Church life complex for LI's gay Catholics

Nicholas Coppola, right, stands with spouse David Crespo,

Nicholas Coppola, right, stands with spouse David Crespo, left, after attending service at St. Anthony's Church in Oceanside. (April 7, 2013) (Credit: Steve Pfost)

Kathy and her partner, devoted Roman Catholics who are gay, feel welcome in their Suffolk County parish.

But when the time came to baptize their children, they chose to have a private ceremony rather than stand with straight parents in a group baptism at Sunday Mass.

Acceptance, they have decided, means keeping a low profile. The couple don't hide their sexual orientation, but they don't flaunt it either.

"We're not there to create a ruckus or fly a banner or force anything down anyone's throat," said Kathy, who did not want her last name, her partner's first name or that of her parish published for fear of a backlash from the church hierarchy. "The whole community at large really welcomed our family."

 

Unspoken boundaries

For gay and lesbian Catholics on Long Island, home of the nation's fifth-largest diocese, participation in a church that considers homosexual activity, in the Vatican's words, "intrinsically disordered" and "immoral," is fraught with complexities. Some, like Kathy, feel a general sense of acceptance, but within unspoken boundaries. Others are so alienated they won't go inside a Catholic church.

Their predicament was underscored when a parishioner in Oceanside, Nicholas Coppola, 47, was ousted in January from his volunteer duties as eucharistic minister, religion teacher and visitor for the homebound sick at St. Anthony's parish after he married his longtime partner.

The Rev. Nicholas Lombardi, St. Anthony's pastor, removed Coppola after the Diocese of Rockville Centre told him it had received an anonymous letter stating Coppola was gay and married.

The case is indicative of tensions in a church that opposes same-sex marriage but also wants to reach out to gays and lesbians. Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York said March 31 on ABC News' "This Week" that the church has "got to do better to see that our defense of marriage is not reduced to an attack on gay people."

"And I admit, we haven't been too good at that," Dolan said. "We try our darnedest to make sure we're not an anti-anybody."

The Diocese of Rockville Centre did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops contends the church in general is open to gays and lesbians, but it cannot abandon its teachings.

"Everyone is welcome in the Catholic Church; orientation is not a disqualifier," said Sister Mary Ann Walsh, a spokeswoman. "I know there are many gay Catholics who are in the church and looking to the church to provide sustenance for them."

Walsh said parishes commonly baptize the children of same-sex couples. "We don't withhold the sacraments from innocent people, and there's nobody more innocent than a child," she said.

Still, if a Catholic in public ministry such as Coppola assumes a public stance that violates church teachings, including marrying someone of the same sex, "then that creates a problem," she said.

Almost all religions have struggled with homosexuality, said the Rev. Thomas Goodhue, executive director of the Long Island Council of Churches. "This is a difficult, divisive issue," he said.

A convention of Goodhue's own church, the United Methodists, voted 61 percent to 39 percent this month against changing its policy that homosexuality is "incompatible with Christian teaching."

The spectrum ranges from denominations such as Unitarian Universalists and Episcopalians who ordain openly gay ministers to Southern Baptists and many Orthodox Jews who say the Bible condemns homosexuality as sin.

 

Shift in views suggested

A recent Pew Research Center poll found 48 percent of Americans favor same-sex marriage and 43 percent are opposed. Roman Catholics -- the leading faith on Long Island -- supported it 53 percent to 38 percent. Ten years ago, a Pew poll showed majorities in both categories opposed same-sex marriage.

"There's been a great shift in the last couple of decades and particularly in the last two to three years," said Jeannine Gramick, a nun with the Sisters of Loretto order, who founded the Maryland-based New Ways Ministry to seek acceptance for gays and lesbians in the church. "More and more gay Catholics are beginning to realize that non-gay Catholics in the pew are supportive," Gramick said.

She and other advocates said the church hierarchy is not keeping up. Gay and lesbian Catholics are "leaving the church in droves," Gramick said. "It's heartbreaking."

