As a student at Cathedral High School in the late 1970s—even as Pope John Paul II publicly lauded bishops for decreeing that “homosexual activity … is morally wrong”—Hayes says he faced little prejudice from his fellow students, faculty, or the local church. “I was as out as anybody was in those days,” he says. “Whether the school accepted that or chose not to talk about it, it was never an issue.”
In 1997, Hayes was forced to resign from a teaching post at a public high school because he was gay. He was hired by Bishop Chatard High School the same day. The administrator told Hayes his sexuality was “between you and God.”
More than 20 years later, despite a new pontiff—Pope Francis has made unprecedented public effort to welcome LGBT individuals into the Catholic faith—Archbishop Charles Thompson, head of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, has shattered that fragile peace between local LGBT Catholics and their church. This past year, Thompson ordered three Catholic high schools to part ways with faculty in same-sex marriages because, as he sees it, they are living in contradiction to the Church’s teachings on marriage. Roncalli High School dismissed two counselors at Thompson’s behest. And in June—as a result of an anonymous tip from a parishioner that came three years earlier and began a series of failed negotiations—Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory defied the archbishop by refusing to remove teacher Layton Payne-Elliott. Three days later, Cathedral fired social-studies teacher Joshua Payne-Elliott, Layton’s husband, after 13 years of service.
“What message is Cathedral sending to them? If you’re an LGBT person, you’re less than a heterosexual because you’re not able to enter into a relationship with the person you love? That’s not the Cathedral I went to.”
Thompson’s purge has not only outraged the LGBT community, including a petition of more than 5,000 people calling for Thompson’s resignation, but has also exposed a divide between the Vatican and some local leaders and parishes. “This reveals the fault lines in the church,” says Father James Martin, Jesuit priest and editor at America, a national Catholic magazine. “Pope Francis has tried to help understand LGBT people and their complexity. And some people just don’t want to do that.”
Thompson sees things differently. “If someone has same-sex attraction and remains faithful to their call to chastity, he or she most certainly is encouraged to work for the Catholic Church in school ministry,” he says. “At the same time, the Church upholds the dignity and sanctity of marriage, a natural institution established by God between a man and a woman.”
The archbishop, no doubt, has his supporters. There are at least two online petitions affirming Thompson’s stripping of Brebeuf’s Catholic label, each garnering more than 6,000 signatures (although the names are not accessible to the public). Back in 2018, a priest from Connersville and Roncalli alum, Father Dustin Boehm, penned a letter to the editor of The Indianapolis Star in support of his alma mater’s decision to dismiss guidance counselor Shelly Fitzgerald for being married to another woman. But Boehm didn’t respond to requests to be interviewed for this article, and two other priests who have supported Thompson declined comment.
Even so, the archbishop could be alienating more than half of his flock, particularly Indy’s young Catholics, who tend to be LGBT supporters. “My concern is for the students,” says Hayes, who is now an associate professor of music at Franklin College. “What message is Cathedral sending to them? If you’re an LGBT person, you’re less than a heterosexual because you’re not able to enter into a relationship with the person you love? That’s not the Cathedral I went to.”
The U.S. Catholic Church is in crisis. According to Pew Research Center, only 21 percent of Americans were Catholic in 2014, down from 24 percent in 2007. The same study showed that 13 percent of all U.S. adults identified as “former Catholics,” while only 2 percent were converts to the faith—by far the most lopsided such ratio among religious groups. Even those who remain in the fold appear to be losing faith. Gallup found that between 2014 and 2017, an average of 39 percent of Catholics said they had gone to church in the past week, a decline of 6 percent from just a decade prior.
In addition to the PR disaster of the priest sex-abuse scandals and the subsequent cover-ups driving potential parishioners away, there appears to be a growing philosophical divide between Americans in the pew and the priests at the pulpit. Nowhere is that gap more evident than on the subject of same-sex marriage. A recent Pew Research study showed that 67 percent of U.S. Catholics are in favor of same-sex unions. The numbers locally probably aren’t far off. When the Indiana legislature moved toward an amendment that would outlaw gay marriage six years ago, 58 percent of Hoosiers already opposed the measure. But even Pope Francis, who has opened the Church’s doors to LGBT people wider than they have ever been, has stopped short of recognizing the sanctity of any marriage that is not between a man and a woman. Americans of the cloth have been even less equivocal in their condemnation—and that includes Thompson.
“The issue is not about sexual orientation,” Thompson reiterates, “but rather what the Catholic Church teaches about marriage and family.”
Long before Francis tapped him to head the Indianapolis Archdiocese, Thompson was outspoken in his opposition to same-sex marriage. In 2014, when the U.S. District Court ruled that Indiana’s ban on the practice was unconstitutional, Thompson, then bishop of the Evansville Diocese, told reporters that “truth doesn’t shift with popularity or majority opinion.” He then signed a statement endorsed by every bishop in the state that read “it is not within the power of any institution, religious or secular, to redefine marriage since it is God who is its author.”
