Monday, September 15, 2008

Church Fires "Openly" Gay Music Director

Charles Philyaw, left, and his partner, James Mulder-Philyaw,
relax on the front porch of their Madison home near a statue of the Virgin
Philyaw says he was fired as director of music liturgy at St. Andrew
Catholic Church
in Verona after five parishioners raised concerns
about his openly gay life.
(Photo: Craig Schreiner, State Journal)

Today’s St. Paul Pioneer Press carried a story from the Wisconsin State Journal about Charles Philyaw, the music director of a Roman Catholic church who was fired for being “openly” gay.

Writes Doug Erickson:

After decades of honing his musical skills, Charles Philyaw landed his dream job in 2004 as the full-time director of music liturgy at St. Andrew Catholic Church in Verona.

The church, with 1,643 adult members, was more than just a place to work for Philyaw. He and his partner, James Mulder-Philyaw, joined the parish and participated fully in the religious community.

Then in June, it all collapsed. Philyaw said he was told by the parish priest, the Rev. Dave Timmerman, that he would no longer be retained because he was living an openly gay life. He was given two weeks’ notice.

Philyaw later learned that five parishioners had raised concerns about him and his partner being so prominently involved in church activities. Bishop Robert Morlino’s office became involved, leading to his dismissal, Philyaw said.

His firing has divided parishioners, pitting friends against friends and spawning a sharp debate over [Church] teachings. More than 100 church members signed a petition — sent to Morlino — praising Philyaw and bemoaning his dismissal. But others say Philyaw’s firing was inevitable because his employment made a mockery of Catholic doctrine.

“Absolutely, Chuck lost his job because he’s openly gay,” said Jo Ellen Kilkenny, one of the five whose inquiries triggered Philyaw’s dismissal.

She calls him a “wonderful music director” and said she feels horrible that he lost his livelihood, yet it became indefensible for him to be in a highly visible role as an active homosexual, she said.

I have to say that it’s incidents like this that make me question if there’s a place within the Roman Catholic Church for gay people dedicated to living lives of integration and authenticity. Some friends tell me categorically: No, there is not. You are wasting your time, talents, and energy. Staying and giving of such things is akin to “throwing pearls to swine.”

Of course, there is truth to this, especially when one acknowledges that Roman Catholicism is a religious organization controlled by a
sexist, homophobic, and feudal ruling caste – one that enforces a rigid, reactionary, oppressive, and wounding ideology masquerading as “faith.” It’s an ideology that does not accept or respect either women or gay people, and a ruling caste that has fashioned a monarchical system that allows its members to remain in a corrupt state of absolute power.

Yes, I must admit that
staying can often feel totally hopeless, futile, and as dysfunctional as the system itself.

In the two years since establishing The Wild Reed I’ve received numerous e-mails from gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) former Catholics. The latest (received just yesterday) typifies the overall sentiment of these communications:

I wanted to say hi and say that I’m glad I discovered your blog. It’s beautiful to see someone working from within [the Church]. Unfortunately my faith was damaged way too early and thoroughly, in my opinion, to do the same, but I very much admire those who live their Catholic faith and the call to social justice.

So many loving and creative people driven out! What a travesty; what a waste.

A challenge

As a gay person within Roman Catholicism I find it a challenge to remain not only hopeful but sometimes even loving. This troubles me. Yet, in all honesty, I have to say that when I read, for instance, about the inquisition set in motion by Jo Ellen Kilkenny and the four other parish members of St. Andrews who complained about the “openly” gay Charles Philyaw, I struggle to love these five individuals in the way that Jesus calls us to love one another.

And why is this? Because their words and actions seem so narrow, so insensitive and disrespectful of others’ experiences, of the presence of love (and thus the sacred) beyond their “faith;” because they see church as something static, something indistinguishable from a
cult of unquestioning obedience, a cult that has no appreciation or tolerance for any sense of journey or evolution; and because they see the hallmark of “the faith” to be rigid adherence to “church doctrines,” not the seeking and embodying of compassion and justice within the context of a pilgrim church.

