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Eve TushnetJune 26, 2023
Rainbow flag sticking out of a student's backpackiStock

Keith Wildenberg is a tall man whose hawkish face is topped with a mop of shaggy curls. He is leaning over my kitchen counter and gesturing with a wine glass as he recalls the days of his youth: “So many of the evangelical [Catholic] kids were the queer kids,” he says, meaning the Catholic students who gave witness talks at teen retreats and sought out informal ways to share their faith. “We had the best testimonies!”

Mr. Wildenberg first heard gay people mentioned in a Catholic context in 1978, when he was in sixth grade. He recalls that a classmate “made a crack about sodomy,” and the religious sister leading the class informed them that the sin of Sodom wasn’t about sex, and that “homosexuals deserve our compassion.” Although he wasn’t out of the closet then, Mr. Wildenberg already had begun to realize that he was an outsider in some painful way connected to his sexuality. Still, his faith flourished in high school, with plenty of encouragement from priests and teachers. He spent some time discerning the priesthood but instead moved to San Francisco—where he thought all gay men eventually ended up—and is now semi-retired and sings in his church’s schola cantorum. After a long journey with his faith, he is now a practicing Catholic on fire to evangelize.

That is why he chose to become part of a new initiative called Building Catholic Futures, which I helped to start. The initiative began in part because a friend pointed out that my work focuses on helping queer adults restore a relationship with God that has too often been damaged by the silences and falsehoods that make gay people feel like outsiders within their churches.

What if, by the time a young person begins asking questions about their own sexual orientation, they already trust that there is a place for gay people in the Catholic Church?

These damaged relationships have a devastating effect: For most people, religious participation protects against suicide. But for L.G.B.T. youth, studies have found either no protective effect of religious participation or, in one study of college students, a higher rate of suicidality among more-religious youth. My friend asked: What if we could reach kids before their faith gets damaged? What if, by the time a young person begins asking questions about their own sexual orientation, they already trust that there is a place for gay people in the Catholic Church?

The aim of B.C.F. is to build this trust. We are currently a loosely structured grassroots organization, although we plan to seek nonprofit status next year. We are focused on creating comprehensive, age-appropriate resources for Catholic institutions and families that present gay and lesbian people as part of Catholic history and offer hope for today’s queer youth. This could include worksheets for religious education classes, retreats for high schoolers, lesson plans for teachers, pamphlets for parents, professional development workshops for teachers and priests, and even a program to train other non-straight Catholics to be mentors in their local communities.

There is no perfect term to capture all the ways people experience sexual orientation within the Catholic Church today, let alone a term that could cover all the historical figures whose lives might be inspiring to contemporary young people. This article will use a number of imperfect terms, including gay, queer and non-straight, to suggest a range of experiences. In B.C.F.’s historical materials, we give close descriptions of people’s lives without making assumptions about what language they would use to describe themselves today.

Some of our resources will be aimed at educators who hope to serve non-straight young people better; some speak directly to high schoolers, like worksheets telling the stories of orthodox, queer, Catholic lives in ways that are relevant to students of all sexual orientations. Some resources will help parents navigate complex cultural changes in ways that will help them create a faithful and welcoming Catholic home, regardless of whether their own kids come out or not. I expect that some places will use our materials piecemeal, while other parishes or dioceses will become almost like partners. We hope to offer larger events that might include public panel discussions, workshops for priests, mentorship training and devotional events for the local L.G.B.T. community. Our hope is to help everyone envision a church in which queer Catholics are present.

The people contributing to these resources, including myself and Mr. Wildenberg, identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual and/or same-sex attracted; and we accept Catholic teaching in full. Ten of us met late last year for B.C.F.’s first in-person working retreat. The founding participants range from twentysomethings to those nearing retirement. We come from many walks of life—a priest, a mom, a teacher in a Catholic school, a youth minister and more. Collectively, we have spoken to hundreds of L.G.B.T. Catholics and those ministering to this population.

Our work aims to go beyond the polarizing, culture-war-inspired rhetoric that too often influences our conversation.

We have begun drafting materials and are seeking educators, priests, catechists and parents who can “beta-test” materials and, once our resources are ready, use them in their communities. Our project is, as far as I know, the only project of its kind: the only attempt to create Catholic educational resources not only about, but by and for non-straight people of faith.

