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.
A contemporary Jesus arrives as a young gay man in a modern city with “The Passion of Christ: A Gay Vision” by Douglas Blanchard. The 24 paintings present a liberating new vision of Jesus’ final days, including Palm Sunday, the Last Supper, and the arrest, trial, crucifixion and resurrection.
“Christ is one of us in my pictures,” says Blanchard. “In His sufferings, I want to show Him as someone who experiences and understands fully what it is like to be an unwelcome outsider.” Blanchard, an art professor and self-proclaimed “very agnostic believer,” used the series to grapple with his own faith struggles as a New Yorker who witnessed the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
High-quality reproductions of Doug Blanchard’s 24 gay Passion paintings are available at: http://douglas-blanchard.fineartamerica.com/ Giclee prints come in many sizes and formats. Greeting cards can be purchased too. Some originals are also available.
Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich is in favour of changing church teaching on homosexuality.
The catechism, which says that homosexual acts are “intrinsically disordered”, was “not set in stone” and it was permissible to question what it said, he pointed out in an interview in the German glossy weekly Stern.
“Homosexuality is not a sin. LGBTQ people are part of creation and loved by God, and we are called upon to stand up against discrimination [against them]. Whosoever threatens homosexuals and anyone else with hell has understood nothing,” Marx said.
The issue had already been discussed at the Synod on the Family in Rome in 2018, he recalled, “but there was a reluctance to put anything down in writing”. He had already pointed out at the time that homosexual couples “live in an intimate loving relationship that also has a sexual form of expression” and had posed the rhetorical question: “And we want to say that is not worth anything?”
He admitted that there were Catholics who wanted to limit sexuality to reproduction “but what do they say to couples who cannot have children?” the cardinal asked.
Marx admitted that “a few years ago” he had blessed a homosexual couple in Los Angeles who had come up to him after Mass. But it had not been a marriage, he pointed out. “We cannot offer the sacrament of marriage”, he emphasised.
It would not be easy to find consensus on the homosexuality issue in the universal Church, he said. “Africa and the Orthodox Churches partly have a very different take. Nothing is achieved if this issue leads to a split but at the same time we must not stand still.”
Finding consensus on the issue is meanwhile already running into difficulties in the German archdiocese of Paderborn.
The archdiocesan priests’ council has sent a letter of protest to Archbishop Hans-Josef Becker. Last Christmas Becker sent the more than one thousand priests in his archdiocese a book by emeritus Curia Cardinal Paul Cordes on the 60th anniversary of his priesthood. It now turns out that in one chapter Cordes says that homosexuality is “profoundly against God’s will”.
Enclosed in Cordes’ book was a letter by Archbishop Becker announcing that he had founded a work group to handle “queer-sensitive pastoral work” in the archdiocese.
The archdiocese explained on 31 March that Cordes, who was from the archdiocese of Paderborn, had dedicated his book to the archdiocese’s priests. “Opinions [on homosexuality] differ and these differences must be taken into consideration”, the archdiocesan statement said. A factual exchange was “crucial”.
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 ***********************
If you think that, once they finish off Roe v. Wade, they’re not going to come for Obergefell, Lawrence, Gideon, and Griswold, I just don’t know what to tell you. Conservatives do not believe that a right to privacy exists anywhere in the Constitution. They say it all the time, and Dick Wolf even got the late Fred Thompson to say it on Law and Order. They believe any decision based on such a right is illegitimate and vulnerable to being overturned. (Both Justice Clarence Thomas and the late Justice Antonin Scalia got snotty in opinions concerning what Scalia called “the so-called right to privacy.” The context for Scalia’s scorn was Lawrence v. Texas, the landmark decision that decriminalized gay sex. Nice guy, Tony.) And, in case you were wondering where all of this might start, take a look at the mischief in the upper peninsula of Michigan. From NBC News:
A Catholic diocese in Michigan has been thrust into the national spotlight after a prominent priest and author shared its guidance on transgender members and those in same-sex relationships on social media this week. The viral guidance, which the Diocese of Marquette issued in July, says such congregants are prohibited from being baptized or receiving Communion unless they have “repented.”…The Roman Catholic Church has long held that being gay isn’t a sin but that being in a gay relationship or having gay sex is. The Vatican also ruled in March that priests can’t bless same-sex unions.
Obviously, this is another example of a wingnut American bishop who isn’t too fond of Papa Francesco. And the official text of the “guidance” reads like it was written in 1957 by a nun who grew up in a cardboard box far from other human beings.
