Gay and lesbian Catholics beg to differ

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Article Sex and Sexuality
A deep and tempestuous gulf divides orthodox Catholic teaching and the beliefs of many gay and lesbian Catholics.

"Someday," Gina Marie says quietly, "I would like to be asked for forgiveness." Her words are simple, direct, and uncompromising. It is not a lover from whom Gina Marie seeks a gesture of reconciliation, at least not a lover in a temporal sense. Rather, it is the Roman Catholic Church, an institution she cherished and revered in childhood but now views as hurtful, indifferent, sometimes brutally cruel.

Gina Marie (a pseudonym), 32, is a lesbian who for seven years has lived in partnership with another lifelong Catholic. Her parents long ago lovingly accepted her homosexuality, even her decision to divorce her husband after struggling secretly for years over her sexual orientation. But Gina Marie says the pope, the Vatican, and many bishops and priests have shown no such understanding or compassion. While the Catholic Catechism teaches that gays and lesbians "do not choose" their homosexuality and deserve to "be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity," it declares that homosexual acts are "intrinsically disordered" and that "under no circumstances can they be approved."

In decrying recent efforts to legalize same-sex marriages, the U.S. bishops declared that "the principled defense of [traditional] marriage is an urgent necessity for the well-being of children and families, and for the common good of society." Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the Vatican's chief doctrinal custodian, went so far as to declare in 1986 that even one's homosexual "inclination," absent any genital activity, marks a "strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil" and thus must be regarded as "an objective disorder."

For Gina Marie, such words fall like acid on an open wound. "I feel personally, along with so many others, that I have been unduly harmed by the church," she says. "We have been hurt. We have been isolated and alienated. We have been told we should be ashamed of ourselves. We have been told we should be silent and not be who we are. We have been told that there is no possible way God could ever be present in our relationships, but I've never known God so well as I do in [my] relationship."

Moved to compassion

Clearly a deep and tempestuous gulf divides orthodox Catholic teaching and the beliefs of many gay and lesbian Catholics. Theology, tradition, science, and revealed truth crash against each other like powerful and relentless waves, and the storm has no end in sight. Homosexual Catholics continue to demand equality in secular society and in the community of faith. And the church unwaveringly teaches that homosexual acts are morally wrong.

Yet despite the seemingly immutable nature of the controversy, the issue is by no means static in the church. Over the past two decades the Vatican's teaching has evolved in subtle ways toward a more realistic and compassionate understanding of homosexualitya sea change that gives even the church's harshest critics a measure of hope. On the pastoral level, a quiet search for common ground is occurring in discrete pockets of the U.S. church. Some bishops have held liturgies for the gay and lesbian community. A growing number of dioceses are forming ministries to the homosexual community. And some respected Catholic thinkers have offered carefully reasoned arguments that seek to bridge Vatican teaching and the realities of homosexual life in the U.S.

"In the last 20 years, the church, particularly in this country, has focused more fully on the human dignity and integrity of the [homosexual] person," says Father James Schexnayder, president of the Oakland, California-based National Association of Catholic Diocesan Lesbian and Gay Ministries. Increasingly, he says, the church has viewed homosexuality "not only as an issue of sexual attraction or as a behavior issue" but also one involving "the dignity or human rights of persons who are gay and lesbian." He points to recent statements condemning violence and discrimination against gays and promoting their inclusion in church life.

Meanwhile, Schexnayder notes, a growing number of dioceses have established pastoral ministries for gay and lesbian Catholics. The Richmond, Virginia diocese was the first, setting up its program in 1976. After holding steady at about a dozen diocesan programs until the mid 1980s, the number has grown to between 30 and 40 today, with increasing numbers of dioceses looking to develop programs, Schexnayder says. In addition, more and more parishes are starting outreach ministries to gay and lesbian Catholics and family members. "While the diocesan programs are rooted in church teaching, they also reach out to a variety of gay and lesbian people who may or may not be accepting of the full range of church teachings on the subject," Schexnayder says.

Marianne Duddy, president of Dignity/USA, a lay movement for gay Catholics that has met staunch resistance from the official church, agrees that the climate for gay Catholics has become a bit more temperate in recent years. "To be gay and Catholic seemed impossible 25 years ago," she says. "Now it's at least acknowledged."

Duddy even believes that change at Catholicism's grassroots level will someday lead the hierarchy to bend on same-sex marriage and other aspects of homosexuality. "I believe this is an issue on which the church as the People of God will lead the leaders," she says. But for now, according to her, gay and lesbian Catholics labor under a "defensive and dehumanizing doctrine." Homosexuality is "about love, not about sex," she maintains. "There's never a recognition of us as full people whose sexuality is as real, as genuine, as holy, and as good as that of someone who is heterosexually married. And this is a fundamental sin in the Catholic Church's sexual moral theology as far as we are concerned."

