The recent book by the Rev. Donald B. Cozzens, The Changing Face of the Priesthood, has brought to the fore a number of important issues facing the church in the United States. Among them is a topic that has bedeviled many discussions about the state of the priesthood, that is, the high number of priests with a homosexual orientation. So far, the dialogue has been marked by strong and often uncompromising reactions. On the one hand, there are those who urge acceptance and compassion for priests who are homosexual, arguing that these priests have always had, and continue to have, much to contribute to the church. On the other hand are those who feel that since homosexuality is defined by church teaching as a strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil (The Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons, 1986) the presence of homosexual priests is at best an embarrassment, and at worst a trend that needs to be reversed.
Needed, therefore, is a clear and dispassionate review of the major issues raised by the phenomenon of homosexual priests in the Catholic Church. What follows is a summary of the major challenges faced by homosexual priests (and which the church faces as a result of their ministry) as well as the gifts that homosexual priests can offer the church. This brief overview is the product of a review of the available literature on the topic as well as interviews with heterosexual and homosexual priests (both diocesan and religious) from across the country.
Two Introductory Notes
First, a note about terminology: specifically, the terms homosexual and gay. (That even the most basic terminology has proven contentious underlines the sensitivity of the topic.) While gay is obviously the more contemporary usage, it also carries with it a number of connotations unhelpful for purposes of this article (e.g., gay lifestyle, gay activism). Hence homosexual, while overly clinical, may be more effective in referring specifically to sexual orientation.
Second, a related note or, rather, an assumptionabout celibacy. In many books, articles and discussions about homosexual clergy, it is mistakenly assumed that being homosexual means ipso facto being sexually active. But the word homosexual, again, is used as a description of sexual orientation, as a condition, not as an indication of whether a person is sexually active. Unless proven otherwise, there is no reason to believe that homosexual priests are any less likely to keep their promises of celibacy than heterosexual ones. This article will assume that homosexual priests take their promises of celibacy as seriously as their heterosexual counterparts do.
The Challenges of the Homosexual Priest
There are, as Father Cozzens noted in his book, a high number of homosexual priests and seminarians in the United States. How high is difficult to say. (Estimates in his book range from 23 percent to 58 percent, with even higher percentages for younger priests.) That a high number of priests share a similar characteristic means that the church needs to consider both the challenges and the gifts offered by this group. Not to do so would be to ignore a development that could have a significant impact on the life of the Catholic Church. What then are some of the problems faced by homosexual priests? And what challenges are faced by the church as a result of their presence?
Identity and integrity. The current teaching of the church on homosexuality is clear: Homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 2357), and even a homosexual orientation is an objective disorder (The Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons, 1986). But the church also teaches that a homosexual person must be accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity (Catechism, No. 2358). Thus, while homosexuals may take heart from the call for acceptance, it is nevertheless difficult for homosexuals relying solely on Vatican documents and the language of the church’s moral theology to accept their sexualityan integral part of any human personas a positive aspect of their personality.
For the homosexual priest, a man called to communicate the love of God to others, this can prove especially problematic. Experiencing acceptance from God for one’s created self is an important step in the spiritual life of any Christian. Two challenges follow. First, the difficulty for a priest striving to communicate acceptance and love from the church when a constitutive part of his personality is labelled by the church as objectively disordered. Second, the difficulty of carrying out the church’s work, particularly his sacramental ministry, while knowing that the church considers him ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil.
There is also the related inability to draw publicly on one’s own personal experience in homilies, counseling or any other type of pastoral work, as the heterosexual priest can easily do. Many heterosexual priests, for example, often speak movingly about giving up a life with a wife and children. Likewise, many priests who are recovering alcoholics speak about the liberating recovery process as a profound spiritual gift. The first challenge, therefore, is balancing church teaching with the acceptance of one’s entire self as created and loved by God.
