Searching their souls with visible pain and some discord, more than 750 attendees at the World Meeting of Families listened Thursday to a candid discussion on the collision of homosexuality and Catholic doctrine.
They came to hear Ron Belgau, a celibate gay Catholic who teaches ethics at St. Louis University, and his mother, Beverley, who spoke intimately about the impact of her son's coming out at age 21 in 1992.
Highlighting the challenges the church faces at a time of same-sex marriage, Ron Belgau quoted from an online post by a 17-year-old Catholic who recently realized he was gay.
To the standing-room-only crowd at the Convention Center, Belgau read the words aloud: "The church has a lot to say about what I'm not supposed to do," the teen wrote.
"But after searching and searching," said Belgau, "he couldn't find any church document that told him what a gay person is supposed to do with their life."
"Our 'no' is coming through loud and clear," Belgau said. At the same time, he said, the church's "teaching on chastity as a guide to leading a good life is lost amid the noise."
That noise has intensified in the run-up to the meetings. Some Catholic LGBT advocacy groups have lamented that the Belgaus' panel - "Always Consider the Person: Homosexuality in the Family" - is the only one on issues of same-sex attraction. Unable to meet at a Center City church that had initially promised them space, some of the groups have been holding alternative meetings at night at William Way LGBT Center in Center City.
Some Catholics, like Ron Belgau, have heeded the church's call for not acting on same-sex urges.
"That's fine for somebody who has been given the gift from God of chastity and celibacy," one listener, Ed Buechel, said afterward. Buechel is on the board of Fortunate Families, a group of Catholics committed to equality for all sexual orientations.
"I'm the father of a gay son," said Buechel, a white-haired Kentuckian. "He's 34 years old. He loves his church and he loves his God. But because of the conflict between the teachings of the church and his wanting to stay a good Catholic, he had a nervous breakdown 12 years ago."
Personal stories poured forth from the audience. A man said he, too, was there with his mother, "and my husband."
Some questions to the Belgaus put the focus on practical concerns, family concerns.
"My niece came out four months ago," said a woman. "And then she told us she is engaged. What does that mean? I don't even know how to feel about what's going on. Can I go to the wedding? . . . How does my church expect me to respond? . . . I love her. . . . Do I say, 'Congratulations'? Does the church allow me to say that?"
Beverley Belgau responded: "Jesus ate with sinners," she said. "Jesus accepted sinners. . . . We need to be as loving as we can. Remember, Jesus loves her. And loves her partner. . . . Whatever you do, do it with love." Her words drew applause.
Amy Corasco, a religion teacher at Paul VI High School in Haddon Township, said in an interview that she came to the panel seeking more exposure to the issues.
"I find my students to be very . . . challenging to the church on [homosexuality] and I want to be better equipped," she said.
Corasco stayed to the end of the one-hour session. Afterward, she said she was still reflecting on what she learned.
For now, Corasco said, she tells her students that "outside of marriage, nobody is supposed to have sex." If they follow that teaching, it means not acting on same-sex attractions either.
Mostly, she said, she was impressed at the civility of the panel discussion, even though some people in the Q&A pushed back against Ron Belgau's support for same-sex celibacy.
"At least we were having a dialogue," said Corasco. "Without all the yelling and screaming."