Raised/razed Catholic

I have been both raised (brought up) Catholic and razed (torn down) Catholic.

As a gay person living in a city with a large, enlightened Catholic population and a tone-deaf, conservative hierarchy, I suspect there are others torn between these two spiritual poles, especially now.

Philadelphia is currently in a vortex of Catholic activity and notoriety. We are about to host the September World Meeting of Families, the highlight of which will be the visit of Pope Francis.

Then, there is the recent controversy over the firing of a popular, well-respected lesbian teacher from her position as at a local Catholic school, supposedly at the behest of the school’s administration, but clearly with the encouragement of the local church authorities. Now we’ve learned that a World Meeting session on gender identity, sponsored by New Ways Ministry, has been kicked out of the gathering space it had been promised in a local Catholic church, for fear of providing “a platform … for people to lobby for positions contrary to the life of the church,” according to Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput.

Organizers of the World Meeting of Families (meaning, I guess, families recognized and approved by the Catholic Church) apparently do not want competition for their official presentation on LGBT issues to be given by a group called Courage, a group that promotes itself as a “pro-chastity ministry,” and which peddles a church-sanctioned version of the discredited “ex-gay” or “reparative” therapy, now legally banned for youth in New Jersey, California, Oregon and Washington, D.C.

Courage? I’d like to think this is an ironic wink at the cowardly character in a movie so well-loved by Dorothy’s friends, “The Wizard of Oz.” If they “only had the nerve,” instead of hiding behind discredited science, they’d pull down the curtain and reveal who’s behind it manipulating all the smoke and mirrors.

Talk about mixed signals. What happened to the pontiff’s oft-quoted comment regarding the LGBT community: “Who am I to judge?” He may not be judging, but some elements of the Catholic hierarchy have apparently decided once again to don the robes of medieval inquisitors and threaten us with the raging fires of damnation unless we clamp on chastity belts.

All of this brings me back to being raised/razed Catholic. In other words, my exposure to years of Catholic education and spiritual training have helped shaped permanent, positive values that still guide my life; and yet that indoctrination has led to years of doubt, fear and questioning about my value as a person in my eyes and the eyes of God because I am attracted to other men.

I was baptized, confirmed and brought up in a blue-collar Roman Catholic home. I was educated in a Catholic grade school, high school and college. I was taught to honor the commandments and the precepts of the catechism. But all during those formative years, as I was outwardly practicing Catholicism by rote, my true nature as a gay man was constantly in silent rebellion and searching for ways to reconcile my emotional and bodily needs with the scorn and condemnation of all things sexual, and especially homosexual, preached by church authorities. Thus, the stage was set for becoming a razed Catholic; that is, for my rejection of all church teachings that filled me with shame and forced me to live in a state of constant guilt.

As for being raised Catholic, acclaimed storyteller Ed Stivender covers the familiar territory in his book “Raised Catholic (Can You Tell?).” His uncanny ability to hit all the high (and low) notes of growing up Catholic, with both heart and humor, are evident on every page of his book (a sort of Philly-flavored “Nunsense”). For me, as an exercise in nostalgia, it unlocks a lot of ambivalent feelings toward so many aspects of Catholic teaching and tradition that, as much as I resist, have a deep-seated hold on me. (For a darker treatment of “sexuality, gender and power in the Catholic Church,” see “The Black Wall of Silence,” by local Augustinian priest Paul F. Morrissey.)

My personal Catholic boyhood memories run deep and emerge from a swirl of undeniably mixed feelings:

•       A big family Bible with Technicolor photos depicting familiar scenes and parables that feature a surprising number of scantily dressed hunks. Samson would have looked right at home in any “physique” magazine.

•       Entrancing rituals involving slow-motion processions of boys and girls dressed in virginal white — like the annual May procession, during which I always envisioned myself in place of the girl chosen to wear a wedding gown and veil, carrying a bunch of calla lilies and placing a crown of roses on the Virgin Mary’s stony head.

•       As a choir boy singing hymns and Gregorian chant during regular Sunday Mass, and snaking, candle in hand, through a mysteriously darkened church during midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, finishing with “Silent Night” in front of the elaborate manger scene.

•       Finding myself at the crowded communion rail, about to receive the host, with the older, handsome Jimmy Hill next to me, our elbows or shoulders casually brushing, causing my knees to shake and the hair on my arms and neck to rise.

•       My favorite class in grade school, Picture Study, every Friday afternoon, something I looked forward to all week. Colorful prints of Biblical subjects — crucifixions, Madonnas, saints and martyrs, depicted by some the world’s greatest artists — so many naked breasts, legs and loins!

