Coming out is a process, not a single event. It begins when we come out to ourselves, and (ideally) to God. Later, we may come out to friends, family and work colleagues. How fully we come out is variable: it is unlikely, for instance, that even if we are out to family, that we will therefore be fully open about all our sexual foibles. It is also unlikely that any of us is ever out to everybody – not, for example, to the strangers sitting next to us on the train or bus.
Somewhere between the two extremes, of being fully closeted and (almost) completely out, is our openness in the Church, and in our parish communities. That coming out in church is likewise a process, not an event, was illustrated in my own life this past Sunday, when I came out to my local parish priest. That it has taken so long has no great drama to it: I attend my local parish only when I do not go up to London for the Soho Masses, and when I have attended, I had not yet found an opportunity to speak with him. I have been deliberately open with some of the parishioners in discussions over tea, about my involvement with the LGBT Soho Masses, and so can not be described as closeted, even in the parish. But thisweek, the opportunity finally arose, and in a few sentences, I disclosed my involvement in Soho, and with this blog. In a few minutes, it was done: I came out to my parish priest. I intend to have fuller and franker discussions with him, later.
For others, it’s not as simple – for example, for our Catholic priests. But they too, are creeping out of their closets.
I was led me to this conclusion by a simple observation at A Gay Priest’ s Spiritual Journey which caught my eye. At his blog, where he shares extracts from his personal spiritual journal with occasional digressions into other topics, “John” has written some pieces about James Alison’s book “On Being Liked”. The post James Alison and Catholicim’s “Field of Mendacity” on Homosexuality deals specifically with Alison’s observation that lies and self-deception are inherent in the Vatican approach to matters of homosexuality. “Field of Mendacity” is a graphic descriptor, but appropriate. Honesty should be a fundamental Catholic virtue. Even the CDF proclaims this for homosexuals, reminding us in the closing paragraphs of the Hallowe’en letter of the Biblical precepts, “Speak the truth in love”, and “The truth shall set you free” – but in its own words, in its actions, and in its rules it signally fails to tell the truth, and makes it extremely difficult for those of who are gay men or lesbians, especially those who are in the direct employ of the church, to speak the most fundamental truth about ourselves, by the simply act of coming out publicly.
In his own reflection on this theme, John urges the same response that I have done, repeatedly:
That truth is this: gay people exist. We exist, and God made us this way–and/or “nature,” and/or “genetics,” and/or “culture,” and/or some combination of these forces. And we are not badly made, as I long feared about myself, but differently made. We are not inclined to an “objective disorder,” but are part of the natural order itself, as so many studies of our fellow created animals have revealed. For most people not steeped in Catholic theology, this truth cannot possibly come as a shock, but Alison’s insights herald a revolution in Catholic thinking about sexuality that is only beginning to unfold.
As more of us pronounce publicly “I am gay” and “I am Catholic,” the immorality of the Church’s stance on gay people will become clearer and the field of mendacity more obvious. There have long, perhaps always, been gay members of the Catholic hierarchy who could and would hide the truth of their desires, sometimes even from themselves, and be rewarded by a system of institutionalized closetedness. The premodern term for those attracted to the same sex is “sodomite,” and, like “gay,” that term, as Mark Jordan has pointed out, was always a description of a “them” and never part of “us” (on this, see Jordan’s The Invention of Sodomy in Christian Theology).
And so he continues, a little later:
Well. I am gay. And I am a Catholic priest. Despite my sins, mistakes, and uncertainties I have a strong desire to embrace and live within both of these categories.
And so, “John” has come out, clearly, unequivocally – or has he? John has just written on the importance of coming out, and acknowledged his own gay and clerical identity – but we do not know with any precision who he is. (I do not make this observation as any form of criticism. John litters his posts with clues, so that it is likely that there will be many people who are able to put the pieces of the puzzle together, and work out the riddle. John has not remained in the closet – just not come all the way out). For many priests, even a partial coming out is a courageous act, for which they deserve to be honoured, and I would like here to pay tribute to John for his courage in going as far as he has.
I and others responded in the comments thread to this question of the challenges facing gay priests who wish to live honestly and “Speak the truth in love”, and that in turn produced some thought provoking emails in my in-box. (“terence@ queerchurch.com”, for anybody else who would like to join this discussion privately). Reflecting on these responses, left me with two conclusions: in spite of the difficulties and risks, there are an increasing number of priests who are embarking on a process of coming out, one toe at a time; and that there is a dire need for the rest of us to support them, in whatever way we can. Today, I want to point to some evidence for the first conclusion. In a later post, and by direct email for those interested, I will share some thoughts on one possible way to offer some help.
Openly Gay Priests
There are dispiritingly few of these, and even fewer who are diocesean priests in conventional parish ministry. It is a little easier for men in supportive religious orders, or who have retired and so have a little more independence. Even so, many of these have encountered serious difficulties from the church for their honesty. To start with, here are four priests who marched together in clerical collars in a gay pride march, 1980’s (picture from the NY TImes: from left, Dan McCarthy, Bernard Lynch, Robert Carter, and John John McNeill):
“Privately out” priests
There are far more men who are not out publicly, but to a greater or lesser degree are so, inside closed circles of friends and colleagues. These will include many (but certainly not all) of the supportive priests who assist in specific LGBT ministry, at the Soho Masses in London, with Drachma in Malta, with Dignity in the USA, in the Communidad San Aelredo (“Community of St Aelred”) in Mexico, and many more. It is important to understand, here that coming out as gay does not in way amount to a declaration of sexual activity. Some out or privately out priests are sexually active, just as we know many others are with women. Others may identify as gay, and enjoy the company of gay males, but remain strictly celibate, just as some other priests may enjoy socialising in heterosexual mixed company, without compromising their celibacy.
