To be honest, we never expected a welcome. We certainly never expected an invitation. But there we were, five years ago, two women in our pastor’s office, letting him know that we were a couple (in case he hadn’t picked up on that) and that we would in a few weeks be showing up at church not to sit in our separate spots (she in the choir, I in the middle-back) but to sit as a family with our two newly adopted sons in tow.
We didn’t want that reality just sprung on him, a thoughtful and decent man who, we expected, might get an earful from a few parishioners in the ensuing days and weeks. We asked if our coming to church like that was OK with him. Our priest said he appreciated the heads-up. “Just come, just come,” he insisted, expressing considerable relief that we had nothing else to discuss (“When I saw your names in my appointment book, I was afraid you might be asking me to bless your union”). He then inquired as to the boys’ names and ages and, hearing that the eldest would be almost six, asked, “Will you send him here, then, for school?” My partner and I shot a glance at each other. We said we hadn’t figured that was a possibility. We’d been struggling with the school question a bit. Sending the kids to the village public school in the very rural district where we lived was out of the question. We wanted a more demanding education for them. Sending them to our parish school in the small city in which we worked was, we had thought, equally out of the question. The priest raised both eyebrows. “No, not out of the question. Not at all. Send them here. In fact, I don’t even think you’d be the first same-sex couple to do so.” We’d had no idea. He thought a bit, came up with the family’s name, and said he thought all three of the girls were still enrolled and doing fine. We were stunned. Of course we’d want to send our kids there, then. Of course.
Things recently went quite a bit differently in Boulder, Colorado, it seems. A same-sex couple who went to re-register their daughters for the 2010–11 academic year at Sacred Heart of Jesus parish school were instead asked to contemplate that the school was not a good fit for their daughters, given the nature of their own relationship. The couple, who had cleared their eldest child’s original registration with school officials and had been regular churchgoers all along, asked the next day for clarification: Were they, or were they not, allowed to register their children? The principal consulted the parish priest and the archdiocese, and the decision came down: the children could stay for one more year, but then would not be allowed to continue. Dismayed teaching staff alerted the press, and in March Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver issued a statement explaining the general policy of the archdiocese. “If parents don’t respect the beliefs of the church, or live in a manner that openly rejects those beliefs, then partnering with those parents becomes very difficult, if not impossible.”
The dotCommonweal blog lit up rather quickly (commonwealmagazine.org/blog). The three-hundred-and-fifty-plus comments over two separate threads are, from anyone’s perspective, a fascinating read. There is the argumentation-by-capitalization contributor who points out the Truth of the Magisterium on Marriage and Parents and Children. There are the eye-rolling know-it-alls who cannot believe time is being taken to argue the finer points of church and state, law and morality, the mission of Catholic education, etc., when it is perfectly obvious to them, as it should be to everyone, that the Boulder women are gay activists trolling for a lawsuit. But mostly, there are the thoughtful readers and their nuanced comments, many speculating as to why these gay women in Boulder would want to send their kids to Catholic school in the first place.
I cannot speak for them. But I can speak for myself and my family.
The fact of the matter is, I am you. More than many of you seem to realize. I went to Catholic grade school with you, was perhaps even more pious than you, unless you also rode your bike to daily Mass in the summertime and got a ride with the neighbor lady to Friday evening Stations of the Cross during Lent. Unlike you, who never had uncles who worked for Jesse Helms, I had the opportunity to kiss Senator Helms on the cheek when I was eight. (People intent on finding an explanation for my orientation may wish to ponder that fact.) Each week I brought the Baltimore Catechism to my mother to demonstrate my mastery of another chapter.
In Catholic high school I aced all my classes, as had my brothers and sisters before me. At home, I scanned the reading material at hand—the National Review, the Moral Majority newsletter, and the Hillsdale College newsletter—and watched Firing Line with my father. I attended a Reagan campaign rally on the picturesque green of my New England hometown. In our home, Reagan, Buckley, and Falwell enjoyed a kind of trinitarian status. Wanting to attend a Catholic college or university, as had three of my four older siblings, I set my sights on the University of Notre Dame, applying there and only there.