This project will help guide Catholics at all the points where young people encounter the church—in their families, in school, in the confessional, even online—with orthodox and creative approaches to questions of L.G.B.T. life and faith.

Our Founding Principles

Together, we developed three principles to anchor our materials. First, start the conversation. By this we mean the materials should not just be a reaction to the status quo, but should also propose Catholic visions for gay people’s flourishing. Second, tell real people’s stories in ways that are relevant to Catholics of all sexual orientations. And third, focus on vocation before chastity. In doing so we remember that ordered sexuality is only one part of ordering our hearts to respond to God’s infinite love.

All of our work aims to go beyond the expected, polarizing, culture-war-inspired rhetoric that too often influences our political and even religious conversation. Instead we try to answer one central question: How can Catholic kids questioning and naming their sexuality trust that they are loved by God and envision a future of love within the church?

Across the country, Catholic schools and dioceses are realizing the urgency of this question. In the past three years, a wave of new laws at the state level have restricted public schools’ acknowledgment of L.G.B.T. life. Although Catholic schools are not covered by these laws, many feel the same political pressures that led to their passage. Again and again I have been told by people who work with youth that questions about L.G.B.T. life are the most frequent ones they receive and the hardest ones to answer. Some dioceses have tried to address these questions with new policies, but I have spoken to many teachers and administrators in Catholic education who believe these policies do not address their or their students’ real needs.

Again and again, queer Catholics told me how hard it was to imagine their future as a non-straight believer.

In order to understand what the landscape is like for queer kids in Catholic schools, I spoke with teachers, administrators and alumni. B.C.F. is working on materials that address only sexual orientation, because that’s where our shared experience lies, but I spoke with people with personal or professional knowledge of the experiences of transgender or gender-questioning Catholics, too. I talked to queer cradle Catholics who have never left the faith, those who remain in the church but dissent from many of its teachings and those who have left the Catholic Church entirely. The people quoted here include both people in celibate same-sex partnerships and people in gay marriages. I have spoken with orthodox Catholics who say they would not put their own children in Catholic schools or who have left Catholic education in part because of anti-gay policies.

What I learned corresponds with what I heard from my companions during the retreat weekend. Catholic children are caught in a crossfire. Many feel they are forced to choose between staying faithful to the church and being honest about their sexuality or gender identity. Far too many Catholic young people are still hearing only silence or messages of fear about L.G.B.T. people in the church. Even some people who fully accept the Catholic Church’s teaching on sexuality and gender are finding themselves alienated by the way the church teaches it.

But I also discovered a surprising amount of common ground. I found a lot of hope that Catholic institutions can serve queer young people better while strengthening our institutions’ Catholic identity and inviting youth into a deeper relationship with Christ.

Getting Started

For the past 24 years, David Palmieri (who contributes to America’s Outreach project) has taught at the Catholic high school from which he graduated in the 1990s. A picture of Mr. Palmieri with the man he calls his “teacher hero” hangs in his office, which is also adorned with a stuffed bunny bearing the logo “Jesus Loves Me”—a present from students who won it at a carnival. Mr. Palmieri never intended to become an activist for any cause, let alone for L.G.B.T. youth. But a graduate school research paper on pastoral ministry started a journey that ultimately led him to found the Without Exception Network, which connects educators in Catholic high schools seeking to serve their L.G.B.T. students. He created the group because the resources and guidance he was hoping to find simply did not exist.

“It’s not because people don’t care,” he said. “It’s more a matter of discomfort with getting started. Nobody wants to initiate the conversation, especially when we’re talking about kids, but the reality is [that] L.G.B.T. students are in our schools.”

The Without Exception Network provides some resources for members, including a guide to starting an L.G.B.T. ministry at school and a guide to accompanying transgender students, but its primary focus is building community. It aims to connect educators with one another, so they can share wisdom and work out the best approach for their own contexts. (Mr. Palmieri is not connected with Building Catholic Futures.)

“It’s not because people don’t care,” he said. “It’s more a matter of discomfort with getting started.

In recent years, many Catholic dioceses have tried to draw up policies related to L.G.B.T. students. However, Mr. Palmieri said that, overall, diocesan policies do more to constrain teachers and administrators than to help students discover Christ. He has seen how often students feel they must hide their “authentic self,” especially if they suspect their feelings or mannerisms might not be accepted. He wants teachers to be free to act in ways that can reassure students that they can take off their “mask,” even if that means a school must then wrestle with complex questions about gender identity—like names and pronouns, locker room usage, school uniforms and overnight retreats.

