When Stephanie Samoy first entered the Church of St. Francis Xavier in 2000, she sensed it was a rare community. The smell of chicken noodle soup — fed to impoverished believers during the parish’s weekly food drive — wafted into the church pews. Feeling what she attributed to love or the Holy Spirit, Samoy wept. Samoy moved to New York City after she graduated from the University of Arizona, craving distance from her parents after coming out as lesbian three years prior. Raised in the church, coming to terms with her sexuality was a “horrible time.”
But this congregation was unique. St. Francis Xavier, which hosts a 300-member community group of Catholic lesbians, allowed Samoy to maintain both of her identities as Christian and as LGBTQ. St. Xavier’s walls are sprinkled with signs stating, in all capital letters “ALL ARE WELCOME.” But outside this Flatiron basilica, the leaders of the Catholic Church maintain that “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered” and instruct gay Catholics to abstain from sex, according to the Catechism. Yet, the Catechism, which outlines the main beliefs of the church, calls on all believers to treat LGBTQ community members with compassion and sensitivity.
The self-titled Catholic Lesbians, comprised of Catholic women ages 22 to 80, meet on the second Friday of every month to discuss spiritual topics, often challenging the use of male-centric language in the church and advocating for female priests. Members said the group represents a microcosm of hope, pushing a conversation about the leadership of the Catholic church accepting women from all walks of life. On March 19, Pope Francis instituted a new constitution allowing baptized women to head Vatican departments. Taking effect on June 5, the constitution expands women’s roles and replaces Pope John Paul II’s 1988 rules, which excluded women from leadership roles.
The Catholic Lesbians community participates in social-justice-oriented protests in New York City and Washington, D.C., all while sponsoring ceremonial St. Francis Xavier events such as the Stations of the Cross in March. Founded in 1995, the group “discovers that there is no dichotomy, no conflict, in being Catholic and lesbian,” according to its mission statement.
“This is a Roman Catholic Church and there’s an open space for queer women,” said Samoy, who helped author the group’s mission statement. “It’s not courage; it’s dignity.”
Another member of Catholic Lesbians, Cristina Traina, a Fordham professor of Christian theology with an emphasis on feminist ethics, joined the group to change the church from within. Traina’s coming-out journey started at 40, prompted by intense prayer and introspection.
“Often, we get in touch with ourselves during upheavals, when thoughts we normally just work around come bubbling up to the surface in an undeniable way,” Traina said.
Traina is also a board member for New Ways Ministry, an LGBTQ Catholic media organization. New Ways maintains a list of faith communities that welcome LGBTQ people, which includes St. Francis Xavier.
The double marginalization that gay women face in the church is extraordinarily toxic, Traina said. Nevertheless, Traina remains in the faith, animated by the belief that the church is at a point of inflection. But, she added, inflections take centuries in Catholicism.
“To occupy a woman’s body and be Catholic already puts you in a situation of tension,” Traina said. “To be lesbian adds to the tension.”
Michele Dillon, an Irish Catholic professor of sociology at the University of New Hampshire, agreed that Catholic officials must have the conversation on the full acceptance of LGBTQ believers soon. The Vatican must consider the authority of the clergy while acknowledging Catholics’ interpretive autonomy. This autonomy, legitimated by the Second Vatican Council since 1965, has led most Catholics to conclude that same-sex marriage is a non-issue. Over three-quarters of American Catholics said society should be accepting of homosexuality, according to November 2020 Pew Research Center data.
“The people the church serves is what ultimately guides the church,” Dillon said.
Dillon’s expertise is in Catholicism with a focus on sexual behavior, gender and the impact of Pope Francis on society. March 15 marked one year since the Vatican issued a statement that said priests could not bless same-sex unions. After this statement, the pastor at St. Francis Xavier, Rev. Kenneth Boller, told his congregation that the church has much to learn so that it may understand all sexual orientations. In March 2013, Cardinal Timothy Dolan said the Catholic church needs to ‘do better’ to defend its view of heterosexual marriage.
“Pope Francis is constrained by other officials and by his own understanding of tradition,” Dillon said. “He has reservations about saying, ‘let’s solemnize as same-sex marriages,’ because to do so contradicts the church’s position that marriage is between heterosexuals. But I think, in his heart, he thinks gay Catholics are a blessing to their communities.”
Rev. Ricardo da Silva, an associate pastor at the Church of St. Francis Xavier, said he agrees with Francis and Dolan in church teachings, who have both spoken out against gay marriage. However, da Silva said his emphasis contrasts with the two men. Da Silva simply wants more people, regardless of sexuality, to be compelled to the faith. LGBTQ people are far less likely than heterosexuals to be religious, according to Pew Research Center survey data.
“I don’t think Cardinal Dolan would disagree with me in the respect that the church teaches that all are created in the image and likeness of God and that LGBTQ people should have a home in the church,” da Silva said.
The state of New York has one the largest Catholic populations per capita within the United States. It also contains one of the largest LGBTQ populations in the country, with 913,000 members of the LGBTQIA community in the city alone. It then follows, da Silva said, that New York City is a key site for the intersection of LGBTQIA identity and Catholicism. The Church of St. Francis Xavier’s reputation for being gay-friendly is clear to da Silva, who does not mind that Xavier “colors a little outside the lines” of traditional church thinking.
“Just look at Jesus, right?” da Silva said. “Look at who is important to Jesus: those on the margins.”