I mean, just listen to how Erickson reports on Kilkenny’s twisted motivation for complaining about Philyaw: “She pressed the issue with love for her faith, her church and for Philyaw, although she acknowledges that ‘Chuck would probably want to vomit if he heard me say that.’”

He’s not the only one.

Indeed, Philyaw’s firing has upset a number of parishioners at St. Andrew’s. Erickson notes, for instance, that “choir member Beth Homb said Philyaw’s firing and some tenets of the Catholic faith have caused her to step back from regular attendance at St. Andrew. ‘It’s hard to be there, but it’s hard not to be there,’ she said.”

Pain and upheaval

I also have a difficult time with thinking charitably about people like Kilkenny because their words and actions cause so much pain and upheaval in people’s lives – pain and upheaval that, more often than not, they simply brush aside: Never mind real people, it’s “the faith” that must be upheld at all costs!

Take, for example, the consequences of Kilkenny et al’s complaints against Philyaw and his partner:

Philyaw, who earned $41,000 a year, now works a part-time temp job with no benefits. He and his partner face the likelihood of foreclosure on their house within two months, he said.

“It’s been devastating,” he said. “These five people didn’t think through how they were going to be impacting our lives.”

Regardless of their motives, “their actions did not positively contribute to spreading the word of the Gospels or the love that Jesus taught us,” he said.

True, but remember it’s not “the love that Jesus taught us” that these folks are concerned about. It’s the rules and teachings of the magisterium of the Roman Catholic Church – rules and teachings, it must be said, that are woefully uninformed by human experience and science, and which accordingly are profoundly dysfunctional and damaging. They may be Roman (i.e., legalistic) but they’re certainly not catholic. Their failure to draw from the universal wisdom of the faithful, of humanity, disqualifies them from any claim of catholicity.

Hypocrisy or a profound disconnect?

In his article Erickson’s notes that:

Earlier this year, [Charles Philyaw’s partner James] Mulder-Philyaw went through church training so that he could serve the Eucharist as a layperson. In late May, the two led a song together for middle school students during a religious education program.

This level of participation prompted questions, especially from children, said Mark Heyde, who, along with his wife, Pamela, are among the five parishioners who raised concerns. His wife teaches high school religious education.

“The kids were going, What’s going on here?’ They thought it was hypocritical,” Mark Heyde said. "We didn't know how to respond, so we started asking questions about the church's teaching and how we are called to apply that in our daily lives."

To my mind those kids were indeed onto something. No doubt to the horror of their conservative parents, they were seeing with that wonderful clarity of childlike perception, the error and dysfunction of the Church’s teaching on homosexuality. Think about it: the Church teaches that “homosexual activity prevents its own fulfillment and happiness by acting contrary to the creative wisdom of God.” Yet here were two creative and happy gay men in their community. Something’s not right here, folks.

The parents project hypocrisy, implying that continued acceptance and support of Charles and his partner by the community is something negative. I doubt if it was hypocrisy that the children were picking up on, but rather a profound disconnect between what the church says is the “sinfulness,” the inherent unhappiness and “disorder” of the “openly” gay “lifestyle” and the example of love, creativity, service and fulfillment that they saw embodied in Charles and James. From my perspective the logical (not to mention compassionate) thing for the adults to have done would have been to reassess (and hopefully jettison) the teaching. Instead, poor Charles and James are shown the door. One can only wonder what the children are thinking.

Next steps

So what’s to be done? Well, it seems clear from Erickson’s article that the majority of parishioners at St. Andrew’s did not want Charles to be fired, and are upset that he was. I suggest they withhold their contributions to the parish and give the money instead to Charles and James until such time that Charles has found a new job – one that is comparable to his old one in terms of pay and benefits.

There’s been reports that the five who instigated this whole mess have been given the cold shoulder, even harassed by some in the parish who are supportive of Charles. This clearly must stop. Besides, it wasn’t these five that ultimately bear responsibility for the firing of Charles Philyaw. No, that responsibility rests at the door of Bishop Robert Morlino. If there’s an annual bishop’s appeal, the Catholics of Madison need to withhold any and all funds from it – a least until Philyaw has secured another job.