“I’ve started to think that if we’re going to go down this road of issuing policies,” Mr. Palmieri said, “we should reframe the conversation and come up with a series of principles offered to school leaders. And say, ‘Now we trust you…to implement our policy in response to the circumstances you encounter.’” Principles might include things like “Nothing about us without us”—meaning that administrators should always involve actual L.G.B.T. people in decision making. (This was something several other people emphasized, and it is part of B.C.F.’s approach.) “And I would love to see more talk about Jesus,” he said. “The policies don’t talk about Jesus; they talk about Catholic anthropology.”

Diocesan policies on sexuality and gender for students range in scope. Some, like that of the diocese of Orange, Calif., address only gender identity, while many others focus on gender but include restrictions on the pastoral accompaniment of sexual minority students as well. The Diocese of Sioux Falls, S.D., released an especially stringent policy in 2022 that bars students from “advocat[ing], celebrat[ing], or express[ing] same-sex attraction” or “transgenderism” “in such a way as to cause confusion or distraction” and urges the use of the term same-sex attraction in all circumstances, as opposed to more colloquial terms like gay. It bars the creation of “transgender bathrooms” and, like many diocesan policies, bars the use of preferred names and pronouns. Although the policy strongly condemns bullying, it also condemns any behavior regarding gender or sexual identity that might “confuse” other students and treats this confusion as potential grounds to expel an L.G.B.T. student.

The Archdiocese of Denver’s policy, released in 2022, urges teachers to confront “gender ideology” whenever possible, bars “gay-straight alliances”and requires schools to tell parents if a student “begin[s] to assert an identity at odds with their biological sex,” which would out young people to parents without regard for the child’s reasons for coming out only to peers or trusted mentors. Like many other such policies, it expresses a great deal of concern for what others may think the school endorses. These policies consistently ignore the possibility that appearing to reject, harm or dismiss the concerns of L.G.B.T. students may also cause scandal and misunderstanding of Catholic doctrine.

Both at the B.C.F. retreat and in my interviews for this article, queer people asked for clarity from the church—the real teaching presented without adding in any theological extrapolations or “Catholic anthropology.” But we also need possibility. Again and again, queer Catholics told me how hard it was to imagine their future as a non-straight believer. No diocesan policy that I know of treats this feeling of impossibility as the central problem.

Both at the B.C.F. retreat and in my interviews for this article, queer people asked for clarity from the church.

The process of creating a policy for the Archdiocese of Seattle was unusually transparent, when compared with other dioceses, and involved the convening of a task force that included Catholic school administrators, teachers and parents. Two of my interviewees who had taught in the archdiocese praised the task force’s recommendation of “pastoral care ministries” for youth “dealing with L.G.B.T.Q. questions,” though specific actions were not detailed.

Mr. Palmieri does not personally know of any teachers fired or students expelled specifically because of a new policy. He added that many of “those who are working on the ground with kids respect the policies, but are also operating with ‘wink and nod’ strategies to make sure that children are actually being cared for” and finding what he called “loopholes and workarounds” so that students feel “noticed and named and known.” These last three elements, he said, are the keys to earning the trust that makes meaningful ministry to L.G.B.T. youth possible.

The need for an individualized rather than a one-size-fits-all approach arises most strikingly regarding trans or gender-questioning students at single-sex schools. In my interviews, several people asked to speak off the record on this topic. One teacher noted that schools may have to navigate the parents’ own uncertainty or disagreements about how to address their children’s questions. Some schools have made individual exceptions to retain students who transition. Others have worked with students who decided to postpone transition until after graduation.

Perhaps the strongest argument against a top-down policy is that every student’s situation is different, and compassionate accompaniment requires flexibility and attention to individual circumstances. I asked Dr. Timothy Uhl, secretary of education for the Diocese of Buffalo, N.Y., what he would put in his ideal policy, and he laughed at the very idea of a top-down “ideal policy” to cover all situations. “I say, ‘Be careful what you wish for,’” he added, noting that top-down policies might be too constraining, instead of allowing people to “make thoughtful decisions at the local level.” Dr. Uhl notes that his perspective is shaped by the gay people in his own family. His own memories of Catholic school are of its strong community.

