By Lisa Fullam
The Congregation for the Clergy has released a new General Executive Decree called “The Gift of the Priestly Vocation,” updating and summarizing the new work that’s been done since the last Ratio Fundmentalis was amended in 1985. The new document bears the stamp of Francis in a good way:
The fundamental idea is that seminaries should form missionary disciples who are ‘in love’ with the Master, shepherds ‘with the smell of the sheep,’ who live in their midst to bring the mercy of God to them. Hence every priest should always feel that he is a disciple on a journey, constantly needing an integrated formation, understood as a continuous configuration to Christ.
There is also a moderating of the clerical triumphalism of John Paul II. The document cites Pastores Dabo Vobis: “the priest is placed not only in the Church but also in the forefront of the Church,” then two paragraphs later warns against clericalism and the temptation to “lord it over” the flock.
So there’s development here–except for the homophobia. The text quotes from the 2005 document concerning admission of gay men to seminary:
“the Church, while profoundly respecting the persons in question, cannot admit to the seminary or to holy orders those who practise homosexuality, present deep-seated homosexual tendencies or support the so-called ‘gay culture’. Such persons, in fact, find themselves in a situation that gravely hinders them from relating correctly to men and women. One must in no way overlook the negative consequences that can derive from the ordination of persons with deep- seated homosexual tendencies” (199)
Tom Reese, SJ, was quick to respond: “The idea that gays cannot be good priests is stupid, demeaning, unjust, and contrary to the facts. I know many very good priests who are gay, and I suspect even more good priests I know are gay.” This is admirably direct, to be sure. He concludes with a call for a “reputable survey” to determine more clearly what percentage of priests are homosexually oriented.
It is true that estimates of the number of homosexually-oriented men among Catholic clergy range wildly, from about 15% (which seems low) to about 60%, (which seems high). This would make the percentage of gay priests anywhere from more than twice to nearly 10 times the proportion of gay men in the population generally.
But the central issue should not be how many such men serve as priests. The issue should be that what is said about them is not true. And a survey won’t correct a lie. What is needed is for gay priests to have a Stonewall moment. They need to speak up for themselves. Their colleagues, ordained and otherwise, need to stand with them. They need to come out of the closet, or nothing will change. That’s why the Stonewall riots mattered:
Often referred to as the “Rosa Parks moment” in Gay history the Stonewall rebellion paved the way for future members of the community to not accept treatment as second-class citizens but rather to expect that the LGBT community be treated as equals in the eyes of both the government and society at large.
Here are a few reasons why I think gay priests should have their own Stonewall moment:
1. What is said about them is a slander. The notion that being gay men “gravely hinders them from relating correctly to men and women” is not true. Men–gay or straight–who struggle with their own sexuality or with celibacy, sure, but that’s not a matter of orientation. And what are the “negative consequences” we are warned of? Thinking that gay people are decent, hard-working, loving children of God like the rest of us? And that some are called to service in the Church, like the rest of us?
It is an act of thuggery to out people against their will; gay priests need to stand up for their own vocations and those of other gay priests. How about a document that a bunch of gay priests sign on together? As Jesus’ older contemprary Rabbi Hillel said: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?” (Ethics of the Fathers, 1:14)
2. It’s not only about you. In addition to the priests, seminarians and seminary staff who need to navigate this teaching, there are also queer kids in the Church who hear how important the Church leadership thinks it is to keep folks like them out of leadership. They might even buy that line about “objectively disordered,” and, unless they’ve read a fair amount of Thomas Aquinas, might think it means they’re broken and unloveable, doomed to loneliness and despair. Even in these times of increased acceptance of gay people in our society, queer kids have an increased risk of being bullied, beaten up, thrown out of their homes, and even of attempting and completing suicide. Is that enough?
3. Gay priests are invisible. In our culture, people are generally assumed to be straight unless they are out. Unless gay priests come out, this question can still be regarded as a question about a shadowy minority we think we do not know. Strong allies like Reese can say all they want that they know good priests who are gay, but that still leaves gay priests faceless and nameless. What changed American attitudes about LGBTQ people wasn’t theory; it was real, out, visible people like Ellen Degeneris, Jose Sarria, Harvey Milk, Michael Sam and Caitlyn Jenner, and many others who came out when it was risky or dangerous to do so. Faces and stories change opinions in a way that nothing else can.
4. “Fear is useless: what it needed is trust.” One fear is that if gay priests come out, they will be dismissed, transferred, tossed out of their communities, or even defrocked. It is also the case that there is a drastic shortage of priests in the Church at present, so this seems unlikely, at least if lots of gay priests come out. With any luck, their straight brothers would stand with them. If they do not, were they really their brothers in the first place? Myself, I have little sympathy for those who fear defrocking as a dire punishment–what does that say about all the other non-ordained ministers in the Church? Yes–coming out makes gay priests vulnerable. Aren’t we about to celebrate the birth of God into the human community in the most vulnerable possible form? So, like the angel said, “Fear not.” And gay priests should know: your friends, your allies, your colleagues, your parishioners, your families, we’ve all got your backs.
5. “We are open in my religious community.” Great. Re-read the above. What made Stonewall was coming OUT of the inn, not staying inside hiding.
I’m sympathetic to people who feel uncomfortable talking publically about their own sexuality. It’s especially fraught, perhaps, when one is a celibate religious leader, and simply wants to get on with the business of building the Kingdom of God, and doesn’t want to become the topic of conversation. But unless gay priests decide that it’s time for their Stonewall moment, Church leaders–some of them closeted, sometimes self-loathing, homosexually-oriented men themselves–will continue to utter the slander that affects not just ordained gay men and seminarians, but every LGBTQ person in the Church.
It’s just not healthy in the closet, not for gay priests, nor for the Church leaders who enforce their silence. Reese concludes mournfully:
I sometimes think that it would be good for the church if 1,000 priests came out of the closet on the same Sunday and simply said, “We’re here!” I don’t think the church is ready for that yet, but someday it should be.
When would be the right time to speak against injustice, bigotry, and hate? I’m with Hillel and the Apostle Paul on this one, when he said to the Corinthians
we appeal to you not to receive the grace of God in vain. For God says: “In an acceptable time I heard you, and on the day of salvation I helped you.” Behold, now is a very acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation.
Yes, now is a very acceptable time.
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