Almost 100 Catholics and friends from 35 countries gathered from November, 30th to December, 3rd in Dachau near Munich, Germany, to celebrate the birth of a new star: the Global Network of Rainbow Catholics (GNRC).
The town that had experienced the horrors of the night of Holocaust, with a concentration camp that had captive and tortured thousands of prisoners including some 600 homosexuals, became the place where the light of the approved constitution and internal regulations of this new entity shone forth to illuminate the path towards full realisation of LGBT+ rights in the Catholic Church.
The Global Network of Rainbow Catholics Is Born
The assembly’s motto “Hear a just cause” (Ps 17.1) was also in the centre of the Eucharistic service at Bürgersaalkirche in München. On the first weekend of Advent, when in the northern hemisphere the sun is reborn to conquer the night, just by the Christmas market at Marienplatz, the Spirit of Jesus led those gathered to make way for the light that would defeat today’s darkness of hatred, criminalisation and persecution of LGBT+ persons, the ‘anti-gender movement’ and all kind of phobias.
History can be changed following the light of Jesus. And Roman Catholics want to contribute to overcoming the darkness by working for affirmation, inclusion, dignity and equality of LGBT+ community within the Roman Catholic Church and civil society. This effort, however, requires all the stars in the new-born Network and its allies to stand in solidarity in the middle of the night.
The GNRC and the European Forum of LGBT Christian Groups
When the first Family Synod of the Roman Catholic Church was announced to take place in October 2014, the European Forum was in the lucky situation to have planned a Catholic LGBT+ conference in Rome for the very same month. The European Forum already had some funds available and the Roman Catholic Working Group was willing to organise an event together with Italian LGBT+ groups. The announcement of the Family Synod by Pope Francis was a huge gift because Catholic LGBT+ persons from other continents got interested in our work. Some of them like Sr. Jeannine Gramick and Francis DeBernardo from New Ways Ministry and James Alison from Sao Paolo at that time joined the European Forum in the preparation of the event. Others like the group PADIS from Santiago de Chile had travelled to Rome for this event and just happened to be at the first ‘Ways of Love’ Conference. One of the speakers of this conference was the Australian Bishop Geoffrey Robinson. The next day after this public conference a get together of approximately fifteen people took place where the plan to form the Global Network of Rainbow Catholics (GNRC) was actually born.
The European Forum made another effort to speak out during the Family Synod in a conference that highlighted the criminalisation of LGBT+ people with two speakers from Africa: Frank Mugisha from Uganda and Jules Eloundou from Cameroon. This conference took place in one of the most exquisite places the European Forum ever had: The Capitoline Museum on top of the Capitol hill in Rome. Within a few weeks, a global network of LGBT+ Catholics and their parents had emerged.
As the Family Synod was to be continued in the following year, the European Forum decided to invest a large part of a grant from the Arcus Foundation in the foundational meeting of the GNRC in October 2015. The preparation for this First Assembly was from the very beginning in the hands of the global team that had emerged from the get-together in Rome. It was the first time that seventy LGBT+ Catholics from almost thirty countries could come together. The Co-President of the European Forum Wielie Elhorst was also there to present the English publication of And God Saw It Was All Very Good. Catholic LGBT+ People in Europe Telling Their Stories, also supported by the European Forum.
In another address now co-opening the Second Assembly of the GNRC in Dachau, the Co-President made clear it is obvious the relationship between the European Forum and the GNRC is a warm one as the European Forum through the Roman Catholic Church Working Group has done so much to support the foundational efforts of the GNRC.
The first part of the Assembly was devoted to parallel discussions of several thematic workshops that focused on the strategies and actions that have to be developed and taken in dialogue and contact with the Roman Catholic Church.
One of these workshops concentrated on the issues of gender and so-called ‘gender ideology’. Its topic was the way the Roman Catholic Church in many countries has tried to withstand conversations about and alternative approaches to gender (e.g., in education) by framing the ongoing discussion about gender identity and gender diversity as an ‘ideology’. According to the Roman Catholic Church, talking about gender and presenting alternative approaches that create more understanding of what lesbian women gay men and especially transgender persons have to face in the Church and society, poses danger to both the Church and society. Without much understanding of gender (theory) and of the way gender is experienced by LGBT+ people, the Roman Catholic Church perceives gender as it is discussed in the LGBT+ community as a threat to family life, to the family fabric of society and even to the procreation of humankind as a whole. Overall, it is seen as contrary to the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church (i.e. its ‘natural law’).
The situation in different countries around the world is quite diverse. In many Latin American and African countries, it is very difficult to engage in a sensible debate on gender, as the topic is highly politicized. The advocates of ‘alternative’ way of thinking about gender are seen as people who destabilize society. On many occasions, this message is strongly voiced in close cooperation with conservative political parties, evangelical churches and even companies that advocate for neoliberal economy. It often becomes very clear that such intense condemnation of gender theory and discussions is just as a way to distract from the problems that really threaten society, such as the growing gulf between the rich and the poor, intensive agriculture, a neoliberal approach to economy and growing opposition to upholding or introducing of legislation that protects the dignity of all human beings and grants all rights ensuring full participation in the life of society. Undoubtedly, this also concerns the churches. They also try to avoid changes by condemning gender discourse and actions as ‘unnatural’ and being against the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church. Many other, mostly evangelical (Pentecostal), churches take over this discourse that the Roman Catholic Church has developed. The term ‘gender ideology’ was first used in Peru in 1994 in an official document of the Roman Catholic Church and is now used globally and ecumenically, including such European countries as Poland, Slovakia, Italy and even Russia.
