LA Religious Ed Congress Draws Kudos, Criticism

The congress continues to include controversial presentations, but Catholic leaders who participate stress it as opportunity to share the faith.

Los Angeles Auxiliary Bishop Robert Barron presents 'Evangelization Through Beauty' at the Los Angeles Religious Education Congress March 17.
Los Angeles Auxiliary Bishop Robert Barron presents 'Evangelization Through Beauty' at the Los Angeles Religious Education Congress March 17. (photo:

Alec Hamrick was so enthused about this year’s Los Angeles Religious Education Congress he posted a review on the event’s Facebook page saying the conference was a “great and amazing” opportunity to grow deeper in faith.

But as someone who has been to past congresses and is familiar with their reputation for offering speakers who diverge from Church teaching, the 23-year-old Californian did his research, listening to speakers with a discerning ear.

“I know what’s right and what’s wrong when it comes to the Church, so I tend to be able to pinpoint that when I listen to speakers,” he said in an interview.

Hamrick went to workshops on adult education, discipleship, discerning God’s will and the synoptic Gospels and attended several Masses. Aware that some of the 334 workshops and 185 speakers might be presenting ideas in conflict with Church teaching, he chose his sessions carefully.

“I tell a lot of people, if you don’t like something that goes on, don’t focus on it,” he said. “Focus on the liturgy and what’s most important.”

Critics of the annual conference, which began in 1967 as the Southern California Confraternity Congress and now draws as many as 40,000 people, have long been concerned about its inclusion of speakers who openly dissent from Church teaching in such areas as human sexuality.

In 1994, for example, the Los Angeles Times reported a “simmering controversy ... over the orthodoxy of speakers” at the congress, after the California Coalition of Concerned Catholics alleged the event was “in the hands of dissenters” and demanded the resignations of Sister Edith Prendergast, the archdiocese’s director of religious education, and conference coordinator Adrian Whitaker.

Before the group’s demand, Cardinal Roger Mahony, then archbishop of Los Angeles, announced that he had revoked an invitation to Daniel Maguire, a former priest and abortion advocate, to speak at the event.

Cardinal Mahony also informed speakers that their presentations would have to be “in full harmony with the Church’s teachings.” According to the Times, he said in a statement that the congress had grown so rapidly that his staff had been unable to adequately research the writings of all speakers before inviting them and that he had instituted a new system for review.


Recent Concerns

Nonetheless, concerns about speakers have remained following the retirement of Cardinal Mahony in 2011 and the appointment of Archbishop José Gomez to head the archdiocese.

In 2012, a group called “Concerned Roman Catholics of America” protested outside the main exhibit hall of the Anaheim Convention Center, where the congress has been held since 1970, citing “speakers with long track records of dissent.”

Reviews of more recent congresses on the event’s Facebook page, though mostly positive, include complaints about the promotion of transgenderism and homosexuality.

For example, a post about the 2018 congress in March said that, despite Pope Francis’ warning about the danger and falsehood of gender ideology, the event seemed to be promoting, celebrating and praying for it, “as if all Catholics are now expected to support people trying to change their sex.”

The post cited a morning prayer service petition from the congress that read, “Let us RISE UP! for people who struggle with gender identities, who were once loved by their families as a daughter but are now disowned as their son.” “Rise up!” was the theme of the 2018 congress.

This year’s congress offered five workshops in the “LGBT ministry” category, including, for the third consecutive year, one on transgenderism. “Transgender in Our Schools, One Bread, One Body” was led by Arthur Fitzmaurice, resource director for the Catholic Association of Lesbian and Gay Ministry (CALGM), whose members refused in 2012 to sign an “oath of personal integrity” to Catholic teaching, and Father Bryan Massingale, a Fordham University theology professor and adviser to TransCatholic, an apostolate that supports the dignity and inclusion of laity who identify with the sex opposite to their biological sex.

The Archdiocese of Los Angeles declined to comment on the congress and did not respond to a request for an interview with Father Christopher Bazyouros, who in 2015 succeeded Sister Edith Prendergast as director of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles Office of Religious Education.


