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A Rightful Place

Catholics in Richmond discuss the "quiet questions" about homosexuality brought up by the crisis in the church.



Richmond's policy of acceptance is mainly the work of Bishop Walter F. Sullivan, leader of the diocese since 1974. (The bishop was not available to comment for this article.) The policy began in 1976 when the diocese formed a task force to define the needs of gay and lesbian Catholics.

That action in itself wasn't too unusual — dozens of dioceses nationwide took similar actions in the late 1970s, says Marianne Duddy, executive director of Dignity/USA, a national coalition of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered Catholics. The difference, Duddy says, is that unlike most dioceses in the 1980s and '90s, Richmond never lapsed in its outreach to gays and lesbians.

In 1977, Sullivan established a committee, based on the findings of the task force, that would become the current Commission on Sexual Minorities. The commission's activities in the diocese include educational programs, retreats and an annual mass for gays, lesbians, and their friends and families.

At one such mass in October 1999, Sullivan told those assembled, "We are celebrating this Mass in order to proclaim publicly that you are part of our faith community and have a rightful place around the Lord's table." He added, "Thankfully, in our Church there is room for everyone, and for much diversity, once you get beyond the fundamentals we all hold."

Not all approve of Sullivan's views. Conservative Catholics say the diocese ought to encourage homosexuals to change their sexuality; in ministering specifically to gays and lesbians, they believe, the diocese is saying it's OK to live a gay lifestyle.

Not so, says the Rev. Pasquale Apuzzo, spokesman for the diocese. Official Catholic doctrine states that being homosexual is not wrong or sinful. But just as unmarried heterosexuals are prohibited from engaging in sex, so too are homosexuals. "Our teachings are clear on that," Apuzzo says. "That we consider that to be unacceptable."

Yet church doctrine also mandates that no Catholic should be excluded from the church based on sexual orientation. In 1997, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a pastoral letter titled "Always Our Children," which condemned homosexual activity yet encouraged Catholic communities to reach out to sexual minorities, as the Richmond diocese has done for decades. As Duddy puts it, in Richmond, gays and lesbians "don't have to worry that they're going to hear a fire and brimstone, damned-to-hell kind of homily when they come into church."

Some will always think the diocese is too tolerant. "The criticisms are there," Apuzzo says, "but they're often unfounded when they speak their reasoning aloud." For example, he says, people wrongly assume that the retreats organized by the Commission on Sexual Minorities are "dating clubs," he says, when really they serve as an outlet for gays and lesbians to discuss their personal struggles.

Apuzzo gives this analogy: "We certainly, like society in general, do not feel that marriages should end in divorce. Yet we will have retreats and we'll have special ministries for divorced people, to help them in that situation. Now for someone to criticize us and say 'Well, you're just teaching them how to be divorced,' is ridiculous."

Ordaining gay priests is another matter. The Diocese of Richmond follows official church policy, Apuzzo says, which doesn't address the issue of a priest's sexual orientation. "The presumption would be that whether their orientation is gay or straight, they would be expected to lead a chaste, celibate life," he explains.

Other church leaders feel differently. Recently, several high-ranking officials in the Catholic Church have made it clear that they oppose gays in the priesthood. Discussing a meeting with Vatican officials in April, Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said: "It is most importantly a struggle to make sure that the Catholic priesthood is not dominated by homosexual men." The church's mandate, he said, is "to make sure that candidates that we receive are healthy in every possible way — psychologically, emotionally, spiritually."

But some wonder if the priesthood could survive if it were closed to homosexuals. No data exists on how many Catholic priests in the United States could be gay, but estimates range from 10 percent to 50 percent.

Since the vast majority of victims in the reported incidents of sexual abuse are young boys, many within the church have speculated about the correlation between homosexuality and sexual abuse. Research has shown no link, according to such organizations as the American Psychological Association and the National Association of Social Workers.

Locally, few have openly blamed gays for the crisis shaking the church, says Jeff Trollinger, chairman of the diocese's Commission on Sexual Minorities. "I think the majority of the folks in the Richmond diocese do not equate the two," Trollinger says of pedophilia and homosexuality. "We've gotten some negative feedback, but we always have."

Effects have been worse elsewhere, Duddy says.

Two gay Catholic men in Kentucky, who have been a monogamous couple for 29 years, told Duddy that recently they've seen their neighbors pull their children inside when they walk out the door. "They've just been devastated by that," she says. However, Duddy points out, "As disturbing as those incidents are, they tend to be the exception to the rule."

Nonreligious gay-rights organizations in Richmond have felt little fallout, members say. "I don't think that the priest scandal is affecting our local gay-rights movement, because it's more a matter of child sexual abuse than it is homosexuality, I feel," says Trish Boland, co-chairwoman of the local chapter of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network. "I think that's something that people with common sense are able to separate out, and as a Catholic, I think I am able to separate that out, and as a gay rights activist, I know I can separate that out."

In the end, Duddy says, the crisis may bring about a dialogue that is long overdue about what it means to be gay and Catholic. "Quiet questions" in mainstream Catholics' minds about the church's teachings on homosexuality, she says, are finally coming to the fore. S

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