When Matthew Putorti, 27, came out of the closet six years ago, questions about how his faith would co-exist with his sexuality were at the forefront of this mind.
“I had a lot to reconcile,” says Putorti, who, as a Roman Catholic was well aware of the church’s strong stand against same-sex relationships. “At the end of the day, I identify with the underlying concept of Catholicism, which is respect for humanity.”
While at Fordham Law School, Putori connected with the members of Out at St. Paul’s, a gay and lesbian ministry at the Church of St. Paul the Apostle in New York, which just across the street from his school. He says the organization has helped him and other members deepen their spirituality while allowing for open discussion about their sexuality and issues that affect the LGBT community.
“What this organization does is show that you can be gay and be Catholic,” he says.
While the Roman Catholic Church has traditionally condemned homosexual behavior, and staunchly opposes same-sex marriage, a growing number of churches like St. Paul’s have been embracing gay members. St Augustine Catholic Church in Brooklyn, N.Y., increased membership in it’s Gay and Lesbian ministry from 15 to 35 because of their booth at the city’s annual Gay Pride festival and according to Kevin Cooper, coordinator of the Gay and Lesbian Ministry, the church has also baptized six children who are being raised Catholic by same sex parents. The Catholic Church of St. Francis Xavier in New York has an email membership listing of close to 300 in their Catholic Lesbians ministry who participate fully in the church, according to Stephanie Samoy, one of the group’s leaders. Some members are even Eucharistic ministers and lecters, who read Scripture during church services.
The issue of practicing sexuality is one that many gay Christians confront in relation to church doctrine. The Catholic Church’s teaching is that sex between a married man and woman is the fullest expression of what sexuality is, according to the Rev. Gilbert Martinez, the parish priest at St. Paul’’s who oversees the LGBT ministry. But Martinez says at his church, they still try to “work with people.”
“We ask them to pray, get in touch with a priest or a nun and truly get an understanding of church teaching,” he says “If one has an understanding of church teaching, but understands him or herself to be constitutionally gay, and they are willing to commit their lives to someone,” even of the same sex, “then it will be an appropriate relationship according to their conscience.”
Many of these church groups used the Lenten season leading up to Easter as a way to reach out to members of the church. Some Catholic gay ministries have held special retreats and programs, including a version of the Stations of the Cross used at St. Matthews Catholic Church in Long Beach, Calif., which links certain events along Jesus’ journey to crucifixion — such as the first time Jesus fell while holding the cross — with the trials members of this community face. This became a metaphor for the first time gay members were teased and mocked because of their sexuality.
“It’s people who have a Catholic identity, and this is how they are used to praying,” says Arthur Fitzmorris, 31, the Los Angeles representative on the board of the Catholic Association of Gay and Lesbian Ministry, an independent organization that works with about a dozen churches in Los Angeles County and wrote the script for the special Stations of the Cross.
While a spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of New York says that it has no official position on these groups, its Los Angeles counterpart lists a mission statement on its website that says “all persons with a homosexual orientation are capable of living a full Catholic life in union with all the members of the Church.” The LA archdiocese also has resources on its website that include official prayers for gay ministries and names of outreach groups.
Church members themselves are divided over the issue of homosexuality, according to a 2011 survey by the Public Religion Research Institute, a nonprofit research organization focusing in religion, values and public policy. The survey’s findings indicate that the majority of Catholics, 52 percent, favor gay marriage.
Other denominations, including the Episcopal Church and some Baptist churches, have ordained gay bishops and ministers who have same-sex partners.
“We take the Bible too seriously to take it literally,” says the Rev. Susan Russell, parish priest at All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, Calif., and chair of programs for the gay and lesbian community.
She says using the age-old argument against homosexuality taken from the book of Leviticus in the Old Testament is “ridiculous.”
“To take a text which is an ancient purity code and try to literally apply it to a same-sex relationship in the 21st century, is like taking a text from the Bible which says the sun revolves around the earth,” she says. “The Bible is not a textbook on homosexuality any more than it is a textbook for astronomy.”
Despite the fact that many churches have become more embracing, some members of the LGBT community still have difficulty finding a place within the church.
Jill Barriero, 48, an executive assistant in New York, grew up Catholic, but she now prefers what she calls the spirit-filled services at the more conservative Baptist churches. Many in this denomination are not accepting of gays, however, as she learned when she came out to her former pastor who said, “I love you, but I’m going to tell you what the Bible says,” as a way to discourage her from practicing her sexuality.
“I don’t feel condemned by God,” says Barriero, who says she is bisexual. “But there’s conflict in what we’re feeling and what we’re being taught. I just want to find a church that can be home. I want to wake up to my partner and say, ‘Let’s go to church, and we do, and always will.’”