Catholic Priest Speaks About Church Stance on Sexuality





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Before UC Berkeley junior Miguel Barrera came out to his mother about his sexual orientation when he was a freshman in college, he had already informed an even higher authority.

Barrera's dialogue with God as a gay Catholic had begun two years earlier.

Now Barrera helps facilitate a small, confidential support group every Tuesday night at UC Berkeley's Newman Hall Catholic Center for other students who hope for a similar discourse with both God and one other.

"People aren't afraid to come to our student group," Barrera says. "We see the church as a sacred space where we can share our experiences."

Barrera was among those who gathered yesterday evening at Newman Hall to hear the words of their resident priest, Father Richard Sparks. Sparks, who is considered an authority on sexuality within the national Catholic community, called his talk, "What the Catholic Church Really Teaches About Homosexuality."

"I think the talk will allow both Catholics and others to have a more honest picture of the Catholic Church," Sparks says during an interview before the talk. "It might not be as bad as they originally thought, but it might not be as open as they had hoped."

Sparks' casual tone helped the small group ease into a difficult topic. Handouts were provided as he guided the audience through the official doctrine of the Catholic Church.

According to the church's position, which shifted drastically in the mid-1960s, being a gay man or a lesbian woman is not morally wrong because one's homosexuality is discovered and not chosen.

For the Catholic gay and lesbian community, however, there is a catch.

The more recent text "Human Sexuality," written in 1990 by the Catholic Bishops of the United States, clarifies the church's traditional belief that "homosexual genital activity is immoral" because it does not incorporate the "potential of co-creating new human life."

The church calls on all homosexual people, as well as their single heterosexual counterparts, to abstain from sexual activity.

Sparks, who helped write the text, says that while the UC Berkeley parish is in concordance with the teachings of the church, he understands that to focus simply on a person's "sexual activity," whether moral or immoral, is far too narrow a ministry.

"There are more needs that the church can serve," he says. "I want someone to feel safe and at home. It's only then that a person can face the questions and issues that arise in life."

Yet for some, certain issues cannot be reconciled within the church.

Bernard Schlager, program director for the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies in Religion and Ministry in Berkeley, says he includes himself among those disenchanted by the church's teaching on homosexuality.

No longer a practicing Catholic, Schlager discovered he was gay after he entered a religious order.

"I wondered how a God could create a person who is gay and then, as part of the package, make it sinful for him to express sexually his gayness," Schlager says.

Some gay Catholics, he says, might resolve Schlager's question with hushed whispers of a mystery. Some simply walk away from the church.

Others seek out a parish like Most Holy Redeemer of the Castro District in San Francisco, where almost 85 percent of the congregation is gay or lesbian.

"The parish doesn't take any positive or negative stance on official church teachings," says Father Donal Godfrey, a student at the University of San Francisco who is focusing on Most Holy Redeemer for his Doctorate of Ministry. "The practice is one of acceptance."

Godfrey says that while he fully acknowledges the teachings of the church, he also recognizes that "compartmentalizing" one's sexuality can be damaging.

"All people act out of their sexuality," he says. "A gay person who is celibate is still acting out as a gay person. When people try to separate themselves into body and soul, it's not helpful."

Like Sparks, Godfrey says gay men and women should not be defined by a small part of who they are as people.

"At a place like Most Holy Redeemer, gays and lesbians can pray as whole human beings," Godfrey says. "Here, he or she can pray without shame."

For Schlager, a parish like Most Holy Redeemer is symbolic of his hopes for change. As a former professor of medieval history, he supports those Catholic scholars who examine church doctrine in the context of the time period.

"The church has changed its mind on many things in the past-it has changed its position on human slavery, and it is no longer opposed to money lending," he says. "My hope is that one day the church's teachings will be more humanely and realistically revised."

Whether the Catholic Church remains firmly planted in sexual moral tradition or chooses to bend farther to the progressive left, Billy Curtis, UC Berkeley's Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Services coordinator, says he will continue to applaud UC Berkeley's Newman Hall as a model parish of tolerance.

"Newman Hall has been one of the most affirming Catholic organizations on a college campus that I have ever encountered," he says. "We have something very special."

Barrera, echoing Curtis' praises, says he feels safe at Newman Hall.

"In my relationship with God, I felt I could come out," he says. "I never felt that because I am gay I should be excluded from the church."

Barrera says he is grateful for Newman Hall. Finally, he says, he has come to a place where he feels accepted as a gay Catholic.

Barrera says he feels far away from his former community, a conservative, agricultural town near Fresno, Calif., where few dared to suggest that homosexuality and spirituality could be intertwined.

It is possible to merge the two sensitive themes, Barrera says, especially in a group in which students of all faiths, sexual orientations and gender are welcomed.

"Before I came to Cal, I had no idea that it was OK to be Catholic and gay," Barrera says. "I feel like I finally have a community within the church."

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