Well that didn’t turn out like I hoped or imagined it would.
I wanted to be a priest ever since I was a little boy and I overcame the greatest of odds to achieve my life’s goal. On Saturday, November 22, 1975, I was ordained a Catholic Priest at the Cathedral of Saint Francis de Sales in Oakland, CA.
Sadly, it all came crashing to a halt only 6 years later with the publication of my doctoral dissertation.
The Oblates of Mary Immaculate, my religious community at the time, assigned me to post graduate studies in San Francisco in 1978. I completed that assignment in January 1981 with my dissertation, Gay Catholic Priests; A Study of Cognitive and Affective Dissonance. A media firestorm erupted shortly there after when I publicly identified myself as gay. (I had come out to my provincial superiors before I was ordained six years earlier.)
When word got to Rome, however, the Oblates began a process to dismiss me from the community. They erroneously accused me of “living a false lifestyle” because of my public declaration a month earlier. The community leadership claimed that anyone who would self identify as gay must also be sexually active. In their defense, it was 1981, and I had just studied a population of gay priests in the active ministry, years and years before the Church could even bring itself to admit that there were such a thing as gay priests in their midst. Nonetheless, my efforts to explain myself and the nature of self-identification fell on deaf ears. I was to be made an example of how others would be treated if they came out.
Priesthood was my whole life. To be cut off from the community and ministry in an instant, without due process nearly killed me. And thus, began a grueling 13-year battle with the Church to save my good name, my priesthood, and my ministry. I chronicled this odyssey in a book published in 2011, Secrecy, Sophistry And Gay Sex In The Catholic Church.
I lost the battle in 1994; I was dismissed from the Oblates. But I believe I won the war.
Martin Luther King, Jr once said, “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” Looking back on the last 45 years, I can see clearly that Dr King was right. LGBT people have gone from pariah status to having their relationships granted the same legal and societal status as straight people. Acceptance of LGBT people is at an all-time high in this country and throughout most of the world. And young U.S. Catholics overwhelmingly accept LGBT people.
Unfortunately, Church leadership continues to drag it’s feet. While there are some enlightened bishops, and certainly the Pope is pointing the way, most of the other church leadershiop have their head in the sand. The rear-guard action of trying to defend the indefensible continues unabated. Gay priests are still persecuted for coming out and the clerical closet continues to make Catholic priests sick, sometimes even to death, One has to ask; how can anyone preach the Good News while living a lie?
Forty five years after ordination, I believe that I now finally know the real meaning of priesthood and ministry. And I can safely say that it has nothing to do with the ritual depicted in the photos above. My priesthood and ministry are rooted in knowing who I am and knowing that God called me as I am. My priesthood is to the people on the margins and the sexual fringe. And my priesthood means speaking truth to power and supporting others to do the same. I continue to stand against the fear, ignorance, and repression that destroys God’s people. And if I have to do my priesthood standing this distance from the altar, then I’m ok with that.
Pope Francis referred to gay people as “children of God” in a recently released documentary, “Francesco.” He further noted that “a civil union law” needs to be created so gays are “legally covered.” The Vatican later confirmed the pope’s comments, but clarified that the church doctrine remained unchanged.
Public support for civil unions from Pope Francis is not entirely new. When he was archbishop of Buenos Aires, and again in a 2014 interview, he spoke about civil unions for same-sex couples.
While the Vatican is right in saying that church doctrine remains the same, as a theologian who has been writing about Catholicism and family for over two decades, I see in the pope’s comments evidence that Catholic understanding of who counts as family is evolving.
From judgment to mercy
Traditional Catholic doctrine holds that marriage between a man and a woman is the foundation of the family. Sex outside of marriage is judged to be immoral and, while gay people are not seen as inherently sinful, their sexual actions are. Same-sex marriages and civil unions, the Vatican says, are harmful to society and “in no way similar” to heterosexual marriages.
Yet in his comments made public on Oct. 21, the pope framed his support for civil unions in the context of family. “They’re children of God and have a right to a family. Nobody should be thrown out or be made miserable because of it,” he said in a news-breaking interview used in the documentary.
In researching for a book on Pope Francis, I found that he has consistently offered compassion for Catholics without traditional families. Soon after becoming pope in 2013, in response to a journalist’s question about a gay person, he famously said, “Who am I to judge?”
Mercy over judgment has been the mark of his papacy. The pope’s priority on extending mercy, theologian Cardinal Walter Kasperexplains, especially pertains to families.
