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Can the Catholic
Church be saved?

Can the Catholic
Church be saved?

Covington Catholic

While most gay Catholics agree that the new pope is likely to be conservative, some find hope in a groundswell of support for gay equality in the parishes of Western nations

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 people."

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 Faith, 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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