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Greg Fuhrum: Living with conflict, protesting Catholicism

Greg Fuhrum: Living with conflict, protesting Catholicism

There is a narrow access road running down the middle of my Pennsylvania hometown cemetery, separating the Catholic “St. Mary’s Cemetery” from the Protestant “Freeport Cemetery.”  Separate cemeteries for Roman Catholics are common for a number of historical reasons; but this side-by-side arrangement, in a town small enough for most people to have known numerous deceased on both sides of the road, gives the division of Christian denominations a very personal and tangible power. The different destinations of the bodies of Protestants and Catholics in Freeport is a suggestive metaphor for religious prejudices that proclaim that the souls of the dead also head in different directions—depending on whether they spent their lives in the “true” church or in heresy (truth being very much dependent on who is proclaiming).  With today’s increasing secularism, mobility, and the scattering of ashes, my hometown’s little asphalt demilitarized zone may seem like a quaint remnant of times past, like something you would see on a tour of Northern Ireland.  For me, however, this is a path that I feel destined to perpetually walk, without feeling like I have a resting place on either side.

My mother’s German-American parents were Presbyterian, perhaps a residue of my great-grandfather’s service as a young immigrant in the household of Andrew Carnegie. They were not very observant church-goers during my mom’s childhood, and she adopted my father’s Roman Catholicism upon their engagement—an event which got my mom kicked out of the house and estranged from her father until shortly before his death.  I did not meet either of these grandparents until I was 6 and my grandmother was dying of breast cancer. I spent one memorable Easter Sunday afternoon at their house with my “Protestant” cousins, who I did not see nearly as often as the relatives in my large, close-knit Catholic extended family. As my dad’s parents both died before I was born, my maternal grandfather’s inability to accept a Catholic daughter and son-in-law cost me something most people get to feel– the indulgent love of a grandparent.

Despite this shadow, my childhood was a happy, middle-class one; and, in contrast to my mom’s upbringing, church was an integral part of our lives.  With the classic zeal of a convert, my mom was an active member of several parish women’s groups.  My dad also spent many hours volunteering at the church, and made sure we never missed Sunday Mass.  During our annual summer vacations in Atlantic City or Ocean City, his first task—even before checking us into the motel—was to scout out the location of the nearest Catholic Church where we would attend Mass the following Sunday. Like he did in the 1930s, and his father did at the turn of the 20th century, I attended the parish parochial school. I was recruited by my piano teacher to help with her duties as the volunteer church organist, a hobby I would continue for the next 35 years.  As I passed into young adulthood, I vicariously fulfilled a fervent, unrealized wish of my dad’s youth by attending the University of Notre Dame.  The Protestant influence of Andrew Carnegie and my stubborn grandfather had been thoroughly expunged, like a venial sin after ten Hail Marys—or so I thought.

It was at Notre Dame that I had my first academic exposure to Protestantism, in a Reformation Theology class.  This study was more edifying than my earlier introduction to the topic by the nuns in elementary school, who cautioned us that it was not a sin to attend a Protestant wedding or funeral should pressing family obligations arise; but that we were not to participate in the service in any visible way by reciting the prayers, singing the hymns, or—God forbid—ingesting their fake communion. Studying the teachings of Luther and Calvin taught me more about my Roman Catholic faith than I picked up from the entire Baltimore Catechism as a child. It was also at Notre Dame that I was exposed to excellent musical liturgy by singing in the Chapel Choir every week at the “smells and bells” high Mass in the campus church.

After college, I put this liturgical training to good use in several volunteer and paid organist positions as I moved around for my day job, culminating in a 20-year volunteer position at a Catholic church after I settled down in Pittsburgh. I genuinely enjoyed planning the musical portion of the liturgy, and felt like I was enhancing the spiritual life of the transient worshippers in that struggling inner-city parish.  During this tenure, I doubled down on my connection to the Catholic Church by taking a facilities engineering job at a Catholic university in Pittsburgh. To a casual observer, I would have seemed the model Roman Catholic, except for the fact that I was getting suspiciously old to still be single.  But then I was an organist, which even the most sheltered Catholic matron understood as evidence of my being a “confirmed bachelor,” strictly off-limits for any inquiry into my marital status or my opinion of her lovely single daughter. As long as this elephant stood quietly in the corner of the room, it needn’t jeopardize my standing in the One True Church.