Surveys commissioned by the Vatican in 2015 found that Catholics desire more acceptance from the church for people who are single parents, divorced or have live-in relationships. Knowing that people often feel judged because their families aren’t perfect, Francis has tried to make them feel welcome. He has stressed that the doors of churches must be open to all.
When, in discussing same-sex civil unions, Francis said that gay people have “a right to a family,” he seems to have implied that civil unions create a family. Though he is not changing Catholic moral teaching, I argue that he is departing from traditional Catholic rhetoric on the family and offering an inclusive, merciful vision to guide church practice.
From family structure to family action
Changes in Catholic teaching in the 20th century paved the way for Francis’ recent moves.
In a 1930 Vatican document on marriage, Pope Pius XI defended the traditional family structure against perceived threats of cohabitation, divorce and “false teachers” who asserted the equality of men and women.
Three decades later, at Vatican II, a meeting of the world’s bishops from 1962 to 1965 that led to sweeping reforms in the Catholic Church, emphasis shifted to the role families could play in shaping society. Marriage was defined as an “intimate partnership of life and love,” and the family was praised as “a school of deeper humanity” where parents and children learn how to be better human beings.
Pope John Paul II, who was pope from 1978 to 2005, is often viewed as a foil to Pope Francis. In his writings, he defended heterosexual marriage and traditional gender roles, as well as rules against divorce, contraception and same-sex relationships. Yet the former pope contributed to shifting the Catholic conversation to ethical actions families can take.
In this regard, John Paul II’s most important document on the family Familiaris Consortio, 1981, gave families four tasks: growing in love, raising children, contributing to society and praying in their home. He taught that being a family means engaging in actions related to these tasks.
Though same-sex couples remain excluded from official Catholic teaching, Catholic theologians such as Margaret A. Farley have suggested that these families, too, could prioritize love, social action and spirituality. Gay couples, she argued, “deserve the same protection under the law” as heterosexual couples. They also have the same moral obligations to each other and to the common good.
Pope Francis on inclusion
Pope Francis built on work done at Vatican II and the decades following it. One of his favorite ways of describing the church is as a “field hospital” that goes where people are hurting.
Though he has addressed many important social issues during his papacy, including economic inequality and climate change, he called the world’s bishops to special meetings in Rome only to discuss families. He urged them to find creative ways of ministering to people who feel excluded because they are not living in line with Catholic doctrine on marriage.
Themes of welcome and inclusion for single parents, divorced and remarried people and cohabiting unmarried couples were amplified in the document Francis wrote in 2016, “Amoris Laetitia,” or “The Joy of Love.”
For instance, theologian Mary Catherine O’Reilly-Gindhart sees Francis saying that cohabiting unmarried couples “need to be welcomed and guided patiently and discreetly.” This allows priests to meet couples where they are rather than shaming them or forcing them to hide their living situations.
What’s the future of the church?
Francis’ critics worry that the pope is watering down Catholic doctrine on marriage and family. But what I argue is that Francis is not changing doctrine. He is encouraging a broader view of who counts as families inside and outside the church.
In the same documentary in which Francis made his remarks on same-sex civil unions, he also criticized countries with overly restrictive immigration policies, saying, “It’s cruelty, and separating parents from kids goes against natural rights.” He was referring to the right to family, which “exists prior to the State or any other community.”
The comments in the documentary show a persistent move toward welcoming families in contemporary Catholic thought. Francis proposes that a welcoming church should support all families, especially those who are hurting. Similarly, as he says, governments should do the same – including supporting gay and lesbian couples.
Meanwhile, Stonewall, as part of a YouGov survey, found that 10% of health and social care workers – who they surveyed to analyse how beliefs may impact patient care – said a colleague had vocalised belief in a ‘gay cure’. Essentially, this is not just a fringe issue.
The United Nations defines so-called conversion therapy as practices that seek ‘to change non-heteronormative sexual orientations and non-cisnormative gender identities.’
They continue that it is ‘an umbrella term to describe interventions of a wide-ranging nature, all of which are premised on the belief that a person’s sexual orientation and gender identity, including gender expression, can and should be changed or suppressed when they do not fall under what other actors in a given setting and time perceive as the desirable norm, in particular when the person is lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans or gender diverse.
‘Such practices are therefore consistently aimed at effecting a change from non-heterosexual to heterosexual and from trans or gender diverse to cisgender.
‘Depending on the context, the term is used for a multitude of practices and methods, some of which are clandestine and therefore poorly documented.’