Raging battles

That the church's stand on homosexuality stirs intense emotion should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the religious scene in America. The issue has long been a cyclonic force in theological discourse, occasionally exploding into bitter controversy that penetrates the larger culture. This past spring, for example, the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation's largest Protestant denomination, called for a boycott of the Walt Disney Company to protest, among other things, the company's medical coverage of employees' homosexual partners. The Baptists also balked at the Disney/ABC sitcom "Ellen," in which the lead character came out this year as a lesbian. Controversy over homosexuality has also dogged most other denominations for years.

Yet nowhere has the issue raged with more fury than inside the Catholic Church. A low point came in 1989, when the radical gay-activist group ACTUP, angry at the church's refusal to endorse "safe sex" education and condoms to fight AIDS, disrupted a liturgy at New York's St. Patrick's Cathedral. Other controversies have been less spectacular, but no less divisive. Some critics have accused local bishops of waiting too long to minister to those with AIDS. Others have said some clerics have failed to speak out against antigay discrimination in secular society. And many critics have accused the Vatican hierarchy of using incendiary language that leaves gays and lesbians bruised and alienated from the church.

"If you tell someone that at the very core of your being you're disordered and you've got a strong inclination [toward sin], what does that do to you? It's cruel to say to anybody. There's no basis to say it to anybody," says Detroit Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, perhaps the most outspoken Catholic cleric in the U.S. on the homosexuality issue.

Yet other Catholic leaders defend the church's stand on homosexuality as both sound and compassionate. "People object to the fact that the church does believe and teach there is a normative expression of human sexuality," says Father Richard John Neuhaus, a prominent Catholic conservative and editor-in-chief of the journal First Things. "I think just as gently, kindly, persuasively as possible, we have to say, `We're not making this up. It's the revealed truth of God."' Of the Vatican's language on homosexuality, he says, "I don't think there's a harshness there. People lift up the phrase 'objectively disordered.' All right, what words would they prefer?"

"We have to say things as they are," echoes Father John Harvey, longtime director of Courage, a churchsanctioned spiritual support organization that seeks to help "persons with homosexual tendencies" live in chastity.

Harvey agrees that most homosexuals do not choose their sexual orientation and says it is not Courage's mission to push people to change. But he insists that many people can do so if they work at it. "I think many young people have a good chance of getting out of this [homosexual] condition with proper therapy and help" and strong personal motivation, he says. And if they cannot? "They can most certainly learn to live a life of sexual abstinence and chastity."

David Morrison, a Courage member and convert to Catholicism, says he has lived in a chaste same-sex relationship for five years, a lifestyle that differs sharply from the one he says he had as a gay activist in Virginia in the 1980s. "Sex is not meant to be merely for pleasure," says Morrison, editor of the Population Research Institute Review, which advocates against population control. "Sex is not meant to be merely something we engage in and make suitable to our own ends."

Archbishop Michael Sheehan of Santa Fe, New Mexico has written that homosexuals "deserve our respect, compassion, and defense against bigotry, attacks, and abuse." But he also supports the church's stance against same-gender sexual relations, including gay marriage. "Marriage exists for the mutual love and support of the spouses and for the procreation and education of children," Sheehan wrote. "The church teaches that the institution of marriage, as the union of a man and a woman, must be protected and promoted in both the private and public realm."

But while Sheehan and other prelates speak out against same-sex marriage, they have been counseled to tread carefully. A resource paper recently drafted by staff of the U.S. Catholic Conference encourages bishops to exercise their responsibilities as teachers and pastors to teach and witness to the Catholic vision of marriage. But at the same time it warns that they should make sure that they do not in this way "stir up hatred against homosexual persons."

The debate over homosexuality can get exceedingly complex, especially in a pluralistic society in which many cultural and social taboos have fallen in recent decades. Consider the notion of children and whether homosexual couples should raise them.

"I think it's wonderful," Duddy says. "Gay and lesbian parents tend to create a community of other adult supporters. Children have lots of caring adults in their lives of both genders. The thought and care in a gay or lesbian couple's decision to parent means the children are wanted and will be provided for well."

Morrison disagrees. "Children have a right to a father and a mother," he says. "It's very important to a child's understanding of himself or herself to have masculinity and femininity modeled in front of them in a close intimate way. I don't think you can interchange them like switching jackets or something."{C}

Public opinion shifts

The church's teaching on homosexuality is, at least for now, consistent with prevailing social mores. Some six in ten Americans regard homosexuality as morally wrong, and half say it should not be considered an acceptable alternative lifestyle, according to the Gallup organization. Americans oppose legal marriages for gay partners by a margin of two and a half to one.

