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May 1996

An article from Philadelphia Gay News on Dignity/USA's 25th anniversary

Dignity turns 25:

Local priest Jim Mallon celebrates by continuing to
fight the Catholic Church hierarchy.

BY Sarah Miller [PGN Staff Writer]

Growing up in St. Veronica's Parish in North Philadelphia, Dignity priest Father Jim Mallon probably never imagined lying down on Fifth Avenue in front of Saint Patrick's Cathedral. As part of the 1986 Cathedral Project, Mallon and other Dignity members staged a series of protests for which they were eventually arrested, Mallon a total of five times. Years later, he approached Philadelphia Cardinal Anthony Bevilaqua in the middle of a crowded mass and confronted him about his opposition on domestic partnership, an opposition he was putting forth in letters sent to all the churches in the diocese.

"What you are reading," Mallon said. "Contradicts everything you are trying to do here."

His actions, he said, were necessary to force the Church to confront a theology about homosexuality that he calls "morally questionable." Dignity turned twenty-five this year and celebrated in part over the 4th of July weekend with its annual conference in Los Angeles. Mallon could not attend the conference, but he reflected on his life within a church he both loves and fights against.

"The hierarchical response to gays and lesbians is incomplete. I won't say it is wrong, but it lacks the inclusion of their experiences," he said. Mallon left this hierarchy years ago, though he is still, officially, a priest. Other gay Catholic leaders, such as Dignity pioneer and author (The Church and the Homosexual) John J. McNeill have had to renounce their positions within the church. Though the Vatican knows he's gay, Mallon has managed to retain his status.

"They wanted me to sign something making it official that I had left the priesthood. I refused. I never questioned my being a priest. I just questioned how I could possibly remain an instrument of church hierarchy," he said.

Mallon's journey with Catholicism spans several continents and shifts in theology. He was an excellent student all through his secondary schooling in Ireland and later, during his religious training in Rome. His pursued the study of theology all the way through the doctoral level. He served his order, the Institute of Charity, without complaint for over fifteen years.

It was the clarity that followed Mallon's kicking a drinking problem that forced him to "integrate my heart, head and groin." meaning that Mallon had to come to terms with the fact that he was gay.

He left his post in Peoria, IL. (Asked about Peoria in general he rolled his eyes and said "We won't even get into that.") He returned to Philadelphia and began working in the rehabilitation field. He also began his fight to rescue the Catholic Church from a hierarchy he said oppresses not just gays and lesbians, but indeed everyone who is part of the Church.

He cites the battles over the inclusion of women and distribution of condoms and birth control in general, as well as treatment of sexual minorities, as places where the Catholic Church's opinions were theologically and scientifically questionable."

But of course it is helping gays and lesbians fight for a place in the Catholic Church that is Mallon's principal interest.

"People can't mature without an acceptance of their total being," Mallon said. "A healthy spirituality runs parallel with wholesome, healthy psychology."

He fears especially for youth coming of age within the repressive confines of the Church who find that their community and faith are at sometimes fatal odds with their desires. Mallon spoke of youth suicide and depression, and of "other damage done to youth because of the Catholic Church's myopic view of heterosexuality as normal."

Mallon has spent the better part of recent years thinking about the precise ways in which homophobia functions in the church. He recalls that when he was growing up, homosexuality was unnameable, and its vilification was more through the silence around it that the outright condemnation we see today.

"Theology progresses and takes its salient points from society as a result of the emergence of a gay lifestyle, an emergence which is very threatening to hierarchical rulings and control," he said.

Although Dignity's aim is to help gays and lesbians work together to integrate their lives as Catholics and sexual minorities, it is not officially recognized by the Catholic Church. He did not attend theannual conference in Los Angeles this year, preferring, he said, to "stay here and keep the home fires burning." He expected that there would be some conflict at the meeting-conflicts, he said which are similar to those going on in the larger Catholic Church.

"Dignity is a microcosm of the Church universal. It has conflicts around the role of women in the church and there are people in Dignity as there are in the Catholic Church, who don't find exclusion of women problematic," he said.

Mallon emphasized however, that these problems have never made him consider leaving Dignity. Rather, he said, efforts to make Dignity as diverse and relevant to the sexual minority community have strengthened his commitment to stay and work for change.

"Dignity's problems need to be addressed as the organization moves forward, but its problems are not a reason to abandon it. Aside from just being a place for gays and lesbians, it is also one of the very few places where the spirit of Vatican II is still alive. Dignity makes a real attempt to integrate faith and life."

This attempt is readily visible at a Dignity mass, where prayers address specific problems, such as the AIDS epidemic and war in Bosnia. Dignity is mainly concerned with securing a place for gays and lesbians within the Catholic Church. But it is also their goal to pursue all avenues of social justice for everyone.

Whatever conflicts Mallon may have expected at the conference, it seems that Dignity was able to leave Los Angeles united. In fact, local Dignity chapter president Dick O'Malley reports that over 120 Dignity delegates voted unanimously to add more women to its membership, as well as to commit themselves as an organization to the ordination of women. They might have an easier peace to make with the Catholic Church were they to leave these issues aside, but O'Malley said that finding no "compelling theological justification for women's exclusion," they were left with no other choice.

Dignity also voted to "urge churches to take an active role in pursuing and promoting issues of justice and equality in their local church communities." What they voted against, however, was secession from the church. Were Dignity to establish their own church, their priests would not be ordained by the bishop, a compromise both O'Malley and Mallon find unacceptable.

"We want to remain identifiably Roman Catholic," said O'Malley.

Describing his days protesting on Fifth Avenue during the New York actions, O'Malley recalls the weather.

"I don't know if you've ever been on Fifth Avenue in the winter, but between the snow and the rain and the wind..." he trailed off.

It is a compelling image, for many gay and lesbian Catholics feel they have been left out in the cold, even the most devout of them forced to choose between their faith and their lives.

But Mallon refuses to back down. "People say to me, what has the church done for you? Why don't you just love it or leave it? And my question to them is, leave it to who? To renounce my Catholic roots would be to renounce who I am."