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Painful times for gay religious demand risk


Recently I was with some friends who are religious brothers like me. We shared our fears and feelings of vulnerability regarding the recent sex scandal in our church and being out of the closet as gay men.

One said: “It’s such a difficult journey just to be out; coming out in religious life requires another level of courage and conversion. With the Vatican’s recent attack on homosexuals in religious life, I fear that some parishioner will turn my orientation into something ugly and vile, and the next thing you know I will be reading about it in the local newspaper.”

His feelings echoed a fear of my own: Openly gay religious not only risk a wrong association with persons who are perceived as sexual deviants, but are now required to defend their right to minister within the church. The notion that there is a connection between homosexuality and sexual deviancy has no basis whatsoever according to current research.

As an openly gay friar who recently professed perpetual vows and will be entering public ministry this summer, my nervousness has little to do with new ministry. In the shadow of the recent media blitz, I feel more vulnerable now than I did when I first came out to my Irish parents. Why do I feel this way?

To begin with, the media reported that Vatican spokesperson Joaquín Navarro-Valls had linked pedophile priests with homosexuality. Moreover, he insinuated that being gay may potentially invalidate ordination. Even the U.S. cardinals have taken stock in such prejudicial beliefs. The issue here, of course, is not the credibility of Navarro-Valls’ assertions in themselves, but rather the formal and authoritative nature given them by the church authorities who share this belief. Unfortunately, such ignorance will not be the last assault on gay men in the church. My friend further commented on this:

“We never get a break. Some would characterize this as an attack on priesthood. I say it’s another attack on gays. The truth isn’t really what I am most afraid of. It’s the lie: We can be celibate but still be characterized as sexual deviants. These are painful times!”

I reread our church documents on the subject of sexuality and pastoral care, hoping for a voice of sanity. In October 1997, the American bishops issued a spiritual reflection called, “Always Our Children.” This letter offered a pastoral message to parents of homosexuals and suggestions for pastoral ministers. In many ways this articulation was comforting: Understanding, compassion and care were its valued pillars. These values need to be directly applied to the current crisis in the American Catholic church. A compassionate message can help our local church by heralding forth unlikely physicians: our gay and lesbian members.

Regarding the gay person, the catechism and official pastoral letters speak of “intrinsic disorder” and “evil” on the one hand, and on the other, warn “that every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided.” Naturally, gay persons take this seriously. We all do, and it makes for a cautious tightrope walk for everyone.

In my own experience, especially in religious life, there is a presumption that if one is out, one is sexually active. While this unhelpful characterization polarizes any discussion, it is, nonetheless, a widely held belief.

I strive to embrace a lived reality of sexuality that reflects a holistic and healthy process of integration. While this is not exclusive to gay religious, most openly gay religious of the 21st century know the ongoing integrative work of being honest with ourselves, our God, our spiritual directors and therapists. Our orientation differentiates us from our heterosexual counterparts, not only in our sexual attractions but in every aspect of our lives. Human sexuality is the font of all that centers and propels us. However, many others think about sexual behavior rather than sexual integration.

I love my brothers. They are good, giving men. But I have experienced discrimination by fellow religious. Perhaps Jesuit Fr. James Empereur’s insight is helpful when he states in his book, Spiritual Direction and the Gay Person, “Homosexuality is one of God’s most significant gifts to humanity. Through their testimony of suffering, God has chosen gays and lesbians to reveal something about God that heterosexuals do not.”

Our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters can help our institution during this moment of humiliation and suffering. As gay and lesbian members, we understand the struggles and darkness of shame, humiliation and suffering, especially shame associated with sexuality. We know our cross and we carry it openly. It is our “dark night of the soul.” We know how it can be an experience of the transfiguration.

We all must risk. I invite our gay brothers and sisters to “come out,” and make this a long day’s journey into light. Tell your sacred story to others. This ripples out into the heart of the people of God. Until this happens, we continue to further the destructive notion that there is something inherently evil and suspicious about our sexuality, our personhood and our common priesthood.

I ask our church leadership to raise their level of support with sisters and brothers in their journey of sexual integration: by risking, educating and challenging systems, persons and policies that inhibit and discriminate; to be advocates whenever the opportunity exists. I also ask the church to accept the help of her gay and lesbian brothers and sisters as ministers of healing, rather than shunning them. Let them be advocates for the church during this crisis. Hear their stories. For all of us the church can become a living icon of the wounded healer and an invitation for ongoing conversion. It is a way in which we can embody Good Friday by absorbing violence without passing it on. The media doesn’t understand Easter. As Christians who embody the ongoing enactment of Triduum, we do.

Finally our story is one of those graces that can reveal something about God. I offer to the people of God to whom we minister, who stand shadowed and disillusioned by these scandals, a rewording of the words of our bishops from their pastoral letter:

You may feel that your [church] is not exactly the same [church] you once knew. You envision that it may never give you the legacy you hoped. … There are two important things to keep in mind as you try to sort out your feelings: Listen and acknowledge your feelings and talk about them. Do not expect that all tensions can be resolved. The Christian life is a journey marked by perseverence and prayer. It’s a path leading from where we are to where we know God is calling us.

We should not only live our questions, we must love them. For many, our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters may be unlikely teachers. Nevertheless, they can be God’s healing balm, God’s grace and peace at a time when the fragility of our society is painfully demonstrated in the crisis spots that are in the forefront of the news and in the frailty of our human heart.

Br. Jack Talbot is a Bernardine Fellow and will be graduating from Catholic Theological Union in Chicago this spring with a master of divinity and a master of arts. He is a member of the Capuchin Province of St. Joseph.

National Catholic Reporter, May 17, 2002