Pat sounded nervous the moment he got on the phone. His wife had picked up the receiver first and had called to him ominously, almost as if she had sniffed trouble brewing. When I announced that I wanted to talk about Dignity, the nation’s first gay church group which Pat had founded nine years ago in San Diego, I could almost hear squirming on his end of the line. "I kind of feel as if I’ve already done my.part to help the gay community,” the man blurted out. “That part of my life is behind me." He sounded distracted, as if we both could hear the distant rattle of homosexual skeletons, long silent, now stirring in his closet.
Pat had been an Augustinian priest back then, in those first green years of gay liberation, so long before the emergence of Anita Bryant and today’s frenzied, persistent debate over gays and God. I explained that I had heard sketchy accounts of how he had started this group, now the biggest of its kind in the world, a prototype which subsequently spawned more than a dozen Protestant and Jewish analogues. But I was having difficulty, I told him. envisioning how it had all begun here, in San Diego, which must have then been even more of a backwater of conservative masculinity.
Though anxious to hang up, he recounted his tale. He had been a psychologist then, he recalled, and had been running an art gallery, first in La Jolla and then in San Diego. Coincidence alone had brought him into contact with local Catholic gays. Deciding that they deserved some counseling attention, he had started a kind of rap group which had met “probably in my office on Fifth Avenue near the park.” Today the former priest (a heterosexual himself) doesn’t even remember how’ he conceived the name, Dignity, “except it seemed to me that that’s what gays needed a sense of in their lives.’’ After a year, he noticed that most participants at the monthly meetings were commuting from Los Angeles, so he moved the gatherings there for a year, until Timothy Manning, the Catholic cardinal of the city of angels, ordered the San Diego priest to leave. “And that was perfectly fine with me,” Pat hastens to say. With no regrets, he left the gay Catholics behind him, and in fact left the priesthood altogether. Now married, he lives up in Del Mar and maintains a flourishing practice as a psychologist.. “That’s why I’m a little queasy about having my name used,” he interjects. “Because I have a very conservative clientele, and I don’t know how they’d react to all this.”
But will he be able to dodge the specters of his past this coming year, when Dignity (now Dignity Inc., which has eighty-two chapters worldwide and about 8000 members) will come full circle in San Diego? Almost exactly one year from today, the group will hold its tenth anniversary convention here, and an estimated 1000 to 1500 gay Catholics will converge upon downtown, where they’ll listen to speakers like the gay Jesuit theologian John McNeill. At Dignity’s convention last year in Chicago, firebombs and police exploded along with the debates, but the local organizers calmly predict that San Diego will escape similar violence. They’re less sure about what kind of philosophical fury the gathering might ignite.
So much depends on Leo T. Maher, the shepherd of San Diego and Imperial counties’ Catholics, that it’s hard to believe that the local gay Catholics know so little about the man. Maher reigns over his flock from the sun-bleached Moorish-style diocesan headquarters which sits in the middle of the USD campus on the hill up from Linda Vista Road. He’s no stranger to religious controversy. He generated national headlines in the abortion issue a few years ago when he barred San Diego Catholics who belong to the National Organization of Women from receiving communion in any of the local churches. Yet when local gay Catholics speculate about Maher’s attitudes toward homosexuality, they sound like schoolchildren whispering rumors about their distant, mysterious principal. Some see him as a raging homophobe, while others assert that he’s basically sympathetic. Maher in turn has treated his homosexual sheep like innocuously truant students, easier to ignore than confront. Unlike several of his counterparts elsewhere in California, the bishop has steadfastly refused to meet with any of the Dignity members ever since Pat convened that first Fifth Avenue rap group. But the few letters which Maher has dispatched to local Dignity organizers have tersely stated the Catholic Church’s formal position: the practice of homosexuality under any conditions is a sin. And one of the first storm clouds on the horizon of the upcoming convention may have already appeared when one of the organizers recently asked Maher’s permission to use the local church buildings for the national gathering. The bishop’s secretary replied frostily in the negative.
