Even the world’s most hierarchical religious institution isn’t immune to broader social changes, though. This month, Catholic bishops are in Rome for the second of two synods, or meetings, about the topic of family and marriage. Already, there’s been drama between conservative and progressive prelates, with the former accusing the latter of trying to change Church teachings in a fundamental way. Gay marriage isn’t even close to being on the table; at most, the bishops might issue guidance on how to minister to LGBT Catholics, as some hinted at last fall’s gathering.
This is the world of the clergy. But the world of the faithful isn’t necessarily the same. In America and elsewhere, there are already gay Catholic families attending Mass, taking communion, and living out their faith. And while some in the official Church hierarchy might not accept them, a lot of Catholic leaders do. Before the pope’s visit, for example, the Fores told the music director they’re a gay family. But “she was like, ‘Ok, welcome, you know, whatever,’” said Annmarie.
“Sometimes it’s easier to walk away and not stay in the struggle,” Claire said. “But I think in this instance, we need to stay, because who is anybody to say that God doesn’t love us?”
“And Jesus is our model for that,” Annmarie added. “The Pharisees, the leaders of his church—he challenged their laws, and came to bring some of the flaws of his faith to light. Why would we not be called to do that?
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In most all religions, those who take a more traditional view are often assumed to be the authentic owners of their faith. These rule-keepers may fear the erosion of traditional teachings, the mix of secularism and orthodoxy; to them, doctrinal change represents a potentially existential threat. As the dissenting bishops allegedly wrote in their letter to Pope Francis at the synod in Rome: “The collapse of liberal Protestant churches in the modern era, accelerated by their abandonment of key elements of Christian belief and practice in the name of pastoral adaptation, warrants great caution in our own synodal discussions.”
Particularly in America, this fear is most powerful on issues that have to do with sex. The topics the Church construes as “family issues”—pre-marital sex, divorce, contraception, abortion, and homosexuality—sometimes seem to consume the rhetoric, and spending, of Catholic leaders in the United States. This may be one reason for the bleeding of America’s pews: Those whose lives don’t fit the mold of lifelong, heterosexual marital fidelity may not feel they have a place among Jesus’s flock.
The easy retort, of course, is that people can’t just pick and choose the tenets of their faith—those who do are “cafeteria Catholics.” And, yes, some Americans are partially observant, uneducated, lapsed, or nominal Catholics, whether by upbringing or necessity or complete personal okay-ness with their level of observance. But it’s a little difficult to level that accusation at the Fores. Not to be all like, they’re former nuns!, but: They’re former nuns—women religious, technically, but “nun” is the word they used to describe themselves. When a woman is thinking about becoming a religious sister, she goes through what’s called a discernment process—intense self-reflection on whether God is calling her to this vocation, or life’s work. She picks a specific order she’s interested in joining, often for its charism, or particular kind of spirituality or area of focus. When Annmarie decided to leave the Franciscan sisters, she had been in this process of “formation” with the community for four years. Claire was 40; she had already been part of the community for 18 years and had taken final vows.