Cross purposes
The Vatican is about to issue a new directive condemning homosexuality and keeping gay priests out of the Catholic Church. In San Francisco, that would threaten one of the most vibrant Catholic parishes.

By Joe Dignan

MOST SUNDAY MORNINGS at about 9:30, three blocks from the corner of 18th and Castro, a small group of men and women kneel just off the sidewalk and pray.

They kneel in front of a roughly life-size statue of the Blessed Virgin Mother near the entrance to Most Holy Redeemer Catholic church and say the rosary. They rest their knees on an uncomfortable-looking metal platform, which is connected to a metal rail with a latticework grill with the word Maria wrought in metal letters.

Hail Mary, full of grace! The Lord is with you. Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.

They repeat the prayer about 50 times.

It's an ancient ritual, and these days, in most Catholic churches, the people saying the rosary are old women in black veils.

At this church, the rosary ladies are gay men.

Each Sunday an overwhelmingly gay congregation gathers at Most Holy Redeemer, on Diamond Street, for services that seem to embody an almost irreconcilable contradiction: It's a thriving parish of a church that calls the sex lives of its members a mortal sin.

Each Sunday they come from all over the Bay Area, from as far away as Vallejo. While a few homeless dot the congregation, as they meet on the sidewalk they're neatly dressed, freshly pressed in tidy jeans, khakis, button-downs, and polos. There's a little flirting. They hug and joke. Latecomers hustle up the stairs.

Most Holy Redeemer (MHR to its congregants) has been ministering to gay Catholics since the AIDS crisis hit San Francisco, in the early 1980s. In a city where most Catholic churches are big, drafty places with long stretches of oak pews between huddled clumps of parishioners, MHR presents another anomaly: a full house.

It's one of the most successful parishes in the city – and what it represents is directly at odds with the beliefs and teachings of the Catholic Church, particularly those of the new pope, Benedict XVI, formerly known as the conservative doctrinal enforcer Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.

In fact, on Nov. 29, the Vatican is expected to release a new ruling aimed at cracking down on gay priests in the Catholic Church and making judgments on the morality of homosexuality.

The most recent versions reportedly include requirements that a candidate be celibate for three years before applying to the seminary to be trained as a priest. A secular Italian newspaper, Il Giornale, reported last week that the document says the Church "cannot admit to the priesthood those who practice homosexuality, present deeply rooted homosexual tendencies or support the so-called 'gay culture.'<\!q>"

The witch hunt is already well under way: In October a team of five inspectors descended on Saint Patrick's seminary in Menlo Park, with a mission to examine, among other things, evidence of homosexuality there. Its findings remain a tightly guarded secret.

But it's no secret to anyone that driving out gay priests would be, well, a bit unworkable. If the Vatican forced out all the gay seminarians and priests, particularly in San Francisco, there wouldn't be many people left to tend to the Catholic flock.

Father Donald Cozzens, author of The Changing Face of the Catholic Priesthood and head of Saint Mary Seminary in Cleveland, Ohio, estimated in his book that as many as 50 percent of American priests are gay.

"If they were to eliminate all those who were homosexually oriented ... it would mean the resignation of at least a third of the bishops of the world," said Richard Sipe, a psychotherapist and former priest.

"It would decimate the priesthood," said Most Holy Redeemer parishioner Rob Hopke, who on a recent Sunday morning was saying the rosary outside before mass.

And a darkening attitude toward gays would put the parishioners of Most Holy Redeemer in a very unpleasant spot: The only way they would be able to keep their parish openly gay and accepting of homosexuality would be to actively defy the pope – and hope the new archbishop of San Francisco, who has yet to be appointed, will let them get away with it.

MHR is about a block and a half from the strip of gay bars that have become the semiofficial social centers of San Francisco's ardently secular gay community. The sidewalk across the street from the church and up toward Collingwood Park (in front of what used to be the church's convent and is now an AIDS hospice) is a favored gay men's cruising spot.

On the surface, it's an odd location for a successful Catholic church: Many gays, especially Catholics, fled Christian religions as they discovered their own sexuality – and the Church condemned them as sinful for practicing it.

For some, "Mass" became an ironically named, long-running Sunday-evening dance party – and a religious experience of another kind.

Yet a surprising number of gay men have flocked to the priesthood.

And while the conventional explanation is that gay men entered the celibate priesthood to flee their sexuality, Most Holy Redeemer's pastor, Father Stephen Meriwether, says that more likely is what he calls the natural inclination of gay men toward the helping professions.

But since the ascension of Pope Benedict XVI this spring, and the move of San Francisco's Archbishop William Levada to Rome, the future of gays in the Catholic Church, and at Most Holy Redeemer, is very much in question. The new pope's record "has been one of unrelenting, venomous hatred for gay people," said Matt Foreman, head of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.

