Pope Francis has spoken openly about homosexuality. In a recent interview, the pope said that homosexual tendencies “are not a sin.” And a few years ago, in comments made during an in-flight interview, he said,
“If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?”
However, the pope has also discouraged homosexual men from entering the priesthood. He categorically stated in another interview that for one with homosexual tendencies, the “ministry or the consecrated life is not his place.”
As a scholar specializing in the history of the Catholic Church and gender studies, I can attest that 1,000 years ago, gay priests were not so restricted. In earlier centuries, the Catholic Church paid little attention to homosexual activity among priests or laypeople.
While the church’s official stance prohibiting sexual relations between people of the same sex has remained constant, the importance the church ascribes to the “sin” has varied. Additionally, over centuries, the church only sporadically chose to investigate or enforce its prohibitions.
Prior to the 12th century, it was possible for priests – even celebrated ones like the 12th-century abbot and spiritual writer St. Aelred of Riveaulx – to write openly about same-sex desire, and ongoing emotional and physical relationships with other men.
The Bible places as little emphasis on same-sex acts as the early church did, even though many Christians may have been taught that the Bible clearly prohibits homosexuality.
Even within those, apparent references to same-sex relations were not originally written or understood as categorically indicting homosexual acts, as in modern times. Christians before the late 19th century had no concept of gay or straight identity.
For example, Genesis 19 records God’s destruction of two cities, Sodom and Gomorrah, by “sulphur and fire” for their wickedness. For 1,500 years after the writing of Genesis, no biblical writers equated this wickedness with same-sex acts. Only in the first century A.D. did a Jewish philosopher, Philo of Alexandria, first mistakenly equate Sodom’s sin with same-sex sexuality.
It took centuries for a Christian consensus to agree with Philo’s misinterpretation, and it eventually became the accepted understanding of this scripture, from which the derogatory term “sodomite” emerged.
Today, however, theologians generally affirm that the wickedness God punished was the inhabitants’ arrogance and lack of charity and hospitality, not any sex act.
Religious scholars have similarly researched the other six scriptures that Christians in modern times claim justify God’s categorical condemnation of all same-sex acts. They have uncovered how similar mistranslations, miscontextualizations, and misinterpretations have altered the meanings of these ancient scriptures to legitimate modern social prejudices against homosexuality.
For example, instead of labeling all homosexual acts as sinful in the eyes of God, ancient Christians were concerned about excesses of behavior that might separate believers from God. The apostle Paul criticized same-sex acts along with a list of immoderate behaviors, such as gossip and boastfulness, that any believer could overindulge in.
He could not have been delivering a blanket condemnation of homosexuality or homosexuals because these concepts would not exist for 1,800 more years.
Early church leaders didn’t seem overly concerned about punishing those who engaged in homosexual practice. I have found that there is a remarkable silence about homosexual acts, both in theologies and in church laws for over 1,000 years, before the late 12th century.
When early Christian commentators such as John Chrysostom, one of the most prolific biblical writers of the fourth century, criticized homosexual acts, it was typically part of an ascetic condemnation of all sexual experiences.
Moreover, it was generally not the sex act itself that was sinful but some consequence, such as how participating in an act might violate social norms like gender hierarchies. Social norms dictated that men be dominant and women passive in most circumstances.
If a man took on the passive role in a same-sex act, he took on the woman’s role. He was “unmasculine and effeminate,” a transgression of the gender hierarchy that Philo of Alexandria called the “greatest of all evils.” The concern was to police gender roles rather than sex acts, in and of themselves.
Church councils and penance manuals show little concern over the issue. In the early 12th century, a time of church revival, reform and expansion, prominent priests and monks could write poetry and letters glorifying love and passion – even physical passion – toward those of the same sex and not be censured.
Instead, it was civil authorities that eventually took serious interest in prosecuting the offenders.
By the end of the 12th century, the earlier atmosphere of relative tolerance began to change. Governments and the Catholic Church were growing and consolidating greater authority. They increasingly sought to regulate the lives – even private lives – of their subjects.
The Third Lateran Council of 1179, a church council held at the Lateran palace in Rome, for example, outlawed sodomy. Clerics who practiced it were either to be defrocked or enter a monastery to perform penance. Laypeople were more harshly punished with excommunication.
It might be mentioned that such hostility grew, not only toward people engaging in same-sex relations but toward other minority groups as well. Jews, Muslims and lepers also faced rising levels of persecution.
While church laws and punishments against same-sex acts grew increasingly harsh, they were, at first, only sporadically enforced. Influential churchmen, such as 13th-century theologian and philosopher Thomas Aquinas and popular preacher Bernardino of Siena, known as the “Apostle of Italy,” disagreed about the severity of sin involved.
By the 15th century, however, the church conformed to social opinions and became more vocal in condemning and prosecuting homosexual acts, a practice that continues to today.
Today, the Catholic Catechism teaches that desiring others of the same sex is not sinful but acting on those desires is.
As the Catechism says, persons with such desires should remain chaste and “must be accepted with respect and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided.” Indeed, Catholic ministries such as DignityUSA and New Ways Ministries seek to serve and advocate for this population.
Yet gay priests are in a different category. They live and work under mandatory celibacy, often in same-sex religious orders. Pope Francis I has encouraged them to be “perfectly responsible” to avoid scandal, while discouraging other gay men from entering the priesthood.
Many fear retribution if they cannot live up to this ideal. For the estimated 30-40% of U.S priests who are gay, the openness of same-sex desire among clerics of the past is but a memory.
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A string of sex abuse scandals have rocked Christian communities recently: In the Roman Catholic Church, revelations related to sex abuse by priests continue to unfold across the globe. Within the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in the U.S., media reports have brought into public view allegations of sexual abuse dating back decades.
These scandals stand alongside abuses by prominent male church officials that have occurred in independent Christian communities, such as Harvest Bible Chapel, Willow Creek Community Church and Mars Hill Church.
Such scandals have led to widespread doubts about church officials and institutions. And this is not for the first time. As a scholar of early Christianity, I know that in the fourth century, Christian churches in North Africa faced a similar crisis of trust in their leaders.
Known as the Donatist controversy, it caused a schism that lasted for centuries and offers a parallel for thinking about the impact of these crises on contemporary Christian communities today.
Christians in the Roman Empire occasionally experienced periods of imperial persecution. These periods were often memorialized in Christian tradition through stories of famous martyrdoms. The stories often portrayed Christians as courageous and virtuous in the face of imperial violence.
The most infamous period of persecution occurred in the early fourth century A.D. Spearheaded by the emperor Diocletian, it was also the final imperially sponsored persecution of Christian communities.
While persecutions were sporadic, local and rare, they often put difficult choices before Christian clergy and laity.
Some renounced Christianity. Others handed over sacred books or church property and outed fellow Christians to the authorities. Christians called the latter “traditores,” a Latin term meaning “those who handed over,” the root of the word “traitor.”
Whether and how to welcome such traditores back into Christian communities after the persecutions was a topic of intense debate among Christians.
Traditores were considered to have betrayed their communities to save themselves. This sense of betrayal was particularly felt with respect to clergy members who had become traditores.
