Homosexuality in the Parish: The Example of St. Mary Magdalene Parish

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

3 thoughts on “Homosexuality in the Parish: The Example of St. Mary Magdalene Parish

  1. I am sorry but I do not see this happening, maybe a splinter group, it flies directly in the face of the teaching of the church. Read Benedict’s Easter message in which he believes (I also believe) that the church will grow considerably smaller and face tough times and flourish again.

    Sacraments are going to the tough to administer to this group, it is not they are not welcomed. There are impediments of their lifestyles that go against the teaching of the church which makes it hard to give them the sacraments. The question I pose is this if you don’t believe in Jesus’ resurrection should you be eligible to be still receive communion?

    • Sean,
      Gays don’t believe in the resurrection? I don’t think your points really lead to your question. The question we should be asking is how this applies to canons 912 “Any baptized person not prohibited by law can and must be admitted to holy communion,” 915 “Those who have been excommunicated or interdicted after the imposition or declaration of the penalty and others obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to holy communion,” and 916 “A person who is conscious of grave sin is not to celebrate Mass or receive the body of the Lord without previous sacramental confession unless there is a grave reason and there is no opportunity to confess; in this case the person is to remember the obligation to make an act of perfect contrition which includes the resolution of confessing as soon as possible.”
      Are same-sex couples in “manifest grave sin”? Are they “obstinately persevering” in it? More to the point, are they excommunicated? (the answer to this is probably ‘no’) So really, Canon 915 has no real bearing here since they are not public figures the manifest-ness of their relationship is questionable at best. Canon 916 actually does apply here but it is up to the individual to discern the state of her soul. And in light of Canon 916 we should look at 912. But again, this is not something the priest can make a determination about. The priest probably should counsel the couple that they may be prohibited by Canons 916 and therefore 912 from receiving the Eucharist, but even still the priest doesn’t know the sate of the couple’s souls.
      All that said, I doubt that it’s a prudent position to take to ask practicing homosexuals, or practicing unmarried heterosexuals, to take a leadership position in the church.

  2. I think the answers to your questions depend, in part, on how we define “church teaching” as well as how we understand the nature of authority. If we understand authority to be embodied in the episcopacy, with church teaching coming from the Magisterium, then I’d say a parish culture that makes members in same-sex relationships feel welcomed would definitely be at odds with the church teaching. This institutional kind of church teaching is pretty clear on the matter, and I think we see this most clearly in the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity, tradition has always declared that “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered.” They are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved” (#2357). On the other hand, if we abide by more of a “sense of the faithful” approach to authority, which tends to prioritize individual conscience, then one could make a case that the same-sex relationships at St. Mary Magdalene are not inconsistent with church teaching, especially since many Catholics today view homosexual actions as morally permissible. With this view, the parish culture could be seen as allowing people to negotiate what it means to be Catholic today. Overall, I think your findings fit in well with past sociological literature on Catholic identity, such as Melissa Wilde’s work or Pogorelc and Davidson’s article on American Catholic cultures.