Insularity. For many homosexuals, coming to accept one’s sexuality is an enormous step in understanding oneself as loved by God. One priest interviewed called coming to terms with his sexuality the most important moment of his spiritual journey as a Christian. For many homosexual men, part of this acceptance process includes appreciating the company of other homosexuals. But for priests this can prove problematic. As Father Cozzens pointed out in his book, it can sometimes mean that homosexual priests choose to spend their time only with other homosexual priests. Further, it can mean that, because of his comfort around other homosexuals, a homosexual priest may choose to spend most of his ministerial time with gay and lesbian Catholics, for example, by seeking out parishes and pastoral assignments that focus on ministry to gays and lesbians. The danger lies in developing a preference only for apostolates catering to gays and lesbians, rather than developing a priestly ministry open to all types of persons from a variety of backgrounds.
Another danger is that, in some venues, groups of homosexual priests may develop a network of close friendships among themselves that consciously or unconsciously exclude heterosexual priests. Certainly developing a strong communal identity is natural for any likeminded groupparticularly one whose members have faced persecution and rejection from the larger society. But taken to the extreme, an insularity can develop that makes heterosexual priests feel marginalized in their own rectories and religious communities. One heterosexual priest interviewed complained about the atmosphere of a religious community in which he lived, where he felt shut out by the rest of the house. When he expressed his feelings to the rest of the community, he was met with charges of intolerance and homophobia. Eventually, he decided to move to another residence. Such insularity can also effectively discourage heterosexual vocations from feeling welcome in rectories, seminaries and religious communities.
Addressing the gay subculture. Here we face a difficult topic. On the one hand, one rightly shies from stereotyping (e.g., All homosexual men are...). On the other hand, many gay men say that the gay community in the United States has a variety of distinguishing characteristics. These characteristics help to define it as a distinctive subculture within the larger American culture, in which many gay men take pride. (Books, magazines and interviews with homosexual priests also point to similar traits.) Some of the aspects of this gay subculture may be healthy for the homosexual priestfor example, accepting oneself as a valuable member of society, or the emphasis on sensitivity and community. Others are less so. Michelangelo Signorile, for example, a gay author, has written about what he terms looksism, the tendency for some gay men to judge others solely on the basis of physical appearance. This is obviously not helpful for a minister in the church.
An analogy may be useful. If one is an American-born priest, one can be proud of some typically American values (self-reliance, optimism, a democratic worldview) without having to subscribe to the more unhealthy ones (materialism, individualism). In short, how does a homosexual priest resist the wholesale importation of those values of the gay subculture that could prove harmful in priestly life? Stated more positively, which values and characteristics of the gay subculture are healthy for the priest and which are not?
Facing homophobia. Despite advances made in terms of what the catechism calls for, that is, the acceptance of gays and lesbians with respect, compassion and sensitivity, American culture is largely hostile to homosexuals. It can still prove difficult for homosexuals to accept their sexuality as a gift, given the current cultural biases against their orientation. Violence is common; the beating and murder of the young Matthew Shepard in Wyoming is a case in point.
Any priest, therefore, who is honest with parishioners or his diocesan or religious superiors about his sexuality faces the possibility of strongly negative reactions. While he may be greeted with respect, compassion and sensitivity, he may also be greeted with hatred and rejection, especially from those who mistakenly assume that all homosexual priests are sexually active or, worse, those who wrongly equate homosexuality with pedophilia. Superiors may be worried about giving scandal. (The difficulty of a homosexual priest responding in a public way to occasions of homophobia is also obvious.) Moreover, the institutional church, through a variety of means, reinforces the unwritten rule that a homosexual priest should never speak publicly about his orientation. All of these factors give rise to the veil of silence that shrouds the issue of the homosexual priest.
