Can the Catholic
Church be saved?

Can the Catholic
            Church be saved?

Distraught over
the Roman Catholic Church’s treatment of gay
people, 40-year-old Sicilian native Alfredo Ormando entered
St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City on January
13, 1998, and set himself on fire. He died in a nearby
hospital 10 days later. The Vatican remained silent,
issuing only banal statements denying any connection between
the church and the suicide.
“John Paul II never recognized
[Ormando’s] death,” says the Reverend
Mel White, director of the Virginia-based gay religious
advocacy group Soulforce, who was among those who protested
outside the Vatican after Ormando’s immolation.
Instead, the pope’s many public condemnations
of homosexuality continued. In fact, they got much worse.
John Paul II, the third-longest-sitting pope in
the Catholic Church’s history, died April 2 at
age 84. Disenfranchised, angry, and in many cases
bitter, many of the world’s Christian gays and
lesbians were quick to condemn him as millions of others
mourned. “The many tributes to him left me
sad,” White says. “He was the most
influential homophobe in the 20th century. He did more to
set back our cause than any other religious leader. His
influence on a billion people turned back the progress
we had made in ways we will regret for another century.”
No one can be certain what the next pope will be
like—the College of Cardinals was just
beginning its conclave at press time—but given
that 113 of the 115 cardinals electing him were put in place
by John Paul II, most agree that he will likely be
conservative and not gay-friendly. “The chances
of the new pope being liberal are slim,” says
Paul Lakeland, 58, a professor of Catholic studies at
Fairfield University in Connecticut. “We have to
assume that he will be a moderate at best.”
Indeed, moderate Catholics, particularly in the
United States and Western Europe, are hoping the new
pope will be more like John XXIII, who became pope in
1958 and quickly set about modernizing the church. Known as
“the great reformer,” he convened the Second
Vatican Council in 1962 and spoke of “throwing
open the windows of the church.” Social
organizations were formed, and languages other than
Latin were for the first time permitted in the celebration
of Mass. John XXIII’s successor, Pope Paul VI,
completed the Vatican II documents, which sought to
create a less dogmatic, more pastoral approach to
Catholicism. He was followed by John Paul I, elected in
August 1978—also a beloved reformer and
progressive. He was the first pontiff to go on record
saying the church needed to show more compassion to
gays and lesbians. But hopes of a move in that direction
came to end when John Paul I died suddenly a month
into his papacy.
That October, John Paul II became the first
Polish pope in history, and he soon embarked on an
unprecedented and unremitting campaign to condemn gay
sex, gay relationships, and gay parents that began with his
“Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the
Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons,”
coauthored in 1986 by his staunchly antigay confidant,
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger of Germany. The document labeled
gay sex “an intrinsic moral evil” and
homosexual attraction “an objective
disorder.” Support of U.S. Catholic’s for
the Vatican’s position soon dropped from 68% to 58%.

The attacks on
gays continued, including papal condemnation of pro-gay
laws in America and Europe in the early 1990s. By the time
the new millennium rolled around, John Paul II seemed
fixated on damning the gay rights movement: He called
the 2000 WorldPride celebration in Rome an
“insult” to the church; allowing gays and
lesbians to adopt was “violence” against
children; and the feminist movement was
“promoting” the evil of homosexuality. In
response to the clergy sexual abuse scandal, the
Vatican blamed gay priests, and when provinces in
Canada and the state of Massachusetts legalized same-sex
marriage, John Paul II issued numerous statements condemning
the move. In his last book, he condemned homosexuality
as an “ideology of evil.”
“With all the statements coming out of
Rome, it’s been a struggle,” says
Charles Mudge, 43, a gay lifelong Catholic who teaches
third grade and attends a church in Rochester, N.Y.
“My faith in the Catholic Church has really
been shaken. I have struggled with whether or not I
want to be Catholic. I have a lot of things to bring
to the church, but I found myself at times not going.”
Such disenfranchisement extends beyond gay
Catholics, says Joe Murray, 60, a Chicago-area
Catholic; he and his partner of 25 years, Dennis
Kluge, are the U.S. conveners of the international Rainbow
Sash Movement, a gay Catholic protest group in which
gay and lesbian Catholics enter cathedrals and
parishes around the world on Pentecost Sunday wearing
rainbow-colored sashes. If they are denied communion, they
remain standing in protest while the rest of the
congregation sits. “People of goodwill across
the board react to that kind of intolerance,”
he says. “It’s doing damage on the parish
level. There needs to be a pope who’s willing to
listen to opinions. We [could hope for] somebody who
is more pastoral while not overtly gay-friendly.”
John Paul II opposed granting much power to his
pastors. “He wanted to call the shots,”
Lakeland says. “It has been a terrible problem
over the last 10 years, and I think bishops around the world
have had enough. Both liberals and conservatives do
not like much centralization of authority.” A
less authoritarian pope, he adds, could “free
up the bishops to be more pastoral to gays and lesbians.”
Lisa Sowle Cahill, 57, a Catholic professor of
theology at Boston College, agrees: “Church
policy does not always come from the top down. A huge
factor is the local church and the local culture. Parishes
in the United States are a lot more open to gay

