Burning Issues:

Gay Catholics Try to Face Down the Church's Demons

For generations thereafter, the gay Catholic could either abandon home and religion or survive via degrading compromises: hiding in marriage (still a popular option); living, unmarried, with parents; or joining a religious order. Millions of us took the vow, seeking redemption from our allegedly lost selves, or at least sanctuary from a secular world in which homophobia was also gaining in virulence, leading our faith while sealing our own dismal fate within it.

Soon after gay liberation's eruption in 1969, gay Catholics rose up in their own way: Large numbers violated this ancient Faustian pact between gays and their religion and eschewed the priesthood. No one running the church has the guts to blame the recent drop in new priests on this obvious fact.

Clergy and laity formed support groups, such as Dignity USA. Then two unprecedented books—John Boswell's Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality and John J. McNeill's The Church and the Homosexual—introduced us to our future by telling the truth about our past. Boswell, a historian, demonstrated that homophobia was far from innate to Christianity but grew out of crises in the Middle Ages. McNeill, a Jesuit priest, offered ideas on how gays could start dismantling the oppression encircling our souls every time we knelt to pray. Boswell and McNeill saved countless gay Catholics from giving up on their faith. (I was one of them.) But ensuing efforts to organize and enlighten only spurred Pope John Paul II to adopt an even more determined intolerance. Meanwhile, gay Catholics' devotion remains so strong we call joining another denomination "defecting."

illustration: Marc Burckhardt

Gay non-Catholics, exasperated at what they see as our masochistic submission to oppression, ask, "Why do you put up with this religious shit?" My answer usually is that we now know homophobia was never part of Jesus' agenda or part of the foundation of our belief, revelations powerful enough to allow us to continue following the faith of our childhood.

It is becoming easier to hope for a better future for our faith, as the regime that stigmatized and exploited us falls under siege. Gay Catholics are uniquely suited to lead a revivified, democratic Catholicism because so many of us have been priests.

But first, gays (like all other Catholics) must examine how we contributed to the current crisis. I once attended a recovery group for male victims of sexual abuse and was the only Catholic in the room who had not been abused by a priest. As far as I can ascertain, not one gay group has ever organized "speak-outs" on this issue, as feminists did to challenge stereotypes of heterosexual rape. Why were we silent? Possibly because we sensed that, as Dignity/New York's Jeff Stone explains, "raising this issue also revealed there were a large number of gay priests—and until recently if you brought that up you were accused of being anti-Catholic."

Penance matters to everyone, but gay Catholics must make our examinings of conscience constructive, not oppressive. We must refuse to enable the vast homophobic conspiracy our religion made us part of. We should loudly support gay priests still doing their best to share the real Word with their parishioners. In pursuit of fairness and justice Catholics should demand that every cardinal and bishop answer questions on their own sexual orientation—and investigate their responses.

New York, interestingly, lags far behind activist efforts in other Catholic dioceses. The Massachusetts group Voice of the Faithful has adopted the witty slogan "Keep the Faith, Change the Church" and has received nearly 5000 inquiries from concerned Catholics. But facing down the formidable Archdiocese of New York is intimidating. Thankfully, there are usually Davids willing to engage even the nastiest Goliaths, and on April 28 150 New Yorkers stood in the freezing rain during Sunday Mass outside St. Patrick's to protest scapegoating of gays within the Catholic Church and our leaders' inexcusable actions. (The week before, Monsignor Eugene Clark scorched St. Pat's with an attack on gays—not mentioning that he once served as secretary to the most notorious homosexual in the history of American Catholicism, former New York archbishop—and later cardinal—Francis Spellman.)

"It was a turning point for the gay Catholic community," avows Brendan Fay, a longtime Irish Catholic gay activist who brought to the action a photograph of his friend Father Mychal Judge, chaplain of the Fire Department, September 11 martyr, and minister to his fellow gays and many others. "It was more subdued than other gay demonstrations, but it was also deeply passionate and serious." Renewing our faith by standing up to those who've abused that faith (as well as a trust that has always been and must remain sacred) is the truest answer to this crisis. Finding the grace and strength to face down our church's demons is the most important task for Catholics—all Catholics—right now.

Related Story:
"Cardinal Knowledge": American Catholic leaders bumble their way through the scandal as cries for reform grow louder. Tim Townsend reports.

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