The issue came to a head in A.D. 311 in North Africa when Caecilian, the bishop of Carthage, became embroiled in controversy after it was alleged that one or more of the bishops who presided at his consecration had been traditores.
In the eyes of many Christians in North Africa, Caecilian’s virtues did not matter. The presence of a traditor among those who ordained him invalidated his ordination.
Caecilian was supported politically and financially by the imperial administration. Caecilian’s opponents pressed their case in regional councils and before local magistrates.
They even appealed to the Emperor Constantine, who wrote in a letter to the Vicar of Africa in A.D. 314 that he had grown tired of receiving requests from Caecilian’s opponents.
They brought charges, which ultimately proved to be false, against Felix of Aptunga, one of the bishops that had ordained Caecilian. Charges against other bishops soon followed.
In A.D. 313, Donatus was consecrated bishop of Carthage and became the leading voice of Caecilian’s opponents. These “Donatists,” as they came to be called, created their own massive network of churches that stood in opposition to those allied with Caecilian and the Roman state.
Constantine soon grew fed up with the Donatists and the schism that they had created in the church. From A.D. 316-321, Constantine used the force of the state to coerce the Donatists back into the fold.
Constantine’s attempts to intervene led to violence that resulted in the deaths of Donatist Christians. His intervention did little to end the schism. Constantine soon gave up state-sponsored persecution of the Donatists.
In A.D. 346, the Emperor Constans, who succeeded Constantine, tried again to end the schism. His agents used imperial funds to woo clergy back, but also used violence. Macarius, one of Constans’s agents, led a campaign of suppression, in which Christians killed other fellow Christians.
Macarius became infamous among Donatist communities. The Donatists considered those who died to be martyrs. These martyrs and their memory were celebrated by Donatist communities.
Donatus was said to have questioned the very role of the emperor in the controversy, saying, “What has the emperor to do with the church?”
By the fifth century, Donatist churches were thriving and sparring with Catholics. And Donatist churches remained active in North Africa until the Islamic conquests of the seventh century.
The Donatists believed the sins of traditores risked the salvation of individual members and the health of the community.
“How,” they asked, “could sacraments administered by an offending priest be recognized by a holy God?” And if those sacraments were not effective, the salvation of the individual and the community were at risk. For the Donatists, only sacraments performed by uncompromised clergy were effective.
In their attempts to respond to Donatist critique, the Catholic Church settled on a strategy developed by Augustine, an influential fifth-century Catholic bishop in North Africa.
Augustine, who describes the sparring between Donatists and Catholics in his writings, argued that the sacraments were effective regardless of the morality of the clergy involved – a church doctrine known as “ex opere operato.” He said that as the sacraments were the work of Christ, they did not depend on the moral character of the officiating priest.
Today, in the face of the sex abuse crisis, contemporary Christian communities find themselves asking questions about institutions that condoned, hid and promoted abusive clergy.
This might be a moment to revisit the Donatist critique. They created their own churches because they feared not only for the efficacy of the sacraments but also for the character of a church that made it too easy for traditores to continue to remain leaders.
Widespread sexual abuse by Christian clergy represents a very different crisis from that faced by the betrayal of the traditores.
However, I believe the Donatists offer a lesson for Christian communities about the risks to the integrity and cohesion of institutions when they shield the abuser rather than protect the victims.
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By Mary Hunt
Roma locuta; causa finita est, attributed to Augustine, means: “Rome has spoken, the matter is closed.” So it is. Sordid details emerging of Australian Cardinal George Pell’s conviction on “multiple historical child sex offenses” are no great shock. They only confirm the general consensus that the recent Roman summit was a dismal failure of nerve and justice at a time when only nerve and justice will suffice.
Survivors of sexual abuse, women religious, LBGTIQ advocates, and some journalists made impressive showings during the recent “Protection of Minors in the Church” meetings in Rome. Pope Francis, cardinals and bishops, not so much. The Vatican had lowered expectations going into the meeting once it became clear that Catholic people around the world demand action not just words. From all that I saw and read—talks and press conferences were live streamed; press coverage was extensive—the clerics came in well below even their own low bar.
As I surmised beforehand, the meeting was “held at the wrong time with the wrong people about the wrong issues.”
Just imagine if the meeting had been held in September 2018, right after the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report was issued with its shockingly large number of victims and offenders. That would have also been right after reports came out that Cardinal Theodore McCarrick had abused countless seminarians and priests. The Vatican crowd could have saved themselves a lot of grief.
Think of what would not have been on the table. Many terrible revelations have emerged since September:
In fact, all of that data was part of the backdrop of the meeting, but no one peeped about most of it. Maybe next time the clerics will learn to act faster for their own good.
Pope Francis gathered 190 heads of bishops’ conferences as well as ten women religious who lead their orders and their equivalent in men’s congregations for the summit. But the real action was in the streets and surrounding buildings, where scores of sex abuse survivors and their supporters protested, told their stories, and gave interviews.
The more the clerics droned on in endless platitudes and careful parsing in lieu of implementing policy, the more the survivors garnered credibility and sympathy. A skilled facilitator would have invited the survivors into the hall, paired them each with a bishop, and invited them together to lay out constructive next steps for the church. Alas, no such forward-looking person was in a position to do so, least of all the much-touted and deeply disappointing pontiff.
Instead, the official meeting featured videos of survivors at yet one more remove from the bishops, many of whom had never listened to survivors in their own dioceses. It’s no wonder. These stories are hard to hear. One woman in a video told of being forced as an underage teen into sex with a priest; he paid for her three abortions. Some bishops expressed genuine shock, leading observers to wonder where they have been for the last two decades.
Still others continued to externalize the problem as a Western issue, suggesting, for example, that problems like child soldiers demand equal time. No doubt, good brothers, but the stated focus of the meeting was on the protection of minors, with the implied tagline “from priest/bishop abusers.” There are many actionable forms of abuse of children, but this time the focus was on that perpetrated by and covered up by clerics. The Vatican was not trying to solve the world’s problems, but to look at its own.
By many measures it failed miserably. The gathering was too homogenous to be useful. It was framed in the same old top-down way that’s at the heart of the problem. Lay people, both women and men, experts in the law, psychology, theology, and the like were excluded. Clerics met in small groups to talk with other clerics. What could be more wrong with this picture?
Pope Francis in his final statement captured the egregious miss that was this meeting. He started off generally: “Our work has made us realize once again that the gravity of the scourge of the sexual abuse of minors is, and historically has been, a widespread phenomenon in all cultures and societies.” Then he went on to contextualize clerical abuse by talking about the high incidence of abuse at home. He’s right, of course, but the difference is that families don’t have as their reason for being the well-being of the world’s people. That is the Church’s (now empty) claim.
He painted a broader picture of pornography, sex trafficking, and other precipitating forces that make up “the mystery of evil, which strikes most violently against the most vulnerable.” There is no mystery here. His priests and bishops abused minors and some covered it up. What’s so mysterious about that? A large number of minors have been sexually abused by a large number of clerics. Period. Full stop. It’s simply the beginning of a hideous story that includes the abuse of seminarians, nuns and other women, children of priests, and more, all of whom merit summits of their own.