But deep within the Gallup data may lie the seeds of a revolution in public thinking about homosexualityand perhaps new pressure on the church to refine its approach to the issue. Gallup reports that Americans are less opposed to homosexuality in general than they were in the early 1990s or early 1980s, with most of the public for the first time saying homosexuals should be allowed to work as clergy and schoolteachers. And on the question of whether gay marriages should be afforded the same rights as traditional marriages, young people-often the progenitors of social trendsare more inclined to say yes than are their elders. Nearly a third of men age 18 to 29 said in a 1996 poll that gay marriages should be legally recognized, and more than half of the women respondents in that age group answered likewise. Women ages 30 to 49 were split on the issue, with nearly four in ten favoring legalization.

Of course, the Vatican does not shape dogma by polls, as its teachings on contraception, priestly celibacy, and female ordination clearly show. "If the Vatican isn't willing to change on artificial contraception, it certainly isn't going to change on any other more difficult issue" such as homosexuality, says Father Charles Curran, a liberal Catholic scholar who was censured by the Vatican for his teachings on sexual ethics. But changing public mores are bound to give new urgency to pastoral concerns about gays and lesbians and to erode what many see as a climate of homophobia in both church and society.

"Unfortunately, many church leaders seem to reduce lesbian and gay persons to sexual activity, and we don't do that with heterosexual people" says Sister Jeannine Gramick, director of lesbian and gay ministry for the School Sisters of Notre Dame, based in Baltimore. In 1977 Gramick cofounded New Ways Ministry to promote reconciliation between lesbian and gay Catholics and the church, and she has weathered repeated church investigations into her work. Today she professes "great hope for the future" but says, nonetheless, that changes are slow in coming.

"Ideally, what I would like to see is that homosexuality is no longer an issue" in the church, Gramick says. There would be "no need for special ministries [such as Dignity or New Ways Ministry]. All those temporary structures are set up because we are at a point where there is still homophobia and heterosexism." Gramick wants a "society and church in which lesbian and gay people are truly accorded the same dignity and equality that heterosexual people have." Gumbleton expresses a similar hope. "The more we come to understand that there are homosexual people working with us that we're dealing with every day, the more homophobia will disappear," he says. "And these sort of unarticulated ideas about homosexuality as a perversion or something disordered or wrong will dissipate."

A personal epiphany

No Catholic official has been bolder at welcoming gays and lesbians into the church than Gumbleton. His epiphany on the issue came from personal experience. Some 15 years ago his brother Dan disclosed in letters to his siblings and mother that he was gay, and for years his aging mother worried in silence that Dan would go to hell because of it. Finally, 87 years old and ailing, she expressed her concern to her bishop son. His answer reassured her. God made and accepts us the way we are, Gumbleton told her.

A few years ago, Gumbleton came to a "listening session" for gay Catholics at a Minneapolis basilica wearing a special miter he'd received as a gift. It bore a pink triangle-the mark used by the Nazis to identify homosexuals and now a symbol of solidarity among U.S. gay-rights supporters. This past spring, at a symposium sponsored by New Ways Ministry, Gumbleton urged all Catholic gays and lesbians-including bishops, priests, and religious-to make their sexual orientation known.

"I can't tell you the number of letters I have received from priests who say they are gay but who are afraid to come out," Gumbleton told the symposium. "What a loss that is to our church. If they were willing to stand up on Sunday morning in front of the community and say who they really are, our church would much more fully and effectively appreciate the gifts that homosexuals bring to the whole community of our church and our society as well."

Gumbleton is often described as a maverick on homosexuality, and he walks a fine line between orthodoxy and controversy. He acknowledges the church's teaching that homosexual genital activity is wrong, saying: "In that regard I certainly express what the church teaches and teach what the church teaches. But," he adds, "at the same time . . . this is going to be a very real struggle for people. It puts them in a difficult dilemma when a person has a very real sense that [he or she] is not called to celibacy.... They have to struggle to the point where they come to understand what is right, how to come to accept what is right, and how to integrate it into their lives. I often tell people that as a male celibate I have to struggle with how I integrate my sexuality into my life, and yet I made a commitment to live a celibate life. But that doesn't just happen, like the flick of a switch."

Gumbleton says he doesn't try to intrude into the personal lives of homosexuals any more than he does of heterosexuals. "I don't try to decide ahead of time not to give people Communion because they might be having a relationship," he says. "I try to guide them according to the church's teaching [and] scripture, encourage them to pray, reflect, and try to understand. But I don't make the final decision for them. They have to stand before God based on the decision they make in their consciences. From the very beginning, primacy of conscience has been part of our tradition. You don't go before God and say, 'I acted [simply] because the church or somebody else said to."'

Different views on same-sex unions

Gumbleton's take on same-sex unions is similarly nuanced. The same civil rights ought to be accorded everyone in society, including gays and lesbians living in same-sex partnerships, he says. "I don't think," he says by way of example, "that it's up to people in the workplace to determine right and wrong of how people live." If a company provides benefits to an employee's spouse, it should also give benefits to a gay employee's partner if the two live in a committed relationship, Gumbleton says.

