In the wake of the sexual abuse scandals and numerous reports of priests abusing boys and adolescent males, some Catholics have expressed grave concerns over the ordination to the priesthood of gay men. The question arises: should the church continue ordaining gay priests, that is, homosexual men committed to living chastely in holy orders?
Healthy and dedicated gay men serving in the priesthood make an important contribution to the life of the church. The burden of proof, therefore, lies with those who would seek to prevent such ordinations in the future. And the arguments advanced to support that conclusion are unconvincing.
Gay men cannot maintain chastity. This widespread stereotype is contradicted not only by the experience of many celibate gay men in orders, but also by the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which recommends chastity for all homosexuals (No. 2359). As the bishops of Switzerland stated on Oct. 3: “A homosexual predisposition lived in continence does not exclude one from ecclesial ministry....”
Gay men have a higher propensity to pedophilia than do straight men. The overwhelming evidence shows that homosexuals are no more likely to be pedophiles than are heterosexuals. That a small percentage of gay priests are sexually abusive should not condemn those who are not: this is simple stereotyping. One reason the public sees little evidence of healthy gay priests is the implicit restriction on a gay priest publicly admitting his sexuality. Thus, the better-known “examples” of gay priests have been, by default, notorious pedophiles. The majority lead chaste lives.
Gay priests cannot truly live celibately because they do not “give up” anything but a moral evil. This argument represents an impoverished view of celibacy, viewing it simply as sacrifice, rather than as a positive way of loving others. Certainly celibacy involves sacrifice, but claiming that gay priests cannot make the required sacrifice ignores the sacrifices they make in other areas of their lives. Like all priests, they offer the church their time, their energy, their obedience—indeed, their lives. Moreover, because of the difficulty in speaking about their situations, gay priests make this sacrifice largely in silence.
Gays form cliques that exclude straight priests. Certainly any group of priests who form cliques that exclude others must be challenged. And certainly if straight men feel excluded in some seminaries and religious formation programs such situations must be quickly remedied. But, overall, gay priests work well and easily with straight priests in all manner of ministries.
Gay priests have difficulty living celibately in same-sex rectories and communities. This is one of the more challenging arguments against ordaining gay men. But the difficulty is not insurmountable, and when it poses a problem suggests the need for a healthier formation, a deeper understanding of chastity and, ultimately, the dismissal of those unable to live chastely. And again, the argument is contradicted by experience: the majority of gay brothers, priests and bishops are able to maintain their celibacy living in rectories and religious communities.
By contrast, the main argument in favor of the ordination of gay men is far more convincing than the arguments against it—namely, the real-life example of thousands of healthy and hard-working gay priests and bishops. These men lead lives centered on Christ and in service to the church—celebrating the sacraments, running parishes, schools and dioceses and carrying out every type of Christian ministry. They do this in the face of withering criticism, frequent scapegoating and widespread prejudice, sometimes at the hands of those they serve. Their witness overcomes any argument against their ordination.
One could also advert to the gifts that gay priests bring to the church. Their experience of suffering persecution, for example, can often make gay priests more compassionate toward others; and their sometimes hard-won battle for self-knowledge can serve others in confession, spiritual direction and counseling. Michael Ford, the author of biographies of both Henri Nouwen and Mychal Judge, O.F.M., told America that these men “became more authentic priests precisely because their struggles revealed to them an inner truth: that spirituality and homosexuality were not competing forces within them, but rather mutually dependent gifts from the same Divine Source.”
Ensuring that the church ordains only psychologically healthy priests is one answer to the sexual abuse crisis. Scapegoating healthy and celibate gay priests is not. Historically, the ministry of gay priests has represented a significant contribution to the Catholic Church. Preventing the ordination of gay men would deprive the church of many productive, hard-working and dedicated ministers and would, moreover, ignore the promptings of the Holy Spirit, who has called these men to holy orders.