Silent No Longer

A gay priest speaks out

BustedHalo: Can you speak to some of the causes of the sexual abuse scandal and who were these priests that were involved?

Father Gerard Thomas: I think these people were basically sick, psychologically unhealthy criminals who, for all sorts of reasons, should have been removed from ministry but were not, and one obvious reason was numbers. People are desperate to keep any priest in ministry. It’s hard to find priests for parish jobs and so they would move around these people like Paul Shanley and John Geoghan who were entirely unfit for ministry. And part of it was, frankly, the Church’s inability to discuss homosexuality. And the fact that these things cannot be discussed or had not even been discussed means that bishops and religious superiors were almost entirely incapable of handling these types of cases because they were frightened to talk about sexuality and especially homosexuality, so better to sweep it under the carpet than to scandalize people. So this not just a psychological sickness but a corporate sickness on the part of the Church that prevents some of these issues from being brought out into the open. And it is, as some people say, part of an overwhelming culture of secrecy, which time and again we have been taught is not a good thing. My fears regarding the Vatican issuing this document that bars or restricts the ordination of gay men is that it is going to drive the healthy discussion of sexuality and homosexuality further underground. The only result is going to be is that gay priests are going to feel less valued and less likely to talk about their experiences and anyone who is gay and has a genuine vocation from God will not be able to talk about that essential part of themselves, which sets up the groundwork for more psychological unhealthiness in the Church.

BH: Potentially another sexual abuse scandal?

GT: Absolutely. You’re saying to someone we want you to be celibate or chaste but we never want you to talk about your sexuality. How can that person come to a healthy understanding of what it means to be celibate and chaste? I think it’s impossible.

BH: Do you think it also breeds a culture of hiding in terms of gay men unwilling to admit they’re gay?

GT: I think it creates a recipe for disaster and it is also profoundly un-Christian. If we believe that God loves us for who we are and?like Psalm 139 states “for I am fearfully and wonderfully made”?that God knit me together in my mother’s womb, then an acceptance of God’s love for you is a key moment for anybody in a spiritual journey?absolutely key. It’s the same as in any relationship where you realize that the person loves you for who you are with all your background, your history, your faults, your graces, your gifts and talents. If we are telling priests who are supposed to minister to the Church that they cannot be loved for who they are or they have to deny an essential part of themselves in order to be loved by God or the Church, then how are they going to minister the word of God or communicate to people? I think it’s impossible if you don’t feel loved by God, how could you express and teach love to others?

BH: What keeps you in the Catholic Church if it is so unfriendly to gay people?

GT: Well it’s my family. It’s my church too. Besides, this is just a small part of my ministry. I spend a lot of my time speaking about Jesus and the things that were important to him while he walked among us. Jesus denounced those who were inhospitable, he got angry at those who took advantage of the weak, he embarrassed those who thought they were better than others… he even had harsh words to say about bragging, holding grudges, and being ungrateful. But he never once spoke out against a homosexual. So when I’m preaching about the gospels I don’t find “the gay issue” comes up frequently.

In fact Jim Wallis [editor of Sojourners magazine] has said that while there are only a few mentions of homosexuality in all of Scripture, there are thee thousand references to taking care of poor. Yet somehow the religious right has focused on homosexuality as the sine qua non of Christianity and has conveniently overlooked the poor in our midst. I think gay people are the most marginalized people in the Church. Even women are celebrated. If you read the document Mulieris Dignitatem–though most scholars would say that it is limited and flawed–for the most part it is a celebration of women. But there are no documents that celebrate gay men and women. Even the most positive, “Always Our Children,” is just more of an acceptance.

BH: What do you think a document that celebrates gay men and women in the Church would look like?

GT: Like nothing we have ever seen before. I couldn’t imagine that kind of document coming out in the context of the current Catechism. I would hope that it would say something like, ?the richness of creation is diversity and that God made people different colors, different heights, different capacities, and that is what makes the world so rich and beautiful. In His wisdom, God has made gay people with a certain disposition and a certain orientation that is part of the richness of creation and we welcome that in the Church. We celebrate who they are and their individuality and we accept them for who they are.’

