DIGNITY'S CHALLENGE : Can Homosexuals Feel at Home in Catholicism?

Article excerpt

On any given Sunday in Washington, D.C., a group of Catholic exiles gathers. Because they have openly disavowed the church's teachings on homosexuality, they are not allowed to convene for Mass on church property. So the members of Dignity gather apart, at Saint Margaret's Episcopal Church in Washington's gay-friendly Dupont Circle neighborhood. Some come in pairs. Some are alone. Most, by far, are men, and most are white. Most, but not all, are gay. Some are friends or relatives of homosexuals.

The parishioners list numerous reasons for their attendance. Some view Dignity as a social gathering place, where like-minded homosexuals can meet. Others view it as purely spiritual. It's a place where gay Catholics can reconcile their faith and their sexuality, they say. And many see Dignity, at least partly, as a political organization. Their goal is to persuade Vatican authorities to change the church's official teachings on homosexuality and to work with local, state, and federal governments on gay-rights issues.

To many Americans, the idea of a religious homosexual is an oxymoron. God and gays don't mix, they say. That perception has led many gay people to abandon religion, according to former Dignity president Robert Miailovich. But, he explains, Dignity members have held onto their Catholic identity. "We're Catholics because we say we're Catholics and we're not going to let anybody define us out. We define ourselves in," says Miailovich, sixty-one, a Dignity member for twenty-two years and a retired federal government employee.

Still, as Dignity enters its fourth decade as an alternative ministry for gay Catholics, the group's commitment to Catholicism is facing renewed strains. On matters of politics and sexuality, the group finds itself more at odds than ever before with mainstream Catholicism. At the same time, Dignity has struggled to bring in a new generation of gay Catholics. Its congregations are graying, and becoming more male-dominated. Lesbians, upset with the church for what they see as sexist as well as heterosexist policies, have abandoned the group in droves and joined more lesbian-friendly denominations or ceased to worship altogether.

Founded in 1969 by gay Catholics in Los Angeles, Dignity was an officially recognized church group until 1986. To that point, Dignity had never openly questioned church teaching. But in 1986, the Vatican issued a "Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons" and ordered dioceses to withdraw all support from groups like Dignity. The next year, Dignity countered with its own statement challenging the church's position. It argued that gay people can practice their sexuality in accordance with Christ's teachings. Dignity was then barred from church facilities in most dioceses. The church continues to hold that homosexuals do not choose their condition, but argues nonetheless that homosexual sex is sinful and that gays and lesbians should seek to lead chaste lives.

At its seventy-five chapters around the country, Dignity counts thousands of members unwilling to accept the church's view. Many chapters have opened lines of communication with diocesan officials in an effort to find common ground but, in many ways, the rifts have only grown deeper. Dignity has issued statements assailing the church's failure to ordain women and to approve the use of birth control. Some of its members have vocally criticized the church's opposition to abortion and the canonical regulation on priestly celibacy, although the organization takes no official position on either issue. And many Dignity chapters have rewritten sections of the Mass to eliminate what members view as sexist rhetoric. Dignity members were outraged a year ago when the Vatican ordered Father Robert Nugent and Sister Jeannine Gramick to cease their ministry to gay Catholics because it allegedly strayed too far from Catholic doctrine. Nugent and Gramick were the founders of the Maryland-based New Ways Ministry. …