Father Tony

Can you love a gay priest?

Filed By Father Tony | September 25, 2008 2:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living
Tags: Catholic church, closeted clergy, gay Catholics, gay priests, religion, religious faith


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

Dear Faithful,

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.

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I certainly have a soft spot for this one gay priest... ;-)

Another thoughtful and thoughtprovoking piece from Father T.

My years living in Topeka, Kansas gave me experience with a very similar social set. There were priests, monks, politicians, judges, lawyers, doctors, bankers, business owners...every type of powerful man in our society. I did not fit that description, but I was young, pretty, and fun to have at a dinner party. While most gay guys in their early 20s were out carousing, I wanted to be around and learn from older men.

I remember very well the first pre-Christmas gathering at which I met this spectrum of men all in the same house. It was, as you say, an invitation to join a social network. The parties were genteel and there was never a sexually charged atmosphere, though innuendo was elevated to an art form. Sure, some of those men wanted to jump my bones and some tried, at more private moments. However, mostly I think those men wanted to vicariously experience the freedom I enjoyed as a professional young man who was building his life out in the open, without fear. It was a risk to have me among them, but by the late 1990s even Topeka had progressed enough to make the risk acceptable.

My life is dramatically different than it was in those days. Still I feel a healthy respect for these men, who try to find happiness in a closet. Only some of the men I knew were part of the Roman Catholic church; most were able to be somewhat more relaxed in their day to day lives. All of them, without exception, were extraordinarily talented and gifted. A person is far more than just his or her sexuality. I learned about a vast array of topics from experts in the fields. I enjoyed the "good old gay boy" protections and privileges which helped my career and my life. All in all, my association with those men was a very positive experience. And though I now live worlds away in NYC, some of those friendships persist to this day. Above all, I was taught loyalty.

I don't approve of the closet or the discriminatory organizations and sections of society which make them necessary. I denounce the abusive RC church and all individual abusers (pedophiles). I know, however, that there are many beautiful, loving, praise-worthy men and women in the ranks of the closeted. They are people who have flaws which, though different, are no worse than those which we all have. They deserve love, too.

Father T, it is apparent the effect this subject has on you. I am grieved that you felt forced to leave the Church; but you have found happiness in the life that followed, and for that I am glad. I appreciate this glimpse into the real world of the priesthood that is far more authentic than the image the Church would have us believe.

I am an outsider, but the Roman Catholic Church seems to me a deteriorating edifice, held tenuously by aging mortar which is disintegrating with time and neglect. Its manmade restrictions on inclusiveness are a contradiction to the real love of God that embraces all of us exactly as we are. Of course Catholics are by no means the sole offenders. I am worried and frightened by the rabid snarling of fundamental sects which seem to somehow continue to attract those who seek certainty in these uncertain times.

Your closing sentence, “I drive the long way around it on my way to God,” speaks of the experience I am seeing so common to the LGBT community: to find God’s embrace you’ve had to leave the church. That is untenable, and it’s long past time for the straight Christian community to stand up and speak out. In accepting God’s unconditional and loving grace, we respond by offering the same to all.

You say you don’t have the tools to fix it, but together we can all build a new church, whether within the frameworks we have now or by building anew. Each of us brings different tools to the site. And you are equipping more with your words. Keep writing.

Thanks, Father Tony, for such an honest and revealing post.

the experience I am seeing so common to the LGBT community: to find God’s embrace you’ve had to leave the church.

My experience exactly. While I think it is fine that some feel the need to worship in a group, I find that it is OK for me, most of the time, to worship in the privacy of my own solitude or my own mind.

Fr. T., I fear I may have to take that "long way around." Not because I want to, but because I must stay in the closet or leave.

Thank you for your story and reflections. And for the tenderness you show for those who have chosen differently. I hear sadness but no bitterness. As I've said before, and to your protestations, I feel you are a man of great faith, indeed.

I worked on a pro-equality project with a gay Catholic Worker who made it through seminary and was a priest for a year or so. He claimed he gave it up for a career that actually contributed to society but I suspect it was because he was a walking wet dream who got hit so often that he just gave up, dived in and never came up for air.

I liked him so every time I met him I made a point of giving him a few rubbers and a poker faced stern lecture about safe sex. He’d smile but he always pocketed the rubbers.

He became political and felt that was a more wholesome outlet for his humanitarian impulses. Although he was ordinarily very gentle and laid back he felt he'd been used and betrayed by the cult and never forgave them.

When I read stories like this one I am so very glad that my family adheres to a religion that doesn't have these sorts of issues. I've been a clergy person for years and my orientation has never been an issue in any way. I am open and I live in Mass so I even perform same sex marriages.
I just amazes me that some people have these issues where religion is concerned.

Thanks for the great post, Father Tony.

Father Tony, you fascinate me. As a gay man, I too, have taken the long way around to my faith. Today, my faith is personal, not Pharisee and more comfort, less fear. More John 14:1, and less Revelations 14:9. Godspeed, Father Tony and C.

I'm always fascinated by the glimpse inside the church that you offer us. Fascinated.

The thing about people living lives like that is that they can't see an ending to it. That probably explains part of the Church's policy on gays.

I'm involved with the LGBT equality/justice movement in the Presbyterian church, and I sometimes feel likewise about that denomination's future. All institutions after a while start to become a crumbling edifice. Certainly the church (big and little 'C') today looks nothing like the early church (how could it?), and often seems as culpable and responsible for the injustices that it was created as an alternative against.

And how could it be otherwise? People are, as they say, a problem.

In our denomination we're at a moment where we have a chance of taking some the of anti-queer discrimination out of our official policies, a task that is both easier and harder than what the Pontiff could do with the stroke of a pen. We actually have to talk to each other, and be in relationship with one another. We've been fighting over this issue for 30 years now.

Even if we do make the legislative changes necessary (which seems possible for the first time, even perhaps likely, but definitely not certain), that only means that the conflict will be waged on other fronts. This certainly ain't over. Most folks can't even think the words "gay" and "Christian" at the same time: their heads almost explode at the apparent contradiction.

I've been fascinated by the Roman church for a long time, and the world that Tony describes is seductive in many ways. But seduction has its dark side, and I've met some of the folks who live this kind of life. Definitely not for me.

I've experienced a sense of call to ministry myself, but for the life of me can't quite figure out how to get "there" from the "here" of my life as it is now. But that's another story!

Thanks for another nicely-crafted piece.