Traditionally, Christian observation of Pentecost has recalled and celebrated the conversion of diverse peoples. The apostles preached to “devout Jews from every nation under heaven,” and “each one heard them speaking in the native language of each” (Acts 2:5-6). Beginning in Australia in 1997, and in the U.S. in 2000, gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Catholics have chosen this day to engage in public requests for recognition and dialogue with the Catholic Church.
These Catholics and their supporters attend mass on Pentecost wearing a rainbow-colored sash, a symbol of the gay community. This year in Chicago, those identified with the movement who attended mass on Pentecost Sunday were blessed but denied access to the Eucharist. Although Cardinal Francis George described the action in a memo to the archdioceses as the “policy” of the U.S. Conference of Bishops, those who participated and were denied communion dispute that this is an official policy.
According to the Rainbow Sash website, “The movement’s core action, or ritual expression, involves the symbol of the Rainbow Sash? Carrying this symbol, we publicly claim our place at Christ’s table, sacramently expressing the truth of our lives, and calling the church to embrace a new day of integrity and freedom.” The website includes an open letter signed by nearly two dozen Catholic priests in the Chicago area which emphasizes the authority of the Church but strongly advocates that the Church welcome and begin an official dialogue with gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Catholics.
As the overall tone of the letter suggests, the movement’s participants clearly wish to be recognized within and by the existing authority structure of the Catholic Church. This call for recognition comes at a time when the Catholic Church has been widely criticized for its lack of response to sexual abuse by priests and for withholding communion from some Catholic politicians. Some Catholics have responded by leaving the Church or withholding financial support as the Church pays millions to settle lawsuits. It is meaningful that this group of Catholics is affirming the Church’s authority and seeking a way in.
The Rainbow Sash Movement urges gay, lesbian, transgender, and bisexual Catholics to be activists within the Church as a matter of conscience. A press release from the website argues, “The closet mentality reinforced by the Catholic Church’s position, only encourages fear of self worth. Certainly all Catholics require a change of heart because we have contributed to the prevailing homophobic mindset, and because we have not challenged that mindset from the pews of our Church, are we not also culpable?” This position begins with the premise that all human beings are valued by God and stakes out the moral high ground in the debate, chastising gay and straight Catholics alike for neglecting their obligations to respect, care for, and love others.
The Rainbow Sash Movement recognizes that the Catholic Church’s emphasis on the intrinsic value of every human life has the potential to be a powerful tool against homophobes and those who commit violence against gays and lesbians. Its demand that the Catholic Church explicitly recognize its gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender members as children of God makes pastoral care, rather than sexual orientation, the core issue.
Participation in the Eucharist is at the center of Christian worship; by asking to be recognized on Pentecost as both gay and Catholic, the participants in the Rainbow Sash Movement are calling the Church’s conscience to order on the basis of the Church’s own ethical precepts. As the website explains, “Through our public, prayerful, visible presence at the Eucharist and in the ongoing life of God’s People, through our work for justice, through speaking the truth of our lives and our loving, we call the whole church to build with us a future of liberation, reconciliation and joy for all people.”
Will the Church hear the call?
Courtney S. Wilder is a doctoral student in theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School.