love for religion and God – when they first met, he was “apathetic” about it, although he always supported Gian’s calling.
I had the joy to baptise him. No one forced him, it was his choice and he asked me.
However, before long, Robson embarked on a “personal path”, which led to him forming his own faith.
“This year, I had the joy to baptise him. No one forced him, it was his choice and he asked me,” Gian says.
While Gian has found fulfilment in his own church, he understands why so many LGBTQ+ people still see organised religion as an alienating and harmful concept.
His message to the Catholic Church is a simple one – he hopes it will come to see LGBTQ+ people as human beings who deserve love.
“I have the impression that sometimes they forget about the primacy of personal conscience, and they excommunicate priests and religious people just because they preach the gospel,” he says.
Pope Francis has a ‘strange attitude’ towards LGBTQ+ community
He doesn’t have much time for Pope Francis – the pontiff has won praise in some quarters from people who argue that he’s taken a more understanding, compassionate approach to LGBTQ+ people than his predecessors.
Others have pointed out that he’s not actually all that liberal – under his rule the Vatican has remained resolutely opposed to any progress on LGBTQ+ inclusion.
Gian says the pope has “a strange attitude”.
Even if ecumenically he works quite well, I have not a general good impression, especially in his approach with the LGBTQ+ community.
“In public, he says something that generates positive impressions – maybe in an attempt not to lose the faithful – but then in private he signs documents that contradict his declarations,” he says.
“Even if ecumenically he works quite well, I have not a general good impression, especially in his approach with the LGBTQ+ community.”
That’s why Gian is determined to amplify the voices of LGBTQ+ Catholics and create a space for them to share their faith with others.
“Some people think that I give interviews to have visibility, but that’s absolutely wrong,” he says.
“If I wanted visibility, I would be an actor, but I am a priest and so that’s not my purpose.
“I give interviews because I know that these interviews help people.”
When the Aids epidemic hit New York in the early 1980s, Bernárd Lynch did all he could to care for the sick and dying. The Ennis-born priest founded the first ministry for people with Aids in the city, supporting countless gay men who had been shunned by their families. He saw many of his friends succumb to the condition. Nobody knew the cause back then, and there was no such thing as treatment.
Lynch will never forget the terror of those early crisis years. “We used to go to patients in hospital and find their food had been left outside the door for days because staff were so afraid of contracting Aids. When you visited people, you dressed up like you were going on a moonwalk — covered from head to toe. You wouldn’t drink from the same cup or use the same toilet seat as anyone who had it.”
The ministry’s work was often more practical than spiritual. “I spent more time shopping, changing diapers and cleaning up urine than giving the last rites or praying with the sick,” says Lynch.
He had appealed for volunteers at St Francis Xavier Church in Greenwich Village after becoming overwhelmed with requests for help. The ministry grew to more than 1,000 members, but about half of them had died within a few years. Many were abandoned by their families when it was discovered they had Aids, while fellow priests who became ill were excluded by their diocese and religious communities.
Yet there were also moments of great tenderness. “I picked up one Irish mother at JFK whose son was in hospital. ‘How’s Michael?’ she asked, and I had to tell her he was quite ill. ‘He has the Rock Hudson disease,’ she said, referring to the actor who died of the condition in 1985, and I said, ‘Yes, he does’.”
“She found out he was gay about two weeks before he died, but she was formidable. I took the funeral and asked her if she’d like to say a few words. She went up to the altar in front of around 200 people — a woman who had never spoken in public before — and said: ‘Thank you. You were his real family.’ It was inspirational to see at a time when so many others had rejected their sons on their deathbeds.”
He is talking to the Independent after donating his personal papers to the National Library of Ireland. The Fr Bernárd Lynch Archive includes records of smear campaigns against him, personal letters to his family while he was coming out as a gay man, and letters from people struggling to reconcile their sexuality with church teaching.
What impact did his time in New York have on him? “Well, I was radicalised. I was devastated, but I had no time to cry — and no time to recover. Day after day, you were in and out of funeral homes and hospitals visiting the sick. And, of course, we all thought we had it. I went home in 1982 to tell my family about what was happening and to make a will for the first time in my life, because I genuinely thought my number was up.”
Lynch has struggled with his faith in the years since, but he stops short of describing himself as a non-believer. “Maybe I’m a coward, but I couldn’t have kept going if I didn’t hold on to something. Even today, it’s a hope more than a belief.”
