Humans have in their hearts a law written by God. To obey it is the very dignity of the human . . . according to our conscience we will be judged. --The Second Vatican Council
On a warm Saturday evening, 17 gays and lesbians sit in a small chapel in Westwood and sing a Catholic hymn called “Be Not Afraid.” The lyrics tell of “crossing a barren desert” and “wicked men who insult and hate you.”
There is deliberate poignancy here, as the song and voices echo off the rafters.
In the eyes of the Roman Catholic Church, these men and women are infidels--spurned because their active gay lifestyle is regarded as a sin. Although they have not been excommunicated, they pray alone, without a priest to lead them. Except for the grace of another religion’s pastor, they would not even have a place to worship.
In 1989, Archbishop Roger M. Mahony ordered priests in the vast Los Angeles Archdiocese to stop saying Mass for members of Dignity/Westside and two other local chapters of the 21-year-old national organization for gay Catholics.
Mahony’s decision was a major defeat for the beleaguered Dignity, with 84 chapters and 4,200 members nationwide, for the decision signaled agreement with most other U.S. bishops.
As in other dioceses, the archbishop’s orders were brief but clear: Dignity cannot meet in church buildings or on church property; priests cannot say Mass for the group.
The future is not so clear.
Having been an outcast organization for more than 20 years, the three Southland Dignity chapters now talk about living in a state of “quiet crisis,” where reconciliation with the official church seems distant--if impossible--and spiritual needs must be met in new ways.
Yet even under trying circumstances, the faithful outcasts of Dignity/Westside remain resolute in their Catholicism, undaunted by what they see as the church’s refusal to accept them as men and women proudly gay, openly involved in sexual and emotional relationships.
As they sing and listen to the Bible readings and pass a collection plate, they are carrying out the same rituals of any faithful Catholic--the motions and words familiar to those who grew up believing the Pope, minding Sister, trembling in the confessional.
Holding hands and gathered around the altar, they still celebrate Communion. They break off pieces of a saucer-sized wafer and eat the Host, considered by Catholics to be the sacred body of Christ, the “Bread of Life.” This particular wafer has been made holy when it was quietly blessed weeks earlier by an archdiocesan priest who was willing to bend--but not break--the rules of the archdiocese.
“We have had to become self-ministering,” says Anita, 38, co-chairwoman of Dignity/Westside, who asked that her last name not be used because she fears her employer’s reaction to her lesbianism. “Now, more than ever, it’s important to do things for ourselves.”
The form that this “self-ministry” takes varies from one chapter of Dignity to another. Unlike Dignity/Westside, which has about 30 members and has to use borrowed facilities for worship, Dignity/Los Angeles has 180 members and has purchased a two-story house on Avenue 64. There, weekly Masses are celebrated by “non-facultied” priests who are not affiliated with the archdiocese or other religious orders.
Dignity/Long Beach, with 100 members, holds weekly prayer services in members’ homes, “teaching each other the power of self-ministry, relying on our own community,” says co-chairwoman Noreen Whipple.
It takes a leap of faith, Anita says, to remain true to a church where they are essentially outcasts, living sinful lives.
“I got involved with Dignity because I knew I was not intrinsically evil,” she says, referring to guidelines issued by the Vatican in 1986 on how the Church should regard gay Catholics.
A 12-page letter issued in October, 1986, by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, head of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, called homosexuality an “intrinsic moral evil . . . behavior to which no one has any conceivable right.”
For Catholics trained to believe that homosexuality is an almost unspeakable wrong, the letter states the obvious: Since, in the church’s view, homosexual acts do not involve “the life-giving union of men and women in the sacrament of marriage,” engaging in gay sex is a mortal sin.
Now referred to as “the Ratzinger Letter,” the document spells out the church’s commitment to reach out to the gay community and to help those suffering with AIDS, but condemns “pro-homosexual” movements within the church and rebukes those gays and lesbians who are anything but strictly celibate--even those involved in long-term, monogamous relationships and consider themselves married.