The Sacrament of Matrimony, the marital covenant, is a permanent partnership of one man and one woman ordered to the procreation and education of children and the good of the spouses (c. 1055). Christian spouses are strengthened by the grace of this sacrament to love each other with the love of Jesus Christ. Only in the context of marriage between one man and one woman can sexual intercourse express a love that is permanent, because they have given their whole lives to each other by the promises that they made to each other on their wedding day. Outside of marriage, sexual activity cannot express permanent love.
Tell that to those bishops who kept shuffling child molesters from parish to parish.
I mean, holy orders, Batman. Who thinks like this? Humanae Vitae was chock-full of this kind of anti-human nonsense, and it doesn’t smell any better with age. But these kind of moments are when the fire starts. Pretty soon, it jumps from internal Church politics into the secular politics of the day. There is no lack of wingnut-welfare legal chop-shops willing to fashion lawsuits to gussy up any threadbare argument with the latest style. And, before you know it, your ability to buy birth control through the mail is hanging by a thread. Pour enough holy oil on it and any slope becomes slippery.
A Catholic diocese in Michigan has been thrust into the national spotlight after a prominent priest and author shared its guidance on transgender members and those in same-sex relationships on social media this week. The viral guidance, which the Diocese of Marquette issued in July, says such congregants are prohibited from being baptized or receiving Communion unless they have “repented.”
An advocate said it was the “most egregious” guidance ever issued by a diocese.
It instructs the church’s priests on how to develop pastoral relationships with “persons with same-sex attraction” and “persons with gender dysphoria” and “lead them step‐by‐step closer to Jesus Christ in a manner that is consistent with the Church’s teaching.”
The Roman Catholic Church has long held that being gay isn’t a sin but that being in a gay relationship or having gay sex is. The Vatican also ruled in March that priests can’t bless same-sex unions.
The Diocese of Marquette said in its guidance that trans people deserve “love and friendship” and compared them to people “suffering from anorexia nervosa.”
“In this disorder there is an incongruence between how the persons perceive themselves and their bodily reality,” the guidance says. “Just as we would refer a person with anorexia to an expert to help him or her, let us also refer persons with gender dysphoria to a qualified counselor to help them while we show them the depth of our love and friendship.”
The document says people in same-sex relationships and trans people can’t be baptized or confirmed or receive Holy Communion. They also can’t serve as witnesses at Catholic baptisms or confirmations.
But, the guidance says, gay and transgender people can participate in such sacraments if they repent. For gay, lesbian, bisexual and queer people, that would mean ending same-sex relationships, and for trans people, it would mean living as the sexes they were assigned at birth, although the guidance says trans people who have undergone “physical changes to the body” aren’t required to reverse them.
Also, in accordance with Catholic doctrine, the guidance says children of same-sex married couples can be baptized if they are raised in the Catholic faith and taught that same-sex marriage goes against the church’s teachings.
“Unlike a man and woman who are cohabitating or in an invalid marriage, the status of same‐sex couples can never be regularized, which presents a particular pastoral concern,” it says. “To avoid scandal, the baptism should be celebrated privately, and care should be taken to avoid the impression of accepting the redefinition of marriage and parenthood.”
The document surfaced after the Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest, LGBTQ advocate and best-selling author, criticized it on Twitter, writing Tuesday, “It is not a sin to be transgender.”
Martin added: “Transgender people are beloved children of God struggling to understand their identity. They need to be accepted with ‘respect, compassion and sensitivity.’ As Cardinal Gregory told a trans person, ‘You belong to the heart of this church.'”
Wilton Gregory, the archbishop of Washington, D.C., is the former president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
He tweeted later that assertions that being transgender is a sin and that trans people don’t exist “do immense harm to LGBTQ people and their families.”
He continued, “The Catholic Church needs to listen to LGBTQ people, not give them more reasons to distance themselves from the church.”
In a statement emailed Thursday, the Diocese of Marquette said the guidance was shared with pastors and school principals, among others, to provide “a framework” for them to develop pastoral relationships with LGBTQ congregants.
“The Church teaches that persons experiencing feelings of same-sex attraction or gender dysphoria is not sinful, but freely acting upon them is,” read the statement, shared by John Fee, the diocese’s communications director.
The statement also noted that the diocese’s bishop, John Doerfler, “served as a Courage chaplain” in his previous ministry and “found working with the Catholic apostolate to persons with same-sex attraction for several years as a priest to be a ‘privilege’ and he remains inspired by the members’ ‘faith and desire to live chastely.’”