But, he makes clear, he does not believe same-sex marriage should be enshrined in either civil or canon law. "Marriage is a sacrament between a man and woman-that's the very definition of marriage," he says. "I don't think we [the church] can change that." His opposition to proposed laws allowing same-sex civil marriage is based on pragmatism. Such laws are simply not feasible, he argues, because no consensus exists in the U.S. that gay unions should be legal. "If there's no consensus that a law makes any sense, you can't enforce it. And a law that can't be enforced is not a good law. It only leads to disdain for law."

Gumbleton's view is only one in a variety of opinions within the Catholic Church on same-sex unions. The National Coalition of American Nuns, a grassroots organization known for speaking out on issues in the church and society, defends the "right to a civil marriage" for gays and lesbians. "While communities of faith may debate the theological meaning of marriage and a viable sexual ethic, [the National Coalition of American Nuns] believes that the political ethic in the civil arena seems clear: if heterosexual unions are recognized by the state, a lack of similar recognition of same-sex unions is an unambiguous discrimination based on sexual orientation," the group declared last year. "Such discrimination is politically wrong."

Others even advocate that the church should not keep the grace of the sacrament of Matrimony from gay and lesbian Catholics (see the article by Dwight Daniels on the opposite page).

Curran, who teaches at Southern Methodist University, supports civil protection of committed gay relationships, including all the rights that heterosexual spouses enjoy. In addition, he believes a Catholic blessing ceremony for committed same-sex relationships can be appropriate. "But," he adds, "I wouldn't want to call it marriage. They're two different realities. I think marriage has an openness to children. Marriage and procreation have had some kind of linkage.... There's just a danger of trying to put everything under the same name."

Morrison, the former gay-rights activist, says issues of civil equality for homosexuals can be handled outside the legal boundaries of gay marriage. "None of these things being advanced for gay civil marriage can't be dealt with extramaritally," he says. "If anything," he adds, "we need to be making [marriage] more special, more select, not less so." Calls for churchsanctioned blessing ceremonies for same-sex relationships are a "red herring," Morrison says. "What the church would be asked to bless would be a friendship with sexual activity," he says. "The church won't, and it shouldn't." (See Morrison's article on opposite page.)

In opposing same-sex marriage, the U.S. bishops have said, "Marriage is a faithful, exclusive, and lifelong union between one man and one woman, joined as husband and wife in an intimate partnership of life and love.... The institution of marriage has a very important relationship to the continuation of the human race, to the total development of the human person, and to the dignity, stability, peace, and prosperity of the family and society.... No same-sex union can realize the unique and full potential which the marital relationship expresses."

Yet different views abound.

"God does not create in vain," declares the Reform movement of Judaism. "That is, all of us are created by God, and God would not create a creature to be treated any less equally than all the rest. Heterosexual and homosexual expressions are variations on the theme of a positive inherent sexuality."

Likewise, in his book Virtually Normal: An Argument About Homosexuality (Knopf, 1995), Andrew Sullivan, former editor of The New Republic and an openly gay Catholic, examines the question of "how something that seemed to occur naturally could still be profoundly unnatural, and against the end of God's creation."

In Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe (Villard Books, 1994), Yale historian John Boswell illuminated what he argued were ancient Catholic and Orthodox liturgies for same-sex unions that bear striking similarities to heterosexual nuptials.

And Sidney Callahan, a veteran Catholic commentator, changed her mind on gay marriage, writing in a 1994 article for the journal Commonweal: "Why is it intrinsically disordered for homosexuals and lesbians to act on their sexual orientation, even if they would fulfill all the same moral conditions required of heterosexual marital activity, such as commitment, love, and lifelong fidelity?

"After all, some heterosexual marriages need not, nor can be biologically procreative. I just cannot imagine Christ asking such an unequal sacrifice from homosexual persons with beloved partners who have not been called to vowed celibacy.... Doesn't it seem a confirmation of the Christian teaching on the goodness of monogamous marriage that gay couples eschew promiscuity and desire to regularize and ritualize their loving commitment to one another?"

These are questions that Gina Marie ponders toothough without great willingness to wait for answers. When she and her partner, a former religion teacher in a Catholic high school, decided a few years ago that they wanted to sanctify their relationship, they knew they wouldn't find a Catholic Church to hold the event. So they crafted their own liturgy and invited 150 friends and relatives to a borrowed United Church of Christ sanctuary. It was a do-it-yourself ceremony, but it still resounded with a distinct tone of Catholic tradition. Gina Marie's mother delivered the homily, her father read from scripture, and the participants broke and blessed bread.

Says Gina Marie, "It was a celebration."

This article appeared in the November 1997 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 62, No. 11, page 10).