An Open Letter to Pope Francis on Funerals for Queer Children of God

St. Matthew's

Dear Pope Francis,

Years ago I left the Catholic Church. There were several reasons, but one large part was because I could not reconcile my sexuality as a gay man with the official teachings of the Catholic Church. While I was told as a boy that all of us were created in God’s image I was told as a young gay man that apparently not everyone was created in His image. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people were not welcomed at the altar. We were not welcome to partake in the sacraments because in the eyes of the Church we were sinners just for being who we were.

When I lived in Denver I found a group called Dignity, which was an organization for gay Catholics. I saw more men and women of deep faith in those meetings than I had seen in any other Catholic church I had ever attended. It was clear that the congregants were people who were truly devout believers in the Church who wanted deep spirituality in their lives. I went for several months, until it started sinking in again that despite the joy of the services we were still really not welcome. The group was meeting in a Protestant church with Masses said by priests who came as a favor but were secretive about the fact that they were holding Mass for gays and lesbians. I stopped going again, unable to believe in a Church that refused to believe in me and in the idea that I am created in God’s image.

Then you came along. While I don’t agree with many of your positions it has been refreshing to hear some of your comments about gay people. Although you have been clear that you believe in traditional marriage–despite the fact that there really is no such as traditional marriage–you have held out civil unions as a potential compromise. There has been research showing that the Catholic Church itself may have performed same-sex marriages in its earliest days and clearly marriage as an institution has evolved throughout the millennia, so I believe that marriage is the correct word and you have a different viewpoint on that. We don’t have to agree on everything. We can still discuss our differences in a civil and respectful manner.

You have publicly stated, “If someone is gay and searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” You have also said, “Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?” Under your leadership the Synod of the Family determined that the Church should create a more welcoming space for LGBT people. In fact, you have welcomed gay people at the Vatican and embraced them. While I believe the Church still has a long way to go to fully understand and accept God’s queer children it has moved further along that path under your papacy than at any previous time, and I thank you for that.

Today I was shocked and angered to read of the actions of the Madison, Wisconsin diocese, under the leadership of Bishop Morlino, a man who seems determined to return the Church to a previous century. A letter from James Bartylla, the diocesan vicar general, was sent to parish priests to give them guidance about funerals for gay parishioners. It was intended to be confidential but was somehow leaked to the press. It is also said to have the bishop’s approval.

Imagine my surprise and anger to read the following things:

  • Was the deceased or the “partner” a promoter of the “gay” lifestyle? What is the attitude of the deceased’s family members, especially towards the Church?
  • Did the deceased give some signs of repentance before death?
  • If ecclesiastical funeral rites are allowed, should they occur without a Mass?
  • To minimize scandal, should there merely be a short scripture service at the funeral home?  Or maybe merely a graveside service? Maybe a later “Mass for the Dead” with or without explicit mention of the name of the deceased or “partner” could alternatively or in addition be offered at the parish or even at another parish (to avoid scandal), with or without family members present.
  • Any surviving “partner” should not have any public or prominent role at any ecclesiastical funeral rite or service.
  • A great risk for scandal and confusion is for the name of the celebrating priest and/or the parish to be listed in any public (e.g., newspaper) or semi-public obituary or notice that also lists the predeceased or surviving “partner” in some manner. This can’t happen for obvious reasons.
  • There should be no mention of the “partner” either by name or by other reference (nor reference to the unnatural union) in any liturgical booklet, prayer card, homily, sermon, talk by the priest, deacon, etc…
  • It may be wise to keep the priest or deacon involvement to the minimum (i.e., limited to one priest or deacon and at merely essential times of a service or rite, if one occurs).

