Catholics academics, professionals and pastoral workers were among the speakers at a recent Fordham University conference, which sought, according to the program, to “raise awareness and generate informed conversation about sexual diversity issues within the community of faith and in the broader civic world that the Catholic Church and the Catholic people inhabit.”
The conference, held on Sept. 16, was titled “Learning to Listen: Voices of Sexual Diversity and the Catholic Church,” and was the first of a four-part series called “More than a Monologue: Sexual Diversity and the Catholic Church.” The series also will include conferences hosted by Union Theological Seminary, Yale Divinity School and Fairfield University. Although the conferences are thematically connected, each one has been independently planned by its respective institution. Each one seeks to more clearly depict the experience of people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender in the church.
Approximately 370 people attended the Fordham conference, which was made up of three panel discussions. During a press conference, Paul Lakeland, the Aloysius P. Kelley, S.J., Professor of Catholic Studies and Director of the Center for American Catholic Studies at Fairfield University, said that while many people are aware of the church’s teachings on sexual ethics, he hoped the conferences would help speak to issues that are not directly addressed by those teachings.
“When you say more than a monologue, people say, ‘Oh, the bishops are the monologue, and now we want to get all the other voices in,’ but that’s not strictly the case,” Lakeland said. “There’s a monologue in the sense that: wherever you stand in the debate on sexual ethics, that’s a sort of monologue.” Views on both sides are often one-dimensional, he added. “But when we ask questions—What is the experience of gay and lesbian Catholics in the church? Or what about teen suicide? Or what about the relationship between the church and the legal system as they look at same-sex marriage? Or what about the complexities of life for gay and lesbian Catholics who engage in pastoral care in the church?—we’re not in that one-dimensional thinking, having a go at church teaching or trying to persuade people that it’s right. Rather we’re expanding people’s sense of what the life of gay and lesbian Catholics is like, and the many ramifications in the church and what that means for everyone.”
Lakeland said that, while bishops have “had conversations with the presidents of both of the Catholic institutions involved,” they have not issued any public statements regarding the series.
Christine Firer Hinze, Professor of Theology and Director of the Francis & Ann Curran Center for American Catholic Studies at Fordham University, said that the theme of listening was chosen for the Fordham conference because it is “something very basic to the academic life, as well as the life of faith.”
Hinze said she hopes the conference provided “space for fruitful reflection and discussion” for everyone who attended, but “especially for people who care about and have been touched by these issues, in many cases painfully and traumatically so, and who nonetheless are haunted by the sense that when the power, beauty, potential and challenges of sexuality and the power, beauty, potential and challenges of the Catholic faith are consigned to separate, hermetically sealed-off worlds, no one gains, and everyone is the poorer.”
During the conference, Deb Word, whose talk during the first panel received a standing ovation from the attendees, shared her experience of raising her son, who is gay, and of housing homeless gay and lesbian teenagers, who have been shunned by their own parents. Word is part of a grassroots movement called Fortunate Families, which provides a support network primarily for Catholic parents of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender children.
“We see kids who think they are un-loveable because of their orientation,” Word said. “We help kids who have been suicidal over parental rejection. We love them and we let them know that God loves them as well. These are God’s children, but somehow that message has been lost, and we need to find a way to shout that message louder than any other.”
Other speakers on the Word’s panel were: Kate Henley Averett, co-editor of “From the Pews in the Back,” who shared her struggle with being both Catholic and lesbian, and her ultimate decision to leave the church; Michael Sepidoza Campos, Ph.D., who is gay, described his decision to join, and eventually leave, the seminary and his current work as a high-school teacher; Hilary Howes, a transgender activist who expressed her experience as a convert to Catholicism and the uncertainty surrounding her place in the church as a transgender female; Eve Tushnet, a freelance writer, shared her experience as a Catholic convert, and the joys and challenges of her decision, as a lesbian woman, to lead a lay, celibate life.
Tushnet said that by sublimating feelings of eros, she has found her vocation through service and friendship. “It was through loving service and connection to women, among other things, that I was able to express my identity as a lesbian while being celibate,” Tushnet said. “I wish someone had told me how much I would have to fight for both parts of being gay and Catholic.”
Tushnet said many people suffer due to a general lack of respect for friendship outside marriage, but that she found comfort during her discernment by praying to Oscar Wilde and St. Joan of Arc, among others. She said gay teens need to see more examples of “joyful, fruitful, celibate lives of service” in the church.
Many panelists shared stories of navigating the tensions between their faith lives and their sexuality, and expressed the hope that, as practicing members of the church, they could help to shape the conversation around such issues. “Was I at home in the Catholic Church?” Sepidoza said. “Eh, yes and no. Was I at home in the gay community? Eh, yes and no. But among these tensions were many experiences that were lifegiving.”
Howes also saw the beauty in her own experience as a transgender Catholic. “I got more heat for coming out as Catholic, than coming out as transsexual,” she said. “But there is so much that is good in the Catholic Church, and it isn’t going away.”
John Falcone, a professor at Boston College, spoke during the second panel about his struggle to define his professional identity in relation to his personal identity, which includes the fact that he is gay. “Catholics are my people and I am not giving them up,” he said, “but for me to save my own faith, I’ve had to step outside of it and question it.”
This kind of critical thinking and re-examining of oneself and ones faith is part of what it means to be Catholic, and isn’t limited to academics, Hinze said. “Catholics are bound to always listen out for what is true,” she said. “And in any era, there are new things that may be found to be true or old things that may be confirmed to be true. So this is the job of the university in the Catholic tradition but also anybody who is in the Catholic tradition, whether one is a bishop or teacher or person in the pew.”