Having been raised Roman Catholic, been an altar boy for a decade from age 8 to 18, and risen to the 4th Degree in the Knights of Columbus, I am all too aware of the Medieval dogma of the Church and its desperate clinging to a 12th century understanding of human sexuality. And yes, during those years I was desperately trying to "pray away the gay". something that is both ludicrous and futile with the benefit of hindsight. Nowhere is this embrace of 12th century ignorance more true than in the context of the Church's war against homosexuality which at times has included torturing gays and burning them at the stake, a mindset and practice which Catholic missionaries spread like a cancer across the globe. Meanwhile, the Church has found the ranks of its clergy - probably for centuries - increasingly filled with gays with stunted psycho-sexual development given the Church's bizarre system of all boys schools and high school seminary schools since there was nowhere better to hide one's "secret" than with in the ranks of the celibate priesthood. Something similar also plagues anti-gay Protestant denominations where we see closeted evangelicals flocking to the pulpit where they vent homophobic vitriol only to be caught in gay sex scandals down the road. In an extremely long piece in New York Magazine, Andrew Sullivan lays the current sex abuse scandal firmly at the feet of the Vatican. In reading the piece (which I recommend reading the entire piece), do not forget that celibacy requirement in the Roman Catholic Church derived from the Church's lust for money as the costs of married priest with children mounted. Simply put, celibate priests did not dissipate Church assets in the support of wives and families. Here are column highlights:
We have no reliable figures on just how many priests in the Catholic Church are gay. The Vatican has conducted many studies on its own clergy but never on this subject. In the United States, however, where there are 37,000 priests, no independent study has found fewer than 15 percent to be gay, and some have found as many as 60 percent. The consensus in my own research over the past few months converged on around 30 to 40 percent among parish priests and considerably more than that — as many as 60 percent or higher — among religious orders like the Franciscans or the Jesuits.
This fact hangs in the air as a giant, unsustainable paradox. A church that, since 2005, bans priests with “deep-seated homosexual tendencies” and officially teaches that gay men are “objectively disordered” and inherently disposed toward “intrinsic moral evil” is actually composed, in ways very few other institutions are, of gay men.
The massive cognitive dissonance this requires is becoming harder to sustain. The collapse of the closet in public and private life in the past three decades has made the disproportionate homosexuality of the Catholic priesthood much less easy to hide, ignore, or deny. This cultural and moral shift has not only changed the consciousness of most American Catholics (67 percent of whom support civil marriage for gay couples) and gay priests (many of whom are close to quitting) but also broken the silence that long shrouded the subject.
Five years ago, Pope Francis made his watershed “Who am I to judge?” remark after being asked about a flawed gay priest. “A person once asked me, in a provocative manner, if I approved of homosexuality,” Francis went on. “I replied with another question: ‘Tell me, when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love or reject and condemn this person?’ We must always consider the person. . . . . These sentiments won 62 percent of the votes of the synod bishops — just shy of what was necessary to pass, but still evidence of a sharp shift in tone in official Catholic teaching.
They also triggered near panic on the Catholic right. Alarmed by the possibility that divorced and remarried people might be welcomed as well as gays, traditionalists launched a fierce rearguard campaign against the new papacy, with a focus on what some called a “Lavender Mafia” running the church, and broke new ground in connecting this directly to the horrifying revelations of sex abuse that came to light in 2002. In increasingly direct ways, they have argued that the root of the scandal was not abuse of power, or pedophilia, or clericalism, or the distortive psychological effects of celibacy and institutional homophobia, but gayness itself.
The unseemly fall this past summer of Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, one of the most powerful American cardinals of his time, provided a cause célèbre for this faction. It emerged that McCarrick had abused at least two children and then sexually harassed generations of adult seminarians with impunity.
McCarrick gave the right an opening. New online media organizations — led by Breitbart-style websites such as LifeSite News and Church Militant — now routinely pounce on any incidents involving gay priests and have an influential audience in the Vatican. A wealthy group of conservative Catholics, the Better Church Governance, has even launched an investigation into the orthodoxy, conduct, and, it’s clear, sexual orientation of each of the 124 cardinals who will elect the next pope.
