This letter first appeared on Beliefnet in April 2005.
Congratulations on your election. I know that the Holy Spirit will be helping you over the next few years, and you can count on my prayers and those of Catholics worldwide.
But, though hopeful, I am a little apprehensive about your papacy, especially given your time as prefect of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. In this position, which you held from 1981 until your election as pope, you were charged with safeguarding Catholic doctrine, an important function of the Vatican. Even the most liberal Catholic understands the need for maintaining clarity when it comes to proclaiming the Gospel.
But what concerns some Catholics is the way that the Congregation often went about that "safeguarding." The Congregation has silenced theologians, removed priests and sisters from various teaching positions, and issued harshly-worded documents that seemed aimed more at punishing the faithful than inviting them to a greater trust in the mercy of God. Among those who have also felt punished have been women, lay ministers and, especially, gays and lesbians.
Early this year, for example, there was widespread speculation that the Vatican would release a document barring the admission into seminaries and religious orders of gay men. This was to accompany this year's upcoming "apostolic visitation," or in-depth study, of American seminaries, part of the Vatican's ongoing response to the sexual abuse crisis in the church. Since almost all of the abuse victims were young boys, it's not hard to see why some would have thought that gay priests should be blamed. In fact, the official Vatican spokesman has said, "People with these inclinations simply cannot be ordained." Yet, as you know, the overwhelming majority of sexual abuse takes place in families, but you don't hear people talking about banning straight men from fathering children.
Certainly an examination of seminary training is an important way to ensure that seminaries produce priests who can lead not only spiritual lives, but ones that are psychologically healthy as well. But that proposed document has many (celibate) gay priests, as well as (celibate) gay seminarians, very worried.
Why are they worried? Well, the worst-case scenario would be a purging of any and all gay men in American seminaries. This would be probably accomplished by expelling any man who had admitted this in his application process or, likewise, later in his training to seminary rectors and novice directors. A ban would also mean the further demoralization of gay men already ordained. Gay priests would feel as if they were being told, "You should never have been ordained." Or, likewise, "We don't think you can ever live celibately." The church would lose many good and holy men at a time when vocations are already perilously low.
Just as bad would be the creation of a seminary culture where, out of fear of being kicked out, gay seminarians wouldn't feel free to discuss honestly-even with superiors and fellow seminarians-their emotional lives, thus making it more difficult for them to live healthy lives of chastity. And is there any faster route to unhealthy sexuality than preventing people from talking about sexuality in an open way?
In the first Mass you celebrated as pope, I was relieved to hear you say that "theological dialogue is necessary." In that spirit, I'd like to suggest theological dialogue about the needs of gay and lesbian Catholics.
Of course the Catechism of the Catholic Church is clear: It considers homosexual acts to be a moral evil. The 1986 letter "On the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons," released by the Congregation you headed,
says that "although the particular inclination of the homosexual person is not a sin, it is a more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil; and thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder."
But the Catechism also instructs all Catholics to accept gays and lesbians with "respect, sensitivity and compassion." And when it comes to the pastoral care of homosexual persons, it's probably better to begin with that statement first. In your role as pastor of the church, I pray that you remember that gay and lesbian Catholics, including priests, are part of your flock.
The earthly ministry of Jesus of Nazareth was one of inclusion, not exclusion. While always calling people to turn away from sin, Jesus consistently reached out to those on the margins and bringing them into the community--no matter how discredited or shameful they may have seemed to others.
As the English theologian James Alison has written, for Jesus, there was no "us" and "them." There was no "other" for Jesus-which is how many homosexuals feel in the church. If Jesus were physically among us today, he would first turn to those who feel most marginalized: and there aren't many people in the church today who are more on the fringes than do gays and lesbians.
That's why some of the comments from the Vatican seem hard to reconcile with the fundamental acceptance that Jesus Christ offers to all of us. When in 2003 the Vatican stated that gays and lesbians who might adopt children would do "violence" to them, it was difficult for many loving gay and lesbian couples to understand not only the reasoning, but also the underlying tone of that document.
In the case of gay priests, it's important to understand that the overwhelming majority are celibate. Of course my evidence, Your Holiness, is entirely anecdotal. How could it be otherwise since we are not allowed to discuss the topic publicly and since there have been no reliable studies on the topic? Still, the vast majority of gay priests I know, myself included, have been faithful to the commitment to celibacy that we made when we were ordained.
Of course there are a few gay priests who break their promise of celibacy and their vows of chastity, but there are a few straight priests who do the same.
And if they find that they are not able to live chastely, then they should leave the priesthood. But gay priests should be held to the same standard that their straight counterparts are, not standards tailored to the false assumption that they are somehow constitutionally incapable of living celibately.
But you couldn't know about the experience of celibate gay priests because we're not allowed to talk about being gay at all. (That's why I'm using a pseudonym, in case you were wondering.) And since we can't talk about being both celibate and gay, and we can't talk about how much we enjoy being priests, the only public models you see in the U.S. have been notorious pedophiles.
You've probably already worked with hardworking, celibate gay priests in the Vatican, perhaps without even knowing it. In any event, barring gay men from ordination would be a disaster for the church that you love so much. You would lose many gay men who are healthy, holy, and committed to celibacy, and who feel a real call to the priesthood.
Just remember that there are millions, perhaps tens of millions, of gays and lesbians in the Catholic church, in your church. These men and women are committed and dedicated and faithful believers. I've met a lot of them whom I would even describe as holy.
We'll all be praying for you, Your Holiness, and ready to listen to what you have to say.
Just remember to pray for us, too, and be open to listening to what we have to say as well.