Thousands upon thousands of priests are closeted, and the Vatican’s failure to reckon honestly with their sexuality has created a crisis for all of Catholicism.
We have no reliable figures on just how many priests in the Catholic Church are gay. The Vatican has conducted many studies on its own clergy but never on this subject. In the United States, however, where there are 37,000 priests, no independent study has found fewer than 15 percent to be gay, and some have found as many as 60 percent. The consensus in my own research over the past few months converged on around 30 to 40 percent among parish priests and considerably more than that— as many as 60 percent or higher—among religious orders like the Franciscans or the Jesuits.
This fact hangs in the air as a giant, unsustainable paradox. A church that, since 2005, bans priests with “deep-seated homosexual tendencies” and officially teaches that gay men are “objectively disordered” and inherently disposed toward “intrinsic moral evil” is actually composed, in ways very few other institutions are, of gay men.
The massive cognitive dissonance this requires is becoming harder to sustain. The collapse of the closet in public and private life in the past three decades has made the disproportionate homosexuality of the Catholic priesthood much less easy to hide, ignore, or deny. This cultural and moral shift has not only changed the consciousness of most American Catholics (67 percent of whom support civil marriage for gay couples) and gay priests (many of whom are close to quitting) but also broken the silence that long shrouded the subject.
Five years ago, Pope Francis made his watershed “Who am I to judge?” remark after being asked about a flawed gay priest. “A person once asked me, in a provocative manner, if I approved of homosexuality,” Francis went on. “I replied with another question: ‘Tell me, when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love or reject and condemn this person?’ We must always consider the person. Here we enter into the mystery of the human being.” In the final draft of the 2014 Synod on the Family, Francis included explicit mention of the “gifts and qualities” of homosexuals, asking, “Are we capable of welcoming [them]?” These sentiments won 62 percent of the votes of the synod bishops—just shy of what was necessary to pass, but still evidence of a sharp shift in tone in official Catholic teaching.
They also triggered near panic on the Catholic right. Alarmed by the possibility that divorced and remarried people might be welcomed as well as gays, traditionalists launched a fierce rearguard campaign against the new papacy, with a focus on what some called a “Lavender Mafia” running the church, and broke new ground in connecting this directly to the horrifying revelations of sex abuse that came to light in 2002. In increasingly direct ways, they have argued that the root of the scandal was not abuse of power, or pedophilia, or clericalism, or the distortive psychological effects of celibacy and institutional homophobia, but gayness itself.
“There is a homosexual culture, not only among the clergy but even within the hierarchy, which needs to be purified at the root,” the American cardinal Raymond Burke declared in August. Bishop Robert Morlino of Wisconsin agreed. “It is time to admit that there is a homosexual subculture within the hierarchy of the Catholic Church that is wreaking great devastation,” he wrote. “If you’ll permit me, what the church needs now is more hatred” of homosexual sexual behavior, “a sin so grave that it cries out to heaven for vengeance.” Michael Hichborn, head of the fringe right Lepanto Institute, called for a “complete and thorough removal of all homosexual clergymen from the church … It is going to be difficult and will likely result in a very serious priest shortage, but it’s definitely worth the effort.”
The unseemly fall this past summer of Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, one of the most powerful American cardinals of his time, provided a cause célèbre for this faction. It emerged that McCarrick had abused at least two children and then sexually harassed generations of adult seminarians with impunity. Here, it seemed, was a pedophile and an abusive gay man, at the very apex of the church, known to be sexually active with seminarians, protected by his peers, and tolerated for decades by many in the hierarchy, including the last three popes.
McCarrick gave the right an opening. New online media organizations—led by Breitbart-style websites such as LifeSite News and Church Militant—now routinely pounce on any incidents involving gay priests and have an influential audience in the Vatican. A wealthy group of conservative Catholics, the Better Church Governance, has even launched an investigation into the orthodoxy, conduct, and, it’s clear, sexual orientation of each of the 124 cardinals who will elect the next pope.