Perhaps the strongest argument against a top-down policy is that every student’s situation is different, and compassionate accompaniment requires flexibility and attention to individual circumstances.

When it comes to vexed questions of sexuality or gender identity, Dr. Uhl has found a couple of principles helpful. First, stick to the specific source of conflict or uncertainty instead of assuming that “one thing leads to another.” He gives the example of a girl who wants to take another girl to the prom: “We don’t even know if they consider it a date!” (I can attest to this: I took a girl to my prom, just as a friend.)

Second, give kids time and stay calm: “My general approach, which is maybe right, maybe wrong, is that the younger you are, the less permanent we should [expect decisions to be]. If a fifth grader decides he wants to use different pronouns, that doesn’t mean he’s going in for surgery.”

From Shame Toward Sharing Lives

One aim of B.C.F. is to introduce students to gay lives through a lens other than sexual sin. Ashton Weber, a student at Yale Divinity School who identifies as a lesbian, grew up in Ohio and attended Catholic school from first grade through college. She is one of many people I spoke with who said that nearly all conversations and comments in which being queer was mentioned in the church were in the context of sin. She said one of the first times she heard about being queer was in church, when the priest said something like, “Talking about sin—so, for example, gay people….”

In high school, she was assigned to write an essay in defense of the Catholic Church’s stance on homosexuality. “You would get a bad grade if you didn’t agree with the church’s opinion,” she said. “[So you’re] trying to figure yourself out, and also get a good grade in religion class, writing these papers about how you’re intrinsically disordered.”

As a result, she grew up feeling intense shame and isolation in her sexuality: “We learned about [queer] sexuality as if it was some far-off thing that none of us would ever engage with. ‘Them,’ ‘these people’—it was super othering.” This shame made it almost impossible for her to understand what was happening when a friendship ended in which she’d had unacknowledged romantic feelings. This was a theme among several conversations with my interviewees: Silence about gay life doesn’t keep people out of emotional entanglements, it just makes it harder for queer young people to navigate their friendships.

“Emily” is a young, bookish woman with a head of wild curls. She spoke with me under a pseudonym, since she teaches in a Catholic middle school and fears losing her job if her sexual orientation becomes public. In the Catholic communities in which she grew up, she was taught a “baseline message that homosexual acts were sinful,” but even that was only brought up “briefly and tentatively when you had a chastity talk.” She currently teaches at a boys’ school with free tuition, serving mostly students below the poverty line. In the curriculum there, too, gay people are relegated to “a single sentence—really only part of a sentence [in] a list of things that are sins against the Sixth Commandment.”

Some people described bullying or ostracism because of students’ (real or perceived) sexual orientation.

While older Catholics may assume that all young people are progressives, Emily says her students tend to find progressive views of sexuality and gender “cringe.” Calling someone gay is considered a shameful insult. She wishes she could give her students some insight into what it means to identify as gay and let them know that “it isn’t something chosen.”

Some people described bullying or ostracism because of students’ (real or perceived) sexual orientation. “Melissa,” a professional in her twenties with a look that channels k.d. lang dressed for an office job, went to a single-sex Catholic high school in a Midwestern town. She recalls that because the other girls perceived her as gay, they “didn’t come within six feet [of me].” When a teacher got angry on her behalf, she found herself telling him, “‘Don’t worry about it, I’m used to it.’ I can’t say the words, ‘It will be worse if you [don’t let it go].’” Even though she wasn’t out of the closet, she had heard of other gay students who were expelled and was “always looking over my shoulder for whether I would get called to the office or kicked out.” She said she was once beaten up because of her orientation but says she feels that her experience pales in comparison with others she has heard about.

Beyond overt hostility, what severely damaged people’s faith was silence. Only one person mentioned that before he came out himself, he’d heard about another gay practicing Catholic. Even in schools where L.G.B.T. students’ sexual orientation and gender identity are fully accepted, it is often hard to find models of queer people who are living out the Catholic faith in their communities. It is our hope that B.C.F. materials will help fill this gap.

This absence contributes to the feeling, expressed by many of my non-straight interviewees, that they had to “choose” between being L.G.B.T. or being Catholic. And this absence may be especially important in light of Catholic education’s aspiration to form the whole person, rather than just teaching facts or skills. Several people mentioned this “holistic” character of Catholic education as part of what makes it special. But if students feel torn in two, Catholic education has failed them.

