Last week, the official founding of Catholics for Equality sent a ripple through the Catholic community. The group, a Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender rights organization aiming to mobilize pro-equality Catholics in favor of same-sex marriage and the repeal of the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, is not even two weeks old, but it has already been denounced by several church leaders and outspoken members.
Archbishop for the Military Services Timothy Broglio said that Catholics for Equality “cannot be legitimately recognized as Catholic” since the church could not condone homosexual behavior. The Cardinal Newman Society, a group dedicated to conserving and promoting orthodoxy at Catholic universities, spoke out against the group on its blog, but for a different reason. One of its founding board members is a Georgetown University professor—and an openly gay Catholic priest.
Rev. Joseph Palacios, an adjunct professor of liberal studies and Latin American studies, is a founding member of Catholics for Equality who embodies the paradoxical-seeming activist group perhaps better than anyone else. He holds a Ph.D in sociology from the University of California at Berkeley, he is an openly gay, ordained Catholic priest in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, and he has a background in politics. His distinct pedigree makes him uniquely suited to fighting the battles Catholics for Equality has chosen.
Knowingly fighting for causes the church does not condone, Palacios might be expected to lay low and avoid angering the Catholic establishment. But he makes no attempt to hide his role in the LGBT community. His activity in various D.C. gay rights groups is listed on his online Georgetown biography page. Despite the anger some Catholics feel about Catholics for Equality, he says that at Georgetown he has not been met with the type of opposition or condemnation that he finds elsewhere.
“I personally have only been supported by fellow colleagues and administrators,” he said.
The minimal resistance Palacios has met at Georgetown speaks to the University’s commitment to dialogue and understanding, but there are many Catholics—at Georgetown and elsewhere—who are deeply disturbed by the idea of a priest working actively against church doctrine. But they don’t seem to have bothered Palacios.
“I’ve not encountered any problems at Georgetown,” he said. “If there are problems, I’m not aware of them.”
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Palacios’s affinity for activism and social change stretches back to his high school days in the late ‘60s at St. Pius X Preparatory School, a boys’ boarding school in Galt, Calif., where he was heavily involved in Chicano student organizations and the anti-Vietnam war movement. By the time he went to college at the University of California, Santa Cruz, his conception of himself as a Catholic and Chicano leader was fully formed, and he became, as he put it, “very engaged in putting faith into action in the anti-war movement.”
It was also during his time as an undergraduate that he realized he was gay. But it would take much longer before this sexuality became part of his public identity and professional life. Throughout his early adult life, Palacios says he found it difficult to reconcile his Catholic faith with his sexuality, and felt pressure within the church to deny his gay identity. He did so for many years, through seminary and his early ministry. But, he said, eventually, he had to come to terms with who he was.
While studying for a doctorate in sociology from UC Berkeley in 1998, he agreed to help a group of graduate students organize a candlelight vigil for Matthew Shepard, a University of Wyoming student who had been tortured and murdered for being gay. Though initially reluctant to participate, he says now that the experience was “life-changing.” It was his motivation for getting involved with LGBT issues as a priest, and coming out as a gay man.
No longer apprehensive about asserting his identity as a gay priest, his passion for activism brought him into the gay rights movement in the District. He served on the D.C. Steering Committee for the Human Rights Campaign, a civil rights organization that lobbies for LGBT equality, and became the co-chair of D.C. Clergy United for Marriage Equality, an interfaith organization fighting for the marriage rights of same-sex couples in the District.
Despite the acceptance and support he found at Georgetown and in D.C., Palacios says he still feels pressure from the church to keep quiet about his sexuality.
“It’s been asked of me, why do I have to be engaged as an openly gay person in politics or in social issues in the church?” he said. “But no one questions my activity being Latino. Everybody expects me to be Latino and be interested in Latino issues. Being gay is like being Latino; it’s part of me.”
Eventually, Palacios realized that he could only bring together his Catholic and gay identities by taking a less than literal view of church doctrine on gay marriage, which he says is “a doctrine that doesn’t resonate with reality.” His willingness to break with traditional church teaching is bolstered by his belief that most Catholics have a favorable view of gay rights.
“The church may teach that homosexuality is an intrinsic moral disorder, but I don’t think Catholics believe that,” he said. “There’s nothing abnormal about homosexuality for Catholics.”
Many Catholics, however, are not as willing to discount the church’s traditional teachings on homosexuality. At Georgetown and elsewhere, many Catholics have trouble accepting the idea of a priest supporting gay marriage, much less fighting for it.
“It’s pretty clear what the teachings of the church are, and to see a priest, an authority figure like that, arguing so plainly against something that’s been so central to the faith for so many years is baffling and distressing,” said Matthew Cantirino (COL ’11), the Editor-in-Chief of the Georgetown Academy, a student journal written from a conservative Catholic viewpoint.
“There’s a temptation at Georgetown to try to reconcile opposite beliefs and try to just say it’s in the name of tolerance, instead of actually looking at these issues through a hard lens,” Cantirino said. “But I think orthodoxy ultimately is much more innovative and dynamic than these false solutions,” he said.
