Editor’s note: Three of the LGBTQ Catholics featured in this story, Jane, Richard and Jamie, are using pseudonyms to protect their safety and privacy in their religious communities.

Jane was born and raised Catholic.

When she came out as bisexual about 10 years ago, her father told her it was probably just a phase. Or maybe a byproduct of her anxiety. He urged her to “turn to God” for help. One summer, he recommended she attend an online program for people experiencing “same-sex urges,” a form of religious conversion therapy.

It wasn’t out of step with Catholic teachings. “The Catechism of the Catholic Church,” a summary of church doctrine written in 1992, called “homosexual tendencies” “objectively disordered.” Recent statements from the Vatican have deemed same-sex unions not “even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family.”

“At 16, 17, 18, I felt like I was pretty much just gonna go to hell no matter what,” she said.

This past year, when Jane heard that parishioners at St. Mary Magdalene Parish in the East End had started an LGBTQ ministry group, she was curious.

For a long time, she questioned her Catholic identity. Could she rightfully call herself a Catholic if she disagreed with some of the church’s stances? Did she even want to? Would it make her complicit in things she did not support?

She decided to reach out to the new LGBTQ ministry group. In part, she was looking for a space to work through these questions. But she was also looking for a community where she could be herself, where she could be “seen” within the church.

Some days, remaining Catholic feels like an “uphill battle,” she said. Then again, there are aspects of Catholicism, like its focus on Mary and the saints, that she really likes.

“People say things like, ‘Oh, if you're not happy, you just leave.’ But I feel like it's more complicated than that.”

Jane, who wishes to remain anonymous, photographed from a distance inside the sanctuary of a Catholic Church.

“People say things like, ‘Oh, if you're not happy, you just leave.’ But I feel like it's more complicated than that.”

She doesn’t know if or how the church as an institution might become more inclusive. But she has seen peoplethe church in a different sense — creating “welcoming pockets.”

Other LGBTQ Catholics feel differently. Some see the new LGBTQ ministries as too little, too late — too constrained by church teaching to be truly inclusive. Some LGBTQ Catholics or former Catholics are done with religious institutions altogether.

To be an LGBTQ Catholic is not to share a single experience or perspective. It’s more complicated than that.

Listening first

Vicki Sheridan’s three daughters came home from Pittsburgh Pride in 2017 with a story she didn’t expect: They had seen people representing an LGBTQ-affirming Catholic organization.

“All four of us were astounded,” Sheridan recalled. Sheridan’s daughters, in high school and college at that time, are part of the LGBTQ community. The messaging they’d heard in the Catholic Church had always been “very negative.”

It was a turning point for Sheridan. She decided she wanted to be someone who supports LGBTQ Catholics “exactly as they are” and says so publicly.

When she joined St. Mary Magdalene Parish in 2020, Father Tom Burke gave her the go-ahead to start an LGBTQ ministry. There was momentum building: Similar programs already existed in other dioceses, and a couple of other local parishes were doing the same thing.

Father Tom Burke presides at Mass, his hands raised. He wears purple vestments, marking the season of Lent.
Father Tom Burke, pastor of St. Mary Magdalene Parish in the East End, offers Mass at St. Bede Catholic Church on Tuesday, March 22. (Photo by Kaycee Orwig/Pittsburgh City Paper)

When Pope Francis launched his “Synod on Synodality,” calling upon parishes to listen to people who the church had marginalized, the moment felt all the more right.

A diocese is tasked with “gathering people from all walks of life,” explained Jennifer Antkowiak, the executive director of community relations for the Diocese of Pittsburgh. The information gets synthesized at the diocesan level, then the national level, then gets passed along to the Vatican.

As for ministry groups, those are not overseen at the diocesan level, she said. “Parishioners work with their pastors to start groups when they see a need.”

The local LGBTQ ministries’ goals are two-fold.

“We first and foremost need to listen,” said Deacon Keith Kondrich, who is involved with the ministry at St. Joseph the Worker Parish, east of Pittsburgh. It’s “the only way to have any kind of healing.”

The second goal is to attune church members to the discrimination that LGBTQ people face. At St. Joseph the Worker, for example, the communal prayer during Mass now regularly includes a petition asking God to help end discrimination against the LGBTQ community.

