Ann Marie Szpakowska was taught by nuns in Catholic grammar schools, graduated from Catholic high school and college and sings in the choir at weekly Mass.
As a lesbian, she also has become accustomed to some in the Catholic church labeling her in unflattering fashion.
So when Pope Francis recently remarked that he was in no position to judge a gay person who “seeks the Lord and has good will,” the Buffalo resident took notice.
“It’s different being told that you can be honestly Catholic and still be gay, instead of being told you’re intrinsically disordered,” said Szpakowska, 64, a caseworker for the Erie County Department of Social Services.
Francis’ response to a reporter’s question about gay priests set off a media frenzy last week.
But his words did not change anything about the Catholic Church’s official stance on homosexuality.
Catholic catechism considers homosexual acts as “intrinsically disordered,” “contrary to law” and gravely depraved. It also says that homosexual persons are “called to chastity” and that their “inclination, which is objectively disordered, constitutes for most of them a trial.”
In other words, it is not a sin to be gay, but it is sinful to have gay sex.
Some gay and lesbian Catholics said they do not anticipate church doctrine changing soon.
The pope’s statements, Szpakowska said, “were pretty much off-the-cuff, and whether they ever get translated into something more substantial than that remains to be seen.”
About the only thing gay people can hope for is the beginning of a dialogue with bishops, Szpakowska said.
“I’m not expecting great progress from the Vatican quite honestly,” said Greg Wadsworth of Kenmore, who teaches biology at SUNY Buffalo State.
“It’s just not terribly likely that the change in the church’s understanding of this is going to arise out of the Vatican.”
Wadsworth was nonetheless struck by the pope’s ease and comfort in addressing the question and his use of the term “gay” in the conversation.
The church hierarchy usually avoids the term altogether, preferring more clinical language that suggests being gay is a condition in need of treatment or containment, said Wadsworth, 51.
The catechism, for example, refers to gay people as men and women with “deep-seated homosexual tendencies.”
“That’s been very purposeful. There’s been an effort to not recognize gay folks as a distinct group of people who have formed community ... but to just focus on the sex acts,” Wadsworth said.
Bishop Richard J. Malone, through diocesan spokesman Kevin A. Keenan, declined an interview request but issued a written statement about the pope’s remarks.
“It is important to understand that when we hear the pope saying he cannot “judge” gays, he is talking about the persons, not behavior. He is talking about priests who may be homosexual but is assuming that they are chaste. And if they have sinned, they are repentant and now chaste,” Malone said. “Priests make a lifelong commitment to live a chaste celibate life, and candidates for the priesthood need to be able to live a life of chaste celibacy, whether they are homosexual or heterosexual. If someone is not capable with God’s help of living a lifelong commitment to celibate chastity, he should not be a priest.”
Cardinal Timothy A. Dolan of the Archdiocese of New York said on the “Today” show and in his blog that Francis’ remarks did not suggest any change to the church’s “ageless teaching” on homosexuality and that doctrine was settled on the issue.
In his statement, Malone also reiterated church teaching that says all sexual activity belongs only within a marriage of a man and woman.
“Outside of that context,” he said, “sexual relations are viewed as being objectively immoral.”
Malone’s statement was “simply giving us the church line” and was not surprising, Szpakowska said.
“I’m sure the poor bishops are in shock after all their negative comments and writings. They have to figure out, ‘What do we do now? What do we say now?’ ” she said.
Why all the fuss then about Pope Francis’ words?
The Rev. Gregory M. Faulhaber, vice rector of Christ the King Seminary in Aurora, said people are always “looking to anticipate changes in Catholic teaching.”
“People like the openness. His openness seems to be appreciated,” Faulhaber said. “People do look to push it a little further, but I don’t think that’s going to happen.”
Szpakowska was born and raised Catholic, and she has always participated actively in the church.
“I’m steeped in it,” she said. “I understood from very young that the way you treat other people is the way you treat Christ.”
She’s also maintained a committed relationship with another woman for more than 30 years.
“I don’t believe in a God that creates gay people and tells them they have to be celibate,” she said.
A Pew Research Forum survey of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered adults published in June found that 79 percent of them considered the Catholic Church unfriendly toward the LGBT population.
Roughly half of those surveyed said they were affiliated with a religion, and a third of the religiously affiliated said there was a conflict between their religious beliefs and their sexual orientation.
While some gay men and lesbians have walked away from the Catholic faith because of the doctrinal issues, Szpakowska said she will never leave the church.
“If they decide I cannot walk through the doors, I will stand outside. I’m not going anywhere,” she said.
Wadsworth, too, is comfortable with his place in the Catholic church, in spite of its doctrinal condemnation of gay acts.
A shared Catholic faith helped bring together Wadsworth and his partner of 23 years, he said.
The couple met at an event sponsored by Dignity, an organization for gay Catholics, in Washington, D.C.
“My responsibility is to live the faith the best I can, and I don’t see a disconnect,” he said. “The struggles aren’t in the area of sexual ethics for me.”