The trend of LGBT individuals exiting the Catholic churches of childhood is now expanding to include their parents, too. Many clergy and ministers try to balance pastoral care with doctrinal statements, and some Catholic parents of LGBT children are finding the results inadequate. WBEZ, a Chicago public radio station, profiled several Catholic couples with children of varying sexual orientations and gender identities to understand further the parents’ relationship with the Church.
Mary Jo and Norm Bowers, Catholic parents with a lesbian daughter
Toni and Tom Weaver explain how combining their love for their gay son with their strong Catholic identities is an evolving process. Toni describes herself as an active member of her parish in the music ministries and through daily Mass attendance. Their son, Michael came out the day after graduating college, and Toni believes her warm embrace in that moment would not always have been true. WBEZ reports:
“’If he had come out to me 10 years earlier, I’m not sure what my response would have been,’ Toni said. ‘I was definitely very traditionally Catholic and had even been moving in Evangelical circles. I was the first one to preach that homosexuality was wrong.’
“But Weaver said she came to a fuller understanding of homosexuality when she began studying for a master’s degree in theology:
“’Here were people who were gay who were being treated atrociously, and they were being denied their basic rights, and they were the butt of jokes…It finally dawned on me that people don’t choose their sexual orientation. That for me was an absolute turning point, and I attribute it to the work of the spirit.’”
The Weavers welcome their gay son, and then sought to alter the attitudes of Catholics around them, but were harmed when a bishop’s letter condemning marriage equality was read during Mass. This episode triggered the Weavers to permanently leave their Catholic parish:
“’I think that was the first time I felt slapped in the face by my church…I stood up, we were sitting in the middle of the pew. I stood up, and I turned toward the door and walked out. I grieved the church for 18 months. I grieved it. Something had died in my life.’”
Other parents remain split on how to engage Catholic communities, like Norm and Mary Jo Bowers who have a married lesbian daughter with two children baptized in the Church. Mary Jo left the Church, but her husband remains with a highly localized perspective:
“’I’ve told my pastor, I said, ‘To me my whole religion is this parish. It stays within the confines of this parish…I have nothing anymore to do with the hierarchy and what comes out of Rome’…
“Norm Bowers said he was offended by that and by a column in a Catholic paper. A priest wrote that children raised by gay couples might grow up ‘confused.’
“’I said to myself, which Catholic who has a brain isn’t confused in the Catholic church today?’”
Parents who remain, like Norm Bowers, find the positives in their local parishes and maintain hope that, under a new pope, perhaps the tone will change to something more pastorally-inclined. They also benefit from supportive clergy, like Fr. Bill Tkachuk of St. Nicholas Parish in Evanston, Illinois who compliments parishioner’s efforts to create an LGBT-affirming Catholic community:
“[Fr. Tkachuk] said the church needs to be more sensitive to families in the way it talks about gays and gay issues: ‘Speaking in the language that people can hear with their hearts and accept with their hearts, as opposed to a more academic language that can be received as very hurtful, even if it’s not intended that way.’
“His parishioners recently wrote to Cardinal Francis George of Chicago. They objected to a letter in which the cardinal called civil unions a ‘legal fiction,’ and gay marriage ‘contrary to the common sense of the human race.’”
Barbara Marian and her husband now commute over an hour to St. Nicholas each week after having too many negative experiences in her local parish. Barbara has a lesbian daughter, along with three nieces and a nephew who identify as LGBT and sees no plausible way to leave the Catholic Church:
“’We live with love for these neighbors, colleagues and children and we see them as whole persons,’ Marian said. ‘We don’t focus on the small part of their lives that involves their genitalia.’…
“‘I am Catholic through and through and through,’ Marian said. ‘There is no separating me from the church. Although it brings me to my knees with anger and tears when the bishops make a statement and strafe my community, I bleed.’”
As growing numbers of Catholics and parishes support LGBT equality, and as more children feel safe coming out to their families, anti-gay efforts by Catholic bishops will continue affecting long-term parishioners who refuse to remain or stay silent when they watch their children come under attack.
A good resource for Catholic parents of all sorts–those who are struggling with accepting a child’s orientation, those who are struggling with church structures, those who want to become more involved with equality issues–is Fortunate Families, a national network of Catholic parents of LGBT sons and daughters.
–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry