In my over 20 years of working in LGBT ministry in the Catholic Church, by far the most frequent question that I have been asked is “How can someone by LGBT and Catholic at the same time?” It’s a puzzling question to those who don’t share in one or both of those identities. I’m always tempted to answer that question with the lines that appear at the beginning of the classic film, “Song of Bernadette,” about the saint’s visions at Lourdes: “For those who don’t believe, no explanation is possible. For those who do believe, no explanation is necessary.”
An alternative answer, however, comes in the form of an essay from the UK, which appeared on the news blog, Sosogay.co.uk. Author Brian Kelly, who writes from a Northern Irish perspective, acknowledges that although being gay and Catholic is a puzzle to some, it is not so to him:
“In reality, I feel comfortable as a gay Catholic, because I don’t particularly see the need for them to fit one another perfectly in order for both to be relevant to my life but I know that technically they do conflict. . . “
For Kelly, and for many LGBT Catholics that I have met, Catholic identity does not necessarily mean Catholic conformity:
“. . . [B]eing a Catholic is more than just attending a weekly gathering, and faith in God is more than just what you’re told by the clergy. It’s a way of life, and particularly in devout countries like mine, it’s something which binds the community together in schools, neighborhoods and organizations. Northern Ireland in particular is still a polarised state, with two sides divided on ethno-political grounds, where your religion is your label. Of course this has softened in recent years, but the roots run deep enough so that people still feel much more bound by their religion – whether they like it or not – than they might in a multi-ethnic country. Feelings of obligation to the Pope might be waning, but feelings of belonging among fellow Catholics are not.
Like it the U.S., and many other nations, Catholics in Northern Ireland are also supportive of LGBT issues, despite their hierarchy’s opposition to them. Catholic lay people have made up their own minds on these matters:
“It’s worth noting that of the two largest political parties in Northern Ireland – the DUP (largely Unionist, Protestant voters) and Sinn Fein (largely Republican, Catholic voters), it is Sinn Fein which supports marriage equality. The DUP are rejecting it, and indeed tried to prevent the decriminalization of homosexuality in Northern Ireland as recently as 1982. This democratic politics speaks louder for the views of the people on the ground than the voice of an unelected man in Rome.”
Kelly paints a picture of the contemporary Catholic Church in Northern Ireland that remains spiritually and socially strong, while the laity grow more distant from the hiearchy:
“I now see a new generation of young people who still identify as Catholic, but reject some of the teachings of the Church. I know people who still pray and have spirituality, but don’t necessarily take it to the door of a chapel. I see communities who act out the positive, generous and loving elements of Catholic teachings, but have dropped the divisive and damning beliefs that have kept their country in fear, guilt, and even poverty, for the centuries in which the Church monopolized Ireland’s institutions. Many might say this sounds like picking and choosing – indeed it is a style of reform – but if it’s reform for the better welfare and happiness of people, why shouldn’t it be so? After all, faith is about being happy – religion became too much about control.”
Every LGBT Catholic that I know makes peace with the church in their own individual way, though there are some similarities across the stories. How do you reconcile your Catholicism with your LGBT or LGBT-ally identity ? Please share you ideas and experiences in the “Comments” section of this post.
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry