A recent series of articles in The Kansas City Star on Catholic priests suffering from AIDS-related illnesses has focused attention on a difficult issue. Despite the incendiary nature of its topic, the seriesthough flawedaimed for balance and proved compelling. The survey’s main weaknesses lay in its sampling methods as well as in the statement that priests are four times more likely to have contracted AIDS than the general population. This is misleading, since the "general population" includes women and children, groups among whom incidence of AIDS is far lower than among men. (A better comparison would be with adult males.) But despite these deficiencies, the series painted a wrenching story of secrecy and shame among some priests.
Not surprisingly, the story has already led to strong responses. A visit to the Star’s Web site shows responses divided between anger at the church hierarchy and outrage at priests who have broken their promises of celibacy. Some have suggested that the news demonstrates the church’s callousness toward those who suffer with AIDS. This is grossly inaccurate. The Catholic Church was among the very first organizations to care for people living with AIDS. But a greater danger is that this news will lead to unhelpful responses from various quarters in the church.
There is, first of all, the danger of a purely defensive response, out of fear of negative publicity or perhaps a further decline in vocations. Indeed, within days of the story’s appearance a few dioceses issued press releases proclaiming confidence in seminary education and the level of the clergy’s understanding of sexuality. Likewise, the Catholic League castigated The Star for "fabricating stories that demonize the church." But while their statistics were misleading, The Star’s stories of priests with AIDS were not fabricated; and criticism of the church is not always "demonization." Such defensive postures, even if they spring from love of the church, may only increase the difficulty of confronting a problem.
Second, some may use this story to conclude that gay priests are ipso facto a bad idea; that being gay means being unable to remain celibate or, worse, that being gay necessarily means being promiscuous; that gay men should not be accepted into seminary programs; that gay priests should automatically be dismissed. Each of these arguments is specious. Being a gay priest does not imply that one is sexually active. Indeed, most gay priests remain celibate and lead lives of healthy service to the church.
Third, some will claim that the study demonstrates the "impossibility" of celibacy. Calls are therefore renewed for a married clergy. Likewise, some have concluded that the series shows the weakness of the church’s teaching on sexual matters. These views are also myopic. Clearly, some priests have broken their promise of celibacy; this does not mean that the vast majority of priests do not lead celibate lives or that celibacy is somehow unworkable. (Does a high incidence of divorce mean that we should abolish marriage?) And while there are many arguments for a married clergy, this is not one of them. Similarly, the fact that some priests are unchaste does not negate the church’s moral theology.
The real problem is the silence that surrounds the issue of gay priests. Indeed, it is difficult to ascertain whether the strong defensive reactions betoken embarrassment that some priests do not live celibate lives or that there are gay priests. More to the point, the silence highlights a tension in a church that defines homosexuality as "intrinsically disordered" but relies on many gay men to celebrate the sacraments and carry out the work of the church. And how can the church proclaim the redemptive value of suffering if it fosters an atmosphere that forces its priests, of all people, to deny that they suffer?
What is needed is an approach that admits that priests who suffer from AIDS constitute a problemnot widespread, but a problem nonetheless. (How widespread is difficult to say: data on such things as the number of gays in the clergy and the incidence of AIDS among priests are notoriously hard to gather.) Dioceses must continue to emphasize fully educating seminarians (and priests) in sexuality and celibacy. The church must also labor to remove the heavy veil of silence that has shrouded the issue of gay priests. It must also remove the stigma on priests living with AIDS through an admission of the occasional instances of this tragedy.
As Lent begins and the church ponders more deeply the mystery of Christ’s suffering, how ironic it would be if those who are supposed to be alter Christuseven those who have not been perfect priestsare stigmatized as they suffer. Can the church admit that its servants suffer in many ways?