Huffpost Religion
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Michele Somerville Headshot

Homophobia in the Church: What Catholics Are Doing About It, and What Still Needs to Be Done

Posted: Updated:

I attended a Roman Catholic baptism about two weeks ago. A crowd of young parents and others of all ages stood in semi-circle around the font. The atmosphere was reverent yet festive. Toddlers squirmed. The church was exquisite. Blades of late-morning light slid down through colored glass. The priest exuded hope and delight as he kicked off the rites. As the two parents approached the font to offer their child to the church, I began to tear up. My 11-year-old daughter, not unaccustomed to my poet's penchant for being capsized by moments so tender, saw my waterworks start up, rolled her eyes as adolescents do, smiled, and handed me a tissue. As I often do when my emotions get the best of me in the presence of my children, I get all pedagogical on them. I whispered sidebars to my girl: "That's the litany of the saints, it's beautiful when sung in Latin... And that the part about Satan and the empty promises -- it's technically an exorcism!"

I didn't have to explain that it was no ordinary baptism we were witnessing. She knew it was extraordinary, because I had taught her. The two parents at the font were bravely (or so I believe) demonstrating their desire not to throw the baby out with the baptismal water.

They were two gay dads asking a church governed by bullies to bless their child.

My daughter later asked how it was that gay people could have their children baptized in Catholic churches but not be married in them. Good question. I broke it down for her. I told her a far greater percentage of Catholics support gay marriage than support the Vatican. I characterized the failure of my church to offer gay Catholics marriage in the church as just that -- "a failure." And a sin.

There are many layers to the sin of homophobia that the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church commits. Most people within and outside the church know, for example, that the Vatican preaches homophobia and does not consecrate same-sex marriages.

But many Catholics do not know that hundreds of thousands of their charitable dollars to groups like Knights of Columbus are currently being used to bankroll the fight against legislation that would make civil gay marriage legal.

Most Catholics know that the church is in a unique position when it comes to the question of gay marriage for several reasons, not the least of which is that by many estimates, more than 50 percent of Catholic priests are gay. Many Catholics know that many of the bishops who set the homophobic agenda are themselves closeted gay men grappling with the psychological fallout of growing up gay in a hostile homophobic world and church. Rumbling so ironically beneath the surface of the Catholic homophobia question is that even the most conservative Roman Catholic often has an expansive view of gay priests. Catholics of all stripes agree that many of our finest priests are gay.

Another unique feature of Roman Catholic homophobia has to do with the way we look at the Bible. Catholics don't construe the Bible literally, so Catholic objections to homosexual marriage tend not to fix upon the biblical notion that being gay is an "abomination." Indeed some of the most holy among us enjoy the biblical abominations without the slightest fear of being accused of sinfulness: we eat shrimp and pork at every opportunity, and we give little thought to shaving our beards or to wearing linen with wool.

No, the Vatican's homophobia derives from political and economic concerns, as well as from the larger erotic dysfunction that pervades the church. Patriarchal heterosexual marriage keeps the coffers filled. Two gay men or two lesbians may have a few children but they won't be easily coerced by doctrine to welcome a child a year. People who actually plan the size of their families aren't likely to make the kind of large lockstep Catholic clans the Holy See envisions for its City of God.

The Pope is smart enough to make small accommodations in order to keep gay people in the pews. Gay people are currently welcome to receive the sacraments and serve in ministry, but reminders from Vatican City never let it be forgotten that only gay people who abstain entirely from sex are truly fit for the sacraments. While the prohibition against all sexual activity outside sacramental marriage extends to straight, gay, bisexual and transgendered people, it can hardly be said to apply equally to all when for a gay Catholic there is no sacramental marriage option.

Catholics are leaving in droves, but dissenters, many of whom are gay, are also staying in droves. On the matter of gay Catholics, the Holy See wishes to have its cake and eat it, too. Thus, the Pope blesses with one hand and pummels with the other.

But the dissenters have a City of God in mind, too.

The Ad Hoc Committee of the U.S. Conference of Bishops, in its "Defense of Marriage," defines traditional Roman Catholic marriage as "a covenant between one man and one woman directed to the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of children." Although the traditional view is that marriage is first and foremost procreative, there's more to it. There's the good of the spouses. Were non-procreative marital sex viewed by the Magisterium as sinful, menopausal wives and sterile spouses would be called upon to abstain from sex even within marriage. But the bishops do not teach that all marital sex need be procreative. Allowances are made for sex they characterize as "unitive." Sex to keep the marriage strong, in other words, has a divine purpose. I like this idea; It reminds me of how Shabbos (marital) sex is thought by many Jews to be a mitzvah. While committed gay partners obviously cannot have procreative sex, they can and do certainly have the unitive kin, yet the Catholic Church hierarchy persists in depriving LGBT people of this mitzvah (blessing) on the grounds that marriage is essentially procreative even while teaching that marriage is not exclusively procreative.

It's no secret that Ratzinger's enmity and the bishops' disrespect for LGBT people runs deep. The bishop of the Brooklyn and Queens diocese has already been caught on the radio comparing homosexual love to bestiality. A child being educated in Catholic schools learns that only gay men and women who abstain from sex are worthy of the sacraments, but that sinful heterosexual lovemaking is transformed by a sacrament (marriage) powerful enough to render the sexual aspect of love a radiant reflection of Christ's love, from which radiance the Vatican insists gay Catholics should be excluded.