At the center of this struggle, of course, are gay priests, bishops, and cardinals themselves. They are caught in a whiplash of relative toleration embodied by Francis and hostility exemplified by his conservative predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI. The 2005 ban on gay priests and seminarians is still in force and, in fact, was affirmed by Francis in 2016. As a result, almost all gay priests are closeted, for fear of being targeted or terminated, which makes them uniquely barred from entering the discussion. They listen as they are talked about and scapegoated—often in deeply offensive ways and always as if they were not one of the church’s key ramparts. “Things have actually gotten worse since Francis became pope,” one priest told me. “They are equating all gay priests with sexual abuse. There’s a witch hunt.”
HOSPITAL CHAPELS, like those in airports, can be strange places. Rarely anyone’s refuge for very long, they can feel as transient and empty as they are antiseptic. But on a recent Sunday at noon, in a sprawling hospital on the edges of a midwestern city, the congregation spilled out down the hallways for Mass. They were clearly not strangers to one another as they nodded and chatted before the service began; there were old and young, black and white and brown, families and couples and a sprinkling of those who’d come alone. The Mass itself was unremarkable apart from a striking homily when the priest talked of the joys of having nothing as the Christmas gifting season loomed. It’s a lesson he said he’d learned from serving the sick, the traumatized, the hungry, and the homeless after a natural disaster overseas.
He told of a moment when he was returning from a field hospital along an unlit path in the early hours of the morning, surrounded by intense suffering on top of brutal poverty, yet he was buoyed by the faith and tenacity of the poorest of the poor, the sickest of the sick. He stopped and looked up into the starlit sky, he said, and felt not despair but hope.
“Always a good message from that one,” said the man next to me as Mass ended. I nodded: “Big crowd for a hospital.” “Oh yeah,” the man replied. “Always. They come from all over. He’s a rock star, this priest.” I said nothing. Father Mike, as I’ll call him, had texted me earlier to review the ground rules: “Per hospital and my request you are not to interview anyone or identify yourself as doing a story, journalist, etc.” The full story of this man’s life and service has to stay anonymous—as with almost every other priest I spoke with. Not even his most devoted congregants know he’s gay.
But as a former registered nurse and skilled manager, he’s a natural priest. In the few minutes I took to meet him in my hotel lobby, he’d already learned from the receptionist that she was no longer celebrating Christmas after a recent near-death experience in a car crash. At one point as we spoke the next day in the hospital, he was greeted by a woman who asked for an on-the-spot confession and he shooed me aside; later I met an anguished gay man from an ultra-Catholic family he was counseling; and for a few hours on Sunday morning, he was with the wife and teenage sons of a dying man. Father Mike was the bandage on all of those open wounds. He has witnessed a couple hundred deaths in his career. One night, he told me, he sat with three patients at the hour of their deaths in quick succession.
Becoming a priest wasn’t an easy decision. Mike came from a troubled family, and his abusive parents converted to Catholicism when he was entering his teens. He agreed to go to Sunday Mass because they promised him brunch at his favorite spot afterward, until, at the age of 15, he formally became a Catholic himself. At 17, he was sent to visit a priest for a one-on-one counseling retreat. “The very first night I was there, he very aggressively tried to get me in bed with him,” Mike told me. “I was absolutely terrified.” A year later, when his parents threw him out of the house, he went to live with a youth minister. “For two months I was there, and it was just constant fighting off advances and innuendo.” He reported the youth minister, even testified against him in court. But his own priest backed the minister, and, despite testimony from three other boys, the abuser was acquitted. “At that time, people actually believed priests,” Mike sighed.
Despite all this, in the mid-1990s he entered seminary after graduating from college. He found himself constantly subjected to psychological evaluations and denied the usual summer assignments. Fearing his teenage testimony against an abuser was blocking his ordination, he quit to become a critical-care nurse. But he still felt called to the church and eventually tried seminary again. He was ordained three years later.
