Comfort for Disenchanted Catholics

05/29/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The current round of scandals involving pedophile Catholic priests and the Church hierarchy that covers up their crimes, is by turns tragic, stomach-churning and disgraceful. As a gay man who has often heard the Catholic Church calling my "lifestyle" sinful, the hypocrisy of it all is clear enough. But while it would be easy to dismiss the Church outright for the many ways it contradicts some of the basic tenets of Christ's teachings, I nonetheless feel a deep sympathy and sadness right now for people of faith who genuinely find solace and hope in Church teachings and community. Their trust has been violated, though not as horrifically as the hundreds of deaf boys who were abused by Wisconsin's now infamous Father Murphy.

My somewhat forgiving attitude towards the Church is no doubt the product of my upbringing. For the most part, our family had vaguely Catholic leanings. As children we had our first communions and, later, our confirmations, and Christmas and Easter were important family holidays. But only a few members of my extended family seemed deeply involved in church life. My older brother Frank was one of them. He was only 18 months older than me and died the year I turned 40 (I am 47 today), and throughout our lives together his faith was something that I watched, learned from, and was clearly deeply affected by. He's always especially on my mind at this time of year as Holy Week - the days between Palm and Easter Sunday - was his favorite time of year.

To make a long story short, my brother, who attended Catholic high school and a Jesuit college, had a vocation to become a priest, but he never fulfilled that dream. At one point he attended the seminary, but for reasons that were never clear, he was forced to leave. Abandoning that vocation was painful for him, though it would be hard to explain how it ultimately impacted his faith.

Throughout his life, my brother was my main connection to my own sense of being Catholic. He loved Church history and could give you capsule bios of the major saints (and many of the minor one). He could tell you the names of a succession of Popes the way Doris Kearns Goodwin could rattle off the names of American Presidents. He could explain - even when he disagreed with it - why the church had a certain policy, such as not allowing priests to marry or not ordaining women. But despite our close relationship, I never bought into any of the dogmatic aspects of the Church. I didn't feel guilty that I didn't attend church every Sunday, and even before I really understood that I was gay I never thought homosexuality could possibly be a sin.

What really connected me to the Church was my brother's involvement in sacred music. It was because of my brother that I learned a great deal of it - from Anglican hymns and numerous organ works, to various Requiems (Faure's still move me to tears) and other masses (such as my very favorite, Mozart's Great Mass in C minor) and choral pieces (including Handel's Messiah, of course) that I continue to listen to with deep appreciation and great feeling. He sang in a number of choirs throughout his life, including the St. Patrick's Cathedral Choir on 5th Avenue, and going to hear him sing at Midnight Mass or on Easter Sunday was genuinely a thrilling experience. As my career in music developed, and my knowledge of the repertoire expanded, one of my great joys was introducing my brother to works of a sacred or spiritual nature that I had discovered - such as Mahler's "Resurrection" Symphony or just about anything by Messiaen, the great French composer who celebrated his vibrant (Catholic!) faith in virtually every work he wrote.

There were days, though, when my brother would share with me some of the stories of what he saw behind the scenes at the church, and at the seminary: stories of priests drowning their sorrows in alcohol, or frequenting gay bars on Saturday and calling the "gay lifestyle" sinful on Sunday. Of course the sins of a minority can't define an entire institution, but the older I got, the more I discussed the church with my brother, and the more I seriously considered some of its teachings and practices - the relegation of women to second class status being just one issue - the more I realized that the church and I had irreconcilable differences.

Still, f you ask me at an unguarded moment if I'm religious, I'd probably still say that I'm a Catholic. You can take a boy out of the Bronx, but....well you know how the saying goes. Perhaps "mystical Christian" would be the better term to describe my faith, combining belief in Jesus's message of universal love, humility and forgiveness, with an inexplicable connection to the great mystery of life that people of many different faiths call God.

I never expect to experience a rapprochement with the Catholic Church, but as I listened early this Palm Sunday morning to Allegri's sublime Miserere in my apartment at sunrise before heading to San Francisco on a business trip, I realized that it has been music, and not the message coming from today's Church, that has helped keep my faith alive. In that spirit, I offer my hope that music might provide comfort to other disenchanted, disenfranchised and dismissed Catholics who are struggling to make sense of the recent, but probably not last, revelations.