God ‘s plan is always much larger than we can understand and it’s always greater than our limited human capacity. I think this is a case where we are extremely limited in our view for what God wants us to appreciate in the world. Henri Nouwen?the Dutch spiritual writer who authored the Genesee Diary and The Return of the Prodigal Son?was most probably gay. In Michael Ford’s book it states clearly that he fell in love with a man. It was documented. This contemporary spiritual master was probably gay. Mychal Judge the priest hero of 9/11 was definitely gay. Gerard Manley Hopkins, the Jesuit poet, was probably gay. Hopkins was probably in love with Robert Bridges who was his friend and mentor. And if you read any Hopkins poetry, that comes across. Now, do we know? No. But it was more likely he was gay than straight. But the key thing is that there’s no evidence that any of these celibate men ever broke their vows. That’s the key thing.

There are undoubtedly saints in heaven who were gay. It is not unreasonable to think that because of their homosexuality they brought a certain view of life to the world. And to say that God shouldn’t have done that and created those people is sinful and deeply un-Christian and betrays any ability to trust in a sense of God’s freedom. If five to ten percent of the population has always been gay and you look at the thousands of people that are saints, it’s reasonable to say some of them were gay. Are we going to say God made a mistake somehow with these people? I think that’s the sort of marginalization of gay people that the Church will someday be apologizing for. Like they did with the Holocaust.

BH: If you were allowed to come out tomorrow… first of all, how would you do it, what do you think would happen, and what do you think the people you serve would say?

GT: Most of my parishioners know already that I’m gay through intuition and private disclosure, not through the pulpit. I think many parishioners would say “finally!” I think that one of the things people have been so frustrated with is that the Church hasn’t been honest about certain issues surrounding sexuality. I think you would see a lot of people grateful for honesty, and a lot of gay and lesbian people delighted.

But you would have a lot of people furious because the irony is that whenever anybody talks about this they are supposed to have an agenda and they would wrongly think that I was out to criticize every teaching of the Church and be out to break my vow of celibacy. I think a lot of people who hate gays would be furious and a lot of straight priests would rather have the issue brushed under the carpet. And I think what you would find?if my religious superiors would let me speak openly?is that the Vatican would tell me I could no longer write or speak about that. And it would also be a lightning rod for media for a few weeks.

BH: Well if one-in-four priests are gay then how many of these priests have publicly come out?

GT: I can count them on one hand: Fred Daley, in Utica, a parish priest came out. There was an article about him by James Martin in the London Tablet. And then William McNichols, an iconographer in New Mexico, talked about it in Newsweek a couple of years ago.

BH: Two priests out of potentially thousands of gay priests? Especially interesting in a culture growing more tolerant of gay people…

GT: There a few reasons why gay priests don’t come out: one formal restrictions, two a fear of their parish, and three an internal homophobia and fear.

BH: What happened when this priest in Utica came out?

GT: Well, from what I understand from the article I read, he got a standing ovation at every Mass. He had won an award for the work with the poor in the city, and in conjunction with that he gave an interview to the Utica City Observer Dispatch where he came out. And, appropriately, that Sunday before the article was published, he told his parish that he was gay, and he received a standing ovation at every Mass. So the notion that the [people in the pews] are these benighted, credulous, homophobic, ignorant, unsophisticated people needs to be questioned. I think the faithful are a lot smarter than we give them credit for?which is kind of an understatement.

BH: And by going public with this what do you hope to achieve?

GT: Technically I am not going public with this because my name is not affixed to the article. But by publishing the article and doing this interview with BustedHalo I am hoping to get some of the arguments out there, to give people a framework to understand this, because the current framework is based on misinformation and stereotypes. I really wanted to try to give some facts from someone who knows what they are talking about.

BH: Do you see the situation in seminary getting any better coming up?

GT: It depends a lot on what this document says. If this document bars gay priests I think it’s going to be a disaster. And even if it restricts them then it still will imply that gay priests are somehow less trustworthy and less valuable, which is also disastrous.

BH: What do you think this will mean?either a barring or a restriction?to gay priests who are currently ordained?

GT: I think if they were barred, gay priests would be demoralized even more and feel like second class citizens. It’s almost as if the document would say that you should never have been ordained. Even restrictions would demoralize them because it it’s stating to them that you are the “other.” Even though you do the work and keep your promises, you are still not one of us because of something you can’t control. I think it would be scandalous.

BH: Do you think that the recent American presidential election has made the possibility for openly gay priests better or worse?

GT: It has made the situation for all gay people worse including gay priests. Especially in this environment where homosexuality is such an issue, the witness of a gay celibate priest is needed now more than ever. And so that argues for more openness and transparency. This is an epochal moment in the Church. The Church has speakers within itself if only it would only let them speak.