I told him most people would find this story bizarre, masochistic even. Why join a church that doesn’t want you—indeed, one that abused you? He stumbled for a while before finally blurting out, “Well, at the heart of it, it’s about … it’s about Jesus, and it’s about … I mean, I believe in God.” His voice was raised, suddenly intense. “I’d found some people in campus ministry, when I was in college, who were really authentic. They loved each other, and they loved God; they loved ‘the least of these.’ They weren’t perfect, but the overarching message was that Jesus is here, Jesus is in the Eucharist, and Jesus is in the faces of the poorest of the poor and those who are most marginalized.” They told him he was obviously called to be a priest, and his time as a nurse deepened this conviction within him. “As I was serving my patients, most of whom died, I prayed with them when they wanted me to, I brought Communion to them when I could, and it was through them that I felt called to serve.”
It is in that context of nurse to patient, pastor to flock, that today he manages his conflicts as a gay priest. “Every time I walk into that hospital, no matter how I’m feeling or what I’m going through or the new Pennsylvania grand-jury report on sex abuse, it all changes,” he said. “When you sit at the edge of the bed with someone whose transplant has failed, it becomes a heart-to-heart. Sometimes I think we forget that, in the church, it’s about that particular person and their humanity, their hopes and their fears, and their desire to love and be loved.”
MOST OF THE GAY PRIESTS I spoke with have never experienced abuse in the church. Many had already come to terms with their sexual orientation before they entered the priesthood, but some wrestled with it in the seminary, and others later in life. “There is no typical experience,” Father Joe, as I’ll call him, told me. “At first I wondered if I were a fraud, because I thought, Well, am I just trying to escape into a life in which I don’t have to deal with my sexuality? But I had people in charge of me who challenged me to ask myself if this were authentic, and I felt that this was the life and work that God was calling me to. It’s an ongoing discernment.” Then there was a moment of grace. “I was working in a hospital at the height of the aids crisis. A nun said to me, ‘What do you want to tell these people? They’re active homosexuals, drug users.’ I said, ‘I would talk about God’s mercy and be with them as they are.’ It helped me understand how God could use me even though the church didn’t accept me.”
Another, call him Father Andrew, described his choice of vocation as “convenient and existential”: “I was 18 and sexually aware but extremely depressed, and my father cornered me one day in the kitchen and made me come out. I went to a psychologist, who told me, ‘You’re not going to change. You need to accept yourself.’ ” Andrew’s father was not happy about this recommendation and ended the therapy. In college, Andrew sought out more treatment, and then, suddenly, his father died. It threw him. “I kept thinking about life and death. I had started praying again and attending Mass. I was driving in the desert from Phoenix to Tucson and saw these dust devils, and I suddenly heard in my head, ‘Oh, be a priest. You won’t need to deal with sex; you can be respected.’ And then my brother died—a car crash.” By his junior year, Andrew was in the seminary.
It was there that Andrew had his first adult sexual experience. “I was 28 years old. I came out as bisexual. I lost weight, I built muscle, I got noticed more by other seminarians, and I wanted to see what it was like being an adult,” he said. “It was difficult. I wasn’t attracted to kissing. I had one experience and couldn’t ejaculate.” He then threw himself into his work until, at 40, he faced a burnout. He took a leave of absence, spent six months in prayer and therapy, and when he returned, he sent an explanatory email to his fellow priests: “As one who has long suffered doubts about himself, I dedicate myself to bringing the love of God … to everyone who, like me, sometimes questions their worth and value because of voices contrary to God’s voice.”
The breakthrough came suddenly. “I said to my therapist, ‘I think I’m a good priest,’ and he said, ‘I bet you are.’ And I burst out crying.” Andrew’s voice cracked. “Being lumped in with pedophiles—it has a way of taking a toll on you.” The scapegoating has wounded many of the priests I spoke with. It has become a double stigma: targeted by the hierarchy for being gay and by the general public for being pedophiles. Many of the people I spoke to, Catholics and nonCatholics, about the subject of gay priests rolled their eyes and asked about the abuse of children. The news environment is saturated with stories about sex abuse—and rightly so—yet there are hardly any public examples of the overwhelming number of gay priests who would never dream of preying upon the powerless.
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January 21, 2019