Sullivan then jumps and looks at good, decent gay priests and what the Vatican is doing to them and ultimately to the institution itself, He also looks at an accurate history of gays in the Church:At the center of this struggle, of course, are gay priests, bishops, and cardinals themselves. They are caught in a whiplash of relative toleration embodied by Francis and hostility exemplified by his conservative predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI. . . . . “They are equating all gay priests with sexual abuse. There’s a witch hunt.”
Most of the gay priests I spoke with have never experienced abuse in the church. Many had already come to terms with their sexual orientation before they entered the priesthood, but some wrestled with it in the seminary, and others later in life. “There is no typical experience,” Father Joe, as I’ll call him, told me. “At first I wondered if I were a fraud, because I thought, Well, am I just trying to escape into a life in which I don’t have to deal with my sexuality? But I had people in charge of me who challenged me to ask myself if this were authentic, and I felt that this was the life and work that God was calling me to. It’s an ongoing discernment.” Then there was a moment of grace. “I was working in a hospital at the height of the AIDS crisis. A nun said to me, ‘What do you want to tell these people? They’re active homosexuals, drug users.’ I said, ‘I would talk about God’s mercy and be with them as they are.’ It helped me understand how God could use me even though the church didn’t accept me.”
Another, call him Father Andrew, described his choice of vocation as “convenient and existential”: “I was 18 and sexually aware but extremely depressed, and my father cornered me one day in the kitchen and made me come out. I went to a psychologist, who told me, ‘You’re not going to change. You need to accept yourself.’ ” Andrew’s father was not happy about this recommendation and ended the therapy. In college, Andrew sought out more treatment, and then, suddenly, his father died. It threw him. “I kept thinking about life and death. I had started praying again and attending Mass. I was driving in the desert from Phoenix to Tucson and saw these dust devils, and I suddenly heard in my head, ‘Oh, be a priest. You won’t need to deal with sex; you can be respected.’ And then my brother died — a car crash.” By his junior year, Andrew was in the seminary.
The scapegoating has wounded many of the priests I spoke with. It has become a double stigma: targeted by the hierarchy for being gay and by the general public for being pedophiles. Many of the people I spoke to, Catholics and non-Catholics, about the subject of gay priests rolled their eyes and asked about the abuse of children. The news environment is saturated with stories about sex abuse — and rightly so — yet there are hardly any public examples of the overwhelming number of gay priests who would never dream of preying upon the powerless.
These men are still sexual beings, flesh and blood. In these crises, they tend to do one of two things: either fall so deeply in love that they cannot sustain a life without physical intimacy and so leave the church or, more often, recalibrate, confess, and recommit to the celibate life.
How do you live a healthy sexuality in a context where your sexuality is stigmatized?” After the 2005 ban on gay priests, Father Mike became attracted to conversion therapy and underwent a year and a half of trying to be cured of being gay. It was only later that he came to see how “none of it was true; it was all a lie.”
The preponderance of gay men in the priesthood is, in fact, nothing new in the history of the church. For well over a millennium, it was commonplace, and though there were occasional denunciations of it, these were usually followed by papal inaction or indifference.
Even Saint Augustine had one particularly intense love affair with another young man. “For I felt that my soul and his were one soul in two bodies,” he wrote, “and therefore life was a horror to me, since I did not want to live as a half; and yet I was also afraid to die lest he, whom I had loved so much, would completely die.” This was not merely a spiritual friendship, Augustine confessed. . . . Some have speculated that Augustine’s starkly Manichaean divide between the spirit and the body is rooted in his disgust at his own homosexual tendencies. The historical record, however, reveals that for all Augustine’s influence, the practice of intense homoerotic friendship among the clergy was common over the following centuries, especially in monasteries.
The masterpiece on the subject of “spiritual friendship” was, in fact, written by a gay man, Saint Aelred, the abbot of the Cistercian monastery of Rievaulx in England in the mid-1160s. He had had sexual relationships with men in his younger years, but, vowing chastity as a monk, he sublimated these desires into an idea of intense celibate love for another man. He took as a model the relationship between Jesus and the “disciple whom Jesus loved,” John, describing it at one point even as a “marriage.”
