Inside Allentown’s Cathedral of St. Catharine of Siena, with its tall stained-glass windows and sanctuary suffused with a soft golden glow, the man in the black shirt and slacks could be mistaken for a clergyman.
He is, in fact, by someone who calls him “Father.” But Donald Maher isn’t a priest. He’s a Berks County attorney who practices labor and employment law, fitting subjects for the Irish-American son of a New York labor leader Maher likens to tough-guy actor James Cagney.
Law is his career. His vocation, though, is a decades-long ministry to gay Catholics, one that began in Manhattan at the height of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s.
It was a tumultuous time, to say the least, with activists targeting institutions they blamed for impeding LGBTQ equality and progress against the disease — governments, pharmaceutical companies and, notably, the Catholic Church. In one of the most notorious incidents of the time, activists disrupted Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan; one took Communion and spit the consecrated host on the floor.
Maher, 66, a gay man who grew up in Brooklyn and came out as a teen, favors loving outreach over shock tactics. But he is striving to ignite the passion of that era’s activism in the five-county Allentown Catholic Diocese. He sees an opportunity as the LGBTQ community is finding a bigger voice and higher visibility as part of the broader rights movement.
To that end, he has been lobbying Bishop Alfred Schlert and other leaders to make more direct public statements about the place of gay and transgender people in the church, and to allow him to mount a full-scale, publicized outreach.
Whether that happens or not is an open question. Schlert says he and Maher are equally committed to welcoming LGBTQ people into the church and nurturing their spiritual lives. Where they diverge is on fundamental Catholic doctrine about human sexuality, and the bishop can’t promote a ministry that might contradict that doctrine.
“Some of what Donald wants me to permit is above my pay grade,” Schlert said, noting that a bishop’s role is to preserve teachings that have been handed down over millennia.
Maher argues that unbudging adherence to doctrine — putting the letter of the law over human nature — means the church can never move forward.
“Our churches need to be concerned with bringing the presence of Christ to the community on all issues of social justice,” he said, sitting for an interview outside St. Catharine’s.
The cathedral is the mother church of the diocese — an apt symbol in Maher’s vision, because the church is charged with nurturing and protecting all of its children.
It isn’t, he said. And that can hurt people.
‘Love, welcome and respect’
In America, at least, the AIDS crisis has eased because of treatments that have turned the disease from a death sentence into a chronic but manageable condition. But Maher and other activists still see members of the LGBTQ community suffering issues that long predated AIDS — discrimination and harassment that leave them far more prone than the general population to mental health issues and drug dependency.
Outreach by church leaders to the historically marginalized group could not only further societal acceptance but help reverse the decadeslong decline in church membership, Maher said, pointing to one study that found 39% of former Catholics cited the treatment of LGBTQ people as their reason for leaving.
Gay and transgender people, and their families and allies, “have been judged harshly and walked away,” Maher said.
Last year, after attending a conference on gay issues with a well-known Jesuit priest, the Rev. James Martin, Maher formed “Out in the Diocese of Allentown.” He describes the ministry — which is not sanctioned by the diocese ― as one of “love, welcome and respect” for LGBTQ Catholics and their families.
It’s not his first such effort. He founded the Gay and Lesbian Catholic Ministry at his former parish in Manhattan, St. Paul the Apostle, in the early 1990s, when he and other activists were fighting the exclusion of gay Catholics from the city’s St. Patrick’s Day parade. Through Maher’s efforts, St. Paul’s held what may have been the first “Pride Mass” in 1993, one that devolved into chaos when shouting protesters injured the priest as they tried to tear off his lapel microphone.
Jason Steidl, a Catholic theologian and visiting assistant professor of religious studies at St. Joseph’s College in Brooklyn, said Maher brought phenomenal energy and creativity to parish-level outreach.
At a time when the LGBTQ community and the Archdiocese of New York were continually clashing, “he saw the distance between the gay and lesbian communities and the church, and he wanted to reconcile those communities through himself,” Steidl said. “There weren’t too many prominent LGBTQ Catholic ministries and Donald decided to do something about that.”
