Same-sex marriage is new test for Catholic institutions used to ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’


Mike McMahon, 62, was fired as music director at St. Agnes Catholic Church in Arlington, Va., after news of his marriage reached the pastor, the Rev. Lee Roos. (Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post)

Having worked in Catholic church music ministry for nearly 40 years — basically his entire adult life — Mike McMahon thought he knew the landscape and his place in it. As a gay person, all was fine as long as he was “discreet.”

And that worked for him even in the conservative Roman Catholic Diocese of Arlington, Va., where he was employed for about 30 of those years as music director at several parishes. In that time, McMahon, who has three graduate degrees in theology, also served as president of the National Association of Pastoral Musicians, the national body for liturgical music leaders in the Catholic Church.

Then came same-sex marriage, the topic that has roiled traditional religion and rocked the “don’t ask, don’t tell” status quo so common in houses of worship and religious schools.

Last summer, McMahon, 62, was fired as music director at St. Agnes Catholic Church in Arlington after news of his marriage reached the pastor, the Rev. Lee Roos.

McMahon said his meeting with Roos was less than half an hour. Church employees had verified that McMahon had married his partner in February, and he could either resign or be fired, McMahon said Roos told him. He opted to be fired and was told the dismissal from the part-time position was effective immediately, he recalled recently.

“He called HR and asked them to walk him through what he had to do. Then we walked over to the church where my stuff was. We walked to the parking lot, he gave me a hug and that was it,” McMahon said of the exchange with Roos.

‘Defiance of church teachings’

Even as same-sex marriage seems to reflect — or trigger — greater acceptance of gay equality in the overall American public, it has proved a major challenge to traditional institutions, many of which have well-entrenched norms around looking the other way.

Practices vary, but gays and lesbians serve in many positions of spiritual leadership across the Catholic Church, particularly in music. But marriage has tested that, with more and more Catholic institutions firing gay and lesbian staff members not because they are gay but because they marry. Teachers, principals, band directors and choir directors, among others, have lost jobs for this reason in recent months across the country. McMahon is believed to be the only gay person in the greater Washington area to lose a Catholic church job because of marriage.

Roos declined to comment for this article, but a spokesman for the Arlington diocese, which includes over 400,000 Catholics across northern Virginia, said marriage is different.

“This public act is unmistakable and verifiable and serves to cause scandal in the church and confusion among the laity,” said Michael Donohue, the spokesman. “The church can’t let a diocesan employee, especially one who has a significant and public role in the liturgy of the Mass, and other ceremonies, to stand in open defiance of church teachings.”

Donohue said Roos called McMahon a “gifted musician.” In the church bulletin last year, Roos didn’t tell parishioners the reason why McMahon left, saying only that the church music program had grown and improved because of his efforts. “Many were saddened and a few left the staff as a result,” Donohue said.

McMahon had been at St. Agnes since 2005. He also worked as music director at Blessed Sacrament in Alexandria, Va., from 1982 until 1997 and at St. Marks in Vienna, Va., from 1997 to 2001.

McMahon also left his position with the National Association of Pastoral Musicians within a few weeks of his firing. The group, which he led for 12 years, put out a statement last summer saying he was leaving but gave no explanation why. McMahon said the two parties agreed not to speak about it publicly.

Until recently, McMahon didn’t speak about his dismissal from St. Agnes, which has a surprising second act: He’s become interim music director at a pro-gay Protestant church, the National City Christian Church, in downtown Washington.

National City’s large, prominent building on Thomas Circle is covered in a rainbow sash during gay pride events, and the church hosts everything from gay weddings and support groups for gay Christians to gay square-dance workshops. McMahon’s blurb on the church Web site notes that he lives in Maryland “with his husband.”

In an interview at the church, McMahon is still figuring out the place of a Catholic musician who can’t work at a Catholic church. He feels just as Catholic, he said, and still attends a longtime downtown service with a group of gay and lesbian Catholics. And being out has, in his seventh decade, transformed his concept of his job.

“This has been a really freeing experience. One blessing is I no longer, I don’t think that way. I am who I am. And I can’t serve in ministry without being who I am — that I have to be careful who I say what to. Here it’s just normal. The church doesn’t revolve around” the issue, he said.

On the other hand, “serving in the ministry of the [Catholic] Church has been my identity my whole life. This placed me outside of that. I now think of myself as not able to serve in church ministry. I know I’m Catholic, and I know I belong, but I can’t do part of what makes me me.”

Legal battles

While some U.S. Catholic dioceses seem quiet on how they will deal with the spreading of gay marriage, others are speaking clearly.

The office that oversees Catholic schools in Hawaii reportedly just approved a new contract clarifying that teachers who have gay sex or marry someone of the same gender can be fired. The contract, which goes into effect in the fall, also allows firing people who live together while unmarried or have an abortion, among other things.

The Cincinnati Archdiocese just approved a similar contract that also bans publicly supporting such practices that violate the church doctrine.

A man who was fired as a Catholic high school vice principal in Seattle last month filed a suit against the school and the archdiocese after they fired him upon learning he had gotten married. He claims school leaders knew he was in relationship, and a school attorney acknowledged that school leadership floated the idea that the man could possibly get a divorce to keep his job, the Associated Press reported.

Donohue predicted that the Catholic Church will speak with one voice — the one of Arlington’s St. Agnes — as same-sex marriage spreads.

“I don’t know if there are many of these cases, but as they happen, the result would seem to be very clear. And preordained,” he said. The only thing that would be notable is if you had a church or pastor that did not reach this conclusion.”

Michelle Boorstein is the Post’s religion reporter, where she reports on the busy marketplace of American religion.
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