It’s hard to come out as gay.
It is even harder when your parents are profoundly committed conservative Catholics, your brother is a prominent priest who represents traditional church views on Fox News, and you were raised to believe that everything the church teaches is true.
So when Anne Marie DeMent first recognized that she was a lesbian, she “thought I was going to hell,” said the 30-year-old Bethesda, Md., lawyer.
Then her mother discovered letters the then-law school student had written to another woman, and DeMent began to worry about the punishment that would await her in this life.
“I blame my religion a lot for my family’s reaction,” she says.
DeMent’s father reminded her of what he said was homosexuality’s sinfulness. Relatives cautioned her that the church considered homosexuality “intrinsically disordered,” citing a Vatican document. She felt isolated from her faith community.
But in time, DeMent came to find relative tranquility with Catholicism and her family, in large measure because of the spiritual training of her youth and a boost from Francis, the “Who am I to judge?” pope.
DeMent’s family story echoes the challenges brought forth at this month’s Synod on the Family at the Vatican, an unusually candid and extensive examination of Catholic teaching on sexuality and family life that has given new hope to those who lobby for greater inclusion of gays and lesbians in the church.
“Without denying the moral problems connected to homosexual unions it has to be noted that there are cases in which mutual aid to the point of sacrifice constitutes a precious support in the life of the partners,” read a section of a working document the synod committee published this week.
The language referring to same-sex relationships has since been watered down after some at the meeting criticized it as out of line with church teachings. But the document is still bound to draw the attention of faithful families such as DeMent’s, which will pore over it for insight and inspiration.
While Catholicism in some ways has caused the chasm in DeMent’s family, it also compels the members to heal. Their faith, they say, demands that they treat one another with mercy, finding ways to love one another more deeply, despite their profound disagreement over DeMent’s sexual orientation.
As Sharon Morris, DeMent’s mother, puts it: “We’re trying to figure out what love is.”
The second-youngest of seven siblings, DeMent grew up in Catholic enclaves in Michigan and Ohio, her life wholly centered on the church.
Her parents, Robert and Sharon Morris, moved their family around the Midwest as their church ministries evolved, founding Catholic schools, hosting spiritual meetings and convening weekly prayer events for each of their children. They saw themselves, as her brother the Rev. Jonathan Morris says, as an “idyllic Catholic family.”
Sharon explains, “We wanted to live our whole life for God.”
The Morris kids contemplated the priesthood and thought about joining convents. They went to college at such schools as Ohio’s Franciscan University of Steubenville, known for its Catholic orthodoxy. One of the children, Jonathan, today is a prominent Catholic priest who has more than 170,000 Facebook followers, works as program director for the Catholic Channel on SiriusXM Radio and does TV spots as a Catholic analyst.
“Religion, church and a relationship with God were integral to everything I did,” says DeMent, who took her wife’s last name when they married in 2013, in part, “as a new identity.”
Acknowledging that she was gay precipitated an unraveling of her religious certainty and spiritual identity.
“Something’s wrong,” is how DeMent describes becoming aware of her attraction to women, which she first noticed while watching a movie during college and feeling drawn to the lead actress.
“I just sort of ignored it for a while,” DeMent says, until she began to feel attracted to a real person, a female co-worker, and took her distress to a priest. She went to weekly confession, but her feelings did not go away.
A pivotal moment occurred several years ago when she was working in Manhattan.
She recalls sobbing as she sat in a back pew of a Catholic Church in New York City. God, I don’t even know if you exist, but I just want to know the truth, she prayed. Whatever that conclusion is, that’s okay.
“And I have this memory, this sense of sadness and relief and, [at] the same time, of letting go. I felt like I was going to hell, but I also felt . . . that for the first time, I could just look at life and not put an answer to it.”
Her halting efforts to address her feelings with her family were sped along by her mother’s accidental discovery of the letters. DeMent conveyed something she once thought unimaginable: She didn’t believe everything the Catholic Church taught, especially about sex.
“I remember my dad, when I first came out to him,” after her mother found the letters, DeMent recalls. “He said, ‘If it was just an attraction for women and you recognized it as a sin, that wouldn’t change things. But the fact that you’re saying it’s a good thing . . . that’s something I can’t live with.’ That was where the pain came from.”
