I’m so proud of my brother Jesuit, Damian Torres-Botello, SJ, for speaking out on an important issue in our church: the welcome of LGBT men and women. I’m also proud of him for openly admitting that he himself is gay. While such an admission is commonplace in some circles, Damian’s public statement—in this case online—is rare. Why? Not because of any aversion to honesty in the religious orders and the priesthood. Many priests and members of religious orders who are gay (and celibate) are honest about this part of their lives with friends and family. Rather, the vast majority of religious superiors and bishops will not allow seminarians, scholastics or priests to publicly declare that they are gay.
So there is another reason to take note of this article: Damian’s religious superiors explicitly approved his publishing it. Most crucially, his provincial superior approved his openly discussing his homosexuality.
A little background: Jesuits, like members of other religious orders, take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. For most Jesuits, obedience is often the easiest of the vows: basically, carry out the job to which you have been missioned. But in some cases obedience is brought to bear on more sensitive topics. And over the last few decades no Jesuit, as far as I know, has been permitted by his superiors to “self-identify” as gay in a public way.
The reasons are not hard to understand. Provincials may fear that the Jesuit will be less “available” for different ministerial assignments (say, in countries where homophobia is a stronger barrier to acceptance among Catholics). Provincials may feel that a Jesuit will be unfairly identified mainly as a gay man, rather than as a Jesuit. That is, there is a perceived danger that some people will conclude that the man’s identity centers on his homosexuality, rather than in membership in the Society of Jesus. Finally, provincials may fear that the man might be the subject of hatred and contempt.
Provincials in general want to protect the men in their care, as well as to ensure that they are “missionable.” Thus, there has been--until now—universal reluctance to grant permission to men who have asked for permission to “self-identify.” And in such sensitive matters, Jesuits must seek such permission. Again, this is part of our vow of obedience. Indeed, everything a Jesuit publishes (whether in articles or books), especially on sensitive or controversial matters, must be approved by superiors. This is even more the case with a Jesuit in training, or “formation,” as Damian is.
So the decision of Damian’s superiors to grant him permission is notable. It is the first time that I can think of that a Jesuit has been permitted to do write about being gay. So I’m proud of two things today: Damian’s courage and honesty, and that of his superiors.