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Worship in the face of rejection

Gay Catholics find community despite words from Rome

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By Mark Arsenault
Globe Staff / June 27, 2011

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There have been many last straws for Richard Iandoli.

He was stung when his church’s hierarchy disparaged adoptions by gay couples, when his church emerged as a political leader against same-sex marriage, and by the way his church refers to homosexuality as “disordered.’’

Earlier this month, the insult was more personal: The Boston Archdiocese stepped in and postponed an “All are Welcome’’ Mass to commemorate Gay Pride Month at Iandoli’s church, St. Cecilia on Belvidere Street in Boston.

“It hits you in the gut,’’ Iandoli said. And he has wondered: What am I doing here?

Yet, like many gay and lesbian Roman Catholics, Iandoli refuses to walk away from his church, even when he feels that church leaders don’t want him.

“The Catholic Church still calls me, over and over, despite all the hurt and anger,’’ he said.

Gay Catholics interviewed following the St. Cecilia controversy say they have managed to stay in the flock by separating Vatican pronouncements they find hurtful from the Catholic communities they see on Sunday.

“I remind myself that the church is all of the people of God, not just the hierarchy,’’ said Mark Brown, a gay Catholic from Boston.

The Roman Catholic Church teaches that being gay — what the church calls having a “homosexual inclination’’ — is not itself a sin, and that gay people are “very welcome’’ in the Catholic Church, said Sister Mary Ann Walsh, spokeswoman for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

What is always a sin, however, according to the church, is gay sex.

“The issue is involvement with homosexual activity, which the church cannot support,’’ said Walsh.

The church’s stance on homosexuality has driven many gay parishioners from its pews, specialists say. They migrate to Christian faiths perceived as more tolerant, or simply drop out of organized religion.

For many, the very term “gay Catholic’’ seems like a contradiction.

“I don’t understand how someone can go all the time and drop money in the basket supporting a group that works against them,’’ said the Rev. Matthew Bailey, who five years ago left the church and serves at an “independent Catholic’’ parish, Saint Joseph of Arimathea, in New Haven, which embraces gay parishioners outside the Vatican’s authority.

The church’s position runs so counter to the growing acceptance of same-sex relationships that some gay Catholics say they are more bashful about their religious orientation than their sexuality.

“It was harder for me in my 20s to come out as a Catholic than as a gay person,’’ said Constance Cervone, 54, of Jamaica Plain.

The decision to remain Roman Catholic “was a hard-won battle’’ inside her head, said Cervone, who worships at the Paulist Center in Boston.

“I had to stop paying attention to Rome,’’ she said. “It’s like family: Why do you stay with your family when they have different political views?’’

Gay Catholics say one of the more heartbreaking moments for them came six years ago, when a top Vatican cardinal was quoted as saying gay adoption was an act of moral violence against children.

“It was devastatingly hurtful,’’ said Brown, 43, who at the time was part of a large gay contingent that worshipped at the Jesuit Urban Center in Boston. The Jesuit Urban Center closed in 2007; many of its gay members, including Brown, now attend St. Cecilia, where Brown sings in the choir.

Last year, Brown was stung again, he said, by a column published by The Pilot, the newspaper of the Boston Archdiocese. In arguing that the children of gay parents should be banned from Catholic schools, the column linked gay relationships with pornography.

“It was with a very heavy heart that I went and sang at church that weekend,’’ said Brown.

Brown had come very close to making the church his career. In his 20s, he joined a religious order, became Brother Mark, and was on track for the priesthood. He eventually left to experience life as a gay adult.

But he has refused to leave his church, despite repeated hurts.

“By virtue of my baptism into the Catholic Church community I have a right to be here, as much as anybody who was baptized,’’ he said. “I feel that if I leave I would be giving in. If I leave they will have won, whoever they are,’’ he said, then adding after a pause, “the far-right conservative hierarchy.’’

As a gay child growing up in Boston’s North End, Domenic Stagno was bullied nearly everywhere, except in church, he said.

“The church was my comfort, and when I was there I was happy,’’ said Stagno, now 64. As a gay adult, he has occasionally gotten fed up and walked away from the Catholic Church. He has sampled other religions, attending Episcopal and Congregational churches, synagogues, and even a service with a spiritist, a movement popular in Brazil.

But he always returns to Roman Catholicism. No other church can make him feel as close to God, he said.

“I went through a lot of anger over the years when I tried to stay, but I put a lot of it behind me,’’ said Stagno. “I don’t feel I need to leave a church that is part of the fabric of who I am. Even though the hierarchy has gone astray from the times of Christ, I’m not going to let them take my church away from me.’’

Not all gay Catholics have grown up in the church. Kelly Stewart, 23, converted to Catholicism on Easter last year. She was drawn to the faith by the church’s record on social justice and the work of Catholic activist Dorothy Day. The Catholics she knew personally were “positive and affirming’’ toward her and other gay people, she said.

But church teachings on homosexuality complicated the decision to convert, said Stewart, who studied at Middlebury College in Vermont and lives in Maryland.

She said she worried “that by choosing to be a member of an institution that has some antigay policies and supports antigay legislation,’’ she would be giving tacit support to those positions.

But she came to see “discrepancies between what Catholics believe and what the church teaches,’’ and she learned about Catholic reform movements working to change church doctrine.

“It seemed like a good way [to participate] and not feel I was consenting to teachings that I feel are harmful to gay people,’’ she said.

Stewart works at New Ways, a national ministry for gay Catholics, which maintains a list of gay-friendly parishes. The list numbers more than 200.

“The atmosphere among the church hierarchy toward gays and lesbians is much worse than 20, 30, 40 years ago,’’ said Sister Jeannine Gramick, a New Ways cofounder, who this year is celebrating 50 years as a nun. “But if the church means the people, then it’s getting much easier to be gay or lesbian. Catholics in the pews are very sympathetic.

“For many, many Catholics, they have become mature in their faith, and they will follow their own conscience.’’

Mark Arsenault can be reached at marsenault@globe.com.



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