WASHINGTON – With his fingers interlocked and his polished black dress shoe tapping on the carpet, 65-year-old retired priest Joe Hennessy took a deep breath and began to talk about his life as a member of the Catholic Church.
His experience is unlike most Catholics. Called to the religious life, he became an ordained priest in Pittsburgh.
Eighteen years after retiring from the ministry, he is a lawyer and a newlywed who like most newlyweds smiles from ear to ear when he talks about his husband.
“He is one of the most remarkable people that I have ever met, and that is not just from my bias but that is from his experience,” Hennessy said.
Hennessy still has a passion to serve Catholics. Since 1997 he has volunteered with Dignity USA, a national organization that works for respect and justice for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community in the Catholic Church. He presides over Mass at two Episcopal churches – Immanuel Church on the Hill in Virginia and at St. Margret’s in Washington.
Dignity and other similar groups haven’t been able to use Catholic Churches for services since 1986 when a Vatican letter stated that groups that disagree with church teachings cannot meet on church property.
Hennessy’s recent union, although recognized by all 50 states, is not recognized in the Catholic faith.
According to a 2014 Pew Research Study, 70 percent of all Catholics said that homosexuality should be accepted into the Catholic Church, with 23 percent saying it should be discouraged. Of those surveyed who attend Mass weekly, 60 percent said it should be accepted, with 31 percent saying it should be discouraged.
“The teaching is very clear that any kind of sexual activity outside of the context of genuine marriage is not fully in line with human dignity and doesn’t actually lead to human fulfillment,” Moschella said. “So the church has to be better at getting that message out there and finding new ways to articulate it.”
The Vatican’s synod on the family, which brought more than 200 bishops together to discuss church doctrine, administration and application, concluded Oct. 25. One paragraph of 94 in the final document discussed homosexuality.
“Every person, independently of his sexual tendency, is to be respected in his dignity and welcomed with respect,” the document said. “There are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family. Marriage is holy, while homosexual acts go against the natural moral law.”
Associate Professor of moral theology and ethics at Catholic University of America John Grabowski, was one of 23 experts to attend the Synod in Rome, and the only representative from the United States.
He said bishops wanted to focus on the theme of the family, not LGBT issues. Grabowski said the church needs to discuss homosexuality.
“We need to acknowledge that this is an issue for families because families have lesbian and gay members in them. So how do we encourage family members to love, accept, embrace those members of their family and know that the church is accompanying those families and same-sex attracted individuals in them in walking with them in dealing with the challenges of a family who has a lesbian or gay member?” Grabowski said.
Mary Hunt, a feminist theologian and co-founder and co-director of the Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual, said that when she read about the synod she felt the negativity.
“I think it would be a lie to say that much came forth that was positive for the LGBTQI community from the synod,” Hunt said.
The Q and I at the end of LGBT stand for queer, questioning and inter-sex.
Hunt said that many members of the church’s leadership hide from their true identities.
“Everybody knows that many of these men who are making these decisions are themselves gay so there is a kind of self-hatred … that I think is really tragic,” Hunt said.
On Oct. 3, the eve of the Synod, Polish priest and former official at the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, Krzysztof Charamsa came out as gay with his partner by his side.
He has since been dismissed by the Vatican from the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith and the pontifical universities, where he taught theology. He was also suspended indefinitely by his diocese in Poland.
As Hennessy glanced out the window of a downtown office, he spoke about his experience leaving the church. Like Charamsa, he was in love when he made the decision to leave the priesthood.
“I felt fine in the church. I felt fine in the sense that I had a role, and I was fulfilling it and I felt like I was fulfilling it well,” Hennessy said.
Hennessy was in active ministry from 1975 to 1997 and spent 12 years as an Air Force chaplin. In 1991, he met Vishwas Pethe, a retired software engineer, while he was stationed at Joint Base Andrews. That’s the base in Maryland just outside Washington that the president uses when he flies on Air Force 1.
It was about this time that Pethe was diagnosed with an advanced stage of AIDS. Throughout his time in the Air Force, Hennessy traveled extensively. After Pethe had some medical close calls, Hennessy asked Cardinal Donald Wuerl, then a bishop, for a leave of absence.
Hennessy and Pethe looked for doctors who would treat patients with HIV/AIDS in Abilene, Texas, where he was stationed, and when they couldn’t find one Hennessy knew he had to make a decision. Once his leave of absence was over, he decided not to return.
Hennessy and Pethe moved to Northern Virginia in 1997.
Moschella said that groups like Dignity don’t accept the church’s teachings about sexual morality and that, despite their rejection of the teachings, members of the group are welcome to attend church.
“It is not fair to say to be loving towards us you have to approve of what we do,” Moschella said.
According to the Pew study, 36 percent of Catholics said they expect the church to recognize same-sex marriages by 2050.
But given that data, members of the LGBT Catholic community and devout Catholics agree that recognition of same-sex marriage isn’t likely anytime soon.
Hennessy stopped to reflect about his time in the active ministry and said he felt fulfilled during those 22 years of service to the church.
He shared his insight of God’s teachings of compassion: “If your whole perspective is going to be, ‘I am looking at the world through the rule book,’ then the rule book is becoming more important than the world.”
Reach reporter Amanda Guillen at firstname.lastname@example.org or 202-408-1490. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire. Like the Scripps Howard Foundation Wire interns on Facebook, Instagram and follow us on Twitter.
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