Back when I was covering the religion beat at New York Newsday in 1992, I interviewed various theologians on the question of whether anything in Catholic teaching required that a group called the Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization be barred from marching under its own banner in New York's St. Patrick's Day Parade. The views I heard were diverse. One of the theologians, Father Avery Dulles, reached at his desk at Fordham University, told me he hadn't made up his mind. "It really depends. If it is a religious event, you kind of go in one direction," he said. "If it is a manifestation of civil order, I suppose then theology doesn't have too much to say about it."
I tracked down that yellowed news clipping after reading Cardinal Timothy Dolan's column in this weekend's issue of Catholic New York, newspaper of the New York archdiocese. As reported earlier this month, the cardinal had backed the decision of the parade committee to allow an Irish gay group to march in the parade, and also accepted the parade's invitation to be the grand marshal in 2015. Facing criticism for this, Dolan responds in his column:
... the most important question I had to ask myself was this: does the new policy violate Catholic faith or morals? If it does, then the Committee has compromised the integrity of the Parade, and I must object and refuse to participate or support it.
From my review, it does not. Catholic teaching is clear: “being Gay” is not a sin, nor contrary to God’s revealed morals. Homosexual actions are—as are any sexual relations outside of the lifelong, faithful, loving, lifegiving bond of a man and woman in marriage—a moral teaching grounded in the Bible, reflected in nature, and faithfully taught by the Church.
So, while actions are immoral, identity is not!
In his reply, Dolan does not take the escape route that the parade is simply a civic event. It is "intimately linked to the Catholic Faith," he writes. Contrast that to my yellowed 1992 clipping, which reported the view of Catholic New York back then: "There can be no doubt that a group which publicly proclaims its opposition to Church teaching by championing its preference for homosexual activity is out of place in this parade."
For many, this shift will underline the influence of Pope Francis and also changing societal attitudes. This is true, but I would also point to the context for the initial dispute over the parade in the 1990s.
In the autumn of 1991, Cardinal John O'Connor had announced at the annual Hispanic Day mass in St. Patrick's Cathedral that he would not review that year's Hispanic Day Parade because members of ACT UP--the Aids Coalition to Unleash Power--were to march. (The parade committee withdrew the invite and the cardinal did review the parade.) Those old enough will recall how inflammatory the atmosphere was at the time, as AIDS afflicted the gay community and groups like ACT UP became incensed against the cardinal for his opposition to the use of condoms to prevent the disease's spread. In a December, 1989 mass in St. Patrick's Cathedral, screaming ACT UP demonstrators threw condoms and spat out communion hosts. That, as I recall, had a deep impact on O'Connor. It triggered a defensive reaction embedded deep in the history of the New York archdiocese, one that dates back to confrontations with 19th-century Nativists.
Hopefully, the parade Dolan is to lead up Fifth Avenue next March will be a happy celebration of an entwined ethnic heritage and faith. If it's not, there will be plenty of critics ready to say so.