They also need to educate themselves about the many challenges by credible
theologians, scholars, scientists, and everyday gay Catholics to the Church’s “official” teaching on homosexuality. Equipped with such knowledge and insight they then need to vigorously and persistently counter the “official party line” on this issue – one that is dishonest, oppressive, and cruel.

In particular they should challenge the Courage apostolate, a spokesperson of which was trundled out by the Madison Archdiocese to sprout the usual claptrap about how “disordered” it is to act on one’s “same-sex attractions”. Yes, and how many gay Catholics, their families, partners, and friends buy that line?

Also, if there is no
Dignity chapter in Madison, folks need to start one. This too could be financially supported as opposed to funneling money into the diocese and/or a parish that supports dishonest, oppressive, and cruel teachings on sexuality and any ministry (such as Courage) that promulgates such teachings.

Energy and commitment

Despite being initially disheartened by this story, I feel a renewed sense of energy and commitment to continue in the work of bringing about reform and change within the Roman Catholic Church. It helps, of course, that I’m part of a number of Catholic communities that support such an endeavor. The good folks of, for example, CPCSM, Catholic Rainbow Parents, and The Progressive Catholic Voice are dedicated to holding the institutional church accountable for its intellectual dishonesty and spiritual blindness; dedicated to advocating for those marginalized and cast out by such dishonesty and blindness; dedicated to questioning and challenging, to shining the light of reason, compassion, and experience on issues that are crying out for illumination and reform within the Church.

I also find hope and encouragement in what’s been called the
“underground church,” or better still, the “emergent church,” especially the growing number of Intentional Eucharistic Communities (IECs).

Encouraged by such experiences and developments I remain adamant that we must not allow the Jo Ellen Kilkennys of the Church to define what it means to be Catholic – especially given Catholicism’s rich tradition of diversity, its living and evolving nature, and its claim to being led by the inclusive Spirit of Pentecost, where God’s spirit spoke to all in ways that they recognized and understood. My prayer is that all within the Church may honor the presence and voice of the Spirit in the lives and relationships of LGBT people. And if such honoring requires the changing of “church doctrines,” so be it.

Of course, I don’t think any less of those who leave. Indeed, I think leaving can itself be the right and healthy thing to do for many people. It can also be instructive. Philyaw, for instance, though he and his partner are now worshiping with a United Church of Christ congregation, insists that his faith in God has not been “shaken” by recent events, and that it was God who led him to the Catholic Church. “We ended up opening the eyes of many people in the church,” he says.

Yes, and his ignoble firing has opened up many more. And if it motivates people to question and challenge, that too in its own way will be a good thing.

To read Doug Erickson’s article in its entirety, click here.


Following are some of the comments left by visitors to both the State Journal and the Pioneer Press websites. As noted above, both papers carried Doug Erickson’s story.

• One can sexually abuse minors and have affairs with congregation members and get a job transfer as long as you have a white collar. However, if [you’re] in a monogamous, loving and consensual relationship with another adult you get canned. What’s up with this? Who gets the love?

• What hypocrites, these parishioners who claim their “great love” for the music director, yet sabotaged his career and were unable to see the depths of his faith – those are truly hateful actions. To Ms. Kilkenny and the other sad protagonists in this story – is ignorance not a sin?

• This story is appalling. Seriously, the people who wanted to call and have this man lose his job and now probably his house should really evaluate themselves. Are your lives really that perfect? I doubt it. Actually, I am sure they are not. Now why don’t you turn your perfect lives around and pay this man’s mortgage because you are all such caring Catholics. Take care of his family because you destroyed it. With the amount of people known to have molested people in church settings and been sexual predators, you are worried about this man teaching your kids to sing? This is exactly why people stop going to church. We don’t need our neighbors to judge us, that is what God is for. I hope that every person that called because this was such a concern to them gets a piece of this karma back. It’s a rough economy right now, how would you feel losing your job because you are a female, or because you were short or too tall? People are born gay, it is not a choice. I hope that this church gets sued. You parishioners can pay that too then.

• This is another example of the archaic Catholic Church pushing people out of the faith. I’m not gay, and am married with three kids. It shouldn’t matter to a Christian congregation if someone is gay or not. It’s better that someone who is gay does not try to hide it. Being gay does not equal a “skeleton.” Aren’t we past that yet??! I am taking a pass on raising my kids in the Catholic faith where they encourage intolerance such as this. What a dumb, hypocritical faith. Get with the times Catholic Church!!

