6 min

Queers vs Catholics

Pious youth aren't judging homos - really!

Credit: Joshua Meles

Sitting on a coffee shop patio, Milton Chan is busily putting stickers on condom packages. The stickers feature a cartoon angel with the words, “If abstinence isn’t working for you don’t leave it up to your guardian angel.”

But this guardian angel isn’t just watching over you. She’s more of a troublemaker. Created by members of the group Challenge The Church, the aim of her condom campaign is to provoke discussion about sexuality and the teachings of the Catholic religion and convince young people to take responsibility for their sexual health.

The youth group is busily preparing for the more than 200,000 young Catholics from around the world expected to come to Toronto for World Youth Day. The celebrations include a mass with Pope John Paul II this Sunday.

Chan, 23 and gay, isn’t going, which seems odd. Chan still attends mass weekly. He was raised in a religious household, and although he never attended Catholic school, he says he was a better altar boy than his brother who did.

Calling himself a “left-wing, progressive freako,” Chan will instead be at Queering World Youth Day, Challenge The Church’s counter-conference, which is where his enthusiasm lies. The counter-conference is an opportunity for dialogue about issues many have with Catholicism. Chan thinks the church needs to reform, or it will continue to alienate members.

A focus on biblical teachings, Chan argues, instead of on church doctrine, is necessary.

“There have been times that I’ve challenged my own faith. There’s something wrong with the church, but not with God’s teachings.”

Many young people disagree with Chan and the members of Challenge The Church. They don’t believe any reform is needed in the doctrine, which excludes women from ordination and prevents them from controlling their reproduction. It also condemns homosexual relationships. The doctrine is that way for a reason, they argue, and good Catholics must follow it.

If Chan thinks he can be queer and still be a good Catholic, Chantal Switalsky, 21 and straight, sees it as more complicated. Though she’s not keen to judge others, she tries not to do anything in her own life that church dogma would condemn.

“I tend to go without questioning what the church teaches. I tend to follow the things I grew up with,” says Switalsky, who writes for a weekly Catholic newspaper that will be especially busy during World Youth Day.

She was raised in a devout family, and has always attended Catholic school. Even so, St Michael’s College, the Catholic college at the University Of Toronto, was a culture shock for her. She realized what a minority she was in when there were only three pro-lifers in one of her classes.

Her strict Catholic views, which are against homosexuality, premarital sex, birth control and abortion, are unpopular in politically correct society. Although Switalsky has never met anyone who is openly gay, she does her best to be open-minded about homosexual relationships.

“Personally, I don’t agree with it,” she says.

Increasingly, Switalsky is outnumbered. Even a recent poll by the rightwing Christian group Focus On The Family shows that only 44 percent of Canadians are opposed to same-sex marriage. Switalsky feels like a minority, and that’s why she’s excited about World Youth Day.

“The uncool becomes not so uncool,” she says.

Held in a different location every two years, World Youth Day actually lasts a week, from Tue, Jul 23 to 28 this year. It includes concerts, prayer sessions, a community service and an overnight vigil, culminating in a mass performed by the Pope (if his health permits).

Despite the fun-filled itinerary, World Youth Day is not without controversy. Organizers have not signed a non-discrimination policy declaration, usually required by the City Of Toronto for events to receive funding. This has not stopped the city from investing about $14-million into WYD, $8-million of which will not be reimbursed by the federal government or the WYD organizers.

Councillor Joe Mihevc, chair of the council’s reference group promoting the event, says the grant proposal was handled differently because of the large amount of money. Mihevc says the support of the event is about the city’s image, not the church’s positions.

“That’s certainly not the city’s business. In terms of participation, no one is excluded,” says Mihevc. “From the city’s perspective, 3,000 media will be here. This is a chance to profile Toronto internationally like nothing else.”

But the profile WYD is creating for itself is not typically associated with stuffy Catholic conservatism. Advertisements bill it as the hottest ticket in town, not as a religious event: It’s a chance to hang out with friends and meet new people. No mention is made of Catholicism, aside from the cross in the WYD logo. Ads feature photos of smiling young people with their arms around each other (strange, as attendees are encouraged not to do anything more suggestive than shake hands).