There were no such doubts growing up in 1950s Ireland. Mass at Ennis Cathedral was, he says, like Broadway. “It was our theatre, to put it in secular terms. With the pre-Vatican II church, everything was in Latin and everything felt very dramatic. Men and boys went around in the fanciest of clothes, and I just found it extraordinary.”
But he also came to appreciate the spiritual aspects of religion. “I had an interest in things that were unexplainable, and things other than what we perceive. You know, the beauty of creation and all that.”
After seminary training and a stint in Zambia, Lynch was sent to New York in 1975 to pursue graduate studies. It was here that he finally came to terms with his sexuality.
He contacted Dignity, a Catholic LGBT group, but was nervous about getting involved. “When I first joined, I didn’t tell anyone I was a priest or even give my second name,” he says. He only became more disillusioned with Catholic authorities when the Aids crisis took hold. Church leaders expressed little sympathy with the dying, and a Vatican spokesman went as far as to suggest Aids was a punishment for immoral behaviour.
At the height of the epidemic, the Archdiocese of New York opposed the passing of legislation banning discrimination against gay people in employment and housing.
“People with Aids were being fired and thrown out of their homes,” Lynch recalls. “Cardinal John O’Connor of New York did everything in his power to stop that legislation and was succeeding. Council members were told they wouldn’t get the Catholic vote if they voted for the bill. People said to me that if I testified in favour, as a priest, a lot of these Catholic members would take courage. I went to City Hall and testified, and it did finally pass — although not for that reason alone.”
The Archdiocese of New York refused to renew his licence to minister as a priest. He approached other bishops but was shut out. It was, he says, the end of his career in America.
In 1992, Lynch left for London, where he started working with an Aids counselling group. Treatment has improved since then, but he is conscious that stigma endures. He knows people in Ireland who still hide the cause of their loved one’s death. “There are families I can’t visit even today because it might draw attention,” he says. “The fear is that I’ll be recognised in their locality, and then the secret will be out.’”
It was in London that Lynch met his now husband, fellow Irishman Billy Desmond. In 2006, he became — it’s believed — the first Catholic priest to enter a civil partnership. The couple held their wedding in Co Clare in 2017, two years after the passing of the marriage equality referendum.
“To be able to come back and marry in my own home county was such a gift,” he says. “You know, we left home because we couldn’t stay, but there are people who stayed and have now given us a country to come home to. I really am so proud of Ireland.”
Lynch has remained a prominent activist, meeting such figures as President Mary Robinson and Elton John.
He remains deeply troubled by the church’s position on LGBT issues. As founder of a support group for gay clergy in London, he has met countless priests torn between their jobs and sexuality. “Things might be a bit softer under Pope Francis, but the teaching is still that we’re disordered in our nature and evil in our love. It’s a toxic teaching that does such damage to people. The church still won’t come out and say loud and clear that that teaching is wrong and that gay people are as much loved by God and accepted as straight people.”
Katherine McSharry, acting director of the National Library, describes the donation of Lynch’s archive as an important addition to its collections. Lynch’s papers provide insights into “important questions in our national life, including the nature of faith and organised religion, the taboos around sexuality and individual expression, and the impact the Aids crisis had on the LGBTI+ community”, she says.
There will be an event on Monday to mark the acquisition of the archive, after which it will be available for public consultation. Libraries in the US and UK had also expressed interest, but Lynch is pleased his papers have ended up in Dublin. “What this is doing, as I understand it, is bringing the diaspora home,” he says. “There were so many who left and then couldn’t come back when they were ill; who never saw their families again. All those nameless Irish people in the archive, who can’t be named even today, are in a sense now coming home. It’s about them, not me.”
The Rev. James Martin never pictured himself managing a website aimed at helping resource LGBTQ Catholics.
He never saw himself starring in a documentary about the Roman Catholic Church’s relationship with its LGBTQ members.
He never set out to write or speak on issues related to LGBTQ people and the Catholic Church at all, he said.
And yet a film chronicling Martin’s ministry to LGBTQ Catholics — “Building a Bridge,” which was produced by Oscar-winning filmmaker Martin Scorsese and premiered last year at the Tribeca Film Festival — is streaming now on AMC+.
The documentary release comes as Martin launches an LGBTQ Catholic resource called Outreach, sponsored by America Media, where he is editor at large. Outreach includes a new website and a conference hosted in person for the first time this weekend at Fordham University in New York.
“I really feel like it’s been an invitation from the Holy Spirit to just continue to see where this goes,” Martin said.
