Faces of Faith: 46th ward alderman James Cappleman
(POSTED: 1/30/12) For every matter brought before the Chicago City Council, Ald. James Cappleman (46th) said his decisions are influenced by his background in faith.
“My beliefs continue to evolve, and I like that,” Cappleman said. “But they are grounded in what’s fair, and also in social justice.”
It’s a kind of spirituality, he said, “that focuses on including others, especially those who feel they do not have a place at the dinner table.”
Cappleman, who won a runoff election in 2011 to represent residents in Uptown and parts of Lake View and Andersonville, is a practicing Roman Catholic and former Franciscan friar. He is also openly gay and planning a civil union ceremony (to be performed by a so-called “Catholic woman priest,” a woman who claims ordination but is not recognized as a priest by the official Church) later this year with his longtime partner, Richard Thale.
A Texas native, Cappleman grew up just outside of Houston in a big Catholic household with seven siblings, including a twin brother. As a young boy, Cappleman said he sensed something was different about him because of his sexual orientation, but he didn’t know what it was at that point.
“I tried to say the Lord’s Prayer over and over again every night, and my goal was to get fixed,” he said. “I didn’t know what it was, but I knew something was wrong. I think that was my initial concept of God. Out of that I developed a spirituality, as I was trying to wrestle with something that was wrong with me.”
When Cappleman was 15, his father committed suicide. In dealing with the tragedy, he really began to question his notion of God, religion and Catholic doctrine.
“At the time he died, we didn’t know if he could have a Catholic funeral,” Cappleman said. “We were always taught that if someone committed suicide it was a mortal sin and they would go to hell. I had to rethink all that.”
His brothers and sisters did the same. Though all raised Catholic, his siblings now represent a broad spectrum of faiths, including Judaism, Lutheranism, Southern Baptist, Catholicism and atheism. One brother is also a Dominican priest.
“To me, that’s wonderful,” Cappleman, 59, said. “Everyone needs to find their own path.”
Cappleman explored other religions, too, and for about 10 years he was Episcopalian. He went back to Catholicism, though, partly because of the sacraments and his family roots.
Over the years, “my notion of prayer has changed and my sense of God has become much more inclusive,” he said. “I see the presence of God in a lot of things and in a lot of religions.”
In 1982, Cappleman entered the Cincinnati-based Province of St. John the Baptist of the Order of Friars Minor. He took temporary vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, and for some time contemplated entering the priesthood.
Ultimately, he decided that religious life wasn’t right for him.
“I acknowledged my sexual orientation as a Franciscan friar, but I was fine with being celibate,” Cappleman said. “I had a sense that I wasn’t really being true to myself, that I was taking a safer route.”
After he left the order, Cappleman taught at a Catholic school in Chicago for a few years. He quit after another teacher he knew at a different Catholic school was fired for being seen at a gay pride parade.
“I just knew it was a matter of time until it would be discovered that I was gay,” he said. “It got me nervous. I didn’t like having to live in the closet.”
Cappleman then became a social worker — “a profession where I didn’t have to hide” — and a community activist. He found a home in Dignity/Chicago, an LGBT Catholic organization, and served as the group’s president for a few years.
“There I really understood that as a gay man, I had a responsibility of making others feel accepted and loved for who they are,” Cappleman said. “As the saying goes, God made me, and God doesn’t make junk.”
The Vatican issued a letter in 1986 calling homosexuality a “disorder,” and Church hierarchy continues to adamantly oppose same-sex marriage and denounce homosexual acts.
Cappleman, however, believes “it’s OK to go against some of the teachings if you make an informed decision, and my decision is informed.”
Why does he stay Catholic?
“Just as the cardinal and the pope have every right to claim their faith, so do I,” he said. “We are all on equal footing in that we are all baptized Catholics.”
“I do struggle, still,” he added. “I still become impatient that the Roman Catholic Church has not ordained women and that they still don’t allow same-sex marriage. That is still disappointing, but I think in time that may change.”
By Katie Drews, for ChicagoCatholicNews.com