At St. Mary Magdalene, one week of the Catholic Church’s designated “Respect Life” month is now dedicated to educating people about LGBTQ youth suicide prevention.

Although sometimes there’s pushback from parishioners, Kondrich said in his view, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

“When there's pushback on a prayer, it opens up an opportunity to say, ‘Hey, guess what? There are people probably sitting in the pew next to you who are afraid. They’re afraid. We can't have that. That's not who we are as a community.’”

An LGBTQ ministry group wouldn’t work at every parish, Burke of St. Mary Magdalene said. But for them, an economically and racially diverse congregation, it does work.

That doesn’t mean he and other Catholic leaders could teach whatever they want. They must “live within the parameters of church teachings,” Kondrich said.

“We’re not going against any current church doctrine,” Burke emphasized.

“Like, I cannot perform a same-sex marriage,” he said. “The bishop has told me I can't do that. So I'm not doing that.”

Father Tom Burke holds up a chalice of wine and piece of bread during Mass for the celebration of the Eucharist, or the Catholic ritual of communion.
“Being a police in the bedroom, that’s not my job. My job is to be the pastor,” said Father Tom Burke of St. Mary Magdalene Parish in the East End. (Photo by Kaycee Orwig/Pittsburgh City Paper)

Welcoming and supporting LGBTQ people in the congregation, though — that’s in keeping with the diocese’s goals.

“I think we would want LGBTQ Catholics, and all Catholics, to know that they are not alone. God loves them and God is with them,” Antkowiak said. “The Church wants to welcome everyone, and to help everyone build a stronger relationship with Jesus.”

For Burke, that feels like a basic part of his calling.

“I've always been taught by my parents that you don't judge people, that you love people,” he said.

“Being a police in the bedroom, that’s not my job. My job is to be the pastor.”

Can there be safe spaces in the Catholic Church?

Richard has been active as a lector and Eucharistic minister in his parish for many years. When he first came out as gay in his 50s, he “didn’t say too much about that” at church. Now he’s becoming more open.

To Richard, now in his 70s, the LGBTQ ministry group at his parish feels like a step in the right direction. He hopes that, if they start by creating a “welcoming place,” it can then lead to better dialogue outside the group.

He said most people at his parish make him feel “pretty welcome.” As to the rest, he’s made his peace with it. “I don’t see anybody as perfect,” he said. “I believe the church is divine, and it's human. And this is the human aspect of it.”

Other LGBTQ Catholics approach the LGBTQ ministries with more skepticism. Is it actually possible, they question, to create a safe space within an institution that they’ve experienced as oppressive?

Candles and incense in the stained glass window of a Catholic church

“I believe the church is divine, and it's human. And this is the human aspect of it.”

Jamie, who grew up Catholic, points to the teachings in Father James Martin’s Building a Bridge, a popular book on Catholics’ relationship to the LGBTQ community, as an example.

“It's the best thing that the Church has to offer, and it still falls so far short of what we actually need,” she said. “It doesn’t actually say we should have equal rights. It just says, like, ‘You shouldn’t bully LGBTQ people.’” To her, that feels like a low bar.

She suggested LGBTQ Catholics might be better off forming groups without official parish affiliation. It reminds her of a situation that arose at her Catholic university. She and some other students wanted to create an LGBTQ student group. When the university said no, they created one underground.

Years later, the university did approve an LGBTQ student group. But there were strict rules: The students had to have a faculty member present, for example, and they couldn’t host house parties.

(“They thought that parties would lead to people hooking up,” Jamie said. “But, of course, like, they don't put any limits on the ski team, and everyone on the ski team was hooking up.”)

Maybe it’s not possible, she said, to have a truly affirming place within the church’s official purview.

Through Dignity, a national Catholic organization with a Pittsburgh branch, LGBTQ Catholics have carved out their own inclusive spaces for more than 50 years.

A 72-year-old lifelong Catholic Pittsburgher, Ken Pruszynski has been involved at Dignity for 35 years. Since the pandemic began, they’ve been meeting virtually. Still, it feels “like a family,” he said.

He generally felt “comfortable and included” in the parish he attended through the Diocese, too. Still, what he’s experienced at Dignity is different. In his former parish, he’d tell people he was gay if they asked, but he preferred to be a “little bit cautious.”