No matter how cautiously each of these has been in coming out, and no matter how limited the process may be for now, each of them has made it easier for those who know them, to begin the process themselves, and each cautious makes it easier to take another.
Blogging gay priests
What really set me thinking, though, was the recognition of a group of priests who have chosen to come out publicly, but sometimes anonymously, on the ‘net. These are the one I know of:
A Gay Priest’ s Spiritual Journey is the site where John’s clear declaration (quoted above) started this reflection. In a comment to his post, Jonah adds his own reflection on the challenge and the risks, acknowledging his fear: “There is still a big part of me that is afraid to come out in my role as priest“.
At Gay Catholic Priests, Richard Wagner writes at length about the difficulties he has faced with his own order since coming out as gay, after his academic research and book on gays in the priesthood. (Significantly, in coming out Wagner did not admit to being sexually active, but his detractors regularly spoke and acted as if he had).
Fr Geoff Farrow writes extensively on matters around marriage equality, but also writes from time to time specifically about the challenges and difficulties faced by Catholic priests, gay and straight, in the face of episcopal power.
Wild Hair, where the unnamed blogger described himself as a priest in “reasonably good standing”. As far as I can tell, he does not explicitly say “I am gay”, but the content and tone of his posts leave a clear impression that he closely identifies with the gay community – for example, by attending gay pride, and gatherings of gay Catholics. He also describes himself as the “Cardinal eminence of HGN“
Enhanced Masculinity (definitely NSFW!) is a very different blog, where Paul writes about the importance of gay men using and celebrating their erotic gifts, alone or with others – copiously illustrating his words with explicit gay porn.
Bart, who writes a weekly column here at QTC.
There are other bloggers I know of who identify as priests, but do not explicitly disclose publicly that they are gay, but who drop strong hints, or who disclose more information in comments elsewhere. Some of these I know are gay, from comments placed at QTC, but whose privacy I respect and do not here identify.
Gay, no longer Catholic priests.
For many of our gay priests, the conflicts simply became unendurable. Some (Daniel Helminiak, or simply left the priesthood for secular careers, either permanently or on temporary leave of absence). Others (like Robert Goss) continued to work in ministry, but to do so left the Catholic church.
There are many, many more of these.
The 100 000+ others who are struggling.
There are close to half a million Catholic priests in the world today. If just 20% of them are gay (and reliable estimates suggest the figure is very much higher), that suggests at least 1oo ooo gay priests, possibly (probably?) twice that number, who have to face the challenge and resolve the contradictions of living honestly in an institution built on sexual dishonesty. The examples of prominent gay men and lesbians in other denominations will surely add to the existing desires of our gay clergy for lives of greater personal integrity. What is a viable way forward for them?
In his comment to John post on James Alison, Jonah writes in anguish (using Alison’s image of the “forgiving victim”,
I’m really afraid about whether or not I have the strength to live out of that place as a forgiving victim. There is still perhaps so much anger in me (i.e. I want to make “them” feel as bad as they’ve made me feel about myself over the years.) Can I occupy the place of shame and not get drowned in that inner darkness again? Can I occupy that place of shame and be strong enough not to run? Can I be a forgiving victim so the cycle of violence and scapegoating stops? The risks are real. Alison himself found that out… I have to ask myself: what am I afraid to lose? These are the questions I think anyone who has gotten involved with civil rights issues have had to ask themselves. I don’t think we can do this alone. Somehow clergy have got to come together (like the priests in the NY Times front page story today, who have come together and taken risks in support of ordaining women).
In private correspondence, Jonah elaborated further:
I have always believed that God called me to be a priest and God made me a gay man and the task of my life is to find out what that can mean. Only now do i begin to feel that enough “growing up” has happened or some level of spiritual maturity that I might actually have the courage and strength now to stand in that place of shame and learn what it means to be a forgiving victim. The question for me is “What might that look like?” I envision somehow getting gay (and sympathetic straight) catholic clergy together to make a difference but how? My dear friend “John” has been such an inspiration to me and reading Alison and seeing the work you do gives me hope. Where does one begin? Or maybe it has already begun and I just need to stay with it? (Emphasis added).
At great personal risk, sometimes just one toe at a time, these men are coming out of the closet, and so undermining that “field of mendacity” is the institutional Catholic Church’s rhetoric on homoeroticism and homoerotic relationships. We owe them every encouragement and support, while also recognizing their need for caution. We need to explore the ways in which we can offer that help and support. One possible strategy, here at QTC, will be the subject of a later post.
For anybody, priest or other, who would like to respond but does not wish to place a public comment, feel free to write to me direct, at “terence@ queerchurch.com”.
Alison, James: Faith Beyond Resentment: Fragments Catholic and Gay
Alison, James: On Being Liked
McNeill, John: The Church and the Homosexual
McNeill, John: Both Feet Firmly Planted in Midair
Murray, Paul: Life in Paradox: The Story of a Gay Catholic Priest
Stuart, Elisabeth: Chosen: Gay Catholic Priests Tell Their Stories
- Social Sin and Queer Shame: A Gay Priest’s Personal Spiritual Sharing
- James Alison, Feeding God’s Sheep.
- For the Season of Pride: Join the Parade – It’s A Catholic Duty!
- Beyond the Hierarchy: The Blossoming of Liberating Catholic Insights on Sexuality (Part 1) (The Wild Reed)
- “Fervently Catholic, Proudly Gay and Happily Married” (The Wild Reed)