What Would Jesus Do?

While other Catholic dioceses reach out to gays, Tucson's Bishop Kicanas refuses to show the love

Terry McGuirk calls himself a "cradle-to-grave Catholic." And he's as dedicated as any good Catholic can be, with stubborn faith and a bulldog loyalty. At 72, he's also enough of a curmudgeon to grouse over the hurt he feels.

McGuirk says Tucson's diocese deliberately turned its back on gays like him. "That," he grumbles, "really pisses me off." Look into his eyes, and you know it cuts even deeper.

He emerged from the closet 30 years ago, never an easy step, but particularly hard for old-schoolers coming of age in the paranoid, corseted 1950s. Still, he felt welcomed by the late Manuel Moreno, who was named Tucson's bishop in 1982. Even when Moreno fell ill, surrogates celebrated Mass for gays, lesbians and for those suffering from AIDS.

That all changed, McGuirk says, when Bishop Gerald Kicanas succeeded Moreno in 2003. Kicanas quickly disbanded the gay and lesbian task force Moreno had begun, and Moreno's gay Mass. In the last two statewide general elections, he also enthusiastically campaigned for laws to ban gay marriage in Arizona. His political efforts proved successful this year.

Of course, the bishop's electioneering raises questions that go far beyond the disaffected congregants, says Joe Conn, of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. "There are very serious church-state implications with these types of activities. What you have is the largest and most powerful religious groups basically putting their own church's doctrines into public law.

"The Catholic church and the Mormon church and the evangelical Christian churches all believe that marriage should be limited to one man and one woman," Conn says. "But some of the minority faiths think that same-sex couples should be allowed to marry. So, in effect, you're allowing the majority faiths to write the law, at the expense of the minority faiths."

But we shouldn't necessarily be surprised at Kicanas' involvement in social-policy issues, according to Dr. Ted Jelen, a political scientist at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. "The church has doctrinal reasons to oppose homosexuality generally," he says, "and same-sex marriage in particular."

Clinging to the familiar also propels the church into politics. "You have the greatest activity where you have the greatest change," Jelen says. "Tucson and Phoenix are very large cities that are growing and changing rapidly," and the issue of same-sex couples "is simply becoming more visible."

Perhaps that might explain the zeal with which Bishop Kicanas and his Phoenix counterpart, Bishop Thomas Olmsted, have crusaded on this issue. It also might illuminate why many believe that Kicanas has deliberately alienated Tucson's gay and lesbian community.

Contrast that with the Catholic Diocese of Memphis, where three years ago, Bishop Terry Steib created a ministry geared specifically toward gay and lesbian church members.

"For all of them, being Catholic is at the core of who they are," Steib wrote in the diocese newsletter. "At the same time, they are people who are not sure of 'their place' in their home. They are people--wonderful, good Catholic people--who are gay and lesbian."

Father John Geaney is Bishop Steib's spokesman. He says the goal of the diocese is simple. "As the bishop always says, what's important for any of our people is that we show them the face of Christ. This is the same for all. But we have to be reminded again of the gay and lesbian people so that they are welcome--that they feel welcome--in our church."

That welcome wagon includes Mass, potluck suppers and support groups for the parents of gays and lesbians that meet monthly.

Meanwhile, other bishops are even questioning the very rationale of the church's view of homosexuality as a chosen lifestyle. Science has caused the Vatican to revise its position on so many other issues, and they point to recent findings indicating that being gay or lesbian isn't an errant decision, but instead hard-wired into people. In other words, God made them that way.

Such thinking seems quite remote from Tucson, where Bishop Kicanas has failed to act on numerous requests from McGuirk and others asking that he reinstate the gay and lesbian task force. Instead, the bishop seems only to offer lip service, such as in this letter to McGuirk: "I pray that in time," Kicanas wrote, "we will be able to have an outreach that will be helpful and be a vehicle by which people with gay orientation can be spiritually nourished and grow in relationship with the Lord." The letter is dated Oct. 10, 2005.

Nor did Kicanas return numerous calls over several weeks from this newspaper. But a call to his headquarters, seeking information about programs for gay or lesbians, highlighted the stark difference between Tucson and Memphis. "I asked around, and I guess the diocese no longer offers services like that," said a young woman who answered the phone. She then suggested the name of a counselor.

So why has Kicanas made such a drastic departure from his predecessor, Bishop Moreno? Some suggest that he has ambitions to rise up the hierarchal ladder. (See "Higher Goals," Currents, Nov. 27.) If so, it doesn't hurt to adopt the tough stances against homosexuality currently in vogue in Rome, such as the Vatican's opposition to a United Nations declaration that homosexuality be decriminalized.

Indeed, Kicanas has publicly lauded some of the Vatican's most anti-gay dictums, including a 2005 edict banning homosexuals from the clergy. "It's worded very abstractly," Kicanas told the Arizona Daily Star. "But this is a significant issue today in the culture, and in some ways, it's time for the church to articulate its position."

However, in a letter that same year to McGuirk, Kicanas wrote that "the church clearly upholds the dignity of every human being and the right of every human being to be respected. I certainly do not want to be a part of any mean-spirited campaign against people with gay orientation."

Stuff like that makes McGuirk roll his eyes. A retired alcohol-rehab counselor, he says that 90 percent of the gays and lesbians he knows have left the diocese since Kicanas became bishop. But he calls that exodus a mistake.

"By our inaction, we've allowed his decisions to prevail," McGuirk says. "If we're going to reclaim our church from the bishop's homophobic behavior, Tucson's gay and lesbian Catholics must challenge him and demand that he change this exclusion to inclusion by reinstating the task force."

McGuirk pauses, reaching for the words a cradle-to-grave Catholic might choose in criticizing a diocese that shuns him. Then he regains his feet. "We've made it comfortable for Bishop Kicanas to get rid of us," he says gruffly, "by meekly running away like puppy dogs, with our tails between our legs."

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