It wasn’t the first time Dignity’s presence has provoked a chill wind from the j bishop’s office. When the gay group first began holding meetings at the Cardijn Center, a nucleus for local Catholic activism, the church bureaucracy conveyed the word that the Dignity gatherings should cease. Fr. Leo Davis, the feisty priest who runs Cardijn, replied that compliance with the diocese order would require a vote by the center’s board of directors. Davis says, “Of course the board of directors met and said, ‘No way.’ But I think what really got the diocese was when I told them, ‘You know if you really try to get tough I heard a couple of these fellows are thinking about posting the names of the gay priests in the diocese.’ I never heard a thing more!” He roars with laughter.
If Maher declined to make Davis into a martyr, the scent of persecution nonetheless touches the atmosphere at the Dignity Mass at the Cardijn Center, where the men and women regulars walk around the side of the tan stucco building and then descend the stairwell into a pallid basement room. The group assembles just about seven in the evening, when violet light from the dying day slants through the small, screened windows and gradually deepens into a chilly black. The faintest hint of subterranean dampness floats above the cold stone floor. This night, two men transform a long folding table at the front of the room into a temporary altar by draping a simple cloth over it; a hunk of pita bread, a heavy chalice, and two cruets of water and red wine rest on the top. The whole arrangement bears a furtive, temporary look as if the altar and indeed the entire gathering could disassemble in a warning blink. One woman later confides that the Cardijn Center Mass makes her feel like an early Christian, worshipping in this modem catacomb beneath Old Town.
This congregation, about ten women and a dozen or so men, sits in the folding chairs, and the worshippers range from an older, gray-haired matron wearing a “Consenting Adult’’ T-shirt to a pimply-faced adolescent male. Clues to the participants’ sexual orientation are sparse; a chunky, middle-aged man whose hairline is receding rests his arm on the shoulder of the smiling graying man beside him. In the next row, a short, intense-looking woman settles her hand on the blue-jeaned thigh of the woman sitting next to her. The religious ceremony unfolds exactly like hundreds of Catholic rituals across the city, except that when the priest calls for the routine “kiss of peace’’ (where members of the congregation greet each other) the gay Catholics explode into a chattering, surging throng. It seems like everyone makes a special effort to kiss and hug every other human in the room, as if the long-lost members of some once well-established encounter group had suddenly found themselves thrown together at a ten-year reunion.
At the Dignity “home Mass” two weeks later, the intimacy is even greater. Since so many priests vacation during the summer, the gay Catholics schedule summer services only twice a month, one at the Cardijn Center and one at some member’s home. This particular residence is a modest apartment on Arizona Street in North Park, and the young celebrant is a priest visiting from the Washington, D.C. area. Dressed in cream-colored slacks and a red plaid sport shirt, he possesses the rugged good looks of a Robert Redford, and he talks about the three complex roles he’s trying to juggle; ‘ living as a man, as a gay man, and as a Catholic priest.” Sitting in the candlelit living room, his only concession to the symbolic vestments of the ancient religion is to don the long stole, which looks like an oversized neck scarf; absentmindedly, he forgets to slip it on until after he starts to read the gospel. His sermon, however, is direct. “Persecution has always been the winnowing fire which purifies us. If we became accepted, maybe we’d lose the creative edge that we have now,” he says earnestly. Suddenly, he compares Catholicism to his mother. “You know, I really love my mother. She doesn’t know me real well. And I know she’d be freaked out by some aspects of my life. But I could never simply reject her . . . It’s like my relationship with the church. I have to live with her and she has to live with me.”
Indeed, the Catholic Church has lived with homosexuality for centuries, although throughout most of them the relationship has hardly been maternal. As early as twenty-five years after the death of Christ, St. Paul was telling the Christians in pagan Rome to avoid the perversity by which “men give up their natural intercourse with women and bum with lust for each other.” This antipathy grew from a pastoral attitude to a variety of heavy sanctions in the Middle Ages — from ex-communication to torture and burning at the stake (the latter practice supposedly produced the pejorative “faggot,” since a faggot was a measure of sticks bundled together for a fire). Church leaders justified much of this treatment by references to Holy Scripture (Genesis, Leviticus, and Paul) as well as to medieval theologians like Augustine and Thomas Aquinas who argued that homosexual acts were sins against nature.