Some of the ‘techniques’ they have seen in their extensive research on the topic include ‘corrective’ rape, threats, exorcisms, forced repentance, and isolation from family and friends.
The Government response to the petition promises to ‘to deepen our understanding and consider all options for ending the practice of conversion therapy’, noting that ‘conversion therapy is a very complex issue’.
Carolyn Mercer – who was assigned male at birth – had aversion therapy at the age of 17, with the aim to ‘cure’ her from feelings of gender dysphoria.
Now 73, Carolyn says that this form of punitive treatment has affected her ability to feel positive emotions – despite the decades that have passed.
Her experience with aversion therapy began after she visited the doctor to talk about feeling like she was born in the wrong body. These feelings had started around age three, but the doctor brushed them off, telling the confused teenager to ‘stop worrying your mum’.
She said: ‘I needed someone to listen to me and recognise my identity not to try to change me by denial and punishment.’
From there, a meeting with the local vicar (who’d come to visit Carolyn’s parents while they were at work and only Carolyn was home) led to a chat where she spoke about her dysphoria, and then led to her being referred to a mental hospital.
‘I felt that I ought to be punished for feeling the way that I did,’ Carolyn told Metro.co.uk.
‘I didn’t know how to process it. Of course, in those days, there was no internet. There was no literature. There was no one I could talk to.’
When Carolyn did open up, she was sent to Whittingham Hospital near Preston, the town where she grew up.
She said: ‘I wanted to be cured. I didn’t want to be odd. I didn’t want to be different. I didn’t want to be nasty, dirty – which is how I saw it.
‘And so he referred me to the psychiatrist, who then recommended NHS treatment.’
This ‘therapy’ (Carolyn doesn’t like the word, but stresses that she did enter into it voluntarily) saw her strapped to a wooden chair in a dark room, with electrodes fastened to her arms.
She said: ‘I can still smell it. They soaked the electrodes in salt water, in brine, and attached them to my arm.
‘And then from time to time while showing pictures [of women’s clothes or typically feminine things] on the wall, they’d pull the switch and send a pain through my body.
‘The idea was to make me associate the pain with what I wanted to do, and therefore that would stop me wanting to do it.
‘Effectively what it did was not make me hate that aspect of me. It made me hate me because it reinforced that I was wrong; I was evil, and so I deserved to be punished. And that was inflicted as part of NHS treatment.’
Carolyn went on to marry a woman and had children, moving up the ranks in teaching to become the youngest headteacher in Lancashire.
Her life was filled with enviable and admirable moments, but the spectre of the therapy and knowing she was trans was always there.
It was barbaric… and it clearly didn’t work
Carolyn likens what she went through to previous corrective and punitive measures used on left-handed people throughout history, which are not only proven not to work, but are designed to change a natural facet of someone, pathologising their sexuality or gender expression.
A UN study published in June 2020 found that 98% of the 940 persons who reported having undergone some form of conversion therapy testified to having suffered damage as a result.
However, due to the underreporting of conversion therapy and the myriad of effects from physical to psychological (potentially making it harder for a specific harm to be pinpointed by governments), these practices are still not banned.
Although such practices are frowned upon in the therapy industry (and have been disavowed by the NHS), a petition by the public to enshrine this into law recently highlighted the fact that the overarching practise is still allowed in the UK.
Josh Bradlow, Policy Manager, Stonewall told Metro.co.uk: ‘Conversion therapy can come in many different forms from a variety of sources and is often hidden.
‘It may be disguised as pastoral care or a form of support to help someone with difficult feelings. These so-called therapies are also sometimes based in psychotherapy or medical practices that try to “fix” a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity.’
Many of the physically violent acts that fall under the conversion therapy banner are already illegal – rape, for example – so in theory, a ban would encompass the psychological methods being used.
We have to continue to shine a light on the horrifying after-effects of these methods, too, so that they don’t fall by the wayside in legislation.
Despite Carolyn doing the ‘blokey’ things she felt she were supposed to do, the dysphoria didn’t go away until she transitioned in 2002 ( or, as Carolyn puts it, ‘align my gender expression with my gender identity, which most people call transition’).
We can’t change the past, but we can look at the main effect for Carolyn – over 40 years of self-hatred and low self-esteem – as a stark warning of what we need to do next.
She said: ‘I can smile about it now, because I force myself to.’
‘But it was barbaric, you wouldn’t subject somebody to that in a concentration camp.
‘It clearly didn’t work, but worked at making me hate myself for a lifetime.’