And that’s
exactly why the next pope will probably not back away
from a universal policy against the rights of gays and
lesbians, argues Paul Griffiths, 49, chair of Catholic
studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
“I suspect that the new pope will want to keep
things fairly centralized,” he says. “The
perception is that the future of the church lies in
East Asia and Africa. Those countries would see things
like gay rights as very wrong.” In short, he says,
the new pope is facing dwindling church membership in
America and Europe, and competition from Mormons,
evangelical Christians, and Muslims in third world
countries is forcing the Catholic Church to remain
conservative on gay and gender issues.
Many American Catholics—who number 65
million of the church’s 1 billion worldwide
membership—are accepting of gays and lesbians.
The National Association of Catholic Diocesan Lesbian and
Gay Ministries, founded in 1994, has 12 member
dioceses, says Father Jim Schexnayder, 67, a priest of
the Catholic diocese in Oakland, Calif., and resource
director for the group. And he estimates that there are
between 100 and 200 parishes nationwide with
gay-inclusive or welcoming ministries.
“We have seen a lot of progress,”
says Sister Jeannine Gramick, the 63-year-old
cofounder of the New Ways Ministry in Maryland and a
longtime advocate for gay Catholics. “We see gay
groups at Catholic colleges. We see many gay-friendly
parishes. And for those who are in gay-friendly
churches—their spiritual needs are being met.”
In fact, spiritual needs drive some gay people
to church whether they are gay-friendly or not. John
Z., a 23-year-old Catholic graduate student in Indiana
who declined to provide his full last name, says he would
like to one day attend a gay-friendly church. But
there are none in his area, so he stays closeted.
“I tried to look at [non-Catholic]
churches,” he says, “but I’m not ready
to give up something that I have done my whole life. A
lot of my friends are gay Catholics. We talk about how
we wish Rome would move out of this attitude, and
sometimes we think maybe we should just leave the church.
But we can’t just give up on it.”
Mudge isn’t giving up either, and
he’s willing to fight for broader acceptance.
He joined the Rainbow Sash Movement and is also
writing letters to his local bishop and the Vatican, while
encouraging others to do so. “For a long time
it was enough that I had found a home,” he
says. “Rainbow Sash has made me much more aware of
how much power the wider church has over people and governments.”
Indeed, the gay Catholic movement in the United
States has been maturing for a long time. Washington,
D.C.–based gay Catholic advocacy group Dignity
USA was launched as a national organization in 1973 and now
has close to 3,700 members. “The statements
that came from John Paul II were so damaging to so
many people,” says 60-year-old Dignity
president Sam Sinnett. “The church has just not dealt
with the knowledge that we now have about
homosexuality. It really is time for church leaders to
get rid of their limited view of gay people.”
To help them down that path, Dignity employs
theologians to make a case for gay rights, issues
gay-inclusive homilies to churches around the world,
and places ads in print publications. “We had a
Catholic organization in southern Illinois send out
2,000 mailings of [a Dignity] ad at their own expense
to people on their mailing list,” Sinnett says,
“because they believed in what we do.”

Whether or not
this kind of grassroots movement could ever influence the
Vatican is still a topic of much debate. “In the long
run it will change the church, but the long run could
be centuries,” says Gramick, who has been
touring the world promoting the film In Good
Conscience: Sister Jeannine Gramick’s Journey of
about her battles with the church over the
acceptance of gays and lesbians. “You have to
have a historical view of change. Incremental change
can come in a lifetime, but you won’t see major
shifts. If we look for that, we are going to be disappointed.”
“I do believe there is a trend among some
segments of the Roman Catholic people here in the U.S.
toward social justice,” says Bruce Simpson, 51,
archbishop of the Benedictine Order of St. John the Beloved
in Pennsylvania, which claims connection to the Old Catholic
movement that broke from Rome in the late 19th
century. “But nothing is going to happen
without the bishops, and they have never responded to a
movement among the laypeople. I think it’s great that
many Roman Catholics are finding their own sense of
conscience, but I do not see the bishops taking that
groundswell and going to the cardinals and saying we
need to change.”
Lakeland disagrees. “An old Latin phrase
in the church basically says, ‘What people
believe in their hearts will actually dictate the
doctrine,’ ” he notes. “I have no
doubt that the church will free itself from this
‘natural law’ interpretation of sex that
has trapped it for so long. It will be more affirming.
What wins out in the end is truth.”
As for the legacy of Alfredo Ormando, White
hopes gay Catholics will continue to stand in St.
Peter’s Square and demand to be heard by the
new pope. “We have to come out,” he says.
“Once they see how many good gay Catholic
laypeople there are, things will change.”

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