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Amid pressure from the Diocese of Pittsburgh, organizers of LGBTQ solidarity mass cancel service

A parade marcher waves a rainbow pro-LGBTQ+ flag in Downtown Pittsburgh.JPG
Kiley Koscinski
90.5 WESA
A proposed amendment to the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act would enshrine anti-discrimination protections for LGBTQ+ people into state law.

A Catholic mass scheduled to be held at Duquesne University in solidarity with the LGBTQ+ Catholic community for Pride month has been canceled at the urging of Diocese of Pittsburgh Bishop David Zubik.

The mass was organized by the Pittsburgh-based group Catholics for Change in Our Church (CCOC), which hosts monthly masses at the university’s chapel.

“We just wanted a mass in which LGBTQ Catholics could feel welcomed as beloved sons and daughters of a loving God and just be affirmed for who they are,” said CCOC president Kevin Hayes.

In the weeks leading up to the mass, however, the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh received hundreds of messages denouncing the service, as well as threats. A spokesperson for the diocese said most of the criticism, though not all, came from people in the Pittsburgh region.

In a May 31 message sent to the diocese's priests — including those at Duquesne University, which is a private Catholic university — Bishop Zubik said neither he nor Duquesne University President Ken Gormley knew about the mass until threatening calls flooded their respective offices.

Zubik went on to ask that the event be canceled, saying that, while the church “must be willing to love and welcome” all people, the diocese would not condone the gathering.

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A flyer marketing the service as a “Pride Mass” garnered attention online after it was obtained by The Daily Signal, a conservative media outlet owned by The Heritage Foundation. The right-wing think tank has long opposed legislative efforts to protect LGBTQ rights.

“Many of the responses to the flyer jumped to the conclusion that I gave approval to this event. I did not,” Zubik wrote. “Many of the responses also used condemning and threatening, and some might say hateful, language not in keeping with Christian charity…”

In accordance, CCOC was told by Duquesne University officials that the on-campus mass was canceled. When asked for comment, the university forwarded Bishop Zubik’s letter, but didn’t respond to specific questions.

As of Wednesday, CCOC had chosen not to reschedule the event.

Tensions in Pittsburgh, and the church

Hayes said CCOC hosted a well-attended mass in solidarity with LGBTQ+ Catholics on campus last year. Father Bill Christy, Duquesne University’s director of campus ministry, approved the event and members of the LGBTQ Catholic community and allies were invited to speak.

Hayes said CCOC planned to hold the event again this year on June 11, this time alongside the LGBTQ outreach ministry at St. Joseph the Worker Parish and members of the LGBTQ ministry at St. Mary Magdalene in the East End. (Staff at St. Mary Magdalene deny any involvement with or knowledge of the mass.)

Deacon Herb Riley, who helped establish St. Joseph the Worker’s LGBTQ ministry, planned to assist with the service. He said things began to go sideways after a parish member published the “Pride Mass” flyer without the organizers’ approval.

Riley said his parish received the same hateful messages the diocese did “because of the assumptions people were making about what we're doing to support the LGBTQ community.”

“It concerns me that our Christian brothers and sisters became angry over the mere support of the LGBTQ community by having them participate with us in a mass,” the deacon continued.

Riley cited teaching from Pope Francis, who has on multiple occasions spoken out against the discrimination of LGBTQ individuals. Earlier this year the pope condemned laws criminalizing people in the LGBTQ community, and has stood up for legislation that would protect same-sex couples.

Sentiment among Catholics in the United States has largely followed suit. As of 2020, the majority of Catholics nationwide support same-sex marriage, according to one Gallup poll.

But Todd Salzman, a professor of theology at Creighton University, said — despite the shift in opinion among the laity — many bishops have resisted adopting a similar stance.

“The bottom line is there is a great deal of polarization and tension and leadership of the church, especially on LGBTQ issues,” Salzman said. “And we're seeing that play out socially, culturally, politically and religiously within the Catholic Church, in the U.S. especially.”

In his letter to clergy, Bishop Zubik called on churches to do more to welcome people in the LGBTQ community, but would not condone the mass or what he called behavior that goes against church doctrine.

Salzman said his message depicts a fundamental tension within the church.

“The church does not exclude Catholics who practice artificial birth control, even though the church condemns that — the vast majority of Catholics do practice artificial birth control in a marital relationship,” he said. “So there's a singling out of LGBTQ people.”

Salzman argued that — by calling to cancel the mass — Zubik has legitimized the threatening behavior of those who called or sent messages to the diocese, university and parishes, effectively promoting such discrimination against the LGBTQ community.

But to Hayes with CCOC, the circumstances have instead opened up doors to talk about how Catholic churches in Pittsburgh can better serve the LGBTQ community.

“There may be an opportunity to address all the clergy in the diocese about LGBTQ+ issues,” Hayes said, “And help the clergy better understand how to minister to LGBTQ Catholics in their parishes. So that's hopeful, and we hope some good can come of this.”

Jillian Forstadt is an education reporter at 90.5 WESA. Before moving to Pittsburgh, she covered affordable housing, homelessness and rural health care at WSKG Public Radio in Binghamton, New York. Her reporting has appeared on NPR’s Morning Edition.