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Cleveland Diocese LGBTQ+ policy illustrates rift in NE Ohio Catholics' views

Carina Klockner, a mother of five who lives in Green, kneels and prays before mass begins at the Queen of Heaven Catholic Church in Uniontown.
Conor Morris
Ideastream Public Media
Carina Klockner, a mother of five who lives in Green, kneels and prays before mass begins at the Queen of Heaven Catholic Church in Uniontown.

A policy barring pride flags and other forms of LGBTQ+ expression at Catholic churches and schools in Northeast Ohio that went into effect in September has illustrated a divide among local Catholic parents' and students’ attitudes toward LGBTQ+ people and their place in the church.

Carina Klockner, a mother of five who lives in Green, is in favor of the policy. She arrived to a recent Sunday mass early at the Queen of Heaven Catholic church in Uniontown. As three of her kids don their vestments and head to the nave, where they will assist as altar servers, she discusses why the policy came as a relief.

“The culture seems like they want to normalize like a wide variety of behaviors,” she said, referring to greater acceptance of LGBTQ+ people in the U.S. in recent years. “And, you know, people can live however they want to live… but for us, trying to teach our kids in their faith, it's like we don't want to say that this is a normal behavior.”

The policy, which was issued by the Catholic Diocese of Cleveland last month, bans use of students’ and churchgoers’ pronouns, if they differ from their sex assigned at birth; prevents same-sex couples from attending dances; and bars gender transitions.

Carina Klockner, right, and her three children pose outside before heading into mass at Queen of Heaven Catholic church during a Sunday in late September.
Conor Morris
Ideastream Public Media
Carina Klockner, right, and her three children pose outside before heading into mass at Queen of Heaven Catholic Church during a Sunday in late September.

Both Klockner and the diocese say they welcome LGBTQ+ people in church. However, Klockner said her beliefs teach her that LGBTQ+ people should remain celibate if they are attracted to somebody of the same sex. And she believes transgender people are experiencing a “disorder,” and should not dress or act differently from their sex assigned at birth.

Her son Bradley attends Archbishop Hoban High School in Akron. He’s also in favor of the policy.

I think a lot of high schools, especially Hoban, we're kind of falling backwards,” he said. “So I think the policy is a step in the right direction.”

Archbishop Hoban isn’t technically required to follow the policy because they’re run by a private order, the diocese has said. An Archbishop Hoban spokesperson said that school is still reflecting on the policy, but will continue to focus on its mission of meeting the "individual needs of every student, who are each created in the image of God."

RELATED: Catholic Diocese of Cleveland issues official policy barring LGBTQ+ expression

Bradley Klockner said he's noticed pride flags and at least one pro-LGBTQ+ club at his school, which he’s not really bothered by.

“But I mean, it definitely raises a few questions about how, you know, how Catholic some of these teachings might be, like teachers and stuff," he said.

Paul Murphy, director of the Institute of Catholic Studies at John Carroll University, is an expert on how Catholic teachings have changed over time. He said that Catholics’ feelings on LGBTQ+ rights and acceptance in the church vary and that those stances often align politically with their conservative or liberal views.

“The inclusion of LGBTQ people and the trans community is so very new that although it's clear that this is a challenge to a traditional expression of Catholic ethics regarding sexuality, nevertheless, there's an awful lot of material out there from the popes about including the marginalized, especially since Pope Francis came along," Murphy said.

The other side

Catholic Clevelanders Chris Merry and her daughter Kate Coleman were both disappointed when they heard about the new policy. Merry has had two kids, including Coleman, go through local Catholic schools. She said young people need the freedom to figure out who they are as they go through school.

Chris Merry, right, and her daughter Kate Coleman, an eighth grader at a local Catholic school, drop off some donations in a bin outside the West Side Catholic Center in Cleveland.
Conor Morris
Ideastream Public Media
Chris Merry, right, and her daughter Kate Coleman, an eighth grader at a local Catholic school, drop off some donations in a bin outside the West Side Catholic Center in Cleveland.

“As far as we know, the schools never really had an issue with it,” she said. “And it just seems like, why are we making a policy about it that has the potential to make kids feel bad about themselves?”

Coleman, who’s in eighth grade, said how local Catholic schools react to the policy will be a big determining factor in her choice of a high school.

"One of the high schools I am considering has come out and said that nothing is going to change in the way that they run their school and that they are going to still stand as allies," she said. "And I think that is super important"

Coleman said while she doesn’t see pride flags at her local Catholic K-8 school, she feels like her teachers are supportive of LGBTQ+ students (she declined to state the school's name, noting she doesn't want to bring attention to its practices from the diocese.)

Mary Zajaczkowski, a senior at Saint Joseph Academy, an all-girls private Catholic school run by the Congregation of St. Joseph, said staff at her school have also been supportive of her LGBTQ+ friends.

Every teacher in the English department has (a pride flag) in their room as of right now,” she said in an interview in September.

Similar to Coleman, she said she would not want to attend a school that followed the anti-LGBTQ+ policies outlined by the diocese.

Donna Zajaczkowski, Mary’s mother, said the policy has caused a great deal of concern for her and other parents, who are devout Catholics. The mother and daughter said they worried about the diocese putting pressure on Saint Joseph Academy to conform to the diocese's policies.

“This policy is written in such a way that it is a form of abuse,” she said. “And we know the Catholic Church has had historical issues (with that). And I'm not willing to stand by and let another child be abused by our Church.”

Zajaczkowski applauded Saint Joseph Academy for its response to the policy. According to a copy of a letter sent recently to parents, the school will follow the Congregation of St. Joseph’s tenets, which call for people to “act in solidarity with those who are marginalized, including those in the LGBTQ+ community,” and to be allies to those people.