Within a year after the Ratzinger Letter, many U.S. bishops began evicting Dignity chapters from church property and prohibiting priests from saying Masses for the groups.
Dignity members quickly mustered their resolve, collectively responding to the church with defiance. At their national convention in 1987, they rewrote the organization’s statement of purpose to make clear its stand on gay sex: “We believe that gay men and lesbian women can express their sexuality in a manner that is consonant with Christ’s teaching . . . we believe that all sexuality should be exercised in an ethically responsible and unselfish way.”
Tagged the “Bal Harbor Statement” (named after the Miami location of the convention), the amended sexuality clause became the focus of the American church’s hierarchical denouncing of Dignity.
Representatives of Archbishop Mahony say he decided to oust Dignity from church property in Los Angeles and ban priests in the area from giving its members Communion because of the Bal Harbor Statement.
Despite these actions, Father Peter Luizzi, who was appointed to minister to gays and lesbians in the archdiocese, insists the Catholic church still has a “great love” for gays and lesbians.
“I think the archbishop has a real concern for the community,” Luizzi says. “He has their interests very much at heart and he wants to continue the ministry--however contradictory that might seem.”
Dignity’s national leadership maintains that the relationship has always been strained, since the organization’s beginnings in Los Angeles in 1969.
It was then that Father Pat Nidorf, a Los Angeles priest, began holding discussions with Catholic homosexuals in Los Angeles and San Diego. Although Nidorf initially had permission from his superiors in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles to form the outreach ministry, he was silenced in 1970 by then-Archbishop Timothy Manning, who, Dignity officials said, felt uneasy about the growing visibility of the formerly unnoticed gay Catholics.
Even without Nidorf, the group continued to grow, and by 1972, Dignity had held a national meeting and had set up chapters in Chicago, Washington and Boston.
The height of Dignity’s relationship with the mainstream church, (“If there was one,” says Patrick E. Roche, the current national president of Dignity) came in Seattle in 1983 at Dignity’s national convention. A Mass celebrated in the city’s cathedral was attended by 1,000 people and the outlook for Dignity chapters nationwide was promising, replete with much attention from the media.
With this came the scrutinizing eyes of the church. The Vatican began to examine the church’s role in the gay ministry, and Seattle Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen, who had greeted and encouraged the Dignity conventioneers by videotape, was censured for his support of the gay movement.
Three years later, Ratzinger’s letter was released.
Today, Mahony and a few other bishops continue to support a full-time ministry office for the gay and lesbian community in the archdiocese, but they are adamant that until Dignity agrees to abide by the Vatican’s guidelines for gays to stay celibate, there can be no negotiations.
When Roche, a 46-year-old Seattle banking executive, was campaigning for president of Dignity/USA at the national convention in San Francisco last year, he told the delegates that he was given two gifts from God: his faith in Catholicism and his homosexuality.
“That’s like getting a microwave oven and all-aluminum cookware,” he says with a laugh, recalling his campaign speech. “The two just don’t seem compatible.”
But Roche extends the microwave-cookware analogy further: “You have to believe, if you have aluminum dishes, that they’ll eventually invent a microwave that uses aluminum. Well, maybe the church will eventually come to accept that it has been wrong.”
Roche won the campaign with the phrase “Keep on Cookin’,” encouraging Dignity members to stand up, keep the faith and prepare for many more years of ministering to themselves.
“Self-ministry is nothing new for Dignity, really,” Roche says. “People think our troubles began with the Bal Harbor Statement, which is erroneous. If anything, things got worse right after the Ratzinger Letter. We grew up as a community that self-ministered . . . there was never really a period of complete acceptance.”
Roche asserts that the church is not only slow to change, but slow to acknowledge it as well.
