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Issue Date:  October 14, 2005

A gay priest speaks on impending Vatican document


The “anonymous gay priest” is getting a lot of attention lately. He is turning up in newspapers, on the radio, and he is getting calls from TV producers (complete with promise of fake mustache and altered voice). They are from both coasts and places in-between. Their take on recent news from the Vatican causes in them a variety of responses with some uniformity: They are hurt and they are scared.

NCR spoke with a gay priest who is active in an ethnically diverse urban parish on the East Coast. He was eager to speak out but just as eager to protect his identity and his vocation. In the interview that follows, this priest reflects on the possible release of a document barring -- or at least discouraging -- gay men from entering the seminary, news of a Vatican plan to send teams of investigators to each of the more than 200 American Catholic seminaries to gather “evidence of homosexuality,” and the internal struggle of a gay priest trying to stay true to his vocation in a church that is, at best, conflicted about homosexuality and, at worst, acting out a deep prejudice.

NCR: What was your initial reaction to word of a looming Vatican document barring -- or at least discouraging -- homosexuals from entering the seminary?
Priest: I was horrified. And like many other celibate gay priests I know, I was also angry and discouraged and sad.

Were you surprised?
It’s something that a lot of gay priests have been expecting. Ever since this crisis began there have been a number of bishops and even people in the Vatican who have been blaming gay priests for the sexual abuse crisis.

Certainly the majority of the cases were people preying on adolescent males and young boys. The logical fallacy, though, is to assume that every gay priest is therefore a pedophile, which is crazy -- or to assume that gay priests are not celibate, which is also crazy. Every gay priest I know is celibate. Now, I may travel in very faithful circles, but that is my experience.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church calls homosexual acts “intrinsically disordered” -- that is fairly well known -- but it also says a couple of things that are, relative to that statement, more affirming. It says that homosexuals “must be accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided. These persons are called to fulfill God’s will in their lives.” What does that mean to you?
Well, going back to this stereotype that gay priests cannot handle celibacy -- that contradicts the catechism. Either gay men can be celibate and they should be allowed to be priests, or they can’t be celibate and the catechism is somehow wrong.

Gay priests are celibate. Or at least as celibate as their straight counterparts, and that message is not getting out there.

There is all this talk of “lavender” seminaries or rectories -- of a “subculture” of homosexuality. Look, there’s a subculture of Irish priests. There’s a subculture of priests who like football or priests who like going out and drinking beer.

The reason that the subculture of gay priests or seminarians is so offensive is this idea that you can’t have gay priests together because all they do is encourage each other to act out sexually.

That said, there are some problems that gay priests need to look at. Sometimes they can be very insular, but it’s not surprising for a group that’s been persecuted to retreat in on itself.

What about the very elementary issue of gay celibacy versus straight celibacy?
There is very little difference. It’s living your vow with integrity. It’s being a loving person who is not in an exclusive relationship, who doesn’t get married, who is available to people and is trying to live the way Christ lived.

The only slight difference is that gay priests live in rectories with other men. But let me tell you, if you’ve ever looked at the average age of priests -- the idea that somehow a retired 85-year-old priest is going to be a danger to your vocation is absurd [laughs].

Look, it’s just as likely that a straight priest would have difficulties working with a sister or with a woman on his staff.

From what I understand, the Vatican might spin this as “We’re trying to protect people from living in these difficult environments.” That’s crazy. It’s the old “proximity” argument that they used in the military: Homosexuals can’t control themselves.

Ratzinger addressed this in a 1992 document issued from the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith: “What is at all costs to be avoided is the unfounded and demeaning assumption that the sexual behavior of homosexual persons is always and totally compulsive.”

I think if a document comes out barring people who feel a real vocation and who have discerned it over the years with their spiritual advisers and their rectors, [barring them] from pursuing that vocation -- a document like that would be close to sinful. They would be denying the people of God the graces of the priesthood.

Do any of your parishioners know you’re gay?
A few of them.

How did you come out to them?
The more they get to know me the more they want to know my inner life. This is a big part of my inner life. It’s not the only part and its not the most important part -- the most important part is my priesthood -- but there will be times when someone will say something like, “Don’t you miss having a family?” and I don’t think I should lie to people. It’s almost sinful to conceal those kinds of things, especially when people are struggling with homosexuality and struggling with how to accept their gay friends, daughters and sons, brothers and sisters. It’s important for them to be able to talk to somebody they know is open-minded about these things.

What has been the response in your parish to a potential Vatican document barring -- or at least discouraging -- homosexuals from entering seminary?
The few parishioners who know I’m gay are upset and sad for me. They know it’s a real burden and a deeply shaming thing. But even those parishioners who do not know I’m gay and who have gay friends are really offended. And parishioners who are gay themselves are doubly offended.

A lot of my parishioners have asked what I think about the document. I feel a little uncomfortable because this is not a big issue for me -- I’ve never read any books on gay spirituality. A lot of critics say that gay priests see themselves as gay first, which is bullshit. I see myself as a Christian first -- I’m a Catholic and a priest who happens to be gay.

I’d rather be talking about -- I was going to say I’d rather be talking about the Gospel, but maybe this is the Gospel [laughs].

Do you ever address the issue of homosexuality from the pulpit?
I don’t think my bishop would be very happy if I got up in the pulpit and talked about myself as a gay man. I’m really sad about that. But I sure have preached about it, I’ve preached about homophobia and persecution of gays.

It must be hard to get so close to the issue and not bring in your own experiences.
Yeah, it is. It makes me feel like I’m being a little dishonest. It’s like a Jewish person getting up in some public setting and speaking about anti-Semitism without saying he or she was Jewish.

