Sins of Omission

St. Louis is welcoming Pope John Paul II, but many devout Catholics don't feel so welcomed by him. They say he's blocking the light for women, intellectuals, non-Westerners, gays, lesbians and remarried Catholics -- and dimming the prospects for an inclus

"If you change the male celibate union of the shepherds," he adds hopefully, "you are going to change everything. That's how it's going to happen." Mary Jane's smile is as bitter as that of a lover who hears "Can't we just be friends?" "I don't think it's going to happen," she says. "I think it's going to die."

Bob drums his fingers on the leg of his chair. The struggle his wife sees as futile, he sees as faith.

"I think the church will give the priests to the parishes that can support them and amalgamate the others," she continues.

"They are going to follow the money -- is that what you're saying?" He's drumming again.

"Yeah. And the Vatican isn't going to listen to those bishops in Oceania, either. Now, they would listen to bishops in the U.S., but they follow the money too." She sighs. "It just all strikes me as futile."

Bob folds his hands together, quieting them. Then he looks straight at the woman he loves -- whose words are clearly exasperating him -- and reminds her cheerfully, "There were only 12 apostles!"

Tom Wagen is president of Dignity,a group that puzzles many gay activists. "We're a group of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered folk who prefer to worship God in the Roman Catholic tradition," he explains. "But of course we are not sanctioned by the Catholic Church."

Raised in the faith, Wagen believed the church's teachings about procreation and homosexuality for decades. "I didn't come out of the closet until 1995," he begins, "but I had struggled with it for a good 20 years. Initially I wasn't even aware what the struggle was about. I had glimmerings in high school, and the same thing happened in college, but the thought of touching another man carried with it all the baggage of sinfulness, so I suppressed it."

He entered the military, married a devoutly Catholic woman, numbed the inner conflicts with alcohol. "Finally, in 1990, I admitted to myself that I was gay," he says, "in the presence of a priest who was very supportive." Five years later, after another priest helped him stop drinking, he went on retreat and asked God, "Please lead me where you want me to go." And in the first tape he pulled from the retreat-center library, he found his answer.

"I realized I had to let go of everything -- the life I had built for myself. I had been married for 24 years; I had three children; I had pretended for many years that I was a straight man. If I didn't become the person God intended me to be, I'd be right back where I started, and I'd probably drink myself to death."

Before, everything Wagen was suppressing "had to be released somehow -- by drinking, by masturbation, in anger toward my ex-wife and my children, in all sorts of excesses. I could never do anything in a minimal way. I'd start preparing for Christmas in August, make most of the cookies, make candy, get out decorations in October -- but during all that time I was a sonofabitch. I can remember my ex-wife humming Christmas carols while we were putting up the tree, and I told her to shut up. My oldest daughter had gay friends, and I'd make fun of them.

"I was very judgmental, very critical," he finishes. "Now even my attitude toward my children has changed." (This year, he and his partner trimmed the tree in an hour, and Wagen made 12 chocolate turtles. Period.)

"The official line in the Roman Catholic Church is that being homosexual is not sinful but acting out that sexuality is sinful," he notes wryly. "I think the church is in a lot of denial about the needs of human beings. I, too, used to believe that intimacy was solely for the purpose of procreation. But now I think it has a much vaster value.

"It's like a half-circle and a whole circle," he continues, drawing in the air. "There is a sense of wholeness and completion in the intimacy I share now that I never experienced before. In my heterosexual relationship, when the intimate act was finished, I was finished. Now the most pl0easurable part is lying in my partner's arms afterward and holding his hand."

So how does Wagen reconcile himself with Catholicism's teachings? "I think I see the church more realistically now," he replies. "I see it as a bureaucracy no different than a Protestant church or the federal government. We need bureaucratic structures to keep order, and within those structures people get wrapped up in ideas and ideals and impose them on others. Whether these people are genuine in their intent to keep everyone on the straight-and-narrow or whether it's a power thing, I wouldn't even want to hazard a guess. But to admit that two men can experience physical love puts a kink in the idea of patriarchal authority. It makes men appear weaker. And it kind of opens the door that maybe there is a greater value to women, because men who love men are showing the same type of tenderness a woman would show. Also, to be intimate, I have to let down all my guards, be completely defenseless. And that in itself can be pretty frightening to an authoritarian church."

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