At 15, I was active in high school ministry and discerning a place in the priesthood. At 16, I had my first sexual experience with another man. At 18, I found myself in a confessional, confronted by a priest who said I must choose between my love for both the church and my so-called sexual liberation. And at 20, I walked away from the Catholic Church, determined that the fun I was having in dance clubs, bars and my bedroom was more worthy of my time than my faith.
Now I am in my 50s, and one of the most hotly contested issues among U.S. Catholics is the place of same-sex attracted men and women in the life of the church. I find this to be funny, sad and a little ironic. Funny because it is not a novel issue. We have been here all along, whether openly welcomed, silently acknowledged or grudgingly given a seat at the table. (I have experienced all three. I am also aware that others have had experiences of active rejection within the church.) Sad because the discussion has only continued misunderstanding of the issue. Ironic because this is the conversation I so badly craved 30 years ago, and now that it is happening, I find myself in possession of answers that would have surprised me at 20.
The past 25 years featured sporadic moments of joy, sullen periods of desperation and serious questions that went unresolved. I came of age in the era of AIDS, a disease that was called both an exhibition of the wrath of God by many Christian leaders and proof of an uncaring (or nonexistent) Lord by friends in the gay movement. The epidemic challenged my faith: How could a loving God allow such devastation among people I loved, called friends and, in a couple of cases, had sexual relationship with?
I never gave up on a God whom I certainly afforded enough opportunities to give up on me. During those years, I did not call myself a Catholic, but I never gave up on a God whom I certainly afforded enough opportunities to give up on me. I rarely prayed and never went to church, but I kept God’s number handy in event of an emergency.
One of those emergencies came when, at the age of 32, I entered Alcoholics Anonymous. While I do not blame my lifestyle for my alcoholism and drug use, it certainly never discouraged it. Studies by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that addiction is more common among gay men.
I do not bring that up as a point of disparagement. I think the years of being marginalized by society play a large role in our higher rates of substance abuse, and I pray that the emergent acceptance of men and women in society might help change those statistics.
But sobriety added a new twist to my struggles. The numbness brought on by drink or drug was replaced with the reality of the loneliness I was experiencing. It was the loneliness that I imagine St. Augustine felt when he said to the Lord, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in you”—the loneliness that led me to strangers’ arms and beds in my 20s and 30s. I was now enlightened or maybe just sensible enough to know that my heart and head longed for something vastly more authentic than a one-night stand.
My heart and head longed for something vastly more authentic than a one-night stand. I visited a local chapter of Dignity, a support group for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons who are Catholic. But while the members of Dignity provide loving and necessary service in the communities where they exist, their style was not what I was looking for. For me, it seemed there was a wink-and-nod bonhomie that celebrated the gay Catholic’s outsider status. The fact that, at the time, Philadelphia Dignity met in a basement rather than a church only reinforced that perception. (Today, the group’s website proclaims L.G.B.T. Catholics “can express [their] sexuality physically” and “in a manner that is consonant with Christ’s teaching,” a stance that is inconsistent with the church’s teaching.)
I tried a Unitarian Universalist congregation and found that I desired a faith-directed home with more clearly defined principles and direction. I talked to a Catholic priest, who let me know the rules had not changed while I was gone but added that there was a home for me if I wanted to return to the church. I read St. Augustine’s Confessions and Dorothy Day’s The Long Loneliness, which gave me hope that a self-identifying outsider might find a place in the church.
And then, about a decade ago, I was introduced to Courage. We form loving, supportive and authentic friendships with others, and we grow through them.
Courage is an international apostolate of the Catholic Church that ministers to “same-sex attracted” men and women (their words, not mine). I would not blame most Catholics for not knowing about the ministry. Sadly, Courage seems to exist in the shadows of the church. While its style of ministry may not be a good fit for everyone, Courage and its thousands of members in hundreds of chapters worldwide are a testament to the idea that one can be both gay (my word, not theirs) and an active, practicing Catholic.
In his book Building a Bridge, James Martin, S.J., attempts to find common ground between the L.G.B.T. community and the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. But the pylons and planks of the bridge he proposes to build have already been laid by my forbearers in the Courage apostolate. We, as a group, hold positions of authority and respect in our parishes and dioceses, our schools and ministries. We have found that by embracing church teaching and living out those principles, we can be open to service and welcomed in the pews of churches throughout the world.
We do not hide from the “c” word. Yes, we as same-sex attracted men and women are called to chastity, just like every other member of the universal church. And we as same-sex attracted men and women are called to abstinence, just like every other unmarried member of the church. I say “same-sex attracted” not because I have a problem with someone identifying as gay but because I do not wish to be narrowly defined by the term. Rather, I see myself as a beloved son of the Father, one who happens to be attracted to men.
I see myself as a beloved son of the Father, one who happens to be attracted to men.
Today, I speak to groups of all sizes about what the church really does teach on the role and place of homosexual persons. I try to be receptive to those men and women who want to ask questions about reconciling their faith and sexuality but might not be comfortable enough, yet, to hear the answers.
When someone challenges or condemns church teaching, I offer to the accuser, in a loving way, the truth that has been offered to me by many priests, deacons and other faithful Catholics: that a gay man is as welcomed and loved by the church as everyone else, and he is called to worship, service and chastity. Likewise, when someone shames or condemns another because of his sexuality, I try to confront the accuser with the truth that this individual, like every one of us, is a beloved child of God.
I join my brothers on retreats, vacations and activities because that is what we do in Courage: We form loving, supportive and authentic friendships with others, and we grow through them. I have not yet achieved my personal goal of participating in an AIDS Memorial Fundraising Walk with a team of Courage brothers and supporters, but that day is coming. For decades, compassionate individuals in the church and the gay community have set aside differences in their efforts to care for men and women with H.I.V. This cooperation creates powerful goodwill for all and is the very type of bridging activity to which I feel called.
Is there work to be done? Absolutely. There still is a great divide, with groups on both sides who foment division rather than unity. But I hope that in an era when sexuality has become less of an invitation to discriminate and more an invitation to understand, we can find ways that make our church more welcoming to those who acknowledge the beauty of her teachings as well as those who struggle with it. That is the dialogue I look to have as both a Catholic man and a same-sex attracted one.