Controversial Presentation

According to Joseph Sciambra, who has attended the congress for the last two years and reported on it on his blog, presenters also included Shen Heckel, a female-to-male transsexual, and Peggy Ehling, a Catholic mother whose daughter identifies as a male. Sciambra said Heckel’s presentation used a graphic known as the Genderbread Person, developed by activist Sam Killermann, as a way to depict “the ways we all actually experience gender.”

In a Facebook post after the congress, Heckel explained how the presentation offered a personal story of “faith and identity” at the conference “and hopefully helped some to see that we are all made in God’s image, and with the right support from our churches and schools, LGBTQ+ Catholic youth will find strength and love in our faith; no more fear or shame.”

As a result of the workshop, the Facebook post indicated, Heckel has been invited by several parishes to speak, teach their staffs and meet their youth. “Stone by stone a mountain can be moved,” said Heckel.

Although most workshops at the congress were in such categories as catechesis and evangelization, spirituality and prayer, music, life issues, justice and peace, Scripture and theology, those in the “LGBT ministry” category tend to draw the most attention and objections.

However, workshops in other categories have raised concerns, as well. For instance, Father Massingale’s presentation on “Conscience and Adult Formation” at last year’s congress was cited in an article in LifeSiteNews for suggesting that Church teaching is fluid and need not necessarily be followed. The article quoted the priest as saying, “Conscience becomes that way of bridging the gap between official teaching and Catholic belief and practice. Because Catholic belief by conscience is Catholic teaching.”

During the most recent congress, other workshops in the “LGBT ministry” category included those on “Teaching Mercy: Accompanying LGBT Students,” presented by Fitzmaurice and Father Chris Ponnet, spiritual director for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles Catholic Ministry With Lesbian and Gay Persons (CMLGP); “Building a Bridge: Bringing Together LGBT Catholics and the Church,” presented by Jesuit Father James Martin, author of a recent book on the workshop topic who believes that those who are same-sex attracted were made that way by God; “Catholic and Gay: Answers to Basic Pastoral Questions” and “Creating Healthy Environments: Myths and Facts About the Gay Community,” both of which were presented in Spanish by Father Carlos Alarcon, a spiritual adviser to the CMLGP, and Yunuen Trujillo, a lesbian who has claimed that, for homosexuals, having a partner is as holy as being chaste.

Sciambra, who has written extensively about his participation in the homosexual lifestyle before returning to the Church, said he believes that as the Archdiocese of Los Angeles’s official outreach to the “LGBT” community, CMLGP strongly influences the choice of congress speakers on “LGBT” issues.

Sciambra said that because Archbishop Gomez attends the event and Los Angeles Auxiliary Bishop Robert Barron is among the speakers, those who go assume that all speakers will uphold Catholic teaching. Additionally, Bishop Kevin Vann of the Diocese of Orange, where the conference is held, attends the congress and this year greeted people at the diocese’s booth and concelebrated the closing Mass.

Spokesman Ryan Lilyengren said Bishop Vann does not, however, review or approve congress programming or speakers. The convention center where the congress is held originally was in the Los Angeles Archdiocese before the Diocese of Orange was formed in 1976.


Courage Workshop

In what appears to be a first, though, the congress offered a workshop this year by a representative of Courage International, which helps those with unwanted same-sex attraction live chastely. The workshop, “Finding Courage — A Way for Catholics With Same-Sex Attractions,” was presented by Father Edward Benioff of Courage’s Los Angeles chapter.

Neither Courage nor Father Benioff would comment on Courage’s participation in the congress.

Sciambra said at last year’s congress, he had approached Archbishop Gomez to suggest that future congresses provide some “balance” on the issue of same-sex attraction.

“He was very gracious and listened,” Sciambra said. “About a week later, I got a call from the chancery and talked with the priest there and explained to him in further detail the problem.”

Although Sciambra was pleased to see Courage represented this year, he said the workshop was scheduled at a less-than-optimum time in a difficult-to-find location. Only about 100 people attended, he said, compared to 600 at Father Martin’s “Building a Bridge” talk and about 400 at the transgender workshop. Also, he said, at the “LGBT” workshops, speakers promoted the other workshops in the same category, but no one mentioned the Courage workshop, which was listed in the “morality” category.

