What does surprise—and even shock—is that it's touched Atlanta’s “most historic church,” the Catholic Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. A group called Concerned Catholics of Atlanta has petitioned the Archbishop, Wilton D. Gregory, to remove the Shrine’s pastor, Monsignor Henry Gracz, from his role as a spiritual advisor to victims of sexual abuse, an appointed position he has held since 2011. Why? Because of his support of the LGBTQ community, which they believe runs counter to established church teaching.
The group's petition for the removal of Monsignor Gracz is not unrelated to a much-publicized 11-page letter from Carlo Maria Viganò, the recently retired Italian archbishop who has called for Pope Francis to resign. The 77-year-old Viganò claims Pope Francis knew about the sex-abuse allegations against disgraced US Cardinal Theodore McCarrick and failed to respond appropriately in a timely manner. Viganò believes the sex-abuse scandal is part of a “homosexual network” within the Catholic Church.
He may be relying in part on statistics in the 2004 John Jay Report, which put the number of male abuse victims between 1950 and 2002 at 81 per cent. An updated 2011 version of the Jay Report concluded that most of the offenders were not pedophiles but situational generalists. The full report can be found here.
It’s been fairly well documented that Viganò is part of a conservative faction within the church and may have a personal axe to grind against Pope Francis, who was disappointed with the archbishop for blindsiding him by arranging a meeting with Kentucky’s anti-gay Kim Davis without letting the pontiff know. Davis first gained notoriety when she was jailed for contempt of court for refusing to issue marriage licenses to gay couples.
But as the New York Times pointed out in its reporting on the Viganò letter, his argument with the Pope is rooted in ideological differences.
“The willingness of the pope and his allies to reach out to gay Catholics has infuriated conservatives, many of whom, like Archbishop Viganò, blame homosexuals for the sex abuse crisis. The pope has argued that the abuse is a symptom of a culture of privilege and imperviousness among priests who value the church’s traditions over its parishioners.”
Viganò and his followers among the Concerned Catholics of Atlanta seem to be unaware of statistics at the Survivor’s Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP), which say about half of its 20,000 members are female. According to SNAP’s website, sex abuse within the church appears to be more prevalent among males than females but its membership numbers say otherwise. SNAP suggests the following reasons for the discrepancy:
“Men tend to direct their anger outward (and file lawsuits, for example), while women tend to direct anger inward (and litigation, of course, generates media coverage.)
Women deal with their pain in more private ways--such as therapy/support groups.
Male/male sex is more salacious and therefore attracts more attention.
The availability of boys is also a variable. In years past, parents of a 13 year old boy gladly allowed their child to travel or "sleep over" with a priest, but would not have permitted a girl to do so.”
Nevertheless, the Concerned Catholics of Atlanta, which has gathered just over 1500 signatures to its petition as of this date, holds to its belief that LGBTQ ministries contradict church teaching. It targets Monsignor Gracz because he has marched in the local Gay Pride Parade and allowed the parish to set up a booth in support of it.
But that’s not the only reason. The Catholic Shrine, where Monsignor Gracz has been pastor for the past 17 years, has a long reputation of welcoming LGBTQ Catholics, which aligns it with the agenda of Pope Francis.
MOST HISTORIC STATUS
The shrine’s “most historic” status dates back to the Civil War when its pastor during that troubled time convinced General Sherman not to destroy the church when he torched the rest of Atlanta. With the possible exception of historic Our Lady of Lourdes, the city’s first Catholic parish for African Americans, the Shrine may very well be Atlanta’s most inclusive Catholic church.
In addition to the LGBTQ community, its diversity extends to immigrants, refugees, the homeless, and every aspect of the city’s multi-racial cornucopia. It is not the kind of church you find in Atlanta’s insular suburbs where everyone looks and thinks alike. But it is warm and welcoming to everyone. Many of its parishioners commute from outside the city’s I-285 beltway in order to attend services there.
It’s not because they’re all gay or because everyone stands around singing Kumbaya. I attended the shrine for 20 years, and I can’t recall a single time anyone sang that throwback to the 1960s. The Shrine was my mother’s church for nearly four decades. My sister was married there. My mother’s funeral was held there. Now that I live some distance from the city, I regard myself as an extended member of the parish. When I can, I still stop in for Mass. I’m not palsy-walsy with Monsignor Gracz, but I’ve been to the Shrine often enough during his pastorship to know he’s a good and decent man, a rare blend of intellectual acuity tempered by humility and genuine compassion.
I do not know the Concerned Catholics of Atlanta, but I’ve read their petition and a published statement by its spokesperson. It’s not difficult to understand where they’re coming from. They come across like others who would like to go back to a simpler time when there were only three channels on TV and the church had rigid rules that everybody memorized and obeyed under pain of mortal sin, excommunication, or eternal damnation. This approach seems more interested in rules than healing, and dogma over compassion and understanding.
They are hardly alone in this. For some, the longing for rigid control over the lives of others amounts to an unfortunate lack of discernment. For the politically astute, the current attacks on Pope Francis and Monsignor Gracz smack of Machiavellian opportunism.
Here’s how Britain’s conservative-leaning Telegraph described Viganò’s 11-page broadside against Pope Francis:
“Vatican analysts say the attack appears to be part of a concerted effort by conservatives to oust Pope Francis, who they dislike for his relatively liberal views on issues such as acceptance of homosexuals, allowing divorcees to take Communion and his push for a more inclusive Church.
‘It really seems like an obvious move by conservatives to de-legitimise Francis," David Gibson, director of the Centre on Religion and Culture at Fordham University in New York, told Reuters.
‘This whole thing was carefully coordinated with conservative Catholic media and carefully timed.’ The strategy was to damage Francis’s legacy before he either dies or resigns, perhaps due to ill health, and to ensure a conservative successor.”
Viganò and his allies in Atlanta have seized upon the political heat surrounding the sex-abuse scandal to restrict LGBTQ ministries. As with Brexit, Trumpism and other hard-right political initiatives around the world, they want simple answers to today’s complex problems—and they are looking for scapegoats. Even if they succeed in imposing Draconian restrictions on the lives of others, those complexities will not vanish.
Right now, the Catholic Church has a pretty big job. It has to minister to the victims of the clergy’s sex-abuse scandal. It has to bring those responsible to justice. It must address the needs and concerns of those who suffer. And it must do all this while ministering to its worldwide congregation and healing the schism within its own ranks.
Archbishop Gregory says he has no plans to remove Monsignor Gracz at this time. But the petitioners say they intend to continue their conservative putsch, hoping to get at least 2500 people to sign. To put that number in perspective, Catholics in Atlanta number about 1.2 million. And speaking of perspective, the group's petition page recently added a link pointing out that its story has been "picked up by Breitbart."
The word doctrinaire comes to mind in this situation, which Webster's defines as “stubbornly or excessively devoted to a doctrine or theory without regard to practical considerations.”
The practical consideration here is a world filled with wounded and suffering people. When I reflect on the heartache of our flawed human condition, I don't care very much about doctrine. What I care about is what Jesus would do.
(Here are links to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s reporting on this story and a recent HuffPost article by Shrine parishioner who converted to Catholicism because of Gay Pride.)