Steidl said Catholics, in some form or another, have been organizing to provide pastoral care to the LGBTQ community as far back as the 1940s.
“Donald wasn’t the first and he certainly won’t be the last,” he said. “But he showed what could be possible at the parish level.”
After the 9/11 terror attacks, Maher developed post-traumatic stress disorder and entered a treatment program in Pennsylvania. He expected to return to New York but ended up relocating to Albany Township.
He brought his passion with him.
“I’ve been at this a long time,” he said. “I consider myself graced to do this and consider my voice prophetic.”
By that, he means that his vision of a church that puts the LGBTQ community on equal footing with the straight community — sanctioning same-sex marriages, for example — is inevitable.
The only sanctioned LGBTQ outreach programs in the diocese now is called “Courage,” which teaches people with same-sex attraction to support one another in a life of chastity and prayer. Another program, “EnCourage,” provides support to family and friends of LGBTQ people.
Maher said “Courage” is deficient because it asks people to deny something fundamental to their nature.
“It’s a ‘pray not to be gay’ ministry,’ he said. “A very rejecting, damaging ministry.”
‘An element of sacrifice’
Maher speaks highly of Bishop Schlert. The two have met several times, and Schlert allowed Maher to publish an Advent essay on the diocesan Facebook page, in which Maher explains his ministry and invites readers to contribute ideas for it. The post received hundreds of likes and shares.
Schlert said he finds Maher personally engaging and well-versed in church teaching and history. On one level, he said, both want the same thing — for LGBTQ people to be assured the church welcomes them, loves them and wants them to live fulfilling spiritual lives.
“I understand very much their desire, and I couldn’t agree more that they should be welcome in the church,” he said. “I’ve been a priest for 34 years and in August I will have been a bishop for four years, and I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t welcome people.”
Eventually, though, that welcome meets the clear line of church doctrine — which, despite the controversy it generates, is straightforward. God created men and women to enter loving communion with one another — marriage — and to bear and nurture children.
While same-sex attraction isn’t sinful, homosexual activity is, because by nature it can’t be open to life. So LGBTQ Catholics are called to a life of chastity, as are heterosexual people outside marriage.
“Every bishop struggles with it,” Schlert said of this intersection of inclusion and doctrine. “I don’t struggle with the teaching. It’s the pastoral approach where the art comes in.”
The doctrine doesn’t solely apply to LGBTQ people living non-chaste lives, but all unmarried Catholics in that state.
“I have to tell the cohabiting heterosexual couple that communion isn’t open to them either,” Schlert said. “We’re all called to a level of chastity depending on our state in life. There is an element of sacrifice that goes with every lifestyle, every vocation. When we say those things, it’s easy to perceive ‘I’m not welcome here.’ But that’s not the reality.”
One of the most painful experiences some LGBT people suffer is rejection by their parents. Schlert has counseled many people struggling after a child has come out.
“If they’re not accepting of a gay child, I say ‘Love them,’” he said. “Don’t excise them from your family.”
‘Who am I to judge?’
The LGBTQ Catholic movement gained momentum with the 2013 election of Pope Francis, whose emphasis on pastoral leadership over the letter of doctrine seemed to open doors long believed shut. His famous answer early in his pontificate to a question about gay men pursuing the priesthood — “If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge him?” — became a rallying cry.
Since then, the pontiff has elated and disappointed the community by turns. He criticized gender theory, but invited a transgender man who had been rejected by his priest to come to the Vatican. He said Christians should apologize to gay people for mistreating them, but in March approved a Vatican statement that priests can’t bless same-sex unions because “God cannot bless sin.”
Donald Maher with the Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and bestselling author of “Building A Bridge,” a book on Catholic outreach to the LGBT community.
