Because their Catholic faith is against same-sex marriage, Bryan Victor and Thomas Molina-Duarte made their wedding vows this summer before a Protestant minister in a Detroit Episcopal church.
Those in attendance included many family members, including Victor’s uncle, who is a Catholic priest and Macomb County pastor. The Rev. Ronald Victor did not officiate but was there because, he told his nephew, the Catholic Church “needs more examples of gay holiness.”
When Victor and Molina-Duarte attend Mass every Sunday, the couple go to an east side Detroit Catholic church, where Bryan Victor’s mom and dad join them in the pew. In their shared Catholic faith, Victor and Molina-Duarte find spiritual sustenance. And at their parish, they’ve also found acceptance.
“We remain in the church rather than leaving,” said Bryan Victor, 30, a Wayne State University doctoral student in social work. “The reason is that it’s my faith. It’s one of my guides. It’s how I treat people. It gives me a deep sense of community.”
The practice of his Catholic faith, said Molina-Duarte, 29, a leadership coordinator for the Highland Park Ruth Ellis Center, which serves many LGBT youth, “is right and life-affirming for me.
“If it challenges things,” said Molina-Duarte, “that’s more of an afterthought.”
But the Catholic Church is being universally challenged from the pews to the pulpit, by the evolving ways society and many everyday Catholics include and welcome LGBT people.
It was a year of triumph for the LGBT community because the U.S. Supreme Court declared same-sex marriage legal throughout the country. Yet gay Catholics still wrestle with their church’s condemnation of homosexuality as “disordered” and the church’s prohibition against same-sex marriage.
Pope Francis has signaled a more inclusive tone toward LGBT people, through his words and actions, even as his open-arms position draws fire from some conservative Catholics. But doors continue to open.
In 2012, Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn overruled an Austrian priest who wanted to ban a gay Catholic man, in a civil registered domestic partnership with another man, from taking his seat on the parish council after other parishioners elected him.
Retired Detroit Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, a longtime advocate for liberal Catholic causes, often describes how he came to be an outspoken supporter of gay rights in the years after his brother came out as a gay man. When Gumbleton’s elderly mother asked him if her gay son, in a committed relationship with another man the family had come to know and love, was “going to hell,” Gumbleton assured her otherwise.
“That’s how God wanted him to be. That’s who he is,” Gumbleton said he told her, as he spoke Saturday at a meeting of the Fortunate Families support group for Catholic families with gay family members. The group is not officially recognized by the Catholic Church.
Gumbleton said Catholic teaching has long allowed Catholics to let their consciences, in part, be their guide in participating in the church’s rituals and sacraments, even when they may be at odds with church teachings. Gumbleton predicted Catholic teaching against same-sex unions eventually will change, as he noted did its onetime support of slavery and capital punishment.
“It’s clear the movement is there,” said Gumbleton, “but it takes a long time for the teaching to permeate the whole church, and people will fight it.”
Society’s changing norms, however, will not change church teaching that sex is for a man and a woman united in marriage, said Catholic moral theologian Janet Smith, a professor at Detroit’s Sacred Heart Major Seminary and an adviser to the Vatican’s Pontifical Council on the Family.
Jesus encountered many who “were misusing their sexuality,” said Smith, noting that refers to “cohabitors, adulterers, fornicators, you name it.”
“He treated them very lovingly, and he wants them under his roof,” said Smith, “but his words to them were that they should repent and sin no more.”
To receive the Catholic sacrament of communion at Mass, said Smith, Catholics should be in a state of “sanctifying grace.” That means, said Smith, that “you don’t have on your soul any of what we call sins that involve serious rejections of God’s plan for the world, including the church’s teachings on sexuality.”
Detroit Archbishop Allen Vigneron said through a spokesman that he couldn’t comment for this story without knowing more specifics about the men. Officially, the archdiocese offers the ministry program Courage, to urge gay Catholics to abstain from sex; and another program, EnCourage, to counsel Catholic families with gay members.
At the men’s wedding ceremony, family was in force.
“They are two very holy guys,” Catholic priest Ronald (Ron) Victor said of his nephew and nephew-in-law. “I do see their union as being sacred and sacramental, in the sense that it reflects God’s love.”
To officiate at their wedding could have led to discipline by his superiors. But Ron Victor, the pastor of St. Isidore Catholic parish in Macomb, said he had considered blessing their union privately, although his nephew told him the couple didn’t want anything clandestine or controversial.
The priest and his nephew became close when Ron Victor was assigned to a St. Clair Shores parish, where Bryan attended elementary school. After the school day, instead of going to latchkey to wait for his working parents to pick him up, Bryan went to the rectory.
“It’s been one of those things when somebody you know and love a lot comes out, it kind of changes your perspective,” said Ron Victor.
Ron Victor said he was moved by the wedding ceremony, and at the same time, “a little angry and a little disappointed that we couldn’t do it in a church where I could have officiated.”
He said he believes many priests would be open to blessing same-sex unions, although “they can’t be real public with that.”
Ron Victor said he’s comfortable being public with it now. Through his priesthood, he said he has tried to practice what Pope Francis so poignantly and pointedly captured with his famous observation about gay Catholics.
The priest said he doesn’t know the transgressions or every sin of all who present themselves for Communion. “As long as they’re seeking God, who am I to judge,” said the priest, citing the pope’s memorable expression.
