Are Gay Priests Living a Lie?
"Gay priests are living a lie", declares Garry Wills in his book Papal Sin: Structures of Deceit (Doubleday, 2000). As a priest-psychotherapist who has spent 25 years conducting workshops, support groups and retreats for gay priests and religious men and women, this statement and those who make it frighten me. It turns gay priests into easy targets. We need to foster dialogue about this reality, not create scapegoats. In the chapter entitled A Gay Priesthood, Mr. Wills writes:
What is wrong about gays and lesbians as priests or ministers? Nothing isas other denominations are realizing when they ordain them. But that does not make the presence of gay celibates in the current Catholic priesthood a healthy thing. They may claim that they are celibate by their own private definition of the word. But they took a public vow of celibacy, and the aim of any oath is communicative, is a contractual commitment. Both sides of the contract must agree on its terms. Gay priests are living a lie. It may be imposed on them by a senseless rule. Yet they uphold the resulting structure of deceit. People are fooled by them. One reason pedophiles have been given access to children is that Catholic parents were under the misunderstanding that priests refrain from all sex. In the surveys made of them, the gay priests say they must be careful to keep others from learning of their secret. Every move they make is gradated to keep some people at least in the dark.
When Mr. Wills says gay priests are living a lie, he may in fact have in mind only those gay priests who are not celibate, but his statement is so sweeping that it indicts all priests who might understand themselves to be gay. In the paragraph quoted above, he groups together gay celibates (his quotation marks indicate his doubt about their use of this word) and all other gay priests. The result fuels the presumption, already in many people’s minds, that those who describe themselves as gay are sexually active. Otherwise, what is the point of Wills’s accusation? Yet being gay is primarily an emotional orientation as deep and mysterious as heterosexuality. To reduce either of these to sexual acts alone cheapens the gift God created in our sexuality.
Even more inaccurate and damaging, Wills indiscriminately mixes together the categories of gay priests and pedophiles. The distinction has already been blurred in people’s minds by poorly nuanced news stories on this terrible threat to young people.
Recent statements from Rome illustrate the danger of ill-informed thinking about homosexuality: Many Vatican officials, conservative and liberal alike, say it will take a sweeping reform of the priesthood to stop the pedophile scandals. With this in mind, Pope John Paul II’s spokesman, Joaquin Navarro-Valls, questioned whether ordinations of gays were even valid: People with these [homosexual] inclinations just cannot be ordained (The New York Times, 3/3).
Since the implications behind Mr. Wills’s words are unhelpful, I offer the following considerations.
Gay people, including priests who are gay, cannot be equated with pedophiles. Pedophiles are sexually arrested in such a way as to be sexually obsessed with prepubescent children. To mix gay priests and pedophiles together without distinction amounts to character assassination and must be strongly opposed. The average person can be easily persuaded to find scapegoats for such terrible abuse cases, and those who dare to speak about this need to be exceedingly careful. Pedophilia is a special diagnostic category of sexual illness that we are just beginning to understand.
Many people afflicted with this disease were abused themselves as children. (One wonders at what point they changed from victim to victimizer.) They need treatment and monitoring. They must not work with children. But they are not the same as gay priests. A related clinical diagnosis is called ephebophilia, which refers to an attraction (of heterosexuals as well as homosexuals) primarily to teenagers. Some priests with this diagnosis have scandalously abused their trusted role in the community by making sexual advances toward teenagers. This is both legally and morally wrong for priests, just as it is for a teacher or counselor who does this. When a priest violates this boundary, it causes tremendous hurt and can prompt victims and their families to question their faith in God. It must be exposed and stopped. But it is not specifically a gay priest phenomenon. All of the many gay priests I have worked with over the years have been emotionally attracted to adults, not children or teenagers.
