Gays and lesbians beg to differ

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Article Sex and Sexuality

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

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

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

For Gina Marie, such words fall like acid on anopen wound. "I feel personally, along with so many others, that Ihave been unduly harmed by the church," she says. "We have been hurt.We have been isolated and alienated. We have been told we should beashamed of ourselves. We have been told we should be silent and notbe who we are. We have been told that there is no possible way Godcould ever be present in our relationships, but I've never known Godso well as I do in [my] relationship."

Moved to compassion

Clearly a deep and tempestuous gulf dividesorthodox Catholic teaching and the beliefs of many gay and lesbianCatholics. Theology, tradition, science, and revealed truth crashagainst each other like powerful and relentless waves, and the stormhas no end in sight. Homosexual Catholics continue to demand equalityin secular society and in the community of faith. And the churchunwaveringly teaches that homosexual acts are morally wrong.

Yet despite the seemingly immutable nature ofthe controversy, the issue is by no means static in the church. Overthe past two decades the Vatican's teaching has evolved in subtleways toward a more realistic and compassionate understanding ofhomosexualitya sea change that gives even the church's harshestcritics a measure of hope. On the pastoral level, a quiet search forcommon ground is occurring in discrete pockets of the U.S. church.Some bishops have held liturgies for the gay and lesbian community. Agrowing number of dioceses are forming ministries to the homosexualcommunity. And some respected Catholic thinkers have offeredcarefully reasoned arguments that seek to bridge Vatican teaching andthe realities of homosexual life in the U.S.

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

Meanwhile, Schexnayder notes, a growing numberof dioceses have established pastoral ministries for gay and lesbianCatholics. The Richmond, Virginia diocese was the first, setting upits program in 1976. After holding steady at about a dozen diocesanprograms until the mid 1980s, the number has grown to between 30 and40 today, with increasing numbers of dioceses looking to developprograms, Schexnayder says. In addition, more and more parishes arestarting outreach ministries to gay and lesbian Catholics and familymembers. "While the diocesan programs are rooted in church teaching,they also reach out to a variety of gay and lesbian people who may ormay not be accepting of the full range of church teachings on thesubject," Schexnayder says.

Marianne Duddy, president of Dignity/USA, a laymovement for gay Catholics that has met staunch resistance from theofficial church, agrees that the climate for gay Catholics has becomea bit more temperate in recent years. "To be gay and Catholic seemedimpossible 25 years ago," she says. "Now it's at leastacknowledged."

Duddy even believes that change atCatholicism's grassroots level will someday lead the hierarchy tobend on same-sex marriage and other aspects of homosexuality. "Ibelieve this is an issue on which the church as the People of Godwill lead the leaders," she says. But for now, according to her, gayand lesbian Catholics labor under a "defensive and dehumanizingdoctrine." Homosexuality is "about love, not about sex," shemaintains. "There's never a recognition of us as full people whosesexuality is as real, as genuine, as holy, and as good as that ofsomeone who is heterosexually married. And this is a fundamental sinin the Catholic Church's sexual moral theology as far as we areconcerned."

Raging battles

That the church's stand on homosexuality stirsintense emotion should come as no surprise to anyone familiar withthe religious scene in America. The issue has long been a cyclonicforce in theological discourse, occasionally exploding into bittercontroversy that penetrates the larger culture. This past spring, forexample, the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation's largestProtestant denomination, called for a boycott of the Walt DisneyCompany to protest, among other things, the company's medicalcoverage of employees' homosexual partners. The Baptists also balkedat the Disney/ABC sitcom "Ellen," in which the lead character cameout this year as a lesbian. Controversy over homosexuality has alsodogged most other denominations for years.

Yet nowhere has the issue raged with more furythan inside the Catholic Church. A low point came in 1989, when theradical gay-activist group ACTUP, angry at the church's refusal toendorse "safe sex" education and condoms to fight AIDS, disrupted aliturgy at New York's St. Patrick's Cathedral. Other controversieshave been less spectacular, but no less divisive. Some critics haveaccused local bishops of waiting too long to minister to those withAIDS. Others have said some clerics have failed to speak out againstantigay discrimination in secular society. And many critics haveaccused the Vatican hierarchy of using incendiary language thatleaves gays and lesbians bruised and alienated from thechurch.

"If you tell someone that at the very core ofyour 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 BishopThomas Gumbleton, perhaps the most outspoken Catholic cleric in theU.S. on the homosexuality issue.

Yet other Catholic leaders defend the church'sstand on homosexuality as both sound and compassionate. "Peopleobject to the fact that the church does believe and teach there is anormative expression of human sexuality," says Father Richard JohnNeuhaus, a prominent Catholic conservative and editor-in-chief of thejournal First Things. "I think just as gently, kindly, persuasively aspossible, we have to say, 'We're not making this up. It's therevealed truth of God.'" Of the Vatican's language on homosexuality,he says, "I don't think there's a harshness there. People lift up thephrase 'objectively disordered.' All right, what words would theyprefer?"