By the 12th century, priests and monks were writing love poems to one another in what Boswell describes as an “outburst of Christian gay literature still without parallel in the Western world.” But perhaps in response to this broad acceptance of gay spirituality, some began to campaign for a crackdown. Around 1051, Saint Peter Damian published a treatise, The Book of Gomorrah, whose rhetoric is strikingly similar to the online denunciations of our time: “absolutely no other vice can be reasonably compared with this one … [it] is in fact the death of the body, the destruction of the soul … it removes truth utterly from the mind.” He accused the church of being run by a gay cabal who covered for each other and gave one another absolution for their sins. The pope at the time, Leo IX, nonetheless refused to ban gay clergy and argued that the problem w as those who had sex “as a long-standing practice or with many men.”
In 1102, in a similar moment, the Council of London decided to promulgate a decree against the newly defined sin of “sodomy” — only to have the publication stopped by the archbishop of Canterbury, who remarked that “this sin has hitherto been so public that hardly anyone is embarrassed by it.”
The tide turned decisively in the 13th century with the theological genius Thomas Aquinas denouncing homosexual acts as “against nature.” All sex — heterosexual and homosexual — was to be reserved only for married couples open to procreation, and any other sexual activity was a grave sin. Homosexuals, in the new theology, were part of nature — many had noticed homosexual behavior in the animal kingdom, particularly among hares and hyenas — but they were also somehow contrary to nature. Aquinas never resolved this paradox. Neither has the church.
As the taboo deepened in the succeeding centuries, there is little reason to believe that gay priests disappeared, but most went more fully underground. Still, same-sex love remained a profound part of Catholic Christianity. The friendship that grew between Saint Ignatius of Loyola and Saint Francis Xavier, for example, created the Society of Jesus, or the Jesuits, in the 16th century.
The greatest Catholic theologian of the 19th century, Cardinal John Henry Newman, devoted his personal life to another man, Ambrose St. John. This does not mean the two had a sexual relationship (although they might have), but it does suggest that deep same-sex love was still alive in the highest echelons of the Catholic priesthood, even at the apex of Victorian repression and even in someone about to be celebrated as a saint. When St. John died, Newman wrote, “I have ever thought no bereavement was equal to that of a husband’s or a wife’s, but I feel it difficult to believe that any can be greater, or anyone’s sorrow greater, than mine.”
But why is the priesthood so gay? It is worth noting that the connection between homosexuality and spirituality is by no means restricted to Catholicism. Some evolutionary psychologists have found an ancient link between gay men and tribal shamanism. Carl Jung identified the archetypal gifts of the homosexual: “a great capacity for friendship, which often creates ties of astonishing tenderness between men”; a talent for teaching, aesthetics, and tradition (“to be conservative in the best sense and cherish the values of the past”); “a wealth of religious feelings, which help to bring the ecclesia spiritualis into reality; and a spiritual receptivity which makes him responsive to revelation.”
Among gay priests themselves, I heard a variety of explanations. Some described to me how their sense of displacement as boys and teens made them more sensitive to the needs of other marginalized people: “You were an outsider, and you can help other outsiders and welcome them in.” Another simply said, “We understand suffering.”
Then there is the common experience of a gay boy or teen, brought up in the church, who turns to God in struggling with the question of his difference and displacement from the normal. He is forced to ponder deeper questions than most of his peers, acquires powerful skills of observation, and develops a precocious spirituality that never fully leaves him. This resonates for myself as a Catholic boy and teen. The first person I ever came out to was God, in a silent prayer on my way to Communion. I was an altar boy, knew well how to swing a brass thurible full of incense, could debate the nuances of transubstantiation by the age of 11, and considered the priesthood as a vocation (I concluded I wasn’t good enough a person).
But there are other reasons for gay men to seek the priesthood that are far from healthy. The first is celibacy. If you were a young gay Catholic in centuries past, one way to avoid social ostracism, or constant questions about why you lacked an interest in girls or women, was to become a priest. . . . . This pattern, though much less severe than in the past, endures. A profound lack of self-esteem, fueled in part by the church’s homophobia, also led to some seeking the priesthood as a means to repress or somehow cure themselves.
