James Martin’s question at America last year, “What is a gay Catholic to do?” provoked lengthy discussion, but avoided the more difficult and anguished question, “What is a gay Catholic priest to do?” It is a question that has been tangential to some of my earlier posts, and has at times been raised by priests in my comments threads, so it is a topic that I have often wondered about, and considered posting on. It is well known that a significant and rising proportion of priests are “gay” in orientation: a figure of around 50% is widely quoted, but the exact number is not really of any consequence for this discussion. Anybody who has been involved with LGBT Catholic groups for worship or support is likely to know of gay priests. Many gay men have met, or had sex with, gay priests cruising the bars, baths, or on-line chat rooms. (The Australian theologian and writer Michael B Kelly describes one such depressing on-line chat with a gay priest in his book, Seduced by Grace: Contemporary spirituality, Gay experience and Christian faith.)
So, what are the unique difficulties faced by Catholic priests? I am not speaking from experience, so can only speculate. In the interests of starting a conversation, I offer a few thoughts.
First, there is that vow of celibacy, which hangs impartially over the heads of all priests, gay, straight or asexual. We known that a proportion of priests do not keep that vow, while many do. It is likely that proportions who do keep to the vow are similar for both gay and straight. However, there is a popular assumption that straight priests adhere to celibacy, and that gay priests do not. Further, there is a marked double standard in place concerning expectations. Where it becomes known that a straight priest has succumbed to temptation and had broken this vow, there is often supportive sympathy from his congregation. Where there the same thing happens with a gay priest, outrage and scandal is more likely. The British movie, “Priest” (1994), showed the contrast clearly. The parish priest was conducting a permanent sexual relationship with his female housekeeper, a relationship which was only barely a secret from the congregation. But when it became known that his young curate had a few nights in the sack with a man, fierce hostility from the parishioners ensued. In many parts of Africa today, it is widely assumed that priests have mistresses or even legally married wives. In the handful of cases where priests are living with husbands, they are under extreme pressure from their diocesan authorities.
But many priests do respect their celibacy. This does not necessarily make it any easier for them. Because their is a widespread assumption that homosexuality child abuse are linked, the current uproar over problems of abuse means that gay priests dare not make their orientation known, for fear of coming under immediate suspicion. Thankfully, there appears to be some backtracking on this assumption on the part of the Vatican, but the belief still remains widespread in the popular mind, and probably too in the mids of some bishops.
So, what in fact is a gay priest to do? When I have attempted to answer the question for ordinary, non-clerical, gay Catholics in the past, one key recommendation I have made has been was to come out: to be open and truthful, and so offer and receive support in a wider gay Catholic community, and to bear witness to the possibility of authentic gay faith to the rest of the Church. This is not a realistic option for most gay priests, as is shown by the extraordinary difficulties faced by those who have tried it. Unlike the rest of us, a priest needs from the Church far more than just acceptance. He is totally dependent on its good graces for physical survival, in both income and housing, as well as emotional and psychological needs, which are met in job satisfaction and emotional support from colleagues and parishioners, in lieu of family. Any priest who falls foul of the institution which supports him in so many ways, is going to have a seriously hard time.
So, what is a gay priest to do? Faced with the possibility that any self-disclosure will be met with an assumption that gay = rampant sexual activity or child molester, or both, what priest would want to be open with his bishop, unless there is clear knowledge that the bishop is free of these false assumptions? At the most basic level, the only realistic choice for all but the bravest would appear to be to simply leave the priesthood, or accept a life in the closet: and the closet is a dark and dangerous place.
If it is not feasible to come out to one’s bishop, are there other possibilities for at least partial openness? In the big cities, it should be possible to find and meet with other gay priests for mutual support. In London, the Search group offers exactly that. There will be many more support networks, formal or informal, elsewhere. But that still leaves the question, for those outside the bigger cities, where the formal groups do not exist, how is a gay priest to identify, let alone meet with, others? It’s not as though there is the equivalent of a priests’ gay bar, where you can walk in and hope to find some one to talk to. And what of priests stationed in rural locations, or in communities where the Catholic population is low? I have email correspondence from one priest in just such a location. He has written that he has met precisely one gay priest he could talk to openly: but to meet face to face involves comlicated travel arrangements over hundreds of miles and several hours.
So, what have gay priests done? First, let us honour the few examples of courageous men who have insisted on speaking the truth – and paid the price by being forced out of the priesthood. I think immediately of John McNeill, and of James Alison. Thankfully, both have recovered from initially desperate material circumstances, and have forged fresh careers independently of the church, to the great and continuing benefit to the rest of us. I think also of Bernard Lynch, who remains inside the priesthood, but operates in a state of permanent tension with the diocese of Westminster for his courageous life of honesty with his husband, Billy.
Some others have been able to be open, and even to acknowledge their partners – but usually these have been in positions where they are either no longer in active ministry, or are working in areas completely independent of diocesan structures. I imagine that there may be some few priests in conventional parishes somewhere, who have had the confidence to be fully open and out to all – but I am not aware of a single one.
Then there are the many who have left the church. Daniel Helminiak is one such, who now teaches spirituality in a university department of psychology – and is another who has written useful books for the rest of us.
Life inside the clerical closet also does not answer the other question, for those who are unable or unwilling to live fully under the regime of celibacy. What are they to do? I once heard one parish priest, who was strictly closeted in his home environment, describe how he had taken his annual holiday in Eastern Europe – with daily enjoyable visits to the saunas.
But none of this resolves the fundamental question: just what is a gay priest, in conventional circumstances such as a parish setting, to do, if he wishes to live a life which is authentic and honest?
Edge Boston has a useful exploration of this. under the title, Behind the Church Scandals: Gay Priests Shoulder Blame, Live in Shame