Pro-gay theologians today attack the Bible’s anti-homosexual passages on several fronts, including the claim that some passages like the famous ones on Sodom and Gomorrah (in Genesis) were mistranslated and never referred to homosexuality at all. These theologians also argue that the passages in Paul and Leviticus are not to be taken literally.
Gay Catholics furthermore say that their church finally began to yield ground in its argument that sex was meant only for procreation back in 1951, when Pope Pius XII promoted the rhythm method of birth control. The gay defenders say that Pius’ action supported the position that sex within marriage could have another purpose: that of fostering mutual love and support. It opened the door, in the words of one writer “to apply the same reasoning to the question of homosexual love.”
If the door was opened, however, the leaders of the Catholic Church haven’t encouraged homosexuals to walk in. When the bureaucracy in Rome issued its most recent statement on sexual ethics in 1976, it did distinguish between two kinds of homosexuals — the transitory ones, whose tendency comes from a lack of normal sexual development, and the incurable homosexuals, whose sexual orientation stems from “innate instinct.” However, the statement virtually bristled at the notion that moral justification might be available for the acts of either. “Homosexual relations are acts which lack an essential and indispensable Finality . . . (They) are intrinsically disordered,” the Catholic leaders concluded, “and can in no case be approved of.”
One can find within the Catholic Church, however, every shade of opinion on the spectrum of the homosexual debate that one finds anywhere today in Christendom. Thus at one extreme, an East Coast priest and nun last year founded a national ministry for gays, a few Eastern bishops have appointed chaplains to the local Dignity groups, and one bishop even reportedly has ordered all his parish newspapers to publicize Dignity. At the other end of the spectrum, however, a Peoria bishop recently actively forbade any of his priests to say Dignity Masses. Gay Catholics also point with a shudder to chancery activities in places like Dade County, New York, and Wichita, where the local Catholic Church has openly lobbied against gay civil rights bills. In San Diego, if Bishop Maher hasn’t sauntered among the pro-gay fields of opinion, he also hasn’t led the charge across the opposing battlegrounds. The bishop hasn’t issued any statements about the Briggs Initiative, and if he won’t let Dignity use any diocesan churches, Maher also hasn’t forbidden his priests to say Mass for the gay Catholics, stating that individual Dignity members may not be sinful — if they’ve privately pledged to God to refrain from any more homosexual activity. Dignity nonetheless has avoided asking any local priest to become too exclusively involved with the group, instead rotating the regular Masses among about a dozen priests.
If Maher has maintained a low profile on the issue, however, one organ of his diocese has spoken, the diocesan newspaper, headed by Michael Newman. In addition to regularly attacking homosexuality on his editorial pages, Newman also has scrupulously barred announcement of any Dignity activities from The Southern Cross. “I wouldn’t print anything to promote them any more than I’d promote any organization that stands in contradiction to the teachings of the church,” he says crisply.
A dapper, bearded man whose voice still clearly reflects his British origins, the editor’s tone is scornful when he discusses the gay Catholic group. He finds the very name paradoxical, he says. “In my opinion there’s very little less dignified than homosexuality in practice — from sodomy to beating each other!” While Newman declines to speak as a theologian, he makes it clear that in his opinion most homosexuality is curable; most gays consciously choose their lifestyle, he believes. “I think we all go through a brief period, perhaps when in school, when we find ourselves tempted to practice homosexuality. But one doesn’t have to choose to give in to the temptation! This modern world is so filled with instant gratification that that's all everyone sees . . . The current generation says if it feels good it must be good. Well, that’s just not so,” he thunders. “After all, if you make punk rock your god, you’re in trouble.”
At the heart of the editor’s outrage is what he calls Dignity’s “promotion of the homosexual lifestyle.” If it weren’t for that, he could envision a role for gays in the church — “if they worked within the established framework.” But for the present, it is clear that he has no enthusiasm for those who “have the temerity to argue with the Church’s teaching.”