Francis’ discussion of power fell flat. He claimed that the sexual abuse of minors is an abuse of power. He completely passed over the structures of vastly unequal power between clergy and laity that are the bedrock of this power differential, a causative factor in church-related abuse. Without changing those structures the chances of eradicating sexual abuse of minors by clergy are nil.
Francis concluded with nothing new, concrete, or effective, using vacuous terms like “impeccable seriousness” and “genuine purification,” highly spiritualized notions that might ground new policies. I do not think so. And I know that few are going to wait around to find out.
Survivors and their supporters left empty handed while bishops toddled off to their dioceses without clear direction. On the one hand, one can applaud Francis for not imposing new laws by fiat, for inviting people to a “personal and communal conversion.” But “zero tolerance” is hardly a new idea or something around which consensus has to be built. It does not mean someone must leave the church as the McCarrick case proved, only that the person be dealt with by civil authorities and leave ministry where the possibility of abusing power remains. Is that too much to ask in the face of mounting evidence of criminal behavior and cover-ups?
On the other hand, Francis’ approach might mean that church teachings and polity will be handled locally as abuse cases are. Catholics can rejoice that such moral sticky wickets as abortion and homosexuality, and such disputed matters of ecclesiology as the ordination of women and married men to the diaconate and presbyterate, will soon be announced as local options as well. I doubt sincerely that this is in the cards, but it follows logically. Logic was at a premium in Rome during the summit.
This dilemma, this selective use of papal power, points to the fundamental problem at hand. It’s the need for new ecclesial structures rooted in a realistic theology that would mitigate power inequities and begin to reshape the global Catholic Church into safer, more participatory communities with the full participation of women and lay men in every facet of church life.
To that end, the undisputed highlights of the meeting were the three presentations by women. Some of the clerics expressed surprise that Canon Lawyer Linda Ghisoni, Nigerian Sister of the Holy Child Jesus, Veronica Openibo, and longtime Mexican journalist, Valentina Alazraki, had such powerful and well-grounded analyses, and that they minced no words in their articulation. Apparently the men have been asleep for the last four decades when Catholic women have developed such competencies with no help from the institutional church.
Dr. Ghisoni challenged the overuse of official forms of secrecy in the Vatican, the so-called “pontifical secrets,” claiming that much of what had been hidden for the sake of protecting good names and the institution was relevant for public discussion. She knows that Canon Law can and must change. Pope Francis’ bizarre comment about feminism being “machismo in a skirt” following her talk suggests that she might have struck a little close to home.
Sister Openibo asked the clerics why they had persisted in silence for so long: “Why have other issues around sexuality not been addressed sufficiently, e.g. misuse of power, money, clericalism, gender discrimination, the role of women and the laity in general? Is it that the hierarchical structures and long protocols that negatively affected swift actions focused more on media reactions?” She concluded with the need to “be proactive not reactive in combating the challenges facing the world of the young and the vulnerable, and look fearlessly into other issues of abuse in the church and society,” marching orders for those who want to solve this problem.
Valentina Alazraki, a veteran Vatican journalist who has worked during five pontificates over four decades taking 150 papal trips, was equally frank. She left these words ringing in the ears of the assembled: “… we journalists are neither those who abuse nor those who cover up. Our mission is to assert and defend a right, which is a right to information based on truth in order to obtain justice. We journalists know that abuse is not limited to the Catholic Church, but you must understand that we have to be more rigorous with you than with others, by virtue of your moral role.”
She recommended that the clerics turn over a new leaf with the new onslaught of information about the abuse of women in the church. This time, she counseled the institution to “play offense and not defense, as has happened in the case of the abuse of minors. It could be a great opportunity for the Church to take the initiative and be on the forefront of denouncing these abuses, which are not only sexual but also abuses of power.” Nothing that emerged from Pope Francis’ finale, nor from the final press conference that included Vatican spokespeople, indicated that this would happen. Nonetheless, the women speakers pointed the way forward.
No one expected a miracle or a magic solution to the deeply entrenched problem of sexual abuse of minors at this meeting. Given that the abuse of women, including nuns, has not been addressed at all, and that the cases and lists of perpetrators continue to roll out (along with the conviction of George Pell, Pope Francis’ handpicked leader of the Vatican’s finances), there’s little reason to expect anything at all from Rome.
There’s solace in the strength of survivors, the savvy of these women speakers, and the solidarity of people around the world. When asked for bread, the Roman Catholic Church can no longer get away with giving a stone (Matthew 7:9). Roma finita est.
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By Frank Bruni
Pat Fitzgerald, 67, has long loved being a Catholic, and the part he loved maybe most of all, for the past quarter-century, was his role as a spiritual mentor at retreats for students at a church-affiliated high school in Indianapolis, where he lives.
But he has been told that he’s not wanted anymore. His crime? He publicly supported his daughter, a guidance counselor at the school, after its administrators moved to get rid of her because she’s married to a woman.
The school’s treatment of Shelly Fitzgerald, 45, was a big local story last summer that went national; she ended up on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” in September. It was one of many examples of Catholic institutions deciding almost whimsically to exile longtime employees — not priests or nuns but coaches, teachers, counselors — who had long been known to be gay but were suddenly regarded as liabilities.
Maybe they had quietly married their partners, formalizing those relationships and inadvertently drawing attention to themselves. Maybe some homophobic parent or congregant had belatedly learned about them and lodged a complaint. That’s what happened to Shelly Fitzgerald, and her 14 years of fine work at Roncalli High School no longer mattered. Only her 2015 marriage to her longtime partner did. She was told that she could stay on if she dissolved the union. She said no thanks and was kicked off school grounds in August.
The aftershocks still complicate the lives — and faith — of people around her: her students, their parents, her dad. On Facebook last month she posted a letter from him to the Roncalli community in which he explained that he’d just been disinvited from future retreats but thanked everyone for being such supportive friends over the years.
“Today my heart is broken,” he wrote, adding that the retreats he’d participated in — more than 40 in all — were “the most beautiful and holy settings I have ever witnessed.” He alluded only vaguely to his daughter’s case. “To people on both sides of this ongoing issue,” he wrote, “I hope you can find peace.”
But there’s no peace for the Catholic Church here. It’s too mired in its own hypocrisy. The tension between its official teaching and unofficial practice — between the ignorance of the past and the illumination of the present — grows tauter all the time.
Most Catholics support same-sex marriage, in defiance of the church’s formal position, and many parishes fully welcome L.G.B.T. people. Yet there are places, and times, when the hammer comes down.
Church leaders know full well that the priesthood would be decimated if closeted gay men were exposed and expelled. Yet the church as a matter of policy bars men with “deep-seated homosexual tendencies” and considers gay people “objectively disordered.”
Catholics are supposed to show compassion. Yet Shelly and her dad were shown anything but.
She has been on administrative leave since August, and last month her lawyer, David Page, filed a charge of discrimination against the school and the Archdiocese of Indianapolis with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. It has up to 180 days to respond.