Fostering Faith and Identity

I asked the 17 people I interviewed for this article to describe how they hope Catholic schools can serve L.G.B.T. students. It can sometimes seem as though truly welcoming queer people and nourishing our faith requires compromising on orthodoxy, or as though teaching and preserving an orthodox Catholic faith requires compromising on welcome. I was surprised at how often my interviewees sounded a more hopeful note. Among Catholics with a wide range of relationships to the institutional church and varying levels of acceptance (or not) of church teaching on sexuality, broad areas of common ground emerged.

B.C.F. will work toward what many of the people I spoke to want. They want students to know that gay Catholics exist, both because these stories can illuminate our faith and because gay students should never feel that they have to choose between their faith and their identity. They want a focus on what one youth minister called (without my prompting her!) “vocation”: not a binary choice between marriage or religious vows, but a name for all the varied ways God might call someone to live with love. They want Catholic teaching to be presented without special condemnation for gay sins, and without any culture-war additions. Several people referred to the Catechism of the Catholic Church as the best source, whether or not they accepted Catholic teaching.

They want students to know that gay Catholics exist, both because these stories can illuminate our faith and because gay students should never feel that they have to choose between their faith and their identity.

The Catholics I spoke with want a church that is not afraid of questions—and not afraid to learn from gay cultures while guiding gay people to deeper flourishing. Ashton Weber, a student at Yale Divinity School gave an inspiring list of ways in which gay cultures and communities can reflect Christian wisdom. She finds an echo of the early church in the “chosen family” who form part of so many L.G.B.T. people’s lives, and who may offer love that one’s family of origin refused to give. In a church culture that often idolizes the nuclear family, the “chosen family” can remind us that many early saints found that their faith placed them in opposition to their parents’ expectations or demands. The caregiving provided by gay people during the AIDS epidemic made clear, she said, that “queer community [is] a radical refusal to dispose of anyone,” adding, “Regardless of your position on gay sex, there is a lot to learn” from queer communities about how to live in real community.

Some Catholics also want schools to re-examine their assumptions around gender difference and what lessons students might benefit from. Perhaps the most fascinating suggestion came from Will Kuehnle, a former teacher in Catholic schools. At a high school where he had taught, boys and girls went on separate retreats that both led up to a big, emotional talk. The boys’ talk is always about pornography, he said, and the girls’ talk is about Jesus as their soul’s greatest lover. Mr. Kuehnle described this to me and then mused, “It would be fascinating if we gave [the girls’] talk to the boys!” Yes, what if we introduced ordinary American high school boys to St. Bernard’s bridal mysticism?

For those who believe that Catholic sexual morality is repressive or unjust, highlighting it will always be suspect, even if chastity is presented as only one aspect of a flourishing queer life. Schools will always face a complex balancing act when it comes to presenting the importance of both following one’s individual conscience and forming it well. But what strikes me about this array of possible approaches, from telling queer Catholics’ stories to envisioning a wider range of vocations, is how few Catholic schools are doing any of them. There is so much common ground, and yet it is almost all unoccupied.

Moving Toward the Transcendent

Standing by my kitchen sink, Keith Wildenberg is rising to a ferverino: “[Gay kids’] testimonies were always [about] truth. About overcoming the falsity that every kid experiences. We were secretly experiencing falsity in ways that our peers weren’t, and that made our testimony to truth all the more effective. The falsity that everyone struggles with is that we are not loved. The truth we all come to know is that we are loved. The testimony is the truth that we are loved by Jesus Christ and”—he is speaking very deliberately now, and is very fierce—“that’s what counts.”

Mr. Wildenberg added: “Gay Catholics need to speak an anthropology of same-sex love and friendship that makes sense.… Thomas [Aquinas]’s project is, we start with the human passions. We start with love, with desire, with joy. All of these are pointed toward the transcendent, pointed toward truth, beauty, and goodness, and these are all pointed toward God, who equals love. That’s the starting point for evangelization. This is the natural law: that our desire to reach out to another human being is good, because it represents a desire for communion with Jesus Christ. What are the ways that the human heart warms to love of Jesus through love of another person? How do we talk about that without exploding?”

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