Celibate, Gay and Under Attack
BustedHalo talks once again with "Fr. Gerard Thomas"
BH: Do you know some fellow priests or seminarians who are going to leave?
GT: Yes, definitely. There’s no question. Seminarians especially. But celibate gay priests and some straight priests who are horrified by this. It’s a huge stigma. Someone said in the paper today that he felt like a Jew in the 1930’s living in Berlin.
BH: In that regard, have you made a decision about what you will do if this document comes out?
GT: I believe and it’s been confirmed by my experience that I have a call to the priesthood. So, I do not want to leave the priesthood. I have to make a decision as to whether I will speak out. So far, I have been forbidden by my bishop to speak out. I’m going to have to decide if my conscience takes precedence over my promise of obedience. Catholic tradition teaches us that the conscience is final arbiter of what’s to be done in a person’s moral life. I can say though that it’s been an extremely painful time since the sexual abuse crisis to be implicitly blamed for this and told people like me should never enter and to know individuals, friends of mine, who live celibate and holy lives that will probably leave because of this. It’s been devastating.
BH: We keep hearing repeatedly that people are equating pedophilia with homosexuality. Why do you think this is?
GT: In the absence of any sort of positive public model of gay priests—because of this silencing and the inability of gay priests to speak openly about their experience—the only model you have is the pedophile. The only model of the gay priest that the people in the Vatican and in the public see is the sexually abusive priest. It’s not surprising that they would draw this conclusion that we have to get rid of the gay priests. Unfortunately, they are not looking at the vast majority of gay priests. It’s the worst kind of prejudice. You take one small segment and you assume every member of the population has that trait. The catechism says, “Every sign of unjust discrimination should be avoided.” This is unjust discrimination and once again, it’s going against the catechism. The second reason is homophobia: people in the Vatican and bishops who are just afraid of homosexuals. The third reason is a misunderstanding of sexuality and what homosexuality is, and equating it with child abuse. The fourth reason is a desire to find blame. Anywhere but the bishops. A fifth reason are members of the Catholic right who are homophobic. It allows them to be rid of priests that have always made them uncomfortable and they have never liked, and to find a scapegoat for the crisis.
BH: There’s been some talk that gay priests would publicly proclaim their homosexuality. An article in the NY Times commented that some gay priests would wear pink triangles like homosexuals were forced to do in the Nazi concentration camps. Do you think that would take place if the document comes to pass?
GT: I think each gay priest feels alone except for maybe a few gay priest friends. There is no organization for gay priests. Every person is going to need to make the decision on their own, which only increases the loneliness and isolation. I don’t think you’re going to see anything coordinated because there is no way to coordinate it. You’re going to see some people leave and proclaim things publicly. You’re going to see some people speak out. You’re going to see some seminarians leave and not know why they’re leaving. You’re going to see some people demoralized and angry and sad. You might see straight priests get angry. You’re not going to see things organized but individual reactions. It will affect Catholics on a more personal basis when they see their priest demoralized and don’t understand why or when he leaves.
BH: Do you think gay seminarians will be asked to simply leave?
GT: I don’t think they’ll have to be asked, they’ll just leave. We’re talking about men in their 20’s. If he is a healthy, integrated person why would he stay? What kind of self-hatred would enable someone to stay? I tell people it’s like if you were working in a corporation that says they no longer accept blacks. Clearly, most of the blacks would leave.
BH: You still believe you would stay?
GT: Yes. That’s where I am right now. I don’t want them to kick me out. This is my church too and I have been working hard for the church for a long time.
BH: Archbishop Miller talks about a document on the books that already bans gay men from the priesthood and that homosexual orientation is perverse. Do you know anything about that document?
GT: The document that is technically still on the books is basically set aside. It’s like the document in the 1960’s that says that all teaching in seminaries should be done in Latin. Like a lot of these documents, it’s been set aside. The criteria has been if a man can live celibately or not. Not if he’s gay or straight. One of the most offensive things is that it equates homosexuality with pederasty. They’re using a document that has a 19th century understanding of homosexuality and saying it’s still in effect. That’s an incredible statement of moral obtuseness and complete misunderstanding of human sexuality. So to say it’s still in effect is technically accurate, but to say that nothing’s changed after years of good gay men entering the seminary is totally misleading.
BH: There is talk that this new document is very nuanced and permits a status quo arrangement. How do you think that will affect gay seminarians?
GT: I have a hard time thinking that the Vatican is going to be nuanced about this [upcoming official visitation of the seminaries]. If you look at the working document of the apostolic visit, there’s a question that states, “Is there evidence of homosexuality in the seminary?” When you look at that language, which is so vague as to be meaningless, you have to think that the same people are writing the document—the Congregation for Catholic Education—that document does not indicate that the people have any sense of nuance in regard to this issue. I would be happy for some nuance but I don’t think it’s going to happen. Anything that indicates that gay men are inferior to straight men is incredibly offensive and demeaning and will force many gay men to rethink their vocation.
BH: Do you think there’ll be a difference in how this document is implemented in diocesan seminaries around the world and religious orders?
GT: I definitely think so. I think it’s already different today. Most diocesan seminaries are less likely to accept homosexual men, although there are some that do, whereas most religious orders have been more open. I think that’s always been the case.
BH: Has it?
GT: In my experience it has been. I think in general most religious orders are more theologically progressive than most diocesan seminaries—perhaps because they’re not under the direction of a particular bishop.
BH: Are there any statistics on the abuse scandal and how it’s affected numbers entering religious orders versus diocesan?
GT: Not that I’ve seen. Ironically, in some religious orders numbers are actually up. There’s almost no accurate data on gay versus straight in the seminary because no one is willing to study that.
BH: What about in terms of seminaries that are more open to speaking about sexuality compared to others and the likelihood of people accused of sexual misbehavior?
GT: I think that’s true. Most of the cases that occurred were priests who came from these incredibly repressed seminaries in the 1950’s. One of the most conservative was St. John’s in Boston and here is where a lot of the abuse cases came from. You look at abuse cases that came from St. Charles Boremeo that the archdiocese of Philadelphia just reported on. These were incredibly tight-lipped seminaries in terms of sexuality. What this new document is doing is once again creating an environment that gave rise to these sexual predators.
BH: What can people in the pews do?
GT: I think people in the pews can, whether or not the document is going to be approved and promulgated, I think they should immediately pick up the phone and speak to their bishop. Write letters to the bishop. Tell him how much they appreciate their gay priests and that what we don’t need now is fewer vocations and less people to celebrate the sacraments. Write to the Vatican Congregation for Catholic Education. But mostly, write to your local bishop and tell him how you feel. I can tell you that if this document comes out the people who will feel it most in the future are the people in the pews.
BH: Is there anyway that we bridge the divide of liberals versus conservatives?
GT: The way to bridge that divide is by letting people know that what we’re looking for is not sexual orientation but someone who can be Christ, be a messenger of God’s peace to people. That cuts across orientation lines. If you think about it, Christ chose a lot of unexpected people and still chooses unexpected people and that’s the message that needs to get out there. We can’t tell God whom God can choose and can’t choose. And a document like this does that. In a sense, it commits a sin of pride. It’s never a good idea to tell God what he can’t and can do.
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