On Tuesday morning he showed me paperwork for a second charge of discrimination that he said he would be filing imminently; it cites what happened to her father as an unlawful act of retaliation meant to dissuade Shelly from pressing her case.
Pat Fitzgerald, uncomfortable with media attention, declined to speak with me, preferring to let his daughter do the talking. “His struggle comes from caring about Roncalli and being in conflict with what they’ve done to me,” Shelly told me. In October he attended a protest against the church’s treatment of L.G.B.T. people. His sign said, “Please treat my daughter Shelly kindly.”
There is, by many accounts, profound anger and hurt at Roncalli. As it happens, Shelly was one of two directors of counseling there; the other, Lynn Starkey, 62, is in a same-sex civil union and in November filed her own charge of discrimination with the E.E.O.C., claiming a “hostile work environment” in the aftermath of Shelly’s departure. For now she remains on the job.
Many students started an L.G.B.T. advocacy group, Shelly’s Voice, that also attracted parents and other adults in the community. A related Facebook page, Time to Be a Rebel, has more than 4,500 members.
But one parent told me that students who question Shelly’s dismissal fear repercussions. “Seniors are being told that if they speak out, they take the chance of not being able to graduate,” the parent, who spoke with me on condition of anonymity, said.
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According to posts on the Facebook page, a small cluster of Roncalli students were invited last month to a lunch with Archbishop Charles C. Thompson of Indianapolis, only to have him stress that homosexuality is a disorder and its expression sinful. One student called it an ambush.
For comment on all of this, I contacted the Roncalli principal, who referred me to a spokesman for the archdiocese. The spokesman sent me a statement that said that Pat Fitzgerald’s exclusion from student retreats reflected the “continuing attention surrounding his daughter’s suspension” and “his own participation in public protests over Catholic Church teaching.” He was still welcome at Masses, the statement said.
In regard to Shelly’s suspension, a past statement from the archdiocese reiterated what the Catholic Church has said in similar cases: Employees of Catholic schools are expected to live in compliance with church teaching. But is that legally enforceable?
Shelly’s E.E.O.C. complaint tests where federal civil rights law covers sexual orientation, a matter on which courts in different areas of the country have disagreed. Also, the Catholic Church has attempted to claim a “ministerial exception” from nondiscrimination laws that conflict with religious tenets, but there’s continued dispute about whether this applies to workers, like Shelly, who aren’t in the clergy.
Shelly pointed out that the Catholic Church isn’t generally going after teachers who flout its rules by using birth control or divorcing or having sexual relations outside marriage. “They’re going after L.G.B.T. people,” she said. “They’re going to die on this hill.”
And they’re going to hurt people — like Shawn Aldrich, who attended Roncalli, just as his parents and his wife and her parents did. He has two children there now. What has happened to Shelly astounds him.
“She was phenomenal at her job,” Aldrich told me. “So why are we dismissing her?” He knows what church leaders say about homosexuality but noted, “It’s our church, too.” Besides, he said, “All of us are made in God’s image.”
He and his wife plan to end their family tradition. They won’t send their third child, now in seventh grade, to Roncalli. “And that breaks our hearts,” he said. “That absolutely breaks our hearts.”
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Gregory Greiten was 17 years old when the priests organized the game. It was 1982 and he was on a retreat with his classmates from St. Lawrence, a Roman Catholic seminary for teenage boys training to become priests. Leaders asked each boy to rank which he would rather be: burned over 90 percent of his body, paraplegic, or gay.
Each chose to be scorched or paralyzed. Not one uttered the word “gay.” They called the game the Game of Life.
The lesson stuck. Seven years later, he climbed up into his seminary dorm window and dangled one leg over the edge. “I really am gay,” Father Greiten, now a priest near Milwaukee, remembered telling himself for the first time. “It was like a death sentence.”
The closet of the Roman Catholic Church hinges on an impossible contradiction. For years, church leaders have driven gay congregants away in shame and insisted that “homosexual tendencies” are “disordered.” And yet, thousands of the church’s priests are gay.
The stories of gay priests are unspoken, veiled from the outside world, known only to one another, if they are known at all.
Fewer than about 10 priests in the United States have dared to come out publicly. But gay men likely make up at least 30 to 40 percent of the American Catholic clergy, according to dozens of estimates from gay priests themselves and researchers. Some priests say the number is closer to 75 percent. One priest in Wisconsin said he assumed every priest is gay unless he knows for a fact he is not. A priest in Florida put it this way: “A third are gay, a third are straight, and a third don’t know what the hell they are.”
Two dozen gay priests and seminarians from 13 states shared intimate details of their lives in the Catholic closet with The New York Times over the past two months. They were interviewed in their churches before Mass, from art museums on the weekend, in their apartments decorated with rainbow neon lights, and between classes at seminary. Some agreed to be photographed if their identities were concealed.
Almost all of them required strict confidentiality to speak without fear of retribution from their bishops or superiors. A few had been expressly forbidden to come out or even to speak about homosexuality. Most are in active ministry, and could lose more than their jobs if they are outed. The church almost always controls a priest’s housing, health insurance and retirement pension. He could lose all three if his bishop finds his sexuality disqualifying, even if he is faithful to his vows of celibacy.
The environment for gay priests has grown only more dangerous. The fall of Theodore McCarrick, the once-powerful cardinal who was defrocked last week for sexual abuse of boys and young men, has inflamed accusations that homosexuality is to blame for the church’s resurgent abuse crisis.
Studies repeatedly find there to be no connection between being gay and abusing children. And yet prominent bishops have singled out gay priests as the root of the problem, and right-wing media organizations attack what they have called the church’s “homosexual subculture,” “lavender mafia,” or “gay cabal.”
Even Pope Francis has grown more critical in recent months. He has called homosexuality “fashionable,” recommended that men with “this deep-seated tendency” not be accepted for ministry, and admonished gay priests to be “perfectly responsible, trying to never create scandal.”
This week, Pope Francis will host a much-anticipated summit on sex abuse with bishops from around the world. The debate promises to be not only about holding bishops accountable but also about homosexuality itself.
“This is my life,” a parish priest in the Northeast said. “You feel like everyone is on a witch hunt now for things you have never done.”
Just a few years ago, this shift was almost unimaginable. When Pope Francis uttered his revolutionary question, “Who am I to judge?” in 2013, he tempted the closet door to swing open. A cautious few priests stepped through.
But if the closet door cracked, the sex abuse crisis now threatens to slam it shut. Widespread scapegoating has driven many priests deeper into the closet.
“The vast majority of gay priests are not safe,” said Father Bob Bussen, a priest in Park City, Utah, who was outed about 12 years ago after he held mass for the L.G.B.T.Q. community.
“Life in the closet is worse than scapegoating,” he said. “It is not a closet. It is a cage.”
Even before a priest may know he is gay, he knows the closet. The code is taught early, often in seminary. Numquam duo, semper tres, the warning goes. Never two, always three. Move in trios, never as a couple. No going on walks alone together alone, no going to the movies in a pair. The higher-ups warned for years: Any male friendship is too dangerous, could slide into something sexual, and turn into what they called a “particular friendship.”