• And why is it that people are surprised that the Catholic Church would fire a Music Director for an openly gay relationship? Right or wrong, the Church has a long established policy pertaining to homosexuality. That’s just how it is. Political advocacy, righteous outrage, or bemoaning the firing won’t change the Church’s opinion on it one bit. It’s kind of like sticking your wet finger in a socket and being dismayed when you’re shocked. It may have been a dream job, he may have been great at it. But did he honestly and truly believe that the job would work out if he had a relationship? Did he not think the Church would take the position they did? It’s too bad he’s in the tenuous position he’s in, but he set himself up for a fall. Something like this isn’t anything that can be wished away. The Church’s long held position should have been that proverbial “alarm bell” telling you it’s not going to end well. Right or wrong, it is the way it is and there’s not a whole lot you can do or say to change it. To me, its just common sense. If you are openly gay, in a relationship and want a job at a church, common sense dictates you don’t apply at a Catholic or Baptist church. They don’t believe in it and have fired people in the past for it. Try a different church and don’t set yourself up for a fall.

• Isn’t it the person who hired him that set him up for the fall since he was open about his sexual orientation/lifestyle prior to being hired? When hired, I think it was reasonable for him to assume he was “accepted” into the church or they should not have hired him. The church is being hypocritical saying it is ok for him to have these feelings but not to act on them in public. What a way to live.

• So, If you’re a pedophile you get a transfer but God help you if you’re gay.

• This is the perfect example of why I and so many others have turned our backs on Catholicism. Way too judgmental and exclusive! Ridiculous!

• Why would this guy want to be a part of the Catholic church? It’s a club that doesn’t really accept him. It’s like an African American wanting to work with the KKK.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Truth Telling: The Greatest of Sins in a Dysfunctional Church
What is a “Lifestyle”?
The Catholic Church and Gays: An Excellent Historical Overview
Compassion, Christian Community, and Homosexuality
Celebrating and Embodying Divine Hospitality
The Many Manifestations of God’s Loving Embrace
The Many Forms of Courage
A Catholic’s Prayer for His Fellow Pilgrim, Benedict XVI
Relationship: The Crucial Factor in Sexual Morality
Beyond Courage
Making Love, Giving Life


Anonymous said...

Was or is adherence to Catholic doctrine a condition of employment at this parish? I'm not sure it could or should be a condition of employment; I wonder if it was or is a condition of employment?

Anonymous said...

This is so sad. I hope concerned Catholics will pray with me for this poor man and his partner. If I were in that particular parish, I'd do exactly what I did when my own parish got a homophobic priest: transfer to another Catholic parish with a more neutral or welcoming atmosphere. Or at the very least, withhold all donations. Better yet, when the collection basket comes around, put in a note saying something like "no music director, no dollars." That should send a message. I only pray that the Church will open itself up more in the future. May God forgive those 5 parishoners and the hierarchy that was responsible for this.

Anonymous said...


You write,

"As a gay person within Roman Catholicism I find it a challenge to remain not only hopeful but sometimes even loving."

Your posts are always perspicacious, but rarely so revelatory. How does the "child" nurture self-love, when it is constantly slapped down, as worthless? How does one love, if one is not loved? How can anger find justice, when it is told to turn the other cheek?

If the sexual orientation of a gifted artist precludes contribution to the greater glory -- never denied Michaelangelo, nor artisans I've known as recently as 20 years ago -- if how one loves is told has no place in the orthodox church of narrow mind, then maybe . . . . just maybe god is not love, because its church is not.

kevin57 said...

A truly outrageous, pathetic move. As GS points out--and I have on several other occasions--if the Church had shed all its "disordered" types, there would be FAR less great works of music, art, and service in its annals of human history. Morino is a climber. Worthless and opportunistic. I love the suggestion that parishioners withhold from the collection basket and send funds to this couple. Money speaks. The whole rightist tilt in the Church is meant to appeal to the wacko Monaghans of the Church. Outrageous. Pathetic.