Complicity by silence?

In my last post I thought it fit to raise the subject of Catholic exceptionalism. Terry responded with a very interesting post “A prophet-priest asks: where is the truth?” What really got me to reply here is Fr Owen O’Sullivan’s article, part of which is reproduced within the abovementioned post. Even though it may have been overtaken by events as it was written in 2003, there is reason for me to say that the issues he raised are as relevant as ever, especially to this gay priest here writing his weekly post.

Allow me first to offer the following quote:

What are the features which mark true prophets? Whenever we look for them, we must understand that these features will never be perfectly evident in any individual person. … Who are these revolutionaries? Critical prophets are people who attract others by their inner power. Those who meet them are fascinated by them and want to know more. All who come in contact with them get the irresistible impression that they derive their strength from a hidden source which is strong and rich. An inner freedom flows out from them, giving them an independence which is neither haughty nor aloof, but which enables them to stand above immediate needs and most pressing necessities. … In everything they say or do, it seems as though there is a lively vision before them which those who hear them can intimate, but not see. This vision guides their lives. They are obedient to it. Through it they know how to distinguish what is important from what is not. … In everything, they seem to have a concrete and living goal in mind, the realization of which is of vital importance. Yet a great inner freedom is maintained in the light of this goal. Often they seem to know that they will never see their goal achieved and that they see only the shadow of it themselves.

This text is an excerpt from the book With Open Hands (1995) by Henri J M Nouwen, and is part of chapter 5, entitled: “Prayer and prophetic criticism”. It isn’t simply because Nouwen happened to write about prophecy that I chose to quote him in this post. Neither is it because Nouwen himself is widely considered to be a prophet, both through his writing as well as through the various activities he embarked upon. Rather, what inspires me particularly in this man, reading his works as I do now through the eyes of a gay priest, is that Nouwen also struggled with his homosexual identity. It is with some hesitation that I am making this statement, and I decided to do so because this issue was mentioned in the biography by Michael Ford: Wounded Prophet: A portrait of Henri J M Nouwen. Obviously I am not equating being gay with being sexually active. In Nouwen’s case neither was the issue of him being gay something he went public about in his writings. However, re-reading his works with this knowledge in mind made me appreciate much more the depth of his message. In the context of what I am attempting to discuss here, I would still have to ask: how can we as gay priests fulfil our prophetic call? If Owen O’Sullivan is asking “Where are the priest-prophets?” have we as gay priests anything to contribute by way of reply? I find his question “are we priests of the Catholic Church speaking and doing the truth?” especially difficult to reply because we are gay priests.

Cover of "Wounded Prophet: A Portrait of ...

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Let’s look at the example given above, that of Henri Nouwen. His is a recognised prophetic voice, one accomplished through his writings as well as in his ministry. Would his voice have been more prophetic had he come out as a gay priest? Or would he have lost his stature qua prophet? Let me compare him to a champion of gay rights, Fr John J McNeill. Right at the other end of the spectrum John McNeill is an out and out gay man. Not only dared he challenge the Catholic establishment with his groundbreaking The Church and the Homosexual but this – as well as his very public stand for gays and lesbians – cost him his membership within the Jesuit order as well as his priestly ministry. His recent marriage to his lifelong partner Charles Chiarelli marks what, to my view, is his most public statement of where he stands on gay rights and equality. I would also hasten to add that his words, backed as they are by his actions, represent a prophetic voice in the Church, and a huge source of encouragement to many. A prophet-priest? I would like to think so.

Clearly this is a highly charged subject. How are we – priests who have come to identify ourselves as gay – to rise to the challenge that Fr O’Sullivan is making? If the prophetic spirit is totally consumed by a search for the truth, then how does a gay priest let this spirit become a dimension of his life and ministry? Does coming out become a prophetic act? A fleshing out of the truth about oneself? Or should we just be prophetic about other issues afflicting the Church but keep our gayness under wraps?

I don’t pretend to have a reply to the questions that Fr O’Sullivan asks. As one can see I’ve raised a couple of questions myself. I am acutely aware of the points of contention he lists in the section of his article entitled “Specifics”. As Terry rightly pointed out in the post “A prophet-priest asks: where is the truth?” O’Sullivan has more recently dared to challenge the status quo on homosexuality in his article “On including gays” (reproduced in QTC as a series of posts). I thank him for speaking on our behalf, and at the same time I am being challenged to make a prophetic stand. Can we work to bring about change in a more subtle way? Will our silence [forced as it so often is] be judged as complicity in the Church’s deceptive ways?

Three wise monkeys

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Suggested reading:

From Inquisition to Freedom:Seven Prominent Catholics and Their Struggle With the Varican (Paul Collins, editor)

The Silence of Sodom: Homosexuality in Modern Catholicism (Mark D Jordan)

Gay Catholic Priests And Clerical Sexual Misconduct: Breaking The Silence (Donald L Boisvert & Robert E Goss, editors)

Vows of Silence: The Abuse of Power in the Papacy of John Paul II (Jason Berry & Gerald Renner)

Why the Catholic Church Needs Vatican III (T P O’Mahony)

Saints and Sinners: A History of the Popes (Eamonn Duffy)

Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church (Bishop Geoffrey Robinson)

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