Can You Be Gay and Serve Within the Catholic Church?

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Curious about the relationship between homosexuality and the Catholic Church?  Take a look at this forty minute YouTube clip, “The Third Way,” from Blackstone Films to hear the reflections of real-life people who are both gay and Catholic.

A few weeks back, a petition was circulating social media sites regarding the firing of a theology teacher who had become engaged to her same-sex partner.  Naturally, countless people, both Catholics and non-Catholics, gladly signed the petition by which the teacher in question, Mary Kate Curry, asks “why the Diocese is willing to hurt student-athletes in what appears to be a punitive decision for which they refuse to name for what it is.”  She does not wish to be re-instated as a theology teacher, but is requesting that the Archdiocese of Orlando, the diocese in which Father Lopez Catholic High School is located, admit what she feels is the obvious truth: she was fired because she was gay.  She wants the archdiocese to reconsider their protocol for hiring and maintaining their employees and volunteers.  In some ways, I believe she’s right.

It’s unclear from the article just how Curry came to find herself unemployed.  In the space of just one paragraph, she suggests that she was fired and that she had chosen to resign from teaching.  I suspect that the reality is somewhere in between: when her engagement went public, she was probably summoned to discuss the situation in private, where she was given the option of resigning rather than being fired.  Resigning looks much better on one’s resume, and the unwilling termination of one’s employment rarely bodes well for future job openings.  In addition, she was asked to step down as assistant basketball coach, even after she offered to volunteer for the position (she had previously been paid).  The archdiocese’s explanation?  It is not permissible for volunteers to serve in the same position for which they had previously been employed.

Now I’m just going to say it.  I think that explanation is a joke, and I suspect that the archdiocese made it up as a convenient reason to deny Curry her request.  As Ms. Curry explains, there was no precedent for this rule, and it seemed as if it was brand-new.  I have definitely known employees who have been let go because of financial issues and have agreed to stay on as volunteers, either temporarily or permanently, in their same positions.  I suspect that this was just a weak excuse because the Archdiocese of Orlando was afraid to admit the truth.

But the truth is not that Mary Kate Curry was fired because of her sexual orientation, as she seems to suggest.  I happen to know for a fact that the Catholic Church can and does permit homosexual men and women to work and volunteer in numerous positions.  I even know young people who volunteer within the Church who speak openly about their same-sex attraction.  Even better, I know people who are actually paid to do just that, such as the LifeTeen blogger Steve Gershom and the author Eve Tushnet.  Does that sound like the Catholic Church you know?  Does that sound like a church that hates gays?

Many people might assume that I made that up.  Many people will just jump to the conclusion that it’s not possible.  The Catholic Church could never let gays and lesbians work and volunteer in her programs.  But here’s the truth- she does.

But the men and women that I know might not be like the ones that you know.  The men and women that I know are not fighting for gay marriage.  They are not in committed same-sex relationships.  They’re not in any sort of romantic relationship.  The men and women that I know are teachers, youth ministers, charismatic speakers, and missionaries.  They are brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, cousins and friends.  They are all of these things, and they are gay.  They are gay and Catholic, and they do not live in fear that they will be discovered and fired for their same-sex attraction.  They do not have to fear the way that Mary Kate Curry did.

When Mary Kate Curry was fired, she was not fired because she was gay.  She was fired because she had become publicly engaged to her same-sex partner.  She was fired because she was going to get married.  She wasn’t fired for who she is; she was fired for what she was doing.

I think the Archdiocese did what they needed to do.  The Church needed to remain faithful to her teachings, something that Mary Kate Curry was not doing.  Unfortunately, I suspect that there were some mistakes made along the way that led to the ultimate resignation/firing of Mary Kate Curry.  Ms. Curry might not have been asked to sign a contract that outlined in great detail the expectations that came with the position.  If she did, her school might have chosen to remain silent, preferring to operate according to the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, when it became apparent that Ms. Curry was in a homosexual relationship.  They might have chosen to look the other way until it became obvious that they could not take that approach any longer without appearing absolutely blind.  Stuck, they responded in the only way that they could: they asked her to resign from her position rather than accusing her of breaking a contract that they had known she had been breaking all along.

So let’s set a few things straight.  Ultimately, Mary Kate Curry was not fired for being gay.  She was fired for being in a homosexual relationship.  There is a difference.  Many people might claim that they are the same thing, but I can assure you that there are gay men and women who are not in a homosexual relationship.  There are also gay men and women who do not want to be in a homosexual relationship.  And these men and women would not be fired from their positions within the Catholic Church.  Well, they could be, but it wouldn’t have anything to do with their being gay.  It would be because they stole money from the parish treasury, or lied on their tax forms, or harassed a fellow employee.  They would be doing the general sorts of things that typically will get you fired.  But they wouldn’t be fired because they were gay.

