This past February BustedHalo published an extended interview with Fr. Gerard Thomas, a celibate, gay priest who–using an assumed name for fear of reprisal–spoke very candidly about the presence of gay men in the priesthood, the pedophilia scandal and the rumors of a Vatican document that would bar homosexuals from becoming priests.
Recently there has been much talk in the mainstream press that the Vatican document will be released in the very near future, sparking a great deal of controversy among Catholics. On the heels of this news BustedHalo once again spoke to Fr. Thomas about the issue of gay men in the priesthood and seminaries and why he believes that the Vatican’s changes will prove to be “an utter disaster for the Church.”
Busted Halo: There has been a flurry of articles in the press recently about the Vatican potentially declaring that homosexual are unfit to be ordained priests. Could you talk about what instigated the recent interest in this issue?
Fr. Gerard Thomas: What instigated it were the comments by Archbishop Edwin O’Brien who is coordinator of the ongoing review of seminaries in the United States that was instituted in response to the sexual abuse crisis. Archbishop O’Brien said that even a gay man who had been celibate for 10 years should not be admitted into the seminary. He further went on to say that a document from the Holy See would be coming out to that effect.
More recently, the New York Times and the Associated Press got word that a document like this would be coming out in a number of weeks. Needless to say many gay, celibate priests were horrified by this news that the church would no longer be accepting people like them. There are also a lot of gay, celibate seminarians that are very angry, frustrated, and sad about the fact that they will not be able to be ordained.
BH: There has been a lot of talk in the media about it being too difficult for gay seminarians to be in an all-male environment. Could you give us some background on how seminaries have changed over the last 30 years?
GT: I think, first of all, that notion that gay men can’t live in close proximity with other men is absurd. Gay men learn through their whole life how to live with other men just like straight men learn to live and work with women. Ironically it goes against the [Catholic] catechism that says that all gays are called to be chaste. Either they are capable of being chaste and should be allowed to be priests or they’re incapable of being chaste and the catechism is faulty, which I don’t think anyone is suggesting.
It has its roots in the stereotype of the gay man who is incapable of controlling himself. Ironically, there’s a quote from Cardinal Ratzinger in a 1986 document, The Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons, that says, “What is at all costs to be avoided is the unfounded and demeaning assumption that the sexual behavior of homosexuals is always and totally compulsive.” So, this notion that gay men can’t keep celibate is a stereotype, it goes against the catechism, and against what Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI says.
Now I think the big complaint is regarding the gay subculture in seminaries. It’s not surprising that gay men would gravitate to each other like any other social minority. You have different ethnic groups that would also gravitate to one another. The only reason people are concerned is that they fear that within this subculture seminarians are encouraging each other to break their vow of chastity. This is ridiculous. Again, it’s founded on a stereotype. There’s nothing wrong with this gay subculture as long as these men are open and healthy people, which the vast majority are.
It has to repeated over and over that the vast majority of gay priests, like their heterosexual counterparts, are celibate. I don’t know of any in my circle of friends that are sexually active. If they are, they leave.
BH: There’s been some talk in the media about the openness among seminaries with regard to sexual orientation. Did you find that in your own training and how did that affect your formation?
GT: I think in the training in general, there is more openness compared to the 1940’s and 1950’s in talking about sexual orientation and thank God for that. And when I say openness I don’t mean people are sexually active, I mean that people are encouraged to talk about their sexuality and how they integrate it into a life of chastity. I think that any person who is trying to live a life of chastity in a healthy way needs to understand their sexuality. These days a person in seminary and religious orders are encouraged–or at least should be–to talk more openly about their sexuality with directors, rectors, and bishops. It’s all part of helping a person integrate their sexuality into their life of celibacy.
BH: It has been suggested by some that by removing gay men from the seminary more straight men will be inclined to join. Did you find in your formation or in your religious life today that heterosexual priests are put off by the presence of homosexual men?
GT: No, not all. I would say that any straight priest who can’t work with a gay priest is as bad as a white priest that won’t work with a black priest. We all need to be able to work together. This needs to be stressed again and again. In a New York Times article Sr. Katerina Schuth who is an expert on seminary training rejected that line of reason that leaving gays out would somehow make more straight people enter. She said, “That is reasoning and speculation by people who have not spent any, or much time in seminaries.” If they deny gay men entrance to the seminary I would question what kind of straight men we’re getting. What kind of person would want to enter an organization that has that kind of prejudicial view of some of their fellow Christians?
BH: You haven’t found that there are superiors in seminaries that encourage sexual activity?
GT: I haven’t found that at all. It’s like married people. There are some that will break their vows, but I personally have not found that.
BH: Do you think that this document could be a kind of trial balloon that is just being floated out there?
GT: I think it’s much more than that. When you have someone like Archbishop O’Brien who’s in charge of the visitation and the New York Times has people they consider to be “authoritative sources” speaking, it’s clear that the document is being prepared or close to being finished. I also hear it hasn’t been officially prepared yet. I don’t think it’s a trial balloon as much as it is people honestly saying what’s happening at the Vatican. Actually, I wish it were a trial balloon because then it would be more tentative and not being prepared to be released.
BH: What do you think the reaction will be among ordained gay men when this document comes out?
GT: They’re already reacting and they’re horrified. It hits different groups with varying degrees of severity. The worst group is celibate, gay seminarians preparing for ordination. Here are men who have been told for years that they have a legitimate and real vocation to the priesthood who will now be told they are not to be in the seminary. They will be faced with a very difficult choice. Either they will have to leave the seminary and deny their vocation or they will stay in the seminary and lie about being gay, so they will be faced with a very difficult choice.
The next group affected are celibate gay priests who are very hardworking and already being blamed–even though a miniscule percentage are sexual abusers–for the crimes of a few. This group is going to be more demoralized and stigmatized. I think quite a number of them will leave, not because they can’t stand the stigma but because with any integrity how can you stay in an organization that tells you it will no longer accept people like you.
Another affected group is men who are gay and considering a vocation. They will, most likely, just not apply. Archbishop O’Brien said that he thinks that even someone who has lived celibately for 10 years should not be ordained, so imagine you’re a gay man who has a vocation to the priesthood or religious life. You’ve been celibate for 10 years and you apply and are told no. There’s no way you’re going to apply. No self-respecting, healthy person who understands their sexuality as homosexual is going to enter.
The fourth group would be Catholic gays and lesbians for whom this will be another slap in the face. They are basically being told they can’t live celibately. If they’re living in an environment that is designed to be supportive of celibacy and are being told they can’t live celibately, then what hope is there for the regular gay person? I think they’ll also see it as another affront.
Finally, you have the regular Catholic lay people who accept and know their gay priests and see them as loving, holy and dedicated men. They will be angry that their priests are being treated like this and will find in a couple of years even fewer priests since priests will leave the priesthood and seminary or will simply not apply. I think it’s going to an utter disaster for the Church.
It will also drive underground any discussion of sexuality in the seminaries. If you do have a seminarian who is gay he is not going to discuss his sexuality in any healthy way and it will create this unhealthy environment which gave rise to the environment of the sexual abuse crisis. That’s not to say that not talking about your sexuality makes you a pedophile but it makes it harder to weed people out like that and makes it more difficult for people to lead emotionally mature and psychologically healthy and integrated lives. The best way to screw up a person’s sexuality is to tell him he can never talk about it, he should be afraid to talk about it, or if he does talk about it, he’ll be punished.