"We have to say things as they are," echoesFather John Harvey, longtime director of Courage, a church-sanctionedspiritual support organization that seeks to help "persons withhomosexual tendencies" live in chastity.

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

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

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

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

The debate over homosexuality can getexceedingly complex, especially in a pluralistic society in whichmany cultural and social taboos have fallen in recent decades.Consider the notion of children and whether homosexual couples shouldraise them.

"I think it's wonderful," Duddy says. "Gay andlesbian 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 parentmeans the children are wanted and will be provided for well."

Morrison disagrees. "Children have a right to afather and a mother," he says. "It's very important to a child'sunderstanding of himself or herself to have masculinity andfemininity modeled in front of them in a close intimate way. I don'tthink you can interchange them like switching jackets orsomething."

Public opinion shifts

The church's teaching on homosexuality is, atleast for now, consistent with prevailing social mores. Some six inten Americans regard homosexuality as morally wrong, and half say itshould not be considered an acceptable alternative lifestyle,according to the Gallup organization. Americans oppose legalmarriages for gay partners by a margin of two and a half toone.

But deep within the Gallup data may lie theseeds of a revolution in public thinking about homosexualityandperhaps new pressure on the church to refine its approach to theissue. Gallup reports that Americans are less opposed tohomosexuality in general than they were in the early 1990s or early1980s, with most of the public for the first time saying homosexualsshould be allowed to work as clergy and schoolteachers. And on thequestion of whether gay marriages should be afforded the same rightsas traditional marriages, young peopleoften the progenitors of socialtrendsare more inclined to say yes than are their elders. Nearly athird of men age 18 to 29 said in a 1996 poll that gay marriagesshould be legally recognized, and more than half of the womenrespondents in that age group answered likewise. Women ages 30 to 49were split on the issue, with nearly four in ten favoringlegalization.

Of course, the Vatican does not shape dogma bypolls, as its teachings on contraception, priestly celibacy, andfemale ordination clearly show. "If the Vatican isn't willing tochange on artificial contraception, it certainly isn't going tochange on any other more difficult issue" such as homosexuality, saysFather Charles Curran, a liberal Catholic scholar who was censured bythe Vatican for his teachings on sexual ethics. But changing publicmores are bound to give new urgency to pastoral concerns about gaysand lesbians and to erode what many see as a climate of homophobia inboth church and society.

"Unfortunately, many church leaders seem toreduce lesbian and gay persons to sexual activity, and we don't dothat with heterosexual people" says Sister Jeannine Gramick, directorof lesbian and gay ministry for the School Sisters of Notre Dame,based in Baltimore. In 1977 Gramick cofounded New Ways Ministry topromote reconciliation between lesbian and gay Catholics and thechurch, and she has weathered repeated church investigations into herwork. 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 thathomosexuality is no longer an issue" in the church, Gramick says.There would be "no need for special ministries [such as Dignity orNew Ways Ministry]. All those temporary structures are set up becausewe are at a point where there is still homophobia and heterosexism."Gramick wants a "society and church in which lesbian and gay peopleare truly accorded the same dignity and equality that heterosexualpeople have." Gumbleton expresses a similar hope. "The more we cometo understand that there are homosexual people working with us thatwe're dealing with every day, the more homophobia will disappear," hesays. "And these sort of unarticulated ideas about homosexuality as aperversion or something disordered or wrong will dissipate."

A personal epiphany

No Catholic official has been bolder atwelcoming gays and lesbians into the church than Gumbleton. Hisepiphany on the issue came from personal experience. Some 15 yearsago his brother Dan disclosed in letters to his siblings and motherthat he was gay, and for years his aging mother worried in silencethat Dan would go to hell because of it. Finally, 87 years old andailing, she expressed her concern to her bishop son. His answerreassured her. God made and accepts us the way we are, Gumbleton toldher.

A few years ago, Gumbleton came to a "listeningsession" for gay Catholics at a Minneapolis basilica wearing aspecial miter he'd received as a gift. It bore a pink trianglethemark used by the Nazis to identify homosexuals and now a symbol ofsolidarity among U.S. gay-rights supporters. This past spring, at asymposium sponsored by New Ways Ministry, Gumbleton urged allCatholic gays and lesbiansincluding bishops, priests, and religioustomake their sexual orientation known.

"I can't tell you the number of letters I havereceived from priests who say they are gay but who are afraid to comeout," Gumbleton told the symposium. "What a loss that is to ourchurch. If they were willing to stand up on Sunday morning in frontof the community and say who they really are, our church would muchmore fully and effectively appreciate the gifts that homosexualsbring to the whole community of our church and our society aswell."

