AS the tranquil tones of church bells and choirs usher in another Easter Sunday, you may hear stirrings of controversy beneath those sounds — set to the pounding of a Lady Gaga tune.
It’s no accident that Lady Gaga decided to release the video for her provocative single, “Judas,” this Easter. From wearing see-through nun habits to suggestively swallowing a rosary, the pop star, who was raised a Catholic, has consistently prodded her faith’s strict sexual conventions.
But if Lady Gaga has managed to offend some Catholics, her progressiveness, specifically her support for gay equality, reflects a genuine cultural moment. A recent study indicates that today’s Catholics are the most progressive Christians in the country regarding gay equality — and more open than Americans in general.
Last month, the Public Religion Research Institute, a nonprofit group, reported that 74 percent of American Catholics surveyed supported the rights of same-sex couples to marry or form civil unions (43 percent and 31 percent, respectively). The telephone survey asked more than 3,000 adults to choose among three options: whether gay couples should be allowed to marry, should be allowed to form civil unions or should receive no legal recognition. By comparison, 16 percent of white evangelical Christians approved of same-sex marriages; 24 percent approved of civil unions. Among the general public, those rates climb to 37 and 27 percent, respectively — still lower than among Catholics.
Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, an independent group that has worked on gay Catholic issues since 1977, said he had seen Catholics open up in recent years. His group maintains a list of “gay-friendly parishes and faith communities” around the country, which has grown to more than 200 from about 20 since 1997.
Church traditions in social-justice advocacy play a strong role, he said. “These people aren’t picking and choosing their Catholicism; their Catholicism has motivated them.”
Official church policy is tough on gay issues: homosexual acts are deemed sinful (though being homosexual is not); same-sex marriage is forbidden. Embracing diversity while toeing the Vatican line requires a delicate balance.
Some seek nontraditional ministry. Dignity New York, a chapter of Dignity USA, an independent gay ministry group, has liturgical services especially for gay Catholics, given mostly by nonactive priests, at St. John’s in the Village, an Episcopal church.
Yet Catholic churches from Texas to Wisconsin find ways to be welcoming. St. Francis Xavier in Chelsea, the Oratory Church of St. Boniface in Brooklyn and many others are known for programs offering spiritual and intellectual fulfillment for gay Catholics in a context once perceived as hostile.
The Rev. Gilbert Martinez, pastor at St. Paul the Apostle, a gay-friendly parish near Lincoln Center, said the study did not surprise him: Catholics have always struggled with moral issues on which the diocese and parishioners do not always agree.
Catholics believe God incarnates in diverse forms, Father Martinez said — like human beings.
“Once you say that God is a human person — I mean we’re just so varied and diverse that way — I think the real Catholicity of that is to acknowledge that and accept that,” he said.