But during the Second Vatican Council of the mid-1960s, in the spirit of bringing the church into modern world, everything in Catholicism came up for discussion. Priests turned for the first time to face their congregants. Latin was stripped from the liturgy. Nuns traded their traditional habits for skirts and blouses. And, in the midst of those changes, gays came out of the closet.
We have always been there, they said, as your parishioners and as your priests and nuns.
No one knows for sure how many gay Catholics there are today, but recent surveys by theologians indicate that as many as one-third of today’s priests are gay, and at least as many nuns are lesbians.
Roche himself, who left the seminary in the ‘60s, says, “The common assumption was, if you knew you were gay and you were Catholic . . . well how does that saying go, ‘Get thee to a nunnery?’ I went to the seminary. And I wasn’t alone.”
While the church, like modern society, has had to acknowledge that homosexuality does exist, Dignity wants to see acceptance--and a reversal of doctrine.
But the church, conservative under Pope John Paul II, has recently reminded its flock that it is no democracy. A 7,500-word “Instruction” by Ratzinger released in June admonishes dissent by theologians from church teachings--especially on sensitive issues like birth control, abortion and the ordination of women.
Frank Galvan, 39, who has been a member of Dignity/Westside and Dignity/L.A. for 14 years, says that gay Catholics ultimately would like to see “dialogue and healing” between Dignity leaders and the church.
“We have to try to accept them as much as we would like to be accepted,” Galvan says. “You have to give and take, as far as determining what’s acceptable to the church. But I think maybe the church has been giving too much (doctrine) and not taking enough.” Roche agrees. The Ratzinger Letter, he says with a sigh, “said a lot of hurtful things . . . it’s very painful to be evicted from the church. But one thing I have said in the past and continue to say is that we may have left the spires and stained glass behind, but we have taken what is really important--our dignity and love for one another. That’s what keeps us going.”
Members of Dignity believe they are the forebears of, as Roche puts it, “tomorrow’s Catholic church"--a sign of what’s ahead for a religion running desperately low on the men who are the epicenter of a Catholic community.
Church officials concede that a declining number of men entering seminaries to become priests, plus an exodus of young priests and seminarians from the church in the 1960s and ‘70s, indicates that U.S. Catholics will begin to “minister to themselves” more than ever in the 21st Century.
Catholics of the future will partake in and lead prayer services, sharing Communion blessed by one priest who may serve hundreds of square miles and be with the community only a few times a year, if at all.
Dignity has increased the role of its women members in the Catholic liturgy. Although women compose only 16% of Dignity’s national membership, some chapters have worked to eliminate the ever-present male pronoun from prayer and Scripture.
Next to AIDS ministry, recruiting more women is a high priority for them. One reason attributed to Dignity’s inability to attract lesbian Catholics is the perceived patriarchal structure of the church, operated exclusively by men “in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.”
Anita of Dignity/Westside also belongs to Lesbian Catholics Together, a group of women which meets in the L.A. area once a month and has been able to find priests willing to celebrate Mass for them and bless extra Communion wafers for distribution at Dignity/Westside and Dignity/Long Beach services.
In the wake of Mahony’s decision, Anita says, men and women “have been given a much greater sense of what the church actually is. People get hung up on the hierarchy, when actually the true sense of the church is what we do--people ministering to one another.”
There is a sense of strength in Dignity/Westside--a strength that comes from members’ willingness to gather for purely spiritual reasons, without the trappings of pomp and officialdom.
In the borrowed church where Dignity/Westside meets, there is little light, except the shafts of early evening sun that stream through the windows. The building’s air-conditioning has been turned off. A bus churns by outside while one member of the group, acting as minister, relates the meaning of the day’s Bible readings in a short sermon.
However dedicated these individuals may be, there is something small and fleeting about the place. Gone are notions of High Mass and choirs.
“We are the fringes of a new church who say it’s OK to be gay and Catholic, and I think we have a real function there,” says Whipple, of her Long Beach chapter. “Yes, we are criticized by the hierarchy and the mainstream church, but then prophets always are.”
