2016-06-30
Should gay men be Catholic priests? Recently, editor Bill McGarvey of BustedHalo.com spoke with a celibate, gay priest who--using an assumed name for fear of reprisal--spoke frankly about the issue of gay men in the priesthood and seminaries. This interview first appeared on BustedHalo.com, a website for spiritual seekers based in the Catholic tradition.

There has been a flurry of articles in the press recently about the Vatican potentially declaring that homosexual are unfit to be ordained priests. Could you talk about what instigated the recent interest in this issue?

What instigated it were the comments by Archbishop Edwin O'Brien who is coordinator of the ongoing review of seminaries in the United States that was instituted in response to the sexual abuse crisis. Archbishop O'Brien said that even a gay man who had been celibate for 10 years should not be admitted into the seminary. He further went on to say that a document from the Holy See would be coming out to that effect. More recently, the New York Times and the Associated Press got word that a document like this would be coming out in a number of weeks. Needless to say many gay, celibate priests were horrified by this news that the church would no longer be accepting people like them. There are also a lot of gay, celibate seminarians that are very angry, frustrated, and sad about the fact that they will not be able to be ordained.
There has been a lot of talk in the media about it being too difficult for gay seminarians to be in an all-male environment. Could you give us some background on how seminaries have changed over the last 30 years? I think, first of all, that notion that gay men can't live in close proximity with other men is absurd. Gay men learn through their whole life how to live with other men just like straight men learn to live and work with women. Ironically it goes against the [Catholic] catechism that says that all gays are called to be chaste. Either they are capable of being chaste and should be allowed to be priests or they're incapable of being chaste and the catechism is faulty, which I don't think anyone is suggesting. It has its roots in the stereotype of the gay man who is incapable of controlling himself. Ironically, there's a quote from Cardinal Ratzinger in a 1986 document, The Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons, that says, "What is at all costs to be avoided is the unfounded and demeaning assumption that the sexual behavior of homosexuals is always and totally compulsive." So, this notion that gay men can't keep celibate is a stereotype, it goes against the catechism, and against what Cardinal Ratzinger--now Pope Benedict XVI--says. Now I think the big complaint is regarding the gay subculture in seminaries. It's not surprising that gay men would gravitate to each other like any other social minority. You have different ethnic groups that would also gravitate to one another. The only reason people are concerned is that they fear that within this subculture seminarians are encouraging each other to break their vow of chastity. This is ridiculous. Again, it's founded on a stereotype. There's nothing wrong with this gay subculture as long as these men are open and healthy people, which the vast majority are.
It has to repeated over and over that the vast majority of gay priests, like their heterosexual counterparts, are celibate. I don't know of any in my circle of friends that are sexually active. If they are, they leave. There's been some talk in the media about the openness among seminaries with regard to sexual orientation. Did you find that in your own training and how did that affect your formation? I think in the training in general, there is more openness compared to the 1940s and 1950s in talking about sexual orientation--and thank God for that. And when I say openness, I don't mean people are sexually active, I mean that people are encouraged to talk about their sexuality and how they integrate it into a life of chastity. I think that any person who is trying to live a life of chastity in a healthy way needs to understand their sexuality. These days a person in seminary and religious orders are encouraged--or at least should be--to talk more openly about their sexuality with directors, rectors, and bishops. It's all part of helping a person integrate their sexuality into their life of celibacy. It has been suggested by some that by removing gay men from the seminary more straight men will be inclined to join. Did you find in your formation or in your religious life today that heterosexual priests are put off by the presence of homosexual men? No, not all. I would say that any straight priest who can't work with a gay priest is as bad as a white priest that won't work with a black priest. We all need to be able to work together. This needs to be stressed again and again. In a New York Times article, Sr. Katerina Schuth--who is an expert on seminary training--rejected that line of reason that leaving gays out would somehow make more straight people enter. She said, "That is reasoning and speculation by people who have not spent any or much time in seminaries." If they deny gay men entrance to the seminary, I would question what kind of straight men we're getting. What kind of person would want to enter an organization that has that kind of prejudicial view of some of their fellow Christians? Do you think that this document could be a kind of trial balloon that is just bring floated out there?

I think it's much more than that. When you have someone like Archbishop O'Brien who's in charge of the visitation and the New York Times has people they consider to be "authoritative sources" speaking, it's clear that the document is being prepared or close to being finished. I also hear it hasn't been officially prepared yet. I don't think it's a trial balloon as much as it is people honestly saying what's happening at the Vatican. Actually, I wish it were a trial balloon because then it would be more tentative and not being prepared to be released. What do you think the reaction will be among ordained gay men when this document comes out? They're already reacting and they're horrified. It hits different groups with varying degrees of severity. The worst group is celibate, gay seminarians preparing for ordination. Here are men who have been told for years that they have a legitimate and real vocation to the priesthood who will now be told they are not to be in the seminary. They will be faced with a very difficult choice. Either they will have to leave the seminary and deny their vocation or they will stay in the seminary and lie about being gay. The next group affected are celibate gay priests who are very hardworking and already being blamed--even though a miniscule percentage are sexual abusers--for the crimes of a few. This group is going to be more demoralized and stigmatized. I think quite a number of them will leave, not because they can't stand the stigma but because with any integrity how can you stay in an organization that tells you it will no longer accept people like you?
Another affected group is men who are gay and considering a vocation. They will, most likely, just not apply. Archbishop O'Brien said that he thinks that even someone who has lived celibately for 10 years should not be ordained, so imagine you're a gay man who has a vocation to the priesthood or religious life. You've been celibate for 10 years and you apply and are told no. There's no way you're going to apply. No self-respecting, healthy person who understands their sexuality as homosexual is going to enter. The fourth group would be Catholic gays and lesbians for whom this will be another slap in the face. They are basically being told they can't live celibately. If they're living in an environment that is designed to be supportive of celibacy and are being told they can't live celibately, then what hope is there for the regular gay person? I think they'll also see it as another affront. Finally, you have the regular Catholic lay people who accept and know their gay priests and see them as loving, holy and dedicated men. They will be angry that their priests are being treated like this and will find in a couple of years even fewer priests since priests will leave the priesthood and seminary or will simply not apply. I think it's going to an utter disaster for the Church. It will also drive underground any discussion of sexuality in the seminaries. If you do have a seminarian who is gay he is not going to discuss his sexuality in any healthy way and it will create this unhealthy environment which gave rise to the environment of the sexual abuse crisis. That's not to say that not talking about your sexuality makes you a pedophile but it makes it harder to weed people out like that and makes it more difficult for people to lead emotionally mature and psychologically healthy and integrated lives. The best way to screw up a person's sexuality is to tell him he can never talk about it, he should be afraid to talk about it, or if he does talk about it, he'll be punished. ...because of this silencing and the inability of gay priests to speak openly about their experience...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.

Do you know some fellow priests or seminarians who are going to leave?

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.

In that regard, have you made a decision about what you will do if this document comes out?

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. We keep hearing repeatedly that people are equating pedophilia with homosexuality. Why do you think this is?

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.

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?

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. Do you think gay seminarians will be asked to simply leave?

I don't think they'll have to be asked, they'll just leave. We're talking about men in their 20s. 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.

You still believe you would stay?

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. 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?

The document that is technically still on the books is basically set aside. It's like the document in the 1960s 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. 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?

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.

Do you think there'll be a difference in how this document is implemented in diocesan seminaries around the world and religious orders?

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. Has it?

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. Are there any statistics on the abuse scandal and how it's affected numbers entering religious orders versus diocesan?

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. What can people in the pews do?

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.

Is there anyway that we bridge the divide of liberals versus conservatives?

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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