Mary Kate Curry was fired because she made her engagement to her same-sex partner public.  Honestly, I’d be a little surprised if she didn’t think that there would be repercussions when she dropped that bomb on her principal.  As her school administrators admitted, “We all knew she was gay; all she had to do was be quiet.”  Of course, that statement perpetuates the problem.  She needed to be quiet about being in a same-sex relationship; speakers like Eve Tushnet and bloggers like Steve Gershom do not need to be quiet about being gay.  Since they regularly are paid to talk and write about their experiences of being gay and Catholic, it would be particularly odd if they were told that they had to remain quiet about their being gay.  No, Mary Kate Curry had to be quiet about the fact that she was in a same-sex relationship.  It was her public engagement that ultimately got her in trouble.

So the first question: Can the Catholic Church fire a person for being in a homosexual relationship?  Most likely, Ms. Curry got in trouble because she broke her contract.  If the Archdiocese of Orlando is anything like the Archdiocese of Washington, when she was hired, she signed a contract that contained a clause regarding her behavior.  When I was hired to work in both of my most recent parishes, I agreed to live in a manner that is befitting a member of the Catholic Church.  And as a Catholic, I totally get that.

A quick word on non-Catholics working in and for the Catholic Church.  You do not need to be Catholic to work for the Church.  My parish’s amazing maintenance man is not Catholic.  One of the receptionists at our inter-parochial school is not Catholic.  My favorite high school science teacher was a non-practicing Anglican, and my favorite history teacher in college was openly agnostic.  Clearly, you don’t have to be Catholic to work in a Catholic setting, but you are expected to live a certain way.  A non-Catholic nurse working at a Catholic hospital, for instance, could not volunteer at an abortion clinic on the weekends.  Such an action violates one of the inviolable truths held by the Catholic Church- that the unborn child is a human person with rights, and even a non-Catholic employee cannot act against this principle and hope to keep his or her job.

But Mary Kate is Catholic, so the teachings of the Catholic Church hold stronger sway over her.  No, she cannot volunteer at an abortion clinic on the weekends.  But as a Catholic, more is expected of her.  She is expected to go to Mass every Sunday and on Holy Days of Obligation.  She is expected to live chastely.  And as a young woman who experiences same-sex attraction, she is expected to avoid engaging in homosexual relationships.  These expectations should have been outlined in her contract, and if they were, then yes, the Archdiocese of Orlando had every right to terminate her when they discovered that she had broken her contract.  They might have muddled it up when they chose not to act as soon as her same-sex relationship was recognized, but after such a public announcement, of course the archdiocese was going to respond.  It was a blatant breach of contract, and when you break your contract, you run the very real risk of getting fired.

But should Mary Kate Curry have been fired?  Or put another way, is it right for the Catholic Church to have such high expectations for their employees?  Ultimately, I think the answer is yes.  Ms. Curry was not fired for being gay; she was fired for engaging in a same-sex relationship, which is contrary to the teachings of the Church.  This was not a case of discrimination by sexual orientation, as Curry claimed.  Her termination only had to do with her sexual orientation insofar as typically, only those with same-sex attraction will be led to engage in same-sex relationships.  Mary Kate Curry was fired because she chose not to live in a manner befitting a member of the Roman Catholic Church.  Mary Kate Curry was fired because she chose to act against chastity.

The Catholic Church doesn’t hate gays, but asks that everyone, and I mean everyone, live chastely.  For single people, that means abstaining from sex.  For priests and religious, it generally means the same (with the exception of those few married priests in the Church).  For a married person, it means being faithful to his or her spouse.  The Church also teaches that marriage can only occur between one man and one woman, and that sex is for the dual purpose of union and procreation.  Marriage is God-given, and as such, we cannot change it.  As a result, the Church will never recognize the union between two men or two women, and consequently, any sexual activity that occurs between two men or two women will be considered to have happened outside the bond of Matrimony.  This renders it unchaste.

