Last week, students from across Columbia-affiliated schools joined together to host an event during which LGBTQ Catholic students and Catholic allies discussed issues regarding their relationships with the Catholic Church.
The event, titled “LGBTQ and Catholic: An Affirming Space and Conversation,” was held in response to Columbia Catholic Ministry’s event in affiliation with the Eden Invitation titled “Dinner with the Eden Invitation." Additionally, the group promoted the Catholic Center at New York University’s event with the Eden Invitation about "Life and love beyond the LGBT+ paradigm.” Students criticized the Ministry’s Facebook post marketing the event, citing what they saw as homophobic and transphobic ideas outlined on the Eden Invitation’s website, including the statement that while same-sex attraction is valid, it “does not modify the reality itself … which the human body is (and does not cease to be) in the sexuality that belongs to it, independently of the states of consciousness or experiences.”
Columbia Catholic Ministry is directly managed under the Office of Religious Life, which has recently transitioned to live under the Office of University Life, and aims to build community among Catholic students and bring them “ever closer to Christ” through programming and events that encourage conversations between relevant groups. Programming decisions are made by director and pastor Dan O’Reilly in addition to the ministry’s board of students.
According to members of CCM, however, the group’s programming has largely failed to reflect the wide range of Catholic practices and beliefs that are present on campus, especially pointing to a history of practices that they claim excludes LGBTQ Catholics from that close-knit community.
A Columbia spokesperson declined to comment on the oversight of the Office of University Life and the Office of Religious Life in ensuring that programming is inclusive to all students. The Columbia Catholic Ministry also declined to respond to any questions.
Abby Rampone, a third-year Master of Divinity student at UTS, pointed to the Eden Invitation event as an example of CCM’s implicit message to students that not all identities are accepted by the Catholic Church. She noted that while the connotations of the messages posted on the organization’s website seem obscure, phrases such as “Theology of the Body” and “gender complementarity” are widely circulated in the Catholic community to indicate traditionalism.
“They’re like buzzwords that not everybody is going to know what they mean. They’re kind of coded,” Rampone said.
As a result, she emphasized that students who attend the event might be encouraged to believe that individuals who identify as LGBTQ cannot engage in any sort of sexual activity as part of the Catholic Church, even though certain sects of belief have promoted reformist ideas.
“Undergrads are going to hear about [the Eden Invitation] and think, ‘Okay, if you’re LGBTQ and Catholic, this means that you have to be celibate, this is your only option.’ We want to show that is not your only option,” Rampone said.
“Catholic reform organizations exist,” she added. “It’s possible to be in Catholic communities that affirm LGBTQ relationships, and even though that's not an option that you’re hearing of on campus, that doesn't mean that there aren’t people out there who will support you.”
Tess Gallagher Clancy, a fellow organizer of the responding LGBTQ event and a first-year Master of Divinity UTS student, said that the ambiguous messaging of the Eden Invitation drove many to social media sites to inquire about the organization’s stance on LGBTQ relationships.
“[The Eden Invitation expresses] it’s okay to say that you’ve experienced same-sex attraction but it’s not encouraged to act on it or to live in that way, so it was never even a question with the group of us that we needed to discuss if that was a problem,” Gallagher Clancy said. “We also find it to be a problem and something that is not the message that we want the Catholic Church to be promoting and endorsing and not what we as Catholics believe as well.”
According to Rampone, the Eden Invitation’s presence is part of a larger trend across college campuses in which traditional Catholic mobilization is highly funded and organized with help from organizations such as the Fellowship of Catholic University Students, a group that is present at over 170 campuses in five countries, including at Columbia, where the fellowship has employed four staff members to aid CCM.
In the past, FOCUS has promoted the Eden Invitation by hosting it at national conventions that attract Catholic students worldwide, which Rampone said has overshadowed progressive Catholic movements on college campuses.
In 2018, former CCM board member Nicole-Ann Lobo, CC ’19, attempted to incite productive and inclusive conversations surrounding LGBTQ identities in the Catholic Church by inviting James Martin, a strong proponent for closer dialogue between the LGBTQ community and the Catholic Church, to Columbia. Lobo noted that at the time, Pope Francis had emphasized that LGBTQ Catholics “are beloved children of God and that God sees them first and foremost as his children, not as inherently sinful because they are gay.”
Although CCM’s programming regularly features group dinners and outings, about once a semester, it also hosts a guest speaker, its latest being Columbia professor and astronaut Mike Massimino, who gave a lecture titled “Views from Space” in the spirit of Trappist monk Thomas Merton.
Lobo’s idea was ultimately rejected by O’Reilly and a board member, who sent Lobo an email expressing their discomfort and disapproval of the event.
“That really upset me because we had so many events that have dealt with other political causes,” Lobo said regarding the event’s cancellation. “The Columbia Catholic Ministry has never shied away from hosting events with National Right to Life, an anti-abortion initiative, so they haven’t been afraid of dealing with other political issues before. But then within this issue which shouldn’t even be controversial, this is the response I got.”
Upon learning about CCM’s affiliation with the Eden Invitation, Lobo was disheartened to find that the anti-LGBTQ sentiment she experienced during her time as a board member was not a one-time occurrence.
“Fast forward to this year, I’ve graduated, this is all behind me. But then I hear about this event being held by Eden Invitation which is really disappointing because it’s extremely regressive in terms of its messaging of what we should be telling Catholic students and gay people in general,” Lobo said.
“It’s so wrong and the wrong way to handle it. It shows that the events that the ministry throws are often very self-serving. ... They’re focusing so much on the letter of the law that they lose sight of the spirit of the law, and the amount of judgment and condescension that goes on in the ministry is pretty shocking,” she added.
Event organizer Christina Ellsberg, BC ’16 and second-year Master of Divinity UTS student, recalled that during her time at Barnard, her interactions with CCM were limited as she thought the group was “too conservative and traditionalist for me to get anywhere near them.” On the other hand, she said that the affirming spaces provided by students like Rampone has allowed her to find community on campus through her faith.
“It’s people like that, like Abby, who keep me Catholic and who remind me that this is a church that has survived because it is so able to become what people need,” Ellsberg said. “I’m grateful to be in a community right now where people see that and that’s what we’re all fighting for—a church that can be what people actually need.”
The event received positive responses from across the Columbia community, with several LGBTQ groups reaching out to offer funding and space support. Rampone noted that this reaction likely reflects the support surrounding LGBTQ members of the undergraduate Columbia community.
“Let’s face it—there are just more people on these campuses who support creating affirming, compassionate spaces for our queer undergraduates than there are traditionalist Catholics,” Ellsberg said.
Senior Staff Writer Valeria Escobar can be contacted at email@example.com.