First published September 29, 2005, in Between the Lines
Back in the 1980s, I aspired to the Roman Catholic priesthood. After investigating various orders, I eventually gravitated toward the Franciscans, not so much on theological grounds as for having clicked well with the vocation director, “Fr. Larry.” (Or maybe I thought that brown was the new black.)
Shortly after I became a candidate, Fr. Larry left the order. Only later I discovered that he was a gay man who decided to pursue a relationship. Soon after, I came to terms with my own gayness and subsequently left to pursue life “on the outside.” My fellow friars were supportive, even singing “Climb Every Mountain” as I marched out the friary door.
Okay, so I made that last part up. But it’s true that the priests and brothers helped me not only to confront my gayness but also to channel it in healthy directions. “Take your time,” they counseled me. “Explore your options.” It was, for this sheltered, sexually immature nineteen year-old, excellent advice. Some of these men were gay (though celibate) themselves, and their personal candor was invaluable to me.
Fast-forward to 2005. The Vatican has just announced that it will prohibit gay men—including celibates—from entering the priesthood. This is a profoundly stupid policy, both theologically and practically.
Theologically, the policy suggests that the temptation to homosexual conduct is somehow irredeemable. This suggestion conflicts with the Church’s own previous statements: in the 1986 letter to the bishops “On the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons,” the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, headed by Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI), criticized the “unfounded and demeaning assumption that the sexual behavior of homosexual persons is always and totally compulsive.”
Even if you grant the Church’s false view that homosexual conduct is always wrong, you’d have to have a pretty poor opinion of God’s redemptive power to suggest that he cannot provide gay men called to the priesthood with sufficient grace to remain celibate.
Perhaps this criticism is unfair. It is not that God’s grace is insufficient, the Church might argue, but that for practical reasons we can’t risk taking any chances. But this practical rationale for the policy is even more stupid, since it duplicates the culture of secrecy and repression that was a major cause of the current sex-abuse scandal. With the new policy in place, the only gay men who enter the priesthood will be those in deep denial about their sexual orientation (or, perhaps just as bad, those willing to lie about it): not a good recipe for a healthier, more sexually responsible Church.
I say this as someone who’s “been there, done that.” When I began the order’s screening process at eighteen, I told the interviewing psychologist that I was “basically straight, though I had occasional gay feelings.” Amazingly, he didn’t press me on it. Amazingly, I really believed it, even though I didn’t have any “straight feelings,” occasional or otherwise. It was a brilliant example of how otherwise smart human beings can ignore clear facts, refusing to draw the most obvious inferences when the conclusions are rendered sufficiently frightening.
Fortunately, I entered an order that understood that (a) there are gay men in the world, (b) some of them become priests, often very good priests, and (c) this fact is nothing to be afraid or ashamed of. And so we read books with titles like “Being Sexual and Celibate” and “The Courage to Be Chaste,” and we talked openly about our own urges, challenges, and commitments. Thanks to that environment, I was eventually able to acknowledge my sexuality and to explore it in a healthy manner.
Suppose that a gay ban had been enforced. Notice that it would have not kept me out, since both the psychologist and I believed that I was “basically straight.” Notice, too, that I would have entered not only as a gay man but also as a deeply immature and repressed one. Again, not a recipe for a healthy Church.
I’d like to believe that things would have turned out okay, even under such circumstances, but it’s difficult to know. Sexuality has a way of asserting itself sooner or later. To close off healthy avenues for expressing it—even discussing it—invites disaster.
The recent Church scandal only underscores this point. Most of those implicated were ordained at a time when homosexuality was taboo. Thus, in blaming the scandal on tolerance of homosexuality, the Church is not only scapegoating innocent gay men: it is setting the stage again for systematic denial and abuse. It is sinning against its priests, its aspirants, and (most of all) its flock. If ever there were a time for believers to hope for God’s redemptive power, this is it.