Gay Catholics Act Up

Confronting the Bishops From Within the Church

Just a few weeks before the consecration of Gene Robinson as the first openly gay bishop of any mainline Christian denomination, the Roman Catholic Church reminded gays that old hatreds die hard. Michael Sabatino Jr. and Robert Voorheis, a couple who sang for years in the choir of St. Benedict's Church in Throgs Neck, were married in Canada on October 4 and then promptly turned out of the choir by their pastor. By wedding, the couple took a swipe at the church's loathing of anything openly gay, sexual, and unashamed. In the face of such an abomination, says Joseph Zwilling, spokesman for the Archdiocese of New York, "a pastor has not only the right but the obligation to act."

But now gay Catholics are acting up in ways that not only question church teachings, but the authority it has bludgeoned them with. This new development emerged at a sacred event on Monday: the mass at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. celebrating the annual gathering of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Still staggering from revelations of sexual abuse by Catholic priests, the bishops donned their finest vestments. But lining up in the cathedral's center aisle was another group wearing sashes identifying them as openly gay Catholics.

These are members of the Rainbow Sash Movement, which began several years ago in Australia and is now catching on in the States. By wearing the sash in church, its members were performing an act of disobedience at least as shocking as storming down the aisle shouting slogans of resistance. Within a Church culture that has exploited the labors of gay priests and nuns for centuries—demanding absolute secrecy about their sexuality—receiving the body and blood of Christ through a mouth that openly welcomes others of the same sex is perhaps the most insurrectionary act American gays have attempted in years. At last year's mass for the bishops, Rainbow Sash members were refused Communion. As Joe Murray, spokesman for the U.S. movement, remembers it, "A lay spokesperson said from the podium, 'There are those in this congregation who will be using the host as a sign of disunity; consequently they will be denied it.' " Says Murray, "We'll be back this year, anyway."

Activist Joe Murray: "I see the workings of the Holy Spirit in this."
photo: Wayne Cable
Activist Joe Murray: "I see the workings of the Holy Spirit in this."

Being a gay Catholic activist is not like being a member of ACT UP. "You're not just protesting government policy—you're challenging the people you believe represent you to God," a former AIDS activist explains. But anger and impulses to fight back were inadvertently encouraged thanks to attempts by church officials and right-wing laity (such as the Catholic League) to blame the debacle on the mere existence of gay priests. The conference of bishops' leader, Wilton Gregory, notoriously announced at a Vatican press conference that the real dilemma at hand was to "end the domination of the priesthood by homosexuals." And this summer the Vatican published "Considerations Regarding Proposals to Give Legal Recognition to Unions Between Homosexual Persons," a document that not only reiterated the Holy See's revulsion to gayness but stated that the practice of gay adoption means "doing violence to these children."

In the past, such a statement would have elicited angry silence from gays trained to believe that Silence = Faith. But silence has really equaled death for gays in the Church, and this truth is finally causing many gay Catholics to erupt. "How dare they?" hollered a gay friend, the kind of Catholic who normally doesn't stand up to his mother (let alone the pope), after reading the "Considerations." "How dare they accuse us of hurting children when . . . " He didn't have to finish the sentence.

"We are getting hundreds of new members all over the country," says Jeff Stone, who is an active member of the New York chapter of DignityUSA, the largest American gay Catholic organization, which has more than 50 chapters for at least 3,000 gay Catholics in 30 states. Dignity has long walked a tremulous line between religious acquiescence and gay pride. But at its national convention in Las Vegas, held by chance right after "Considerations" was released, nobody preached patience and submission. "We all found the document's timing very interesting," says Stone. "It was clearly intended as a response to [the Canadian and U.S. developments] and to frighten people." DignityUSA immediately drafted and voted on a rebuttal. And this week, its members are in Washington, too.

"When the bishops convene, we will attempt to meet with them—as many as possible—to continue dialogue," says Matthew Gallagher, the new executive director of Dignity. "Bishop Gregory has said there should be no discussion with 'dissenting organizations.' That's why this has to be done privately." But there is no shame in Dignity's tactics, which reflect an understanding of how to make progress within a church that seems to fear public exposure ("giving scandal," as Zwilling puts it) even more than damnation.

Other ways of helping gay Catholics find a proud place in the pew are appearing all over the country. In numerous dioceses, small outreach efforts are being made to know, listen to, and respect the increasing numbers of gay men and women coming to mass on Sunday with their lovers and children. These efforts are changing minds ready for a new direction. Spurred in part by the church's equally ridiculous condemnations of birth control and a greater role for women, a culture of dissent has gained authority in American parishes. Distrust of church leaders has caused rank-and-file Catholics to lean heavily on their local priests (usually more in touch with reality than the hierarchy) and turn to each other, in the process recognizing, and in many cases welcoming, gay congregants. "I have friends in my [Illinois] parish," Murray says matter-of-factly. "My lover and I are always invited to houses of fellow Catholics as a couple. There are welcoming parishes all over the country."

One well-known group is New Ways Ministry, whose executive director, Francis DeBernardo, was teaching a workshop for Catholic gays and their families and ministers when "Considerations" appeared. "People said they felt 'slapped in the face' by the document," DeBernardo recalls. But he also notes a new "resilience, a truer sense of identity," sloughing off the insult.

A frequent response to church homophobia has been to simply walk out to another faith, usually Episcopal. But even that church's recent ordination of an openly gay bishop doesn't seem to be spurring mass defections among gay Catholics (although Sabatino and Voorheis, the banished choir members, are said to be exploring other denominations). "Gay Catholics who couldn't handle things like this [document] have made up their minds and left the church," a New York City priest explains. "A lot of others are staying, and are determined to stay."

Challenges to the church's authority are making it harder for Catholic homophobes to operate. "Look," continues the New York priest, who counsels gay parishioners, "everybody has a gay cousin or nephew or grandson now. Nobody in the church can afford to say 'Just fuck 'em' to gays anymore!"

Does all this mean a gay liberation of the faithful is on the way? Probably not. "If anyone has the expectation that Catholic teaching on homosexuality is likely to change sometime soon—say, under a new pope—they are likely to be disappointed," cautions John L. Allen Jr., Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter. And not everyone is speaking truth to power. "People are still being hit hard," by church homophobia, insists Brendan Fay, one of the first Catholic gays from New York to marry in Canada and the first to wear the Rainbow Sash at St. Patrick's Cathedral. "There's still lots of blood and tears to be shed over this."

Catholic radicals like Dorothy Day and the Berrigan brothers taught a generation that activism is an instrument of (and a saving) grace. And so the convergence of religious devotion and social activism that is as much a part of American Catholicism as St. Patrick's Day parades continues, led by a part of that church emerging and acting for the first time. "This is going to take a long time," Murray admits, "but like other people, I see the workings of the Holy Spirit in this, and seeing that makes it easier to stand up for what I believe."

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