Beneath this veneer of Catholic conformity lurked a persistent flirtation with Protestantism, specifically Anglicanism. Starting in my high school days, an early seed was planted by the BBC and Masterpiece Theater on public television, which led to an Anglo-centric literary taste and a fascination with the turbulent times of Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth I.  Partly from this interest, and partly from my growing unease over being a gay Catholic, I started attending Episcopal Holy Eucharist services during summer vacations and out-of-town work trips when I got a break from my weekly organist duty.  It seems I found a way to both honor and pervert my dad’s practice of seaside church attendance.  This part-time defection, along with the good fortune of not hearing one overtly anti-gay sermon at my church in almost 20 years, allowed me to maintain an intellectual truce with the Catholic teaching on homosexuality that I could never accept.  The truce came to an abrupt end in 2015, when gay marriage was legalized.

Legalization of gay marriage forced me, at long last, to confront the effect on my life of the Catholic teaching on homosexuality.  When society’s message about my sexuality essentially mirrored the Church’s, it was easier to accept that message that I was abnormal—not necessarily bad, but different in a diminished way from the heterosexual norm. I didn’t consciously accept the Church’s prescription of lifelong chastity, but these negative messages—as well as the simultaneous appearance of AIDS which seemed to reinforce them—definitely hurt my ability to form intimate relationships.  When Catholic bishops started speaking out against gay civil marriage, I suddenly realized that the shepherd was leading me astray.  According to the letter of their teaching, I was a better Catholic if I had sex with a different guy every month, felt sorry afterward, and went to confession; than if I were in a 20-year monogamous gay marriage.  By forbidding the latter behavior, they were making the former almost unavoidable for many of their gay faithful; and this misguided life pattern was in fact the one I had subconsciously adopted.  It was clear that the time had arrived for my part-time defection to become full-time, and I was accepted into the Episcopal Church.  Ironically, I am more chaste now than when I struggled to comply with Catholic teachings on sexuality.  Without the excuse of being “objectively disordered,” I now feel more responsible for the morality of my decisions related to sex and relationships.

A few years after this difficult decision, which cost me no small part of my self-identity, I took a step to discover another aspect of my identity that had remained hidden—my birth family.  I was adopted as an infant through Catholic Charities, but knew almost nothing of my origin beyond my birth mother’s maiden name, and that I was genetically German and Irish like my adoptive parents.  Through the modern miracles of genetic testing and, I quickly discovered the identity of, and met, both mother and father.  She was Catholic, not surprising given the adoption agency, but he was Lutheran.  They had dated for three years in college before I came along; and she wanted to get married, but he didn’t, partly because of his parents’ disapproval of a Catholic wife.  It was a near-reprise of my adoptive parents’ morality play fifteen years earlier, with a more tragic conclusion—neither of my birth parents’ subsequent marriages were very happy.  Thus, my quest to find a new identity, in the wake of my struggle with religion, ended with the depressing discovery that my long-secret alternate universe is in fact an all-too-parallel one with respect to Catholic-Protestant conflict.

One tidbit of these revelations, my birth father’s Lutheranism, neatly dovetails with the coincidence (?) that the 1917 house I restored and have lived in for almost three decades was owned exclusively by German-American Lutheran families before I bought it. For the first 20 years I lived here, I thought of myself as an invading papist, inviting the wrath of my reformed predecessors’ scandalized spirits. Now, if I hear any mysterious bumps in the night, I know it is more likely to be a fated homecoming celebration than a warning to drive me off.  Perhaps I can be indulged the melodramatic image of my predestined, restless haunting of a road cleaving a small-town cemetery.


Greg Fuhrman is a professional engineer and amateur musician in Pittsburgh, PA.  He continues to seek both his identity and the will of God through his family, music, and faith.




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