Roadblocks on the road to change: Why I am not (yet) all I could be

by Kate Henley Long (b. 1982)

Millennials believe that we, like the civil rights activists and suffragettes who were pictured on our classroom walls, can be agents of change. We volunteer at a high rate and, according to academic studies and market research, we're "civic-minded and socially conscious as individuals, consumers and employees." And to prove (to older generations, and perhaps also, to ourselves) that we could, as a generation, rally for change, we turned out and voted overwhelmingly for Obama's change agenda in November. We believe we're capable of anything, including making change anywhere we sense the presence of unfair limits on ourselves and society.

I fit squarely into this demographic. I've been involved in community service and social justice initiatives since high school. Not only do I, like my peers, feel "personally responsible for making a difference in the world,", I would even go as far as to describe this feeling as a calling, one that is inseparable from my Catholic faith. Catholic teachings on interconnectedness, responsibility for each other, and the evils of poverty and oppression are at the core of my worldview. Following this call, I spent a year after college working as a Catholic youth minister and then, as I had hoped to do since my sophomore year, I began my Master of Divinity at Harvard, which I completed this past June.

But in discerning what "ministry" means for me, I have hit so many roadblocks. However, within my faith tradition, as a woman, and as a queer person, most of the more traditional ministry options are closed to me." And while I loved working with middle school youth in my one formal "ministry" job, I felt spiritually constrained, and even stifled, by the Church. Every time I bit my tongue rather than give an honest answer to a student's heartfelt question about Church teaching on sexuality, every time I left out information or intentionally misrepresented myself to avoid coming out to my faith community, every time I gave up in another pointless and exhausting conversation about women's ordination, it felt like pieces of my faith were being chipped away. Maybe it's the inevitable outcome of a change-minded Millennial coming into contact with an old, slow-to-change institution like the Roman Catholic Church, but being in an environment that I feel so strongly needs change, and yet being unable to do anything to effect that change, is suffocating.

So what do I do? I know I can't change the institutional Church on this point. How then, do I even begin to make change in the world, and change in the Church, to make it a place where queer kids don't feel an ounce of self-loathing and queer adults aren't made to feel sinful, alone, and silenced? As a result, the way I engage my faith in the world - my "ministry" - takes strange and new forms. I choreograph politically minded dance theatre that deals with queer and Catholic issues. I write, and I write, and I write. I talk to anyone who will listen, and even when nobody is listening, about these things about which I am passionate, and by which I am driven. I don't go to Mass very often, and while I mourn that loss, I know I can't do good work feeling constantly worn-down and weary.

I suspect that, among Millennials, I'm not alone in feeling frustration with the seeming stagnancy of my faith tradition. Will this make us a less religious, or less faithful generation? Or will we produce new ways of engaging with our spirituality and religious beliefs, redefining what it means to be religious?

Kate Henley Long has her MDiv from Harvard University and is, among other things, a queer Catholic. She refuses to feel sinful, alone, or silent, and in fact has a lovely circle of queer Catholic friends with whom to make lots of noise.


  1. Kathleen,

    An excellently written piece. You should be commended. I guess that I can't totally agree with all of what you are saying though. I am one of the few who thinks the Church has changed too much over the past 50 years. I am not anti-Vatican II, I just think that the message of the Council gets perverted. I don't like any of the P&W style music played at Mass nowadays. I hear the names Haugen, Haas, or Farrell and I cringe. I miss hearing the organ. I can't stand seeing the choir at the front of the church, rather than in the loft. I like the old style confessional booths. I feel intimidated every time I go into a face-to-face confessional. I don't hold hands during the Our Father. I refuse to take the Host in my hand, only on the tongue.

    That being said, I feel that on the whole, the tone of Vatican II was to increase participation in the church and Mass. I think that these goals were met, but at the expense of solemnity. You are right in saying that the Church stifles the queer in the pews. I really disagree with the decisions to not let open gays into the seminary, and to dismiss anyone that comes out while in seminary.

    I don't think you'll ever see the church embrace same-sex unions. I do think that the Rome needs to welcome everyone into the doors. How that happens is anybody's guess.

  2. Dan, thanks for your reactions.

    I have to say, while I think that the changes of Vatican II definitely increased participation in the Mass, and that I think this was a hugely welcome change for so many Catholics that felt disconnected during the Mass pre-Vatican II, increasing participation in the Mass and increasing participation in the Church are two very different things. I think it's a good thing that people have the opportunity to understand what's going on at Mass, and have ways of participating that engage their senses as well as their mind and spirit. But a) how many Catholics actually take full advantage of the invitation to participate (just because the Mass is in a language we understand doesn't mean we don't tune out from time to time - it's still just as easy to show up, take communion, and leave as it was in the past), and b) how many Catholics continue this participation into the rest of their week, not just through personal prayer and family ilife but in taking seriously the Church's teachings on poverty, oppression, etc? Shouldn't the council - the goal of which was to engage the church in new and different ways with the modern world - have inspired people to think of their faith/religion as something that happens in our interaction in the world, not just in the Mass?

    I think you're absolutely right that I won't ever see the church embrace same-sex unions, and I certainly won't hold my breath on that one. I would love, however, to see the church come to a place where it can think and talk about queer issues in a more critical, multi-dimensional way. The world is complex, why can't the church treat it that way?