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Gay, lesbian Catholics should go public and show up at church


Eighty percent of success is showing up. This aphorism, commonly attributed to Woody Allen, brings smiles to our faces. If you’re not there, don’t really expect to further your cause or have any significant input into the endeavor under consideration.

It is one thing to have a private conversation over a moral, social or political issue. It is quite another to express oneself publicly, either vocally or simply through one’s supportive presence. Most recently, I have thought about this when considering the current developments, or lack thereof, depending on one’s personal or geographical location, in the interface between gay Catholics and the church.

The development of support groups, educational programs and similar activities in parishes and educational institutions, and other church-related components illustrates that, while we have a long way to go toward acceptance and full integration into parish life, some progress is afoot. In the last year or so, for example, we have had at least one cardinal and a bishop issue public apologies to gay and lesbian Catholics for the hurtful manner in which they have been treated in the past. William Newman, an auxiliary bishop in the Baltimore archdiocese, delivered a beautiful homily and celebrated a welcoming liturgy at St. Bernadette’s Parish in Silver Spring, Md., on Dec.10, 2000, for gay and lesbian Catholics and their families and friends. In this liturgy, he publicly asked forgiveness for the church’s treatment of gay and lesbian Catholics.

To redress the wrong

Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony voiced a similar apology this year in his Lenten message. More important, he noted that it was inadequate to simply say “I’m sorry” without doing something. In his words, we must have “a firm purpose of amendment. This is consonant with our Catholic sense of not just looking backward, but also looking forward. There is no saving value in simply naming a group or issue unless we have some real firm purpose of amendment, for example, in terms of a real program that seeks to redress the wrong or some archdiocesan policy or procedure to bring about needed change.” He noted the Los Angeles special outreach ministry “to our homosexual and lesbian brothers and sisters, by including them fully (emphasis added) in the life of our parishes and by being attentive to protecting their civil rights.”

Those who have been so shabbily treated by the church over the years, and continue to be treated as such, might view these apologies with due wariness or cynicism as “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” On a more positive note, these isolated messages do send a more welcoming signal to the gay and lesbian Catholic population.

Moreover, in a similar vein, when Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, an auxiliary in the Detroit archdiocese, responded to a recent article in a Catholic publication, he was right on target: In “Coming out as a Catholic school teacher,” published in the March 19 issue of America, Fr. Gerald Coleman expressed his belief that it would be better for gay Catholic teachers in Catholic schools, even those committed to celibacy, to remain closeted since, in his judgment, by coming out they would lose credibility as public representatives of the church. In a simple but elegant response (America, April 23-30), the bishop responded to each significant point of the foregoing article and noted in his closing remarks that “Homosexual persons are good and loved by God. They have no reason to be in hiding. They have a right to be known, respected and loved as they are. We are the ones who have to change our thinking.”

These messages ought to be viewed by both the heterosexual and homosexual communities as clear signs that anything less than full and complete integration into the life of the church is unacceptable. Moreover, gays and lesbians ought to be treated similarly to their heterosexual brothers and sisters in the pulpit and the pew. No one goes about inquiring about the conduct of heterosexuals, in spite of the fact that the vast majority reject several areas of Catholic teaching in matters of sexual ethics, such as contraception. Similarly, no one has the right to inquire about the private lives of gays and lesbians. All of us are called to live chastely, in accord with the dictates of an informed conscience. As the U.S. bishops’ pastoral letter “Always Our Children” noted, “Human beings see the appearance, but the Lord looks into the heart.”

Time to participate

It is time for our homosexual brothers and sisters to show up, participate and stay. This process could be undertaken by different individuals in different ways, for example, by remaining in their current community and, depending upon their comfort zone with the community of the local parish church, participating whenever possible. In the latter instance, their presence is a gift to the larger church, which needs and elicits their active involvement.

Similar to the experience of black Catholics in earlier times and places, who simply refused to leave what was theirs as a baptismal right and not accept “black Catholic churches” because they were unwelcome in sharing the same pews with whites, homosexual Catholics need to claim their rightful place by coming and claiming their rights. Again, this would be a gifted presence, since it will only be through experience with publicly out homosexual persons that prejudices and fears will be overcome, and more serious dialogue on the issues -- particularly those matters in which full integration is currently not possible -- can commence at the grassroots level, beyond the walls of the Vatican, episcopal conferences and academia. As Gumbleton noted, “It is clear that one of the most effective ways to break down fears and misconceptions about homosexual people is to put a human face on homosexuality.”

‘I am with you’

Personal knowledge about the issues, grounded in experience with known homosexuals, will be a crucial factor as our country moves forward in various legal initiatives to guarantee their full civil rights. These legislative initiatives take on a whole different meaning when one personally knows someone who will be affected by its passage or rejection. Just as we need publicly out gay and lesbian Catholics as role models in our schools, even more so we need publicly out gay and lesbian role models in our pulpits and our pews. Any member of the church, young or old, struggling with their sexual orientation, or clearly knowing his or her sexual orientation, will be enabled by their presence. This presence is also important to the parents and friends of homosexuals, many of whom live in hiding, receiving minimal support from anyone. To wit, showing up and participating is a way of publicly saying to all these persons, “I am with you in your struggle. I belong here and so do you.”

Let us not be naïve. No doubt, there will be the misinformed, bigoted or homophobic person in the pulpit or pew who will quote “chapter and verse” the current church’s teaching on conduct without the slightest mention regarding the role of an informed conscience or widely practiced pastoral norms. This factor will drive many away or back to separate churches or other liturgical settings.

That is why we need more of our leaders, both heterosexual and homosexual, to step up to the plate and stop looking backward but forward. By and large, I honestly do believe that the majority of our Catholic churchgoers are remarkably tolerant and accepting persons. Notwithstanding the poisonous fumes emanating in numerous instances from the pulpit and pews, success, as noted initially, will largely be achieved by showing up and letting the church know that publicly out gays and lesbians are here to stay. Woody was right. Without being there, homosexuals and the larger church community are both the losers.

Robert J. Comiskey holds a doctorate in religion and ethics and is a freelance writer living in Springfield, Va.

National Catholic Reporter, November 16, 2001