After being raised Catholic, Drew Herzig eventually felt that he needed to confront what church teachings about sexuality meant for his soul.
“At some point I had to think about what it meant for the church to tell me I was going to go to hell,” said Herzig, a Pittsfield resident who identifies as a gay man. “Is that really a church and a God I could believe in?”
Some LGBTQ+ Catholics had expressed hope that Pope Francis, who endorsed legal protections for gay civil unions, would offer greater support for LGBTQ+ people within the church.
“What this means is, while I can bless individuals and do all the time, I can’t bless unions that the church does not recognize as being part of the sacrament of marriage,” said the Rev. John Tuohey, of St. Charles Borromeo Church in Pittsfield. “I think people are disappointed because they thought there was going to be a middle ground [for priests to bless same-sex unions but not marry them].”
A representative from the Diocese of Springfield told The Eagle on Monday that the diocese typically does not issue a further statement beyond what comes from the Vatican. The diocese covers Catholics in Berkshire, Hampshire, Franklin and Hampden counties, where they make up 19.4 percent of the population.
Local LGBTQ+ advocates said Monday the Vatican’s statement fails to affirm LGBTQ+ people’s full capacity for self-expression.
They want the church to go beyond tolerating people’s sexuality to accepting people as who they are, including through affirming articulations of their identities such as unions and marriages.
“No matter what type of worship somebody practices, we’re all human beings and it’s OK to love who you love,” said Ashley Shade, a North Adams resident on the Berkshire Stonewall Community Coalition’s board of directors. Shade said she believes in a God but does not trust organized religion.
“We need to normalize that any kind of love is a good thing, and we need more love, not less,” she said.
“It seems like the most Francis has been able to do is say, ‘Let’s have compassion,’” said Ray Garnett, a West Stockbridge resident who founded Berkshire Trans Group. “How about being welcoming, how about being fully inclusive?”
Herzig once tried to change the church through working with DignityUSA, a group seeking “justice, equality and full inclusion of LGBTQI people in the church and society.” Benedict XVI’s papacy, though, slowed that campaign, and Herzig now identifies as spiritual but not religious.
“I am who I am from birth — there wasn’t a decision to make,” Herzig said. “I can’t accept that God created me so that I would go to hell.”
Herzig interpreted Monday’s statement as “perfectly in keeping with the church’s basic control of bodies.”
“I thought maybe we could reclaim the church, maybe we could bring the church to its senses — don’t traumatize people who need your love and support,” Herzig said of his previous work with DignityUSA. “This is the church continuing to make itself irrelevant to people who want to be a part of the church.”
“You put the patriarchy in power and this is what you get,” added Herzig, who praised Francis’ leadership on some social issues but criticized the Vatican’s continued exclusion of female deacons.
Still, Herzig counts some positive experiences in the church, including through community worship.
“There’s a real power in that, where you feel like you’re sharing concerns and aspirations ... and sharing something bigger than ourselves,” he said. “But, I don’t feel I can compromise my beliefs in order to indulge that.”
For some Catholic priests and clergy, the church’s teachings on sexuality are personal. Two dozen gay priests and seminarians from 13 states who spoke with The New York Times for a 2019 piece estimated that gay men account for at least 30 to 40 percent of Catholic clergy in the U.S.
“I know what a difficult spot Catholic priests and Catholic clergy are [in] as far as knowing that they’re putting their job at risk if they go against the church,” Herzig said.
The Vatican also is not the only church that has faced pressure to rethink teachings on sexuality. The United Methodist Church appears set to split into two factions over differences in beliefs on gay marriage.
While the Vatican’s Monday statement says that God “does not and cannot bless sin,” Tuohey called the inclusion of that phrase “very unfortunate.” That phrase references a Dec. 2 catechesis, but Francis was speaking then about war — not sexuality.
Tuohey said he hopes that at St. Charles Borromeo, “any member of the LGBTQ community feels welcome in coming to worship with us.”
“Just because I can’t bless your union doesn’t mean you’re not welcome,” Tuohey said. “The statement seems to say: We don’t think same-sex unions can’t exist in the church. We just can’t bless them because we’re bound to thousands of years of sacramental tradition.”