At Notre Dame I majored in theology and held an office in the campus prolife group. As a student there I had my world expanded exponentially, albeit still within the Catholic bubble. At Notre Dame I came across more permutations of Catholicity than I had ever imagined existed. On or near or passing through campus was a dizzying array of personalities and schools of thought and service groups and periodicals. Focolare, Opus Dei, Lawrence Cunningham, Jean Porter, Richard McBrien, Michael Buckley, Alasdair MacIntyre, Michael Waldstein, CILA, the Thomas More Society, Crisis, NCR, the National Catholic Register, Commonweal, Lefebvrists, Marianists, millenialists, Lonerganians, Thomists, Balthasarians, the Theology of the Body, Feminists for Life, Comunione e Liberazione, Community of Sant’Egidio, Holy Cross Associates, High Mass in the Basilica, Wednesday night Masses in the chapel of Farley Hall...like I said, dizzying. One Thursday night I would be out to a fondue dinner with a friend and her father and a conference-attending Joseph Fessio, SJ (who fixed his traditionalist gaze on me and said, “So, just how bad is the Theology Department these days?”). The next morning might find me crashing a professional conference on medical ethics—sitting in the back row, taking it all in—before heading off to hear a speaker on liberation theology over at the Center for Social Concerns. During my time at Notre Dame a professor I asked to be my confessor steadily tried to bring me along from a stunted spirituality centered on self-discipline (I was very, very good at that) to a more expansive and far more challenging spirituality centered on the daunting gospel command to love—really love—God and neighbor. I left campus with my diploma and a handful of awards, one of them for being the top theology student. I hated leaving, and told everyone I felt like I had just started getting to the good stuff.
After a couple of weeks I drove my fondue friend to an order of female hermits in New York whom she was considering joining, and headed to the L’Arche community in Toronto, Canada, to live and work among the developmentally disabled. Daily Mass was again part of the mix, this time with Henri Nouwen as celebrant. When Henri was gone a few of us tried our hand at lay preaching. I’d like to think I did a passable job. After two years at L’Arche, not able to shake that “but I was just getting to the good stuff” feeling, I requested a deferral of admission to law school in order to continue theology studies. Fellowship in hand, I relocated to Boston and found my intellectual home in the work of Karl Rahner. Two years of studying theology and nothing but theology—and getting paid for it!—well, that was as sweet a deal as I had ever come across.
During my years in Boston I dated a couple of guys, one of them a former seminarian and fellow theology student. He and I attended a talk by Andrew Sullivan, then the editor of the New Republic and an out gay Catholic. I sat and listened, and knew for the first time with a semblance of peace what I had come to know in recent years in more conflicted fashion: that I was, and would always be, a gay Catholic.
I met my future partner some years later at a party thrown by a priest. The months that followed were excruciatingly difficult. It is one thing to be a gay Catholic, another to take the step of dating. I realized I would never have an answer for those who say, “God will give you the strength to bear whatever burden you have. He will give you the grace to be a faithful, celibate, gay woman. You need only pray and fast.” If I protest and say that I have prayed, I did fast (every Wednesday, for years!), my continued existence as an unrepentant gay Catholic simply provides them with their own ready answer: “You need only pray and fast more.” And who can disagree with that? I am reminded of the words of Rahner as he pondered embarking on the writing of his massive tome Foundations of Christian Faith:
For a Christian, his Christian existence is ultimately the totality of his existence. This totality opens out in the dark abyss of the wilderness which we call God. When one undertakes something like this, he stands before the great thinkers, the saints, and finally Jesus Christ. The abyss of existence opens up in front of him. He knows that he has not thought enough, has not loved enough, has not suffered enough.
I don’t disagree that I have not thought enough or prayed enough or suffered enough. Neither, for that matter, has anyone.
I do not take the teachings of the church and its two thousand years of accumulated wisdom lightly. I never have. But in the actual experience of loving my partner, I knew that our love was good. It was as simple as that. Our love as we experienced it was a flowering of our faith, and not its undoing. This was so overwhelmingly apparent that I was immediately suspicious of my own self. The possibilities for self-deception are infinite, I knew. And I was sure “I know that our love is good” was right up there with “It seemed like a good idea at the time” as the phrase of choice of love- and lust-addled adulterers and sundry other kinds of sinner. But at the end of the day, one is left with oneself, one’s conscience (however formed), and the stirrings of the Spirit. At the time I listened over and over again to a jazzy rendition of the Quaker hymn “How Can I Keep from Singing?” and decided, ultimately, to sing.