The church calls gay sex “intrinsically disordered” because it cannot result in procreation. Yet Ron Victor said the caring, monogamous relationship between his nephew and Molina-Duarte “reflects God’s love.”
“While it’s not necessarily life-giving in a biological way,” said the priest, “it’s life-giving in other ways.”
Other members of the couple’s families agree.
Lennie Victor, Bryan’s father and Ron’s sibling, said he’s never heard his brother the priest “tell people how they should behave or what they should believe.”
“If the church makes you choose between your family and your faith,” said Lennie Victor, of him and his wife Maureen, “I guess we voted for family.”
“I’m very proud of them,” said Nancy Kiely, Molina-Duarte’s mother. She’s a nurse whose Catholic volunteer work was recently honored by the Archdiocese of Hartford, Conn. “Hopefully, things will change. I don’t know whether it will be in my lifetime. Honestly, it was the best wedding I’ve ever been to.”
Pope Francis, said Molina-Duarte, “completely flips the script” when it comes to ministering to gay Catholics.
Pope Francis, while not changing church teaching against gay unions, has made outreach to LGBT people a hallmark of his papacy. When the pope visited the U.S. in September, he met privately with a former student, who is gay, and the man’s partner. But that came after another revelation that confused and contradicted previous papal images of the pope’s outreach to gays – when Francis also privately met with the Kentucky county clerk who refused to issue gay marriage licenses.
Still, said Bryan Victor, the pope “doesn’t operate out of fear … and has a gospel of encounter with those on the margins.”
Although Catholic teaching says their union and their love are sins, both men say they are at home, and even at peace, in a Catholic church. They have not encountered condemnation or cruelty. Only one relative refused the invitation to their wedding because of opposition to homosexuality.
Both men are Catholic school graduates, and both stopped going to church as young men wrestling with coming out.
“I think for my own mental health, I stepped away,” said Molina-Duarte.
Said Victor: “I came out because I was suffocating and clinically depressed. Living in the closet is a health hazard.”
The two met in late 2010 through a mutual friend in Chicago, where Molina-Duarte was living at the time. Together they found a mutual commitment to social justice issues. They had a long-distance relationship as Victor studied for a master’s degree in social work at the University of Michigan. Victor found himself missing the ritual and inspiration he found at Catholic Mass, and Molina-Duarte began to join him at services in Ann Arbor.
“I felt too unattached from regular church life,” said Victor. “I wanted to embed myself in the life of the church.”
And because of Victor’s faith, Molina-Duarte said he could imagine a spiritual home for himself.
“I hadn’t met someone my age who was gay and had a deep and respectful reverence for the church,” said Molina-Duarte. “Bryan was able to have both.”
Victor and Molina-Duarte moved to Detroit in 2012. They attended Masses at a few parishes, but felt most engaged and most welcomed at St. Charles Borromeo near Van Dyke and Kercheval in Detroit’s West Village neighborhood. Bryan’s paternal grandparents grew up in the parish and were married there.
The congregation is integrated and active, with outreach to group homes for disabled and elderly people on East Grand Blvd. At St. Charles, at the point in the Mass where Catholics exchange the Sign of Peace handshake, there’s a five-minute interlude where folks leave the pews to hug familiar faces and strangers alike.
In this light-filled sanctuary, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Victor said he finds a welcoming place for “the real-lived experience of people” – and people from society’s margins and the poor.
That they present themselves to regularly receive Communion is not a sin, both men say.
“We examine our consciences and we know that our love for each other does not take us out of a relationship with God,” said Victor. “It takes us into a closer relationship with God. And for that reason,we feel comfortable presenting ourselves for Communion.”
Their sexuality is God-given, said Molina-Duarte. “You’re called to be in community and seek justice and how can you do that in a closet?”
“I carry that Gospel message out to the secular world, and my work is reflective of the church,” said Victor. “I am sustained and nourished by the church. I’m sharing my gifts and talents within the church.”
On a recent Sunday, Molina-Duarte celebrated his 29th birthday with morning Mass. The week before, his dad had visited from Connecticut and joined him and Victor at St. Charles. To mark Molina-Duarte’s birthday, Bryan Victor, and Bryan’s parents Lennie and Maureen, were in attendance before a birthday breakfast.
It’s practice at the end of Sunday Mass at St. Charles for the pastor, Capuchin priest Rev. Ray Stadmeyer, to ask if any Mass-goers are celebrating birthdays or anniversaries. Molina-Duarte jumped up from the pew and bounded down the aisle. Bryan Victor whispered: “I don’t know anybody who loves birthdays more.”
At the front of the church, Brother Ray as he’s called, extended his hand out. Stadmeyer did not want to comment for this article, but this is what he told his congregation, before they sang “Happy Birthday” to Molina-Duarte.
“Bless our brother Thomas. Bless him in his relationship,” said Stadmeyer. “We thank him and Bryan for all the goodness they bring to us. May they know God’s tender graces.”
To find out more about the Archdiocese of Detroit’s Courage and EnCourage programs to urge gay Catholics to abstain from sex, visit aod.org. To find out about the Fortunate Families group, which urges the Catholic church to change its teachings, visit fortunatefamiliesdetroit.com.