Carolyn believes her experience has made her devote her life to teaching in an effort to help others, in part because of her low opinion of herself caused by the therapy.
Mark Loewen tells a similar story, although the form of conversion therapy he experienced was different to Carolyn’s.
Mark grew up in Paraguay in a religious family. As a child – and without the internet until about the age of 13 – he didn’t know what the word gay even meant, but tells us: ‘Growing up, I knew that something was different.’
Small things such as playing with girls’ toys and the sense of shame that came with that led to Mark questioning his sexuality, and it was when he went through puberty that he realised he was sexually attracted to men.
The way that homosexuality was treated by the pastors at his church was to read the passages of the Bible about sex between men, and to tell Mark ‘just don’t do it, and you’ll be fine’.
Mark worked in a pet shop where one of the customers was known to be gay. His colleagues warned Mark to be careful around the customer.
He said: ‘That’s the message; kind of like we’re dangerous, and that I could be dangerous.’
That man went on to kill himself, leaving Mark believing that this is what ‘destiny’ would have in store too if he came out.
When Mark reached his early twenties he found chatrooms where he was able to identify other gay men through coded language and have secret meet-ups for sex. But because of the negative messages he internalised, these were filled with shame for him and he began to use the internet in order to look for a ‘solution’.
‘I’m not looking for “how can I be happy as a gay man?”,’ said Mark.
‘My searches are “how do we get rid of this?” And so I get involved with a group I find called Exodus International.’
His church told Mark that homosexuality was caused by a distant father and an overbearing mother, and that he was being ‘respectful’ by not feeling a desire to sleep with the girls he was dating. When the time was right, they said, he would meet that right woman.
While working at a Christian book store at around the age of 22, Mark would regularly have business trips to the US, so he was able to go to his first ‘ex-gay’ conference in California without telling his family or friends.
The three-day conference including worship and music, which Mark says made the crowd feel like they were in a ‘trance’.
‘Their speakers would talk a lot about this seeking wholeness where we were missing something emotionally and to seek it. And so a lot of it was about finding approval for yourself in as a person as a man.’
The seminars were framed in a way where gay wasn’t who you were, instead portraying it as a series of attractions and behaviours that could be managed.
At first, these sessions were cathartic for Mark, seeming to him the one place he could truly talk about his innermost secrets and still be ‘loved’.
Mark said: ‘It goes well for some time, and then you notice that you’re still attracted to guys, and all of that happens again and again until you kind of fall again and have sex with someone or whatever it is that you do. And then you feel like you’ve failed.’
Throughout later group therapy sessions it was drummed into Mark that his desire for emotional connection with another man was not love, but instead a form of codependence and selfishness – a way to gain a stronger sense of masculinity that he believed he lacked.
Group members and those he knew would pray for him and he would be given what we’d know as a form of exorcism to change him.
It was only when he went to a college in the US and began studying psychotherapy himself that he realised these techniques were ineffective and morally wrong.
He left the sessions and has gone on to have a daughter and get married to a man he loves dearly. But he says that unpicking the idea that he was codependent and that who he is is shameful has taken a lot of work.
Like Carolyn, he has channeled his energy into helping others.
If we look at the idea of the carrot or the stick, Carolyn’s aversion therapy was the stick and Mark’s conversion therapy was the carrot.
Where Carolyn experienced the more extreme-seeming Clockwork Orange type treatment, Mark’s therapy veered into the territory of the 1999 movie But I’m A Cheerleader, where ‘reparative therapy’ is used, with the idea being that same-sex attraction is a symptom of a psychological problem that can be fixed by talking through childhood issues.
The damage has been done
But both of these types of conversion therapy still go on throughout the world, and both have the end result of making people believe they are inherently wrong.
Stonewall’s Josh Bradlow said: ‘A person’s sexual orientation and gender identity is a natural, normal part of their identity and not something that can or should be changed.
‘By trying to shame a person into denying a core part of who they are, these ‘therapies’ can have a seriously damaging impact on their mental health and wellbeing. Major UK health organisations like the NHS, and the leading psychotherapy and counselling bodies have publicly condemned these practices.’
The ‘happy ending’ here is the fact that Carolyn transitioned and is a grandparent with a loving wife and children, and that Mark has found his calling and started a beautiful family.
But healing scars that run so deep are much harder than ensuring we don’t inflict them in the first place.
Carolyn likens the experience to stretching an elastic band to the point where it no longer has any give left.
‘I don’t feel positive emotions,’ she said.