The Gifts of the Homosexual Priest
Traditional Catholic theology as summarized in the catechism (No. 1578) states that men are called to the priesthood by God. So despite statements that homosexual priests are either a scandal or embarrassment, Catholic belief is that all men called to holy orders are responding to a divine call. (As an aside, it is perhaps unsurprising that in a church that enjoins celibacy on homosexuals, some gay men would choose the celibate life of the priest.) Some have argued that the ordination of homosexuals somehow represents the church in error. But homosexual priests, like heterosexual priests, are ordained through the divine authority of the church, which has that responsibility and right (No. 1578) and, according to traditional Catholic theology, imprints on the priest an indelible spiritual character (No. 1582).
Therefore, one can state that God has called, and is continuing to call, homosexuals to serve as priests in the church and that the church confirms this call through ordination. The question, then, is not whether God is calling homosexual men to the priesthood, but why. Theologically, how might one understand these signs of the times?
The school of suffering. The vast majority of homosexuals in the United States are acquainted with the suffering that comes from being a misunderstood and often persecuted minority. This commences from early adolescence and can continue for the remainder of one’s life. Homosexuals are frequent targets of prejudice, ridicule, rejection from their own families and, sometimes, violence. Here, therefore, are men who understand suffering, stigma and frustrationthe very types of experiences that Christian theology teaches can lead one closer to companionship with the Christ who suffers. To use the words heard during Lent, the homosexual is often despised and rejected by others, a man of suffering...one from whom others hide their faces (Isa. 53:3).
Being schooled in this unique experience of suffering can result in a profound sense of compassion and identification with the most marginalized in society: the sick, the lonely, the refugee, the materially poor, the outcast, the least of my brothers and sisters (Mt. 25). One homosexual priest interviewed, who worked in his parish with recent immigrants, said that his own experience helped him better to understand the immigrants’ experience of being treated as outcasts in their new country. He felt that his background had magnified his compassion and helped him minister to a group of people with whom, at least initially, he had little in common. Similarly, experiences of marginalization mean that the homosexual priest could be naturally sensitive to others who feel marginalized in the church, such as divorced and remarried Catholics, to take but one example. Could God, then, be calling homosexuals to serve as ordained ministers precisely for this reason? Might they not powerfully exemplify the suffering servant image of Christ?
Spiritual life. For the homosexual, the road to experiencing the love and acceptance of others, to finding self-acceptance and to discovering God’s love for the whole person can be an arduous one. Because of the isolation that many homosexuals feel, especially in early adolescence, they are often led to develop deep inner lives. The loneliness and anomie of growing up homosexual (particularly in the past) forces many homosexuals inward, to a level of self-understanding and awareness that is the foundation for a healthy spirituality. Is it possible that in an era of increased interest in spirituality God is calling these men, in particular, to lead people closer to God in prayer? Further, might their hard-won experience of self-acceptance help them better counsel those who seek to experience the love and acceptance of God in their own lives?
Creativity. Is it a stereotype to state that many homosexual men are inclined toward creativity? Yes, though perhaps it is a not a pejorative or negative stereotype. While homosexuals now work in all types of professions, for a variety of reasons many have historically gravitated toward professions that emphasize creativity, as in the fine arts and performing arts. As John Boswell noted in his book Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality (1980), the Catholic Church has for centuries provided homosexual priests with opportunities to use their unique gifts in the service of the church. In this post-Vatican II era of interest in the liturgy, in the craft of preaching, in the place of art, dance and music in the church, and in what Andrew Greeley has called the apologetics of beauty, might God be calling homosexual priests, in a special way, to contribute their own gifts in these areas?
Honesty and Charity
Regarding the high incidence of homosexual priests in the United States, Father Cozzens states succinctly, "Clearly it is an issue." Obviously, it is not a situation that can be denied or ignored. And what is required is not the overheated and sometimes misinformed polemics that have characterized the discussion, but instead a conversation that admits both the challenges occasioned by and the gifts offered by homosexual priests, men who seek to serve God and the church with their whole selves. Only honesty and charity will help Catholics to appreciate better the current situation and allow the church to discern the promptings of the Holy Spirit.