In spite of the rift between Dignity and Archdiocese, gay Catholics in Los Angeles are not entirely without sympathy from the church. It comes in the person of Luizzi, who, as the archdiocese’s minister to gays and lesbians, calls himself “a listener.” Listening, in fact, is his primary job.
He is on his way to lunch with a man who has AIDS, where he will pass no judgment, recite no rules. He will just listen.
“You have to understand how much I have learned from my work in this community. Even after all my years in the priesthood, I’m the convert,” he says about his growing understanding of the struggle for gay Catholics.
Not surprising, he is forced to confront hard feelings--even hostility--in the community. When the Dignity chapters were ordered to cease meeting on church property, the archbishop agreed to give advance warning if and when area priests would have to stop saying Dignity Masses. But, according to Dignity/L.A. President Jack Stafford, there was little warning, and that caused “a great deal of anger” in the community.
Most official efforts by the church to reach out to gays and lesbians have met with lukewarm reception.
In 1988, for example, the archdiocese formed a group called Communidad to celebrate Mass with gays and lesbians at two parishes in West Hollywood and Long Beach. Communidad received “initially good response,” Luizzi says, but has since experienced declining attendance.
The reason is simple, Luizzi acknowledges. The archbishop forbade Mass for Dignity, but not for Communidad. Dignity members--who would be likely members of Communidad--may resent this, and stay away, he says.
In other cases, the gay community blames the church for efforts it may not even have sanctioned. One that has been particularly criticized is a program called Courage, a New York-based ministry that offers guidance to gay Catholics seeking a celibate lifestyle--often employing “repairative therapy” techniques to help gays and lesbians “cure” themselves, which is not what the church has in mind, Luizzi says.
Luizzi acknowledges he makes no pretense at “smoothing things over.” He simply meets with members of Dignity and prays with them.
The church, he says, has a “real love for people . . . and that has to transcend any law or regulation.”
But given its regulations and its teachings, he says, he can only “receive from (the gay and lesbian) community and ponder . . . and pray. I’m not interested in changing church doctrine,” he says. “What’s radical in my ministry is that I’m not here to sit in judgment.”
Even after Mahony’s order last year, 85% of Dignity/L.A.'s members said they wanted to keep having Mass, according to Dignity/L.A. President Jack Stafford.
So they do, on Sunday nights, in a small yellow house purchased by a limited partnership of Dignity/L.A. members.
It is not a “self-ministered” service of the sort that Dignity/Westside members perform for themselves. Here, there are real priests saying Mass, though they are not working on behalf of the archdiocese and have been stripped, for various reasons, of certain duties like hearing confessions and preaching, says Father Gregory Coiro, from the archdiocese’s office of public affairs.
A Mass said by one of these non-facultied priests is valid, says Coiro, “but illicit, because the permission to function within a diocese has to come from the bishop, something non-facultied priests don’t have.” But, he adds, even former priests can say a private Mass.
It is a practice that does not sit well with many Catholics, and even some members of other Dignity chapters have been reluctant to resort to that option.
Members of Dignity/Westside are still debating the use of non-facultied priests in their service. “It’s something we discussed and decided we didn’t feel comfortable with approaching priests and asking them to say Mass for us,” says Galvan.
Some Catholics wonder why gays must have a separate organization in the first place.
“We don’t do it just to snub our nose at them,” says Stafford. “I could go to Mass anywhere, but my real spiritual goombahs come from Dignity.”
Meanwhile, there is a real struggle is for those clergy who would like to reach to everyone, including Dignity, but can’t.
“It’s very difficult for priests,” Coiro says. “Now they are in a bind because when you have people in difficult situations like being homosexual or being divorced or remarried, you want to be as compassionate as you can be.
“But, you don’t want to compromise on the teachings of the church, either.”