And this is where the situation at Father Lopez Catholic High School gets foggy.  I teach middle and high school students on a regular basis, and somehow, my students often end up asking about sex.  We could be talking about the Trinity, and suddenly, a hand is in the air and a student is asking me why priests can’t have children.  We could be talking about the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and I can have someone ask me why Abraham was allowed to sleep with his wife’s servant.  We could be talking about the Eucharist, and a student might ask me why the Church doesn’t recognize the unions between gays and lesbians.  My Confirmation curriculum has very little to do with sex or marriage, but my students are curious and they want answers.  And I’m sure that Ms. Curry’s students were just as curious.

And so I am left wondering, what did Mary Kate Curry say when her students asked her this question?  She was a high school theology teacher, so I’m sure the topic came up.  Did she shy away from Church teaching because she didn’t want to admit that she herself wasn’t following it?  Or did she teach the lessons as they were outlined in her textbook, banking on the fact that her students did not know about her personal life and therefore didn’t suspect that she might be a hypocrite, saying one thing but doing another?  Father Lopez Catholic High School was paying her to teach a pre-approved curriculum, which might have included a lesson on sexual morality.  Even if the question of gay marriage was not explicitly meant to be covered in any of her particular courses, what did she do when a student inevitably asked about it?

When I was hired to serve as my parish’s Director of Religious Education, I agreed to certain expectations.  I understood that I had to behave in a certain manner when I accepted the position that I had been offered.  Mary Kate would have been asked to agree to the same expectations when she accepted her job offer.  I also have the same expectations for my catechists.  These are unpaid volunteers, but they understand that they must also meet the same expectations that I do.  Why?  Because we are teaching the same material.  We cannot teach one thing, and then do another.  And if we shy away from certain topics because they make us uncomfortable, we do not do the faith justice, nor do we give our students the education that they deserve.

My catechists come from all different backgrounds.  Some of them are cradle-Catholics who have always loved the faith; others are converts.  Some are ultra-conservative, while others would probably consider themselves to be more moderate overall (though our culture would probably still label them as conservative).  Some have lived a fairly simple life- they fell in love, got married, had children, and remain with the same man years later.  Others are currently working through the annulment process as they work to get their current unions recognized and blessed by the Catholic Church.  None of my catechists are perfect (and neither am I), but they are all working towards perfection using the guidelines provided so graciously by the Catholic Church.

Mary Kate Curry is not perfect, and Father Lopez Catholic High School and the Archdiocese of Washington never expected her to be.  But they did expect her to be working to overcome her imperfections as she strove to attain sainthood.  You can be gay and be saintly.  We don’t have a gay saint yet, but it’s not impossible.  Experiencing same-sex attraction is not sinful.  It is disordered, but it is not sinful.  It is outside of our control.

Whether we are born gay or straight, or our experiences in life guide us towards one orientation or the other, it is ultimately not something that we choose, and we cannot sin where there is no free will.  We sin when we choose to sin.  Being gay is not sinful, but acting on it is.  Mary Kate Curry was not asked to resign because she was gay.  She could have been chaste and gay, and her voice could have offered a very beautiful witness and hope to those teenagers who are currently struggling with same-sex attraction.  She could have been chaste and gay, but she wasn’t.  She chose to act on her inclinations.  She chose to enter into homosexual relationship.  These choices led to her ultimate dismissal.

So yes, you can be gay and serve within the Church.  It might be difficult at times, but being Catholic was never meant to be easy.  It was meant to challenge us.  It was meant to lead us to strive for perfection, for sanctity.  Being gay does not make it impossible to become a saint; it just means that the road will be difficult and the temptations will be real.  But the road to sanctity is often difficult, and the temptations faced along the way are always real.  Sanctity demands that we trust God, and that we trust the Church that He has given us.  We must trust that she is the mother that always knows what is best for her children.  It might be very difficult to do at times, especially when our emotions and our desires lead us in a different direction, but we must trust that the Church knows what she is talking about, that she is the “expert in humanity” that Pope Saint John Paul II claimed she was.

As the blogger Steve Gershom wrote in a recent post, “Yes, it’s hard to be gay and Catholic- it’s hard to be anything and Catholic- because I don’t always get to do what I want.  Show me a religion where you always get to do what you want, and I’ll show you a pretty shabby, lazy religion.  Something not worth living or dying for, or even getting up in the morning for…Would I trade in my Catholicism for a worldview where I get to marry a man?  Would I trade in the Eucharist and the Mass and the rest of it?  Being a Catholic means believing in a God who literally waits in the chapel for me, hoping I’ll stop by for just ten minutes so He can pour out love and healing on my heart.  Which is worth more- all this, or getting to have sex with who I want?  I wish everybody, gay or straight, had as beautiful a life as I have.”

Mary Help of Christians, pray for us!

 

 

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