Outside of Chicago's Holy Name Cathedral, six rainbow flags flapped in the wind, greeting Catholics as they left 9:30 a.m. Mass on Feb. 14. The flags were held by gay protestors, a group of about 30, who came out to protest what they called the promotion of bigotry by the church's hierarchy.
Protestors were confronted by several churchgoers who questioned the appropriateness of picketing a place of worship.
"I agree with you," one woman leaving the cathedral said to a protestor. "But I don't think you should be disturbing people when they're going to Mass."
The picketing of Holy Name, 735 N. State St., was organized and promoted by the Gay Liberation Network. The group's co-founder, Andy Thayer, said part of the goal of the protest was to expose Catholics who are not ordained priests, nuns or deacons, a group known as laypeople, to the bigotry of the church's hierarchy.
"I think if you look at civil rights struggles in the past with other communities, often times these actions do make people uncomfortable," Thayer said. "You need to get people out of their comfort zone, otherwise good people might go along to get along. Hopefully upon reflection some of those people say, 'You know, they've got a point.' I think it's a particular responsibility of lay Catholics to speak out. I think it's important to drag them out of the closet about their bigotry."
According to Thayer, the group protested attempts by the Catholic leadership to thwart the advancement of gay rights. He said he believed there was a lot of support for gay rights from Catholics as a whole, and that the issue was only the actions of the hierarchy.
Megan Burke, the director of the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults at St. Ignatius in Rogers Park, said she disagrees with the American church's position on gay marriage and gay rights. She thinks it is outside of the church's role to attempt to influence legislation.
"The church has jurisdiction in the spiritual realm, but it doesn't have jurisdiction when it comes to government and when it comes to politics," Burke said. "It is not only against the church's teachings [to try to influence government], it is also a misguided action of a human person and does not represent the institution of the church."
But the Catholic Church is a fairly powerful lobbying body. The Archdiocese of Chicago spent $235,200 in the 2008 fiscal year in "an attempt to influence national, state or local legislation," according to the church's 990 form.
According to Thayer, the Archdiocese of Portland, Maine, funded over a quarter of the campaign to defeat marriage equality in the state, and the Conference of Catholic Bishops spent thousands of dollars backing Proposition 8 in California, the proposition that successfully banned gay marriage in the state.
California transplant Evangeline Whitlock, a recent convert to Catholicism, said she watched the church spend money supporting Proposition 8 last year. Unlike Burke, Whitlock does not take issue with the church doing political lobbying, but she does have some problems with the church's teachings on homosexuality.
"It's an issue for me because I have a lot of good friends who are gay who are very dear to me," Whitlock said. "We have to remember that we are dealing with people, no matter what, you can't deny their human experience."
Still, Whitlock does not believe gays should be allowed to marry in the Catholic Church.
The official position of the Catholic Church is laid out in the church's catechism, which says homosexual orientation is not wrong, but homosexual acts are wrong because gay couples cannot be married in the church.
"Homosexual orientation in the church is really morally neutral," Burke said. "The homosexual act, because it cannot be consecrated with the institution of marriage, is morally wrong. The church says the same thing about heterosexual acts, and I think Catholics forget that. It's not about sexual orientation. It's about marriage."
American Catholic bishops are more conservative than the church is universally. According to Burke, that's a result of the bishops reacting to a political environment, rather than being grounded in church teachings.
A 1975 document from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, called Persona Humana, contains the church's first statement on the morality of homosexuality. In it the Catholic Church acknowledges that homosexuality may be an "inherent faculty of being," and says that it is not morally wrong.
But 11 years later, a letter from the Conference of Bishops calls homo-sexuality "disordered."
Burke said that in the 1986 letter, the bishops clearly battled with a political issue and were unsure of how to proceed. Burke called the bishops' position "reactionary."
"The U.S. bishops tend to be more conservative," Burke said. "I think, essentially, because they don't know what to do."
Polls have shown that parishioners do not, as a whole, support the American church's vehemence. While the hierarchy has been vocal in its opposition to gay marriage and the immorality of homosexual acts, an August 2009 poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, showed more Catholics support gay marriage than oppose it.
Additionally, a higher percentage of Catholics support gay marriage than the percentage of Americans as a whole.
Among Catholics, 45 percent support gay marriage, as opposed to 43 percent who are against it. Only 39 percent of all Americans support gay marriage. The poll, which had a margin of error of plus or minus two percent, also found that 41 percent of Catholics think homosexuality is "not a moral issue."
The poll results, and most of the Catholics who spoke with The Chronicle, support Thayer's idea that the lay people are separate from their church leaders. But gay protestor Rich Wilson said he didn't make the distinction.
"The emphasis here is on the hierarchy, but I don't make that separation," Wilson said. "The Christian community needs to be rebuked for not standing up and providing a stronger voice against those who are rabidly anti-gay. I think Christians need to call upon their brothers and sisters to tone down the bigotry."
Kaitlyn Cooper, a Catholic who attends Mass every week said she does not agree with the church's position on homosexuals, she is exactly the kind of person Thayer and his group wanted to reach with their picketing. But she said she thinks protesting outside of a church is "inappropriate."
"I'm not in complete agreement with the church, but I wouldn't want people protesting around my church," Cooper said. "I would be like 'yeah, I agree with you,' but I don't need you yelling at me on my day of worship."
The protestors, separated from the church steps by two blue wooden police barricades and watched over by six Chicago police officers, did a lot of yelling. In the northwest corner of the crowd, Thayer struggled to keep the group on message, stopping the chants of "shame on you," to deliver speeches about the church hierarchy and pleading with Catholics entering and exiting the cathedral to speak out against their leadership.
But some of the protestors were insistent on being antagonistic.
"Homophobes go to hell," one woman shouted. When a priest going into the church stopped and told the group he loved them, she fired back. "Don't tell us you love us and then go in there! Shame on you."
Most of the people leaving Holy Name seemed confused, maybe even amused. One young couple and their two children tried to give gift bags to the protestors and lecture them on the sins of homosexuality. However, most of the people just wanted the protestors to go away.
"I think it's kind of pointless because they're trying to change something they have no ability to change," said Fred Mendoza, a churchgoer, while standing on the church steps. "All it's doing is disrupting the peace."
But disrupting the peace is exactly what Thayer and his group hoped to do.
"The Catholic leadership has worked behind the scenes to attempt to thwart our rights at every step," Thayer said. "We think the best way to combat this anti-equal rights activism is to expose it to the light of day."