Humans have in their hearts a law written by God. To obey it is the very dignity of the human . . . according to our conscience we will be judged. --The Second Vatican Council
On a warm Saturday evening, 17 gays and lesbians sit in a small chapel in Westwood and sing a Catholic hymn called "Be Not Afraid." The lyrics tell of "crossing a barren desert" and "wicked men who insult and hate you."
There is deliberate poignancy here, as the song and voices echo off the rafters.
In the eyes of the Roman Catholic Church, these men and women are infidels--spurned because their active gay lifestyle is regarded as a sin. Although they have not been excommunicated, they pray alone, without a priest to lead them. Except for the grace of another religion's pastor, they would not even have a place to worship.
In 1989, Archbishop Roger M. Mahony ordered priests in the vast Los Angeles Archdiocese to stop saying Mass for members of Dignity/Westside and two other local chapters of the 21-year-old national organization for gay Catholics.
Mahony's decision was a major defeat for the beleaguered Dignity, with 84 chapters and 4,200 members nationwide, for the decision signaled agreement with most other U.S. bishops.
As in other dioceses, the archbishop's orders were brief but clear: Dignity cannot meet in church buildings or on church property; priests cannot say Mass for the group.
The future is not so clear.
Having been an outcast organization for more than 20 years, the three Southland Dignity chapters now talk about living in a state of "quiet crisis," where reconciliation with the official church seems distant--if impossible--and spiritual needs must be met in new ways.
Yet even under trying circumstances, the faithful outcasts of Dignity/Westside remain resolute in their Catholicism, undaunted by what they see as the church's refusal to accept them as men and women proudly gay, openly involved in sexual and emotional relationships.
As they sing and listen to the Bible readings and pass a collection plate, they are carrying out the same rituals of any faithful Catholic--the motions and words familiar to those who grew up believing the Pope, minding Sister, trembling in the confessional.
Holding hands and gathered around the altar, they still celebrate Communion. They break off pieces of a saucer-sized wafer and eat the Host, considered by Catholics to be the sacred body of Christ, the "Bread of Life." This particular wafer has been made holy when it was quietly blessed weeks earlier by an archdiocesan priest who was willing to bend--but not break--the rules of the archdiocese.
"We have had to become self-ministering," says Anita, 38, co-chairwoman of Dignity/Westside, who asked that her last name not be used because she fears her employer's reaction to her lesbianism. "Now, more than ever, it's important to do things for ourselves."
The form that this "self-ministry" takes varies from one chapter of Dignity to another. Unlike Dignity/Westside, which has about 30 members and has to use borrowed facilities for worship, Dignity/Los Angeles has 180 members and has purchased a two-story house on Avenue 64. There, weekly Masses are celebrated by "non-facultied" priests who are not affiliated with the archdiocese or other religious orders.
Dignity/Long Beach, with 100 members, holds weekly prayer services in members' homes, "teaching each other the power of self-ministry, relying on our own community," says co-chairwoman Noreen Whipple.
It takes a leap of faith, Anita says, to remain true to a church where they are essentially outcasts, living sinful lives.
"I got involved with Dignity because I knew I was not intrinsically evil," she says, referring to guidelines issued by the Vatican in 1986 on how the Church should regard gay Catholics.
A 12-page letter issued in October, 1986, by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, head of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, called homosexuality an "intrinsic moral evil . . . behavior to which no one has any conceivable right."
For Catholics trained to believe that homosexuality is an almost unspeakable wrong, the letter states the obvious: Since, in the church's view, homosexual acts do not involve "the life-giving union of men and women in the sacrament of marriage," engaging in gay sex is a mortal sin.
Now referred to as "the Ratzinger Letter," the document spells out the church's commitment to reach out to the gay community and to help those suffering with AIDS, but condemns "pro-homosexual" movements within the church and rebukes those gays and lesbians who are anything but strictly celibate--even those involved in long-term, monogamous relationships and consider themselves married.
Within a year after the Ratzinger Letter, many U.S. bishops began evicting Dignity chapters from church property and prohibiting priests from saying Masses for the groups.