Other gay priests, more self-aware and cynical, find there is a career to be made in all of this falseness. From the 13th century onward, it’s easy to see how secretly gay men found in the church, and the church alone, a source of status and power. Marginalized outside, within they could become advisers to monarchs, forgive others’ sins, earn a stable living, enjoy huge privileges, and be treated instantly with respect. Everything was suppressed, no questions were asked in seminaries, and psychological counseling was absent (and even now is rare). Scarred, scared men became priests, and certain distinct patterns emerged.
One, as we have come to learn, was sexual acting out and abuse. To conflate sexual abuse with the gay priesthood, as many now reflexively do, is a grotesque libel on the vast majority who have never contemplated such crimes and are indeed appalled by them. It is classic scapegoating.
But some abuse of male teens and young adults, as well as abuse of other priests, is clearly related to homosexuality gone horribly astray — and around a quarter of the reported cases involve 15- to 17-year-old victims.
The scale of it in the late 20th century was extraordinary — but, in retrospect, predictable. If you do not deal honestly with your sexuality, it will deal with you. If you construct an institution staffed by repressed and self-hating men and build it on secrecy and complete obedience to superiors, you have practically created a machine for dysfunction and predation. And the hideous truth is we will never know the extent of the abuse in centuries past or what is still going on, especially throughout places in the world (like Africa and Latin America) where robust scrutiny of the church is still sometimes taboo.
Another pattern was externalized homophobia: What you hate in yourself but cannot face, you police and punish in others. It remains a fact that many of the most homophobic bishops and cardinals have been — and are — gay. Take the most powerful American cardinal of the 20th century, Cardinal Francis Spellman of New York, who died in 1967. He had an active gay sex life for years while being one of the most rigid upholders of orthodoxy.
Anti-gay archconservative Cardinal George Pell was recently found guilty of sexual abuse of boys in Australia. The founder of the once hugely influential hard-right, anti-gay cult the Legion of Christ, Marcial Maciel, was found to have sexually abused countless men, women, and children. The leader of Church Militant, which is obsessed with gay priests, is a self-described “ex-gay.” This is a good rule: Those in the hierarchy obsessed with the homosexual question often turn out to be gay; those who are calmer tend to be straight.
But this is because so many in the hierarchy still cannot see homosexuality as being about love and identity rather than acts and lust. As we uncover layer upon layer of dysfunction at the very top of the church, it may be time to point out how naked these bejeweled emperors can appear.
And this, of course, has added another layer of complexity to the story of gay priests: Generations matter. Those in their 70s and 80s grew up in a different universe, where the closet was automatic and the notion of even discussing gay priests was scandalous. One priest described that generation to me as “so closeted they might as well be in Narnia.” They may not even be aware they’re gay. But their reaction to the modern reexamination of homosexual love, and the consideration of sex as distinct from procreation, was panicked retrenchment.
This dynamic has made the clerical closet — not the fact of gay priests but the way that fact has been hidden — a core mechanism for tolerating and enabling abuse. On top of all this, the vow of obedience to superiors gives gay bishops and cardinals huge sway over their priestly flock. Some, of course, realized this power could be leveraged for sex and abused it.
The only obstacle standing in the way of this path is the homophobia formally embedded into church doctrine in 1986 by the future Benedict XVI. The church now explicitly teaches that gay people are “objectively disordered” because their very being leads them to an intrinsic moral evil. This “evil” is the orientation to have sex that cannot lead to procreation — the same reason the church opposes birth control for straight couples. The difference, of course, is that birth control is a choice, while gayness isn’t.
At some point you realize that this is, in the end, the bottom line. There is a deep and un-Christian cruelty at the heart of the church’s teaching, a bigotry profoundly at odds with the church’s own commitment to seeing every person as worthy of respect, deserving of protection, and made in the image of God. It’s based on a lie — a lie that the hierarchy knows is untrue, and a lie proven untrue by science and history and the church’s own experience. “The hierarchy is tying itself in knots in public over something it has already conceded in private,” Father Leo explained to me.
The task, it seems to me, is not to rid the church of homosexuality, which is an integral part of the human mystery, but of hypocrisy, dishonesty, and dysfunction.