In the News 2015
US News and World Report

Outsiders Keep the Faith

There’s a rainbow pride flag on the altar of St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church in the nation’s capital, which on Sunday evenings hosts Catholic worshippers. The priest is married and has two daughters and four grandchildren. The mostly male congregation receives communion along with their male partners. And everyone celebrates God and the Catholic faith that has brought them all together in this building, even if the Roman Catholic hierarchy does not completely welcome them as members.

When the Rev. Robert Fagan first came to the church, he told any lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender attendees that as a straight man, he might not appear to have the same issue with the Catholic Church as the congregants, many of whom feel rejected by the Catholic establishment because of their sexual orientation. “But we all have one thing in common,” Fagan says as he removes the rainbow-striped cloth from his vestment after delivering a sermon. “We’ve all had the church doors slam loudly behind us.”

For LBGT Catholics – along with Catholics who have been divorced or had abortions – the arrival of Pope Francis, both in their spiritual lives and during his first U.S. visit this week, has offered tempered hope. Groups of people who felt judged and excluded by the church are encouraged by a vastly more welcome tone from the pontiff, who, when referring to gays who have accepted Christ and “seek goodwill,” said, “Who am I to judge?” Meanwhile, Francis has acknowledged the “suffering” of men who leave the priesthood to marry, and has eased the marriage annulment process – giving a second chance to marry to Catholics who are civilly divorced but cannot remarry in the eyes of the church without an annulment. And earlier this month, Francis said all priests during the church’s upcoming Year of Mercy may absolve women of the “sin of abortion” if those who have had the procedure are suitably repentant.

But while Francis may be reaching out with his words, will he – indeed, can he – move the church to a more permissive stance on Holy Communion and more open doctrines, particularly when it comes to Catholics who have been divorced and remarried, terminated pregnancies or engaged in same-sex relationships?

Not likely, says Fagan, who is a member of CITI Ministries, a collection of married priests who deliver sermons and perform other ministerial services to those who feel shut out elsewhere. Fagan lauds the pope for offering a warmer welcome than his predecessors. “Does that mean they’re going to change the doctrine? No. The hard-liners who run the Vatican are lining up” to defy any such effort, Fagan says.

“We’re being tolerated,” says Daniel Barutta, president of Dignity/Washington, a faith group for LBGT Catholics. “More people are happy he’s just talking about us [and] hugging a transgender man,” Barutta says, referring to a January report of the pontiff embracing such an individual. But “you can’t take your partner to mass at St. Matthew’s [Cathedral in Washington] and kiss him or her at the sign of peace, or get married there. We need to be more than tolerated. We need to be accepted.”

There have long been dissident or change-minded Catholics who want to keep the faith but ditch the rules on family and sexuality. Catholics for Choice, for example, advocates for access to both contraception and abortion, with only the individual’s conscience as a control. Other groups have fought for the church to allow priests to marry, to allow women into the priesthood and to accept gay and lesbian members for who they are. The upcoming synod on family issues in Rome next month could indeed provide an opportunity for adjustments to the rules, advocates say. But they are not very optimistic.

“Francis has a blind spot when it comes to women,” says Jon O’Brien, president of Catholics for Choice. The pope advised Catholics that they need not “breed like rabbits,” but “all he means is, ‘You can all go off and use natural family planning.’ It doesn’t work,” O’Brien says.

The pressure for change, O’Brien and others say, will come from two sides: from the big-tent rhetoric of Francis, whom O’Brien calls the leader of a modern religious glasnost, and from rank-and-file Catholics who simply cannot relate anymore to a church they say is living under outdated mores.

”Pope Francis has certainly changed the tone and has a pastoral approach to the people of God who are the church. He has taken on a very thoughtful and compassionate tone, and we’re refreshed and quite grateful for that,” says Linda Pintor, a member of the Catholic reform group CORPUS. But the establishment has not caught up, she adds.

The vast majority of Catholics use artificial birth control, O’Brien notes, and the Guttmacher Institute reports the abortion rate has been higher for Catholic women than for Protestant women. Meanwhile, Georgetown University’s affiliated Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate reports that 28 percent of Catholics who have been married have experienced divorce (though that percentage is lower than the 36 percent of the general U.S. population). And as the mass at St. Margaret’s displays, there are many LGBT people who are Catholic.

On an individual parish level, the reception can be markedly different, says Marcella Aguilar of Germantown, Maryland. “I’m a simple Catholic who attends mass on Sundays and I happen to be a lesbian,” says the 43-year-old, who is married. People ”sitting next to us in the pews each Sunday accept us. The folks know who I am and accept me for who I am.” But only about five miles away, Aguilar notes, there is a Catholic church that drew national attention when the priest refused communion to a lesbian at her mother’s funeral service.

Unless the church modernizes, reformers say, it risks becoming what Pintor called a “leaner and meaner” institution, sacrificing membership for dogma. Pintor’s husband, a priest, was approached by a couple who wanted to be married in the church, but were chastised by another priest who insisted that the woman move out of her fiance’s home and go to confession to atone for the sin of living together without being married. With that attitude, Pintor wonders, why would the couple continue to go to church and raise any children as Catholics?

“Young people, back in my generation – you did what you were told to do,” says Betty Hill, president of Call To Action Western Washington, based in Washington state. ”Nowadays, young people question, and they don’t have the guilt. They’ll move on. And if [the church] makes it difficult to get married [in the church], they’ll get married somewhere else.”

Helen Alvare, an adviser to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and a law professor at George Mason University, says the pope may sound more inclusive and forgiving, but he’s not giving Catholics a pass on how to behave, including on matters involving family and sexuality. Francis has a more pastoral approach, and is encouraging bishops to get more involved in the family and community life of Catholics, Alvare says.

“He says, ‘Please do not separate out what I say about pastoring from what I say about teaching,'” she notes. “The lines [of behavior] are about love” – the pope can be more merciful, but “that doesn’t mean we’re not going to say to you, ‘You should not be living with your girlfriend.'”

The LGBT community is issuing a welcome to Francis, greeting him with a stories-high banner installed at the Human Rights Campaign office near St. Matthew’s, where the pope will attend a prayer service with U.S. bishops. ”We are your children, your teachers, your faithful. Welcomed by God, Dismissed by our Bishops. Pope Francis, will you welcome us home?” the banner says.

For the LGBT flock, the thaw in relations may be all they can expect right now. “As a Catholic, I know the church moves very slowly,” says Chris Flow, a 26-year-old gay man from Alexandria, Virginia. “We’ve got to take the victories we can. The overall welcoming rhetoric [from Francis] is a huge step in the right direction.”

Adds Aguilar, “That’s the expectation with the welcoming of LGBT folk. It’s going to take time. And it may not be in my lifetime.” But with Francis as pope, Catholics hoping for change are keeping the faith.

This article was originally published in US News & World Report.

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