e-mail us
Bishop wants clergy, laity out of closet

NCR Staff

The New Ways Ministry Symposium here opened with haunting strains of a two-note chant, "Veni Sancte Spiritu." The gathering reached an emotional high pitch the following day as a bishop urged all gay and lesbian Catholics, including bishops and priests, to "come out" and called on the church to learn from what they have to say about sexual experience. Those markers reflected the tension of the conference: between reverence for tradition and challenge to the status quo.

The tension showed in stories of Catholic gays and lesbians who seek solace in any hint of compassion from church officials but always run into the ultimate Vatican assessment that their orientation is "intrinsically disordered." The tension was also reflected by devoted Catholic parents who want acceptance for their gay and lesbian children from the church.

The March 7-9 symposium drew 650 people, nearly half of them nuns, priests or religious brothers, for what was billed as "a national dialogue on lesbian and gay issues and Catholicism." The gathering was the fourth and largest of its kind in the 20-year history of New Ways, an independent group founded in 1977 "to promote understanding and acceptance of lesbian and gay persons within the Catholic community."

According to organizers, 51 percent of those attending were lay people. Fifty percent are involved in pastoral ministry, and 16 percent are diocesan or congregational leaders.

Although most talks were measured presentations on such topics as historical development of sexual ethics or recent scientific findings about the causes and nature of homosexuality, the atmosphere in the main room became charged when Bishops Matthew Clark of Rochester, N.Y., and Thomas Gumbleton, auxiliary of Detroit, took the stage Saturday.

Pushing the envelope

Gumbleton, often described as a maverick, has been a leading, if sometimes lonesome, voice among the bishops on controversial matters of social justice. While a few other bishops have addressed Catholic gay and lesbian gatherings, none has been as passionately outspoken as Gumbleton. At the New Ways gathering this year, his message bore a new challenge -- one that "pushed the envelope," in the words of Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways.

Even church leaders sympathetic to homosexual issues and gay rights, including Gumbleton, generally shy away from speaking openly about same-gender sexual activity -- except to dutifully repeat the church's view of it as sin. But Gumbleton was less cautious in his remarks here, lamenting that the church ignores the experience of homosexual people today just as it once refused to listen to heterosexuals on the matter of sex and marriage, he said.

Quoting a letter by Pope Gregory the Great (540-604), Gumbleton read: "Since even the lawful intercourse of the wedded cannot take place without pleasure of the flesh, entrance into a sacred place should be abstained from because the pleasure itself can by no means be without sin."

Gumbleton commented: "That is the Holy Father teaching, teaching that married people may not have sexual intercourse with pleasure because it is a sin."

Gumbleton contrasted Pope Gregory's words with those of Pope John Paul II who, in an encyclical on marriage, describes conjugal intercourse as a way of communicating love.

"John Paul II rejects the restricted view of the sexual act that made sense to the Christian tradition for more than a millennium," he said. The change, he said, came about because "we finally listened to married people, and their experience was that the joy and the pleasure of sex is good, is given by God and should be enjoyed and rejoiced in. And finally the church was able to hear what its own people were saying.

"And I suggest that the same thing can happen when homosexual people share with us their own experience," their understanding that their sexuality "is a gift," he said.

Gumbleton spoke of being changed by the coming out of his gay brother, Dan, a few years back, and by his experience at a New Ways symposium five years ago. His ministry with homosexuals since has led him to the conviction, he said, that the most important thing bishops and priests can do is to create an atmosphere where "gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people can be truly open about who they are."

"I think it's very, very important that they experience a warmth and openness within the church," to be allowed "to share their gifts with our church," he said -- "the gift of courage, which is so outstanding; the gift of compassion and caring for others; the gift of creativity, which seems to be so marked within the homosexual community. And I encourage this because I hope that within our church every gay person, every lesbian person, every bisexual person or transgendered person will come out. Because that is how our church is going to truly change."

It takes great courage to come out, he said, adding: "I would say this especially to bishops and priests within our church.

"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 continued. "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 can bring to the whole community of our church and our society as well."