And that, coupled with the uncertainty of whom Pope Benedict will appoint to replace Levada as archbishop of San Francisco, has some MHR parishioners worried.

"Now, more anxiety," Hopke said. "The new archbishop is like a 'gulp,' The pool of candidates is so conservative. I think we're going to have some tough times ahead."

Still, on a recent Sunday morning, Hopke and his group were in front of the Blessed Virgin Mother statue in the bright sunlight. More people were arriving. "God's inclusive love proclaimed here," the parish bulletin said. They clumped in groups of three or four on the sidewalk. Chatting. Laughing.

Before mass, at the top of the big stairs leading to the sanctuary, Meriwether stood greeting the arrivals. The parishioners renovated the building in 2000 and rearranged the sanctuary so it would seem less daunting. The pews now surround the altar on three sides so the priest can stand out in the middle of the congregation.

Meriwether, in brightly colored vestments, hugged everyone he knew – and he knew a lot of the congregants.

Each has different personal experiences, with different levels of commitment to the faith. Mine are at the bottom of the sliding scale of devotion.

I flunked catechism because of Saturday-morning cartoons. I'd get up, still in my pajamas, and turn on the TV. I'd fold myself up in one of the living room chairs and turn the big brown Bakelite knob and watch Rocky and Bullwinkle. Dreading someone else would wake up, I'd keep the volume down until 10, when catechism was over.

The classes weren't supposed to be challenging – just show up and you'd pass. But I didn't.

Once in class I parroted a song by Tom Lehrer, the piano-playing nightclub performer and math professor from UC Santa Cruz, pleased to be able to bring something from outside the class that was relevant to the subject at hand:

First you get down on your knees

Fiddle with your rosaries

Bow your head with great respect

And genuflect, genuflect, genuflect

Do whatever steps you want if

You have cleared them with the Pontiff

Everybody say his own kyrie eleison

Doin' the Vatican Rag

The teacher sent me into the hall.

My mother had told my father that the song was blasphemous. I remember worrying whether God was listening, and if He would mind.

When I went to Saint Brigid Church in San Francisco with my mother as a kid, she had to drag me, and I sat in what was the most stultifying boredom I have ever known. Time stopped.

I can't put a finger on exactly when I became a Catholic. The process seems to have happened by osmosis and wasn't entirely voluntary. In a way, being a gay Catholic is like being a child in an abusive family, with a father who is ridiculing and forever trying to push his child away.

Ask around at Most Holy Redeemer, and many tell similar stories.

Most Holy Redeemer's organizers say that about two thirds of the 900-member congregation is gay or lesbian. Almost all the members are people who call themselves "cradle Catholics," people who were brought up in the Church. But many, usually when they started thinking of themselves as gay, drifted away. Now, they say, they've come back because Most Holy Redeemer welcomes them.

The man who for many years was president of New York City's gay and lesbian center, David Nimmons, has written books about gay social science, and he runs workshops to help gay men understand themselves. Nimmons sometimes opens the classes by saying that alienation and separation from their families – and religions – is one of the most daunting challenges facing gay men. The common perception, he says, especially in the age of AIDS, is that most gay men die alone of a horrible disease.

But Most Holy Redeemer provides a community. The feeling is palpable in the sanctuary on Sundays. "It's like coming home," one parishioner said.

Part of the Catholic Mass gives the congregation a chance to offer each other a sign of peace. In most churches, attendees give each other perfunctory handshakes, but at MHR, Meriwether wanders the front row, greeting people he knows, as others traverse the sanctuary. The ritual goes on for minutes.

And almost every time I go to Most Holy Redeemer and stand with these people, I cry.

I asked Patrick Mulcahey, who is one of the most active parishioners and has been for at least 10 years, after mass one Sunday whether he shared my weeping problem. Mulcahey was one of the organizers of MHR's supper program – where about 110 homeless people are served a sit-down meal by the parishioners and other volunteers every Wednesday.

Mulcahey stopped in his tracks at my question.

Just because I asked, I guess, his eyes started to well up. "Still?"

"Yes," he said. "Pretty often."

"Why?"

Long pause.

"They're tears of joy," he said.

Like most parishioners, he said, "It's because I feel like I'm part of something."

Catholics like me are used to fighting the hierarchy – and not just over social issues.

The church of my memories, my childhood community, was Saint Brigid. The traditionally Irish church at Van Ness Avenue and Broadway here in San Francisco was closed by the archdiocese in 1994. Saint Brigid was a thriving parish. It had 1,500 members and about three quarters of a million dollars in its parish bank account. Yet the archdiocese said it was struggling. Later, the San Francisco Examiner discovered a secret planning report that put the value of the land under Saint Brigid at more than $6 million – and drew a straight line between all that money and the decision to close the church.

