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Rifts, questions emerge at meeting on gays

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
Rochester, N.Y.

The U.S. Catholic church’s tense and increasingly public struggle over homosexuality was on full public display recently as nearly 300 delegates gathered here for a three-day conference of the National Association of Catholic Diocesan Lesbian and Gay Ministries.

The association’s fifth annual conference focused on the U.S. bishops’ 1997 pastoral letter “Always Our Children” and on placing its recommendations into practice at the parish and diocesan level nationwide.

Released more than a year ago, “Always Our Children” -- addressed primarily to parents of homosexual children -- urges love and acceptance of gay sons and daughters.

But how to show that acceptance and whether homosexuals should be admonished to remain celibate has created sharp divisions. Those divisions were evident in contrasting images in this city in upstate New York on Lake Ontario.

Speaker after speaker -- parents, gay sons and lesbian daughters, priests, deacons, nuns -- spoke the language of hope, love, justice and reconciliation.

John Good of Los Angeles, president of the association, said: “For many of us who were born and raised Catholic, discovering that you are gay or lesbian can present challenging dilemmas. Growing up, we were taught that the options for adulthood were either marriage or religious life. As gay or lesbian persons, we must come to terms not only with our sexuality, but also our desire for a spiritual life. Many of us want to continue in our faith traditions and seek support in that journey.”

Outside, the images were quiet and grim. Protesters, armed with placards and handouts, had a different message: “Practicing Catholics cannot practice homosexuality,” “Love the homosexual with the truth,” “Homosexuals are called to chastity,” and “Stay out of our schools,” their signs read.

Nonetheless, Bishop Matthew Clark, who came under fire from conservative Catholics for his support of the association, received a standing ovation as he welcomed the attendees. “With all the publicity this conference has generated, you might ask if I really mean happy -- I really am,” he said, smiling.

Clark has been at the center of controversy of another sort. The Rochester diocese recently made national headlines when Clark removed Fr. James B. Callan from his 22-year ministry at Corpus Christi, a liberal, inner-city parish, for failing to make changes to keep the parish in line with church rules (NCR, Aug. 28).

Those attending the conference came from 26 states, three countries and 58 dioceses. Pastoral ministers from more than 35 dioceses belong to the organization.

Plenary speaker Richard Peddicord, a Dominican friar and moral theologian at Aquinas Institute of Theology in St. Louis, took up a conference theme of social justice when he endorsed gay civil rights protection. He said the issue of “gay and lesbian participation in society is not a matter to be decided by Catholic sexual ethics.”

“Sexual ethics is concerned with the values related to human sexuality and the goals associated with human sexual functioning,” he said. “It is manifestly incapable of answering questions concerning human and civil rights and determining who will or will not be allowed to share in the concrete goods of society.

“In traditional Catholic morality, all of these are regulated by the primary social virtue, that of justice,” Peddicord said.

Other speakers advocated full participation for gay and lesbian Catholics in the church.

Some presenters provided advice and tips for pastoral ministers, counselors and educators in local parishes, as well as Catholic schools.

Bill Kummer described a ministry in the St. Paul and Minneapolis archdiocese that offers a “safe-schools,” collaborative approach for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered students struggling with their sexual identity.

Other workshops dealt with chaste friendships, adult education strategies on church teaching and pastoral needs and potential responses for people living with AIDS.

But underlying tensions ran through the weekend as well. The issue of Dignity’s exiled status at the conference came up at the general membership meeting and during several workshops.

Dignity, a national organization of gay Catholics that has been ousted from official church locations because it opposes some church teachings on homosexuality, was not permitted to be an official exhibitor. An official of the group was even disinvited from participating in a workshop. Bob Miailovich of Washington, president of Dignity/USA, charged that a “demonizing of Dignity” was underway at the meeting.

Another underlying tension that surfaced was over church teaching requiring chastity -- or mandatory lifelong celibacy for homosexuals. One gay priest from the Midwest challenged the language of church teaching, particularly the terms “intrinsic evil” and “objective disorder” to describe gay sex. “Love is not disordered,” he said at one workshop.

The high point of the conference came on Saturday evening as 600 people, with police escorts, passed by the nearly 75 protesters outside St. Mary’s Church to attend Mass. Many were deeply moved and described the liturgy in superlatives, saying it was “powerful” and “exhilarating.”

Even Bishop Clark, presider and homilist, was visibly moved.

Sue Cassidy, of suburban Philadelphia, the mother of a gay son, struggled to find words to describe her feelings. “Awesome,” she said, “from the moment I walked into the church.”

National Catholic Reporter, October 2, 1998