By Marian J. Hennessy-Fiske




Mary had heard the horror stories. Her friend, a Catholic, had come out to her parents last year. "It was terrible," Mary related. "The first thing her mother said was, 'Now I have to go to confession!' The priest was really positive. But the girl still had to move out, and her parents never call her now."

"Mary," who is a resident tutor at Harvard, knew she would need help if she was ever going to tell her own parents. She, too, is a Catholic and a lesbian.

So she began attending the biweekly meetings of Cornerstone, a support group at St. Paul's Church for gay and lesbian Catholics on campus. This year, she finally told her parents about her homosexuality. Without Cornerstone's help, she said, "I could never have done it."

Cornerstone, founded five years ago by a Harvard undergraduate, is part of a growing movement of gay and lesbian Catholics in America trying to reconcile their faith with their sexual orientation. While the Catholic Church continues to condemn homosexuality, groups like Cornerstone provide spiritual and emotional solace for the gay, lesbian and bisexual faithful.

"Our focus is on spirituality, " said the group's facilitator, Jacqueline Landry, a Catholic Students' Association chaplain. "Many groups who focus on gay and lesbian issues leave out the spiritual side of it. We focus on the whole person, of which sexual orientation is a piece, along with religious affiliation."

According to Landry, gay Catholics face a very unique and difficult situation. For many gay or lesbian Catholics at Harvard, it is much easier to come out of the closet in the Harvard community than it is to come out in the Catholic Church. In addition, Catholics encounter a special problem that other denominations of Christians do not have, Landry said.

"We don't have sects within our church," she said. "You can't just go to another one...Being Catholic is a complex part of one's identity that is not easily switched by joining another church that might be perceived as more supportive."

The Vatican's Position

Since its beginnings, the Catholic Church has held a single stance on homosexuality: complete condemnation. The Vatican issued a letter in 1986, signed by Pope John Paul II. It denounced homosexuality for two reasons: because the Church believes the only viable reason for having sex is procreation, and because specific biblical passages embraced by the Church condemn homosexual activity as deviant and immoral.

Landry is quick to insist though that the Church condemns the sin, not the sinner. The new catechism issued last year by the Vatican was not as inflammatory as past Church views concerning homosexuality, she added.

"The bottom line is it's not a sin to be homosexual," Landry said. "One is not condemned or excluded. What the Church condemns are homosexual acts, where obviously there is much controversy."

For her part, Landry revived Cornerstone after it had been dormant for two years, because she feels that it is her job to minister to the spiritual needs of all Harvard students. She cited the oft-quoted figure that 10% of the population is gay.

"If I were excluding [gays], I wouldn't be doing my job," Landry said. "My mandate from my Church is to minister to those that are marginalized or vulnerable."

The 1986 Vatican letter's uncompromising attack against homosexuality aroused the ire of many American gays and lesbians. Catholic gay and lesbian groups, once secretive in their worship, began an open and vocal crusade against the Church. Since the Vatican's recent stance, Dignity, a national group of gay and lesbian Catholics who gather to worship together, dramatically increased its visibility, and consequently its congregation. Two years after the letter's release, Dignity reached a membership of 20,000, more than doubling its size.

Catholic gays and lesbians seized on the national movement's momentum, and started their own support groups. Cornerstone is one of those groups, striving to forge an identity as practicing Catholics who are gay. Its name comes from a Biblical passage: "The stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone."

Weekly Meetings

About 10 people show up at St. Paul's Church every other Wednesday for food, discussion and prayer, Landry said. They are mostly graduate students, though some undergraduates also attend.

Typically, members begin the meetings with prayers. Then they usually study passages from the Scriptures and examine their personal lives through it.

The story of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis is perhaps the most frequent biblical passage used to condemn gay Catholics, but the group discovered through analysis of the original Hebrew version of the Bible that the story is not necessarily the clear story of homosexual blasphemy in the two cities that many detractors claim it to be. The real essence of the story is a condemnation of inhospitality to strangers, Landry said.

Cornerstone provides its members with a sense of community they don't find in their congregations. "We can all relate to the issues at hand. There's a common understanding," said one member, a graduate student at Harvard.

A Harvard first-year, fresh from her first meeting, recalled her delight at meeting gays and lesbians who had committed, healthy relationships. "It was really cool to see older people who are models that I can look forward to," she said.


Yet the reception to the group has not always been rosy. The members of Cornerstone interviewed for this article did not want their names published, fearing action against them. Some members of the local St. Paul's congregation have openly criticized the group --so much so that Landry has stopped announcing in public the group's meeting places.

"We need to keep a low profile because every once in a while, you get some really conservative people, who complain a lot," Landry said. After Cornerstone announced its first meeting, a woman complained to her priest, "You better be telling them they're going to hell and that it's a sin!"

Nationwide, opinion about homosexuality within the Church is mixed. According to a 1992 Gallup poll, 46 percent of American Catholics said that sexual relations between gays and lesbians in committed relationships could be morally acceptable; 48 percent said they were not.

The members of Cornerstone say that they're optimistic that Catholics gays and lesbians will win greater acceptance within the Church. "The new representations in the media have made it easier for people to relate to this issue," said one member. He cited the recent movie Priest, which tells the story of a Catholic clergyman who realizes he is gay.

Yet, even without the support of the Church or the public, members of Cornerstone say they will keep their faith. Their group community sustains them, they say.

"For the first time they can be acknowledged as gays within the Church," said Landry.




"Catholic" © 1996 by Marian J. Hennessy-Fiske 

This work first appeared in Harvard University's publication Diversity and Distinction. Reprinted by permission.

Original Graphic © 1996 by
Jim Davis-Rosenthal



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