Participants of the workshop shared their views on the possible strategies and potential actions on a global level, feasible for the GNRC. Those ideas would be too numerous to be shared here, however it was generally clear that the Roman Catholic LGBT+ community should not limit itself to an argumentative battle with the spokespersons of the so-called anti-gender movement in order to avoid being constrained by this frame and ultimately becoming paralyzed. It should also try to avoid getting isolated and find other movements both within and outside the Church that face the same challenges as the (Christian) LGBT+ community. Strong alliances can be highly instrumental in finding and following the way of talking about gender diversity and acting on it that would be a real alternative to the ‘gender ideology’ discourse.
Another workshop attended by the representatives of the European Forum at the Dachau Assembly allowed for an exchange on the dialogue with the Church hierarchy, as well as brainstorming on possible actions of GNRC in this area. Participants of the workshop shared their experience, with some celebrating significant level of acceptance and inclusion (e.g. the Westminster Pastoral Council in the UK) and some expressing their frustration due to constant rejection. Not wishing to reinvent the wheel, participants agreed that the best practices should be shared across the whole Network. Basing on the results of a thorough SWOT (strengths/weaknesses/opportunities/threats) analysis of the current standing of the GNRC, the group suggested that a two-way approach should be adopted. The GNRC should focus both on engaging the Roman Curia in dialogue and on assisting member groups in the dialogue with their local hierarchs. Some concrete ideas were expressed and discussed, with a special attention to promoting decriminalisation of LGBT+ persons and relations, as well as to promoting the role of women in the Church. The need for a close cooperation with other LGBT+ and/or Christian networks was stressed explicitly.
During the Assembly, two other workshops had a chance to present the work and plans they elaborated to all delegates: “Prophecy & Justice: Catholic Campaign against discrimination and violence” and “GNRC as an inclusive organisation”.
In Dachau, the GNRC had to be officially established as an organisation. After the Constitution was amended and approved by voting, the Constitutional Act was read followed by the most touching and festive moment: the signing of the Constitutional Act by representatives of every founding member group. As of now, 32 organisations from five regions of the world are members of the Network. Later during the Assembly the Internal Regulations were also adopted by voting.
On Sunday, 3 December, several rounds of elections followed. The Board with five regional representatives (all male, including Christopher Vella from Drachma, Malta), the Diversity Representatives (all female, including Joseanne Peregin from Malta), the additional Board member with Italian citizenship (Andrea Rubera), the legal representative and the Membership and Nominations Committee (all male) were elected. The co-chairs of the newly elected are Ruby Almeida and Christopher Vella. Finally, the group Dignity USA presented their plans to host the next GNRC Assembly in Chicago in early July 2019 (with a possible combination of the World Pride in New York City), just after the European Forum finishes its annual conference in the UK.
The Eucharist Service and Gender Balance
On Saturday, 2 December, the service was held in the Bürgersaalkirche of Munich, where also local parishioners and participants of the regular Queer-Gottesdienst celebrations took part. The service was accompanied by wonderful singing of the Rainbow Choir of Munich. The Eucharist was celebrated by Fr Luis Correa Lima from Brazil. The sermon was delivered by Susanne Birke. Susanne raised one of the painful and problematic topics of the RCC nowadays: the exclusion of women from the leading positions and the male domination. Her words were encouraging and inspiring: despite the difficult situation, she called us not to give up and continue the struggle for inclusion and equality. Her message can also be seen as a prophetic call, especially in the light of the results of the elections to the board of the GNRC next morning: six out of nine persons on the board identify themselves as male, and the female participants only made it to the list as Diversity Representatives, and not as representatives of the regions. Moreover, vast majority of the participants were male and the overall representation of Trans* persons was very low. That said, while one can rightfully mention that the overall situation with gender balance in the ecumenical setting of the European Forum is usually better, nevertheless at this specific event the European Forum was also represented by an entirely male delegation. These facts give Susanne’s words of admonition even more importance.
The Assembly gathered an amazing diversity of participants in terms of race, gender, nationality, and age: numerous dedicated and passionate activists from all the inhabited continents of the world. It is especially pleasing that the event was attended by many active members of the European Forum, most notably by the representatives of the HuK group, which was one of the hosts of the Assembly. The working atmosphere was very collaborative and inspired insightful discussions.
In light of the previous deliberations within both the European Forum and the GNRC about the format of relations between the two networks and the issue of potential membership of the Forum in the GNRC, it is worth mentioning that one of the outcomes of these days in Munich was everyone’s agreement that the European Forum and the GNRC are natural partners to each other and should focus precisely on this model of engagement. There is a big potential of collaboration between the European Forum and the GNRC on the political and spiritual issues related to the Roman Catholic Church and sexual/gender minorities. And since the GNRC attracted several organisations from the European region that are not members of the European Forum, the Assembly presented wonderful opportunities for introductions and networking.