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Gay Catholics struggle to maintain faith in church

Grace Kelemanik, Catholic and lesbian, has worshiped with her partner at a suburban Boston parish for more than seven years. Their baby daughter was baptized there. Kelemanik has served on church committees, taught religious education classes to parish children.

But it's not easy being both gay and Catholic lately.

Not with the newly installed archbishop telling the faithful that gay marriage tears at the family. Not with the Vatican declaring that same-sex marriages "go against natural moral law," and objecting to adoption by gays and lesbians because it does "violence" to the adopted children. Not with other gays and lesbians turning their backs on the Catholic Church.

And yet, Kelemanik has stayed put. She remains Catholic, not merely because she hopes to change the enormous institution from within, though that is part of it: Kelemanik stays Catholic because she was born into this church, and believes her Catholicism is as immutable as her lesbianism.

"I was raised Catholic," said Kelemanik, 41. "It's my faith. And I know it might sound ridiculous -- I feel like it's almost getting more ridiculous these days -- but I believe God made me as I am, and that's not a bad thing. . . . It's not like I could just go and pick another religion: `Oh, I'll be Episcopalian.' It's what I believe and who I am. And [other Catholics] get to see me and my family, and know we're not all crazy sexual deviants."

The competing tugs of faith and sexual identity have been felt keenly in Massachusetts, home to large, thriving communities of gays and Catholics. The conflict is made more intense because the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court is currently considering whether to grant marriage licenses to gays and lesbians, making the state a major battleground in the war over same-sex marriage.

While Kelemanik doesn't think she has to choose between her sexual preference and her church right now, other gay and lesbian Catholics have been plunged into turmoil.

"I am very seriously considering how much longer I can stay in a faith tradition that is so hostile to me," said Chuck Colbert, a gay Catholic journalist. "With the hindsight of history you see this, too, shall pass. But I'm 48, and I don't have the rest of my life to wait till somebody in Rome has a transformative epiphany, and the goodness and graciousness of gay life becomes apparent. "

Charles Martel, a psychotherapist who worships at the Jesuit Urban Center, a South End church that has welcomed gays, knows plenty of gay Catholics whose membership in the church has not survived this year.

"It certainly is a struggle, and there are times when it's very easy to see how it wears people down," he said. "People question you and wonder, `How do you do this?' They shake their heads in disbelief, and at times I think that myself: `Is it a healthy thing to be part of the church and be gay?' "

But Martel, 49, has decided that the only way to change attitudes in the Catholic church is to remain visible within it.

"It is our church, and so the idea of leaving it has this whole, being pushed out [feeling]," he said. "I think that's why it's so important to stay, but to be visible and vocal. If you remain silent, that's how you integrate the sense of shame and self-hatred, so you have to take an active role. I know in time, as other things have changed, the church will come to understand [it was wrong about same-sex marriage]. Some future pope will have to realize this was an error."

While the messages from the Vatican on same-sex marriage anger gays and lesbians, many of them find the church a far more welcoming place once they're sitting in their own parishes on Sundays.

"The reality is that every Sunday, lesbian and gay singles and couples and families gather for worship. They may be more or less out, they may be more or less comfortable sitting in those pews, but they're there. They sing in the choir, teach Sunday school, distribute Communion, work in church offices, they do all the things other parishioners do," said Marianne Duddy, a member of DignityUSA, a national gay and lesbian group that has been critical of the church's official statements on marriage and adoption.

Though the church has been clear about its stance on same-sex marriage, and about teaching that "sexual activity between gay people is not approved, it has also been clear that gay people have a place in the church and the church itself should do outreach to gay people and the families of gay people, and protect their rights," said the Rev. Walter Cuenin, pastor of Our Lady Help of Christians parish in Newton. Cuenin's church is known in the area as one that welcomes gays and lesbians, and hosts a gay and lesbian faith sharing group.

He said he had seen many Catholics, including heterosexuals, struggling to stay in the church over the last couple of years, not just because of its stand on social issues, but also because of the clergy sex abuse scandal.

"It has been a huge test of their faith, and some people have walked away," Cuenin said. "Right now the big task for the church is to find ways to go after these people and bring them back."

Even without that outreach, Kelemanik and other gays and lesbians feel mostly comfortable in mainstream parishes across Massachusetts, just as divorcees and abortion rights supporters whose beliefs diverge from church teachings do. They share an abiding belief that what happens on Sundays in some Catholic parishes has little to do with edicts from on high. Some priests chose not to read to their congregations a May letter from bishops urging all Catholics to oppose same-sex marriage and back a constitutional amendment defining marriage only as the union of a man and a woman.

"I answer to a higher person than the Vatican," said John F. Kelly, also a member of the Jesuit Urban Center.

Kelly's partner will not step foot in a Catholic church, he said. Kelly and other gay Catholics said they are sometimes challenged by their friends, who don't understand why they remain in a church that opposes gay causes.

"But I found a place to go and worship, I found wonderful people, and I am answering to one person, and that's God," he said.

Besides, said Kelly, 60, it's not as if he has much choice. The heavy ritual in which he was raised, now inextricable from his spirituality, has been impossible to match in other churches.

"I walked into one church, and I didn't feel like I was in a church," he said. "And I went to an Episcopal church, it was almost as good but not quite the same. I was brought up Catholic, and it's hard to leave it."

But even Kelemanik acknowledges her Catholicism, which seems indelible now, may yet prove untenable as the war over same-sex marriage intensifies. "My partner and I talk frequently about what life will be like," she said. "We're looking ahead a couple of years and can imagine the gay issue is going to become the focus for the Catholic church that the abortion issue had been, and it could potentially get uncomfortable for us, and we may bail. But for now, we feel we do more good by staying."

Charles Martel, 49, said that many gay Catholics get worn down. Charles Martel, 49, said that many gay Catholics get worn down. (Globe Photo / Logan Wallace)
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