Out at Saint Paul’s, one of Manhattan’s most vibrant LGBT Catholic organizations, meets at the Church of St. Paul the Apostle in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood (also known as the “gayborhood”) between Midtown and the Upper West Side. I will be forever grateful to the St. Paul’s community, which shaped my early days as a convert. I got a job working in their gift shop about six months after I entered the Catholic Church. The liveliness of the parishioners’ faith helped me to grow spiritually. Though I had attended Mass at several other parishes in the area, St. Paul’s offered a full range of active ministries and opportunities for getting involved with parish life, including a book club, a soup kitchen, and a poetry group.
But the most active ministry at St. Paul’s was OSP, whose existence baffled me. Though I’m not surprised that many gay people attended Mass there (the surrounding blocks are bristling with rainbow flags and gay bars), I couldn’t understand why the events hosted by this official parish ministry blatantly negated Catholic moral teaching. OSP’s existence also bothered me on a personal level. A significant part of my journey across the Tiber had involved reconciling my homosexuality with the Church’s teachings. After much questioning and wrestling, I had come to trust the Church’s wisdom and soon saw that her teachings on chastity didn’t stifle my sexuality, but helped it flourish.
The St. Paul’s community is full of God’s presence in so many ways. But I want to examine why the parish is so adamant about promoting an LGBT organization that openly rejects Church teaching. The problem with OSP is not that it welcomes LGBT parishioners, but rather that its mission and events imply that having gay sex is morally acceptable and that the Church should recognize the sacramentality of same-sex “marriages.”
Some of the group’s activities are anodyne, indeed laudable: OSP regularly serves dinner to AIDS patients at the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, a non-profit AIDS service organization. It has a monthly Bible study, and is planning a service trip to Puerto Rico. But I was concerned when I saw an invitation to a Pub Crawl, at which OSP members planned to patronize several of Hell’s Kitchen’s numerous gay bars. I was familiar enough with the gayborhood’s bars to know that they aren’t wholesome places, especially for people looking to “engage [their] Catholic faith.”
I was also troubled by OSP’s “book of the month” selections, many of which glorified homosexual intercourse. Among the most recent titles was Andre Aciman’s Call Me By Your Name. The book is a gay version of Fifty Shades of Grey, complete with graphic, detailed accounts of the two protagonists having anal sex. The Paulists who staff the parish also regularly offer a “Pride Mass” during NYC Pride weekend in Sheridan Square, across from the historic Stonewall Inn.
Perhaps OSP’s most definitive rejection of Catholic moral teaching came in the 2015 documentary short developed by OSP members and released on YouTube, . The documentary claims it seeks to “foster dialogue about and encourage greater inclusion and acceptance of LGBT people in the Church. … Owning Our Faith seeks to open hearts and remind all of us that God works through love.” Among the 21 gay Catholics and their allies who were featured in the film, only one, Eve Tushnet, correctly described the traditional Christian understanding of “love.” The rest of the participants dismissed the idea that gay sex was morally problematic. It didn’t take long for the film to make clear that by “inclusion and acceptance,” it meant sacramentalizing same-sex marriages.
When I asked why OSP hosted speakers and events that openly rejected Church teaching, I was told, “This is a liberal parish.” I then went to Fr. Gil Martinez—then a priest at St. Paul’s, recently reassigned to Los Angeles, and remembered as the founder of OSP—to ask what he thought about the Theology of the Body. “John Paul II’s ideas were too up in the clouds,” Fr. Gil told me. “Real people can’t live that way!” But what about all those gay people who actually want to follow the Church’s teachings on chastity, and would be grateful for some support in that endeavor?
St. Paul’s also hosts a men’s chapter of the Courage Apostolate. But this group meets “underground,” lacking permission to invite parishioners at Mass or through the Church bulletin.
The only ministry to people with same-sex attraction that is currently recognized by the Vatican, the Courage Apostolate is run like a twelve-step program for people who have lived an unstable (homo)sexual lifestyle. It was founded in 1980 by Fr. John Harvey, and it aims to help its members leave behind their sinful pasts through chaste same-sex friendships. Each chapter is led by priests who have been trained to understand the psychology behind homosexuality and addiction. Courage rejects the notion that sexual desires constitute an identity, and it asks its members to identify not as gay, but as “experiencing same-sex attraction.”
While I was a student at Fordham University, one of my classmates, who had lived an active gay lifestyle before returning to his childhood faith, invited me to a meeting of St. Paul’s underground Courage chapter. I went, full of excitement and anxiety. “Why don’t I ever see anything about you guys in the Church bulletin?” I asked one of the members at dinner. “Because we aren’t allowed to speak openly about the fact that Courage meets here,” he told me. The parish that professed to be liberal and open-minded was so only to gays who openly reject Church teaching—not to those who accept Church teaching.
I later learned that one of the Paulists, Fr. James Lloyd, had been running this chapter for years. But since OSP started, he has not been allowed to publicize Courage’s presence in the parish. Fr. Lloyd has written several books, including Catholicism and Same Sex Attraction, that address the Church’s teachings on chastity. I learned that these books are not sold in the parish gift shop, lest they offend parishioners. Courage members are generally asked to be discreet about attending meetings, though it is common for Courage chapters to advertise openly.
I should say that I personally did not find the Courage approach very helpful—though I appreciated the ways in which it tried to help Catholics with SSA leave behind their destructive lifestyles and grow in chaste, virtuous friendships. For my friend, and other young guys who have dealt with sexual addiction, I wholeheartedly recommend Courage’s ministries. But I was a young virgin who had started coming out well before my conversion. For us Catholics whose experience of the gay community has not been glittered with leather parties and secret S&M rendezvous in bar bathrooms, neither OSP nor Courage will be very relevant.
And in New York City, we don’t have many other options. I’m still waiting for a Catholic parish to start up a group that welcomes queer Catholics and aims to help them grow in holiness, without the twelve-step program. One example that comes to mind is the Always God’s Children ministry at St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Washington, D.C., of which Eve Tushnet is a member. Always God’s Children “affirms the Catholic Church’s teaching on chastity,” but “also recognize[s] that there are those who hold different views on the subject of chastity,” and “welcome[s] everyone who is willing to commit to a respectful dialogue.”
Until a ministry like that comes to New York, I’ll return to my original question: Why does St. Paul’s, a parish that otherwise fosters a genuinely Catholic parish life, openly flout Catholic sexual morality? Sprinkling vague Christian words on top of secular LGBT-activist rhetoric does not constitute “meeting the needs” of gay Catholics. Perhaps part of the answer is practical and financial: OSP keeps the parish on the right side of the wealthy residents of Hell’s Kitchen. When pastors in the gayborhood assume that the Church’s teachings are “too up in the clouds” for “real people,” are they more concerned about the salvation of their parishioners’ souls, or about the salvation of the parish’s bank account?
When the leaders of parish ministries like OSP say they are committed to fostering the spiritual growth of their LGBT/SSA parishioners, do they know those parishioners’ actual spiritual needs? Are they open to meeting us where we actually are, and accompanying us toward authentic spiritual growth? The Church has a rich, nuanced anthropology that offers people, gay and straight, a vision of liberation transcending the ideals of a comfortable, bourgeois lifestyle. I pray that pastors will realize that accompanying gay parishioners toward the splendor of the truth should take precedence over accompanying donors to the offering basket.
Sebastian Alvarez writes from New York City.