Just a week before Bishop Matthew Clark's appearance here, he had presided at a Mass for gay and lesbian Catholics in Rochester, a decision that inspired a flurry of opposition. In an emotional retelling of that event, Clark said, "I will be ordained 35 years in December and would want to say to you that though I have been privileged, deeply so, to participate in all manner of magnificent liturgical rites ... I can't remember another that touched my heart so deeply as the one that we celebrated in Sacred Heart Cathedral."

A lot of healing, hope

About 1,300 people crammed into a cathedral built for 900, Clark said. The Mass grew out of an ongoing ministry in Rochester -- an effort by the Catholic Gay and Family Ministry, to help parents understand their homosexual children. Founders of that ministry, Casey and Mary Ellen Lopata, gave a workshop at the New Ways conference.

Clark said the Mass, despite the negative reactions, resulted in "a lot of healing, a lot of hopes restored, some reconciliation and, I think, a new way of looking at the issues that gather us here today."

In a news conference, Clark said in response to a question that he had made no attempt to stop anyone from receiving Communion during the Mass. Conservative Catholics had asked him beforehand to admonish anyone involved in same-gender sexual relationships against receiving the Eucharist. Clark said he preferred to "leave it to God to judge the hearts" of those who receive Communion.

If Clark and Gumbleton are beacons of hope for Catholic homosexuals, they stand out because they are in a tiny minority of bishops. Gumbleton's bold challenge to church leaders was a matter of no small irony to the founders of New Ways Ministry, Sr. Jeannine Gramick and Fr. Robert Nugent. They are waiting for results of a three-year-long Vatican investigation of their work while continuing a ministry to the parents of gay children. Their writings and workshops are repeatedly scrutinized, though they are careful to give only official church teaching on the matter of same-gender sexual activities.

So, while Gumbleton was cheered long and loud during his talk, in conversations afterward many hailed it more on the level of an ideal than a practical strategy.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church states, "The number of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies is not negligible. They do not choose their homosexual condition." While that seems to put the cause of homosexuality beyond the control of those affected, the church insists that same-gender sexual activity is a sin.

The Catechism also states, "Homosexual persons are called to chastity." To many gays, lesbians and others, the positions are irreconcilable. And despite eloquent appeals from church leaders calling for the dignity of homosexuals to be respected, in every corner of the conference participants talked about the fear of coming out.

A middle-aged Jesuit who recently came out to his parents acknowledged that some gay Catholics shun support groups in parishes for fear of jeopardizing their jobs or their relationships.

It is something other than fear that inhibits a priest from a large northeastern diocese. He left the seminary as a confused young man but, feeling a void in his life, returned nearly 20 years later. He gave up a lover and a good job to return.

Though reconciled to his sexual orientation, he said he is reluctant to come out because "I don't want to be the gay priest or the priest for just gays. I don't want to compromise my ministry that way." He has told people -- including his pastor and colleagues and some parishioners -- when he believes the information would be relevant and helpful. And he is grateful for gatherings like the symposium.

Gumbleton's talk was "a wonderful vision, the right thing to say to a group like this," he said. "But I think it has to be tempered. I'm not afraid of being crucified. I just don't want to be impotent as a minister to all."

If it is easy for insiders to point to a certain severity in church teaching, it was easy for the outsider to see a different quality.

One of the conference speakers, Dr. Richard Isay, clinical professor of psychiatry at the Cornell Medical College, is Jewish and gay and has written several books on homosexuality. After years of counseling work with gay and straight patients, he has concluded that "homosexuality is a nonpathological variant of human sexuality." Recent scientific studies point strongly to a biological rather than a psychological basis for homosexuality, he said. And he warns against trying to change sexual orientation.

But when pressed to agree that the inflexibility of Catholic teaching on homosexual activity was especially harmful, he disagreed. "I just don't see that," he said, noting that people in many other major Christian denominations are struggling with the issue.

In fact, Isay said, psychiatry has done more harm over the years by its view of homosexuality as a sickness than the church has by its teaching that homogenital activity is a sin.

"I don't think there are any more unhelpful parents among Catholics than among other groups in our society," he said. "In any religious group, people of real conviction will love their children for who they are."

National Catholic Reporter, March 21, 1997