Fortunately, many gay Catholics, and so many others in the church, disregard the perverse and tyrannical efforts of the bishops to police the sex lives of Catholics and discern. But tuning out the hatred the bishops disseminate may not be enough when it comes to homophobia.

When the daughter of the two aforementioned dads undertakes preparation to receive the sacraments, it is entirely possible that she will be exposed to the diluted version of the "God hates fags" message that issues from the Vatican today. Parents like hers will surely interfere; they will come between her and the hideous so-called "Christian" message. Such vigilance can help to protect the 10 percent of children in the pews who happen to be gay, but Catholics must not leave this work to gay Catholic parents alone. Pastors, catechists and parents who fail to challenge homophobia help to make the church a dangerous place for gay children and keep the world outside the church safe for bigotry.

I worked for more than a decade teaching writing in New York high schools and colleges, during which time I came to notice that the autobiographical writing of many of my gay male students frequently contained talk of suicide. So common were these accounts of suicide attempts and fantasies that I came to expect them, as cultural norms, almost, in coming-out/coming-of-age narratives. I was as confounded as I was alarmed by the preponderance of variations on the following plot: kid comes out to his parents, kid gets beaten by his parents, kid runs away, kid is victimized by street predators, kid tries to make it all go away with an accidental overdose. The preoccupation with suicide seemed to go beyond depression. These young men had learned self-hatred early. The musings on suicide seemed not so much about the desire to end one's own misery as about seeking to murder oneself. Sexual identity is not an incidental or add-on; it infuses one's whole self.

Which is why the "love the sinner, hate the sin" principle does not apply. Being gay is not a sin.

My brother Scott came out of the closet about a decade ago at the age of 42 and died three years later. I still can't get my head around the idea that he didn't come out to me sooner. We were very close; we both knew that I would have celebrated his coming out. When he finally did come out, we talked about why he had waited so long. "I couldn't come out to myself," he said.

What is a church good for if it requires its people to divorce themselves from who they are?

What is a church good for if it's not a sanctuary for all who would come out of the closet?

I have vivid memories of our father's disapproval of Scott in childhood. When I look at my own children, I find it almost unbearable to imagine them suffering such a lack of acceptance at home. As the parent of a child with a developmental disability, I have seen close-up how damaging the failure to educate children about prejudice can be. No child should ever learn from a trusted adult that that it is somehow unholy to be gay. That truly is an abomination.

My children were about eight and four when their Uncle Scott brought his partner, to whom he referred as "Uncle Frank." I told him to "slow down on the Uncle Frank thing." (I'd have said the same thing about an "Aunt Franny.") But once I met Scott's beloved, I wanted him to be "Uncle Frank." I wanted my children to witness my brother's freedom to claim his right to love in a committed, authentic, whole and holy way. I jumped at the chance to present "Uncle Frank" to my children and saw the opportunity to do so as a blessing, for there may be no lesson more important than teaching children to eschew bigotry in all its guises.

Very recently, around the time of what would have been my brother's 51st birthday, I received a press release describing Equally Blessed, a new group formed by four Catholic organizations: DignityUSA, Fortunate Families, New Ways Ministry and Call to Action. Equally Blessed is "a coalition of faithful Catholics who support full equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people both in the church and in civil society." Three of the Catholic organizations that comprise Equally Blessed have been in existence for more than 30 years. Call to Action has 25,000 members. Support for gay marriage in the Roman Catholic Church is strong and on the increase. Like Equally Blessed, Catholics for Equality, a group newly formed to "draw on the rich Catholic tradition of social justice teaching" to advocate for "equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered (LGBT) of any religious group on the United States" currently denounces the use (or misuse, rather) of Catholic resources to prevent civil gay marriage reform. It is important for active Catholics to support groups like Equally Blessed and Catholics for Equality because secular homophobia originates in and takes its license from worship communities.

Many priests like Georgetown sociology professor and author Joseph Palacios, who co-founded Catholics for Equality, speak out courageously against injustice as it pertains to gay people within and outside of the Roman Catholic Church, but Ratzinger and his legions are doing all they can to silence such men. It may be safer for a priest to sodomize a child than to challenge the Vatican's position on gay marriage.

How odd it is that as bishops begin to close down parishes for reasons of economic hardship, Catholic funding can be found to support efforts to defeat civil marriage legislation outside the church. (The Holy See doesn't recognize the civil marriages of Catholics!) The readiness to use Catholic donations to stop civil legislation indicates an increasing willingness on the part of church leaders to export Roman Catholic homophobia into the secular world. Too many leaders (of various sects) lend their seals of approval to those who would couch homophobic messages in doctrine or scripture, and use their spiritual and psychological leverage -- and cash donations -- to cheat LGBT people out of their legal and moral rights.

Until the homophobes in Vatican City grow up decide it is time to "reject Satan... and all his empty promises," all Catholics -- but especially catechists, pastors and parents of children receiving religious instruction -- need to step in as godparents to our leaders, summon the Holy Spirit, and work for peace by waging war on homophobia -- which people do die of.