He doesn’t feel that inclination at Dignity. “At Dignity, you know, you can be really outrageous and hug somebody,” he said, laughing.

Wil Forrest, member and coordinator of the LGBTQ Ministry at East Liberty Presbyterian Church, said terms like “safe,” “welcoming” and “inclusive” must be used carefully in religious settings.

A group of people wearing tie-dye t-shirts stands in front of a van, holding a sign that reads "God created you. God loves you. Be yourself." They prepare to march in the Pittsburgh Pride parade.
East Liberty Presbyterian Church marches in the 2019 Pittsburgh Pride parade. (Photo courtesy of ELPC)

Many churches that say they are inclusive are not, he said. He recounted once telling a pastor he was gay. The pastor affirmed that Forrest was definitely welcome in their church — but that, of course, they would “seek to help [him] live a right life.”

“I was like, ‘Thank you for your honesty. You will never see me again,’” Forrest recalled. The pastor genuinely believed they were being inclusive, Forrest said — inclusive “of everything that Scripture lets them.”

Forrest advises churches on the journey to becoming LGBTQ inclusive to set benchmarks for themselves, including first determining whether they can say “with integrity” that Scripture is supportive. If a church uses the word “welcoming” or “inclusive” but then an LGBTQ person has a bad experience there, he said, “that does more damage than good.”

Why not just leave the church?

One of the things Pruszynski appreciates about the congregants at Dignity is their seriousness about the Eucharist, or the sacrament of communion in which Catholics receive bread and wine to honor Jesus’ death.

When he comes to Mass, he seeks a spiritual experience. He finds that at Dignity.

“I’m stubborn,” he said, laughing. “Maybe the church left me behind, but I didn’t leave the Catholic Church behind.”

He also takes refuge in his sense that local Catholics’ views on sexuality and church doctrines aren’t the same thing.

“If it was put to a vote in a city like Pittsburgh,” he said, “I think we would be accepted.”

A display of votive candles at St. Bede Catholic Church.

“Maybe the church left me behind, but I didn’t leave the Catholic Church behind.”

Jamie said people frequently ask her questions like, ‘Why not just leave the church?’

She feels “conflicted.” She has had good as well as bad experiences in the church, and she’s a fan of Catholic Social Teaching, a tradition focused on human dignity. Then again, the Catholic Church is aging, and when she’s actually participated in church reform efforts or social action groups, she’s been frustrated.

“There was so much pushback to even the most moderate changes that I just sort of stopped believing that the church wanted to change anything,” she said.

At this point, she’s not regularly attending Mass. However — and although she sometimes questions it — she does still identify as Catholic. She’s had a Catholic education. She’s studied Catholic theology. If she feels she’s Catholic, she said, no one has “the right to take that away.”

“Like, they can’t unconfirm me,” she said. “The bishop is not any more important than I am.”

James Nusser, a 54-year-old Episcopalian who also worships with Catholic congregations, has grappled with his identity as a gay person of faith in several different religious institutions.

At one Episcopal congregation where he served as the groundskeeper, a new priest came in and, during worship, fired the LGBTQ members from their roles, preaching that “the gays were an abomination.” He had the landscaping that Nusser had carefully planted and tended, including memorials to deceased members, ripped out.

It felt like “my heart was ripped out,” Nusser said. “It took some years to heal.”

James Nusser stands on a hill in Grandview Park. The Pittsburgh skyline is visible behind him.
As a gay man, James Nusser has experienced discrimination in several religious settings. Still, his faith doesn’t feel like a matter of question. “How can any human resist the call of God?” he said. (Photo by Kaycee Orwig/Pittsburgh City Paper)

Nusser has also witnessed homophobia in Black faith communities. Although Nusser is white, his late spouse was a Black man who was HIV positive.

Nusser and his spouse would travel to Black churches doing HIV/AIDS education. Some churches refused to have them, Nusser said. Others, upon hearing that AIDS could affect people of all races, gay or straight, refused to believe them.

Still, for him, the question of whether to forgo faith altogether doesn’t really feel like a question at all. He sees his faith as something that starts not with him or any institution but with God.

“How can any human resist the call of God?” he said. “Once you've been baptized and you've had that Spirit given to you, it's not something you can turn away from.”

Could the Catholic Church change?

