e-mail us


Gay priests: another face of the church


As part of a monumental study I am doing on guilt without sex, I asked one of my gay friends to take me to a local cabaret favored by white-collar gays, some of whom wear their collars backwards.

My interest was prompted by a recent heresy trial involving Bishop Walter C. Righter, retired head of the Episcopal diocese of Iowa. Righter was charged with heresy by 10 of his fellow bishops because he knowingly ordained a noncelibate homosexual.

The trial was aborted when a church court ruled 7-1 to dismiss the charges. The court held that Episcopalian core teaching contained nothing barring a bishop from ordaining a homosexual as a deacon or a priest.

Soon after, the leaders of the 2.7 million-member Presbyterian church met in Albuquerque. The assembly voted 313-236 to require that anyone being ordained a pastor, elder or deacon must live "either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage of a man and a woman or chastity in singleness."

Trying to frame the question within the Catholic branch of the Christian tradition is like trying to find cooties in an archbishop's lamb's wool pallium. What research does exist suggests that gays account for some 15-20 percent of the clergy, higher than the now questionable 10 percent national average for laity.

The number of gay priests appears to be on the rise. It may simply be that many of the younger ones have decided to lead more open lives. They want to challenge all who isolate them by judging them. They want the gilt without the guilt.

The basic axiom suggests that gays exaggerate their numbers while the institutional church underestimates them -- or denies their very existence.

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, issued a statement in 1986 that described homosexuality as "objectively disordered."

London's Cardinal George Basil Hume felt pressed to issue a statement clarifying the meaning of "disordered." He called it an inclination toward same-sex genital sexual acts and stated that the church did not consider the homosexual's personality and character as disordered. Hume was really trying to soften the pain of Ratzinger's truncheon but the harm was done.

Officially the church has reacted with a primal shrug. The policy appears to be "don't ask; don't tell." But the double standard it has created has left fair-minded priests even angrier.

The heterosexual priests are accepting of their gay brothers, but seek a level playing field. They resent the openly gay relationships that are tolerated, while some priest who wants to take his sister to dinner might risk inquiries from the thought police.

But back to the gay bar. This was no seedy joint frequented by guys with nose rings and pimples. It's a gentlemen's hangout where men come to enjoy camaraderie and perhaps a spiritual conversation over live piano music and songs dating to the Beatles' era. They are bankers, lawyers, academics, therapists, rabbis, ministers -- and priests.

"I like to come here after work," another gay friend said. "I feel freed up. There's a nonjudgmental climate -- at least until I leave and some homophobic ape yells, 'Faggot!' "

My companion opined that priests came to the bar in part to bond with others. "If they had experienced some community where they were living," he said, "they would not have to come to this bar for some support."

"What would happen," another gay friend asked the bartender, "if you issued a clergy call?"

"I'd be trampled," the bartender said with a soft laugh.

"Why do they come here?" I asked. "Look," my friend said, "being a priest is tough enough. You can't stay in the closet all your life. You'll choke to death."

"I can only guess," my gay companion said. "But I think there's a huge number of gays in the diocesan priesthood. Most are very dedicated men. But they can't be themselves. It impacts on their spirituality. Furthermore, the church gets only half the work it could out of them. Their inner conflicts take half their energies."

We had invited another guy, a man who used to play the piano in this cabaret. But he couldn't make it. He's the director of liturgy in his parish and they needed him there.

"If you took gays out as liturgy directors, choir leaders, CCD and RCIA teachers and classroom teachers, you would have a crippling shortage of clerical and lay ministers," my host observed.

"Priests used to come here in greater numbers," another gay friend said. "Now, there are fewer of them. One guy -- we called him 'Father Bob' -- used to take the mike and sing. And there were four priests who used to dance on top of a table. But many still come."

"Many of the priests who come here and to other gay bars want to minister and they're good at it," he added. "We have no control over our orientation any more than we can control other parts of our makeup. Isn't that wonderful!

"There are an awful lot of gays in the priesthood," he continued, "maybe as high as 40 percent. But some are so locked in secrecy that, even if the pope changed the rules, they wouldn't come out.

"I've worked full time for the church for years. I can tell you; you hear one thing, but you experience another.

"Jesusmaryandjoseph!" a straight priest said. "I walked into a rectory party recently and found a bunch of guys acting goofy. I couldn't believe it. I knew some of these guys. It left me with a funny feeling in my stomach."

During a long conversation with a gay priest from an Eastern diocese, he stated that he had been sent to eight parishes and found at least one gay priest in each parish. Then, he added wistfully:

"We're all so isolated -- gays and straights. What we need is some closeness, some companionship, some intimacy. But we don't get it. So we end up misbehaving."

He spoke of a 500-member Dignity group with whom he still meets, although it is officially banned in his diocese. "At least 20 percent are resigned priests and another 20 percent are going to the seminary. It's crazy!"

What emerges, according to my bar mates, is a church with a public face and a private face. The separate faces are eons apart. The public statements, including Ratzinger's, bear no relationship to the lived experience in the rectories, chancery offices, episcopal mansions and Vatican offices.

John McNeill, a former Jesuit and an acknowledged homosexual, says that clergy are ego-dystonic, that is, with abnormal egos. Many of them suffer from a lack of any sexual or intimate life. Others somehow manage to separate their priestly life and their gay life. The hypocrisy can run so deep that it gives one the bends.

"Remember," another gay friend said, "Most of these guys are celibate. They just sense that they are homosexually inclined, but they don't really act on it. Mostly they're just lookers."

What, then, did my in-depth research reveal? Nothing really new. The number of gay clergy appears to be on the increase, even more so among the members of religious orders. I was advised that it is virtually pointless to ask seminary candidates about their orientation. Many aren't even fully aware that they are one orientation or another until they've been ordained a half dozen years.

My bar friend cited a book, Jesus Acted Out, written by a gay Catholic. "That book says that Christ assumed immense power when he welcomed death," he said. "He turned pain into style.

"Gays do that, too," he said. "They turn their pain into art, liturgy, music, et cetera, and they enrich our church. It's a transubstantiation."

"We're now in a Catch-22 situation," my Eastern friend said. "Celibacy but no intimacy. The isolation only grows."

"So, what should the church do?" I asked.

"I guess I'd tell the church to grow up," he said. "I guess I'd tell them that people function much better when they're happy. I'd tell them not to be afraid of the devil within them. It could be an angel."

Tim Unsworth writes from Chicago.

National Catholic Reporter, November 1, 1996