Donald Maher with the Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and bestselling author of “Building A Bridge,” a book on Catholic outreach to the LGBT community. (Robert Metzger/Contributed photo)
On the “Out in the Diocese of Allentown” Facebook page, which is the main public face of his ministry, Maher makes the case for the LGBTQ community’s place in the Christian vision, mixing humor and seriousness in about equal measure.
One meme portrays Jesus saying “Guys, I said I hate FIGS.” The reference is to the homophobic banners sported by protestors from the notorious Westboro Baptist Church, contrasted with the account of Jesus withering an unproductive fig tree. The lesson of the story is that people who produce no spiritual fruit lead lives worthy of condemnation.
Other posts touch on the travails of LGBTQ people, particularly the youngest. Confronted by confusion, bullying and rejection, they attempt suicide at a shockingly high rate — more than 30%, according to one study.
Maher wants to do much more. He presented an outline of his plans to the diocese. It calls for LGBTQ education in churches and schools, parish pride events, public forums and dozens of other programs backed by the hierarchy.
Schlert said he has to proceed cautiously in endorsing programs, especially when laypeople take on the role of educators.
“My hesitancy has always been ‘I have to promote the teachings of the church,” he said. “I have to have a level of confidence that they’ll be upheld.”
‘We’ll do it ourselves’
In reaching out to the diocese’s LGBTQ community, Maher is not alone. Mel Kitchen, an Upper Saucon Township woman whose eldest son came out a decade ago, founded a support group for LGBTQ families called “You Are Mine.”
Kitchen, who works in the Pride Center at Lehigh University, tried to set up a program at her parish in Center Valley four years ago, but her appeals were rejected three times in six months.
She didn’t quit. She set up a table at “Pride in the Park,” Allentown’s annual LGBTQ celebration.
“I put a sign up,” she said. “People were like ‘Catholic? LGBTQ? What?’ But some people signed up. My philosophy was ‘If you build it, maybe they will come.’ If we can’t get parishes to work with us, we’ll do it ourselves.”
Kitchen finally found a home for the ministry at the St. Francis Center for Renewal in Hanover Township, Northampton County, which is run by the School Sisters of St. Francis.
“It was important to me to find some kind of (church-related) facilities as an affirmation to folks that they were loved and wanted,” she said. “The day I called they said, ‘Absolutely you can do this here.’”
In-person monthly meetings at St. Francis ended with the pandemic, but virtual meetings continue, drawing about a half-dozen participants on average. Kitchen believes that number would grow if she were allowed to spread the word about it within parishes, perhaps with notices in church bulletins.
Like Maher, Kitchen regards the “Courage” program to be deeply flawed, not much different than the conversion therapy that seeks to “cure” same-sex attraction.
“I understand where the church is coming from where celibacy is concerned, but we don’t ask people who they’re sleeping with,” she said. “You don’t ask anybody who walks into any ministry what they’re doing (sexually). I don’t know the answer to getting people back into the pews. I do know that unless you’re out in the community and meeting people where they are in everyday life, you’re sunk.”
In Maher, Kitchen has found a kindred spirit, someone who sees LGBTQ issues as part and parcel of the social justice movement that includes Black Lives Matter and other groups.
“You start down this road of social justice and it becomes social justice for everything,” she said, “not just LGBTQ issues. They are all tied together because we are not a single-issue people.”
Maher, she added, “has the capacity to engage. He has a wonderful heart and he looks for the good in everyone. Donald should be applauded.”
Steidl, the theologian, whose forthcoming book on LGBTQ ministry includes a chapter on Maher, called the soft-spoken lawyer “relentless.”
“He’s a man of ideals, of values,” Steidl said. “I think the (St. Paul’s) ministry was a fruit of his faith, a very deep Catholic faith. For about 10 years it was one of the most active gay and lesbian ministries in the U.S. He pushed and pushed and did really incredible things while he was there.”
Maher has no plans to stop. He said he will never lack energy for the work he is doing, because he believes it is inspired by the Holy Spirit.
“I’m not going anywhere,” he said. “I’m in this for the long game.”