Marianne Duddy-Burke, the executive director of DignityUSA, which advocates for LGBTQ rights in the Catholic Church, said the guidance is part of a largertrendof dioceses’ “making statements that look like they’re trying to be helpful to gay, queer and transgender people but that are really doing harm to the spiritual, emotional and physical health of our community and to families.”
She described the Marquette diocese’s guidance in particular as the “most egregious” ever issued by a diocese, saying it “goes much further than any diocese has gone before.”
She said that since the Vatican released “Male and Female He Created Them” — which she said was supposed to have been narrowly focused on education — more than a dozen U.S. dioceses have implemented their own policies or released additional statements.
“This educational mandate was sort of just put on the shelf by almost every other country in the world, but it just shows how many culture warrior bishops we have here in the United States, that they have really amplified this kind of teaching to the detriment of LGBTQ Catholics, who feel evermore excluded by the hierarchy of our church,” Duddy-Burke said.
The guidance from the Diocese of Marquette, as well as similar guidance from other dioceses, is also in conflict with many of Pope Francis’ teachings and the overtures he has made to the LGBTQ community, she said. In 2013, for example, Francis responded “Who am I to judge?” to a question from a reporter about gay priests. Last year, he told a group of parents that God loves their LGBTQ children.
But Francis’ statements conflict with church doctrine about LGBTQ people — a doctrine that Duddy-Burke said has been driving people out for decades.
A 2015 Pew Research Center survey found that half of people who were raised Catholic had left the church at some point. While it’s unclear how many left over the church’s LGBTQ policies, a survey in 2019 by the Public Religion Research Institute found that nearly three-quarters of white and nonwhite Catholics, or 74 percent, support nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ people. The majority also support same-sex marriage, with 68 percent of Hispanic Catholics and 63 percent of white Catholics in support.
Duddy-Burke said young adults are even more accepting of LGBTQ people than previous generations were — and nearly 1 in 5 have said they aren’t straight, according to one global survey — which means they have grown up in a world “where many of them expect equity and inclusion for LGBTQ people.”
“If the church continues to have discriminatory attitudes, policies and teachings, the trend of people opting out of Catholicism is only going to continue,” she said.
On Nov. 12, The Spectator had the privilege of conducting a phone interview with Michael O’Loughlin, a national correspondent at America Magazine. As a gay Catholic journalist, he has spent the past several years exploring the intersection between these identities. His new book, “Hidden Mercy,” uncovers the response of the Catholic church to the AIDS crisis, including the inspiring acts of priests, nuns and laypeople who ministered to and assisted young gay men that were marginalized in the church and larger society during the turbulent 1980s and ’90s.
Just three days after that interview in which O’Loughlin shared his thoughts about LGBTQ+ issues in the church, he published a guest column in the New York Times sharing that the Holy Father himself had congratulated him on his new book. Pope Francis reflected upon the importance of accompanying the marginalized, and thanked O’Loughlin for his work.
“Thank you for shining a light on the lives and bearing witness to the many priests, religious sisters and lay people, who opted to accompany, support and help their brothers and sisters who were sick from HIV and AIDS at great risk to their profession and reputation,” Pope Francis wrote.
Given that the book merited the praise of the Vicar of Christ, “Hidden Mercy,” is a must-read for anyone interested in LGBTQ+ issues, the Catholic church or both. Here is a lightly edited transcript of The Spectator’s interview with O’Loughlin.
AZ: Could you explain your initial inspiration for writing this book?
MO: I’ve been reporting on the Catholic Church for about a decade now, and a lot of my reporting was focused on LGBTQ+ issues. Partly because the debate about same-sex marriage was heating up when I started reporting, but a big part was because I’m a gay Catholic myself, and I was just really curious what church leaders were doing in this area, and how other gay Catholics felt about whether they were welcomed in the church or were finding a place in the Church.
It felt new, and like I was the only person who had done this because I didn’t have any understanding of the history of the fight for gay rights in the Church, and I wanted to fix that.
I was trying to just look at this time in the 1980s and ’90s, because there was this big clash between the LGBTQ+ community and the Catholic Church, at a time when HIV and AIDS was really taking a toll on the gay community. I hadn’t known that history. So I started reaching out to people who lived or worked through that time to just ask them, ‘what was it like back then, what was it like to be a gay Catholic faced with the brutality of HIV and AIDS, but also dedicated to your Church, which is fighting against gay rights,’ or ‘what was it like to be a priest ministering to people with AIDS?’ I was learning a lot of this history and realized that there was this whole generations-worth of wisdom that had been cut off for me, so my goal was to capture some of the stories and then present them in a way that might benefit other people as well.
