I have found myself marveling this week at the small parade of gay-outings among U.S. politicians. Like previous media outings of closeted politicians, these expose men who have often built their reputations and careers on their passion for family values and their antipathy to anything that smacks of the gay tolerance agenda. U.S. media has long delighted in the travails of powerful but troubled men, who have despite their obvious conflicts somehow managed to acquire U.S. political leadership roles, and now are essentially working through their own problems with sexual identity in sometimes professionally disastrous public spectacles.
As a heterosexual Catholic, I have grown into adulthood during a period when our society’s hostility to gay and lesbian people transformed into first a somewhat awkward tolerance to the sometimes ambivalent acceptance maintained for the most part today. I feel lately, however, that I am witnessing a regression in that process of acceptance, and I think it is at least partly fueled by the unhealthy acting out exhibited by the nation’s closeted politicians.
I understand that for many people it can be a struggle to come to terms with personal sexuality, and it’s sad to see the self-destructive manner of the unintended (I guess Freud might have something to say about that) self-outings of some prominent men in political life. How much better for them and for us if they could have resolved their personal struggles privately without arrests in public bathrooms or after pursuits of congressional pages or joining the mug-shot slideshow of DWI- or disorderly conduct arrests outside of gay bars, etc. But while I have some sympathy for the personal anguish and the family devastation I’m witnessing, I have to add that I find myself ultimately a bit infuriated by these men. How much damage, I wonder, has their rhetoric, powered by their own self-denial, done to U.S. civic life? How much damage have the policies they pursued in futile efforts to hide from the reality of their own lives done to the body politic?
The catechism instructs that individuals with a homosexual “inclination,” which it describe as “objectively disordered” “must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided.” I note the increasing temper of the hierarchy’s response to gay and lesbians in recent years as it seems to have neatly replicated the tone of U.S. political culture after a period during which the church addressed its gay and lesbian children with a little more tenderness and affection. Has the hierarchy, following the lead of U.S. politicians, ratcheted up the voltage on gays and lesbians because it’s a “cultural winner?” Is the hierarchy overreaching in its response to gay and lesbians as cover for its poor performance on the sexual abuse of children by members of the U.S. clergy?
In the many sociological studies of U.S. clergy the number of men who have identified themselves or have been identified by researchers as gay ranges anywhere between 30 to 48 percent. Is it possible that similar percentages do not pertain to the highest levels of our church? Is it possible that the attitudes toward gay and lesbian people and church policies related to them are distorted in a similar manner as the policies supported by America’s closeted gay politicians?
Sickeningly familiar revelations of sexual abuse are now roiling Europe just as they did America a few years ago. This week, because of the unfolding abuse crisis in Europe, several notable voices called for a hard institutional self-examination: “Enough” says Cardinal Kasper; L’Osservatore Romano publishes an article calling for women in leadership roles; Vienna’s Cardinal Christoph Schonborn calls for an "unflinching examination" of causes of the scandal, including "the question of priest celibacy and the question of personality development”; and Father Hans Kung flatly states, “Compulsory celibacy is the principal reason for today’s catastrophic shortage of priests, for the fatal neglect of eucharistic celebration, and for the tragic breakdown of personal pastoral ministry in many places.”
Despite such exhortations, if the hierarchy in Europe follows the U.S. model, there will be an effort soon to blame the problem on homosexuality and efforts will be made to weed out men with “deeply rooted” gay tendencies (as opposed to “transitory,” I kid you not) from the seminaries and the priesthood—a crusade against ourselves of course and an offense to the gay clergy who are living their ministries in service to the People of God with loyalty to the church and in fidelity to their vows.
Whatever becomes of mandatory priestly celibacy and however the church extricates itself from this latest sexual abuse crisis, the church needs to find a way to install, not just women, but married men and mothers and fathers in leadership roles to protect the health and wholeness of the institution. That is one overdue measure to help ensure that the positions the church takes and the policies she promotes and maintains for herself are not originating in a place where one person’s crisis of self-awareness and identity intrudes on the integrity and mercy of our expression of faith and the mission of the church.