Let me ask a few questions:

  • What is a gay lifestyle? We gay people are all individuals with our own lives and spirituality. There is no “gay lifestyle”. There are gay people who live a wide variety of lives. There are even gay people who don’t have sex because of the Catholic Church’s teachings. Are they not to have a funeral even if they are celibate simply because they promote understanding and are thus considered by close-minded people to be promoting the “gay lifestyle”? Do local priests typically ask family members what their views of the Church are? My mother recently died and was a devout Catholic who wanted a Mass of Catholic burial. Nobody asked us children about our beliefs. Would her funeral have been denied if her children no longer were Catholic?
  • Do Catholics not all receive absolution and Last Rites if possible before death? And do they not ask forgiveness for all of their sins as part of that?
  • Do priests typically ask family members about the sexual behavior of heterosexual Catholics when they pass away? How do you think that would make anyone feel? Do they try not to mention the husband or wife of the deceased if that partner is not a Catholic or is somehow known or suspected to be a sinner?
  • Is it routine for a Mass for the Dead to be held without mentioning the name of the deceased? Or their wedded partner? Or to be held at a different parish, so as not to draw attention? Must we suffer this hatred and discrimination even in death?
  • Do local parishes typically refrain from having the parish or the parish priest mentioned in an obituary to avoid scandal? As far as I am aware in Catholic teaching all of us are sinners. If that is the case and parishes do not want to be associated with sinners then they should refrain from being included in obituaries of all who pass. They should also disband, as their purpose is to guide sinners to salvation. If they exclude sinners from their congregations there would be no congregations left.
  • It is incredibly insulting to have the vicar general specifically instruct parish priests to exclude the life partner of the deceased from any part of the funeral service, including the homily, the prayer card, and more. Seriously? If I were a Catholic and passed away, my partner of more than a quarter of a century would not be allowed to be a participant in the Mass of Catholic burial in any way according to the letter sent to the parishes. Is there any wonder that the Catholic Church is losing members?

As a child of God I and all of my queer brethren deserve better than this. Even if the official Church teaching is that being gay makes me a sinner we are all sinners in the eyes of the Church. We are all given the opportunity for grace and forgiveness. Jesus sat with prostitutes and others who were not welcomed by the religious leaders of His time. The Bible clearly states, “Judge not, lest ye be judged.” It is not up to men to judge; it is up to God on Judgment Day.

This letter and the attitude it represents is what keeps people from coming back to home in the Church. I beseech you to learn more about God’s gay children and to do more to open your arms and the arms of the mother Church to all. I ask that you look into this matter and guide your bishops and priests to a more empathetic view of all of those who might look to the Church for spiritual nourishment.

For more on the directive, follow this link:  http://www.praytellblog.com/index.php/2017/10/22/bishop-morlino-on-funerals-involving-a-notorious-homosexual-union/

 

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About Callen Harty

Originally from Shullsburg, Wisconsin Callen Harty is the author of Empty Playground: A Survivor's Story, a memoir about surviving childhood sex abuse. His first book was My Queer Life, a compilation of over 30 years worth of writing on living life as a queer man. It includes essays, poems, speeches, monologues, and more. Both are available on Amazon.com, Kindle, or can be ordered through local bookstores, He has written almost two dozen plays and 50 monologues that have been produced. Most of them have been produced at Broom Street Theater in Madison, Wisconsin where he has been an actor, writer, and director since 1983. He served as the Artistic Director of the theater from 2005-2010. Monologues he wrote for the Wisconsin Veterans’ Museum won him awards from the Wisconsin Historical Society and the American Association of State and Local History. He has also had essays, poems, and articles published in newspapers and magazines around the country and has taken the top prize in several photo contests. His writing has appeared in Out!, James White Review, Scott Stamp Monthly, Wisconsin State Journal, and elsewhere. He has had several essays published online for Forward Seeking, Life After Hate, and The Progressive. Callen has also been a community activist for many years. He was the co-founder of Young People Caring, UW-Madison’s 10% Society, and Proud Theater. He served as the first President of Young People Caring and as the Artistic Director for Proud Theater for its first five years. He is still an adult mentor for the group. In 2003 he won OutReach’s Man of the Year award for his queer community activism. OutReach is Madison, Wisconsin’s lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender community center. He also won a Community Shares of Wisconsin Backyard Hero award for his sex abuse survivor activism work. He has been invited to speak before many community groups, at a roundtable on queer community theater in New York City, and has emceed several events.
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