The Pope’s Gay Priests

Only a couple of days before his late-July press conference on the Rome-bound flight from Rio, Pope Francis urged thousands of young people gathered for World Youth Day to kick up some dust in their local churches.

“We knew that in Rio there would be great disorder,” the pope said referring to the natural chaos of crowds, “but I want trouble in the dioceses . . . I want to get rid of clericalism, the mundane, this closing ourselves off within ourselves, in our parishes, schools or structures. Because these need to get out!”

Clearly, bishops and other church leaders are being kept on their feet by this pope. Just how much dancing is required became apparent after the in-flight chat with journalists and Francis’ now-famous statement: “if a person is gay and seeks the Lord and has goodwill, well who am I to judge them?”  When it comes to making trouble in the dioceses, Francis is practicing what he preaches.

Many bishops in this country went into containment mode, issuing statements to their local churches about what the pope had said and especially what he hadn’t said. In diocesan press releases and public comments that followed, three things stood out. First, nearly every bishop who made a public comment felt it necessary to steady the pope back foursquare to the church’s teachings on “homosexuality” (a word Francis didn’t use at the press Q&A). Any novelty in the pope’s words was downplayed while continuity with his predecessors was emphasized. 

Cardinal Dolan of New York saw very little to fuss about. The pope, he suggested, couldn’t quite help himself and that he was “on a high” from the buoyant celebrations and meetings with enthusiastic crowds in Brazil. Furthermore, there was nothing new in the pope’s deciding not to judge the heart of a gay person: “It’s been a pretty clear teaching of the church based on the words of Jesus that we can’t judge people; we can judge actions.” 

Archbishop Vigneron of Detroit joined Dolan in whittling away anything new in Francis’ words: “There’s no change” to the church’s teachings on homosexuality, Vigneron said.  “He may have had his own Pope Francis way of putting it, different from maybe the way Pope Benedict would put it, but they’re saying the same things.” Cardinal George of Chicago issued a statement that included among other things: “Pope Francis, on his way back to Rome from the World Youth Day celebration in Rio, reaffirmed the teaching of the Catholic faith and other religions that homosexual genital relations are morally wrong.”

And other religions? Genital relations? The only thing the pope said about homosexuals—and this from the Catechism of the Catholic Church—was that “gay people should not be discriminated against; they should be made to feel welcome. Being gay is not the problem.” Furthermore, the context for these words is all-important: the pope was responding to two questions about gay priests—the first was about a Vatican prelate, Monsignor Ricca, and an alleged gay affair a decade ago and the second about the Vatican’s ‘gay lobby.’ So, while the pope wasn’t offering any new teaching about gay people in general in this particular setting, he was most certainly departing from his predecessor on the matter of gay priests. 

Pope Benedict XVI, as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) and later as pope did see being homosexual—for priests and anyone else—as a problem. To be more precise (pace, Cardinal George), the only sins the pope referred to when discussing gay priests were the machinations of the Vatican’s ‘gay lobby’ and not because these priests, bishops and cardinals are gay, but because they’re a lobby.  Lobbies are by nature self-promoting and factious and Francis, whose early work as pope has been to unify and evangelize, has no time for self-seeking lobbyists, gay or otherwise. 

The pope, it seems, would be much more comfortable with a gay priest who “seeks the Lord and has goodwill” than a coterie of deeply-closeted Vatican prelates working private agendas while pretending to be other than who they truly are. This is a pope, according to Fr. Thomas Reese, SJ, former editor of the Jesuit monthly America, who “hates hypocrisy—he really hates it.”  And on the matter of homosexuality in the priesthood, Francis has a lot of hypocrisy to contend with.

This points to the second curious reaction from most American bishops regarding Francis’ comments. They were careful to avoid the very topic that had brought Francis’ comments to light in the first place: gay priests. 

Nearly every statement that I came across veered far from the topic, finding safety not only in the church’s “unbroken tradition on homosexuality,” but in the comforting and inaccurate dichotomy of “us versus them.” This is a leitmotif in episcopal comments on homosexuality, indicating that the problem has more to do with the flock than the shepherds. In a March, 2013 interview with NBC news, Cardinal Dolan, who was addressing the moral impossibility of gay marriage, offered an embrace to gay people that was clearly meant to be charitable: 

The first thing I’d say to them is, ‘I love you, too, and God loves you, and we want your happiness…I don’t know.  We’re still trying our best to do it. We got to listen to people.  Jesus died on the cross for them as much as he did for me.

Again, generous and pastoral but somewhat off-target. Every bishop knows he has gay priests in the ranks—pretending otherwise is surely as much of a moral issue as, say, same-sex marriage. Gay priests work in dioceses and religious orders as pastors, teachers, administrators, right-hand men, chaplains, liturgists and preachers. Many bishops are gay as well. Precise statistics are hard to come by because the vast majority of gay priests are closeted, but in light of the work done by Donald Cozzens (The Changing Face of the Priesthood, 2000) and others, estimates at around half are confident, with even higher numbers among younger clergy. 

