1988 Departure from Church Property

From “Ten Who Stayed: Ideology and Membership Commitment in a Complex Voluntary Association,” a thesis for a Master of Liberal Studies degree from DePaul University, June 2000.

In 1988, Dignity/Chicago had about 180 members and an even larger turnout for its Sunday evening Mass.  The chapter had its own office a few blocks from events and an annual retreat.  Members who wished to could participate in small-group St. Sebastian’s Church.  A member of the chapter was paid to provide part-time administrative support.  An all-male slate of officers was completing its second term.  There were regular social home discussions that were facilitated by a priest.  These meetings were not official Dignity events, but the chapter publicized them.  There was a ministry team composed of four lay member and four priests.  A policy of Dignity/Chicago limited the priests on the ministry team to a two-year term after which they were able to preside at Mass only if no current member of the ministry team were available.  This policy reflected the availability of priests to the chapter and a certain anti-clerical spirit.  During Eastertime of 1988, three men completed the Roman Catholic Church’s Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults.  St. Sebastian’s parish was the nominal sponsor of this process, but, except for the Easter Vigil, all other aspects of the program were conducted under Dignity’s auspices.  The chapter had an overwhelmingly male membership.  However, the chapter had a policy that required the use of some inclusive language in liturgical prayers and readings, for example, the substitution of  “God” for “Father”.  There was an effort to encourage the few women who were present to be lectors or Eucharistic ministers at the Sunday liturgies.    

After the 1986 Ratzinger letter and the subsequent expulsion of other Dignity chapters from Catholic Church property, there was anxiety about the chapter’s continued access to St. Sebastian’s parish.  The chapter instituted a monthly lay-led prayer service in anticipation of a possible loss of access to ordained presiders for its Masses.  One Sunday in May 1988, members were urged to attend an important meeting immediately after Mass.  They were told by representatives of Cardinal Bernadin that within a few weeks, six local pastors would assume responsibility for a new ministry to gay and lesbian Catholics at St. Sebastian’s.  The ministry would be guided by several principles, one of which was that all homosexual acts are immoral.  The pastors would be responsible for the Mass at which Dignity would have no role. 

In some other cities, bishops had simply expelled the chapters from Catholic parishes or other buildings.  In a few cities, the bishop gave the chapter a chance to sign a statement of agreement with Church teaching on homosexuality.  One chapter did, but later rescinded its repudiation.  In Chicago, in the months before the chapter meeting in May, 1988, Cardinal Bernadin conducted secret negotiations with the chapter officers who agreed to support the archdiocese.  However, some members of the Board of Directors and other chapter members became aware of the “secret negotiations.”  When the announcement was made, there were already arrangements made for Dignity’s liturgies to be conducted at a Lutheran church.  At a very emotional meeting, seventy percent of the members voted to reject the idea of a Dignity chapter without control of its own Mass.  When the change of location took place, some priests from Wisconsin and Michigan took turns traveling to Chicago to preside at Dignity Masses.  However, the majority of those who had been participating in Dignity’s Mass at St. Sebastian’s went neither to Dignity’s new location nor to the new official archdiocesan Mass.

Initially, a small percentage of Dignity members and some of the priests continued at St. Sebastian’s under the sponsorship of the archdiocese.  The priests and the members who opted for Cardinal Bernadin’s new ministry seem to have been willing to overlook the  principles under which the Mass was offered in return for the opportunity to worship in Catholic church space and to have ecclesiastical approval of their gatherings. 

Some Dignity members conducted “informational picketing” at St. Sebastian’s Church for the first few Sundays after Dignity’s expulsion.  On one Sunday, a large group of Dignity members went to Mass together at Holy Name Cathedral.  They had no plans to disrupt the service (unlike in New York where some Dignity members were arrested and the chapter split into two factions over the activism issue).  Nevertheless, a large number of police vehicles had arrived at the cathedral by the end of the Mass.  Dignity members also picketed a retreat house where for years the chapter had held an annual retreat and which had reneged on an agreement for a forthcoming retreat. 

Cardinal Bernadin tried unsuccessfully to persuade the Lutheran bishop to prevent Dignity from renting space in the Lutheran church.  The expulsion was widely reported in the local gay and mainstream press and in the national Catholic press.  Commonweal, a moderate lay-edited Catholic magazine, chided Dignity/Chicago for not cooperating with Cardinal  Bernadin .  Once the press lost interest in the situation, local priests again began presiding at Dignity liturgies, without any interference from Cardinal Bernadin  

Several months after the expulsion from Catholic Church property, some members expressed the opinion that, since Dignity no longer needed to fear retribution from the archdiocese, it was time for non-ordained members to preside at the chapter’s liturgies.  The community was split on the issue and no action was taken.  Because of a scheduling conflict at the Lutheran parish, Dignity/Chicago began having its liturgies at a Unitarian Church.  At first, the chapter had to scale down some of its non-liturgical ministries and programs, but gradually there were new members who had not experienced the trauma of the 1988 expulsion (commonly inaccurately referred to as “the split”).  However, the chapter never has come close to its 1988 membership numbers.