A Gay Catholic’s Response to the Vatican

As expected, the Vatican this week announced that it will no longer allow gay men into seminaries. The Church has chosen to deny these men the opportunity to follow their vocation—their calling from God––to enter the priesthood. Many LGBT people point to this latest evidence of intolerance and wonder why there are any gay Catholics left at all.

My outrage at the Vatican decision may seem misplaced since the Church already bars so many from the ranks of priesthood, including women and even straight men who are married or who wish to marry. Vast numbers are already excluded from the priesthood for reasons that are at best archaic. One need look no further than the original disciples, who included both women (such as Mary Magdalene) and married men (such as Peter), to see that today’s limitations on entry into the priesthood have, at best, a tenuous Scriptural basis.

So why should this latest exclusion be so upsetting?

At first blush, the new proscription might seem a response to the recent crisis of pedophilia by a small minority of priests. The Vatican is denying that rationale as a basis, and for good reason. The best studies have shown that the Church’s dirty little secret was predicated on a culture of tolerance for this horrible practice and not on the sexual orientation of its priests. Men who had pedophile tendencies, regardless of orientation, were drawn to an institution that offered them a comparably supportive atmosphere. Only a small minority of priests was involved in this scandal, and the fact that so many transgressions involved boys may have been a function of the children to whom the priests had easiest access rather than the priests’ sexual orientation.

The Church has taken pains to make clear it is not interested in driving out gay men already serving in the priesthood. It is an open secret that a significant proportion of priests, including some at the highest levels, are gay, and of those many may not be celibate. Apparently, homosexuality is not incompatible with service in the priesthood.

So, the new prohibition is not a response to the pedophile crisis and the Church does not seem to have a problem with gay priests per se. Instead, the Vatican has given a different rationale for the barring of gay seminarians: since seminary life itself might present a sexual temptation to some gay men, all should be excluded. As a Catholic, I find that basis deeply offensive for several reasons.

First, it is inconsistent with the Church’s own pronouncements on homosexuality. The Church currently maintains that, while sexual orientation itself is not a sin, sexual relations outside of the bounds of marriage are prohibited. Since the sacrament of Holy Matrimony is not available to same-sex couples, gay people are supposed to be called to be celibate.

For the record, that is not a position with which I agree, and I am grateful that my parish church, The Church of St. Francis Xavier, actively ministers to the LGBT community, with gay outreach programs and associations that specifically cater not only to gay men but also, separately, to lesbians in a Church too often male-dominated. We send contingents to the Pride parade and the AIDS Walk and even hosted Dignity masses before the Vatican shut those down.

That said, my beliefs and those of my friends are not consistent with official Vatican teaching. If, on the one hand, the Church maintains that gay men are called to be celibate, but, on the other hand, bars those men from seminaries because it presumes that they will not follow that calling, it is stating that all gay men––and only gay men––are incapable of accepting and following Church dogma. Many seminarians and priests, both gay and straight, struggle with celibacy, but the Church cannot bar all humans from being priests simply because they may be tempted in the future. By singling out gay men as being intrinsically incapable of keeping their vows, the Church betrays its own teaching that sexual orientation is not, in and of itself, a sin.

Second, a ban on gay seminarians violates the Church’s deep commitment to forgiveness. The misguided tolerance of pedophile priests was based on that principle. If a priest confessed to the terrible things he had done and resolved not to repeat them, the Church took him at his word, even in the face of tremendous evidence to the contrary. If pedophiles merited a second chance, and at times many more chances thereafter, how can the Church condemn gay seminarians even before they have violated any precept? A Church that prides itself on the sacrament of reconciliation and on God’s forgiveness cannot presume temptation will inevitably lead to rules being broken.

Third, the ban on gay seminarians violates the Church’s own canon law, which would seem to provide for banning seminarians based on their status as opposed to conduct as gay men only if that status were attributed to “psychic illness,” a diagnosis long ago abandoned by the medical and psychiatric professionals on whom the Church would have to rely for such judgment. Other provisions in canon law requiring candidates for the priesthood to show piety, moral probity, good reputation, and good moral behavior would not be applicable to celibate gay men. They may be escape hatches for excluding the likes of Hitler, but not, for example, Father Mychal Judge, the self-professed gay priest, chaplain of the New York City Fire Department, and hero and martyr of 9/11.

