Gay Priests, Gay Catholics: The Challenge of Honesty

In choosing to come out publicly with the republication of his book “Hidden Voices: Reflections of a Gay, Catholic Priest” under his own name, Rev. Gary Meier has raised important issues about the challenges of honesty for gay priests, more generally for other lesbian and gay Catholics – and for LGBT clergy  in many denominations.

Fr Gary Meiers

“God is Truth” is one of the defining characteristics of God (along with “God is love”, “God is life”, “God is light”, “God is mercy”, “God is justice” and so on) that was drummed into me by the priest who delivered my daily lessons in high school Religious Education. I now take it as axiomatic that speaking the truth, including in matters of sexuality, is a simple matter of personal integrity – and an important Catholic obligation. Pope Benedict, as Cardinal Ratzinger, seemed to agree in the CDF “Letter to the Bishops on Pastoral Care to Homosexual Persons” (also known to gay Catholics as the infamous “Hallowe’en Letter”). At the end of that document, he quotes approvingly from two verses of scripture – “Speak the truth in love”, and “The truth shall set you free”. In the same spirit,several cardinals and bishops have encouraged gay Catholics to come out and acknowledge their orientation (Cardinal Pell, for instance, and the Philippine bishops). Even the Catechism tells us that sexuality is an important part of our human make – up, which should be embraced and fully integrated into our personalities. The challenge for us who are gay or lesbian, and especially for our priests, is that when we attempt to do so, we become enmeshed in the internal contradictions of orthodox teaching, which tells us simultaneously that we can avoid discrimination by hiding our orientation, that the integration of our sexuality into our personality must be within the context of opposite – sex marriage – and that we must accept the findings of the human and  natural sciences. That circle cannot be squared.

The verdict of science is clear: although the causes are complex and unclear, a same – sex affectional and sexual orientation is a, non – pathological naturally occurring condition for significant minority of individuals in all human societies, in all periods of history (and also among animal species in all branches of the animal kingdom). Although there are a range of ways in which individuals and societies respond to this orientation, science agrees that the fundamental orientation cannot be changed – and should not be. The attempt to do so, say the professionals, can be dangerous to mental health. The Catholic Church in fact agrees with this: the documents are clear that at least for those with a “deep – seated homosexual tendency”, heterosexual marriage is not recommended, and any such marriage has grounds for annulment. But by also prohibiting any form of genital sexual activity outside of marriage, the only possible path approved by the church for gay and lesbian Catholics is strict celibacy (more technically, “sexual continence” – but as popular speech commonly uses “celibacy” to refer to sexual abstinence, I stick with the more usual term).

Celibacy, Pope Benedict acknowledged, is a difficult path to follow for priests, made easier by living in community. How much more difficult then, for lay men and women living alone? Especially in the gay community, where popular perceptions are that the choices are between heterosexual marriage and gay sex, within our outside a committed relationship, one would have thought that the Church would welcome examples of openly gay, but celibate, men and women. Men like Fr Meiers and other gay priests, for example, but his experience, and that of other gay priests,  highlights how this is just not so.

The Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and editor-at-large at America magazine, says there are only two or three priests in the U.S. who have said publicly that they are homosexual.

“There are hundreds, if not thousands, of celibate gay priests working in the Catholic church today who are beloved by their parishioners,” Martin said. “And there are a number of reasons why almost all of them feel unable to be honest. They are either uncomfortable themselves, or they’re told specifically by their superiors not to talk about it.”

- STL Today

And when they do come out, they generally experience valuable support from parishioners that they work with – but also some hostile, vehement opposition. Since the news of Fr Meirs’ action broke, I have seen some virulent attacks on orthotoxic blogs, insisting that it is not necessary for priests (or anybody else) to come out and identify as gay, because we are not “defined by our genitals”.

Well, no. But then, by acknowledging a same – sex orientation we do not in any way define ourselves in terms of genitals – it’s our opponents who do that, seemingly incapable of seeing us as rounded human beings, independently of cardboard stereotypes. Same – sex  orientation is affectional as well as merely sexual. Nor is it the only factor by which we identify ourselves. To say that one is Catholic, or a teacher, or a lover of music or sports, does not “define” us in terms of a single characteristic. To suggest that a gay man should hide his orientation makes no more sense than to suggest he should hide his love of sports, or his career choice.

The real problem with identifying as gay, is that for far too many people, in and outside of the LGBT community, there is an automatic assumption that describing oneself as gay implies at best sexual activity, and at worst full acceptance of the so-called “gay lifestyle”, complete with its assumed hedonism and promiscuity. In fact, this is nonsense.

Between the faction of gay Christians who are happy with their sexual identity and “ex-gays,” who say they’ve removed their homosexual yearnings, is a third group that gets little attention.

