What contribution will this extraordinary family synod give to LGBT situation? Interview with Francis De Bernardo (New Ways Ministry, U.S.)

By Silvia Lanzi (Progetto Gionata)

Francis De Bernardo studied at the University of Maryland (U.S.) and has published articles and book reviews on religious and secular themes. He presented also scholarly papers at universities and various organizations. He delivered a keynote presentation at the Conference on Religion and Homosexuality at the first World Pride Week in Rome (2000).
Francis DeBernardo is executive director of New Ways Ministry, a gay positive ministry of advocacy and justice for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) Catholics. And he also answered my questions.


New Ways Ministry has been fighting for 40 years for the inclusion of LGBT people within RCC. How have your pastoral action and strategy changed during these years?

We’ve experienced a number of changes. In the beginning, our educational work was very basic. Many people didn’t have the first clue about LGBT people and what their lives were like. So we did a lot of awareness-raising and providing people with good information to dispel their myths and stereotypes.
In the 1970s and 1980s, there was also more of an openness to discussing LGBT issues on the part of the bishops. Many bishops made positive statements about LGBT people back then. In fact, the first diocesan ministry to LGBT people in the United States was established in 1976, and many others quickly followed.
But with the papacy of John Paul II, the church’s leadership changed radically and more conservative bishops were appointed in the U.S. By the mid-1990s, our work became more difficult because these new bishops were discouraging, and in some cases prohibiting, their pastoral ministers to become involved with LGBT ministry.
Now the general Catholic population is much more educated and aware of LGBT people, so the need for basic education is much less. So, we focus now on more of the more complicated theological questions like marriage and adoption issues. We have also started educational programs around transgender issues because these have come to the forefront of the discussions here in the U.S., and many people have questions about these topics.
Some things have remained the same. We still push for parishes and dioceses to start pastoral ministry with LGBT people, and we provide resources and trainings for those interested.
With the papacy of Pope Francis, we are beginning to see a little more of an opportunity in that Church ministers are no longer afraid to discuss LGBT concerns. Pope Francis’ example has empowered them.

NWM’s founders have had quite a few problems with the Vatican ruled by Benedict XVI. How is the relation now?

New Ways Ministry does not have much interaction with the Vatican. In 1999, our co-founders, Sister Jeannine Gramick and Father Robert Nugent, were ordered by the Vatican to leave pastoral ministry with lesbian and gay people. Fr. Nugent obeyed, and so there was no further interaction with him. He passed away in January of this year. Sister Jeannine decided not to comply with the Vatican’s directive because she felt that the decision and the investigation process were unjust. So, she continued her pastoral ministry of education and advocacy, although she left the School Sisters of Notre Dame and joined the Sisters of Loretto, who are more supportive of her work. The Sisters of Loretto have received several complaints from the Vatican about Sister Jeannine, but nothing has happened because of these complaints, and Sister Jeannine continues her outreach.
In February 2015, Sister Jeannine will be leading a pilgrimage of LGBT Catholics and their supporters to Rome, Assisi, and Florence. We will be attending the Wednesday papal audience when we are there, and we plan to write to the Vatican to see if Pope Francis would meet with us. With this pope, you never know what might happen!

Does the distance from Rome make American RCC a little more autonomous?

Not really. In some ways the situation here is worse than if we were in Italy because so many of the American bishops are arch-conservative and who follow the letter of the Roman law more so than do bishops in other countries. A number of bishops here have expressed some disagreement with Pope Francis’ outreach to LGBT people and have tried to re-interpret his statements in the most conservative ways.

What contribution will this extraordinary family synod give to LGBT situation?

I think this synod is a great opportunity for bishops to discuss LGBT people, relationships, and families. It is the first time the bishops are covering the topics of marriage and family in a synod since the question of legal marriages for gay and lesbian couples has become a reality. Many bishops from around the world have already publicly acknowledged that most Catholics do not accept the moral condemnation of loving, committed lesbian and gay relationships.
If these bishops are honest, I think they will realize that this rejection of the church’s teaching is not because people don’t understand it, but because Catholics of good faith have reflected prayerfully on their experiences of lesbian and gay people and couples and have witnessed something holy in their lives and commitment.

It’s also the first synod under Pope Francis. I think the bishops know that people around the world have responded positively to Francis’ new, welcoming approach to LGBT people. I think they will realize that any negative statements from the synod about lesbian and gay couples will alienate a great number of Catholics in the pews.