Indeed, Canon 1026 specifically prohibits the Church from turning away any candidate for the priesthood who is canonically suitable. A celibate gay man who demonstrates the other qualities required of priests is canonically suitable. Therefore, with this new ban, the Vatican will be requiring discrimination against gay seminarians in violation of its own canonical law.

Finally, it is worth noting here that of the Church’s seven sacraments, two address the blessing of the life choices of adults––Holy Matrimony and Holy Orders. The Church opposes marriage for gay couples. With this new ban, it appears to close the ranks of Holy Orders as well. To deny someone the sacrament of a life of service, a calling and gift from God, based on a presumption of sin that can never be overcome is incompatible with the nature of the sacrament and the importance placed by the Church on affirming adult life choices.

The teachings of Jesus on the subject are clear. He embraced prostitutes, tax collectors, and other sinners of his day and told them they were forgiven. Peter, the disciple, first pope, and holder of the keys of heaven in popular imagination, was not a bloodless, pious man. Jesus forgave his sins, focused instead on his faith, and ultimately made him the rock on which to base the Church. Perhaps Pope Benedict should reflect on St. Peter’s tomb in the Basilica adjoining the Vatican and consider what Jesus might make of his latest decision.

Given this latest Vatican position, many of my friends are asking, “When do you call it quits?” How can a self-respecting, longtime advocate and activist for LGBT rights continue to practice this faith?

Many LGBT people, our brothers and sisters, have families who fail to recognize their basic human dignity. Too often those families invoke religion to justify their fears and, at times, hatred and, even worse, violence. Many of us flee from that rejection, and Lord knows we are justified to reject those who reject us. But many remain and engage and, on occasion, love over time prevails. Others of us are lucky enough to have relatives who accept us and love us for who we are. Those of us in the latter camp may wonder why our brothers and sisters put up with less than complete dignity in the face of what may seem a toxic relationship with their relatives because of the ties of love. But sometimes––maybe not often enough––the odd thing happens and recalcitrant families come around. Other times the loving, even when not reciprocated, is enough.

When do you call it quits?

It is convenient for us in New York City to be patronizing toward our brothers and sisters living in so-called red states, though in reality America is a nation entirely comprised of red states dotted with blue cities here and there. It is easy to look at LGBT people in Nebraska or Wyoming and ask, after Brandon Teena and Matthew Sheppard and so many others, why they stay. Those living there might answer that they have deep ties to their home––family, classmates, neighbors, colleagues, friends, and lovers there. They believe, and many are right, that they live on an island of tolerance in a hostile sea, with people who love them. They might claim to be trailblazers, heroes even. We might wonder why they don’t move to New York or San Francisco or L.A. or Chicago or Atlanta—and they might respond that they should not have to leave their heritage to be accepted.

When do you call it quits?

We live in a nation where the president is calling for a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. In most of the country, we can lose our jobs if the boss is homophobic. We can be evicted from our apartments if the landlord does not approve of gay people. We cannot serve openly in the military. In most of the country, our relationships cannot even be recognized as legal partnerships, much less marriages. Hate crimes are epidemic. AIDS is still raging, though at a slower burn, if you can afford and tolerate drug treatment. Friends in Toronto or Amsterdam may wonder why we stay in the U.S. But we stay. And fight. And engage.

When do you call it quits?

I love my family with an abiding passion. Some relatives have always been accepting, others have come around, and others may never understand. I love New York, even when Mayor Michael Bloomberg appeals a same-sex marriage court ruling. I love this country, even though one president signed “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”, which I worked hard to defeat, and another president decided to go to war despite my protests.

And I love my Church. I have remained a practicing Catholic, not out of some superstition that my religion will get me into heaven, but because I believe this manner of worship and reflection helps make me a better person. I stood godfather to two of my nieces and to one nephew. I taught catechism––in my own questioning way––to fifth graders for years. I serve as a lector and as a Eucharistic minister in my gay-friendly parish. Like the other institutions mentioned, the Church can be a source of great hope, inspiration, and support. And like them and all human institutions, it can cause great disappointment, disillusion, and anger. But like my family, city, and country, I am not ready to quit and throw in the towel on my faith anytime soon.