“Being gay is a choice.” “It’s a sin.” “Gays are pedophiles.” “God created males and females.” Augustin Grillon has heard it all. Since the bishop of the Créteil diocese, South-East of Paris, appointed him as head of the ministry in charge of homosexual members, this Catholic deacon regularly lends an ear to members of his parish who have questions about homosexuality.
“Have you had any results?” a churchgoer stops and asks him in the church’s aisles. “Did you manage to heal any of them?” Augustin, a French man in his fifties, faced his own demons when he was first given the task of reaching out to members of the LGBT community who lived in his diocese. “I always thought they’d made a choice that I couldn’t agree with,” he says. But after months of hearing about all the ways the Church had hurt and rejected gay members of his community, he realizes how prejudiced he has been all his life. “I came out to my family. They told me I’m going to hell,” someone confided in him recently. “You don’t have a right to come here anymore,” another parishioner recalled being told after mass. Tales of self-hatred, ignorance, hostility—even violence and suicide—are frequent in the lives of many gays, lesbians, and transsexuals. But for those who harbor a strong Catholic faith, growing up alongside a doctrine that still strongly opposes homosexuality often means having to choose between two equally fundamental sides of themselves.
For thousands of years, the Catholic church has prohibited homosexuality. To this day, the Catechism reads that “basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity, tradition has always declared that homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered. They are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved.”
“Officially, the Church doesn’t judge people, but their behavior,” says Damiano Migliorini, a PhD student in Philosophy who has been studying Catholicism’s moral stances towards homosexuality since 2011. In reality, the matter is more complex. “When interpreting biblical passages, it’s fundamental to re-read them and place them in their historical context,” he explains. This has already happened in the case of other passages, like those on slavery or rights for women—but it isn’t happening in the debate about the role of homosexuality in the Catholic faith. “There’s a real struggle between the progressive and traditionalist forces within the Church right now,” he adds. After centuries of rejection, some of Pope Francis’s comments have given the LGBT community hope. His 2013 statement, “If someone is gay, is searching for the Lord and has good will, then who am I to judge them?”, even landed him a spot as American LGBT magazine
The Advocate’s Person of the Year.
Since then, he has brought up the topic several times—like in 2018, when he stated that homosexuality is not an illness. Still, after years of synods and lip service, the Vatican is no closer to untangling its stances on homosexuality and same-sex marriage. A 2019 book by French journalist Frédéric Martel—
In the Closet of the Vatican—further turned up the heat. Based on nearly 1,500 interviews, the book paints the picture of a Church where not only most of the clergy are attracted to the same sex, but the most virulent homophobes are themselves gay, too.
by the University of Florence found that Catholic gays and lesbians display higher levels of internalized homophobia than nonreligious LGBT people. Psychologist Arianna Petilli, one of the researchers behind the study, says grassroots ministries teaching communities how to move past their prejudices—much like Augustin Grillon tries to do in Créteil—play a vital part in improving the relationship between LGBT Catholics and the Church. Support groups for gay Catholics are equally essential. “For many, these groups represent the only place where they can be open about their homosexuality without inhibitions and practice their religion free of guilt,” Petilli says. “Often, gay and lesbian Catholics are subject to double isolation: the LGBT community rejects them because of their faith, and the religious world because of their sexuality.” 2010 study
One of these safe havens can be found minutes away from the Notre-Dame cathedral, in the heart of Paris. Since the first stone of the Saint-Merri Church was laid in the early 16th century, this place of worship has witnessed revolutions of all kinds. Today, its thick walls cushion the voices of passersby as a ceremony is about to start. Sitting in a circle of foldable chairs, about thirty people are here for the monthly
Fêtez Dieu, a moment of prayer and exchange led by (D&J), a Christian movement founded in the early 1970s, to provide a safe space for LGBT people to practice their faith and meet like-minded people. Today, it counts a little over 500 members in France. David & Jonathan
Not everyone in the room is gay—some aren’t even Catholic. What brings them together is a spirit of mutual understanding and fraternal exchange. The topic of discussion, taking place a week from Easter, is solidarity. Olivier Coutor, a slim man in his fifties, listens closely to every experience before offering his own reflections. “When you have no confidence in yourself,” he says, “it’s even harder to trust others, to refrain from judging both them and you.” The silence that ensues is absolute, contemplative.
Olivier is a volunteer member of Saint-Merri’s staff, as well as a member of D&J’s Parisian chapter. Once the prayer is over, he stops and chats shortly with those present, heartily kissing them on both cheeks, as the French tend to do, checking in on the community he has chosen for himself. His life used to be different. Growing up in a Catholic family in the outskirts of Paris, he felt lonely for years. “I understood I was gay when I was about 17,” he recalls. “I had nobody I could speak to.” It was the late 1980s; queerness was still considered political activism, and Pope John Paul II denounced all gays as “evil”.
