Message: Dear Father Tony,
I recently read something about a closeted gay pastor. After decades of service, he is being told to leave after coming out to his superiors. He is having to give up his job because his church decided he wasn't fit to serve solely on the basis of his orientation. His choice was to be true to himself or fulfill his calling. We can only guess the pain and questioning he is experiencing.
What are your thoughts on gay clergy? What hope does this man or any LGBT person have in today's religious climate?Faithful Reader
Can you love a gay priest?
I can't be sure from your letter whether or not you are speaking about a Roman Catholic priest or some other variety of priest. Since the former is the type with which I am most familiar, and since the latter comes in so many forms, I'm going to restrict my response to an examination of that most endearing of hybrids, the North American Roman Catholic Parish (Diocesan) Priest. This bird, more often gay than straight, is endangered.
These are the days of unpredictable weather for these priests. One moment, folks are asking for a blessing, and the next, they are raising fists to punch out the teeth of those suspected of child molesting. The Church proclaims that God's love is all inclusive, but drives out gay leaders who become inconvenient by acquiring visibility and countering Church dogma. The bishops try an impossible balancing act by teaching that homosexual orientation is not a sin but that homosexual actions are sinful. They say they would not suspend a homosexual priest who was living a celibate life, but they concoct new seminary rules that keep openly gay men from entering the priesthood. Meanwhile, in the Vatican, old men who are to spirituality what gourd-shaking witchdoctors are to modern medicine, rail against any priest who even suggests that gay might be good.
The homosexual priest has to keep his mouth shut about his sexual orientation for a number of reasons.
Those reasons are both political and social. If he starts waving a rainbow flag and unlocks the church hall for groups of gay Catholics such as Dignity, he will get his wrist slapped and he must absolutely abandon any hopes of being elevated to higher authority in the Church. This is not to say that the Church is not a cornucopia of gay monsignors, bishops, cardinals and popes, for it is, but those guys never would have acquired those titles if they had stepped out of the closet for even one moment.
There is a funny little subtext that goes along with this double standard. Private and secret alliances and friendships are formed among the gay clergy who tacitly "come out" to each other while equally tacitly agreeing to never become "inconvenient" by coming out publicly or by getting caught in any type of scandal or even by becoming involved in any type of gay ministry. Some of these relationships are cemented by sex and some are platonic friendships. Those of this group who are elevated to higher rank are then able to advocate for the promotion of their gay friends. My time in Rome gave me an education about the clandestine efficiency of this system.
Little Frankie Spellman did not end up in red silk next door to Saks Fifth Avenue because of his piety or brilliance. But that is another story.
I had a number of mentors in Rome. One was an American who owned a house on the beach in Rhode Island where I spent some weeks while I was still a very young priest. I remember an autumn when we picked rose hips together from the rugosa hedge that surrounded his home. While in his kitchen turning that fruit into jam, he prepared me for the arrival of several clergy guests who would be visiting on various days. He told me which ones I ought to "become better acquainted with". He told me which ones to avoid so as not to enrage a competitor. He taught me how to deal with a sudden midnight visitor in the guest room to which I had been assigned. He was grooming me. Indoctrinating me. Testing me. Making sure that I could handle the dynamics of interclerical power-sex. I was honored. It was easy. The men who came and went that week were delightful. Two of them have since become cardinals. I could have locked the door to my bedroom.
We always harvested the rose hips by moonlight because he subscribed to the folklore that claimed this would enhance their flavor, and, as he said with an arch of a brow, "some things are better done sub umbra nocte". I would warn him if he got too close to the poison ivy that is always intermingled with beach roses, and he would say "Yes, yes, there are dangers in this patch. You've got to know your way around." And, he would stop and fix an eye on me to make sure I understood the importance of the lesson. "You've got to learn the secrets of nature and apply them to that which is supernatural."
One night, we went out to see a new movie. Pretty Baby, starring Brooke Shields.
Later that year, I received an invitation to an all-clergy pre-Christmas party at a nearby rectory. I was surprised by the invitation because I hardly knew the priests of that parish. After just a few minutes at that party, I realized that the more than a hundred attendees represented a particular social network of gay priests into which I was being invited.
This is where the more cynical among you will assume that after the scotch began to flow, the party turned into an orgy of men-of-the-cloth unclothed. Not so. Priests do not interact that way among themselves. It was made clear that I was being offered a place in a family. A family of mutual consolation and support. A family of trust in which one might show one's true colors without fear of exposure and retribution. A family of sad men crying into their beer over lives of longing and frustration. A family that I decided not to join.
Have I given you, Faithful Reader, too bleak a glimpse into the plight of the gay priest? I hope not, for this is just a tip of the iceberg. There is zeal, and work into which a gay priest might throw himself, in the way that a gay husband may decide to stay with his wife and to pretend to be straight while throwing himself into the admirable work of raising a family. And who among us does not look at his or her partner and say "I love this person despite the flaws and faults"? Gay priests think the same about the Church. I could not remain among them because I came to the conclusion that the Church was not merely flawed. It was psychologically and spiritually abusive, and I have never been tolerant of abuse. Those gay men who choose to remain in the ministry feel differently.
Today, that choice has become less of an option. In our hearts, we all wish that all the priests in America might be brought into one large stadium where all the gay ones would be forced to stand up, declare themselves and move to the left, while the one or two straight ones would be sent (in shock) to the right. This exposure would end the silly game and would rectify the balance of power. Oddly, if the Church were run by "out" gay clergy, you'd soon see the doors to leadership open to women and to married folks both gay and straight.
There is another weighty consideration in the formation of your estimation of priests who do not leave the Church. Please know that as a priest gets older, the possibility of starting a new life slips away from him. He feels trapped. Friends and relatives who knew that I was restless counseled me not to leave the priesthood. To give it a few more years. I knew all too well what those "few more years" had done to the men around me. It was not pretty. I saw them and still see them in bars in Manhattan, using their day-off to find some temporary respite from their mistake.
I myself vacillate between pity and scorn for the gay clergy, and so I would not point you in one direction or the other. I will say that I deeply appreciated those parishioners who let me know that the real me was acceptable to them and that their homes were open to me. They were men and women of empathy and wisdom who exemplified the true Christian message. I know I disappointed them when I left, but I also know they did not blame me or judge me harshly. Something tells me you are among them.
This is such a complex issue. A live wire downed in a hurricane and throwing sparks. I recoil when I touch it, burned again. I do not have the tools to fix it. I drive the long way around it on my way to God.