One of the most complex issues facing Pope Francis is how the church can minister to gay Catholics and their families. Many gay, lesbian and transgendered people have left the Roman Catholic Church because of its teaching that homosexual behavior is quote “intrinsically disordered.” Now, a growing number of parents are defecting too. And they’re often people who have often been pillars of their parish community.
COUNTERPOINT: How traditional Catholics approach homosexual members of the church
Toni and Tom Weaver’s home in McHenry County is filled with family portraits of their three sons, whom they raised steeped in the religious traditions of the Catholic church.
“I was about as active in the church as a layperson could be,” Toni Weaver said, “I was an organist, a choir leader, daily Mass. I lived for the church. The church was so much a part of my life that I couldn’t imagine my life without it.”
Then came the college graduation of Weaver’s youngest son, Michael. He’s a former Peace Corps volunteer, a pianist, avid skier and tennis player.
“Our son waited until the day after he graduated from college when, in absolutely classic fashion, he leaned forward in the car and said, ‘Mom, Dad, I have something to tell you. I’m gay.’ We couldn’t wait to get home and get out of the car so both of us could just embrace him and assure that him everything was okay,” Toni Weaver said.
She said that open reaction wouldn’t have always been the case
“If he had come out to me 10 years earlier, I’m not sure what my response would have been,” Toni said. “I was definitely very traditionally Catholic and had even been moving in Evangelical circles. I was the first one to preach that homosexuality was wrong.”
But Weaver said she came to a fuller understanding of homosexuality when she began studying for a master’s degree in theology:
“Here were people who were gay who were being treated atrociously, and they were being denied their basic rights, and they were the butt of jokes,” she said. “It finally dawned on me that people don’t choose their sexual orientation. That for me was an absolute turning point, and I attribute it to the work of the spirit.”
She thought she could change others’ attitudes. But then she and her husband heard a letter read from the pulpit, criticizing same-sex marriage and civil unions.
“I think that was the first time I felt slapped in the face by my church,” Toni said. “And when I heard this coming from the pulpit, I didn’t know what to do. (Cries.) I stood up, we were sitting in the middle of the pew. I stood up, and I turned toward the door and walked out. I grieved the church for 18 months. I grieved it. Something had died in my life.”
Weaver and her husband, Tom, haven’t attended any church since. She said she has moved on, but her husband is still bitter.
“Jesus did not preach hate,” Tom Weaver said. “He did not teach his followers to ignore or dismiss any other individual. Jesus is known for going out for the people who were the least loved in society. That’s not the church we have today.”
Father Bill Tkachuk of St. Nicholas Parish in Evanston said the church needs to be more sensitive to families in the way it talks about gays and gay issues: “Speaking in the language that people can hear with their hearts and accept with their hearts, as opposed to a more academic language that can be received as very hurtful, even if it’s not intended that way.”
His parishioners recently wrote to Cardinal Francis George of Chicago. They objected to a letter in which the cardinal called civil unions a “legal fiction,” and gay marriage “contrary to the common sense of the human race.”
“We do not understand the disconnection between us and our leaders,” said Barbara Marian, who has a daughter, a nephew and three nieces who are lesbian or gay.
“We live with love for these neighbors, colleagues and children and we see them as whole persons,” Marian said. “We don’t focus on the small part of their lives that involves their genitalia.”
Marian and her husband say they received “zero support” for their lesbian daughter from their local parish. Now they travel an hour from their home in Harvard, Ill., to Father Bill’s parish in Evanston. They are determined to remain within the church.
"I am Catholic through and through and through,” Marian said. “There is no separating me from the church. Although it brings me to my knees with anger and tears when the bishops make a statement and strafe my community, I bleed.”
“I’ve told my pastor, I said, ‘To me my whole religion is this parish. It stays within the confines of this parish,' " Norm Bowers said. "I have nothing anymore to do with the hierarchy and what comes out of Rome.”
Norm Bowers said he was offended by that and by a column in a Catholic paper. A priest wrote that children raised by gay couples might grow up “confused.”
“I said to myself, which Catholic who has a brain isn’t confused in the Catholic church today?” Norm Bowers said. He still attends Mass. But his wife has given up on the church.
“We’re still back in the 4th century with St Augustine,” Mary Jo Bowers said. “They haven’t moved forward intellectually, or integrated new information into their thinking.”
Like the Bowers, many parents of gays think the new Pope might at least listen to their concerns. They are less hopeful that he will actually change the church’s current teaching.
WBEZ's Greta Johnsen helped produce this report.