•       Sneaking into the vestibule every Saturday to find out which movies had been “condemned” by the Legion of Decency. Films like “Untamed Youth,” “Baby Doll,” “Some Like It Hot,” “Psycho” — always the titles that appealed to my hormone-fueled imagination.

•       Being drilled on the questions and answers in the green-bound catechism, which we memorized word for word and recited in childish sing-song voices. I can’t remember any references to overt sexuality, let alone homosexuality, in that grade-school version (other than the dreaded “impure thoughts and actions”). How different is the current version, with its shrill, almost vindictive denunciation of homosexual acts as “acts of grave depravity,” “intrinsically disordered” and “contrary to natural law?” Just to be sure we get the message, the passage concludes: “Under no circumstances can they be approved.”

We lived across the street from the parish complex — church, school, convent and rectory — that dominated the neighborhood. Yet our parents were not blindly rigid in their adherence to church doctrine, giving my brother and me just enough freedom to negotiate our way around restrictions that came to appear arbitrary and stifling to rambunctious (my brother) and studious (me) adolescents.

All-boy Catholic high-school memories include the plays and musicals when we got to mingle socially with the all-girl Catholic high-school students (oh, those furtive, fruitless “making” sessions), and waiting in line for confession week after week, terrified about what Father would say when I repeated yet again my offenses of “impure thoughts and actions, with another!” I waited in terror to see if he would ask, “Was it with a girl or another boy, my son?”

Then all-boy Catholic college. Living away from home for the first time. Fully, joyfully exploring my sexuality in Center City during the ’60s! The fires that would eventually raze my Catholicism burned ever brighter.

Such fires were a prominent feature in one of the first books assigned in Freshman English class, “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,” wherein James Joyce scathingly describes everything about Catholicism and provincial, Catholic Ireland that he hated, and the rejection of which fueled his genius.

One unforgettable part is a long sermon describing, to an impressionable audience of Catholic schoolboys, the flames of hell in the most lurid terms possible. Hell, thunders the preacher, is “the abode of the damned which the justice of an offended God has called into existence for the eternal punishment of sinners,” a “foulsmelling prison, an abode of demons and lost souls, filled with fire and smoke.”

Well, if Joyce (or Stephen, the novel’s hero) could survive this, so could I. After all, I was surrounded by inquiring Jesuitical minds, and was being taught to apply my powers of reason when studying literature and life, and to question, analyze and consider all possibilities, rather than automatically accept things “on faith.” 

After years of carefree agnosticism, circumstances led me back into the chilly arms of Catholicism via the Houston chapter of Dignity, a national organization that provides advocacy, education and support for the cause of LGBT Catholics. That lasted until the local chancery cut us off from all ministry being offered willingly by Catholic clergy, eventually forcing us to close down our worship space and effectively killing us off.

During that period I wrote a column for the Houston chapter’s newsletter call “Razed Catholic,” thus bringing me full circle from being raised Catholic. I tried to stimulate discussion about issues like the enforced celibacy for straight and gay priests, inclusive language in all phases of ministry, equal involvement of women in all church activities, sanctioning of same-sex commitment ceremonies and, repeatedly, the potentially sacred nature of love and sex shared between two consenting adult men or women. The hierarchy, and even some of the more orthodox members of the congregation, had other ideas.

“The advantages of travel and exposure to other belief systems — Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, even the less-exotic Quaker — have expanded my sense of what it means to live a life of the spirit, and led me to trust my own powers of discernment when seeking spiritual growth and guidance.”

Razing by fire can involve demolition of an old, outdated, dangerously dilapidated structure and the clearing of a space for something new and valuable to take its place. It can also suggest a refining fire of purification, one that burns off age-old encrustations and reveals an artifact in its natural, pristine state. Catholicism seems to be approaching a critical moment in its history. Which type of razing will it, and individuals raised Catholic, experience: destructive or rehabilitative, encrusted or pristine?

For this razed Catholic, the journey has led to an uneasy reconciliation of nostalgia and bitterness. The youthful promises of love and redemption have faded along with the smoke and pungent smell of incense. Now there is the reality of condemnation, continued exclusion and the hypocritical perversion of the most enlightened verse in the gospels: “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another,” has become “Love the sinner, not the sin.”

After being raised and razed Catholic, a quiet, empty clearing is a good place to be, filled with spiritual potential and possibilities.

Joseph Quinn is a retired technical writer/editor. A resident of Philadelphia, he volunteers his time with the William Way Community Center and the LGBT Elder Initiative.