The Editors

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?

Comments

Al Starosciak | 1/17/2007 - 1:32pm
In your editorial “Priests With AIDS” (2/26) you make a major point that unfortunately our church “defines homosexuality as ‘intrinsically disordered.’” My reading of the Catechism of the Catholic Church suggests that the church takes a more compassionate and sensitive position on homosexuality.

The reference to “intrinsically disordered” is reserved for homosexual acts, not persons as your editorial implies. Further, the catechism does not single out “intrinsically disordered” terminology for only homosexual acts. For example, it labels masturbation as “intrinsically and gravely disordered.”

Since the church teaches that we are all called to chastity, it should not be a surprise that similar, harsh terminology is also applied to lust, fornication, pornography adultery and so on.

Kenneth Smits, O.F.M.Cap. | 1/17/2007 - 1:30pm
Your editorial on “Priests With AIDS” was outstanding (2/26). On the issue of gay clergy, right now we have an uncomfortable juxtaposition of “intrinsically disordered” teaching, a significant percentage of gay clergy and an unofficial “don’t ask, don’t tell” protocol. This cannot continue. Probably the most certain to continue is the significant percentage of gay clergy. The future of the teaching and the protocol is more in doubt. Reality will have its way. The gay clergy are real; the other two are abstractions.

(Rev.) Kenneth Miller | 1/17/2007 - 1:15pm
I thank you for your honest yet compassionate editorial “Priests With AIDS” (2/26). The editorial brought back sad memories of three priests who died with AIDS and had to endure the added burden of suffering their disease secretly.

I served as diocesan vocation director for nearly 10 years. I concur with your assessment that “gay priests [seminarians]” is not the issue. Seminaries as a whole do not (or perhaps are not permitted to) train men with the skills needed to live a healthy celibate life. At one national convention of vocation directors, a well respected priest psychologist was about to address us on this very issue. He publicly asked that the session not be taped and that the two bishops in the room leave (they did not). He told us he feared Vatican reprisals.

Your editorial says it so well, “...defensive postures, even if they spring from love of the church, may only increase the difficulty of confronting this problem.” Yet confront it we must.

Robert F. Miailovich | 1/17/2007 - 1:12pm
Thank you for your editorial “Priests With AIDS” (2/26). The issue indeed is the silence concerning the reality of gay priests. The church’s continued insistence that a deep-seated homosexual inclination is intrinsically disordered is psychologically destructive. Bad psychology continues to be bad theology. Let us continue to work for greater enlightenment as we come to recognize the lives of gays and lesbians within our church community.

Peter J. Riga | 1/17/2007 - 1:11pm
Your editorial “Priests With AIDS” (2/26) reminded me of the many texts in the Gospels and Acts about the rehabilitation of Peter after the terrible scandal of his betrayal-denial. Had this not been done by Christ himself (Jn. 21:1-15), the community would never have accepted Peter’s authority and leadership in the early church.

We need more honesty in the church. We need to recognize that there are gay priests, that they are as bound to celibacy as heterosexual priests, that they have special spiritual needs different from others and whose needs need to be addressed forthrightly. We are a sinful church, which needs forgiveness and reconciliation—even for priests with AIDS.

Al Starosciak | 1/17/2007 - 1:32pm
In your editorial “Priests With AIDS” (2/26) you make a major point that unfortunately our church “defines homosexuality as ‘intrinsically disordered.’” My reading of the Catechism of the Catholic Church suggests that the church takes a more compassionate and sensitive position on homosexuality.

The reference to “intrinsically disordered” is reserved for homosexual acts, not persons as your editorial implies. Further, the catechism does not single out “intrinsically disordered” terminology for only homosexual acts. For example, it labels masturbation as “intrinsically and gravely disordered.”

Since the church teaches that we are all called to chastity, it should not be a surprise that similar, harsh terminology is also applied to lust, fornication, pornography adultery and so on.

Kenneth Smits, O.F.M.Cap. | 1/17/2007 - 1:30pm
Your editorial on “Priests With AIDS” was outstanding (2/26). On the issue of gay clergy, right now we have an uncomfortable juxtaposition of “intrinsically disordered” teaching, a significant percentage of gay clergy and an unofficial “don’t ask, don’t tell” protocol. This cannot continue. Probably the most certain to continue is the significant percentage of gay clergy. The future of the teaching and the protocol is more in doubt. Reality will have its way. The gay clergy are real; the other two are abstractions.

(Rev.) Kenneth Miller | 1/17/2007 - 1:15pm
I thank you for your honest yet compassionate editorial “Priests With AIDS” (2/26). The editorial brought back sad memories of three priests who died with AIDS and had to endure the added burden of suffering their disease secretly.

I served as diocesan vocation director for nearly 10 years. I concur with your assessment that “gay priests [seminarians]” is not the issue. Seminaries as a whole do not (or perhaps are not permitted to) train men with the skills needed to live a healthy celibate life. At one national convention of vocation directors, a well respected priest psychologist was about to address us on this very issue. He publicly asked that the session not be taped and that the two bishops in the room leave (they did not). He told us he feared Vatican reprisals.

Your editorial says it so well, “...defensive postures, even if they spring from love of the church, may only increase the difficulty of confronting this problem.” Yet confront it we must.

Robert F. Miailovich | 1/17/2007 - 1:12pm
Thank you for your editorial “Priests With AIDS” (2/26). The issue indeed is the silence concerning the reality of gay priests. The church’s continued insistence that a deep-seated homosexual inclination is intrinsically disordered is psychologically destructive. Bad psychology continues to be bad theology. Let us continue to work for greater enlightenment as we come to recognize the lives of gays and lesbians within our church community.

Peter J. Riga | 1/17/2007 - 1:11pm
Your editorial “Priests With AIDS” (2/26) reminded me of the many texts in the Gospels and Acts about the rehabilitation of Peter after the terrible scandal of his betrayal-denial. Had this not been done by Christ himself (Jn. 21:1-15), the community would never have accepted Peter’s authority and leadership in the early church.

We need more honesty in the church. We need to recognize that there are gay priests, that they are as bound to celibacy as heterosexual priests, that they have special spiritual needs different from others and whose needs need to be addressed forthrightly. We are a sinful church, which needs forgiveness and reconciliation—even for priests with AIDS.

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