‘And that’s what has been driven out of me by an understanding that I was wrong. I was evil.
‘[Without aversion therapy] I would have been freed from that. I would have been able to enjoy things more. It’s better now than it was, but the damage is done.’
As the stats above show, although these decades have passed in Carolyn and Mark’s stories, these therapies are still happening, and the damage is still being done to others.
Both the survivors of conversion therapy that Metro.co.uk spoke to say that the solution is more understanding and empathy alongside a ban on these practices.
It’s all very well to ban conversion therapy, but without the proper understanding about the shame and hiding that comes with gender dysphoria or questions about our sexuality, we’re no closer to equality.
Mr Bradlow said: ‘Banning sexual orientation and gender identity conversion therapy would send a powerful message to young LGBT people to let them know that they are not ill.
‘But we also need to work on raising awareness of these dangerous practices, and ensure practitioners are trained to recognise it too.
‘And fundamentally, we need to tackle messages young LGBT people may get from other places, whether that be school, the media or at home, that there’s something wrong with who they are.
‘Until that happens, our work continues to ensure every lesbian, gay, bi and trans person can grow up happy, healthy and supported to be themselves.’
Declan Henry’s new book,Forbidden Fruit, speaks to gay priests about the hypocrisy and homophobia of the Catholic Church. It also looks at the issues, which he writes, have led to the crumbling of a once-mighty institution. Declan speaks about the creation of the book, the high percentage of gay priests in the Church and how he, as a gay man and a Catholic, has managed to reconcile his faith.
What was the impetus for writing your book?
“I wanted to explore the changing face of Catholicism in Ireland over the past 30 years post the cleric abuse scandals. I want to find out why the Church has never adequately addressed the reasons why paedophilia occurred among priests – and question if this malaise is still present – and why. I wanted to explore the hypocrisy of the church towards gay people – given that such a high percentage of Catholic priests are gay. I also wanted to explore compulsory celibacy and question if it is emotionally healthy to expect any man – gay or straight – to live a life devoid of intimate personal relationships and sex.”
Did your research surprise you?
“I met two very different – yet both happy priests during my research. One was an openly gay (celibate) priest in Dublin who is much loved and respected by his parishioners for being so honest. The other was a married priest in London (converted from the Anglican Church many years ago). It was so refreshing to be shown around his church and to be introduced to his wife and children. This clearly showed two things – a) that there is absolutely nothing wrong with being gay and a priest… b) being a married Catholic priest is not the slightest deterrent in fulfilling the role of a priest.”
Declan continued, “Research last year from the French author (Frederick Martel) found that 80% of the Vatican’s top clergy are gay. And yet, despite these high statistics, the Catholic Church is very homophobic. Why?”
How do you balance your affinity for the Catholic Church alongside your findings?
“I believe that most people in the LGBT+ community must transcend their belief system beyond the Catholic Church and find their own faith, their own God, their own Jesus. In the end, this is not too hard to do. Remember that you can read all the Gospels and you will find that Jesus never once condemned homosexuality.”
“In one sense, I smile when I think back about my earlier years growing up gay in Ireland – how vulnerable I was, how naïve I was. In the book, I recall how once I was feeling down and went to see a priest – but he refused to see me because he had just started to prepare his dinner. His dinner was far more important to him than seeing me. And so, I left and never returned. But I’m lucky. I left all that behind. I’ve had a good life, so any bitterness is forgotten. But there was pain and rejection. On one hand you had this unrivalled sense of belonging but on the other hand rejection, fear, shame and guilt for being gay.”
Do you believe the Catholic Church has alienated LGBT+ people to the point of pushing them from their faith?
“Yes, absolutely. Pope after Pope has helped to reinforce this message. Take the current Pope for example – he is not a stupid man, he is well informed and very knowledgeable about what is going on around him, yet he can say the most foolish of things. In December 2018 he stated, ‘There is no place for gay priests in the clergy’. Who is he trying to fool when the horse has well and truly bolted on that one?!”
“The truth is the church is full of homosexuals at every level. But unfortunately, most of these gay priests have a very unhealthy attitude towards their own sexuality – which is not alone very damaging to themselves but damaging to the wider LGBT+ community.”
Belief in the virgin birth comes from the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Their birth stories are different, but both present Mary as a virgin when she became pregnant with Jesus. Mary and Joseph begin their sexual relationship following Jesus’ birth, and so Jesus has brothers and sisters.