Last month was Father John Oesterle’s 81st birthday. He works as a hospital chaplain and helps lead the Association of Pittsburgh Priests [APP], a Catholic organization that seeks to “carry out a ministry of justice and renewal.” Last June, the APP published a statement questioning the Vatican’s claim that same-sex unions were “not ordered to the Creator’s plan.”

Whether the church might become more inclusive and grow its LGBTQ community, Oesterle is not sure. If it were to happen, he senses ordinary people would play a key role. Parishioners might step up to bring their visions for the church into being — like those who started the local LGBTQ ministries did.

Jamie worries there aren’t enough progressive voices left in the Catholic Church to make bottom-up change happen. It feels to her like most young progressives have “given up” on Catholicism, if not on organized religion altogether.

When Nusser looks around at churches in America, he senses the fastest growing ones are not LGBTQ-affirming. That’s “the scary part for me,” he said. He sees people coalescing around hate, not love.

“How can any human resist the call of God?”James Nusser

If the Catholic Church were to change its stance, he thought, it would surely take decades — probably spanning multiple Popes’ terms.

Still he doesn’t think it’s impossible. He offers his own experience with the trans community as evidence. For many years, he was transphobic: “I avoided trans people because I didn’t understand them,” he said.

That changed when he got a chance to listen regularly to the stories of people from his church who were going through gender affirmation.

“Like, the scales fell off my eyes,” he said, citing a biblical passage. If church leaders would look LGBTQ Catholics in the eye, listen to their stories and repent for the harm they did, he thinks the church would look different.

Heretical questions

When Consuelo (Chelo) Cruz-Martinez overheard a fellow parishioner praying that God would “help the gays who are hurting our church,” she wasted no time confronting her priest.

“I said to him, ‘You’re going to talk to her or I am going to talk to her,’” she recounted, the latter clearly posed as a threat he’d best want to avoid. She laughed, telling the story. “The priest has to deal with me because I'm so explosive, you know?”

“My spirit is a warrior one,” she said. “It’s only because of the grace of God that I am a Catholic.”

Consuelo Cruz-Martinez smiles outside the sanctuary doors of St. Catherine of Siena Church.
Consuelo Cruz-Martinez served as a nun for seven years in Mexico and now volunteers with Latinx populations in Pittsburgh. “My spirit is a warrior one,” she said. (Photo by Kaycee Orwig/Pittsburgh City Paper)

And not just a lay Catholic. Before coming to Pittsburgh, Cruz-Martinez spent seven years serving as a nun in Mexico, where she was born.

She didn’t become a nun because she agreed with all of the church’s teachings, she said. She became a nun because she felt called to a life of service.

“I continued thinking, ‘I have to be in the Catholic Church because it’s where we need lots of change,’” she said.

As a nun-in-training, she “questioned everything,” she said. That included the church’s stances toward women and the LGBTQ community and doctrinal matters like Mary’s virginity.

She recalled with delight the comment of a classmate: “Chelo, every time that you open your mouth, inside of me is an old lady that says, ‘Kill her! She is a…’” Cruz-Martinez paused, thinking how best to translate the word. “Ah, a heretic, yes!” she finished, grinning.

Cruz-Martinez married in 1997 and came to Pittsburgh the next year. She now teaches in a Spanish-speaking Catholic education program and volunteers with Latinx populations in hospitals and prisons.

Trained as a psychologist and the parent of LGBTQ children, she also counsels Latinx Catholic families whose children are LGBTQ. Some Latinx Catholics in Pittsburgh come from conservative backgrounds and are not LGBTQ-affirming, she said. She draws upon her religious and cultural background to help families reach a place of understanding.

As to whether the church might change, Cruz-Martinez holds out hope. She thinks of all the hospital patients she’s seen survive incredible odds, or of her church running a Catholic education program in Spanish.

“I’m a dreamer,” she said. “I see miracles all the time.”

Chris Hedlin is Rtvsrece’s faith and religion reporter. She can be reached at chris@rtvsrece.com or on Twitter @ChristineHedlin.

This story was fact-checked by Abigail Nemec-Merwede.

This story was co-published by Rtvsrece and Pittsburgh City Paper.

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Chris Hedlin is a reporter for Rtvsrece focusing on religion. She comes to Rtvsrece through the American Council of Learned Societies’ Leading Edge Fellowship program, which pairs scholars of...