This past January the archdiocese announced it wanted to demolish the 100-year-old church, sell the land underneath it, and use the $8 million it thought it could get to pay the cost of child abuse claims, rather than sell other, secular properties. I helped lead a campaign to stop the demolition.

And we won, sort of. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors, in particular president Aaron Peskin, made it clear to the archdiocese that it would never get a permit to demolish the building. And when Archbishop Levada was promoted to Rome, and our group made overtures toward purchasing and renovating the church, the archdiocese's property manager assured us "absolutely nothing will happen to Saint Brigid until the new archbishop is installed."

Two months later the archdiocese sold Saint Brigid to the Academy of Art College to be turned into a lecture hall.

At a typical mass, after the gospel reading, Meriwether takes to the floor for his homily. He wanders among the congregants, a wireless microphone clipped to his vestments, but his preaching has the character of a chat between friends.

Torn between the doctrine of his church and his duty to his parishioners, he is careful not to criticize his superiors. Before Benedict's election, Most Holy Redeemer parishioners predicted a more moderate cleric would be elevated to pope. When Benedict took over, Meriwether joked in his homily, "I went into retreat for a week."

As Cardinal Ratzinger, Benedict was the author of the infamous 1986 Halloween letter, in which he described homosexuality as "a more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil; and thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder." At the same time, he banished Dignity, a gay Catholic group, from meeting on Church property – a ban that remains in effect to this day.

A few days ago, in an interview in a Castro Street coffee shop around the corner from the church, Meriwether, 53, graying and in a button-down shirt and slacks, worried out loud about what might happen to Most Holy Redeemer under a homophobic pope and a new archbishop – especially in the wake of the Saint Brigid sale.

"Which of course frightens even people at MHR. They're always wondering, 'When is it going to happen to us?"<\!q>" Meriwether told me. "Because they can't be happy with us.... I think the diocese would like to see us keep a very low profile.... What does that mean, you're supposed to crawl under a rock? You can't ask people to do that. It's a very ambivalent attitude."

Meriwether thinks that even though the Vatican's policy on gay priests hasn't been released yet, "what they're saying is that if you're willing to deny it, then that's OK."

What the archdiocese could easily do, Meriwether said, is to muzzle the congregation by forbidding members to march in the gay pride parade, which they do every June, and by forbidding them to place their advertising in gay newspapers like the Bay Area Reporter. By making them less visible, it could push MHR's parishioners back toward the closet and again make the people whom the Church drove away once, painfully reconsider their decision to come back. And it could cause those people a lot of pain.

"Most Holy Redeemer is a real flash point for conservative Catholics," Meriwether said.

If the archdiocese came down hard on Most Holy Redeemer, how would he feel? "Very compromised.... As pastor, yes, you have to uphold the teaching and the discipline of the Church, but you also have to be a father to your parishioners," he said. Would Most Holy Redeemer be closed entirely? Ironically, because MHR isn't financially successful, that seems unlikely. Meriwether said that, at least in part because, unlike Saint Brigid, which had about $750,000 in its bank account when it was closed, MHR still owes for the 2000 renovation – about a million dollars.

The debt is a sort of poison pill the archdiocese would have to swallow if it decided to finally silence the church.

Meriwether said the Catholic Church in San Francisco would have a difficult time recruiting new members from outside its traditional bases, what he called "touchstone Catholics," because the people the Church might attract to its core values of charity and caring for others object to its stance on issues like divorce and contraception.

"The divorced and remarried cannot receive the Eucharist. So they're in a bind," Meriwether said, noting that the Church constantly reminds the divorced and remarried that they're full, participating members of the Church – and should live out the life of the Church to the fullness of their capacity – except they can't receive the central mystery of the Church.

"That's not something that a local bishop can change.... That obviously is a major obstacle," he said.

So the Catholic Church, in a place like San Francisco, will probably have trouble with evangelization – except with those it has already inculcated, somehow, early on in their childhood.

Like me.

On the telephone from Virginia, Mel White, who leads Soulforce, exploded with invective when I asked him about Pope Benedict.

"Now you have a warlord at the top. He has literally come straight out of the Middle Ages and taken control of the Church," White said.

His group says its mission is "freedom for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people from religious and political oppression through the practice of relentless nonviolent resistance." Three members of his group were arrested at the US Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington, DC, in 2002, where the bishops developed a response to the pedophilia scandal in the Church that White said was inadequate and opaque response.

Soulforce went to Rome six weeks ago to try to meet with Vatican officials and speak for gays and lesbians in the Church. "They called the Swiss Guard on us because we wouldn't leave," he said.

White said the Catholic Church is the last major organization in the West with an antidemocratic structure. "The Church has to be taken back by those who own it, just like the country was here, 200 years ago."

