Sam Albano knows how to ask the tough questions.
What does it mean to be gay?
How am I supposed to be a good Catholic?
Does God love me?
When Sam joined the parish pastoral council at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Catholic Church in 2012, he brought those questions with him. At the council’s annual retreat, the pastor asked the group to figure out why so many registered members didn’t show up for Sunday Mass at their church in Carmel, Indiana. It’s unavoidable, some said. All of America is running from religion.
Sam, who has asked tough questions about the Catholic Church since high school, had a different idea.
Is there something we’re doing wrong that keeps people away?
Sam might call the church out on its flaws, but he never means to stand against it. That would be like standing against himself.
“I’m for the Catholic Church,” he says. “I’m against practices that happen that are harmful to people within the church.”
One day in August 2014, Sam received a text message from his pastor. They needed to meet as soon as possible. The pastor didn’t say why, but Sam had an idea of what it might be.
Two days later, on his way home from work as a teacher at Garden City Elementary School, Sam pulled into the church parking lot. Sunlight warmed his skin as he walked into the building and to his pastor’s office. Sam greeted the man and took a seat on the couch.
The pastor thanked Sam for coming. He offered a cup of coffee that Sam didn’t take.
There was a problem, the pastor said. Some members in the church didn’t like the things Sam was sharing on Facebook. The articles opposed Catholic teachings, congregants said.
I’m going to be honest with you, Sam said. I’ve posted my thoughts about being gay and Catholic. There are things happening in our church I find concerning. I don’t think I’m being unfairly critical, but I understand how some people might feel that way.
The pastor was in a rough spot, but he needed to maintain peace.
Sam, people who publicly disagree with church teachings can’t be leaders in our parish, he said. What do you want to do about that?
Well, Sam replied, I’ve never used any position I hold in this parish to express my opinion. So I really don’t want to change anything.
Sam was just one of at least 19 Catholic Church employees or volunteers who faced similar choices that year, according to New Ways Ministry. There have been at least 20 more cases since.
Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of a Catholic LGBT advocacy organization called DignityUSA, says this sometimes happens when people enter same-sex marriages. But others have been rejected just for serving while gay.
A Split in Beliefs
The Catholic Church officially teaches that homosexual attraction isn’t sinful. Instead, it’s “deep-seated” in some people as an “objective disorder.”
But acting on gay desires is different. Catholicism considers any gay sexual contact intrinsically evil, so official statements call gay people to a life of celibacy.
DignityUSA members don’t think any evidence—from Scripture, tradition, or natural law— supports this teaching. And a majority of Catholics would agree.
According to a 2017 study by Pew Research Center, about two-thirds of American Catholics now support same-sex marriage, roughly matching the general population. In another study by Pew Research in 2014, about 4 percent of Catholics identified their own sexuality as gay or bisexual.
Duddy-Burke says since the 1990s, the views most Catholics hold about LGBT issues have diverged from the Catholic hierarchy. People are usually surprised that Catholics as a whole support gay marriage more than some other Christian groups, she says.
Searching for an Answer
At age 14, Sam already felt an important connection to his Catholic faith. That’s why he panicked when, in eighth grade, he realized he was gay.
Sam wondered how God could let him be gay and then make it so difficult to practice Catholicism. How could a fixed part of him be all bad, like the church seemed to teach?
He hit the lowest point of his faith in 2004. While the thought didn’t last long, on that Saturday morning, it was crystal clear: If God allows this, then God must not love me.
He still trusted church doctrine. He believed dating a man would be sinful. He sometimes felt shame for having gay attractions, even though the church distinguishes between orientation and acts.
During his time studying education at Saint Joseph’s College in Rensselaer, Indiana, Sam prayed hard, searching for an answer.
God, I want to believe this doctrine. I want to believe I should be celibate for the rest of my life. But I don’t know if I can.
He sat and tried to listen.
Maybe you don’t have to, Sam felt God answer. Maybe part of your calling is to be in a relationship with another man.
Most people probably go through some kind of major identity conflict during their lives, says George Gaither, an associate professor of psychological science at Ball State University. He explained a theory developed by psychologist James Marcia that considers identity as a sum of one’s different—possibly conflicting—parts of life. These could include career, relationships, politics, sexuality, religion, and other identity domains, all of which develop at different rates.
The theory breaks identity development down into “statuses.” In the foreclosure state, an individual is committed to some belief that probably originated from early influences, like parents or religion—things accepted without question. For example, Sam first assumed being gay meant he’d need to be celibate.
But then he entered moratorium stage, when an individual actively seeks answers to some kind of identity crisis. Throughout his time at college, Sam decided it was okay to be gay and hope to find a partner. This represents the identity achievement state, when a person commits to some alternative they understand and have explored for themselves. Of course, Gaither says, it’s always possible to reach this state and fall back out of it.
By late 2010, Sam was 22 and a few months out of college. Prayer and study had led him to his own conclusions, but he still felt torn apart by church teachings. What if he’d just been trying to rationalize and was really ignoring the voice of truth? While driving down I-465 in Indianapolis on a Sunday afternoon, he began to pray.
You know, God, I really think it’s okay for me to be gay. I think it would be okay if I started dating. But I’m not totally, 100 percent sure this is okay with you.
In that moment, Sam felt a sense of peace.
Embracing an Identity
Two months later, Sam attended his first service with the Indianapolis chapter of Dignity.
Then at the 2013 national Dignity conference in Minneapolis, he saw a large group of LGBT Catholic people for the first time. They seemed so joyful about this part of their lives, and he wanted that, too. One night before bed, he said a prayer.
Thank you, God, for making me gay and Catholic.
Sam came out to his pastor at St. Elizabeth. At the time, the man said Sam could keep serving the church in his roles as a parish council member, young adult ministry leader, sacristan, and eucharistic minister. That’s why Sam was so surprised to be sitting on his pastor’s couch less than a year later with a choice to make.
It was a painful decision, but it wasn’t a hard one.
I’m not called to sit on a parish council my whole life, Sam told his pastor. I’m called to be honest about my faith and experience. I’m called to make things better for LGBT folks in the church. If I can’t do that and serve the parish at the same time, then I resign.
They stayed and talked a bit longer. The pastor encouraged Sam to take a break from the parish but promised to welcome him back if he chose to return. Sam agreed.
They stepped into the hall, exchanged an awkward hug, and parted ways.
Fighting back tears, Sam walked out the front door onto the church plaza. He stopped, looking out at the wooden cross that rises from the building’s front lawn, and prayed.
Jesus, I don’t know what’s going on right now. I don’t know what I’m going to do. But I trust in you, and I trust you’ll show me the right path.
He walked to his car and drove home.
Despite some initial anger, Sam quickly turned to the words of Jesus: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.”
After about six months, he returned to his parish. He’d considered some other churches, but St. Elizabeth was where he needed to be.
“Because if we go away,” he says, “there will be no LGBT presence in the Catholic Church. And there will be no motivation to make things better.”
His volunteer work for the church now is mostly outside institutional bounds. He served on the national board of DignityUSA for a couple years, and he’s still part of the Indianapolis chapter. He also writes about his experiences. But most of his impact, he thinks, comes through conversations with his bishop, his pastor, and others in the parish.
Sam wants more people to have those uncomfortable conversations. He wants more LGBT Catholics to share their stories.
And he wants more people to ask the tough questions.