This is a second edition. Thanks to Marianne Duddy-Burke for reading
this essay and correcting some historical inaccuracies.
Dignity was first formed in 1969 in Los Angeles, and later that same year, in June, the Stonewall
riots occurred. The birth of Dignity coincides with the birth of the ‘LGBTQI’ community—our community we
know today. As we were claiming our Pride, we were also claiming our spirituality. I think it was always known that our
community yearned for meaningful, positive ministry. Dignity offered the Catholics of our community hope, healing, support,
solidarity and love at a time when few churches (of any denomination) were willing or ready to reach out to us.
Though the seventies were an exhilarating time for our community, it was by no means easy. Though
the APA removed homosexuality from their list of “pathologies” in 1973, reparative therapy persisted and is still
even recently doing harm. Though sodomy laws were being overturned, it wouldn’t be till 2003 that such laws were overturned
on a federal level (11 states still had such laws). Though antidiscrimination laws were being passed, there are, even today,
33 states where they can fire someone because of their sexuality, and no one anywhere is safe if they work in a ‘religious
institution’. I would not wish the seventies on anyone. (Their fashion sense alone was a nightmare!, but I digress.)
But, Dignity was there through it all. They were a part of that change. Chapters flourished throughout the country. The
number of welcoming parishes grew.
In 1977, Pope Paul VI acknowledged that homosexuality is something that you are born with and
that, in itself, homosexuality therefore is not inherently evil. But Paul died in 1979, and Pope Saint John Paul II eventually
took over. While Pope Saint John Paul II was riding around in his pope-mobile saying ‘I love you’ in twelve different
languages, his henchmen—Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger foremost among them—set about taking back anything positive
said about gay men and lesbians and dismantling Vatican II in general.
In 1986—at the height of the AIDS epidemic—Ratzinger issued a letter declaring homosexuals
‘objectively disordered’ and ordering Dignity chapters off church property. And so the Church turned its back
to our community. From that time to the present, the RC Church has pretended that Dignity doesn’t exist. (Although
Ratzinger’s name is on the worst of the homophobic documents, I consider John Paul II equally responsible for the homophobic
oppression of that time.)
Dignity was there to show the Church that Gay Men and lesbians too were members of Christ’s
mystical body; It’s in their Statement of Position and Purpose (SPP). As Dignity/USA became more established they tried
harder to dialog with the Church. In 1987, at their annual convention, they added to their SPP that ‘gay men and lesbians
can express their sexuality in a manner consonant with Christ’s teaching.’ Dignity stood, and continues
to stand, as witness to the truth.
The homophobia of the JPII/BXVI era has been consistent: They wouldn’t call homosexuality
evil—they wouldn’t contradict Paul VI—so they instead called it an “objective disorder”, which
to too many people means the same thing (evil in sheep’s clothing), and of course, acting on your sexuality was evil.
The Church replaced Dignity with Courage, which is essentially a 12-step program to help lesbians and gay men remain celibate.
(i.e. God will love/accept you but only if you live a self-loathing, sexually tormented life.) Courage (though today I’m
told their presence is very limited) is still advertised as the Church’s diocesan-sponsored ministry to our community.
The Church also said our community did not deserve civil rights (the argument: criminals don’t have rights, insane
people don’t have rights, why should homosexuals have rights?). And of course, same-sex marriage is the greatest sin
of all; the Church spent huge amounts of money fighting that legislation. And in some states the Church even shut down their
Catholic Charities foster care/adoption programs just so they wouldn’t be forced to offer these services to our community.
And Dignity was there through it all holding the Church accountable for, and offering an alternative to the hate. And I value
my Catholicism primarily because Dignity was there for me.
Of course, the welcoming parishes never disappeared, and sincere, positive parish-based ministries
have been appearing—though somewhat under the radar—since the nineties. About 10 years ago, such a group formed
local to D/New Brunswick: In God’s Image (IGI). A former member of Dignity approached his local pastor after a synod’s
call for more faith-based outreach; the bishop approved and IGI was born. So, I had a chance to see such ministry first-hand.
Though I respect and admire their work, and would recommend them to anyone, I do not envy the road they are on. They are
under a lot of scrutiny. They, the group’s leaders, must be very careful of what they say. I’ve heard stories
of political rumor-mongering and complaining to the bishop. Their brochures routinely disappear en masse from their parish
information table. At one meeting, they hosted a priest, Fr. Fell, to speak, and to the surprise of everyone, he very bluntly
spouted “church teaching”; I missed the meeting myself, but there were members there who could not describe what
was said without crying. IGI and other parish-based ministries pay a heavy price just to have a presence “within the
Church.” They must accept a great deal of constraint and yet remain completely vulnerable. So, though sincere, parish-based
ministry is important and worth pursuing, Dignity’s presence and voice is still very much needed. I’ve heard
some argue that, as parish ministry grows, Dignity will no longer be relevant or needed and will go away. Perhaps, but I
don’t see that level of acceptance happening in this century. Dignity is still very much needed.
Last July IGI hosted a talk by Fr. James Martin, author of the recent book Building a Bridge:
How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community can enter into a relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity. All
the talk about his presentation and his book are what got me to write this essay you see now. What was shocking about the
book was what was absent: literally the last 40 years. The name of Dignity was never once mentioned. Only Pope Francis’
name is mentioned; none of his predecessors are mentioned. None of the history in this article is mentioned. So basically
Martin’s message is: If everyone ignores the last 40 years then maybe we can talk. The “bridge”, if it
can sincerely be built this way at all, will still entirely exist on the Church’s terms: Dignity is still taboo; “Church
teaching” on homosexuality won’t change anytime soon; the church hasn’t admitted there’s anything
wrong with their homophobic legacy of even the recent past. Nothing has really changed, but if we want ‘in’,
we’re expected not to talk about it. Right now, IGI has what Martin is proposing: a tenuous, voiceless sanctioned,
albeit local presence in the Church. But all it will take is another Cardinal Ratzinger to come along or a Fr. Fell to replace
IGI’s pastor and it will all go south again.
But, we’re still here. Dignity is still here. We are all children of God in a universal
Church, we’re all “at the table.” It’s our human condition. No one is leaving the Church, no matter
what the orthodox may say. If the Church really wants to build a bridge, they should start with Dignity; we’re right