In the Catholic Church, confirming your faith involves one small word and a whole lot to swallow. It's a simple task, receiving communion, but in my religion class, it warranted a rehearsal. I practiced walking in line down my teacher's lawn, my right hand beneath my left, in an obedient gang of beggars. At the end of the line, a simple "Amen" won me a Saltine, a kind substitution for the bland wafer I had yet to taste.
Days later I strutted down the aisle of Saint Patrick's Roman Catholic Church in a miniature wedding dress and my first pair of kitten heels. With a confident affirmation of my faith and a rushed sign of the cross came a harsh reality. There was no divine intervention, no secrets of life suddenly revealed. I knelt and prayed until my knees bore marks from the scratchy red fabric, willing a response that would never come. The mystery of faith no longer seemed like such a mystery; it was just a bad snack.
I continued on as a Christmas and Easter Catholic, one in a town of many. On holidays our masses were standing room only; the next weekend the pews were left empty. There was nothing standing between me and my faith, nor was there anything holding me to it. It wasn't until college when I met wives Maria Carandang and Lisa Atansio that I questioned Catholicism once again. This time the problem was its position on gay marriage, even for those simply attending the wedding.
On the eve of Maria's backyard wedding, she practiced her walk down the aisle as the rain poured down and her heels sank into the damp grass. The once promising forecast now predicted below-average temperatures and certain rainfall. Waiting inside the sliding glass doors was her fiancé, Lisa, who had more on her mind than the impending rain.
"I was nervous. I was so nervous," Lisa tells me. "Being gay, you never think that you're going to get married someday." Maria, Lisa, and I are nestled in the back of a loud Irish pub in Chicago's gay-friendly Andersonville neighborhood. They've graciously accepted my request for an interview about the difficulties in wedding planning for gay couples. Instead, the conversation shifted to Lisa's brother, a pastor, who would not attend her wedding.
"It's against my religion and against what I believe in," Lisa says, paraphrasing an email her brother sent just weeks before the ceremony. "I love you and Maria and I want you to be happy, but I can't support it. I can't come."
Slowly rotating her sweating glass between her fingers, Lisa looks up at her wife before returning my gaze. "I understand where he's coming from; it's what he believes," she says. "I'm not going to do something I don't believe in."
While absent at his sister's backyard wedding, Lisa's brother visits her home for Thanksgiving dinner each year. "He sees us holding hands at our house, where there are pictures from our wedding framed on the walls," Lisa says. "If he doesn't accept [homosexuality] but he loves me, I can get that. But then how does he come to our home, eat our food and enjoy our company?"
Sipping on a Diet Coke and laughing about the most recent episode of Modern Family, I am enjoying their company. I would have happily attended their wedding ceremony last June. But as a Catholic, could I attend? Is there a distinction between enjoying their company and witnessing their union? I called a family friend, now a Monsignor in the Catholic Church, for counsel.
After five minutes of convincing over a crackling phone connection that I was not, in fact, coming out of the closet, he explained that the Catholic Church believes in "upholding the dignity of people with same-sex attractions," but only recognizes marriage as between a man and a woman. "Many religious bodies, including the Catholic Church, believe marriage has something in its nature that we can't just change."
I recounted the story of Lisa and her brother, the pastor. He exhaled loudly before pausing to think. "You're going to love that person in any way you can," he finally answered. "But you would not be able, nor would I be able, to be present or to support something that we do not recognize as a reality."
There was my answer. Whether you're a pastor, a Monsignor, or a parishioner, same-sex weddings are off limits. By that standard, was I still a Catholic?
I don't go to church every Sunday. My knowledge of the Bible is largely based off of the television series of the same name. I don't say grace before I eat, and I don't want to be married in a church.
I believe in God. I believe in Jesus Christ, his son. I believe in the healing power of faith. I was baptized and confirmed as a Catholic, though my faith has never been put to the test. Before attending Northwestern University, I had never met a gay man or woman. I have never been invited to a same-sex wedding. But within minutes of meeting Lisa and Maria, I knew I would have attended theirs. I would choose witnessing their happiness over adhering to my faith. For a member of my family I would no doubt do the same.
Maria's family made the same decision. "My parents, who are devout Catholics from the Philippines, attended the ceremony to support me." Their presence made it difficult for Maria to understand her brother-in-law's position. "If you wish your sister well and you know this is the happiest day of her life, how can you not share that with her?"
Catholics around the world are faced with reconciling their support for their loved ones with the teachings of their faith. Sometimes the choice is easy; sometimes the choice leaves a family divided. Ten months after her wedding, Lisa's brother invited his family to attend his celebration of Easter mass. Maria quickly refused. Lisa considered attending, but used the three-hour drive and their sick father as an excuse. "Why should I support him when he didn't support me?" she asks.
To Lisa and Maria, support doesn't have to mean acceptance. "I wanted him to share her happiness, not to change his opinion," Maria says.
But as a Catholic, was it possible to do one without the other? Once again, I turned to my priest. "One cannot discriminate on the basis of age. One cannot discriminate on the basis of gender. One cannot discriminate on the basis of orientation," he responded. Discrimination, in this sense, refers to shunning your sister because of her sexual orientation but not to refusing to attend her wedding.
The latter situation has to do with listening to your conscience, which, "as Catholics, must be informed by the teaching of the Church." My conscience, however, is informed by so much more. It's informed by the philosophy of my parents: who are we to judge? It's informed by the culture at my liberal university. It's informed by my love and support for my family and friends.
"Being gay doesn't define me," Lisa told me. Being Catholic doesn't define me, I thought. It's easy to accept their message of love, sacrifice, and support. It's harder when they don't practice what they preach. And so I continue on, a Catholic in name but only partly in practice, at least until a wedding invitation forces me to say otherwise. It's easy to identify as a Catholic. It's not so easy to be one.