“You couldn’t have a particular friendship with a man, because you might end up being homosexual,” explained a priest, who once nicknamed his friends “the P.F.s.” “And you couldn’t have a friendship with a woman, because you might end up falling in love, and they were both against celibacy. With whom do you have a relationship that would be a healthy human relationship?”
Today, training for the priesthood in the United States usually starts in or after college. But until about 1980, the church often recruited boys to start in ninth grade — teenagers still in the throes of puberty. For many of today’s priests and bishops over 50, this environment limited healthy sexual development. Priests cannot marry, so sexuality from the start was about abstinence, and obedience.
The sexual revolution happening outside seminary walls might as well have happened on the moon, and national milestones in the fight for gay rights like the Stonewall riots, on Mars.
One priest in a rural diocese said the rules reminded him of how his elementary school forced left-handed students to write with their right hand. “You can be taught to act straight in order to survive,” he said.
“I can still remember seeing a seminarian come out of another’s room at 5 a.m. and thinking, isn’t it nice, they talked all night,” the same priest said. “I was so naïve.”
Priests in America tend to come out to themselves at a much later age than the national average for gay men, 15. Many gay priests spoke of being pulled between denial and confusion, finally coming out to themselves in their 30s or 40s.
Father Greiten was 24 when he realized he was gay and considered jumping from his dorm window. He did not jump, but confided his despair in a classmate. His friend came out himself. It was a revelation: There were other people studying to be priests who were gay. It was just that no one talked about it.
He reached out to a former seminary professor who he thought might also be a gay man.
“There will be a time in your life when you will look back on this and you’re going to just love yourself for being gay,” Father Greiten remembered this man telling him. “I thought, ‘This man must be totally insane.’”
But he had discovered the strange irony of the Catholic closet — it isn’t secret at all.
“It’s kind of like an open closet,” Father Greiten said. “It’s the making of it public, and speaking about it, where it becomes an issue.”
One priest, whose parish has no idea he is gay, remembered a backyard cocktail party a few years ago where fellow priests were saying “vile” things about a gay bishop. He intervened, and came out to them. He lost three friends that night. “I broke the code by announcing to them that I was gay,” he said. “It was a conspiracy of silence.”
That is a reason many of the men are out to only a few close friends. The grapevine has taught them which priests in their diocese are gay, whom to trust, and whom to fear.
All priests must wrestle with their vows of celibacy, and the few priests who are publicly out make clear they are chaste.
Still, many priests said they have had sex with other men to explore their sexual identity. Some have watched pornography to see what it was like for two men to have sex. They ultimately found more anguish than pleasure.
One priest had sex for the first time at 62, no strings attached, with a man he met online. The relationship was discovered and reported to his bishop, and he has not had sex since. Another priest, when asked if he had ever considered himself as having a partner, wondered what that even meant. He paused, before mentioning one very special friend. “I fell in love several times with men,” he said. “I knew from the beginning it wasn’t going to last.”
Though open, the closet means that many priests have held the most painful stories among themselves for decades: The seminarian who died by suicide, and the matches from a gay bar found afterward in his room. The priest friends who died of AIDS. The feeling of coming home to an empty rectory every night.
So they find ways to encourage one other. They share books like Father James Martin’s groundbreaking “Building a Bridge,” on the relationship between the Catholic and L.G.B.T. communities. Some have signed petitions against church-sponsored conversion therapy programs, or have met on private retreats, after figuring out how to conceal them on their church calendars. Occasionally, a priest may even take off his collar and offer to unofficially bless a gay couple’s marriage.
Some may call this rebellion. But “it is not a cabal,” one priest said. “It is a support group.”
Just over a year ago, after meeting with a group of gay priests, Father Greiten decided it was time to end his silence. At Sunday Mass, during Advent, he told his suburban parish he was gay, and celibate. They leapt to their feet in applause.
His story went viral. A 90-year-old priest called him to say he had lived his entire life in the closet and longed for the future to be different. A woman wrote from Mississippi, asking him to move south to be her priest.
To some church leaders, that outpouring of support may have been even more threatening than his sexuality. Father Greiten had committed the cardinal sin: He opened the door to debate. His archbishop, Jerome E. Listecki of Milwaukee, issued a statement saying that he wished Father Greiten had not gone public. Letters poured in calling him “satanic,” “gay filth,” and a “monster” who sodomized children.
The idea that gay priests are responsible for child sexual abuse remains a persistent belief, especially in many conservative Catholic circles. For years, church leaders have been deeply confused about the relationship between gay men and sexual abuse. With every new abuse revelation, the tangled threads of the church’s sexual culture become even more impossible to sort out.
Study after study shows that homosexuality is not a predictor of child molestation. This is also true for priests, according to a famous studyby John Jay College of Criminal Justice in the wake of revelations in 2002 about child sex abuse in the church. The John Jay research, which church leaders commissioned, found that same-sex experience did not make priests more likely to abuse minors, and that four out of five people who said they were victims were male. Researchers found no single cause for this abuse, but identified that abusive priests’ extensive access to boys had been critical to their choice of victims.
The notion that a certain sexual identity leads to abusive behavior has demoralized gay priests for decades. Days after one man retired, he still could not shake what his archbishop in the 1970s told all the new priests headed to their first parish assignments. “He said, ‘I don’t ever want you to call me to report about your pastor, unless he is a homo or an alchie,’” he said, referring to an alcoholic. “He didn’t even know what he meant when he said homo, because we were all homos. He meant a predator, like serial predator.”
This perception persists today at prominent Catholic seminaries. At the largest in the United States, Mundelein Seminary in Illinois, few ever talk about sexual identity, said one gay student, who is afraid to ever come out. Since last summer, when Mr. McCarrick was exposed for abusing young men, students have been drilled in rules about celibacy and the evils of masturbation and pornography.
“Classmates will say, ‘Don’t admit gays,’” said the student. “Their attitude is that it is gay priests who inflict abuse on younger guys.”
Priests across the country are wondering if their sacrifice is worth the personal cost. “Am I going to leave the priesthood because I’m sick of that accusation?” asked Father Michael Shanahan, a Chicago priest who came out publicly three years ago. “Become more distant from parishioners? Am I going to hide? Become hardened, and old?”
Blaming sexual abuse on gay men is almost sure to be a major topic this week at the Vatican, at a much-anticipated four-day summit on sexual abuse. Pope Francis has called the world’s most powerful bishops to Rome to educate them on the problems of abuse, after high-profile abuses cases in the United States, Australia, Chile and elsewhere.
The event has worried gay priests. A few years after the 2002 scandal, the Vatican banned gay men from seminaries and ordination. When the abuse crisis broke out again last summer, the former Vatican ambassador to the United States, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, accused “homosexual networks” of American cardinals of secretly working to protect abusers. And this week, a sensational book titled “Sodoma” in Europe (“In the Closet of the Vatican” in the United States) is being released that claims to expose a vast gay subculture at the Vatican.
A group of gay priests in the Netherlands recently took the unusually bold step of writing to Pope Francis, urging him to allow gay, celibate men to be ordained.
