Silent No Longer

A gay priest speaks out

BustedHalo: Let me echo what some critics might say. Years ago we heard stories about “lavender rectories” and fears that there is a subculture in the priesthood that gay men can be active sexually and be closeted. Are those fears unjustified?

Fr. Gerard Thomas: The only subculture in the priesthood that seems to terrorize people in the priesthood is the gay subculture. There are plenty of other subcultures in the priesthood. There’s an Irish subculture; there’s a subculture that divides itself among those who went to the North American College [in Rome]; or there’s a subculture that coheres to around where you went to Seminary; there are subcultures in terms of ethnic minorities like Latino or Vietnamese priests, and no one seems to have a problem with them. The only reason why people have a problem with the gay subculture is that they believe that ipso facto it is encouraging its members to act out sexually or that they are inherently unfaithful to the teachings of the Church. The idea is that the gay subculture is kind of inherently negative. And it stems from the prejudice in the general culture that a gay man is incapable of living celibately. Which, if you think about it, is kind of ironic because the Catechism enjoins chastity upon all gay men and women. You can’t have it both ways: you can’t say that all gay men are prone to be more sexually active and then at the same time have the Catechism say that gay men are called to chastity because if it’s impossible for gay men to live in celibacy then the Catechism is asking people to do an impossibility. It’s a very inconsistent logic. Basically in my experience there are situations where gay clergy hang out together and that’s because of a number of things, such as: a shared experience of growing up gay, shared experience in terms of negotiating oneself in a largely heterosexual culture, and, to put a more positive spin on it, a shared experience of trying to help one another live celibately. Now occasionally those groups can become very inclusive and at times exclusive to straight priests, which is unfortunate. But this notion that gay priests are breaking their vows all the time is ridiculous. I don’t think gay priests break their vows any more than straight priests. But I think, basically, that the whole idea of the lavender rectory and the lavender seminaries is an example of a few incidents that are used to prejudice people against a whole population?which of course is the whole definition of stereotype and prejudice.

BH: I’m sure in general just by virtue of working pastorally you come across people talking about their marriage vows. Do you find there is any greater percentage of faithfulness to vows from the celibate to the married culture?

GT: Yes in my own limited experience in terms of listening to people I would say that priests, in my experience, are more faithful than married people.

BH: That’s interesting. Now, there are those who argue that because homosexual sex is a moral evil, then even a priest who is faithful to his vow of celibacy is not making a sacrifice but only doing what he should be doing anyway, and that therefore a straight celibate priest is giving up more than a gay celibate priest does.

GT: I think that’s baloney. I think that the notion that a celibate gay priest is not giving up as much as a celibate straight priest is ridiculous. The one thing he is giving up that a straight priest is not giving up is the ability to be honest in the Church. So that’s an added sacrifice that the straight priest does not have to take on. For example the straight priest can speak freely about his giving up a family and married life to his congregation. He can speak very freely about his desire to be married and how difficult that is, and how he understands it in terms of his life of celibacy and following the life of Christ. A gay priest is unable to do that and lives in a sense under this cloud all the time. The second thing he gives up is his dignity. When it comes to reading the comments that some of the bishops and some of the members of the Vatican hierarchy… its very difficult to hear Joaquin Navarro-Valls say that people with these orientations simply cannot be ordained or to hear Cardinal Bevilaqua of Philadelphia say that he feels that any man who is homosexual should not be ordained. So one thing that gay priests give up that straight priests do not is their own sense of personal dignity vis a vis the hierarchy. I find notion that a gay priest is giving up less to be incredibly offensive. I am giving up intimacy in my own life and whether or not the Catechism enjoins that, I am still giving that up for the priesthood. So anyone who says that gay priests aren’t making a sacrifice has obviously not talked to any gay priests.

BH: You talk about it as an issue of integrity and make compelling arguments that, on some levels, the Church is asking people to lie. Is that fair to say?

GT: Yes, I think this is a scandal: to have men fulfilling their promise to celibacy, who are living healthy lives, who are doing service to the community, yet prevent them from speaking about an essential part of themselves, to prevent them from sharing the way that God has made them, to prevent them from speaking about their own experiences, to prevent them from just reflecting on the experience of homosexuality?particularly in a time when this is such an important issue for the Church, this is scandalous. I think that if we really believe that the truth will set us free then why are we not allowing people to speak the truth? I think we either believe the truth will set us free or we don’t. I think if the sexual abuse crisis has shown us anything it’s that the truth needs to get out there as soon as possible and as fully as possible.

BH: Is there a sense that having openly gay priests might strike some cultures in the world differently than it would us here in theAmerican Church?

GT: Yes, I think obviously the whole understanding of what homosexuality is, where it comes from, what it means is something that is probably more talked about and understood in the West. It’s just so foreign to people in other cultures that to bring it up would be scandalous for them. So I think that needs to be respected. But because of that, the argument is made that because people in Africa or Asia couldn’t accept homosexual priests we shouldn’t address the issue here in the U.S. because we are a universal Church. That cannot be an excuse! It should not stop the Church from accepting the truth and being prophetic.

In the sixties there were certain places in our country where black men and women weren’t allowed to eat at lunch counters… but that did not stop the civil rights movement. At some point, you have to say that this is either the truth or not?and if it is the truth then we need to act on it, and I think unfortunately the argument of other cultures not being ready to accept homosexuality?which is a reasonable argument?is used to prevent us from embracing our need for taking a prophetic stance. As Christians we are supposed to be priest, prophet and king and I think we forget number two pretty regularly. Yes, the Church is the universal Church, but the Church is also the ecclesia docens “the teaching Church.”

You have to ask yourself if there are a great many gay priests within the US clergy at a time when the issue of homosexuality is on the front burner, at a time when sexual abuse is on the front burner, at a time when the issue of declining vocations is on the front burner, might not the Holy Spirit be asking us to look at the experience of these men and might the Holy Spirit have something special for these men to say to the Church? Is it so unreasonable to think that at a time when homosexuality is being discussed in this country in terms of its morality that the gay celibate priest in this country might have something to say? I think that’s entirely possible. Unfortunately, many people in the hierarchy are preventing that voice from being heard and that to me is a greater scandal than the fact that there are gay priests around.