In the French capital, public parks were the quintessential spots to meet same-sex lovers, but Olivier was too shy to go there, too wary of being grouped with the flashy, irreverent gays portrayed in the media. He was in his twenties when, in 1994, he discovered David & Jonathan. “Accepting my homosexuality helped me get out of my shell. It’s fundamental, knowing who you really are,” he says. “And when you’re gay, that necessarily means meeting other gay people.”
Meeting with others who, like him, harbored a strong faith filled a spiritual need. “It’s this place that’s meant for talking, where you don’t have to hit on people to get to know them,” Olivier explains. “But we were still living in the catacombs—we were basically a subterranean Church.” As the AIDS epidemic spread around the world and the LGBT community overwhelmingly paid the price—both in actual lives lost as well as in terms of reputation—D&J became a refuge for people like Olivier, who felt like they were destined to “live a non-life.” The alliance between D&J and Saint-Merri developed gradually. Historically a progressive Church, Olivier describes the parish as a haven for all sorts of outsiders. “It’s a church you choose,” he explains, underlining how many worshippers from the greater Paris area seek refuge in its renowned openness.
Saint-Merri and Augustin Grillon’s Créteil diocese aren’t the only places trying to mend fences with those LGBT Catholics who feel invisible and ignored. In France alone, D&J has 19 local groups across the country. Other national associations, such as
Devenir Un En Christ or La Communion Béthanie, offer similar support networks, and over 35 dioceses have put a deacon in charge of bridging the gap between LGBT members and their families within their religious communities.
Similar initiatives can be found around the world. In the United States, Father James Martin, who was appointed as a consultant to the Vatican’s Secretariat for Communications by Pope Francis in 2017, has led the struggle to reconcile the Church and its LGBT members. Similarly, many priests in Germany already bless same-sex unions. Local dioceses and groups open to LGBT believers have appeared even in more conservative countries, such as Ireland, Spain and Italy. A yearly
calls for activists from all over Europe to discuss methods and share experiences. Forum of LGBT Christians
“It shows that the Vatican’s voice isn’t the only voice that exists in the Church,” Olivier Coutor says. After studying theology for most of his life, he came to the conclusion that the Church is what its members make of it. “If it isn’t more open, we’re also partly to blame,” he explains. “The Church is a community that reunites people around God. While ideas evolve slowly, you can’t expect uniformity. The ideas of other Catholics don’t worry me—what worries me is that it feels like we’re not talking to each other and exchanging points of view.”
For others, reconciling their identity with their faith is not easy. Charbel Aoun, a Lebanese doctor who recently moved to France for work, took a lifetime worth of conservative values with him when he crossed the Mediterranean. Brought up in a culture imbued with sexophobia, he moved through life with a cloud of sadness looming over him—until, one day, he asked a girl from church that he had grown fond of whether she’d go out with him. “Charbel, you know you’re gay,” she answered.
Finding a community where he could share his sexual orientation with fellow Catholics was his way of escaping a paralyzing sense of guilt and self-hatred. “Before, I saw being gay as an unavoidable sin. It took me so long to get out of that mindset, to understand that I didn’t have to be deprived of my spiritual life to practice my sexual orientation freely,” he says. Almost twenty years later, he enjoys a peaceful life, sharing an apartment not far from the Eiffel Tower with Laurent Schmidt, a history professor and his partner since 2004. Despite spending the better part of their adult lives as Catholics, the couple departed from the Church after realizing that the differences between their fellow believers and them were irreconcilable.
A couple of events, in particular, marked them deeply. The first happened in March 2013, when gay marriage was made legal in France and thousands of protestors took to the streets, chanting homophobic slurs. Many among them were Catholics. “We would see people marching right by our house. It showed just how many in our community had thought those hateful things about people like us all along,” Laurent recalls.
Two extraordinary gatherings of hundreds of bishops worldwide, called “Synods of the Family,” in 2014 and 2015, cemented their determination to leave the Church for good. The synods addressed the role of the family in contemporary Catholic doctrine, but failed to reach any consensus on the matter of homosexuality.
“We felt that, as a same-sex couple, there was no longer any space for us in the Catholic church. When we found out that Protestants are much more open-minded, we knew it was time for us to switch,” Laurent recalls. Since they have started praying at the Protestant chapel near the Louvre Museum, Laurent’s faith has been reinvigorated. “They’re less formal, less attached to tradition. They push you to read the Gospel yourself, to be a free thinker,” he explains. While they haven’t burned all their bridges with their former church community—the two of them are still involved in David&Jonathan’s meetings and prayer ceremonies—they are certain they will never convert back to Catholicism. “Why crucify our sexuality?”
He asks this rhetorical question while sitting beside the man he has loved for 15 years, in David&Jonathan’s Parisian office. The walls are covered with posters, pride flags, pamphlets and post-its—traces of past gay prides, of battles fought and won, and of those yet to come. He sighs.
“We’ll be dead, and the Catholic church still won’t have changed.”