“Make no mistake” a priest friend of mine said to me during a recent phone call “it’s a disaster.” I had called to wish him a happy new year but our conversation had veered toward a difficult subject. He was reacting to the Vatican’s document on the suitability of homosexual men for the priesthood that was released in late 2005. My friend, who also happens to be gay, was commenting in part on the more open-ended interpretations of the document that some church officials have offered publicly. But he was also responding to what seems to be a collective shrug of indifference on the issue from many priests—gay and straight—in the United States who seem to think that, practically speaking, nothing has changed. “Believe me” he said “it’s changed.”
He’s right, of course. Things certainly have changed for people like him—the overwhelming number of good, celibate, gay priests who have dedicated their lives to the church and served the people of God so well. While some in the Church have done pretzel-like contortions in order to interpret the instructions in a more positive light, for many younger priests and seminarians like my friend those explanations are unconvincing. Men like him have grown up in a society where the need to repress who they are—indeed who they were created to be—has lessened considerably. They know that their Church is going out of its way to tell them that they are inherently deficient and unsuitable for the life and ministry they have been called to by God.
A Matter of Conscience
As a result, many men like him are now faced with a crisis of conscience: can they continue to represent the Church with any integrity when they are being told they are no longer wanted? There have already been a few scattered reports of priests resigning their posts in the wake of this document—a sad, but understandable result. No one should be surprised to see more of the same in the future.
Of course one statistic we’ll never know is the number of gay men who thought they may have had vocations but now won’t consider applying to an institution that is so hostile to them. My fear is that the only statistics we eventually will see will tell an eerily familiar story of men who weren’t challenged to develop an honest, healthy sense of their sexual identity and who have consequently inflicted incalculable harm on the people of God. We’ve been down that road before, haven’t we?
In the wake of the sex abuse scandal, clearly there is a need to address the sort of people the Church should be ordaining to the priesthood. But despite an enormous amount of data and expert opinion that indicates that there is no linkage, the Church continues to insist on equating pedophilia and homosexuality. In an era when it seems there is an endless amount of evidence demonstrating how impaired the Church’s judgment has been in the past and how it has often resisted making difficult decisions (see the John Jay report on the sex abuse crisis or the Philadelphia District Attorney’s recently released grand jury report), this newest instruction appears to be a poor substitute for doing the hard work necessary to truly assess a man’s suitability for the priesthood.
There are no reliable statistics on the number of gay men who are priests but there are few in the Church, conservative or liberal, who deny that the number is significant. The catch-22 to this situation is that many fine men who could counterbalance the distorted perception of homosexuality among the faithful have been told not to talk about it by their religious superiors. I’m reminded here of Fr. Gerard Thomas’ comments from my September interview with him: “because of this silencing and the inability of gay priests to speak openly about their experience…the only model of the gay priest that the people in the Vatican and in the public see is the sexually abusive priest…It has to repeated over and over that the vast majority of gay priests, like their heterosexual counterparts, are celibate.”
When I was in my early twenties I remember visiting my spiritual director—a wise and holy older priest—at a retreat center one weekend while a group of seminarians were visiting for an extended period of reflection. I don’t recall what I said specifically, but during a private talk with my director I made an offhanded, homophobic joke about a number of the seminarians whom I suspected to be gay. After a momentary pause, he said “You know Bill, you’ve been ministered to by gay men your whole life, you just didn’t know it.”
I was speechless. I’d been through 16 years of Catholic schooling but the thought had never crossed my mind—later on, I realized he was right. This revelation sparked a question that kept rolling around in my mind: ‘Do you mean to tell me that in my darkest moments, through my family’s severe illnesses and deaths, through the baptisms and weddings, confirmations and confessions, we’ve experienced the grace of God mediated through a gay man?’
This changed everything. No longer were gay people an abstraction that I could dismiss with an off-color joke. These were people who had shown me great mercy, kindness and love. They weren’t strangers at all; they were already a part of my family—as friends, counselors and ministers—I just wasn’t aware of it before. Christ’s love looked the same whether it was filtered through a gay priest or a straight one.
If that’s the case then why aren’t more of us speaking up? Is this an issue that only our gay brothers and sisters need to be concerned about? Why aren’t more “straight” priests and seminarians publicly defending the tremendous number of good gay men they know who are called to ministry? For that matter, why aren’t more of us in the pews registering our discontent with the appropriate Church authorities? Were anyone to treat my immediate family unjustly, I would come to their defense without hesitation. Is the situation in our Church all that different?
As we enter into 2006, we recommit ourselves to our Christian duties to feed the poor, shelter the homeless and clothe the naked. The extreme hardships caused by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita alone are enough to remind us that our obligation to perform the works of mercy never ends. But there are other members of our Catholic family who now need our mercy and protection as well. My experience as an American Catholic is not unique. What about the gay men who have ministered to you your whole life, whether you knew it or not? People who have sacrificed a great deal for you. People who have served you well and shown you great love and support. They deserve the same in return. Make no mistake, to sit quietly by and do nothing in their defense truly would be a disaster.