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Fear factor operative in bishops’ policies on gay priests


Eating live bugs? Scary! Bungee jumping off a skyscraper? Terrifying! Being buried alive? Horrifying! Expelled from the priesthood or seminary because of your sexual orientation? Well, now this one is in a league all its own! Nothing on TV can match this type of scarifying.

The producers of TV’s hit show Fear Factor could take a lesson in fright from what some bishops have been saying lately about gay priests and seminarians.

Joaquín Navarro-Valls, a Vatican spokesperson, initiated the fear festival with his uninformed and bordering-on-heretical comment that gay priests’ ordinations may not be valid. Since then we have seen an explosion of homophobic comments from men who should know better. Bishop John D’Arcy of South Bend, Ind., said that gay men and “excessively effeminate” men should not be ordained; Belleville, Ill., Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the bishops’ conference, has publicly worried that seminaries and the priesthood may be “dominated” by gay men. We have learned that Philadelphia Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua has not permitted the Philadelphia seminary to accept gay men.

The current campaign of fear directed toward gay men is designed to do three things: First, lay the blame for the current crisis on an already persecuted minority; second, blur the distinction between sexual dysfunction and sexual orientation; third, send a chilling message to all in the church, gay and straight, who work for the rights of lesbian/gay people.

Since these strategies are not founded in truth, they will ultimately fail. However, on the way to failure they will cause an immense amount of damage.

The first and most important problem with the fear appeal is that the bishops are doing exactly what caused the sex abuse scandal in the first place: They avoid the real problem, which is the bishops’ own lack of leadership, responsibility and accountability. This behavior repeats the pattern of lies and subterfuge that got the church into trouble in the first place. In finding a convenient scapegoat, they avoid having to acknowledge their own culpability. This strategy virtually guarantees that the church will be repeating the current crisis some time soon.

Fear will cause an already silent group to become more silent. For many years, priests have been reluctant to acknowledge a homosexual orientation because they understood that bishops would penalize them if they did so. Lack of accurate information has made any intelligent and honest discussion about gay priests impossible to conduct. The recent statements by church leaders have increased the fear, making it more likely that gay priests will remain silent.

This silence will not only make it more difficult for the church to know about the reality of gay men in the priesthood, but, even worse, it will be deadening to gay priests in many ways. Studies have shown that silence and shame about homosexuality are major contributors to depression, addiction and even suicide. Shame, denial and secrecy conspire to cause repressed gay men to act out sexually in anonymous ways. By instilling fear, church leaders are actually encouraging the aberrant behavior they are supposedly trying to stop.

On a moral level, church leaders, in appealing to fear, show that they are willing to sacrifice church teaching about prejudice and discrimination against lesbians and gays. The church’s many challenges to the faithful and society at large will now simply ring hollow since church leaders show that they themselves are not willing to follow them. How are church leaders ever going to speak credibly about human rights abuses when they won’t follow that same teaching as it applies to gay men in the priesthood?

Worse yet, think about all the loyal gay and lesbian Catholics who have been alienated by these fearful accusations. For those who work in church institutions, the issue of fear will be operative. If gay priests are vulnerable, how long before the jobs of other church workers are no longer secure? For those who sit in the pews, it will be anger that motivates them. How many of them, having weathered the scandal of clergy sex abuse, will now leave the church because of ignorant statements by church leaders? At a time when church leaders should be more sensitive, we hear the blaring voices of those who are callous.

The fear factor may work for tabloid television, but it is certainly not worthy of the leaders of a church whose founder repeatedly told his disciples, “Do not be afraid.”

Francis DeBernardo is executive director of New Ways Ministry, an outreach program for Catholic gays and lesbians.

National Catholic Reporter, May 17, 2002