“We are committed to serving the ‘dear neighbor without distinction’ in the footsteps of our Founders, and in a world where many young people feel marginalized and misunderstood, we seek to create a community where every student feels that she belongs and is valued for her unique gifts,” the statement reads.

Culture, politics and religion

Chris Merry said she’s been increasingly challenged as she tries to reconcile her Catholic faith with her own views on LGBTQ+ rights. She believes the church should be a place for everyone, and said politically charged rhetoric around this and other topics has meant she’s been attending fewer masses in recent years.

“It boils down to a couple of masses in a row that we were at where during the homily, the priest unfortunately got a little political and I just didn't appreciate that being a part of my sacred mass,” she said.

Meanwhile, Carina Klockner, the mother in Green, has questioned why Catholics’ faith needs to adjust as cultural norms change. She said that’s led to challenges in raising her children in a way she feels fits with their religious teachings.

Carina Klockner helps her youngest son put his tie on at Queen of Heaven Catholic church in Uniontown.
Conor Morris
Ideastream Public Media
Carina Klockner helps her youngest son, Preston, put his tie on at Queen of Heaven Catholic Church in Uniontown.

“We can't even watch Disney movies anymore because Disney is trying to, you know, influence us, you know? I mean, it just it makes it so hard,” she said.

John Foytik, the father of six students at local Catholic schools, also questioned why additional pressure is being placed on Catholic schools and churches to fully accept LGBTQ+ orientations and identities.

Why would the Catholic Church be allowing stuff like that?” he said. “Because it's technically against our teaching, and we kind of feel like we're getting picked on as a church like a lot of other churches wouldn't.”

Paul Murphy at the Institute of Catholic Studies at John Carroll University noted that the Catholic Church’s teachings and stances have changed over time on a number of fronts, including on slavery.

“So what you, what you've got is a situation where the church completely reversed itself because its understanding of human dignity deepened over time,” Murphy said. “The church came to realize that human trafficking and enslaving people was in contrast with the dignity of the human person whom the church holds to be made in the image and likeness of God.”

He also notes sometimes things have changed in the church without any formal acknowledgment. The Catholic Church had previously condemned the act of “usury,” or loaning money with interest. As the world became more industrialized and commercialized, its stance has changed. Murphy noted the Vatican now runs its own bank.

“Quite literally, the church never officially changed its teaching on it,” he said. “It just stopped talking about it.”

Klockner said she understands that the Catholic faith has changed over the years, but said some things should remain immutable.

"There are things about the church that can change, you know, like what the priest wears at Mass, the music we play, the you know, there's a lot of things that can, but there are certain doctrines of the church (where), this is what our faith teaches us that will never change," Klockner said.

Foytik and Klockner both argued the church can and does support LGBTQ+ people in their faith. Foytik noted there are organizations that help LGBTQ+ Catholics remain celibate.

"Just because the church says it's a sin, though, doesn't mean we condemn the person and we push that person down," Foytik said.

So what’s the impact?

Briana Oldham, a Cleveland resident, graduated from the diocesan-run Villa Angela-St. Joseph High School in 2007. She came out as bisexual during her sophomore year, along with a group of other peers. She recalled a religion class she attended not long after coming out.

Briana Oldham, a graduate of the diocesan-run Villa Angela-St. Joseph High School.
Briana Oldham
Briana Oldham, a graduate of the diocesan-run Villa Angela-St. Joseph High School.

“It seemed like all of us who were out were on one side, and everybody who pointed fingers and had questions, and used religion as a way to kind of stifle us were on the other side,” she said.

Still, she said she really didn’t experience much adversity at her school from fellow students. She added she had teachers who were supportive of her. She said the diocese’s new policy at her old school puts LGBTQ+ students in a “precarious” position, and would make it harder for them to find the support she got.

"Students are now given conflicting messages. 'Hey, we want you to be yourself. We want you to be who you are. We want you to embrace the differences that you have, but only to a point,'" Oldham said.

Bradley Klockner, the student at Archbishop Hoban, said he hopes the policy doesn't make LGBTQ+ students feel bad about themselves.

"I hope the message isn't like coming out as aggressive to people who are in that community," he said. "I hope they understand we still want to accept them into the church."

The LGBT Community Center of Greater Cleveland has called for the Catholic Diocese of Cleveland to rescind the policy, which calls for schools and staff to tell parents if minors are experiencing "gender dysphoria." That refers to distress somebody might feel when their gender identity is inconsistent with their sex assigned at birth.

“Again we find here the dangerous practice of outing students for their expression of self, subjecting youth to potential harmful situations,” the LGBT Center wrote. “The repressive culture and othering that will be fostered further by the hurtful policies documented in this statement is a massive setback in creating an affirming community here in Northeast Ohio where all should be welcome to live and thrive as their authentic selves.”

The policy comes as Ohio has significantly expanded access to EdChoice school vouchers, which are taxpayer-funded scholarships for parents to send students to private schools. The majority of private schools in Ohio are religious, and many of them are Catholic. For example, there are more than 100 Catholic private schools listed on the Diocese of Cleveland's website, which includes eight counties in Northeast Ohio.

Murphy at John Carroll University noted the policy comes at a time when Pope Francis this month is hosting a “synod.” At that assembly, bishops and religious lay men and women will take on topics like women’s roles and LGBTQ+ inclusion in Catholicism. This is the first time that non-bishops will actually have voting power at a synod, Murphy added.

The conclusions formed at that meeting could inform the church’s teachings on those matters for years to come, Murphy said.

Conor Morris is the education reporter for Ideastream Public Media.