AZ: You managed to compile all of this reporting several decades after the crisis itself. Can you explain what kind of challenges reporting on a decades-old event posed for you as a writer?
MO: That’s a great question. One of the decisions I made early on in the project was, I wanted to include interviews and meet with people who are still alive. So, unfortunately with HIV and AIDS, that cut out almost an entire generation of gay men, because they just simply didn’t survive. We’ve lost all of that wisdom unless their story has been told in other ways. It’s a limited set of experiences, but important nonetheless. I did go into some history, I used a lot of newspaper archives, and there was some great documentary material, audio, news reports—things like that, but ultimately, I decided, the most fruitful endeavor would be to talk to people who are still living.
MO: I can’t speak for what any Vatican official or the Congregation thinks, but I think there is a sort of implicit homophobia that permeates a lot of discussion in the church around this issue. Some people would prefer that we just don’t talk about it because it is still taboo, both here in the U.S., and especially around the world where the Church is growing.
I think there’s a fear that if we talk about this too much, who knows where it will lead, and I think that’s what’s been so refreshing about Pope Francis—he’s actually encouraged us to talk about this issue, dating back to the earliest days of his pontificate, but also, especially during the Synod of Bishops on the family in 2014-2015. The Pope is simply saying, ‘don’t be afraid of this,’ he hasn’t changed church teaching, but he says ‘let’s listen to people’s lived experiences and see what their stories have to teach us about our faith.’
AZ: There’s a point in the book in which Fr. Bill McNichols says “the church will come around when it discovers that there are gay people who have lived full Christian lives and faced death with courage.” What work do we as Catholics need to be doing now to realize this reality in the future?
MO: I think being intentional about collecting stories while people are still with us because we’re more than three decades out from the crisis now, and if you were in your ’30s or ’40s, you’re getting up in age now. I think part of my project has been preserving these stories. Let’s make sure that they are part of history, because I think there’s still a fairly un-nuanced understanding of this time, especially when it comes to the Catholic Church.
Collect these stories by forming intergenerational friendships: younger people being intentional about reaching out to older people and asking about their experiences. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard from either listeners of the Plague Podcast or people who have read early copies of the book, who have said that they haven’t been asked about their experiences in decades. These were harrowing, difficult times for people and to just see society move on so quickly, I imagine, could be difficult. I think Catholics should be intentional about not being afraid of what they might uncover when looking at this time in history, because there was a lot of shame and stigma, but [we should] be unafraid to deal with that, because there are inspiring stories like the ones I’ve collected in the book.
MO: There was a sense that the Reagan Administration didn’t want to deal with this issue because their base found the topics of homosexuality, IV drug use and the sexual revolution to be morally taboo, and they didn’t want to talk about it.
Now, the public health angle was, ‘we have to talk about how slow the spread of HIV,’ whether that’s the use of condoms or drug treatment programs, and Reagan was trying to appease his base by appointing a religious figure to the AIDS Commission to say that ‘the moral dimension of this public health crisis will be taken seriously in the White House.’
O’Connor himself was skeptical of the idea, but he accepted the invitation after a couple meetings. But ultimately it didn’t satisfy critics who said that the White House failed to treat this as a public health crisis, and you can’t attach morality to those kinds of things, so it was a complicated thing. It does show the political power that someone like Cardinal O’Connor has. I think it’s difficult for younger Catholics today to understand the political influence of Catholic bishops in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, and O’Connor’s inclusion on that commission shows that he had a direct line to the president, and that’s important to understand when we look at the church’s role in shaping the public health debate in the ’80s and ’90s.
AZ: Do you think that the Church has grown better at listening since the AIDS crisis?
MO: I asked Father Bill McNichols if he thought it was easier to be a gay Catholic or a gay Catholic priest today because of how much society has advanced, and he told me he didn’t. He thought it was actually easier in the ’80s because there was almost more of a willingness to look at people’s experiences, whereas today there seems to be more fear around the issue, so I think I agree with him on that.
I think figures like Pope Francis certainly show that there are church leaders who want to engage in dialogue and listening, and that’s been a major theme of his papacy, but I think there might be a tendency to be afraid as society changes its views on homosexuality. I think we see a lot of that in the Church in this country.
AZ: A major study of American Catholic priests was released just last week, and some information I found dismaying was that American priests ordained after 2010 are far more likely to believe that homosexual behavior is “always sinful,” compared to priests ordained prior to 1981. It seems the clergy is growing less tolerant while society becomes more inclusive of LGBTQ+ people. Do you think this will impact the relationship of the church with LGBTQ+ Catholics in the coming years and, if so, how?