Two years later, according to the Evansville Courier & Press, Thompson’s diocese suddenly booted an LGBT support group from the church where it had been gathering for 12 years for “not operating in compliance with Roman Catholic Church rules.” However, when the paper investigated the matter, a spokesman for the diocese issued a statement that read, “The Church’s respect for the dignity of every person as created in the image of God has remained consistent throughout time. Outreach to people across society—including the LGBT community—continues to be founded in that respect for the sacredness of every person. All are welcome.”
That contradiction persists in the Indy schools case. “The issue is not about sexual orientation,” Thompson reiterates, “but rather what the Catholic Church teaches about marriage and family.”
Hayes finds that distinction ridiculous. “The Catholic Church professes that LGBT people are welcomed and that the church has no issue with your sexuality,” he says. “But the truth is that as a gay Catholic, you are never offered happiness in any type of intimate loving relationship in the eyes of the Church.” Even before the dustup over the Indy teachers, Hayes had helped establish a network, via his Facebook page, of local Catholics searching for parishes that are more accepting of LGBT congregants and area churches that will have them—quietly. “As the churches open and let us know they are welcoming, I send the people who ask,” he says. “A month prior to the firings, there were two known parishes that were welcoming. Now there are seven. But we don’t use names. I’ve scrubbed them from all the posts. Priests have called worried about the attention.”
“What about employees who use birth control, undergo in vitro fertilization, who are living out of wedlock? Why not people who divorced without annulments or who aren’t going to Mass on Sunday? Why not the Jews, Protestants, and atheists who work there?”
The fact that such an anonymous online community even exists points to a larger problem. It’s one thing if church attendance wanes because of a fundamental disagreement over doctrine. It’s quite another if the churches themselves—the priests, teachers, and support staff that run the organizations—are forced to live in fear of punishment. After all, in justifying the firing of Joshua Payne-Elliot in an online letter to “The Cathedral Family,” that school’s board of directors (which declined comment for this story) pointed not to dogma but to the possible consequences of defying the archbishop’s decree, specifically mentioning that such a break with the Archdiocese and its sponsorship might have led to loss of the school’s non-profit status. In the letter, Cathedral almost plaintively explained Brebeuf’s freedom to stand up to the archbishop’s decree because, unlike the other Catholic schools, Brebeuf is run by the Jesuits and therefore financially independent.
Meanwhile, employees at Indy’s other Catholic schools are left to wonder, Who’s next? Or perhaps worse, What’s next?
“If you’re going to say one’s private and professional life should convey Catholic teachings, a lot of other people should be fired,” says Martin, the Jesuit priest and editor. “What about employees who use birth control, undergo in vitro fertilization, who are living out of wedlock? Why not people who divorced without annulments or who aren’t going to Mass on Sunday? Why not the Jews, Protestants, and atheists who work there?”
At a press conference last June, Thompson tried to quell allusions to some grand inquisition. “We don’t go looking for these situations,” he said. “When they’re brought to my attention, though, it is my responsibility, my duty to oversee the living of the faith, especially of all ministerial witnesses. This is not a witch hunt.”
Tim DeLaney, a local attorney and Brebeuf grad who has voiced his disapproval of Thompson, insists that’s exactly what it is. “He must be unfamiliar with how witch hunts happen,” DeLaney says. “Someone always reports the witch.”
Aside from the stigma this incident gives Indianapolis in the eyes of the progressive world, local Catholics like DeLaney and Hayes are concerned about the impact it might have on the future of the Church in Central Indiana.
Regardless of the statements Francis and Thompson have made welcoming LGBTs as individuals, this public line drawn short of accepting marriage between people of the same sex is bound to discourage some devotees from patronizing Indy’s Catholic churches. Unwelcoming churches will be the first to suffer, but the corresponding evaporation of money in the collection plate will eventually work its way up to the archdiocese as a whole. In addition, talented LGBT teachers and staff may now steer clear of those schools.
“Our family is broken now, broken to its core. What is the administration going to do to put our family back together? That’s what we’re waiting for.”
And, of course, there is the literal future of the Church, the Catholic youth of Indianapolis, caught in the middle of this battle. Whether they are openly gay or LGBT allies, the students of Indianapolis Catholic schools will be forced to come to terms with a faith that outwardly preaches universal love and acceptance while it singles them out as unworthy of one of the Church’s most cherished sacraments. Even divorced people can get an annulment that allows them to get remarried. Under the current teachings, there is no such recourse for a gay marriage.
There is no doubt that tension exists between Thompson and his archdiocese. Less clear is what can be done. Payne-Elliott, the dismissed Cathedral teacher, is suing the Archdiocese in Marion County Superior Court for discrimination and interfering with his teaching contract. Thompson has given no indication that he will back down from his stand on this issue, and his comments leave the future open to other dismissals should he be informed of perceived improprieties. He followed through and cut ties between the Archdiocese and dissenting Brebeuf, although the Vatican has temporarily suspended that ruling while the school’s appeal is pending.
Meanwhile, Hayes has started a petition calling for Thompson’s resignation that has already garnered more than 5,000 signatures. What’s more, he returned his Cathedral diploma—a symbolic gesture, but a difficult one. “We Cathedral grads pride ourselves on being a family, a tight-knit group,” he says. “Our family is broken now, broken to its core. What is the administration going to do to put our family back together? That’s what we’re waiting for.”