Former Boston priest Jon Schum does not think of himself as a renegade, but he goes against the Roman Catholic Church's official teachings: He lives in a committed relationship with another man and performs commitment ceremonies for gay and lesbian couples.
Schum never sought out opportunities to officiate at same-sex ceremonies. But people who heard about him through Dignity, a gay Catholic organization, asked him to help them celebrate their unions “in the context of their Catholic traditions.”
The half-dozen ceremonies Schum has performed over the past two years have had most of the trappings of a Catholic wedding, including scripture readings and exchanged vows and rings. He believes they are fully Catholic in substance as well. “The love between gay and lesbian persons is just as real, just as authentic, just as holy, just as sacramental, as the love between any married persons,” Schum says.
The church hierarchy, however, strongly opposes any recognition for same-sex unions, either within the church or in law. “There are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God's plan for marriage and family,” the Vatican said in a doctrinal statement on July 31. The statement said Catholic lawmakers have “a moral duty” to oppose any moves to recognize gay marriage.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops had earlier issued a similar statement opposing “attempts to grant the legal status of marriage” to same-sex relationships. “No same-sex union can realize the full and unique potential which the marital relationship expresses,” the conference's secretariat for family, laity, women and youth said in a June 3 policy statement.
The blessing of same-sex unions also is opposed by most other U.S. denominations, including Eastern Orthodoxy, the Southern Baptist Convention and other evangelical Protestant denominations, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Orthodox and Conservative branches of Judaism, and Islam.
The Episcopal Church U.S.A. officially recognized the blessing of same-sex unions at its August convention in Minneapolis but declined to establish a liturgy for those ceremonies. The compromise culminated a tumultuous convention dominated by a sharp debate over the eventual election of an openly gay priest, V. Gene Robinson, as bishop of New Hampshire.
Among other mainline Protestant denominations, the United Methodist Church bans same-sex ceremonies while the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. allows clergy to officiate at same-sex rituals but specifies that such events differ from marriages. The Evangelical Lutheran Church plans a report on the issue in 2005.
Meanwhile, ministers in the predominantly gay Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches have performed same-sex commitment ceremonies since 1968. The Unitarian Universalist Association and the United Church of Christ advocate tolerance for same-sex unions. Judaism's liberal Reform branch gives rabbis the option of presiding at gay commitment ceremonies.
Clergy members who perform same-sex ceremonies see their roles as part of their pastoral duties. “I consider myself a priest who is trying to live out his ministry in the best way possible,” Schum says. “This is the work that I'm called to do.”
Schum says he was “angry,” but not surprised, by the Vatican statement on same-sex marriage. “The tone of the letter is cruel,” he says. “It's uninformed. It's unjust. It just reflects the unwillingness of the hierarchy to have any kind of dialogue with gay and lesbian Catholics and to have any kind of dialogue about the new knowledge about homosexuality.”
Marianne Duddy, former executive director of Dignity, has similar reactions to the Vatican statement today, five years after she was “married” to her partner by a Catholic priest. “I felt incredibly sad and incredibly attacked,” says Duddy, a clinical social worker in Boston. “The Vatican is totally depersonalizing us.”
The Vatican statement also opposed adoption by gay or lesbian persons, saying it “would actually mean doing violence to these children” because it would put them in unhealthy home environments. Duddy, who is in the process of adopting a foster daughter who has lived with her and her partner since early 2002, says that part of the statement was “especially hurtful.”
U.S. Catholics appear divided on the issue. A survey by the Pew Forum on Religion in Public Life last spring found support for gay marriage among U.S. Catholics had increased to 38 percent from 27 percent in 1996. The survey was conducted before the U.S. Supreme Court's decision striking down state anti-sodomy laws in late June. Other polls since that time have indicated a decline in public support for gay marriage.
Specifically, a Washington Post poll conducted in August just after the Episcopal Church's action found that a large majority of Americans — 60 percent — oppose church sanctions of homosexual relationships. In fact, nearly half of all church-going Americans said they would leave their churches if their minister blessed gay couples. Slightly fewer — 58 percent — opposed civil unions, which would grant gay partners some of the legal rights of married couples without the involvement of a religious institution.