Homosexuality and the Local Catholic Church: More Open Than You Might Think

By now it is clear that sexuality is one of the most controversial issues facing religious organizations. The Vatican has promulgated a theological teaching, rooted in one stream of the natural law tradition, which mandates sexual abstinence among homosexuals. Much has been, should be, and surely will be written about this theological teaching of the Catholic Church.  However this is dealt with by the Vatican, in this instance, official teaching cannot inform us as to how Catholic life is being lived at the local level in the United States.

How are homosexuality and homosexuals a part of the local life of the Catholic Church?

Earlier this month I published research studying whether Christian congregations are open to gays and lesbians. My research used the National Congregations Study, a representative survey of American congregations.

The Catholic Church’s teaching on homosexuality walks a tenuous line: it is civilly inclusive by its call to protect homosexuals’ human dignity, but to many (gays, lesbians, and heterosexuals) it is morally exclusive due to the portrayal of homosexual behavior as inherently disordered. This middle ground is confusing for an organization like a local parish. Should gays and lesbians be visibly included? What roles can they fill? Should local religious leaders monitor members’ sexual activity?

In some parishes, informal exclusion of gays and lesbians may exist. But in the United States moral boundaries, particularly those regarding sexuality, are in flux. Increasingly, Catholics, like other Americans, are accepting of homosexuality.  In fact, Catholics may be even more accepting of homosexuality, as a Gallup Poll recently reported.  (And, of course, many sexually active gays and lesbians remain deeply committed to Catholicism despite the Vatican teaching).

This ongoing social change, connected with a complicated teaching from the Vatican, invites controversy for many parishes. It can create a “don’t ask, don’t tell” parish atmosphere in which homosexuality is not directly excluded, but cannot be openly embraced.  In other words, Catholic parishes may be informally open towards gays and lesbians despite not being able to formally announce acceptance of homosexuality as a normal expression of human sexuality. Is this the case?

In my research, 37% of all Christian congregations reported providing full membership privileges for gays and lesbians. This suggests that a little over one-third of Christian congregations are open to the full participation of gays and lesbians. (This is not saying that these congregations report the actual presence of gay and lesbian members, just that they are open to such membership).

The situation for Catholic parishes is surprisingly different.  Almost three quarters (74%) of Catholic parishes reported providing full membership privileges for gays and lesbians. (See the table below for the details on congregations in other religious traditions.)


Membership allowed: Openly gay/lesbian couple in a commited relationship

Religious tradition, collapsed YES NO DON’T KNOW Row Totals
ROMAN CATHOLIC 74.1% 13.7% 12.3% 6.1% (90)
WHITE LIBERAL OR MODERATE 66.6% 25.6% 7.7% 19.0% (282)
NON-CHRISTIAN 57.4% 22.5% 20.3% 3.2% (47)
Column Totals 37.9% (561) 52.3% (776) 9.8% (145) 100.0% (1483)


But what do these numbers mean? One could respond: “Well, this is evidence that local Catholic churches are in line with the official teaching of middle ground tolerance.” That response is not quite right. The specific survey question asked whether “an openly gay or lesbian couple in a committed relationship” could be a full-fledged member of the congregation. This means that the hypothetical gay or lesbian person in question would be in a homosexual relationship—the opposite of the call for celibacy in the other half of the Vatican’s teaching.

This will be an area of Catholic Church life with much conflict and controversy going forward, but I would suggest a couple points to consider:

  • Local Catholic parishes are open to homosexuality in a way that is in tension with Vatican teaching. It is difficult to see this local level of openness decreasing in the aggregate, although there will probably be some parishes that become overtly opposed to membership by gays and lesbians.
  • Gays and lesbians may be welcome in parishes, but not exactly welcomed. Very few churches in the United States are openly welcoming to gays and lesbians. Full openness is still a long way in the future. So, even those three quarters of Catholic parishes that report openness may still be experienced as stifling environments for gays and lesbians who are public about their sexual identity.

This post relied on broad survey data, but I wonder about local parish experiences. How have sexuality issues been addressed in your local parish, if at all?


2 thoughts on “Homosexuality and the Local Catholic Church: More Open Than You Might Think

  1. No, my local parish has yet to address sexuality issue. The clergy will without a doubt stick to the company line. Certainly, gays may be personally accepted but with the parish they are not truly welcomed. Until people of all shapes and sizes are invited and encouraged to take on leaderships roles in the church at all levels, we will never measure up to Jesus ‘ call to be one in him. There are in fact a few churches where gays are truly welcomed, e.g. the Unitarian Church.

    • As I was careful to note in the actual published research, these high rates of openness are not the same as “welcoming” and full inclusion. I think it is safe to say that most churches have not addressed sexuality issues in any coherent way. Some Mainline Protestant denominations have well-organized study guides and protocols, but these play out in the local congregation in very different ways. For those churches, including Catholic ones, where gays and lesbians are actually present, my sense is that there is a “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach, which often means no conversation about sexuality. As a sidenote, research on the pro-life movement has shown that many Catholic pastors are very skittish about having such issues vocalized/debated in their parish for fear of creating discord. I think something similar is at work here in some parishes.