The bishops know this and yet few are able to speak with the kind of candor the pope manages on a daily basis.

There are reasons for this, which brings me to the third thing that happened—or didn’t happen—in the wake of Francis’ press conference. No bishop or church leader stood by Francis and in so many words said publicly, “You know, the pope’s right.  Who are we to judge?” 

I’m not sure why so few, if any, took this opportunity. It may be that even though they hear the change in tone from Francis, it’s a tenor so different from what has sounded from Rome for decades that it’s still hard to hear, much less imitate. Judgment of gay people—and here again, I’ll even limit this to gay, celibate priests—has been categorical and negative ever since ‘homosexual’ made its way into the Vatican lexicon fifty years ago. 

1961 instruction titled “Careful Selection and Training of Candidates for the States of Perfection and Sacred Orders” barred anyone from ordination “afflicted with evil tendencies to homosexuality or pederasty.” Both were viewed on equal footing as pathological and inimical to priesthood. In 1986, Cardinal Ratzinger issued a declaration that sought to clarify not only the evil of homosexual acts but the very inclination of homosexuality. We would understand this more broadly as sexual orientation, one’s erotic, romantic, affective bearing on life.  The tendency, Ratzinger pointed out, is “ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil; and thus the inclination…must be seen as an objective disorder.” 

2005 instruction that came out of the Vatican’s Congregation for Education and was issued in the first year of Benedict’s papacy, indicated that gay candidates for the priesthood were to be discouraged at every turn. Anything more than a ‘transitional homosexuality’ was considered problematic. So, men who were clear on their orientation and may well have won some hard-earned integrity in the matter were to be shunned. By association, candidates who overly identified “with the so-called gay culture” were also barred from the seminary gates. In other words, if a prospective priest sees his sexual orientation as more than merely pathological, sees it as a blessing, a marvelous if mysterious gift (something hinted at in Francis’ words), he, too, should be turned away. 

Rather than a compelling instruction that would weed out gay prospects from the clerical field, this declaration secured a culture of secrecy and deception that has prevailed all along. Most gay priests know that there is little to gain in coming out, especially to their bishops. Those who seek any kind of advancement in office keep their orientation secret and sometimes make themselves the most ardent vilifiers of the very sexuality they harbor in shadow. 

Finally, in 2010, Benedict took yet another occasion to reiterate what he has maintained for decades about gay priests. In Light of the World, the pope said: “Homosexuality is incompatible with the priestly vocation. Otherwise, celibacy itself would lose its meaning of renunciation. It would be extremely dangerous if celibacy became a sort of pretext for bringing people into the priesthood who don’t want to get married anyway.” 

It’s true, a gay man who approaches ordination as a priest isn’t giving up ‘wife and children’ in any way that could be called a renunciation. Benedict’s concern is that celibacy becomes an avoidance of something elementally undesired rather than a renunciation of a good. But, of course, this is all under a heterosexual paradigm. What the gay priest renounces, by way of abstinence in celibacy, is typically an unwanted sexuality in the first place, a core aspect of his identity that he’s been taught from childhood to regard as an aberration, an embarrassment, a disorder. The gay priest, in collusion with church leadership that has so clearly rejected his sexuality, is too often left with renunciation, but not of a good—it may be sexual abstinence, maybe even martyrdom of a sort, but it’s not the gift of celibacy.  Celibacy is about love and one cannot love (or pray) while pretending to be someone else. 

Until gay priests—and gay people in general—are encouraged to realize their innate goodness and see the prospects of a love-relationship with God as gay people, they will be burdened with a hard judgment from their church.

The pope’s implicit refusal to judge the heart of a gay person who’s on a journey with the Divine is an acknowledgment that God may be up to some good in that person’s life, not by way of self-repulsion or a shameful silence but through the core reality of same-sex longing. It becomes very problematic for some theologians to associate gay with good; after all, one cannot be out-of-the-closet proud of an objective disorder.

What Pope Francis offered in a manner which has been too facilely described as ‘off-the-cuff’—he’s obviously given this topic a lot of thought—is an openness and trust which may encourage more gay priests to step out of the dark. Bishops may well need to brace themselves or welcome with open arms a greater honesty in this matter. 

Meanwhile, for the gay priest who suffers under the church’s disparagement of his God-given sexuality and is urged to negate an essential part of who he is, the pope’s stated preference not to judge is balm in Gilead.

Like this story? Your tax-deductible $5 or $10 will help us pay writers, coders, interns, and editors. And will earn you our endless gratitude.