Homosexuality in the priesthood “worries” Pope Francis. This he made clear in a book excerpt published this month by the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, immediately igniting confusion in the Catholic Church, including among the gay laity.
As a gay woman who accepts Catholic teaching, I understand the confusion. In more abstract comments, the pope frames gay people as servants of God. But his more direct statements present us as threats, especially in the priesthood or religious orders.
It isn’t my place to say who should be a priest. But I’ve spoken with hundreds of gay people like me who choose celibacy to live in harmony with the Catholic sexual ethic. A constant theme is that other Christians approach us with suspicion. Our spiritual guides often harp exclusively on the ways we can’t love and the things we can’t do. We are scolded or even punished for being honest about our sexual orientation, even when we are chaste. This is not an atmosphere likely to help us know and trust God’s love.
In the excerpt, Francis was presumably responding to reports of rampant, often coercive sexual contact in seminaries. A sexually active priest is violating his promises to God; he’s damaging his own psyche, habituating himself to lies, sinking into either shameless self-justification or deep, corrosive shame.
With the church undergoing a painful and desperately needed cleansing after decades of covering up priests’ sexual crimes, we must ask whether priests’ secrets — even secrets concerning consensual liaisons — have fed a culture of secrecy, fear and cover-ups. And so, Francis said, “in consecrated life and priestly life, there is no place for this kind of affection” — meaning, it seems, sex with other men. “For this reason,” he said, “the church recommends that people with this ingrained tendency not be accepted into the ministry or the consecrated life.”
Pope Francis does not argue that all gay priests are inherently unfaithful. He identifies the problem as sexual immorality and its attendant secrets and lies. The pope is speaking here about priests and those in the consecrated life who are not leading chaste lives: “It is better that they leave the priesthood or the consecrated life rather than live a double life.”
By Catholic teaching, this is indisputably right. But recent history suggests that simply barring gay men from the priesthood is not the best way to go.
In 2005, the Vatican released an “instruction” barring men with “deep-seated homosexual tendencies” from seminaries. This turned out to be impossible to enforce for two reasons: Some seminaries and religious orders, because they dissented themselves or because they encountered exceptional gay candidates for ordination, quietly disobeyed the instruction. And others with more stringent orthodoxy nonetheless ended up with a whole lot of seminarians having covert, shameful and often alcohol-fueled or abusive sex with one another.
If you say you’ll kick out any gay candidates, you don’t end up with no gay candidates. You end up with those gay candidates willing to lie or unwilling to acknowledge their longings even to themselves. You end up with those gay people least likely to learn chastity in an all-male, high-pressure environment where they must keep their secret for as long as possible. It’s like a machine for destroying souls.
Meanwhile, the men who could not serve as priests were not, it seemed, fit to serve in any other capacity. Gay, Catholic men who could have served as spiritual fathers were ignored as aberrations, so yet another generation of gay children grew up in the Catholic Church believing only that they had no place there — that God has no need for them.
Is it any wonder that, with no honest future available to them, so many gay men turned to the priesthood? If you want fewer gay priests — though this is not the right metric — you have to help gay kids find alternative futures in the Catholic Church. Futures in which they can be openly gay and still serve in church ministries. Futures in which their experience of gay communities can draw them closer to Christ. Futures in which their longings for same-sex love, companionship and intimacy are treated not as mere proxies for sexual immorality, but paths of self-giving love — including the forgotten paths of Christian love and kinship, such as covenant friendships or intentional communities.
Pope Francis, despite his patchwork approach, calls the church to remember that gay people “are persons who will live in the service of the church, of the Christian community, of the people of God.” One service that some gay people in and out of holy orders might be able to provide is our witness that a life without sex can be a life filled with love; that God is our inheritance, your truest lover as well as mine. Perhaps the greatest service we can offer right now is our testimony, hard-won through years of coming out, that God is truth, and to live in God is to live in truth.
Eve Tushnet, who blogs at Patheos, is the author of “Gay and Catholic: Accepting My Sexuality, Finding Community, Living My Faith” and the editor of “Christ’s Body, Christ’s Wounds: Staying Catholic When You’ve Been Hurt in the Church.”