The conflict between religion and her sexuality gave way to a new self-understanding when DeMent met her wife, Katie, who is not religious and whose supportive family became a refuge.
Borrowing language from her Catholic background, DeMent says her developing relationship with her then-girlfriend “was life-giving. . . . It was actualizing the best parts of me.”
She began recognizing, she says, that “what I had been taught growing up, that same-sex marriage was inherently destructive, maybe that belief was not right.”
Meanwhile, members of the Morris family struggled with what their responsibility as faithful Catholics was to their daughter and sister.
Only a handful of siblings attended DeMent’s 2013 wedding to Katie. Her parents and her brother the priest were not present.
Her family members are not comfortable with introducing Katie as Anne Marie’s wife, particularly to their young children being raised as Catholics, so for the past four years, DeMent has not been home for Christmas.
She and Katie “both wonder if this is the year that we’ll be invited,” she says, through tears.
DeMent has some reason to hope. As Pope Francis started talking frankly about homosexuality in ways that challenged them, some of DeMent’s family members have reached out.
“If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” Francis pondered in a July 2013 interview. As Jonathan Morris sees it, the pope could have been talking about his sister.
Another sister, Mary-Hope Rennie, saw it that way, too. After reading more of Francis’s comments on homosexuality, she told DeMent in an e-mail that “I felt a very strong sense that I needed to change my relationship with you.”
Mary-Hope invited DeMent, along with her wife, for a visit to Marie-Hope’s family home in New Hampshire. Until that trip, the sisters had not seen each other for more than 18 months. DeMent was moved by Mary-Hope’s “willingness to say that they were going about it the wrong way.”
Engaging with gay friends and family can be fraught for traditional Christians. As acceptance of homosexuality grows, some people might chastise them as not going far enough in accepting gay marriage. But others, particularly inside the church, may criticize them as going too far. For example, U.S. Cardinal Raymond Burke, among others, pushed back this week against the synod’s opening on gay issues, calling for Catholics to focus on preventing gay family members from acting on a sexual orientation that is, “always and everywhere wrong, evil.”
Some say “unless you’re always leading [conversation] with ‘homosexuality is a sin,’ you’re selling out,” Jonathan Morris says. Those people, he says, think he risks confusing Catholics by reaching out in public on Catholic radio, where DeMent and Jonathan spoke about her sexuality.
DeMent says she thinks that the pope is “willing to allow misinterpretation for the sake of love,” adding that in “his approach, it allows folks to have genuine dialogue without fear that all of a sudden your beliefs, your identity will crumble.”
Now even members of this traditional Catholic family occasionally see their own side as being in the wrong on homosexuality.
When people try to remind Sharon Morris that the Catholic Church “loves the sinner but not the sin,” she says: “It goes through me, because I think, ‘You don’t know my daughter. Do you know your own sin?’ ”
Talking about gays as if “they’re a different creature,” she says “affects me differently now. . . . That’s why I consider this [experience] a great grace.”
The woman who once led Catholic Bible study now feels sick when she opens the tome.
“I’ve experienced so much judgment from religion,” DeMent says.
Although she still describes herself as spiritual, DeMent says that she “can’t reconcile Catholic dogma with my life experiences and my spiritual experiences.”
But she also respects her family’s convictions about homosexuality. “I truly do not want to strong-arm or persuade my siblings or my parents to at any point go against their conscience in trying to accept me. And vice versa,” she says. “I don’t want to move away from my personal conscience or what I think is right just in order to have this relationship.”
“Love perseveres,” DeMent says, quoting Scripture that she still cherishes. “And then, at the end, it says, ‘Faith, hope, and love, and the greatest of these is love.’ ”
“That’s where, for me, my fundamental call for life is to pursue that. To pursue the good, to pursue love. When it hurts, to be able to look at my sister and understand that we might have these differences but that our learning to love each other is what lasts, is what is everlasting. . . . We’re called to a radical trust in love, a radical trust in each other, as our way forward.”
Elizabeth Tenety is the engagement and community editor for America, a national Catholic weekly magazine.