Some students even find the University’s association with a figure like Palacios unacceptable.
“By attempting to undermine or usurp the church’s clear and consistent teaching, Palacios and his associates seem to be getting in over their heads.” Kieran Raval (COL ‘13), who is involved in a number of Catholic organizations on campus, wrote in an e-mail. “As a proud Hoya, it is upsetting to me that the good name and reputation of Georgetown, the nation’s oldest Catholic university, have been marred by this scandal, which really is an affront of one of the core Jesuit values: obedience to the Pope.”
The Cardinal Newman Society, known for its stringent commitment to Catholic orthodoxy, was unequivocal in its condemnation of Palacios and Catholics for Equality, shaming Georgetown for being associated with a gay rights organization in several blog posts. In a letter to Georgetown President John DeGioia, Patrick Reilly, the president of the society, wrote that “Catholics for Equality represents outright rebellion” within the church and urged University employees not to participate. Members of CNS declined to comment for this article.
Palacios said that even though he has frequently been the target of CNS’s Campus Notes blog, they have never contacted him for comment.
“I find it rather salacious that people who supposedly claim they’re Christians are slandering me in public,” he said.
Though it prides itself on upholding the orthodox values many Catholic universities like Georgetown were founded on, the CNS doesn’t hold as much sway at Georgetown as it would like to.
“Within the Jesuit community, there is very little sympathy for the way the Cardinal Newman Society goes about doing things,” Rev. John Langan, rector for Georgetown’s Jesuit community and professor of philosophy, said. “The way they do things is accusatory, aggressive, and really counterproductive.”
But he stopped short of fully endorsing the causes that Catholics for Equality stands for, noting that church doctrine clearly does not condone same-sex marriage.
“They have to make a case for what they’re doing, and the rest of us have to decide if it’s compatible with tradition,” he said.
The Jesuits may be unable to fully support Palacios in his activism, but the fact that his high-profile efforts are even tolerated is a testament to the University’s desire to be a place for open dialogue about what it means to be Catholic. Jesuits were unwilling to explicitly break from Catholic doctrine, but they seem to approach Palacios’s situation with a heartfelt desire to understand his views.
Palacios, for his part, isn’t as concerned with Georgetown’s orthodox heritage as he is with mobilizing Catholics—hard-line orthodox or not—into political action.
“Catholics for Equality wants to change culture and politics in our country,” he said. “We’re not here to pick a fight. We’re here to motivate Catholics.”
He stresses that his organization is not a church reform movement.
“I’m not a theologian. My work as a sociologist doesn’t get into doctrinal issues. I study trends,” he said.
The trends, he says, back up his conviction that Catholics are generally in favor of gay rights.
“The majority of Catholics in the United States are for gay marriage,” he said. “Catholics are in favor of gays adopting children, and being in the military, and I report that trend.”
Whatever victories Catholics for Equality achieves will owe a large debt to Palacios and his multifaceted background as an academic, a clergyman, and a political activist. His personality, too, is well-suited to the people-centric business of activism: earnest and animated but by no means overbearing, he has a soft-spoken, easy charisma and a winsome, slightly sheepish grin that matches his natural modesty.
Phil Attey, another co-founder and board member of Catholics for Equality, said that his ability to combine his training as a sociologist with his background as a Catholic priest made him an important figure in the D.C. gay rights movement.
“He brings a wealth of experience and guidance in helping our organization keep track of trends in Catholic attitudes and to provide data on trends in other heavily Catholic countries,” Attey said.
He might be able to operate as an activist without nearly as much controversy were he not a priest, but Harry Knox, the Director of the Human Rights Foundation’s Religion and Faith program, noted that his background in the clergy helps him bring something unique to the table.
“He has a great pastor’s heart, so he brings not just observations, but love to the conversation,” he said.
Love seems to be at the center of Palacios’s mission. He often compares the church to a loving family, and seems unwilling to accept the idea that Catholicism could turn its back on anyone.
“I think Jesus would be there with a son or daughter who was gay,” he said. “We [Catholics] value family as faithfulness.”
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As movements like Catholics for Equality gain traction and figures like Palacios become more prominent within the Catholic Church and at universities, Catholic schools like Georgetown will have to decide where they stand. Fr. Langan admits that the school’s current position is a bit nebulous, but seems to think it will evolve over time.
“This issue requires shades of gray,” he said. “The legalization of gay marriage is a relatively recent notion … It’s pretty clear that the church is opposed to this, [but] it’s part of Christian charity to be supportive.”
As recent battles with Plan A and H*yas for Choice demonstrate, the University will face challenges as long as it maintains its orthodox position on issues of sexuality.
“Georgetown has made a very concerted effort to serve their students, who are coming from a variety of backgrounds, while trying to be true to the church, but it’s clear that you can’t treat them as if they live in a Catholic bubble,” Palacios said. “They live in the real world, and dealing with LGBT freedoms and rights is part of reality.”