It’s strange. In a sense I feel sometimes that I’m perpetuating the problem by not speaking out.

But you are speaking out, albeit anonymously. How strong is the temptation to come out more directly as a gay priest?
These days I try to figure out what God wants me to do each day. Things have been changing so quickly over the last couple of weeks.

From where I stand right now -- if that document banning gay priests comes out, then I would have to come out too. It would be a matter of conscience. I don’t know how I could defend not coming out and keeping silent.

In a church that was more open-minded, gay priests would be seen as a benefit of the church and not some sort of curse. Like any cultural minority, gay priests bring something different to the table.

You know Paul’s image of the body? We are basically going against Paul’s image of the body -- we are saying we have no need of the hand or we have no need of the eye.

If you were allowed to be completely open about your sexuality, how do you think your parishioners benefit?
I’ve learned -- through my own struggle with coming to love myself and understand that God loves me as I am -- that the part of yourself that you struggle with the most is often the part where God meets you the most powerfully.

For my parishioners who are gay and lesbian it would be good to be able to talk with them honestly about the fact that God loves them. Period. That is not often the message they get from the church.

In private I talk about that with people who are struggling but I can’t share my own very personal experience and struggle. I can’t speak directly from experience.

And parishioners who may be uncomfortable with homosexuality have no idea that they are interacting -- sometimes very closely -- with a real, live gay man. They are denied an opportunity for transformation.
Right. I think like in any situation where you have prejudices against some group of people -- you meet someone who is part of that group and suddenly your prejudices are shattered.

If an openly gay man, committed to living celibately, were to come to you today seeking your counsel on joining the priesthood, what would you tell him?
I’d say wait until this document comes out. I know a couple of guys who have entered seminary this year. One of them is just beside himself. And I know a few people who are in seminary who are not too far from ordination who are just absolutely devastated. They don’t know what to do. They spent years thinking about their vocation and thinking about the priesthood and thinking about entering seminary.

And interestingly, even if the document doesn’t come out, there is going to be this tension -- this threat that the document might come out. Certainly the Vatican is not going to say, “We welcome gay men with open arms.” And they’re probably not going to say, “We’re not going to issue a document like this.”

If a document comes out barring homosexuals from entering the priesthood you are going to have gay men who feel that they can live celibately and who feel called to the priesthood turning away from it. You will have a severe reduction in vocations. And you are going to have gay seminarians who are celibate and gay and who are going to be faced with this horrible choice: Either leave the seminary and turn away from your call or lie about your sexuality so you can get ordained. Frankly, lying as a way of approaching sacramental orders is just incredible. And you want to talk about a healthy way to live celibately? I guarantee you, the worst preparation for it is not talking about it.

And then you will have gay priests who will be demoralized even further. Some of them will leave -- I know a surprising number of people who have told me in the past couple of weeks that they would answer any move by the Vatican to discourage or bar homosexuals from the priesthood by turning away from the priesthood.

To be a gay man in an organization that says we should have no gay men is just too much for some people.

News of this proposed document has placed an enormous amount of stress on me personally. I don’t know what to do anymore. I don’t know what kinds of plans I should be making. It’s very difficult to do the work of a priest and to celebrate Mass and baptisms and hear confessions and have this sword hanging over your head. It’s tremendously stressful.

Among the gay priests you know, what has been the reaction to word of the Vatican document and the seminary visitations?
One end of the spectrum is silent, passive demoralization. In the middle are the people who want to do something but don’t know what. They’re angry and their hurt and they’re scared. They’re terrified.

At the other end of the spectrum are the people who say, “I’d have to leave.”

Despite what people think about the “subculture,” there is no national network of gay priests. So I think that people would start to do things on their own. You’d begin to see priests leaving. You’d have some telling their parishioners why and you’d have some just leaving. And you’d start to see priests coming out. Maybe they’ll talk to the local newspaper. Maybe they’ll write about it in the parish bulletin. Maybe they’ll preach about it.

Where in that spectrum of response do you place yourself?
I still want to work with my bishop. I don’t want to disrespect him or make his life more difficult. I took a promise of obedience when I was ordained and I want to trust that God’s going to work through that.

What it means to be Catholic for me is to be part of a family of faith and I care too much about this family not to try to fix it where there are problems.

But by the same token, I think that if that document comes out, then I’d have to come out as well. If at the end of my life I’m looking back and saying what should I have done, I don’t want to be like those priests who kept silent during the persecution of the Jews in Nazi Germany. I don’t want to look back and say that I should have stood up. Perfect fear casts out love.

You said you don’t know what kind of plans to make anymore and that you have friends -- gay priests -- who are considering leaving the priesthood.
It throws everything into question. I don’t want to leave -- you’re a priest forever, as they say in the ordination rite -- I don’t want to leave but I also don’t want to have to compromise my integrity.

The irony for many of us is that the very place where we were able to experience great spiritual freedom -- the church and seminary formation -- seems as if it is becoming the place where we’re going to have that freedom taken away from us.

It’s as if Jesus came back to the disciples and said, “Oh, by the way, the truth doesn’t set you free.”

You have to continually go back to Jesus. The only real role model for gay priests is Jesus. And I fear that Calvary is coming sooner than we thought.

In the final analysis, do we really believe that the truth sets us free? Do we really believe that the Holy Spirit calls all sorts of different people to the ministry? Do we really believe that the body is made up of many members? Do we really believe that God loves all of us as we are?

All these questions are very important for Catholics to reflect on because if the Vatican does release a document barring homosexuals from the priesthood, such a document would answer no to all of those questions.

Jeff Severns Guntzel is an NCR staff writer living in New York.

National Catholic Reporter, October 14, 2005

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