NEW YORK — When Cardinal Timothy Dolan used the morning talk shows on Easter Sunday to say the Catholic Church could do a better job of welcoming gays and lesbians, his remarks were hailed by one activist as an “Easter miracle” and by another as an encouraging “first step.”
But two months later, it’s still not clear what the second step in this fraught process might be, or even if there is a second step. And there are signs that things may only get more complicated.
Since Easter, three more states have passed same-sex marriage laws, and next month the U.S. Supreme Court will hand down a gay marriage ruling that will again spotlight the bishops’ full-throated opposition to a whole host of civil protections for gays and lesbians, particularly marriage.
Moreover, as Americans — and American Catholics — grow increasingly accepting of homosexuality, and as foes of gay rights grow increasingly determined, conflict at the parish level seems inevitable. The uneasy “Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell” policy that once allowed gay and lesbian Catholics to take church positions is clashing with their increasing visibility in the form of marriage licenses or wedding announcements.
Soon after Dolan’s comments, for example, Nicholas Coppola went public with his story of being dismissed from his duties at a Long Island parish after an anonymous letter tipped off the local bishop to Coppola’s marriage to another man.
In Columbus, Ohio, officials at a Catholic high school prompted an outcry in April by firing a teacher, Carla Hale, after someone pointed out that she listed her lesbian partner’s name in her mother’s obituary.
“How just is it to fire someone whose life or practices are not in accord with official church teaching?” Francis DeBernardo, head of New Ways Ministry, which advocates for gay and lesbian Catholics, wrote after two men were fired from their parish music director jobs because they were gay.
“Where do you draw the line?” he wondered in a column for National Catholic Reporter. “Do you get fired if you have remarried without an annulment? Do you get fired if you don’t attend Mass on Sunday regularly? Do you get fired because you are a Protestant who does not recognize the Catholic hierarchical structure?”
In the year since he wrote those words, DeBernardo noted recently, there have been a dozen similar incidents. Those are are in addition to past episodes in which the children of gay parents have been rejected from Catholic schools, or the case of a gay Catholic who was denied Communion at her mother’s funeral.
According to a number of priests, most of whom spoke on background to avoid publicity that could spark protests, the inevitability of such clashes is a growing concern.
“The fact is that it is going to get worse,” said the pastor of a large Midwest parish who has had to fend off complaints about a lesbian member of his staff. As critics become more insistent, and as gay and lesbian Catholics become more public, he fears the resulting controversies will take a serious toll on the church.
“We have to come to some kind of pastoral accommodation,” he said.
Such an accommodation is also necessary, said DeBernardo, because the flip side of the high-profile dismissals is that more and more parishes are publicly welcoming gays and lesbians and are thus potential lightning rods. A New Ways roster now boasts more than 200 gay-friendly parishes, up from 20 a decade ago.
One of those parishes is St. Matthew’s in Baltimore, where the pastor, the Rev. Joe Muth, not only started a ministry for gays and lesbians a few years ago but he also supported parishioners who were lobbying for a Maryland referendum last fall that legalized same-sex marriage — despite strong opposition from the bishops.
Gays and lesbians “just move into the regular life of the church” at St. Matthew’s, Muth said, as he believes is perfectly normal.
But he also said they are aware of the “sensitivity” of their presence, so they have made a concerted effort to reach out to other groups in the parish, and the parish has also made sure to include one of Baltimore’s bishops in meetings.
That dialogue has been invaluable, he said, and he has received few complaints or protests. But Muth also had to cancel a parish-sponsored forum on the same-sex marriage law last year at the behest of Baltimore Archbishop William Lori.
Muth also said that if some of his gay parishioners get married under the new law and their marriage becomes public, Lori could well remove them from ministry. “I probably wouldn’t have too much of a say in it. That’s the way things work.”
In fact, the patchwork nature of the responses is part of the problem, say gay advocates. “It’s not that there is a witch hunt out there,” said DeBernardo. “But there are witch hunters. … For the most part I don’t think bishops go after these folks. They don’t create controversy; they only respond to controversy.”
At the moment, there are no guidelines to help pastors and parishioners deal with these issues, and there doesn’t seem to be an effort to develop anything comprehensive.
The Rev. Paul Check, head of Courage, a church-approved ministry that encourages gay Catholics to remain celibate, declined to be interviewed. A spokesperson for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said questions would have to be answered by each diocese. Prominent diocesan ministries for gays and lesbians, like Chicago’s Archdiocesan Gay and Lesbian Outreach, did not respond to requests for comment.
When ABC’s George Stephanopoulos tried to pin down Dolan on exactly how the church could be more welcoming to gay and lesbian Catholics, Dolan confessed that he wasn’t sure: “Well, I don’t know. We’re still – we’re – we’re trying. We’re trying our best to do it. We gotta listen to people.”
When Dolan later blogged that all sinners are welcome in the church so long as they wash their “dirty hands” before dinner, a group of gay activists showed up at St. Patrick’s Cathedral with ink-stained hands in a bid to test that welcome. They were turned away.
The upshot: Even if such a dialogue does take place, it is not likely to end the controversies. But advocates for gay and lesbian Catholics say it may be the only way forward for now.
“Right now it’s a step-by-step process of helping people to be church,” said Muth, of St. Matthew’s in Baltimore. “That’s the way I see it.”
David Gibson is an award-winning religion journalist, author and filmmaker. He is a national reporter for RNS and has written two books on Catholic topics, the latest a biography of Pope Benedict XVI. Via RNS.