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Extending an Olive Branch : Father Liuzzi Hopes to Build Bridges Between the Church and the Gay Community

October 27, 1994|GARY LIBMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Five years ago, Father Peter J. Liuzzi was ready to settle into his first parish pastorship after two decades as a teacher and dean in Roman Catholic high schools and seminaries.

But Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, then Archbishop, had other ideas. Liuzzi, who was 52, had been working with people with AIDS and was a strong public speaker, so Mahony named him to direct the Los Angeles Archdiocese's pastoral ministry to the gay community.

"It was a total shock. I was very hesitant," says Liuzzi, a Carmelite priest since 1965. "Suddenly I was confronted with a ministry that is not only volatile and controversial, but which I had no idea how to do."

After consideration, however, Liuzzi accepted, becoming the second priest to occupy the position started in 1986. He began counseling gay men, lesbians and their families. He also started speaking to groups about the Church's policy on homosexuality, which he says is widely misunderstood and far different from the views of the political or religious right.

Liuzzi recently met a reporter in his office to discuss Church policy.

Question: Why did you accept this difficult job?

Answer: The prophetic strain in my order--the notion of leading people or responding to God in ways that are new and startling--is a real turn-on for me.

The prophetic person says if there's something stirring here, maybe what's required is not rejection or outright acceptance, but discernment. If there's a movement, is the spirit of God part of it? I believe there's something among gays and lesbians that's of God and that we should be responding to it. That's what it means to be prophetic.

Q: How did you get started in the ministry?

A: I told the Cardinal that I didn't think I was going to find a lot of homosexuals in our churches. After that, I'd go any place gay people congregated. I'd drop into a gay bar and say I was a priest and give them my card, and I had to pick people off the floor.

I thought there would be hostility, but there never was. I always asked what they would want from a priest appointed to work full-time with the gay community. The answer was so simple: "You don't have to change doctrine or allow us to marry, but accept us. I'm a Catholic and I love my church, but I felt that there was no place for me and I was pushed out."

Q: What do you do to make gay men and lesbians feel accepted?

A: I don't feel like someone who knows the mysteries of homosexuality. But I feel that if they tell me about their pain and isolation, they do not have to carry it alone. They just need you to carry it for a half-hour and know you're not shocked or don't condemn them as perverts. I watch their faces change as they talk. That's what I try to do. I listen.

Q: What is the Church's position on homosexuality?

A: Church documents say some surprising things. We don't believe the same things as fundamentalists because we believe in the human dignity of gays and lesbians.

For example, homosexuality is not a choice, but a discovered orientation, and it would seem it can't be unlearned, as some conservatives suggest. It's also not a sin, so gays and lesbians are not commanded to change orientation. They are full members of the Church and invited to be active in their parishes.

But genital sexual expression for homosexuals is sinful. Sexual activity is holy because it starts the possibility of new life. The Church bans homosexual sex or artificial or mechanical controls on birth because they provide an obstacle to new life.

Q: How does the Church say homosexuals should react to sexual urges?

A: When a person says, "I have to be sexual," or "I have a right to love somebody," I say, "You can do that, but it has to be platonic." There are people in platonic relationships. There may be an occasional slip with that.

Other people would say they need to bond sexually and they do, claiming a lot of times not a rebellion against teaching but a long process of searching. This consists of examining Scriptures, church doctrines and works of reputable theologians, and consulting with fellow Christians. We call that following one's conscience. They solved the issue of their sexual actions in their own minds and remain in the Church. You can be dead wrong in what you decide, but if you do that in good conscience, you're doing the best you can to respond to God's will, and the Church respects that.

Another category is the person who attacks this teaching on human sexuality as outdated. A public statement contrary to solemn pronouncement can get you in trouble. That's not being in good stead with the Church.

Q: You had two cousins who died of AIDS.

A: Yes. One I didn't know well. But my cousin Gary was a big influence. I still grieve for him. He looked like my twin, except I'm 10 years older.

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