As I cope with the Sunday-morning death of my father, thoughts of religion and spirituality occupy me. As extended family gathered around his deathbed last week, I reflected on my membership in a large Irish-Catholic clan. While much of my close family has converted to evangelical Protestantism, many of my cousins are strong Catholics. As an out gay man, I can’t help but wonder about recent Catholic leadership trends toward extreme anti-LGBTQ positions. As the official Church increasingly rejects LGBTQ people, I ask myself if this is a temporary backlash or a sign of even worse to come.
As a gay man, I’ve always felt more welcome among my Catholic family than among my Evangelical family. Is that going to change? Recent events in Detroit make me wonder.
Detroit Catholic Church ratchets back LGBTQ acceptance
After demanding the dismissal of a beloved lesbian music director, the Archbishop of Detroit just banned two decades-old affiliated groups of LGBTQ Catholics, forbidding them from congregating in church during mass or from meeting in any archdiocese-owed facility at any time. The archbishop has further directed that no priest under his authority may celebrate mass for the groups — on church property or off.
Instead, church leaders are encouraging LGBTQ group members to participate in a program meant to turn them straight. As ridiculous as that might sound, it’s actually happening and is part of an emerging trend in the United States toward extremist homophobia among Roman Catholic hierarchy.
While Catholic theology has long been uncompromisingly anti-LGBTQ, Catholic congregations in the US have represented a very a different story. Many LGBTQ folks report feeling welcome in church, feeling part of a community that loves and accepts them. Lesbians and gay men have traditionally found niches in the music of the Church — playing the organ, directing choirs, or leading small groups. The hierarchy for the most part chose not to see their sexual orientation, even if they had partners.
Part of the reason may be that gay Catholic men have traditionally gravitated toward the priesthood, resulting in parish leadership sometimes sympathetic to LGBTQ lived truths. While not renouncing core beliefs, many priests and bishops chose not to elevate LGBTQ “sin” over “sins” like contraception and family planning, which in practice almost all church leaders completely ignore. Almost all practicing American Catholics report using some form of artificial birth control, after all, but Catholic hierarchy never discipline them for it.
LGBTQ Catholics have, over the decades, come to expect and experience the same tolerance toward their own life in the church.
All that seems to be changing in the United States. Pope Francis has hardened a 2005 ban on gay men training for the priesthood, leading many seminaries to stop accepting gay candidates. And ever since same-sex marriage became legal in the US, the Church hierarchy has escalated and enforced strict policies about purging same-sex couples from staff and leadership at churches, schools, and charities.
Archdioceses all over the US, even self-identified liberal ones, have followed Vatican directives to take a harder line against same-sex married couples in the life of the Church. Nowhere can this be illustrated better than in Detroit, where LGBTQ people, who have long felt welcome and included in Catholic congregations, now feel fearful and rejected.
In a series of recent moves, the archbishop has turned the official Detroit-area Church (no matter how much its largely liberal congregants may disagree) into a no-go zone for open members of gender and sexual minorities.
LGBTQ Catholics feel increasingly rejected and confused
When the Detroit archdiocese suddenly banned LGBTQ groups Dignity and Fortunate Families, members expressed shock and bewilderment at their sudden exile.
“Dignity is still around, and we’re not going anywhere,” Dignity Detroit president Frank D’Amore told the Detroit Free Press. “We just celebrated our 46th anniversary in May. We never went out of our way to embarrass the church hierarchy. We’re on our fourth Archbishop in 39 years, three cardinals. Now, all of a sudden, it’s an issue? I don’t get it.”
When the archbishop fired lesbian music director Terry Gonda on June 12, telling her in an an email, “The Archdiocese is choosing to activate its morality clause to terminate your employment,” she felt shocked and devastated.
She’d spent three decades running the musical life of her parish, not keeping her marriage to a woman secret from anyone — not from family, friends, church or pastor.
She told the Free Press she’d long stood by the “embattled Catholic church despite its strained relationship with the LGBTQ community,” despite scandal involving pedophile priests and coverups, despite LGBTQ people denied Communion and lesbians fired from teaching jobs.
She says her congregation never shunned her for being gay or for marrying the woman she loves. Now she says she’s angry and heartbroken, pushed out of a beloved community by leadership that seems bent on rejecting people like her.
An ironic call to Gospel values
According the National Catholic Reporter, Detroit Archbishop Allen Vigneron began a campaign in 2017 and 2018 he calls “Unleash the Gospel.”
Vigneron has called on Detroit-area Catholics to begin a “journey of transformation and spiritual renewal centered on Jesus and the life-changing message of the Gospel.” He asks people to “share the good news of the Gospel — to unleash the Gospel — throughout southeast Michigan and beyond.”
D’Amore, Gonda, and LGBTQ Catholics everywhere could point out to Vigneron that nothing in the Gospel message of Jesus encourages or allows judging or rejecting people.
Indeed, the opposite is true.
During his lifetime, Jesus stood for radical acceptance. He commanded uncompromising love. All four gospels vibrate with that love. Condemnation of sexual behavior is nowhere to be found, either explicitly or between the lines.
LGBTQ Catholics and their loved ones everywhere could and should instruct the archbishop on the true good news of the Gospel, which he seems not to grasp despite his training and despite his urging people to share it.
Whither the Catholic Church?
Born and baptized a Catholic, and a member of a vibrant Catholic family, this question concerns me deeply. Given the strong trend in the past few years for American Catholic leaders to reject and ostracize LGBTQ people like me, I have to wonder about my own place in my own family.
Will ordinary Catholic people like them continue to reject Church teachings about sexual sin? Will they continue to embrace gay, bisexual, and transgender people? Or will more and more Catholics begin to internalize the strident, exclusionary teachings of extremists like Archbishop Vigneron?
Calling for a return to Gospel values seems such a discordant moral position when simultaneously barring LGBTQ groups from church property and firing a lesbian from a 30-year career. Almost anything seems possible given that almost-bizarre moral juxtaposition.
Part of me wants to believe that Catholic people will continue to resist, that the Church will either continue to shrink and lose cultural relevance, or that parishioners will stand in the way of the worst impulses of their leaders.
But another part of me fears that this new hardening — this new meanness in the Church — is not a mere backlash, but the beginning of a trend and the opening of a new front in the culture wars in which LGBTQ people like me are the targets.
I hope and pray that is not the case. I leave it to my Catholic family and friends to fight the good fight, to uphold the true values of the Gospel, to stand for love and inclusion rather than rejection and shunning.
Photo credit: Bible and Catholic crucifix with rainbow motif, by michaklootwijk on Adobe Stock
Former Air Force intelligence analyst, longtime LGBTQ activist and alumnus of Queer Nation and Act Up NY, James Finn is an essayist occasionally published in queer news outlets, an “agented” novelist and a runner, Marine, Airman, polyglot and self-proclaimed “middle-aged, uppity faggot.” He blogs at Medium.