“Instead of seeing increased accountability on the parts of the bishops, it could become once again a condemnation of lesbian, gay, transsexual people within the church,” said John Coe, 63, a permanent deacon in Kentucky, who came out last year.
Sitting in his parish’s small counseling room, Father Greiten reflected on it all. He wished he could talk to Pope Francis himself. “Listen to my story of how the church traumatized me for being a gay man,” he asked, into the air.
“It’s not just about the sexual abuse crisis,” he said, his voice growing urgent. “They are sexually traumatizing and wounding yet another generation. We have to stand up and say no more sexual abuse, no more sexual traumatizing, no more sexual wounding. We have to get it right when it comes to sexuality.”
For now, Father Greiten was getting ready for his 15th trip to Honduras with doctors and medical supplies. A shadow box hung on the wall behind him. It displayed a scrap of purple knitting, needle still stuck in the top. He calls it “The Unfinished Gift.”
“What if every priest was truly allowed to live their life freely, openly, honestly?” he asked. “That’s my dream.”
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Some of the most senior clerics in the Roman Catholic church who have vociferously attacked homosexuality are themselves gay, according to a book to be published next week.
Eighty per cent of priests working at the Vatican are gay, although not necessarily sexually active, it is claimed in the book, In the Closet of the Vatican.
The 570-page book, which the French journalist and author Frédéric Martel spent four years researching, is a “startling account of corruption and hypocrisy at the heart of the Vatican”, according to its British publisher Bloomsbury.
It is being published in eight languages across 20 countries next Wednesday, coinciding with the opening day of a conference at the Vatican on sexual abuse, to which bishops from all over the world have been summoned.
Martel, a former adviser to the French government, conducted 1,500 interviews while researching the book, including with 41 cardinals, 52 bishops and monsignors, 45 papal ambassadors or diplomatic officials, 11 Swiss guards and more than 200 priests and seminarians, according to a report on the Catholic website the Tablet.
Many spoke of an unspoken code of the “closet”, with one rule of thumb being that the more homophobic a cleric was, the more likely he was to be gay.
Martel alleges that one Colombian cardinal, the late Alfonso López Trujillo, who held a senior Vatican position, was an arch-defender of church teaching on homosexuality and contraception while using male prostitutes, the Tablet said.
The author found that some gay priests accepted their sexuality and a few maintained discreet relationships, but others sought high-risk casual encounters. Some were in denial about their sexuality.
Although the book does not conflate homosexuality with the sexual abuse of children, Martel describes a secretive culture among priests that creates conditions in which abuse is not confronted, say people familiar with the book’s contents.
According to Bloomsbury’s promotional material, Inside the Closet “reveals secrets” about celibacy, misogyny and plots against Pope Francis. It uncovers “a clerical culture of secrecy which starts in junior seminaries and continues right up to the Vatican itself”.
Francis has riled his conservative critics in the Vatican over his apparently softer tone towards gay people. A few months into his papacy, he told reporters who asked about a “gay lobby” at the Vatican: “If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge?”
Last year Juan Carlos Cruz, a Chilean survivor of sexual abuse, said Francis told him in a private meeting: “Juan Carlos, that you are gay does not matter. God made you like this and loves you like this and I don’t care. The pope loves you like this. You have to be happy with who you are.”
But a Polish priest who was sacked from his Vatican job and defrocked after announcing he was gay has accused the church of making the lives of millions of gay Catholics “a hell”.
In a letter to Francis in 2015, Krzysztof Charamsa criticised what he called the Vatican’s hypocrisy in banning gay priests and said the clergy was “full of homosexuals”.
In December, Francis was quoted in a book about vocations as saying homosexuality was a “fashion” to which the clergy was susceptible.
“The issue of homosexuality is a very serious issue that must be adequately discerned from the beginning with the candidates [for the priesthood]. In our societies it even seems that homosexuality is fashionable and that mentality, in some way, also influences the life of the church,” he said.
The timing of Inside the Closet’s publication, at the start of a milestone summit on sexual abuse, will raise concerns that some people may seek to conflate the two issues.
But the book’s allegations are likely to be pored over by senior bishops flying into Rome from more than 100 countries for the four-day summit.
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Pope Francis started the new year criticizing some Catholic bishops for their role in the church’s sexual abuse crisis. In a letter to bishops gathered at Mundelein Seminary in Illinois for a spiritual retreat, the pope said that the “disparaging, discrediting, playing the victim” had greatly undermined the Catholic Church. This followed the pope’s earlier remarks asking clergy guilty of sexual assault to turn themselves over to law enforcement.
Stories of clergy sex abuse have continued to increase. Among the more recent revelations, a Catholic diocese recently released the names of Jesuit priests who face “credible or established” accusations of abuse of minors. Church members learned that many priests accused of sexual abuse on Indian reservations were retired on the Gonzaga University campus in Spokane. And another external investigation has revealed that the Catholic Church failed to disclose abuse accusations against 500 priests and clergy.
Church attendance has been on the decline for some time, with the steepest fall of an average 45 percent, between 2005 to 2008. And with these latest scandals, as a theologian recently wrote, the Catholic Church is in the midst of its “biggest crisis since the Reformation.”
But what many do not realize is that staying in the church does not mean agreeing with its policies. In the past, Catholics have challenged the church through multiple forms of resistance – at times discreet and at other times quite dramatic.
I had already begun my training as a scholar of religion and society when I learned that the priest from whom I took my first communion was a known predator in the Boston Archdiocese. I have since then researched and written about the Catholic clergy abuse cover-up.
Back in the 1960s, some radical American Catholics were at the forefront of challenging U.S. involvement in the war in Vietnam. Perhaps the most famous among them were the Berrigan brothers. Rev. Daniel Berrigan, the older brother, was an American Jesuit priest, who, along with with other religious leaders, expressed public concern over the war.
In New York, Daniel Berrigan joined hands with a group called the Catholic Workers, in order to build a “decent non-violent society” – what they called “a society of conscience.” Among their protests was a public burning of draft cards in Union Square in 1965.
Months earlier, the U.S. Congress had passed legislation that made mutilation of draft registration a felony. A powerful commentary by the editors of the Catholic “Commonweal” magazine described the event as a “liturgical ceremony” backed by a willingness to risk five years of freedom.
But some in the Catholic leadership were concerned that Daniel Berrigan’s peace activism was going too far. Soon after another Catholic protester set himself on fire in front of the United Nations in an act of protest, Berrigan disappeared from New York. He’d been sent to Latin America on an “assignment” by his superiors.
The word among Catholics was that Cardinal Francis Spellman had Berrigan expelled from the U.S. The accuracy of the decision is selectively disputed. However, the narrative had great power. The public outcry among Catholics was immense. University students took to the streets.
The New York Times carried a vehement objection that was signed by more than a thousand Catholic practitioners and theological leaders. The repression of free speech, they said, was “intolerable in the Roman Catholic Church.”
In May 1967, Berrigan returned to the United States, only to renew his protest against the draft. Joined by his brother Philip, they broke into a draft board office in Baltimore and poured vials of their own blood on paper records.