Not all gay priests are sexually active or desire to be soany more than heterosexual priests. Celibacy is a lifelong process and a grace, which most priests take seriously and live to the best of their ability. To use the phrase gay priests synonymously with sexually active and deceitful is dishonest. Many of the gay priests I know are celibate and peaceful about this gift; some continue to struggle with it. I wish more people in the church could witness the valiant struggle to be honest with themselves, their brothers and God that I have been privileged to see. Few of them would consider themselves saints, but they gain courage from the way their effort to be integrated men in a homophobic society and church has imbued their ministry with a rare compassion.
Struggles about sex get all the attention in the Roman Catholic Church, as though this were the key to our religious identity. This distracts us from what sexuality symbolizesour relationship with God. Why doesn’t anyone ever speak about living a lie in regard to other Gospel expectationsthe vows/promises of Gospel poverty or obedience, for instance? People are fooled, Mr. Wills says ominously of gay priests. But suppose that the biggest way we fool ourselves and otherswhether we are gay priests or straight priests or laypersonsis the presumption that we are people of prayer. To have a living relationship with God is more important than sex. Yet most of us happily hide any falling short of this most important Christian ideal of prayer.
The Church, Sexuality and Gay People
Mindful of both our human tendency to hide and Garry Wills’s call to be honest, I would ask Mr. Wills the following question. Imagine for a moment that you had to live your whole childhood and young adult life feeling you had to hide who you were in order not to be beaten or worse. Would you call such secrecy a lie? Imagine that the deep part of your identity you know as your sexuality is labeled intrinsically disordered by the church you love and even officially represent. Are you sure you would have the guts or the economic security to challenge it openly or to quit? Imagine you were confused within yourself about these conflicts, as some people are. Maybe you have even internalized homophobia. Would it be so easy to speak the truth?
Gay and lesbian people, including those who are priests, do not drop down from Mars fully formed, like alien invaders. They are conceived by their parents. These parents may notice one of their kids is a little different, but they get precious little help from the church to cope with this. Gay kids grow up in fits and starts like anyone. They carry as much conflict and sense of mystery and excitement about their emerging sexuality as normal kids do. Like any others, they whisper prayers to God about their powerful bodily urges, seeking help to live with such urges honestly.
Perhaps by the time they are teenagers, some of them may have prayed to God to make such feelings go away. After all, rarely did anyone at home or school or church ever mention these feelings. So a young gay or lesbian person can easily think he or she is the only oneeven one of God’s mistakes. Their sexual longings are wrong, bad, shameful, to be hiddeneven hated, as the churches seem to believe, although they speak so beautifully about love and tolerance.
So if gay people grow up learning to hate themselves or hide themselves, or to not tell the truth all the time, it is at least understandable as well as worth challenging. And if by unbelievable resilience and courage and trial and error and failure and sin and grace and love, some have not taken their own lives or given up in some other way by the time they are adults, it is a minor miracle. If they seek pockets of hope in support groups and retreats and relationships in which they can meet and talk and possibly discover their intrinsic goodness with someone like themselves before they diewho would simply call this living a lie?
Gay priests are first and foremost human beings. As such, they are no more conflicted in their dark secret than the rest of the Catholic population, or all spiritual people who wrestle with sexuality and human longing. None of us has a lock on integrity. As James Carroll wrote in his Boston Globe column (1/22): The scandal in Boston reveals that the clergy and laity alike are at the mercy of a so far unaddressed disorder that infects the priesthood in particular, and more broadly, Catholic attitudes toward gender and sexuality. We are in this unaddressed disorder together. It is a much deeper issue than gay priests, or even ridding the church of priests who are pedophiles.
We have watched helplessly as many of our family and friends have left the church we love because of its brokenness, especially in its sexual teachings and practice. We have watched in horror as trust in the priesthood collapses because of the issue of sexual abuse by priests. Even so, many of us have given the best years of our lives in the service of the one God and Father of us all. Finally, whether we are straight or gay or bisexual or any other mysterious variation, many of us have bet nothing less than our eternity on our sexuality being a gift rather than a curse from the God who is love. Despite the risk, then, despite our fear and trembling, perhaps this is the moment the Spirit has been groaning toward for centuriesthe kairos that begs us to bring our experiences into the light.