The legalization of gay marriage in New York last June reignited the age-old struggle between faith and sexuality in the Catholic community. While figureheads such as Archbishop Timothy Dolan promote an increasingly conservative outlook on homosexuality in Catholicism, a small group of mostly Irish-American Catholics continues to provide a weekly place of worship for all, regardless of sexual orientation.
“We are Catholics in exile,“ joked Brendan Fay, 50, an active member of the organization Dignity, a Catholic non-profit organization for homosexual and trans-gender persons.
“Most people are surprised that LGBT people care about being Catholic at all,” said Fay, “probably because Irish-American Catholics often get stereotyped as conservative.”
Each Sunday evening, roughly 100 Dignity members transform the Episcopal Church St John in Greenwich Village into an unusual Catholic sanctuary.
Eight openly gay priests volunteer to rotate through Dignity’s weekly mass, and once every month or so, a female pastor delivers the sermon. Last Sunday, a congregation of 60 joined the Rev. Jim Morris, an Irish-American priest, in singing the inaugural hymn “Halleluja”.
Dignity priests sanctioned same-sex marriages even before the Marriage Equality Act was passed. Fay met his spouse at a Dignity service, and a Dignity priest officiated their March 2008 wedding.
Dignity New York, one of the organizations 50 chapters, was established in 1972 by John MacNeill, an Irish-American Jesuit priest. MacNeill’s book “The Church and the Homosexual” is still considered ‘the bible’ on religion and sexuality. MacNeill, now 86, said that several passages in the Gospels contradict traditional anti-homosexual interpretations of the Roman Catholic Church.
“I think it’s very clear in the scripture that the Church should open its doors to all that are sexually different. Certain Biblical passages are ignored by the Vatican,” said MacNeill in a recent phone interview. “I believe that the Holy Spirit is leading the hierarchy into homophobia in order to ruin their reputation”.
“I feel sorry for the hierarchy,” added MacNeill. “The Catholic faithful do not pay attention to them anymore. I’ve read in several places that 80 percent of Catholics support gay marriage.”
In 2005, the Vatican reaffirmed their position on homosexuality, publishing in a report that the sacred scripture presents homosexuals as “grave sinners.”
Two authoritative Catholic voices in New York, Archbishop Timothy Dolan, and Bill Donahue, head of the Catholic League, a conservative Catholic civil rights organization, both espouse traditional religious teaching. Donohue referred to homosexuals as “disqualified by nature” from marriage, since they cannot have children, on the June 28 broadcast of PIX 11 Morning News.
According to Dignity, homosexuality as an expression of love is consistent with Christ’s teaching.
“For most, ‘coming out’ means leaving the Church,” said Fay. “Thank God for Dignity. It challenges certain aspects of the Catholic tradition it comes from.”
Dignity’s unconventional theology opposes the conservative tradition embodied by Irish Americans like Dolan or Donohue. Dignity priests including Morris consider progressive preaching on a variety of social issues a necessity, since the Roman Catholic Church has grown increasingly conservative under the guidance of Pope John Paul II, and the current Holy See, Pope Benedict XVI.
The Archdiocese of New York last published Church statistics in 2009. That year, 2.6 million Catholics were registered, roughly 45 percent of the total population of the area. Many lay Catholics in New York support same-sex marriage, yet Diginity membership is at an all-time low, with young people particularly under-represented.
“Although we’ve diminished in weekly attendance at Dignity over the last 30 years, our message has gotten out more and more,” said Morris. “Lay Catholics are way ahead of the Church in accepting LGBT persons.”
On Sept. 20, Archbishop Dolan, in his capacity as the President of the United States
Conference of Catholic Bishops wrote a letter to President Obama, urging him to dissuade his administration from discounting the Defense of Marriage Act. The Act was enacted in 1996 and defined marriage as a legal union between one man and one woman. Dolan wrote that the Department of Justice’s decision to disregard this piece of legislation last February would “precipitate conflict between the Church and state, to the detriment of both institutions.”
Fay attended a conference on marriage chaired by Dolan in Poughkeepsie last September. “I sat for hours listening to people use their intelligence and power to denounce our families, our humanity,” recounted Fay. “The Pope welcomes conservatives. I would love to see him welcoming the gifts of progressive Catholics.”
On a recent Sunday evening, Morris stood in the small hall of St. John’s, and addressed his fiercely close-knit congregation. The focus of the service was solidarity, and Morris reflected on Dolan’s anti-gay message.
“The Archbishop could have written to President Obama about the hundreds starving in New York, the children in third world countries dying every day, or even the plight of those Americans unemployed in these tough economic times,” said Morris, arms outstretched and his unusual off-white habit hanging down from them. “Instead he chose to complain about homosexual love.”
For Dignity members, weekly mass is more than a refuge from traditional Catholic dogma. Lay homilists are routinely encouraged to participate, and the ritual mid-service greetings are taken a step further; as the congregation respectfully comes to a pause so that individual members may say prayers for loved ones, the sick, the poor, or anyone on their minds.
“In Dignity, we are fully able to support who we are,” said Dignity communications officer Jeff Stone, 56, whose family comes from Galway. “We are part of the broader fight for gay rights.”