In pouring vials of their own blood on draft records, they were extending the use of Christ’s blood of sacrifice, to promote peace, as part of Catholic teachings.
The next year they joined by seven other Catholic protesters in a protest action in Catonsville, Maryland. The group used homemade napalm to destroy 378 draft files in the parking lot of a draft board. Daniel Berrigan was put on the FBI’s most wanted list. Both brothers later served time in federal prisons.
After the Vietnam war, their protests continued under a group called Plowshares. The name came from the commandment in the book of Isaiah to “beat swords into plowshares.” The Berrigan brothers put their energy into anti-nuclear protests around the country. At a nuclear missile facility in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, they hammered on nuclear warheads and once again poured their own blood upon them, bridging Catholic symbols with religious protest.
Church leadership, they said, was too cozy with a heavily militarized America.
Around the same time, another group of Roman Catholics was challenging the leadership of the church using different tactics. In 1969, a group of Chicano Catholic student activists that called itself Católicos Por La Raza, objected to the money that the Archdiocese of Los Angeles was spending on building a new cathedral called St. Basil’s. They believed that money could be better spent on improving the social and economic conditions of Catholic Mexican-Americans.
Católicos Por La Raza posed a list of demands for the Catholic Church that included the use of church facilities for community work, providing housing and educational assistance, and developing health care programs.
On Christmas Eve, 300 people marched to protest at St. Basil’s. Outside, they chanted “Que viva la raza” and “Catholics for the people.” Some members also planned to bring the protest across the threshold of the cathedral and into the Christmas Eve Mass.
The church locked its front doors. The marchers were met at side doors by undercover county sheriffs.
Later, the protesters publicly burned their baptismal certificates. Catholic teaching maintains that, once baptized, Catholic identity cannot be divested. By burning these symbols of Roman Catholic belonging, members of Católicos Por La Raza were making a powerful statement of their renunciation of the religion that they perceived could not be reformed.
Back in New York, a generation later, Catholics also organized confrontations with Church leadership. At the height of the AIDS crisis, in 1989, the American Catholic Bishops drafted an explicit condemnation of the use of condoms to stop the spread of the AIDS virus. “The truth is not in condoms or clean needles,” said Cardinal John O’Connor. “These are lies … good morality is good medicine.”
In response, AIDS activists organized an action called “Stop the Church” to protest against the “murderous AIDS policy” at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan. Thousands of people gathered to protest. Outside, activists distributed condoms and safer-sex information to passers-by. Inside, some protesters staged a die-in.
And this does not even get into waves of protests over women’s ordination since 1976.
In all these protests, Roman Catholics were demanding that powerful members of the hierarchy acknowledge their demands for the ethics of the church.
Similar resistance continued in 2002, when the Boston Globe Spotlight investigation team exposed the systematic cover-up of child sexual abuse in the Boston Archdiocese, under Cardinal Bernard Law.
On Sundays Catholics came out to protest in front of the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston, where the cardinal said Mass. They shouted and held up signs calling for his resignation. Other Catholics were creating pressure to have the cardinal removed by cutting off lay financial support for the Archdiocese.
They encouraged continuing giving to the poor or to the local parish. But until the cardinal was held accountable, those in the pews were encouraged to abstain from institutional giving. Before the next New Year, enough financial and legal pressure forced Cardinal Law to be removed from the Archdiocese.
February 2019 will bring a crucial meeting between the pope and the cardinals. Catholics today could well ask what is their way of showing resistance. After all, there is a rich Catholic heritage that shows that members of the church who put their bodies on the line can make a difference.
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By Garry Wills
Year after year, we seem to reach new depths of priestly depravity in the Catholic church’s “ministry” to children in its charge. After 16 years of bad news on that front, a Pennsylvania grand jury reported last August that more than 1,000 children had been molested by more than 300 priests in that state. And now the attorney general of Illinois, Lisa Madigan, has revealed that 500 cases of alleged molestation were kept hidden by Catholic authorities. They were rejected as unproven by their own investigation. But Madigan says these were not real investigations at all, since the clerical bodies involved “will not resolve the clergy sexual abuse crisis on their own.” Civil authorities are needed where spiritual guidance has been nothing but misguidance.
The first instinct of bishops in these scandals was to “lawyer up,” and the first instruction of lawyers was not to show compassion or admit to any accusation. Large amounts of money are at stake here — millions already paid in settlements, with more millions to come. Madigan rightly says: “The priority has always been in protecting priests and protecting church assets.” I have a priest friend who went to console a family he knew when their child reported an abuse, but he was told by his religious superiors to cut it out. He was just lending credibility to the accuser.
The church response has consistently been to doubt, dismiss, or minimize reported acts of abuse. How, we have to wonder, can men dedicated to the Gospel allow or abet such a response? Have they never read the Gospel of Matthew (19.13-14)? When children were trying to reach Jesus, the disciples held them back, prompting Jesus to say: “Release (aphete) the children, do not hinder them from reaching me, since the heavenly reign belongs to those similar to them.”
Some say that an untenable demand for priestly celibacy fosters such crimes. But it would be unfair to the priests I know and admire to think they are covering up the crimes merely because they have some sympathy with the criminals, or that they are protecting the rule of priestly celibacy (which some have blamed for the crimes). They have a better motive (though a wrong one): They are trying to protect the aura of the priesthood that has been built up over the years. They fear that any loss of respect for priests will prevent them from doing good in service to their “flock.” The molestations diminish that respect.
Five years ago, when I wrote the book “Why Priests?”, some people criticized it because I did not include the pedophile scandal, even though it was filling the news. That was deliberate on my part. I did not want to give the idea that if only the sex scandal could run its course, all would be well with the priesthood — or that some reforms like removing the celibacy rule or ordaining women would make the priesthood work again. I don’t think it should work again. The priesthood is itself an affront to the Gospel. Jesus told his disciples: “You must not be addressed as ‘Rabbi,’ since you have only one Teacher, and you are brothers to each other. . . . And you must not be addressed as leaders, since you have only one Leader, the Messiah” (Matthew 23.8, 10).
There are no priests in the Gospels, except the Jewish priests, some of whom plotted against Jesus. Jesus is only called a priest in the late and suspect anonymous Letter to the Hebrews, where he is made a priest in the line of a mythical non-Jew, Melchisidek — and even there he is the sole and final priest. Peter and Paul never call themselves or any other Christian a priest. Outside the Letter to the Hebrews, the only New Testament titles for service to the community are episkopos (overseer), presbyter (elder), apostolos (emissary), and diakonos (servant), never priest (hiereus). None of these offices gave any of them a pivotal role in what would later become the seven sacraments.
Baptism was, from the outset, the entry ritual for the Christian community, but it could not originally be administered by priests, who did not yet exist. As the priesthood was gradually developed in the Middle Ages, it tended to subordinate all Christian activity to priestly superintendance — from childhood (baptism), to adolescence (confirmation), to mid-life (matrimony, sacred orders), to devotions (eucharist, penance), to the end of life (last rites). No wonder church leaders would try desperately to protect this imperial rule over the whole of Catholic life, trying to mute or erase any demeaning revelations of priestly predation.