Gumbleton is often described as a maverick onhomosexuality, and he walks a fine line between orthodoxy andcontroversy. He acknowledges the church's teaching that homosexualgenital activity is wrong, saying: "In that regard I certainlyexpress what the church teaches and teach what the church teaches.But," he adds, "at the same time...this is going to be a very realstruggle for people. It puts them in a difficult dilemma when aperson has a very real sense that [he or she] is not called tocelibacy.... They have to struggle to the point where they come tounderstand what is right, how to come to accept what is right, andhow to integrate it into their lives. I often tell people that as amale celibate I have to struggle with how I integrate my sexualityinto 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 intothe personal lives of homosexuals any more than he does ofheterosexuals. "I don't try to decide ahead of time not to givepeople Communion because they might be having a relationship," hesays. "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 standbefore God based on the decision they make in their consciences. Fromthe very beginning, primacy of conscience has been part of ourtradition. You don't go before God and say, 'I acted [simply] becausethe church or somebody else said to.'"

Different views onsame-sex unions

Gumbleton's take on same-sex unions issimilarly nuanced. The same civil rights ought to be accordedeveryone in society, including gays and lesbians living in same-sexpartnerships, 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 wrongof how people live." If a company provides benefits to an employee'sspouse, it should also give benefits to a gay employee's partner ifthe two live in a committed relationship, Gumbleton says.

But, he makes clear, he does not believesame-sex marriage should be enshrined in either civil or canon law."Marriage is a sacrament between a man and womanthat's the verydefinition of marriage," he says. "I don't think we [the church] canchange that." His opposition to proposed laws allowing same-sex civilmarriage is based on pragmatism. Such laws are simply not feasible,he argues, because no consensus exists in the U.S. that gay unionsshould 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 goodlaw. It only leads to disdain for law."

Gumbleton's view is only one in a variety ofopinions within the Catholic Church on same-sex unions. The NationalCoalition of American Nuns, a grassroots organization known forspeaking out on issues in the church and society, defends the "rightto a civil marriage" for gays and lesbians. "While communities offaith may debate the theological meaning of marriage and a viablesexual ethic, [the National Coalition of American Nuns] believes thatthe political ethic in the civil arena seems clear: if heterosexualunions are recognized by the state, a lack of similar recognition ofsame-sex unions is an unambiguous discrimination based on sexualorientation," the group declared last year. "Such discrimination ispolitically wrong."

Others even advocate that the church should notkeep the grace of the sacrament of Matrimony from gay and lesbianCatholics (see the article by Dwight Daniels on the oppositepage).

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

Morrison, the former gay-rights activist, saysissues of civil equality for homosexuals can be handled outside thelegal boundaries of gay marriage. "None of these things beingadvanced 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 church-sanctionedblessing ceremonies for same-sex relationships are a "red herring,"Morrison says. "What the church would be asked to bless would be afriendship with sexual activity," he says. "The church won't, and itshouldn't." (See Morrison's article on opposite page.)

In opposing same-sex marriage, the U.S. bishopshave said, "Marriage is a faithful, exclusive, and lifelong unionbetween one man and one woman, joined as husband and wife in anintimate partnership of life and love.... The institution of marriagehas a very important relationship to the continuation of the humanrace, to the total development of the human person, and to thedignity, stability, peace, and prosperity of the family andsociety.... No same-sex union can realize the unique and fullpotential which the marital relationship expresses."

Yet different views abound.

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

Likewise, in his book Virtually Normal: An Argument AboutHomosexuality (Knopf, 1995), AndrewSullivan, former editor of The NewRepublic and an openly gay Catholic,examines the question of "how something that seemed to occurnaturally could still be profoundly unnatural, and against the end ofGod's creation."

In Same-Sex Unionsin Premodern Europe (Villard Books,1994), Yale historian John Boswell illuminated what he argued wereancient Catholic and Orthodox liturgies for same-sex unions that bearstriking similarities to heterosexual nuptials.

And Sidney Callahan, a veteran Catholiccommentator, changed her mind on gay marriage, writing in a 1994article for the journal Commonweal: "Why is itintrinsically disordered for homosexuals and lesbians to act on theirsexual orientation, even if they would fulfill all the same moralconditions required of heterosexual marital activity, such ascommitment, love, and lifelong fidelity?

"After all, some heterosexual marriages neednot, nor can be biologically procreative. I just cannot imagineChrist asking such an unequal sacrifice from homosexual persons withbeloved partners who have not been called to vowed celibacy....Doesn't it seem a confirmation of the Christian teaching on thegoodness of monogamous marriage that gay couples eschew promiscuityand desire to regularize and ritualize their loving commitment to oneanother?"

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

Says Gina Marie, "It was a celebration."