NEW YORK – Parishioners worshiping at St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church in Harlem are greeted by a framed portrait of Martin Luther King Jr. – a Baptist minister named after a rebellious 16th-century German priest excommunicated from the Catholic Church .
Reverend Bryan Massingale, who sometimes preaches at St. Charles, continues his ministry in a way that echoes the two Martin Luthers.
Like King, Massingale denounces the scourge of racial inequality in the United States. As a professor at Fordham University, he teaches African-American religious approaches to ethics.
Like the German Martin Luther, Massingale often contradicts official Catholic teaching – he supports the ordination of women and makes celibacy optional for Catholic clergy. And, as a gay man, he disagrees with the church’s doctrine on same-sex relationships, instead advocating for the full inclusion of LGBTQ Catholics within the church.
The Vatican maintains that gays and lesbians should be treated with dignity and respect, but that gay sex is “intrinsically messy” and sinful.
In his recent Sunday homily, Massingale – who came out as gay in 2019 – envisioned a world “where the dignity of every person is respected and protected, where everyone is loved”.
But the message of equality and tolerance is one “that is being resisted even within our own religious home”, he added. “Preach!” shouted a devotee in response.
Massingale was born in 1957 in Milwaukee. Her mother was a school secretary and her father a factory worker whose family emigrated from Mississippi to escape racial segregation.
But even in Wisconsin, racism was common. Massingale said her father could not work as a carpenter because of a color bar preventing African Americans from joining the carpenters union.
The Massingales also experienced racism when they moved to the outskirts of Milwaukee and ventured into a predominantly white parish.
“It wouldn’t be a very comfortable parish for you,” he recalled, telling the priest. Afterwards, the family commuted to a predominantly black Catholic church.
Massingale recalled another incident, as a newly ordained priest, after celebrating his first Mass in a predominantly white church.
“The first parishioner who greeted me at the door said, ‘Father, your presence here is the worst mistake the Archbishop could have made. People will never accept you.
Massingale says he considered leaving the Catholic Church, but decided it was necessary.
“I’m not going to let the racism of the church rob me of my relationship with God,” he said. “I consider it my mission to make the church what it claims to be: more universal and the institution that I believe Jesus wants it to be.”
For Massingale, racism within the American Catholic Church is a reason for the exodus of some black Catholics; he says the church is not doing enough to address racism within its ranks and in society at large.
According to a 2021 survey by the Pew Research Center, nearly half of black American adults raised Catholic no longer identify as such, and many are becoming Protestant. About 6% of black American adults identify as Catholic and nearly 80% believe that standing up to racism is essential to their faith, according to the survey.
The American Catholic Church has had a checkered history with race. Some of its institutions, such as Georgetown University, were involved in the slave trade, and it had difficulty recruiting African-American priests.
Conversely, Catholic schools were among the first to desegregate, and some government officials who opposed racial integration were excommunicated.
In 2018, the U.S. bishops issued a pastoral letter denouncing “the continuing evil of racism,” but Massingale was disappointed.
“The term ‘white nationalism’ is not mentioned in this document; it does not talk about the Black Lives Matter movement,” he said. “The problem with church teachings on racism is that they are written in a way that is calculated not to upset white people.”
At Fordham, a Jesuit college, Massingale teaches a course on homosexuality and Christian ethics, using biblical texts to challenge church teaching on same-sex relationships. He said he came to terms with his own sexuality at 22, after reflecting on the book of Isaiah.
“I realized that no matter what the church said, God loved me and accepted me as a black gay man,” he said.
His ordination in 1983 came in the early years of the HIV/AIDS epidemic which disproportionately affected gay and black Americans. Among his first funerals as a priest was that of a gay man whose family wanted no mention of his sexuality or illness.
“They should have been able to turn to their church in their time of mourning,” Massingale said. “Yet they couldn’t because that stigma existed to a large extent because of the number of ministers who talked about homosexuality and AIDS being a punishment for sin.”
Pope Francis has called for compassionate pastoral care for LGBTQ Catholics. However, he described homosexuality among the clergy as worrying, and Vatican law remains clear: same-sex unions cannot be blessed within the church. Some dioceses have openly fired LGBTQ employees.
Massingale has a different vision of the church: one where Catholics enjoy the same privileges regardless of their sexual orientation.
“I think one can express one’s sexuality in a way that is responsible, engaged, uplifting and an experience of joy,” he said.
Massingale has been recognized for his advocacy by like-minded organizations such as FutureChurch, which say priests should be allowed to marry and women should have more leadership roles in the church.
“He is one of the most prophetic, compelling, inspiring and transformative leaders in the Catholic Church,” said Deborah Rose-Milavec, co-director of the organization. “When he speaks, you know a very deep truth is being spoken.”
Besides his many admirers, Massingale has vocal critics, such as the conservative Catholic newspaper Church Militant, which describes his LGBTQ advocacy as a sin.
At Fordham, Massingale is highly respected by his colleagues and has been honored by the university with a prestigious endowed chair. To the extent that he has critics among Fordham professors, they tend to keep their apprehensions out of the public sphere.
He says he receives many messages of hope and support, but going public about his sexuality comes at a cost.
“I have lost priest friends who find it difficult to be too closely associated with me because if they are friends with me, ‘what will people say about them?’” he said. he says.
Massingale remains optimistic about gradual change in the Catholic Church because of Pope Francis and recent signals from bishops across Europe who have expressed a desire for change, including the blessing of same-sex unions.
“My dream wedding would be either two men or two women standing in front of the church; getting married as a leap of faith and I can be there as an official witness to say, ‘Yes, it’s from God,’ he said after a recent class at Fordham. “If they were black, that would be wonderful.”
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