Wrestling with God: Why faith remains important for the LGBTQ+ community

Illustration of an LGBTQ+ youth contemplating religion
Betsy Siegal/Staff

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Telling people I’m gay and Catholic often sparks wonder and confusion.

After all, the Roman Catholic Church officially teaches that same-sex sexual acts are evil. Many LGBTQ+ Catholics confront this teaching and leave the church, even going as far as ceasing to believe in God altogether. Some reject their Catholicism and join other Christian denominations or religions that celebrate their sexual orientation, identity and expression. Some are more spiritually fluid, grounding themselves in Catholicism while being open to the teachings and practices of other religions. Some remain firmly in it and try hard to follow the church’s teachings of celibacy. And some are like me: They stay and wrestle with the church.

Newman Hall-Holy Spirit Parish is a spiritual home for many UC Berkeley students. One of its many groups, Rainbow Spirit, is highly unusual for Catholic churches: It’s a group that welcomes LGBTQ+ people.

I’ve been told by pastors of the parish that an LGBTQ+ group has been in existence on and off since the 1970s. The uniqueness of the group is rooted in the openness and sensitivity of the priests who have administered the parish, which is a Paulist Foundation. Priests of the Paulist order have historically ministered to those on the margins of society. Today, a handful of UC Berkeley students and alumni, as well as young adults such as myself, make up the group. It’s a safe place for us to make friends and wrestle with our faith.

For many queer people, religion is an important part of their identity. As a doctoral student at the Graduate Theological Union, I appreciate the diversity of religious views of my siblings in faith, as well as the joys and struggles of my queer siblings of faith. For me, being Catholic is a way of seeing myself and being in kinship and loving relationship with the world, especially the poor and oppressed.

Indeed, Catholicism is a path to that way of being and living. It’s a way of fostering trust (aka faith) that all will be well in the face of the unknowns of life, in the same way that many faith traditions are means to foster their own ways of being, living and trusting. For many LGBTQ+ people, religion is what helped them trust in the unknowns of life outside and even inside the closet.

But why remain Catholic when I could be part of the United Church of Christ or an Episcopal church or any other Christian church that is affirming of LGBTQ+ folk?

My upbringing, personality and life experiences can all be seen as factors that keep me in the church. I was raised in a devoutly Catholic family and attended Catholic school from kindergarten to 12th grade. I was privileged with positive experiences of the church. Its beliefs and practices are intertwined with my identity and ethics.

However, when the tragedy of clergy sexual abuse and other church scandals surfaced, my naive, tribal religiosity was shattered. I was forced to find and cling to the essentials of Catholicism. Many are unable to live amid the inconsistency, and so they leave; those who stay reorient themselves in their faith. Conservatives tend to battle to preserve the constancy of church teachings, which gives them security and stability. Progressives find hope by pushing the boundaries toward justice and inclusion.

In the Book of Genesis, we read of Jacob wrestling with an angel one night. At the end of the encounter, he receives a new name: Israel, which can be translated to mean “wrestles with God.” And so, the tribe of those who wrestle with God are known as the Israelites. Most Christians recognize the Israelites as their ancestors, and so they can see themselves as wrestlers with God.

As a Catholic, I encounter God in many ways, including in the Bible as well as in the church’s sacraments, teachings, leaders and community. The study of theology is a formal wrestling with God in the church’s teachings and in the Scriptures. Since the 1960s, theology has grown to include wrestling with God in the cries and wisdom of the poor, women, LGBTQ+ people, other Christians and people of other religious traditions.

Pope Francis is continuing the long, slow work that began during the Second Vatican Council of the mid-1960s: the work of reorienting the church from one that is paternalistic to one that is listening. Regarding what it means to be a church community, he has recovered a way of being known as synodality that involves the full participation of all Catholics in the consultation, decision-making and governance of the church. It places the faith experiences of everyday Catholics, especially those who are poor and oppressed, at the center of the contemplation and missionary action of the church. For Pope Francis, the synodal path is not a democratic system with winners and losers but one of compassionate listening to the other that leads to personal transformation.

Almost 52 years after the Stonewall riots, communities around the world have struggled and continue to push for the rights of LGBTQ+ people. Many, with their myriad skills, knowledge and abilities, support the movement of liberation in their own way. Some of us are called to stand up and speak out within our religious communities. This Pride, I call on you to be in solidarity with LGBTQ+ people of faith.

Mark Guevarra is a doctoral student at the Graduate Theological Union and is a member of Rainbow Spirit, Newman Hall-Holy Spirit Parish’s LGBTQ+ affirming young adult group. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter @dailycalopinion.