Although many have tried to show me the door out of the church, I never, in my first years with my partner, pondered leaving. Like Andrew Sullivan, I think that “the issue of eros is trivial in the face of consecration, prayer, and meditation.” I thought less and less about “being gay,” per se, and continued the practice of my faith. In my work life and my home life I strove to be more loving and that itself was struggle enough. During this time the local diocese saw fit to recognize my professional work with an award at their annual prolife banquet. With some dismay, I dutifully accepted the award and shook the hand of the bishop, who is, in many respects, Archbishop Chaput’s twin, and pondered the irony of it all.
Those of you who attended Catholic grade school in the 1970s may have enjoyed, as I did, repeated viewings of a documentary film about the DeBolt family: a husband and wife and their nineteen kids, fourteen of them adopted. Their home life was a smorgasbord of races, personalities, abilities, disabilities, newspaper routes, doctors’ appointments, chores, spills, laundry, laughter...you get the picture. I was enthralled. Adoption, I thought, was definitely something I wanted to do. “Each one take one” was, it seemed to me at the time, a great plan for meeting the needs of orphaned children the world over. I wondered why it wasn’t more common. I was sure I would adopt, knowing that the only obstacle would be an unwilling spouse. In my teens and twenties my conviction never wavered, and I wondered why every self-respecting couple who identified as prolife didn’t at the very least strongly consider adopting. When at last I came to terms with being gay, I never for a moment felt that I should stop saying what I’d been saying inside for decades: “I’ll take one!” Being gay seemed to me quite beside the point.
This will sound hopelessly lefty, but the truth of the matter is that at the age of thirty-three I sat one Sunday morning reading the New York Times in a coffee shop a block away from the Newman Center where I had just been to Mass. The Magazine cover piece was “What Will Become of Africa’s AIDS Orphans?” Alone at my table, I murmured, “I could take one.” I read the piece through until the end and had the feeling that I was living the first day of the rest of my life. My partner and I had dated and maintained separate households for four years, but were set to begin our committed life together in a few months, and we had talked enough about adoption for me to know that she was open to it. We fished out the Times article from my files nearly two years later, contacted the agency mentioned in the piece, and—after much soul-searching and research and home studies and whatnot—we eventually welcomed two small boys to our family.
I may be as selfish as the next person in many unlovely areas of my personality and life, but I can say without crossing my fingers that adopting my sons was the most unselfish thing I have ever done and likely will ever do. So it is always a bit surreal to read pieces on gay parenting that take for granted the selfishness of gay people whose adopted children are unwitting players in some grand social experiment. In Catholic grade school my teachers showed me Who Are the DeBolts? and sparked an altruistic urge to adopt. Had I grown up a straight woman, the altruistic narrative would have held. But, as it happens, I am gay, and so the narrative turns on a dime: my adopting is an act of supreme selfishness, and my parenting is, in the delicate phrasing of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, doing violence to children.
One of the ways I am doing violence, I am told, is that I am depriving my sons of the love of a father. My eldest, we know, had a father who died when my son was four, and it seems to me AIDS deprived my son of his father, not I. As our adoption was underway I wanted to tell the naysayers, “Please, by all means, show me your plan to find all the fatherless children of this world new fathers, and my partner and I will gladly fade into the shadows. In fact, to make it easier, just show me your plan to find fathers for all the fatherless boys of Africa.” No one agrees more vehemently than I do that their own biological mothers and fathers would have been my sons’ best parents. I know, as all people who live and work with traumatized children know, that the ripping asunder of a family and the traumatizing of a child are terrible, deeply wounding things. I see those unhealed wounds in my eldest. I apply the best balm to them I know, and pray daily that love is enough to overcome hurt. Some days I wonder.
It is especially on those days that I am so grateful that my sons’ Catholic school is the welcoming and nurturing place it is, with its small classes and saints-for-teachers. When we arrived home with our sons from two weeks in Africa, my partner and I found on the top of the mail pile a handwritten note from our eldest’s future principal. “We are so thrilled...We can’t wait to meet him!” Our non-English-speaking child—so hurt, yet with such vast potential—was to be the eleventh and oldest member of the incoming kindergarten class. He thrived that year under the loving tutelage of his teachers and with no small thanks to his buddies and their parents—just the sort of reality we had instinctively anticipated when we said to our pastor that of course we would want him to enroll. He continues to thrive, excelling academically, running circles around kids on the soccer field, and being in demand for play dates.