These so-called Side B Christians identify as gay and believe it’s not sinful to do so. But because they see acting on their orientation as ungodly, they commit to a life of celibacy.

Now, for the first time, a sociologist has taken an in-depth look at what makes Side Bs tick, particularly how they navigate their same-sex desires and their awkward position as stuck in the middle of ex-gay groups and content gay Christians.

The study is small, but finds that Side Bs experience both tension and connection with these two groups. (The origins of the “Side B” term are foggy, but the terminology seems to come from the organisation the Gay Christian Network, which labels gay Christians who do not see their sexuality as sinful as “Side A” and those who do as “Side B.”)

“The networks overlap with these two groups very strongly, and they did often feel kind of caught in the middle, certainly,” said study researcher S.J. Creek, a sociologist at Hollins University in Virginia.

Live Science

We know from the mental health professionals, from the personal witness of the  “ex-ex-gay” movement, and from many former and present leaders of the “ex – gay” movement itself, that conversion therapy simply does not work, and may even be harmful. There are also numerous flaws in the orthodox teaching against same – sex relationships, but for those who do accept the teaching, voluntary celibacy should be accepted and respected as a valid choice – but a difficult one, as Pope Benedict has noted. For all priests, celibacy is assumed, so that for one who is celibate to acknowledge a same – sex affectional orientation should not raise any eyebrows. It is still newsworthy now, because out of the many who are gay, such a tiny fraction have yet acknowledged it publicly. As more do so (and there will certainly be more), that difficulty will diminish – and it will be easier for young gay Catholics growing up in Church, to deal with their own internal conflicts.

Those conflicts can be severe. Statistics show that the rates of suicide, attempted suicide and thoughts of suicide are several times higher for LGBT teens than for their straight counterparts, fomented very often by feelings of religious – induced guilt, fear of parental reaction, or bullying and gay – bashing.  Other young people leave home for similar reasons, and may end up on the streets, subject to the temptations of prostitution for survival, and to substance abuse. Religion is not the only factor in this guilt and fear, but it is undoubtedly a contributing factor. Still others, who may successfully negotiate a resolution of the guilt and fear themselves, may instead find themselves on the receiving end of bullying or actual violence – often justified by the perpetrators in the name of religion.

This is why, for Fr Meiers, simply coming out as gay himself was not enough. The church’s teaching is doing actual harm to young LGBT Catholics, and is also practicing direct discrimination (in violation of some elements of its own teaching) against adult gay Catholics who are attempting to live their lives in integrity and in good conscience, in committed, publicly acknowledged relationships.

Meier’s decision to go public came, he said, after watching the church’s position harden over the last decade.

“My position is that our teaching is causing harm,” he said in an interview.

Last February, Meier said, he was troubled after a teacher at St. Ann Catholic School in Normandy was fired for planning to marry his male partner in New York.

At the UMSL event Tuesday, he said he believed the bishops’ teaching on homosexuality had been a contributing factor in growing suicide rates among gay teenagers.

“We ought to own some of that,” he said. “The church’s hard line against homosexuality causes that kind of damage.”

STL Today

And that’s the second, more severe challenge for gay priests. Although not easy, they can (just about) get a measure of acceptance, understanding or even approval for acknowledging their own orientation. Fr Meier’s bishop himself gave somewhat guarded recognition to the fact that Fr Meier’s now has the potential to be a useful menorl to young gay Catholics – depending on how he chose to present that mentoring.

(St. Louis Archbishop) Carlson released a statement saying that Meier, “as a man who experiences same-sex attraction,” had “an opportunity to be an example and mentor to Catholics in the archdiocese who struggle with the same feelings.”

“Whether he will seize this opportunity to proclaim the Gospel of Life, which offers the truth about the beauty and sanctity of human sexuality, is entirely within his control,” Carlson said.

STL Today

The Catholic Church can be surprisingly tolerant, sensitive and understanding in so many circumstances, far more so than the Catechism doctrines might lead us to expect. But what it really has great difficulty dealing with, is open dissent. We see this in the rule of celibacy, where many bishops will tolerate their priests’ regular sexual relationships – until they become public knowledge, and so a source of “scandal” to the church. It is this, says Fr Meiers, and not simply for coming out, that he does not expect to return to active ministry any time soon – and nor will he be getting any further paychecks from the Archdiocese.