The idea for the documentary about Martin’s ministry came to Brooklyn-based filmmaker Evan Mascagni not long after he moved to New York. Mascagni had grown up in a “really Catholic” community in Kentucky — so Catholic, he joked, he didn’t even realize there were other religions — but he had distanced himself from the church in college.
His mom kept sending him posts by “this cool priest she follows on Instagram,” who also was based in New York, he said.
When he finally attended a talk by the priest, who turned out to be Martin, Mascagni said he was “blown away.”
“I’d never felt energy like that in a Catholic church, honestly,” he said.
Mascagni also realized Martin’s story dovetailed with a story that co-director Shannon Post wanted to tell about a friend of hers who was among the 49 people killed when a gunman opened fire at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida.
Pulse was one of the city’s best-known gay clubs, and the 2016 shooting was the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history at the time.
The response to the shooting — or, rather, the lack of response — by the Catholic Church was one of the reasons Martin said he first felt “emboldened” to write and speak publicly about the church’s relationship with LGBTQ people, he said.
“I was a little disappointed with the church’s official response to the massacre. What struck me at the time was that even in death, this community is largely invisible to the Catholic Church,” he said.
“And so that led to a Facebook video, which led to some talks, which led to this book ‘Building a Bridge,’ which led to this ministry, which just keeps going in new directions.”
They filmed as some of the priest’s talks were canceled over fears of protest by conservative Catholic websites such as Church Militant, which also have organized social media campaigns against him. They kept rolling as he celebrated a Pre-Pride Mass at St. Francis of Assisi Church in New York and met at the Vatican with Pope Francis, who later wrote to Martin about the Outreach conference, previously held online.
“I pray for you to continue in this way, being close, compassionate and with great tenderness,” Francis wrote.
In that time, Martin said he’s become more confident — “primarily because I had that meeting with the pope.”
The priest’s message to the church has become “a little bolder,” he said.
“At the beginning, it was just like, ‘Treat these people with respect.’ Now it’s more, ‘Listen to them, accompany them, advocate for them,’ which is something I might not have said before.”
His message to the LGBTQ community has changed, too, as he’s been challenged by parish groups such as Out at St. Paul, featured in the “Building a Bridge” film. He’s realized the responsibility is on the church to reach out to the LGBTQ community, which has much less power, he said.
He sees the film as part of that work.
“I know that 1,000 times more people will see this movie than ever read my book or come to one of my talks. I understand the power of the media, and so, therefore, I wanted to support them as much as I could,” he said.
Martin said he realized Mascagni and Post were serious about making a documentary about his ministry when they showed up in Dublin, where he was invited to speak to the World Meeting of Families organized by the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Laity, Family and Life.
Being followed by cameras was “a threat to humility” as a priest, he said. But it came at the same time opponents were bombarding him with messages he was going to hell, so, he joked, “it balanced.”
It isn’t his first brush with fame. Martin has appeared on “The Colbert Report” and “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” as the unofficial chaplain of Colbert Nation. He also has worked with Scorsese on two previous films, appearing as a priest in “The Irishman” and offering insight as a consultant for “Silence.”
Scorsese ended up becoming executive producer of “Building a Bridge” after hearing the documentary was in the works and reaching out to Mascagni and Post.
“If Martin Scorsese is asking you to see a rough cut, you’re gonna work as hard and as fast as you can to get it done,” Mascagni said, laughing.
Alongside Martin, “Building a Bridge” shares the stories of LGBTQ Catholics, their families and their parish ministries as they intersect with the priest and with the church.
It also features Michael Voris, founder of Church Militant. Mascagni said he wanted to show the impact Voris and his followers have had as they’ve opposed Martin’s ministry.
Voris told Religion News Service he thought the documentary was a “fair representation” of himself and Church Militant.
But, he said, “What sticks in my craw about it is that the church’s teaching doesn’t catch any real airtime.”
The Catechism of the Catholic Church refers to “homosexual tendencies” as “objectively disordered.” It also calls for LGBTQ people to be “accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity.”
The latter is the message Martin emphasizes, and the one the priest said he hopes audiences will take from “Building a Bridge.”
“I just hope that it helps LGBTQ Catholics see that there’s a place for them in their own church — it’s their church, too — and also for Catholic leaders to hear these voices,” Martin said.
“This is where Jesus not only wants us to be, but is. I mean, they are a part of the body of Christ.”
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.