Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

J. Beth Mabry

Second Advisor

Michelle Sandhoff

Third Advisor

John A. Mueller


People who identity as gay or lesbian and Catholic may experience conflict or incongruence between those two identities given the Catholic Church’s stance on homosexuality. Other scholarly studies examine this issue of sexual and religious identity conflict, but most approach it with samples of Christians, in general, or focus on gay-affirming religious organizations, and typically have urban dwelling samples. Few studies focus on Catholic-only or predominantly rural samples of gays and lesbians, as this study does. This study applies a broad spectrum of theoretical approaches, including: identity, social identity, self-authenticity, and self-concept theories, as well as cognitive dissonance theory, to the issue of the seemingly conflicting gay or lesbian and Catholic identities. This study takes a phenomenological approach to understanding how persons with potentially conflicting sexual and religious identities experience and make sense of incongruences. Using qualitative, individual interviews, this study explores the experiences of 18 people from a rural region who identify as both gay or lesbian and Catholic. The findings reflect that the participants in this study are able to maintain both their gay or lesbian identity and their Catholic identity because of the meanings they give to those identities and the support they receive for these identities, both separately and together. Key themes in how participants make sense of their sexual and religious identities include their belief in the perfection of God’s creation, family support, support from others, critiquing the Catholic Church’s message and the messengers, and perceived support from Pope Francis. Implications of this study suggest that gay and lesbian people sit in the pews, sing in the choir, and administer the Eucharist in their local Catholic parishes, and that the Catholic Church should take measures to make them feel welcome. Participants in this study conveyed the power of judgement, whether from family members or by the church, in their struggle to come to terms with their sexuality. Their stories indicate, for instance, that the church should avoid the use of out-of-context Bible passages to condemn homosexuality during services and to stop referring to gays and lesbians, some of whom are among them at Mass, as disordered. It is also important that the Catholic Church understand that there are gay and lesbian youth in their pews who struggle with their sexual identity and they should not be condemned for being who they believe God created them to be. Further, the participants in this study thought the church should continue to encourage families not to reject LGBT relatives. This study examined the potential identity conflict participants may experience in being both gay or lesbian and Catholic, as well as how they made sense of that conflict, by applying identity and social identity theories, rather than focus solely on various dissonance theories as in previous studies, such as Steele and Liu (1983) and Aronson (1992). In this study, participants retained both their gay or lesbian identity and their Catholic identity, often in spite of negative experiences, because of the cognitive identity work they did and with the social support they received. Lastly, the participants here want to feel welcomed and validated by their church in the same way that heterosexual persons feel welcomed and validated. These findings have implications for ways that gay or lesbian Catholics might navigate these identities and integrate them, how allies can provide support, and ways the Catholic Church, at the institutional and parish levels, can be more inclusive of LGBT members.