A Gay Priest Speaks Out

the vatican, homosexuals & holy orders

Sometime in the next few months, the Vatican will issue a much-anticipated document addressing the issue of whether gay men can be ordained priests. The policy is being written by the Congregation for Catholic Education in preparation for the upcoming Vatican “apostolic visitation” of seminaries in the United States, the in-depth review that is part of the Vatican’s response to the sexual-abuse crisis.

Exactly what Rome will say is unclear. Some observers predict an outright ban on admitting homosexuals to seminaries and religious orders; others foresee less drastic restrictions. No one, however, expects the Vatican to issue a warm welcome to gay men who feel called to the priesthood. But while banning or severely restricting gay men in orders would surely delight those U.S. Catholics who blame gay priests for the sexual-abuse crisis or have been railing against the “gay subculture” in the clergy, to a gay priest like myself, the imminent release of this document looms like terrible, if not entirely unexpected, news from the doctor.

It is also represents a serious moral error.

Few doubt that the impetus behind the Vatican’s proposed statement is the sexual-abuse crisis that has convulsed the Catholic Church in America for the past three years. And if American Catholics took note that the crimes overwhelmingly concerned priests preying on young boys and adolescent males, those in Rome drew unwarranted deductions from those facts, prompting some Vatican officials to take aim at all homosexuals in the priesthood. As Vatican spokesman Joaquín Navarro-Valls said in March 2002, “People with these inclinations just cannot be ordained.”

Yet many men with such “inclinations” are already ordained. To be sure, no reliable data exist about the number of gay priests in the United States, and estimates vary widely. Many bishops and religious superiors, who are either embarrassed by the presence of gay priests under their jurisdiction or who deny their existence, are understandably skittish about conducting research that would confirm the presence of homosexual priests in the church. (My completely anecdotal impression is that probably 25 percent of priests are homosexual.) Still, even if research were conducted, it is unlikely that gay priests would feel comfortable participating. Frank answers might jeopardize their ministries, especially since some bishops seem to equate homosexuality with pedophilia. “We feel a person who is homosexual-oriented is not a suitable candidate for the priesthood, even if he had never committed any homosexual act,” said Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua, archbishop of Philadelphia, in April 2002.

In addition to the lack of data, a strict code of silence concerning homosexual priests has been imposed. Bishops and religious superiors have forbidden many priests from speaking, writing, or preaching about their homosexuality. (This is the reason I am using a pseudonym for this article: I have been instructed not to speak publicly about my sexual identity.) Thus gay priests like myself are caught in a double bind. If we speak the truth and discuss freely our existence in the church, and, more important, our experience of leading fulfilling lives as celibate men, we will be censured or removed from ministry. If we remain silent, though, we guarantee that the positive example of the celibate gay priest will remain hidden. Voiceless, the gay priest cannot defend himself within the church. Stereotyped, he cannot escape the suspicions of society at large.

Yet on this subject, as in so many other areas, the church needs to embrace more transparency, not more silence. For celibate gay priests, like all of God’s people, have an important story to tell.

To take but one example, I have often wanted to remind my parishioners that media coverage of the sexual-abuse crisis portraying all gay priests as abusers was inaccurate and unjust. But I could not offer convincing arguments or testimony without admitting that I knew gay priests or happened to be one myself. This is all the more frustrating because, while too many Catholic commentators equate “gay priest” with “sexually active,” the overwhelming majority of gay priests, in my own experience, are faithful to their promise to be celibate, and lead lives of healthy service to the church and the community at large. Moreover, despite some predictable misunderstandings and insecurities on all sides, homosexual and heterosexual priests work comfortably together.

Further, it is simply a calumny to say that gay priests are necessarily sexually active, or worse, that they are pedophiles. There are thousands of devoted priests ministering today who are gay and have found healthy ways of living celibately. The uncharitable accusations about the “gay subculture” in the priesthood stems primarily from the stereotype of the gay person as utterly incapable of keeping a vow of chastity or promise of celibacy. That is a falsehood. Moreover, the refusal of the hierarchy to welcome healthy, celibate gay priests as role models perpetuates that falsehood. In such an environment, where celibate gay priests are invisible, the only public examples of gay priests are, by default, notorious pedophiles. Is it any wonder, then, that Rome is busy preparing this new document?

This kind of hypocrisy makes it impossible for American Catholics, let alone the Vatican, to come to a more accurate view of the lives and ministry of gay priests. This, in turn, entails a great spiritual loss.

