As a teenager, Don Dressel stood in the back of the church during Mass. No one told him to, but he felt it was his place.
Dressel had known he was gay since he was 12, but he was confused. He only knew that in his St. Louis church, homosexuality was considered sinful. Others in the parish referred to gays and lesbians the same way they talked about sexual perverts and rapists, he said. The realization that others thought he was deviant was painful. Dressel decided then and there that he would never act on his feelings.
"It was the most horrible time of my life because I was going through a great struggle trying to fight and change my sexual orientation," Dressel said.
Dressel ostracized himself from his parish, as he felt unworthy to participate. He never opened up to a priest; he was too ashamed and convinced that the church would have no words of comfort for him.
Eventually, denial turned into anger, and Dressel left the Roman Catholic Church in his late teens. "I made the decision that it wasn't a good place for me," he said. "It wasn't a safe place for me."
Dressel is one of many gays and lesbians raised Catholic who feel rejected and excluded by the church because of their sexual orientation. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has recognized the issue and, on Tuesday, approved with an overwhelming majority a 23-page document that offers clergy guidelines for "ministry to persons with a homosexual inclination." The document calls on Catholic communities to welcome gays and lesbians, and it condemns violence or discrimination against them.
"On the one hand, it is compassionate, maybe more so than people expect," said the Rev. Thomas Weinandy, the conference's executive director for the secretariat of doctrine and pastoral practices, who helped draft the document. "At the same time, it's still very clear that homosexual activity is still considered wrong and sinful."
According to Catholic doctrine, human sexuality serves two purposes within the bonds of marriage: procreation and the expression of marital love. Therefore, the church condemns homosexual acts as contrary to natural law.
The document distinguishes between "engaging in homosexual acts and having a homosexual inclination." It states that there is no sin in being attracted to a person of the same sex, but only in acting on that attraction. The prohibition is similar to the church's position on premarital sex.
Despite these changes, Dressel still feels he is being persecuted for something he has no control over.
"I'm denied the right to marry," he said, "therefore I'm denied, in their eyes, the right to express marital love."
Indeed, the Catholic Church urges gays and lesbians to live a chaste and celibate life. Only then, the document states, can they fully participate in parish life.
The Courage Apostolate is a New York-based ministry seeking to help gays and lesbians who have decided to live in accordance with the Catholic doctrine. The Rev. James Lloyd, a licensed psychologist and a priest, leads an anonymous support group of about 15 men. While some men in Courage support groups have eventually married a woman, Lloyd said that changing sexual orientation is not the purpose of the ministry. Rather, chastity — a virtue for all Catholics, he said — is the goal. For those he calls "same-sex attracted" men, that means renouncing their sex lives.
Lloyd said he prefers the term "same-sex attracted people" because, in his view, homosexuality is simply a tendency, not an essential part of a person's identity.
"It would be very degrading to define people in term of their sexuality," he said. "There cannot be an equation where a person says, 'I am gay.' We think it's ridiculous."
Advocates for gay and lesbian Catholics disagree.
"They continue to call it 'homosexual inclination,'" said Jenny Truax, a member of the Catholic Action Network, a St. Louis-based group that seeks to expand the Catholic Church's acceptance of gays and lesbians. "What they're getting at here is that it's not a permanent state, and you can control it."
However, the conference's document clearly states that gays and lesbians are not required to undergo therapy in an effort to change their sexual orientation. Weinandy said that because therapy has helped some men and women, but not others, "we didn't want to put anyone under moral obligation when the results were too ambiguous to judge at this point."
The conference of bishops' document is in keeping with official Catholic Church teachings and previous statements from the Vatican. The document is similar to a "letter to the bishops of the Catholic Church on the pastoral care of homosexual persons" published in 1986 by the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and signed by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI. The letter states the unchanging nature of the church's position, which the letter says is rooted in Old Testament texts and the teachings of St. Paul.
But there again, gay and lesbian rights advocates disagree. "There's no reason that it can't be changed," Truax said. "Jesus didn't say anything about homosexuality."
Truax wishes the church would use modern theologists and science.
"The church used to teach that slavery was fine," she said, "that the sun revolved around the earth. Things change. It just usually takes the church longer to realize that."
But at the heart of Catholic doctrine lies a principle that makes that change improbable. The church teaches that morality has an objective basis. Moral norms are not, in the Catholic view, just a cultural phenomenon that changes as society changes, but rather something grounded "in the natural order established by the Creator." It is therefore unlikely that Catholic dogma will change the way the secular society's position on homosexuality has changed.
In addition to reaffirming the Catholic position, the document provides guidelines for the day-to-day involvement of gays and lesbians in parish life. For instance, it discourages public announcements of one's homosexuality outside of family and close friends. This secrecy can be harmful, said Joe Kort, a Michigan psychotherapist who specializes in gay and lesbian issues.
"They're humiliating these people," Kort said. "The message is really to gays and lesbians, 'You have something we don't want to hear about.' They're forcing out good parishioners. I call it spiritual abuse."
While the Catholic Church says it welcomes gays and lesbians, even if they have homosexual relations, and it agrees to baptize children of homosexual couples, gay and lesbian advocacy groups have few kind words for the conference's document. They say the church is still singling out and excluding certain parishioners — even as its reputation as a sacred institution suffers as a result of scandals involving sexual abuse by priests.
"They might throw in a token statement about heterosexuals having to live a good chaste life, but there's never any consequences if they don't," Truax said. "There's no pastoral guidelines on what (to do) when a couple uses birth control."
When Dressel gave up Catholicism, he had already stopped praying and taking the Eucharist. While his anger toward organized religion has subsided, he still refuses to go to Mass. Spirituality is the core of his life now, he said. Dressel does not exclude the possibility of joining the Catholic faith again, but for now he feels the church misunderstands him.
"The problem is, people think it just comes down to sex," he said. "As long as the church keeps framing that in terms of sex, they will keep missing the boat."