In my current line of work, I see people in their own homes, such as they are. I am welcomed readily by people who would show me the door in a heartbeat if they knew of my life with my partner. But I enjoy and respect them, and they enjoy and respect me, and life goes on. Working closely with people who do not “approve” of me—some who know of my family life, and some who do not—is a daily reality for me and for most gay people. It is such a fact of life that I rarely think about it anymore. It was not such a leap, in that regard, to continue attending Mass or to enroll our boys in Catholic school. It was simply more of the same.
I do not concern myself much with issues of church and state and discrimination. When the Boy Scouts banned gay people from serving as scoutmasters I thought it was a wrong-headed and insulting decision but never doubted the Boy Scouts’ right to make it. As I said at the outset, I never expected a welcome for our kids at the parish school. Once it was extended, I even upbraided myself for my own churlishness. Had I learned nothing, in all my years immersed in Catholic education, about the mission of Catholic education? Had I not even sent money to Catholic schools overseas and in American inner cities, where not a single student served is Catholic? In our own city, didn’t some of the Muslim physicians send their children to Catholic schools? Venite ad me omnes, I thought.
Jean Raber, commenting at dotCommonweal, says this about the local Catholic school of her childhood: “It was a smaller, safer place where taunts were not allowed. And [my] friends got a fine liberal-arts education that included immersion in Catholic culture—art, music, history, and belief. The policy was accept everyone, love everyone, make no apologies for your beliefs.” The description applies equally well to our sons’ school, and perfectly sums up why we send them there.
It seems that in the Boulder parish, the understanding of the church’s educational mission and of safety is different. There, as I understand it, the children of those assumed to be making the grade in orthodoxy and orthopraxis are gathered together and the drawbridge is pulled up, and pulled up tight, for the good of all parties, lest there be wounded feelings and confusion. The Archdiocese of Denver stated its admissions policy this way: “To allow children in these circumstances to continue in our school would be a cause of confusion for the student in that what they are being taught in school conflicts with what they experience in the home.” Fr. Bill Breslin, the Sacred Heart of Jesus parish priest, wrote on his blog: “Why would good parents want their children to learn something they don’t believe in? It doesn’t make sense. There are so many schools in Boulder that see the meaning of sexuality in an entirely different way than the Catholic Church does. Why not send their child[ren] there?” **
What strikes me as odd is the deep-down timidity of such a stance. It reminded me, when I first read it, of the weak teachers I encountered throughout my education, from grade school on up, who simply could not handle questions. A student could figure out pretty quickly which teachers welcomed challenging questions, which teachers welcomed only simple requests for clarification, and which teachers could not handle any questions at all. The real learning took place when the classroom was abuzz with questions being tossed both ways. The best teachers wanted us not just to fill up our brains but to use them.
I want our sons to use their brains and their hearts. I want our sons’ teachers to know that I hope they make no apologies for what they teach. I want them to know they needn’t worry about being the first bearers of the bad news of the objective disorder of homosexuality; our new parish priest and large swaths of the culture have already beaten them to it, many times over. I want our children to learn all sorts of things I do and don’t know, from people who claim to be teaching the Truth, and from people who make no such claim. I want our children to learn all sorts of things I do and don’t believe. I want our children...educated.
And in the end, I shall throw myself—my whole self—into the arms of a merciful God. And so, as I understand it, will Archbishop Chaput. And Father Breslin. And the Boulder women. And all of you.
** This paragraph is a corrected version of the one that appeared in the print edition, which incorrectly attributed both quotations to Fr. Breslin.
This essay has been funded by a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation.
Related: Seeking a Sign, by the Editors
A Gay Parent Looks at His Church: an interview with Gregory Maguire
Coming Home: A Gay Christian Speaks to Fundamentalists, by Jonathan Odell
Homosexuality & the Church: Two Views, by Luke Timothy Johnson & Eve Tushnet
Children First: How the Church Should Advocate Adoption, by Todd Flowerday
Married? With Children? by Aidan O'Neill