Dignity/New Brunswick
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Dignity Matters

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 here.

Dignity/New Brunswick
P.O. Box 10781
New Brunswick,  NJ    08906