Silent No Longer

A gay priest speaks out

In the wake of the scandals, some high-ranking officials in the Catholic church have lumped together pedophilia and homosexuality by suggesting that the presence of gay men in the priesthood is at the root of the sexual abuse crisis. Recently, there have been rumors that the Vatican is about to release a document that will either bar or seriously restrict the ordination of gay men to the priesthood. In an article that appeared in a recent issue of Commonweal, a magazine run by lay Catholics, a gay priest (writing under the pseudonym Fr. Gerard Thomas because he has been forbidden from speaking publicly about his sexual orientation) spoke out about why releasing this sort of document would constitute a serious moral error on the part of the Church. Fr. Thomas is hoping that by speaking up now, before anything is released, he might help shape the discussion or even the document itself.

In an exclusive interview with BustedHalo’s editor, Bill McGarvey and operations director Mike Hayes, Fr. Thomas spoke about the current situation in the Church in greater detail than he was able to in his article and with a candor that is extremely rare. In addition to talking openly about the subculture of gay men in the priesthood, the existence of gay saints and how the Church is essentially forcing homosexuals to compromise their sense of integrity, he spoke movingly about the inability of the overwhelming number of celibate gay priests to offer up their own experience as witness in the Church. For a priest who is actively engaged in ministry to speak so openly about being gay is practically unheard of. We at BustedHalo hope that this series will help encourage and illuminate a dialogue that is too often characterized by misperception and fear.

BustedHalo: For our readers who haven’t had the chance to see it, can you give us a summary of what your article was about?

Fr.Gerard Thomas: The basic point is that there are and there have been, historically, celibate gay priests who are ministering in a healthy way in the Church and one of the reasons that people equate gay priests with sexually active priests is that the only models of gay priest that are allowed to be seen are notorious pedophiles. And why is that? The reason for that is that, like me, gay priests who are celibate–who represent the majority of gay priests–are forbidden or incapable or unwilling to speak publicly about their sexuality. As a result this creates a sort of vacuum in the public eye, such that, the only people they see who are gay are priests like Paul Shanley and John Geoghan. So one point of my article was to show that, simply put, the overwhelming majority of gay priests are celibate and healthy and living integrated lives. The other point is that, since this is the case, any Vatican document that would ban or otherwise restrict gay men from entering seminaries or religious orders or later being ordained would represent a serious moral error for the Church. It would also be ruinous to the Church at a time of drastically reduced vocations. So I think that the conversation needs to start and I think that in this area, as in so many other areas, the Church needs to embrace more openness and more honesty rather than more silence. I also think that in any situation where the truth is being covered up, there are going to be negative effects down the line.

BH: Why did you decide to speak out now?

GT: Well there have been rumors for the past few months of a Vatican document in the works that will be in part, the Vatican ‘s response to the sexual abuse crisis. That document, depending on what source you believe, is supposed to either bar or restrict the ordination of gay men. So I thought this was a good time to get some of the arguments out there in a public forum before the document was published by the Vatican .

BH: Have you had any initial reaction from people in church circles about this article?

GT: Yes, mostly positive. The response that I’ve generally been getting is that people are happy that at least someone is talking about the issue. This is something that many gay priests are forbidden from speaking about by either their Bishops or their religious superiors. So the mere fact that some of these topics are raised makes people grateful.

BH: Father, could you tell me what Bishops and religious superiors think the reaction would be if a gay priest were to come out in a parish setting?

GT: Well obviously it depends on the individual bishop or the individual religious superior, but in my own experience and also speaking with other gay priests–of whom there are hundreds if not thousands working world wide–I think their superiors fear that their parishioners or the people with whom they minister would simply be incapable of understanding it. That their parishioners would be scandalized, that their parishioners would somehow equate being gay with being sexually active or, worse, they would equate being gay with being a pedophile or an ephebophile. So I think that unfortunately there is this idea that the faithful are somehow ignorant of the very fact that there are gay priests, or even ignorant of the fact that there are gay people in the world. I find it a somewhat patronizing attitude toward the faithful, frankly.

BH: You were told that you can’t come out. How did that message come down to you?

GT: Well without getting into too many details, my religious superiors told me that I could not write or speak about this publicly because he was afraid that people would somehow misunderstand it. He just thought it was the wrong time to do these kinds of things. I accepted his decision and that’s the reason I’m using a pseudonym so there are no bad effects of the kind he was worried about. He had the same concerns that I just mentioned from some of the other religious superiors and bishops.

BH: What were you told the ramifications would be if you did speak out publicly?

GT: Well any priest takes a vow of obedience to his bishop and any member of a religious order takes a vow of obedience to his religious superior, so I think if I were to speak publicly and use my own name I’m sure the higher ups would be furious with me. I do take my relationship with my superiors seriously and I do take that promise of obedience very seriously as well. The way I look at it is that I needed to get the arguments out there but it wasn’t as important to have my name affixed to the article.

BH: Because this is such a hot button topic I doubt there are any really reliable statistics regarding gays in the priesthood or gay priests who take their vows of celibacy seriously. This is all anecdotal evidence you’re talking about, right?

GT: Oh sure. All the statistics that you read are unreliable, including my own which are largely anecdotal. The bishops and religious orders are wholly uninterested in commissioning studies that would show that there are gay men in the clergy. For a few reasons: one, they are embarrassed by it. I think there is a basic embarrassment of straight men to admit that they belong to a group that includes gay men. That’s just sort of simple homophobia. Second, I think they fear that lay Catholics will misunderstand this and be shocked by it. And third there’s the fear that straight men will be sort of kept away from entering seminaries or religious orders if they find out that there are any gay men in them.

As an aside, any man who enters the priesthood and does not know that there are some gay men ministering there should have his head examined.

BH: Why do you say that?

GT: Well because there have always been gay men in the priesthood, it’s a simple fact.

What I did was to set forth a number of 25% of priests who have a homosexual orientation, just to give people a rough context in which to work. The standard figure of 5-10% which is bandied about as the number of gays and lesbians in the general population, is far too low [when we’re talking about the priesthood] and some of the more outlandish figures like 50% I thought were far too high, so I thought 25% was reasonable. But once again this is entirely anecdotal and we’re never going to know until there are reliable scientific surveys.

BH: Do you think there are generational differences among those demographics? In other words is there a higher proportion of younger gay men than older gay men in the priesthood?

GT: I think it’s hard to tell. I would say in general that yes, there’s a higher percentage of priests under 50, or under 40, who are gay. I think it would take a sociologist to tell you why that’s the case. But I also think that among the guys who are older, there is?as in the general population?there’s less of a willingness or aptitude to discuss those kinds of things. So there may be precisely the same figure in the older generation as in the younger generation. It’s just that the older generation may not be as open IN speaking about it or they’re not as aware of their sexuality or they’re not as comfortable talking about their sexuality as people in a younger generation. I would sort of refrain from offering reasons, I think you’d have to talk to a sociologist like Andrew Greeley about that.