But Meriwether said he doesn't hold out much hope for the democratization of the Church.

Unlike in a civil revolution, where the revolutionaries get control of the palace and get to build their own government, the pope is unlikely to step down. So activists will have to change minds, not rulers.

"Although the Church speaks favorably of democracy, it's not our favorite form of government. We're really harkening back to the Catholic monarch who is going to enforce what we consider to be good and just laws. That's his responsibility ..."

Otherwise known as feudalism?

"Yep, yep," Meriwether said.

Torn both outside and in, White thinks America's disenfranchised Catholics have two choices. "If the Church is destroying your spirit, then you've got to get out of it. But if you're in a good local church, then you've got to stay and fight.

"This priest [Meriwether] needs your help, and you need to stand behind him."

But the odds are terrible. White told the story of Alfredo Ormando, a gay Sicilian writer who lit himself on fire in Saint Peter's Square, in January 1998, and died in protest of the treatment of gays in the Church. White said the Vatican refuses even to speak about the incident.

"I hope they'll understand the message I want to leave," Ormando wrote. "It is a form of protest against the Church that demonizes homosexuality and at the same time all of nature, because homosexuality is a child of Mother Nature."

In 1999, in a ruling authored by Cardinal Ratzinger, the Vatican silenced Sister Jeannine Gramick and Father Robert Nugent, a nun and priest who ran an affirming ministry for gays and lesbians.

"For the good of the Catholic faithful," the future pope wrote to their superiors, "... they are permanently prohibited from any pastoral work involving homosexual persons and are ineligible, for an undetermined period, for any office in their respective religious institutes."

In addition to the churches, San Francisco's archbishop runs several programs, which get the bulk of their funding from the city government. Out of a total budget of about $24 million, Catholic Charities CYO gets about $17 million of that directly from the city of San Francisco.

The money goes to operating HIV service centers and homeless shelters. According to the city official who administers the contracts for the city, Dave Curto, there are no religious overtones, and they can't be religious-based services.

Curto, who used to work for Catholic Charities, says Catholic Charities has a separate board, of which the archbishop is the chair. And the board, according to both Curto and Meriwether, has many gay and lesbian members. But ultimately, Meriwether says, the archbishop makes the decisions.

Catholic Charities almost lost its funding when the city enacted its 1996 Equal Benefits Ordinance, which requires anyone doing business with the city to give its employees' domestic partners the same benefits it gives spouses.

Catholic Charities ultimately agreed to a compromise whereby it pays benefits to one other member of an employee's household (never mind who they are, an aunt, a brother, a spouse, or a domestic partner) and so avoids any discussion of what sorts of relationships its employees might get into.

Sup. Tom Ammiano, himself a gay Catholic, helped craft that compromise.

"If any organization that gets funding from the city discriminates in any way, their funding is in serious jeopardy," Ammiano said.

He called the Church's hierarchy "hermetically sealed."

In 2002 many hoped the child abuse scandals that were then coming to a head would bring accountability to the management of the Church. But that appears not to have happened. In Boston the diocese is in litigation with the congregations of several healthy parishes that were closed to raise money to pay abuse claims. Even the appearance of public accountability in the abuse crisis in San Francisco vaporized when the founding chair of the independent review board assigned to look into abuse claims resigned last November, accusing Church leaders of "deception, manipulation, and control" after Archbishop Levada blocked the release of the panel's findings.

"I think one can have a spiritual hunger and not be doctrinaire," Ammiano said. "I think that the Church in general requests that – and has displayed its own hypocrisy over the years. Yet we still decide to stay with it – and for that we get rejected.

"So go figure."

Out on the sidewalk in front of Most Holy Redeemer after a mass this summer, City Attorney Dennis Herrera joined the group of well-wishers after his press secretary, Matt Dorsey, was confirmed, at age 40, into the Catholic Church.

For me, as for many, the teachings of the Church – "Love God. Love your neighbor" – are inextricably knotted up in Catholic ritual. To say, "I'm no longer Catholic," would be to throw the whole I-thought-settled question of what is good and bad, or right and wrong, back into debate. It would flick my moral compass like the spinner on a board game.

Dorsey's too. He's decided to fight. "Because it's my faith and my tradition," Dorsey wrote to me after the ceremony, "and I have as much right to be Catholic as the pope.

"The fact that I consider the Republican leadership of the federal government abhorrent doesn't make me seriously consider leaving the United States. Why would I abandon my church because of its leadership?

"Besides, the biggest threat to the liberal tradition of the Catholic Church isn't conservatives in the Vatican – it's apathetic liberals. If anything, this papacy should make liberal Catholics more determined to be a part of their church, not less.

"Don't you think?"