The inclusion of Courage appears to be part of an effort to add speakers who are considered orthodox and more theologically solid. One such speaker who presented at the congress this year for the first time was Sherry Weddell, the executive director and co-founder of the Catherine of Siena Institute and author of Forming Intentional Disciples.

Weddell said she had heard the congress was becoming more “diverse” in offering speakers across the theological and spirituality spectrum. For example, she said, this year’s presenters included Julianne Stanz, the director of New Evangelization for the Diocese of Green Bay, Wisconsin, and a consultant to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Catechesis and Evangelization, author and catechist Jared Dees, and Father Michael Schmitz, chaplain for Newman Catholic campus ministries at the University of Minnesota-Duluth and the director of youth ministry for the Diocese of Duluth.

This was Father Schmitz’s second year at the congress, and he spoke on “Praying the Mass Like Never Before” and “Anti-Fragile Faith.” Both were topics he had suggested, and, although he had just written a book on same-sex attraction for Ignatius Press, he said he didn’t submit it as a topic because he was being sponsored at the congress by a different publisher.


Positive Experiences

Weddell said she was aware of the congress’ reputation for allowing dissident speakers and chose to participate based on the institute’s policy of sending speakers wherever they have been invited, schedules permitting.

“We go wherever God opens the door,” she said. “If you work where I work, you’re right in the mainstream of the Church and you don’t hang out just at certain conferences, universities and places. … I will not turn down a decent opportunity to tell people the Good News.”

During the congress, Weddell spoke to a combined 1,200 people at three workshops: “Forming Fruitful Disciples: How to Unlock the Power of the Spirit in Others,” “Presenting an Evangelizing Catechesis: What Would That Look Like?” and “Called, Gifted and Fruitful: The Transforming Power of Living the Mission of Jesus.” At the “Evangelizing Catechesis” workshop, she was part of a panel with two priests and a lay catechist.

Weddell did not attend any other workshops, but said her overall experience as a presenter was positive. Those who came to hear her speak seemed very intense, appreciative and engaged, she said, and many had questions and wanted to talk afterward.

“I had lots of fascinating conversations,” she said. “People seemed remarkably open.”

Weddell was encouraged to learn, she said, that many of those with whom she spoke were grappling with discipleship and discovering what that means for themselves or in their own parishes.

Similarly, Theresa Burke, co-founder of the Rachel’s Vineyard post-abortion ministry, was invited to speak in 2017 and accepted because she was grateful for the opportunity to get the word out about the negative effects of abortion on individuals and couples.

She said she understands that several people had been recommending her as a congress speaker for more than a decade and that many at the conference expressed gratitude that the topic was highlighted.

However, it was not part of this year’s congress, and none of the 2018 workshops under the conference’s “life issues” dealt with abortion or other topics typically falling under the “pro-life” heading.

Despite objections that have been raised to speakers who challenge Church teaching, not everyone who attends the congress seems aware of such presentations.

Sciambra said that in handing out leaflets with questionable quotes from certain speakers, he has found that people are often surprised and even shocked to learn that such figures are appearing at a Catholic catechetical conference.

Indeed, Gabriel Rivera, the director of confirmation and youth ministry at Our Lady of the Assumption parish in Ventura, California, said this was the third year he has attended the congress and he had no idea that workshops in conflict with Church teaching were being presented.

He said every session he has ever attended has been in line with what the Church professes. Rivera said he always has found the congress to be a phenomenal experience.

“The Lord is present the entire time, despite all the junk that we as humans bring into it,” Rivera said. “The Spirit of the Lord is there at the congress.”

Joseph Nesta, who was at the conference as an exhibitor promoting Relevant Radio, said his role isn’t related to tracking the congress speakers or to attend their presentations. His purpose in going to the congress, he said, is to reach religious educators and other influencers to raise the profile and awareness of Relevant Radio.

Said Nesta, “In being there, we present our mission as faithful to the magisterium of the Catholic Church.”

Register correspondent Judy Roberts writes from Graytown, Ohio.