Catholic piety goes beyond this, with Mary depicted as a virgin not only before but also during and after Jesus’ birth, her hymen miraculously restored. The brothers and sisters of Jesus are seen as either cousins or children of Joseph by an earlier marriage.
In Catholicism, Mary remains a virgin throughout her married life. This view arises not from the New Testament but from an apocryphal Gospel in the second century, the “Protoevangelium of James”, which affirms Mary’s perpetual virginity.
From the second century onwards, Christians saw virginity as an ideal, an alternative to marriage and children. Mary was seen to exemplify this choice, along with Jesus and the apostle Paul. It accorded with the surrounding culture where Greek philosophers, male and female, tried to live a simple life without attachment to family or possessions.
This extolling of virginity, however unlikely when applied to Mary, did have some advantages. The option of becoming a celibate nun in community with other women gave young women in the early church an attractive alternative to marriage, in a culture where marriages were generally arranged and death in childbirth was common.
Yet belief in the eternal virginity of Mary has also inflicted damage over the centuries, particularly on women. It has distorted the character of Mary, turning her into a submissive, dependent creature, without threat to patriarchal structures.
She is divorced from the lives of real women who can never attain her sexless motherhood or her unsullied “purity”.
A strong minded leader
Yet in the Gospels, Mary is a vibrant figure: strong-minded and courageous, a leader in the community of faith.
Simone de Beauvoir, the influential, early French feminist, observed that the cult of the Virgin Mary represented the “supreme victory of masculinity”, implying that it served the interests of men rather than women.
The ever-Virgin diminishes women’s sexuality and makes the female body and female sexuality seem unwholesome, impure. She is a safe and nonthreatening figure for celibate men who place her on a pedestal, both literally and metaphorically.
It is true that Catholic women across the world have found great solace in the compassionate figure of Mary, especially against images of a very masculine, judgmental God, and the brutality of political and religious hierarchy.
But for this women have paid a price, in their exclusion from leadership. Mary’s voice has been permitted, in filtered tones, to ring out across the church, but real women’s voices are silent.
In today’s context, the cult of the Virgin becomes emblematic of the way the church silences women and marginalises their experience.
Marian piety in its traditional form has a deep contradiction at its heart. In a speech in 2014, Pope Francis said, “The model of maternity for the Church is the Virgin Mary” who “in the fullness of time conceived through the Holy Spirit and gave birth to the Son of God.”
If that were true, women could be ordained, since their connection to Mary would allow them, like her, to represent the church. If the world received the body of Christ from this woman, Mary, then women today should not be excluded from giving the body of Christ, as priests, to the faithful at Mass.
The Virgin cult cuts women off from the full, human reality of Mary, and so from full participation in the life of the church.
It is no coincidence that in the early 20th century, the Vatican forbade Mary to be depicted in priestly vestments. She could only ever be presented as the unattainable virgin-mother: never as leader, and never as a fully embodied woman in her own right.
The irony of this should not be lost. A fully human Gospel symbol of female authority, autonomy, and the capacity to envision a transformed world becomes a tool of patriarchy.
By contrast, the Mary of the Gospels, the God-bearer and priestly figure – a normal wife and mother of children – confirms women in their embodied humanity and supports their efforts to challenge unjust structures, both within and outside the church.
As the Catholic Church prepares for its contended review, the Commission for Marriage and Family of the German Bishops’ Conference came to the consensus that being gay is a “normal form of sexual predisposition.”
Moreover, church organisers committed to “newly assessing” topics such as sacraments of ordination and marriage, with another revision being that adultery will not longer “always be qualified as grave sin”, the Catholic News Agencyreported.
For centuries, Church leaders have been rattled by the thought of people being sexualities other than heterosexual. But as public attitudes and governments overwhelmingly sway in favour of letting the LGBT+ community exist, the church has steadily caught up to speed.
German bishops call for homophobia to be ‘rejected’ in the church.
The German Catholic Church’s statement comes ahead of a two-year ‘Synodal Process’ by the Germans which will see a national reform consultation. Although, Vatican leaders have warned against this.
In a press release detailing the conclusions of the conference, it detailed how a panel of bishops, sexologists, moral theologians and canon lawyers deliberated how to discuss “the sexuality of man […] scientifically-theologically, and how to assess it ecclesiastically.”
The experts, consisting of bishops from four diocese, agreed in the Berlin conference that “human sexuality encompasses a dimension of lust, of procreation, and of relationships”, the release stated.
“There was also agreement that the sexual preference of man expresses itself in puberty and assumes a hetero- or homosexual orientation. Both belong to the normal forms of sexual predisposition, which cannot or should be be changed with the help of a specific socialisation.”