MO: I think data like that shows how important it is that LGBTQ+ Catholics who want to stay part of the church make that decision and then stay, and make sure that their voices are heard, because something I’ve learned is that any welcoming Catholic space—any place which embraces and welcomes LGBTQ+ people—it was never inevitable. We look at places like Most Holy Redeemer in San Francisco, or St. Vincent’s Hospital in New York, or affirming parishes anywhere in the U.S., it was never inevitable that would be the case. It took hard work from LGBTQ+ Catholics and their allies to form those places into spaces that were safe and welcoming. Regardless of the views of young priests, I think that will be necessary work over the coming decades. But I am encouraged that there are visible and articulate young LGBTQ+ Catholics who are saying that they aren’t leaving, that they are staying in the Church, and these are the kind of spaces they are demanding. I think it’ll be an ongoing conversation for decades, regardless of the views of younger clergy.
AZ: What does making your voice heard as a gay Catholic look like today?
MO: That’s a great question, and one I haven’t thought about much. I guess for me, it’s been this notion of forging ahead with these projects, even if sometimes there’s some pushback that we shouldn’t explore too much of this history, because there is some shame and stigma still attached. I think it means going to mass and being part of the community, not being afraid of the resistance you might encounter. I understand that for some LGBTQ+ people, being part of a Catholic community might not be a healthy decision, especially if there’s one that’s particularly intolerant, but if you are called to take your faith seriously and you’re able to find a community that works for you, I think showing up is the first important step. Being visible, joining parish activities, engaging Catholic media—all the things that other Catholics are doing, who are making their view known, I think younger LGBTQ+ people have the same calling.
AZ: Did writing this book change the way you approach your own faith at all?
MO: It did. When I started writing probably five years ago or so, I had an initial conversation with Sister Carol, and I was afraid to tell her that I was gay because I didn’t know how she would react, which in introspect, is completely absurd because she had been caring for gay men dying from AIDS for more than a decade, and she’d become an ally for the LGBTQ+ community. But there was still something internal within me that made me clam up and be unsure about how much of myself I should reveal to her. After meeting people like Sister Carol and other advocates now for the past five years, doing dozens and dozens of interviews, I really internalized this idea that I can be honest about myself and be totally committed to my faith at the same time and that’s been a journey. I don’t think it ever goes away. Father Bill told me that it doesn’t get easier to come out, it just means you have to keep doing it and doing it, and eventually you come out, but you still have that fear, so I do think it will be an ongoing process. But there is this sense that knowing the history that I write about in the book does give me—and I think it gives other people—the ability to see that they do have a place in the church and to make them understand their faith in a different way.
AZ: The theme of frustration or hurt with the institutional Church seems to have emerged over the course of the book. Did you notice any patterns of how priests and nuns and laypeople were dealing with that frustration, or is it an individual journey for everyone?
MO: What I took away was that it was an individual journey for everyone. What I tried to do in the book was profile people who approach that journey in a different way or in various ways, so there’s someone like David Pais, who I chronicle throughout the book, who was very active in the church, very active in Dignity, ultimately steps away from the Church, is away for several years, then he gets a degree in theology and he returns to the Church. It sort of has this stepping in and out, which I think is a fairly common thing for not just LGBTQ+ people but young people in general, and then as they advance in the years, they have a different relationship with the church, so that’s one example. I interviewed Sean Strub, who grew up in a very Catholic household and was very devoted to his faith, but when HIV hit, he saw the hypocrisy, was turned off by that and ultimately left the Church. Today, while he still understands why Catholicism is important to people, he is not a practicing Catholic himself. So, between David and Sean, there’s all kinds of people. People deal with this hurt they feel because they are LGBTQ+ from Catholic leaders in different ways.
Some people say they just ignore the statements that are hurtful and they find a parish that works for them. I hope I offered different models of how to deal with that because I don’t think it’s an issue that’s going to go away anytime soon.
AZ: Thank you so much for your time.
O’Loughlin is a sterling example of how LGBTQ+ journalists are documenting the interactions between the Church and queer Catholics. Pope Francis’ support of his work ought to serve as a source of hope and inspiration for gay Catholics, even as Church teachings regarding homosexuality remain static. As the global Church and LGBTQ+ Catholics learn how to interact more productively, journalists like O’Loughlin will continue to serve as an important source for information and analysis.
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.