Editor’s note: On Nov. 29, the Vatican released an eight-page document that bans homosexuals from seminaries and ordination. Instruction on the Criteria of Vocational Discernment Regarding Persons with Homosexual Tendencies in View of Their Admission to the Priesthood and to Sacred Orders is the first major instruction issued by Pope Benedict XVI.
Most of my friends in the Roman Catholic priesthood – gay and straight -- did not believe that the document would really be issued. They thought the Roman Curia had intentionally created a rumor to test the waters, to get a read on how the rank-and-file members of the Roman church feel about gay people in general and gay priests in particular. They were wrong. Now they wrestle with what to do, and not a few wonder if they should do what I did years ago.
When I was 18, the vocation director for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese in which I lived took me to our parish cemetery. He sat me on a tombstone, and he told me that because I was gay I was not fit to be ordained a priest.
“I like you,” he said, “but I have to think of the church.” I had not asked to be ordained or even to go to seminary. I had asked only to join a group of college men who might be interested in seminary after graduation.
He knew I was gay only because, when a colleague of his had asked me about my sexual orientation during an interview earlier that month, I had told the truth. Thirty years later, I find it incredible that I did not foresee that the truth would do me in. All I knew was that the church had been a home to me and a solace when, as a child, home and solace had been hard to find. I was blindsided by trust.
I know the rhetoric that the church loved me but could not dignify my propensity for what it considers evil. The official jargon is that we gay people are “intrinsically disordered,” that we have a character defect even if we never act on it. I cannot describe the emotional and spiritual damage it does to a person, especially a young person, to be told that the most tender, most altruistic, most joyful stirrings of his heart are evil. You cannot inflict that kind of damage on people and claim to love them.
Even as the Roman Church showed me how little it actually loved me, I did not stop loving it. To this very day, I love it. It was in one of its fonts that Jesus saved me and at one of its altars that he first gave me a foretaste of heaven. At fine Catholic schools from first grade through a doctorate, I learned how to think and, remarkably, how to accept the truth even when it turned out not to be what I wanted to find. Spiritual directors and confessors – wise and holy men and women all – did not let me get away with the dishonesty and sloth that kept God at bay, and pointed out to me the windows into the divine life that God was opening in front of me.
I have no regrets. Neither, however, am I naïve about how much damage was done to me by the church even as so many good people in it were doing me so much good. Sixteen hundred years ago, the church claimed that God’s saving action in the sacraments does not depend on the sanctity of the minister. What I discovered, by analogy, is that God’s saving action in the church does not depend on the sanctity of the people at the top. Grace happens where God wills.
Since I was a tiny child, I have felt myself called to the priesthood. Not once have I been deeply drawn to other work. There came a time, though, when I accepted that it was not to be. It took me a long, long time, but finally and sadly I gave up.
It was not that I could not have been ordained in the Roman Church. After that brutal day in the cemetery, I learned to keep my mouth shut. But the dense web the church weaves to hide its secrets, unreflectively in most cases, was heavier than I could bear. I left the Roman Catholic Church, not out of anger, but out of anguish. And then a wise Jesuit friend told me the name of an Episcopal congregation in New York I should visit.
I went one Sunday morning expecting nothing and found home. And then, years later, I joined the church. It was in the Diocese of Pittsburgh. I did not ask to be received with any hope that I would be ordained. I did it because this church of ours, with all its tortuous struggles, is what I always thought the church catholic should be.
When I was asked the deciding question of my life in 1975, I told the truth. Many others were not asked the question, or they were less naïve than I was, and they lied.
They are good priests now. Many of them are my friends. They are hospital chaplains and seminary professors and parish pastors and retreat directors. Not one of them has ever touched a child. Not one of them has neglected the daily prayer or pastoral ministry or liturgical presidency or hard study that they promised at their ordination. And today, to a man, they are facing the sad fact that the church that has always said it loved them never did. Not really.
There is great sadness among my friends in the Roman Catholic priesthood and among those who respect them. Most of them say that they wish they had taken the road I took. Many of them still might.
But the greatest sadness, I suspect, is not among the priests. It is in the hearts of all the gay boys and gay young men who have always felt themselves called to the priesthood and never to anything else. Now, as they look into the future, they are faced with a life that they know in their very souls is not the one they are meant to live, or a life rooted in a lie and lived in a closet.
That is the stuff that fires addiction and abuse. That is where sexual scandals begin. But there is an alternative.
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