The grip of the priests on Catholic life was illustrated for me when discussing “Why Priests” with Stephen Colbert on his earlier show (“The Colbert Report”), where he asked, “Don’t you really want a priest to be with you when you die?” I said no, even though I was brought up thinking that if you died with a mortal sin on your soul you would go to hell unless there was a priest at hand to hear your confession. Colbert also asked me if I believed that the eucharistic bread and wine were the literal body and blood of Christ. I did (and do) not. At the last supper, when Jesus handed out the bread and said “Take and eat,” his real body was there, offering bread as a symbol. If they were to eat the real body, they would have to chew on the offering hand not the offered bread. Augustine knew, in the fourth century, that the eucharist was not the real body of Jesus: “The visible [symbol] is received, eaten, and digested. But can the body of Christ be digested? Can the church of Christ be digested? Can Christ’s limbs be digested? Of course not.” (Sermon 227).
But Catholics are so convinced that only a priest can perform the miracle of transubstantiation that, if no priest shows up at a Mass, there is nothing for believers to do but go back home. There is no miracle without the magician. Colbert said to me after that show, “You are no better than a Protestant.” Right. I am no better than a Protestant. All Christians are brothers and sisters, whether or not priests show up at their gatherings. Many Catholics think they cannot do any real worshiping without priests. But why not? Peter did without priests. So did Paul. And all the early Christians.
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This past summer’s credible allegations against former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick have fundamentally altered the way Catholics are talking about the abuse crisis. In the wake of the Boston Globe’s 2002 exposé (memorialized in the important and painful film, Spotlight), the conversation revolved around the most shocking tales of abuse – namely, of priests sexually molesting children. And indeed, it’s the allegation that “Uncle Ted” sexually assaulted a minor that finally brought his story into its own recent spotlight.
However, the allegations against McCarrick also include repeated sexual transgressions with adult seminarians. While lacking the initial shock-value of child-molestation, this pattern of behavior has become a new focal point in conversations about the crisis. Part of this shift can be attributed to a religious extension of #MeToo, sometimes called #ChurchToo.
The #MeToo movement has drawn attention to the way that power dynamics contribute to sexual predation. Harvey Weinstein is perhaps the most famous case but, again and again, powerful figures in the workplace have used their influence to sexually prey upon their subordinates. A similar power dynamic can be seen in the seminary. In this setting, where vows of celibacy and chastity are ostensibly operative, powerful figures such as McCarrick have groomed future priests by offering enticing political-ecclesiastical connections – and have manipulated those offers to satisfy their own sexual appetites.
McCarrick is not a one-off case. The associate pastor of my childhood parish in Iowa (and now a former priest) has written about being sexually assaulted during his own journey to the priesthood and the culture of drinking, sex, lies and secrecy during his days as a seminarian. This phenomenon is wide-ranging enough to include supposed “progressives” like McCarrick as well as supposedly “conservative” dioceses like Lincoln, Nebraska.
And so in recent months it has become commonplace to hear Catholics insist that the abuse crisis is not just about children, but about young adults, too – especially seminarians. It’s a refrain echoed on Catholic news and websites, on social media and at a recent panel discussion which I attended at a local parish in Salt Lake City. Attention to this pervasive and long-overlooked problem is a good thing in itself.
At the same time, it is frequently paired with a disturbing follow-up, namely, the suggestion that blame for this pattern of behavior falls squarely at the feet of “homosexuality.” According to this rationale, because the preponderance of abuse cases in the church involve male priests and adolescent or young adult men, the problem must be the disproportionate number of gay men in the priesthood. And so to stop the exploitation of seminarians and other young men, the proposed solution is to purge the priesthood’s ranks of its gay clerics. This diagnosis is not new, but especially since it was advanced in Abp. Viganò’s explosive August letter, it has risen to a new level in the popular imagination of many U.S. Catholics. Its spread has been facilitated by traditionalist leaders in the Catholic hierarchy as well.
However, the cause of the #ChurchToo phenomenon can in no fair way be traced to the orientation of gay clerics. Perhaps the easiest way to call this connection into question is to compare it with the wider #MeToo movement. In the case of Weinstein, nobody judged his pattern of preying upon women to stand as an indictment of heterosexuality. (Nor was such a judgment made after similar allegations surfaced against other public figures like Charlie Rose, Bill O’Reilly, Roger Ailes, or Matt Lauer.) Likewise, calls to ban gay actors were not made after Kevin Spacy was accused of sexually molesting several teenage boys. In yet another case, feminist New York University professor Avital Ronell, a lesbian, was accused by her former graduate student, Nimrod Reitman, of sexual harassment; Reitman is a gay man.
Even in just this handful of cases, any attempt to trace the cause of abuse to the root of sexual orientation leaves one’s mind spinning. There’s no pattern to indicate that the sexual exploitation decried by #MeToo is a function of the predator’s sexual preference; indeed, cases can be found in just about any permutation of perpetrators and victims, whether they be gay, straight, male, female, or otherwise. However, one pattern clearly does emerge: People in positions of power take sexual advantage of their vulnerable subordinates.
Catholics looking for answers in our own #ChurchToo crisis can learn from this comparison. Given the way that sexual predation works in the larger culture, how should we diagnose the problem when it occurs in a seminary? Should we suppose that, in this particular case, it’s suddenly a problem that stems from being gay? Or is it more likely that this widespread cultural phenomenon, which rises from unchecked power and lack of accountability at the top, also occurs in an all-male setting like the seminary?
Catholics today are right to widen their lenses in order to see both adult and child victims in the church’s ongoing abuse crisis. However, in turning our attention to seminarians, we cannot address the issue by blaming gay men and calling for their expulsion from the priesthood. Doing so unfairly stigmatizes the church’s many faithful gay priests, it erases the stories of girls and women who have survived clerical abuse, it focuses our much-needed efforts on a wild-goose chase that fails to address the true problems, and finally, it is almost impossible to implement. It may even exacerbate the problem.
As my hometown priest explained, it’s easy enough to lie about one’s orientation upon entering the seminary; in his own case, he was actually instructed to do so. As James Alison (himself an openly gay priest) has recently noted, there’s a larger problem at the root of the crisis: not a “gay” culture, but a culture of secrecy and lying. Vows of celibacy and chastity are routinely disregarded, and when the professed beliefs and actions of so many clerics diametrically oppose one another, a culture of “looking the other way” (from sexual misconduct, whether homo- or heterosexual) tends to emerge. Not all of this misconduct is exploitative in character, but it is precisely in such a secretive environment that sexual predators can fly under the radar, even creating predatory rings (of the sickening type described in the Pennsylvania report). Blaming and banning gay men from a ministry that attracts so many of them in the first place only reinforces this dangerous culture of sexual secrecy that consequently allows predation to flourish undetected.
Our efforts at reform need to be both structural and cultural. Power structures in the church need robust mechanisms of accountability, for bishops as well as for priests. The culture of secrecy and lies needs to be replaced with one of transparency, and one where vows mean something. Focusing our attention to these tasks is much more productive than the promoting the canard of gay culpability.
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