The panel also said that “any form of discrimination of those persons with a homosexual orientation has to be rejected.”
However, the panel did not reach a consensus across all battle lines. There was no consensus on “whether the magisterial ban on practiced homosexuality is still up to date.”
Furthermore, the experts also disagreed on whether or not both married and unmarried people should be allowed to use artificial contraceptives.
His papacy has been a consistent rebuke to American culture-war Christianity in politics.
By John Gehring
The Rev. James Martin, one of America’s most prominent Catholic priests, is a best-selling author, film consultant to Hollywood producers and a prolific tweeter with a digital pulpit that reaches more than 250,000 followers. Father Martin is also a hero to many L.G.B.T. Catholics for challenging church leaders to recognize the full humanity of gay people. His advocacy has made him a target of vicious online campaigns from far-right Catholic groups. Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia last month warned that Father Martin “does not speak with authority on behalf of the church.”
But this week, Father Martin’s ministry received an endorsement from the most authoritative of church offices. Pope Francis met with the priest, a Jesuit like the pope, during a private, half-hour conversation in the pope’s library, a place often reserved for discussions with heads of state and diplomats. In a tweet, Father Martin said he shared with Francis “the joys and hopes, and the griefs and anxieties, of L.G.B.T. Catholics and L.G.B.T. people worldwide.”
There is little doubt Pope Francis wanted the meeting advertised. Damian Thompson, associate editor of The Spectator, a London-based conservative magazine, tweeted that the pope’s meeting was “intended to taunt the U.S. conservatives that he demonizes.”
Despite that hyperventilating, Pope Francis has made it clear that he is not afraid of the small but increasingly vocal chorus of American critics who consider his pastoral efforts to reach out to L.G.B.T. people and divorced Catholics as near heretical breaks from church tradition. In September, a reporter asked Pope Francis about his right-wing critics in the United States. “It’s an honor that Americans are attacking me,” the pope told Nicholas Senèze, a French journalist who presented the pope with his new book, “How America Wanted to Change the Pope,” which chronicles efforts by conservatives in the United States to undermine the pope.
The pope’s meeting with Father Martin did more than serve as a signal of support for the priest’s advocacy on behalf of L.G.B.T. people. It was also emblematic of the Francis papacy, which has been a consistent rebuke to a style of culture-war Christianity that since the ascendance of the religious right in the United States during the 1980s has often been the default setting for American Christianity in politics.
Since his election six years ago, Pope Francis has modeled a different brand of moral leadership: engaging and persuading, reframing contentious issues away from narrow ideologies and expanding moral imaginations. Last week, a gay theologian and priest who was dismissed from his religious order for expressing disagreement with the church’s teachings on same-sex relationships wrote that Pope Francis called him two years ago, gave him “the power of the keys,” a reference to being restored to ministry, and encouraged him to “walk with deep interior freedom, following the spirit of Jesus.”
The pope’s interior freedom and humility stand in stark contrast to other religious and political leaders on the world stage. When Donald Trump accepted the Republican nomination for president, he declared: “I am your voice. I alone can fix it.” In keeping with that megalomania, Mr. Trump surrounds himself with compliant evangelical courtiers like Robert Jeffress, the Dallas megachurch pastor, who view the president in messianic terms, a political savior. Mr. Trump turned to Mr. Jeffress this week, citing the pastor’s claim on Fox News that if the president is impeached, it will cause a “Civil War-like fracture in this nation from which this country will never heal.”
Pope Francis rejects this resurgence of Christian nationalism and warns against idolizing politicians.
As right-wing populists from the United States to Europe depict migrants as menacing threats and build walls, the pope continues to challenge what he calls a “globalization of indifference.” On Sunday, during a special Mass for the 105th World Day of Migrants and Refugees, Pope Francis unveiled an artistic monument to migration in St. Peter’s Square. The work depicts 140 migrants and refugees from various historical periods traveling by boat, a powerful visual counterpoint to the nativist winds blowing across both sides of the Atlantic.
And unlike the loudest anti-abortion voices on the Christian right who are so wed to the Republican Party that they ignore assaults on life inflicted by policies that exacerbate economic inequality, poverty and climate change, the pope insists that the “lives of the poor, those already born, the destitute” are as “equally sacred” as the unborn in the womb.