Mary Kane, 50, head of the Suffolk chapter of Dignity, a national gay Catholic advocacy group, said it is hit or miss for gays and lesbians seeking a friendly parish on Long Island.

"There are very welcoming parishes, and there are some parishes where gay and lesbian couples don't feel welcome or don't go back," she said.

Many parishes seem to operate on a "don't ask, don't tell basis," Kane said. "A lot of it depends on the priest."

The level of welcome and support also can vary from diocese to diocese, said Dignity's national leader, Marianne Duddy-Burke.

In Manhattan, some parishes such as the Church of St. Francis Xavier on West 16th Street and the Church of the Ascension on the Upper West Side run support groups for gays and lesbians. Stephen Pope, a theologian at Boston College, said important bishops, including retired Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, D.C., have endorsed civil unions.

The new pope, Francis, upheld church teachings on homosexuality when he was archbishop of Buenos Aires. But he also supported civil unions in a pragmatic attempt at political compromise during a failed effort to stop legalization of gay marriage in Argentina.

Parish priests who may want to be inclusive, yet must abide by official church teachings, are caught in a dilemma.

"The church -- the public face -- is saying we want the church to be more welcoming to people who are gay," said the Rev. William Brisotti, pastor of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal Roman Catholic Church in Wyandanch and a social activist. The difficulty is that, "On the other hand there is still a fundamental nonacceptance of the way of life" by the church hierarchy.

"It's a very difficult situation for gay people to be in the church," he added.

 

Feeling empty, ashamed

Jamie Manson, of Long Beach, still feels excluded. She attended Holy Trinity High School in Hicksville -- a "wonderful experience" -- majored in theology at St. John's University, and received a master's degree in Catholic theology and ethics at Yale Divinity School.

Yet as a lesbian she feels so alienated from the Catholic Church she rarely steps inside one, except for weddings and funerals. "It's so empty having nowhere to go -- you feel like you are spiritually homeless," said Manson, 36.

A freelance journalist who writes a column for The National Catholic Reporter, an independent weekly, Manson said she has seen literature in the back of some Catholic churches condemning same-sex marriage.

When she visits some parishes said to be more open to homosexuals, she senses that if there is any acceptance, it is "very under the radar."

"That creates shame for me," she said. "Who needs that?"

Tom Whitney, 35, a gay man, said he tries to find a middle ground between himself, his family and the church. He now attends Mass with his family only on special occasions such as Christmas, Easter, weddings and christenings, mainly to make them happy.

"I don't feel very welcomed within the church," said Whitney, of Westbury. "I do go there to support my family and I do have a core belief in that religion."

Straight parishioners differ on whether the church should change its stance.

Dennis McCarthy, a longtime lay leader at Our Lady of the Snow parish in Blue Point, said the church has fallen behind the times. Until the church accepts gays and lesbians and adopts "a different attitude toward the role of women in the church," such as allowing them to be deacons and eventually priests, "I think they're generally going to have a problem going forward," he said.

Gays should hold ministerial positions and be allowed "participation in any way" in parish life, McCarthy said.

In contrast, John Picciano, a Catholic lawyer from Westbury, wants the church to be "as open-armed as possible" -- but says it should not ignore its basic teachings. "You can't jettison or abandon 2,000 years of theology, which the church believes is divinely inspired," he said.

"Generally, when conservatives don't like the rules of a particular private organization, they simply don't join it," he added. "When liberals don't like the rules, they scream and stamp their feet."

Kathy, the woman from Suffolk, said she and her partner, who have a civil union, tried other denominations in search of acceptance, but "We had to come back to the Catholic Church because that is very ingrained in our soul."

It is "sad" that they have to stay under the radar, "but I'm a realist," she said.

"We know there are people who may not agree with our lifestyle," Kathy said. "We just feel like no one can take our relationship with our God away."

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