In his journey, Fr Meier epitomises the challenges faced by all gay priests, and to a lesser extent the rest of us. We know that a very substantial proportion of Catholic priests are gay – certainly  higher than in the general population, and possibly as much as 50%, but only a tiny handful have so far come out publicly – mostly those who are retired, close to retirement, or protected to a degree by membership in a religious community. In) addition to the tiny handful who have come out fully, rather more are out to close friends and colleagues (just as Fr Meiers was for years, before his recent decision). We can expect that a proportion of these will also come out more publicly, even if only one toe at a time. As they do, they will have to grapple with the next question whether to bite their lips and keep quiet on the destructive and disordered sexual doctrines of the church – or to speak out, as a matter of honesty, as Fr Meiers has done, and then to face the possible consequences in loss of career, housing and employment?

For lay Catholics, the risks are less severe. In most parishes, we can come out without any real difficulty, as very many have done. We then face a similar challenge to the priests, whether to bite our tongue in tactful silence on the harm done by orthodox teaching, or to “speak the truth in love”, as demanded by both scripture and Catholic teaching – and risk the consequences. For many of us, there will be no consequences, but for a few, especially those employed by Catholic schools or parishes, there may be. For these, “dissent” need not even be public rhetoric, but simply the private action of marrying or otherwise publicly naming a same – sex partner. Sanctions may also be applied to those not formally employed by the church, but simply active in church ministry, as readers, altar servers, or service in parish sodalities. 

An analysis at Religion News Service asks, “Can gay Catholics find a home in the Catholic Church?“.Part of that analysis quotes Francis DeBenardo, of New Ways Ministry:

“How just is it to fire someone whose life or practices are not in accord with official church teaching?” Francis DeBernardo, head of New Ways Ministry, which advocates for gay and lesbian Catholics, wrote after two men were fired from their parish music director jobs because they were gay.

“Where do you draw the line?” he wondered in a column for National Catholic Reporter. “Do you get fired if you have remarried without an annulment? Do you get fired if you don’t attend Mass on Sunday regularly? Do you get fired because you are a Protestant who does not recognize the Catholic hierarchical structure?”

In the year since he wrote those words, DeBernardo noted recently, there have been a dozen similar incidents. Those are are in addition to past episodes in which the children of gay parents have been rejected from Catholic schools, or the case of a gay Catholic who was denied Communion at her mother’s funeral.

Religion News Service.

I do not believe that the undoubtedly increasing number of such incidents is a sign that is becoming harder to be gay and Catholic, for Catholics “to find a home in the Catholic Church”, quite the reverse. These items are newsworthy precisely because they are exceptions. A few years ago, there was an outcry when a school in Boulder, Colorado refused to accept a pupil with two moms. What most people missed, reporting on this, was that this was only one incident among many thousands of Catholic schools. (When a school in Boston tried to follow the Boulder example a short while later, it was quickly overriden by the Archdiocese). A handful of organists have lost their posts, with substantial (and justified) outcry and publicity. But if the same sanction were applied to all church organists, music in a very substantial proportion of parishes would simply die. Some parish priests display clear hostility to potential LGBT parishioners, but many more are welcoming, some openly affirming and supportive. Consider this example, from Maryland:

Such an accommodation is also necessary, said DeBernardo, because the flip side of the high-profile dismissals is that more and more parishes are publicly welcoming gays and lesbians and are thus potential lightning rods. A New Ways roster now boasts over 200 gay-friendly parishes, up from 20 a decade ago.

One of those parishes is St. Matthew’s in Baltimore, where the pastor, the Rev. Joe Muth, not only started a ministry for gays and lesbians a few years ago but he also supported parishioners who were lobbying for a Maryland referendum last fall that legalized same-sex marriage — despite strong opposition from the bishops.

Gays and lesbians “just move into the regular life of the church” at St. Matthew’s, Muth said, as he believes is perfectly normal.

I think that what is happening is that precisely because we are finding it easier to make a space, and to be more honest about our relationships, our opponents are becoming more nervous – and outspoken in opposition, mounting (usually anonymous) letter writing campaigns. Bishops are caught in the cross-fire, and don’t always know how to react sensitively, with compassion, and in accordance with the Gospels. That will change. The example of Pope Francis, with his obvious preference for pastoral sensitivity over doctrinal enforcement, will help, but so will the simple continuing increase in visibility of LGBT Catholics and queer families in church,as elsewhere. It will, as they say, get better. 

Meanwhile, the challenges remain. Priests have their (severe) challenges, and they need our support and encouragement as when they choose to inch further out of their closets, or to speak out in opposition to the damage done by orthodox teaching. They also need our understanding when, mindful of the very real risks, they choose discretion, instead.

The rest of us have our own challenges and risks, which we must face and deal with as best we can, in honesty and integrity – and with prudence.


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3 comments for “Gay Priests, Gay Catholics: The Challenge of Honesty

  1. May 25, 2013 at 2:35 pm

    The Ecumenical Catholic Communion. Where all are welcomed, affirmed and their gifts and ministries are celebrated!

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