Culture warriors in the United States have done enough damage to our collective political and moral imagination. More intoxicated with power than faithful to the gospel, these religious leaders demonize L.G.B.T. people, turn their back on migrants fleeing danger and ignore the cries of the poor while claiming to defend Christian values. A humble but persistent pastor in Rome reminds us there is a different path for those of us who still believe in a faith that seeks justice.
LGBT Catholics from Oscar Wilde to Farm Street Jesuit Church
On 18 May 1897, Wilde was released from prison after serving two years for ‘gross indecency’ for being in a same sex relationship
by Benjamin Smith
On 18 May 1897, the writer Oscar Wilde was released from prison after serving two years for ‘gross indecency’; imprisoned for being in a same sex relationship. One of his first acts upon gaining his freedom was to write to the Jesuits at the Church of the Immaculate Conception, Farm Street, London, asking for a six month retreat. Perhaps because they feared scandal, or because they were sceptical of his commitment, the Jesuits refused his request, instead telling him to ask again after a period of discernment. Wilde left for France shortly afterwards, and never returned to London. The story of LGBT Catholics doesn’t end there, however; London has been the scene of many more encounters between the Church and LGBT people; notably in recent times the journey of the LGBT+ Catholics Westminster (formerly Soho Masses) community.
The spring of 1999 was a time of mourning for the LGBT community; on the evening of Friday April 30th 1999, a neo-nazi had detonated a bomb in the Admiral Duncan pub in Soho, killing three people, including a pregnant woman, and injuring 79. The law which had been used to convict Oscar Wilde had been repealed in 1967, but homophobia was still common throughout society, and although the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith had condemned violence against “homosexual persons’ in their 1986 document “On the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons”, many LGBT people did not feel welcome in Catholic churches. In this atmosphere of fear and distrust, the Helpers of the Holy Souls opened the doors of their convent in Camden Town to the LGBT Catholic community, and the first Mass welcoming lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Catholics, their families and friends, was held there on Sunday 2nd May 1999.
Last Saturday (27th April 2019), the LGBT+ Catholics Westminster commemorated both of these anniversaries with a prayerful walk, beginning at the Oscar Wilde memorial and finishing at Farm Street church, which is now our home parish. Along the way we heard readings from scripture and from Catholic authors who had struggled with their sexuality, such as the priest Henri Nouwen and the poet Dunstan Thomas. We prayed for the victims of hate crime, the activists who have worked tirelessly for LGBT inclusion in the Church, and for the Pope and the Church as a whole. The stops on the route included the Admiral Duncan pub, the church of Notre Dame de France, where the first public conference on Catholics and Homosexuality was held in 1976, and two churches which have hosted our community over the years: St Anne’s Anglican Church, on Dean Street, and the Church of Our Lady of the Assumption and St Gregory, Warwick Street.
The Convent of the Helpers of the Holy Souls was sold in 2001, and the LGBT Catholic community moved to St Anne’s in the heart of Soho. Over time, the size of the community began to outgrow the space available, while at the same time the diocese of Westminster was looking for a way to offer outreach and support to LGBT Catholics, and in 2007 the community was invited by the diocese to attend Mass at Warwick Street twice a month. The community flourished, many members travelling long distances to attend the Masses. For many people, including myself, this was the first time we were able to openly identify ourselves as Catholic in an LGBT community that often seemed to view Catholics with suspicion, and openly identify ourselves as LGBT in a Church that often seemed to view LGBT people as a problem that needed to be solved, rather than embraced as part of God’s creation.
The news of the move to Farm Street in 2013 was met with some trepidation by the Soho Masses community: would we be accepted or shunned? Would we be swallowed up by a larger parish and lose the sense of identity and community we had worked so hard to build? However, as we discovered, both the clergy and parishioners at Farm Street take pride in the welcome they extend to all, and their response to the LGBT Catholic community was no exception. As well as worshipping together regularly as a community, LGBT+ Catholics Westminster are integrated into the life of the wider parish; serving at the Masses with music, reading and ministering, and contributing to the parish’s social and charitable activities. Our inclusion as part of the Westminster Diocese chaplaincy to LGBT people has also allowed us to start reaching out to others who may need support, with events for young people still struggling to reconcile their faith and sexual or gender identity, or for Catholic parents of LGBT people. Coming out is always challenging, and the journey of LGBT+ Catholics Westminster has been no exception, but each step we have taken has give us new opportunities to witness that LGBT people have a home in the Catholic church.
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.”
“You can be taught to act straight in order to survive.”
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.
“We have to get it right when it comes to sexuality.”
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.”
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.
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.