Intrinsically Catholic: Vernacular religion and Philadelphia's "Dignity"
The fact of the negative attitude of the Roman Catholic Church toward the genital expression of homosexuality has not stopped some gay Catholic believers from thinking of themselves as members of the Church while continuing a choice of active sexual lifestyle which the institution condemns. While there are many gay and lesbian Roman Catholics who belong solely to traditional parishes, a number of Catholic men and women have banded together to form an organization called "Dignity" which is composed of independent regional congregations throughout the United States and Canada. These North American religious base communities are supportive of gay and lesbian sexuality, and, further, affirm it as a spiritual value. These communities fulfill for their members a need for worship and social activity within a context of the Catholic tradition.
Focusing on the Philadelphia branch of Dignity, this dissertation tells the story of this complex congregation by exploring the religious lives of a number of its members during the years 1986-1987, the time before and after the promulgation by the Vatican of a letter to its bishops condemning gay sexual activity, and referring to the orientation itself as intrinsically evil. These individuals are a mirror of the changes in thinking among many American Catholics as they have balanced the values of the pre-conciliar Church with the spiritual freedoms that they perceived were supported by the Second Vatican Council. The dissertation chronicles the beliefs and practices of the men and women who struggled to maintain the existence of this congregation during this period and examines the reasons for the continued involvement by these homosexual American Catholics in religion in general, and with such an antagonistic religious institution in particular.
The study of this Dignity congregation has generated a new perspective which underscores the vitality of lived religion and the insufficiency of the conventional terminology of "sectarian," "folk," "popular," or even "official," religion. In response, I offer the term "vernacular religion" which is explained and assessed as a new approach in the search for the understanding of any given community of believers and their various categories of religious belief. The relation of the study of vernacular religion to this urban Catholic congregation is discussed through an examination of the following issues: its history and developments, the negotiated beliefs of its members, their formation of a personal sexual theology, the dynamic between male and female members, and their reactions to the institutional Church.