It almost sounds like a rock concert: “Crowds. Line-ups. Blazing heat. You won’t forget a blessed minute.” And bluntly: “This summer’s biggest event is almost here. Got your tickets yet?”

Switalsky is World Youth Day’s target market: a young person who follows traditional Church teachings, despite societal pressures. “[We] are the ones who are looked at as different from everyone else.”

But she shouldn’t be, at least according to Suzanne Scorsone, director of communications for the Archdiocese Of Toronto. She explains that Catholicism is not as constricting a faith as many perceive.

“The ‘nos’ are just boundaries of the positive vision,” Scorsone says.

But it’s the ‘nos’ that people remember.

Much Catholic teaching on daily living is found in the catechisms – elaborate descriptions of the 10 commandments. It’s the sixth one that’s trouble.

Homosexual acts “are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved…. Homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered.”

But homosexuals “must be accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity.”

The sixth is also where homosexuals are called to chastity, along with everyone else who isn’t married.

Scorsone sees the church as gay-friendly, with the “same expectations of gay people as of single heterosexuals.”

Many liberal Catholics see that as poor consolation when the church will not allow same-sex marriage. Faced with the cliché “hate the sin, love the sinner” they don’t think homosexual acts should be hated, or even considered a sin at all, especially since often the sinner is hated along with the sin.

The young people I spoke to agreed that no one has the right to judge another. But they differ in what they perceive a non-judgmental attitude to be.

For example, Christina Parsons, 27 and a communications officer in the WYD national office, disagrees with premarital sex.

“I personally try to live my life that way. Have I always? Maybe not.”

Parsons, who is straight, was raised in a Catholic family and attended Catholic school. In her adolescence, she moved away from the church’s teachings. Attending World Youth Day 2000 in Rome as a journalist, she was invited to join the Catholic Times, a Quebec newspaper. God called her back to the church.

Although Parsons says that sexual homosexual relationships are wrong because they are not married ones, she says, “I’m not going to judge anybody. It’s something each person has to decide in their heart.

“I don’t see being a Catholic homosexual as being an oxymoron,” she says, because she explains that Catholicism is for everyone; even murderers in prison have mass.

“I tend to ignore stuff relating to sex,” says Gwyneth Lonergan, a 21-year-old straight member of Challenge The Church. She attributes the church’s current fame for its positions on sexuality to the Pope’s “personal obsession.”

Lonergan was raised in a progressive Catholic family and attended a progressive Catholic school. She still considers herself a Catholic, but subscribes to “liberation theology” which sides with the poor and the oppressed. She includes gay people as oppressed, and thinks their oppression is due to St Paul’s teachings.

Sometimes, though, youth attitudes are more about feeling than theology.

Casey Hayward recognizes that his Catholic upbringing has made him less tolerant of gay people than he otherwise might be. The 17-year-old says he doesn’t have a problem with homosexuality – it’s just not something he’s used to.

“I don’t know any gay people,” he says. At Hayward’s all-boys Catholic school, he says homosexuality is “kind of obligatory to make fun of.”

WYD’s marketing, inclusive as it tries to be, hasn’t convinced Hayward he should attend.

“I’m not down with the hippy Catholic stuff,” he says.

But it’s not the right kind of hippy for Gabe Thirlwall. The 25-year-old Challenge The Church member says the church has to become more focussed on equality, leaving behind its “epidemic of abuse.”

Thirlwall, who identifies as queer, was born to progressive Catholic parents involved in the social justice movement. She’s now studying religion at St Michael’s College at the University Of Toronto. Also a member of Catholics For A Free Choice, Thirlwall focuses on gender equality and queer issues in Catholicism.

Thrilwall says the church’s lack of response to its own homophobia has excluded many of the most devout and involved Catholic youth. And with her guardian angel cartoon and zines for Challenge The Church, she’s hoping to cause some trouble, even if she thinks church reform is unlikely.

Chan is more optimistic.

“The church is merely moving slower than other [institutions]. I feel like God is calling me to do this. What you’re asking for is coming out of justice.”

* For more on World Youth Day, visit For more information about Challenge The Church and Queering World Youth Day, visit For more about Catholics For A Free Choice, check out