At the international Dignity headquarters on upper Sixth Avenue, Carla, the national secretary, clearly is a woman brimming with temerity. Slender and tanned, she starts like a nervous cat when I refer to Dignity as a separate Catholic organization. “We’re not a separate organization,” she lectures. “We’re an integral part of the Catholic Church. We’re no more separate than some Knights of Columbus chapter. ”
Carla was elected national secretary of the group last year in Chicago, at which time the national headquarters moved to San Diego. (The office follows the officer “and I happen to live in San Diego,” she explains flatly.) Next to her desk, multicolored pins punctuate a large map of the country; the secretary apologizes that there aren’t enough pins to mark all the chapters. But here she mails out communications to all of them, as well as to the church hierarchy nationwide. “1 was baptized a Catholic. I believe in the Roman Catholic Church. I will be a Catholic,” she says with grim determination. “It’s up to me to help change the Catholic Church.”
David Farrell, who now runs the San Diego branch of the Metropolitan Community Church which began ten years ago as a separate Christian sect specifically for gays, was also baptized a Catholic. Born into a strict Irish family in San Diego, Farrell even worked for Bishop Maher’s predecessor. Bishop Buddy, and took a few seminary classes while doing so. But he says he always knew he was gay, so he always saw the church’s teaching in black and white terms; thus he never really considered studying for the priesthood. “I just didn’t feel in good conscience that 1 could remain in a church that in effect excommunicated me because of my sexual orientation.”
Today he respects the people who remain in Dignity. “I’m glad that men and women are there to fight for gay rights,” he says. Yet he points out that the church which he left wasn’t the same one which exists today. “That was before we knew that protest within the church was possible ... It was before anybody dreamed that you could dissent and not be struck by lightning.”
But even if bolts from the heavens no longer strike down dissenting Catholics, why do the Dignity individuals continue to tolerate the personal rejection from within their spiritual home? Why do so when there are alternatives like the MCC, or even closer spiritually, the Eucharistic Catholic Church, a true splinter church which one group now is trying to establish in San Diego.
When I ask Carla, the local Dignity chapter president, why she doesn't leave, she fidgets silently for a moment. “I guess you feel guilty at the thought of leaving it,” she says. “Plus it’s the only church I’ve ever known.” Mike, her fellow officer, converted to the faith and he says it’s a matter of “Do you believe in the structures — in the externals? If you do, then this set of structures is what you need.” Carla, however, explains it more vividly. For a moment, her thick shell of reserve breaks, and she lets me see her struggle with the words. She says she sometimes thinks, “With Catholics, it’s like we have this thin gold string around our neck that keeps pulling us back.” Subconsciously, her hand moves to her throat and (he bond is almost visible. “And if we didn’t have it, maybe we might not come back. But we can’t break it, and so we always return.”
At the home Mass in North Park, the worshippers straggle in from the warm evening slowly, and the waiting men and women chat quietly to pass the time. One by one, the newcomers mention the newly named pope, John Paul.
“How do you think he’ll be?" someone asks.
“If he’s like Paul, I think we’re not going to be able to expect much,” replies another. The gay visiting priest cautions that the last two popes surprised the world once they got in office. “Power did strange things to both of them,” he remarks.
Across the room, a balding man in working clothes named Bud asserts that the only hope for the church is for the new pope to allow heterosexual priests to marry, and the room explodes in discussion. One silent young man comments that even the most conservative theologians have no argument against priests marrying, while the priest interjects that fifty percent of the priests in the Washington area are now gay, as well as thirty-five or forty out of the fifty seminarians around the capital.
Bud adds, “Celibacy is the reason why so many priests left in droves ... Do you realize that now the San Diego diocese is only ordaining about seven a year? I don’t see what’s going to happen in the future. ”
For a moment, everyone is silent, thinking not at all about the gay issue, but only of the lost and estranged Catholics, and I think of something else which Carla said earlier. “Everyone else is leaving the church,” she had exclaimed in exasperation. “But here we are in Dignity, pounding on the doors to get in.” For a moment, the paradox seems overwhelming. Then shortly, the liturgy begins. For a moment, there’s no earthly way to tell whether the worshippers are gay, but I can almost see the gold chains gleaming in the candlelight.