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Writer casts light on clerical closeting


By Mark D. Jordan
The University of Chicago Press, 322 pages, $25


Insightful and provocative non-fiction about homosexuality and the church -- written by openly gay Catholic men -- does not come along often. While the works of John Boswell, John McNeill and Andrew Sullivan come to mind, they don’t quite cut through institutional church denial about homosexuality the way Mark D. Jordan does in The Silence of Sodom: Homosexuality and Modern Catholicism.

“You will not understand modern homosexuality unless you understand Catholic homosexuality, and you cannot understand Catholic homosexuality unless you begin with the clergy,” he writes.

That statement is the main thesis the author develops. What Jordan accomplishes is nothing less than brilliant, giving readers with open minds a better appreciation of the intrinsic homosexual fixation, as well as homoerotic imagination of the Roman Catholic church. His scholarship deserves serious consideration by faithful Catholics in America.

According to Jordan, the church’s problematic teaching about homosexuality, gay people, their love and its sexual expression persists in no small measure because of the large numbers of homosexual priests among the ranks of the clergy. These men are gay -- out in varying degrees to themselves, friends, family and even parishioners -- but not fully out of the closet, certainly not out to the public, at least in significant numbers.

Estimates of homosexual priests in the U.S. Catholic church range anywhere from 10 percent to as high as 75 percent. This pervasive clerical closeting bothers Jordan. Underlying the tone and tenor of the book run strong feelings of anger, if not outrage. The title of the book, The Silence of Sodom, in fact points to the Catholic clergy, to those in the past who, over hundreds of years, invented the “Catholic science of sodomy,” and those in the present, the heirs of this legacy, who refuse -- or are unable -- to bear witness to a truth about their own fundamental sexual orientation. Clerical closeting is a problem, Jordan maintains, because of the chilling silence it imposes on any open and honest conversation about homosexuality and the church.

“There is indeed a silent Sodom,” Jordan writes. “It is housed in the structures of churchly power. Its silence must be disturbed before there can be mature Catholic teaching on ‘homosexuality’ -- or mature criticism of how ‘homosexuality’ itself fails to describe gay Catholic lives.”

With the title of the book, the author has not only gay priests in mind, but also lay Catholics who are lesbian or gay. “You must, in short, ask whether you shouldn’t leave the Catholic church in order to live as a Catholic,” he writes. Other “eucharistic tables are available,” he adds, referring to Dignity, a several thousand member national faith community of gay Catholics, and the predominantly gay Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches, an international association of more than 300 congregations.

Jordan also holds out various “liberal” Catholic parishes or centers across the United States as viable options. But even there, he argues, gay Catholics are diminished and neglected. “They are most of all denied adequate words and rites, truthful preaching and sacraments, to articulate their faithful lives,” he writes.

Jordan’s book is causing a stir insofar as it disturbs status quo theological and spiritual complacency, bringing to more conscious awareness a heretofore unmentionable. Yet, it would be a mistake to misread this book as an exposé of scandal and secrets. Jordan honestly attempts to flesh out just how clerical closeting within the church’s power structure affects -- indeed compromises -- its teaching and ministering.

No doubt some readers will find Jordan’s historical reporting about gay popes to be shocking and disturbing, if not scandalous. Judging from the reactions among certain U.S. Catholics, Jordan has hit raw nerves. One reviewer, Robert Lockwood, director of research for the Catholic League, lambasted Jordan’s book as “opinion -- outrageous opinion -- based on little more than the author’s own fantasy life.”

Jordan does not attempt to make up history. His book is not a work of fiction. While there are those who feel compelled to discredit him, a truth persists: Homosexuality or “sodomy,” whatever the nomenclature, is no stranger in the Roman Catholic church. Jordan deals with the various surveys and studies that attempt to count homosexual clergy members. These attempts encounter a fundamental problem, as Jordan explains, because: “In the empire of closets that is the modern Catholic church, no one knows more than a few of the compartments. The church is not one big closet. It is a honeycomb of closets that no one can survey in its entirety.”

What’s more, Jordan writes, “No one can know the extent of homosexual acts or desires within the Catholic clergy.” But the author does underscore two significant and nuanced phenomena. The first is the rejection of self-identification as “homosexual” by clergy who regularly perform genital acts. The second is a correlation: Priests who are the most closeted are more likely to be the most homophobic. Quoting from what one priest told a reporter, Jordan writes, “Some of the worst homophobes are guys in the clergy and hierarchy who are gay.” These men, who would be the last to acknowledge their orientation, actively pursue the anti-gay strategy that is the silence of Sodom.

Insider anecdotal knowledge may be more reliable sources of information, especially given the possibility -- in fact likelihood -- that people just do not self-report accurately.

There is a real tension within the ranks of the clergy between those who would like to be more out and those who do everything for the silencing. The latter group, at least at this point, holds all the power.

Jordan has done a great service for the Roman Catholic tradition of faith. He has told his own truth and many other truths, and in doing so Jordan holds out the possibility of a better way for everyone. Beyond the deafening silence that Jordan shatters lies a truly Christian place where gay and lesbian life is acknowledged, welcomed and fully affirmed among the people of God. Ultimately, that is where this book aims.

Chuck Colbert, a graduate divinity student at the Weston Jesuit School of Theology, serves on the board of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association. His e-mail address is CrcIIIUND@aol.com

National Catholic Reporter, February 16, 2001