Mike Segar/Reuters
Protestors demonstrate advocating for the inclusion of gay marchers in the 254th New York City St. Patrick's Day parade as parade marchers make their way up 5th Avenue in the Manhattan Borough of New York, March 17.

St. Patrick's Day parade: LGBT inclusion hints at shifting Catholic mores

For the first time, LGBT groups openly marched in St. Patrick's Day parades in Boston and New York this week.

For the first time on Tuesday, New York’s St. Paddy’s Day parade, the city’s grandest of them all in many ways, included a group of gay and lesbian New Yorkers marching up 5th Avenue amid the familiar annual flow of proud-to-be-Irish green.

For years, the city’s famous march, held for more than 250 years and celebrating the Irish-Catholic heritage so strong among its police and firefighters especially, had also included bitter debates about the official inclusion of gay and lesbian groups. But this year, for the first time in the parade's long history, Out@NBCUniversal, an LGBT group from the company that televises the parade, will march under its own banner.

It’s just one, and one out of hundreds of organizations marching, so although it marks a milestone for the privately organized parade and reflects the sweeping cultural shifts that have transformed the country’s general views of homosexuality, protests have continued – now from LGBT activists and religious conservatives both.

“A lot of people feel, I think rightfully, that that is too small a change to merit a lot of us participating who have wanted to see an inclusive parade,” said New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, who did not participate in the parade for the second straight year on Tuesday. Other groups continued to protest their exclusion as well.

On Sunday, too, the organizers of Boston’s annual St. Patrick’s Day parade lifted their ban on official LGBT participation, permitting two groups, Boston Pride and OutVets, a group of gay and lesbian veterans, to officially celebrate the city’s Irish-Catholic heritage. It was enough for Boston Mayor Marty Walsh – who boycotted the parade last year – to march on Sunday.

But the small accommodations made this year by the mostly Roman Catholic parade organizers in New York and Boston – as well as many other regions of the country – provide a microcosm of the broader shifts in the Catholic Church as a younger generation grapples with the church's moral traditions and long-held opposition to homosexuality.

“There’s this ever increasing dissonance between these parade officials, and the officials of the church hierarchy, and the growing majority of Catholics on these so-called ‘hot-button’ social issues,” says Bruce Morrill, the Edward A. Malloy professor of Catholic studies at Vanderbilt University Divinity School in Nashville, Tenn. “Especially as you move down the age quartiles with Millennials and younger Catholics.”

Indeed, a full 85 percent of self-identified Catholics under the age of 30 said homosexuality should be accepted by society, a 2014 Pew Research Center survey found. And while older Catholics are less likely to favor the acceptance of homosexuality, 57 percent of those 65 and older favored inclusion.

In Boston, the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic charity, and other groups decided not to participate in the St. Patrick’s parade after the inclusion of LGBT groups. And the Catholic Action League of Massachusetts minced no words in condemning the groups' official participation.

“Two groups – OUTVETS and Boston Pride – which have zero interest in the ancient Catholic culture of Ireland and her patron saint, which express pride in rejecting Catholic morality, and which dismiss that moral code as bigotry and prejudice, exploited the venerable name of Saint Patrick to advance their anti-Christian ideology,” said executive director C.J. Doyle in a statement Sunday.

In Norfolk, Va., however, the local Knights of Columbus chapter invited Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe to serve as the grand marshal of its St. Paddy’s parade, which he accepted. In response, the state’s two bishops, Francis DiLorenzo of the Richmond Diocese and Paul Loverde of Arlington, condemned the invitation of the governor, who supports same-sex marriage and abortion.

“Together with our brother bishops, we have been clear, consistent and firm in upholding the truths reflected in the fundamental doctrine and moral principles of our faith,” the Virginia bishops said in a joint statement. “It is an erroneous and serious mistake in judgment for any Catholic organization to grant awards, honors and platforms to any public person who clearly acts in defiance to Catholic teaching.”

Still, the “growing dissonance” between church leaders and much of the laity belies the efforts of Pope Francis, who has urged a new “pastoral tone” and more inclusive embrace of LGBT Catholics, even as it maintains its historic, and not debatable, moral teachings.

“These issues have remained their priority, even as Pope Francis, from early on in his papacy, was indicating that the prelates shouldn’t be obsessing about these things,” says Father Morrill, also a Catholic priest. “And that tension hasn’t weakened at all over these past two years.”

Some conservative groups had called on New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the grand marshal of the parade this year, to withdraw his support. But the always-gregarious Cardinal Dolan hammed it up, holding his archbishop’s staff aloft in his red-trimmed black cassock, posing for pictures and proclaiming his Irish pride.

The inclusion of the LGBT group from NBC was a “gesture of good will of historic proportion,” said John Lahey, vice chairman of the parade’s organizing committee, according to The New York Times. He added that the parade had always included gays and lesbians, however, as they participated freely with other groups.

“The purpose of this parade is not inclusiveness as an end, it’s a parade to celebrate St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland,” Mr. Lahey said.

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