If the Incarnation shows us anything, it is that God loves us in our humanity, even in our weakness, as St. Paul says-perhaps especially in our weakness. We all have a need to see ourselves as loved by God as we are, even in those parts of ourselves that embarrass or sadden us. Perhaps we think ourselves too plain, too unintelligent, too untalented, or too unsuccessful to warrant God’s love. But God’s love is always far greater than we can imagine, and embraces our entire selves. In my own life, one of the most profound experiences of God’s love came when, after many years, I finally accepted that I could not change myself into a straight man: I was gay and that was simply the way God had created me. Encountering God’s love as I am was a transforming experience, one that I have wanted to share with parishioners not as an example of any personal sexual liberation, but as a sign of God’s infinite, and always surprising, understanding. Does this basic acceptance of God’s love seem like a commonplace sentiment? For most straight men and women, yes. But for gay people, it can be a profoundly difficult proposition to come to believe.

I have long hoped to testify before my parish to this foundational experience of God’s love in my life, but I am of course forbidden to do so. And when a minister of the Word cannot publicly proclaim the freedom that the Word brings to his own life, it is a real loss for a community of faith.

My own path to the priesthood is similar to that of many gay men. In the American Catholic milieu in which I was raised, the pressures against coming to terms with my sexual identity were overwhelming [see Valerie Sayers, page 36].

Growing up, I told no one that I was gay. Entering the seminary in my twenties, I was, as a gay man, fearful of not receiving eventual permission for ordination, so in the initial interviews, questionnaires, and psychological tests required of applicants, I denied my homosexuality. (Later I sought forgiveness for this in the confessional.)

Eventually, though, I came to feel secure enough to reveal this facet of myself to my superiors. Doing so seemed a deepening of my original “call,” an invitation to spiritual growth, and a way to allow God to love me as I am. Further, I realized that my decades spent fearing rejection and feeling marginalized had fostered within me a deep love for the materially poor of this world, who are marginalized and rejected in far worse ways.

Fortunately, and to my surprise, my honesty was welcomed by my superiors and my fellow seminarians. Many conversations about sexuality followed-with seminary rectors, spiritual directors, other seminarians and priests, as well as with psychologists and pastoral counselors. Over the years, my growing understanding of who I was helped me live a life of celibacy with more honesty and comfort. Priestly celibacy, of course, is not easy. Making this total offering to God requires honesty, patience, and sacrifice. It also requires the willingness to engage in an honest and open discussion of one’s sexuality, something a Vatican ban on homosexual priests would make impossible.

Few doubt that priestly celibacy and chastity within religious communities have long appealed to gay men and lesbians. Although the concept of “homosexuality” is a relatively new one, the phenomenon is not. Throughout the history of the church, homosexual men and women have found the priesthood and religious life both a refuge and a fulfilling way of life. As Richard John Neuhaus noted (First Things, June-July 2002): “It would seem more than likely that, in centuries past, some priests who have been canonized as saints would meet today’s criteria as having a ‘homosexual orientation.’” For many Catholics, the only surprising thing about gay priests is that we are still thought to be a source of shame whose existence must be kept secret.

If Rome bars homosexuals from the priesthood, many diocesan seminaries and formation houses for religious orders will undoubtedly lose good men during a time of drastically reduced vocations, while gay men already in orders will be further demoralized. There are other risks. Some priests, both straight and gay, hope that Vatican instructions dictating punitive steps against gay seminarians may be ignored or circumvented by sympathetic seminary rectors and novice directors. But subterfuge will only contribute to an ecclesial culture of hypocrisy. Will religious superiors encourage those to be ordained to practice deception in preparation for the sacrament of holy orders? Will some candidates simply refuse to discuss their homosexuality, closing themselves off to a healthy integration of their sexuality and thus laying the groundwork for spiritual inauthenticity-or worse?

Some have suggested that the Vatican may simply ask gay men to affirm that they have never been sexually active, or sign a document asserting their adherence to the church’s teaching on homosexuality and rejection of the “gay lifestyle,” or pledge never to discuss publicly their experience as gay men. Such restrictions can only be seen as tacit acceptance of the stereotype that homosexuals are inherently less psychologically healthy than heterosexuals-less capable of living celibately, less trustworthy, less valuable as members of the clergy, and, in general, less valuable as human beings. Restrictions would therefore represent an unjust discrimination against gay men. And as the Catechism instructs, concerning gays and lesbians, “They must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in this regard should be avoided” (2358).

Many years ago I felt the first stirring of a vocation to the priesthood. It was an enormous gift in the order of grace. I believe the priesthood is the vocation for which I have been born, and this belief has been confirmed again and again over my years of active ministry. I am celibate and hardworking and healthy and loving and faithful. I am also a gay man. Why is this wrong? 

Published in the 2005-01-28 issue: 

Rev. Gerard Thomas, a pseudonym, is a Catholic priest in active ministry in the United States.

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