Gary Adler recently mentioned his research finding that a majority of Catholic parishes in the U.S. allow full membership for openly gay and lesbian couples in a committed relationship. He ended his post with two points for consideration– first he noted how his research suggests many parishes are open to homosexuality “in a way that is in tension with Vatican teaching,” then he added that gay and lesbian couples may still not feel fully welcome in most parishes. He asked followers of the Catholic Conversation to reflect on this in light of their own experiences and asks how they have seen sexuality addressed in local parishes.
In a previous post, I suggested that sexuality and morality are central in the two parishes I studied in the Archdiocese of Chicago. I’d like to return to St. Mary Magdalene Parish*, the parish that created an all are welcome parish culture. When many gay and lesbian people began moving into the neighborhood surrounding St. Mary Magdalene Parish, the parish responded by welcoming their new neighbors into the parish. When one same-sex couple approached the parish school explaining they were interested in purchasing a home in the neighborhood only if their children could go to the school, they were met with unconditional welcome. Parishioner Adam Smith recalls the experience:
“It goes back to 1994. My partner and I were out, and we had an adopted son. We decided it was time to move and were concerned about moving into the right parish. We heard that St. Mary Magdalene was a good parish to be a member of. So I called the principal of the parish school and said, we have seen this house and this is a nice neighborhood. We are a gay couple, we have an adopted son and we don’t want to buy the house and become members of the parish to have our son go to the school and have him be an object of ridicule. And she said that would not be a problem. That same year, the pastor asked me to be a member of the parish council. We were told the parish would be accepting and it would be ok. And it was true.”
As more same sex couples and single persons moved into the neighborhood, the Church continued to add programs like a Gay and Lesbian Outreach group, and held a conversation about the Church’s stance on homosexuality. Lesbian parishioner Dixie Walker recounts that experience:
“There was some re-deliberation of how depraved I and all the gays are by the institutional church. Here at the parish we had a conversation, and people, I would say there were 150 people there, 200 people there. Largely supporters of gays and lesbians in the church and so people, point after point sort of responded to what it means to them to authentically…who they are to be to be Catholic. The tone of the conversation was love.”
For the people at St. Mary Magdalene Parish, today, homosexual relationships are not deviant, but considered normal and fully accepted. The priest frequently comments in sermons about how the parish tries to be a place where all are welcome, even if they feel excluded by the institutional church because of their gender or sexual orientation. Attempting to grapple with the question of welcoming, staff and parishioners, alike, ask critical questions such as, “Are we really a place where all are welcome? What can we do to be more welcoming?”
Is this model at odds with church teaching? Leaders at St. Mary Magdalene respond by saying that they are only doing what they believe Jesus tells them to do, which is to act compassionately and to welcome all into the parish. Parishioners, especially those in same-sex relationships, recognize that their parish may be unique in that they can fully express their “authentic” self without feeling judgment or exclusion. Is a parish culture that makes members in same-sex relationships feel welcomed in tension with the church teaching? Does this create tension or does it allow people to continue negotiating what it means to be Catholic in today’s world?
* This name and all names used are pseudonyms to protect the identity of the parish and of parishioners