Last year, I stumbled upon the Web site of a Catholic parish church, the pastor of which has been a friend of mine since we were in seminary together in the 1980s. Among the sermons on the site was one dealing with the sexual abuse scandal that roiled the church in 2002. In this sermon, the priest repeated the conservative line that the scandal was largely the result of homosexual men failing to keep their vows. This did not surprise me because I knew my friend was conservative.
But I also knew he was gay. I was undisturbed because I have long believed that the accident of being gay should not prevent someone from holding whatever ideological inclinations they find compatible with the complex yearnings of their minds and hearts. I considered my friend’s analysis facile and wrong, but not offensive per se until he used the pronoun “they” to describe gay men. It was with genuine concern and in a spirit of fraternal correction that I wrote my friend a note calling his attention to the fact that in English, when referring to a group of which one is a part, “we” is the proper pronoun.
I thought of this exchange last week, as news reports filled the airwaves that the Vatican was about to ban gay priests, and my e-mail inbox and answering machine were jammed with messages of alarm, anger, and frustration. Not all messages came from gay priests; all asked me to join them in calling or writing to anyone who might be able to prevent this disaster, which I happily did. News of the purported ban seems to have been spread by right-wing gossips in the church who were trying to advance a document on seminary practices that has been in the drafting stages for years. According to New York Times, the document would declare that gay men are unfit for orders and should not be permitted to enter seminary. Pope Benedict has not yet signed the document, but anonymous church officials quoted by the Times say the Vatican will soon finalize it. Church conservatives assert that the ban would represent no real shift because—they claim—barring gays from seminaries has long been church policy. In practice, the American church has been receptive to chaste, gay seminarians.
Benedict’s allies have been pushing such a ban for years. Some claimed that the document was in the final stages when John Paul II’s health went into steep decline last spring. But John Paul II never permitted anti-gay witch hunts. The Communists had used such tactics to smear clerics it did not like, and John Paul never permitted similar whispering campaigns to prosper. Since the election of Benedict, the right-wingers in the church have been clamoring for this document. In addition to restricting the priesthood to their own, they want to use it to help lay the entire blame for the sexual abuse crisis on homosexual priests.
The problem with such a ban is twofold. First, banning gay seminarians will only drive the issue underground, precisely the situation before the sexual revolution permitted people—even priests—to be more honest about their sexuality. The most notorious clerical child molesters were all ordained before the sexual revolution and before the changes wrought in the church by the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). Secrecy and silence encourage immaturity and duplicity, necessary precursors for inappropriate sexual behavior. Second, as my exchange with my friend indicates, many of those priests the right wing considers “their own” are also gay, and only a willful ignorance would fail to see it.
Such a willful ignorance must exist. When I was in the seminary in the mid-1980s, a local bishop came to visit. The bishop dressed for mass in the rectory next door. We seminarians were a bit late in arriving and were met by the bishop’s secretary who said, “Come on boys, get into your dresses. Grandma is coming.” Grandma was the bishop. The secretary had a feminine nickname, which, I am told, his intimates still use. To complete the screenplay quality of the experience, one of the priests who was in attendance that day left the priesthood shortly thereafter to become a flight steward or, as he called it, “a waitress in the sky.” This kind of campiness was common both in the seminary and in my experiences with those already ordained. As for the secretary, he is now a bishop much in favor with conservatives.
The anger about the ban among priests, gay and straight, was more visceral than anything I have ever seen. It is an unwritten rule of gay life that you never, ever “out” a closeted gay person. Everyone has the right to come to terms with their own sexuality in their own way. (I need hardly add that Christians take their name from the master who famously warned against judging others.) Yet, there were threats of outings last week. The hypocrisy of trying to hang the sexual abuse crisis around the neck of gay priests, most of whom are celibate and hardworking, was too much. I know some gay priests who have truly wrestled with their sexuality. As with straight priests, some have fallen from their vows on occasion or on holiday, but most have been largely faithful. Some gay priests are liberal and others are conservative. Some are still conflicted by their sexuality and others are not. What they all share is an almost heroic sense of integrity. To try and blame them for the shiftless careerism that caused bishops to look the other way while children were being abused is beyond the pale.
The last thing the church needs is an anti-gay auto-da-fé.
Reform of the church must always draw upon our tradition, and if Pope Benedict wants to truly address the source of the sexual abuse scandal, he will reinstate the ancient tradition of the church that prevented bishops from being transferred (the technical term is “translated”) or promoted from one bishopric to another, more important, diocese. In a stroke, he would remove the careerism that fueled the sweep-it-under-the-rug-at-all-costs syndrome that fostered the crisis. If a man wants to be the bishop of Bridgeport, let him be the bishop of Bridgeport for the rest of his life. But do not tempt him to fail to face problems in the hopes of becoming the archbishop of New York. This would be a useful first step.
I hope my e-mails (and this article) help persuade the powers that be in the church to back off. When I approach my death, I want a kind priest at hand, and I frankly don’t care what his sexual preference is. I suspect that most Catholics feel that way. It is a thing that the right-wingers hate to admit, but the Christian Gospels do not suggest a culture war. They suggest that we be on the lookout for hypocrisy, especially our own.