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Part I: Gay priests have their place within the church
Gay priests have been around for many years. Yet, the topic of homosexuals in clergy is a considerably recent phenomenon. It became a hotly debated issue after the 2001 scandal when Catholic priests were discovered to engage into sexual intercourses with young boys. The opponents of the gays becoming priests use the above mentioned facts of sexual abuse as their main argument, implying that all homosexual clergymen present a danger to innocent boys attending sermons and Sunday schools. This paper, by referring to a number of scholarly articles and sources, argues that homosexuals should be allowed to become priests as the real problem with gay clergymen lays not in their sexuality, but in the absence of an open discourse and ability to reveal their true nature to the church or society.
There are many voices on this side of the debate. Richard McBrian is one of the advocates of the gay priests, arguing that they have their place within the church. He states that the priest sex scandal is being caused by the Church's refusal to update its theologies and practice around sexuality in general. Included here would be, of course, the long history of “misogyny in the churches, the stubborn refusal to reconsider the ground-breaking encyclical Humane Vitae banning any artificial forms of birth control, mandatory celibacy for clergy”, the patriarchal and thoroughly authoritarian style of governance in the Church, and usually, but not always, the “need to revisit the ban on homosexual activity as seriously sinful and disordered” (Weigel 2003, p. 45). This has been called the “liberal litany”, and has a great number of enthusiastic adherents (Weigel 2003, p. 47).
While not everyone in this group agrees with every one of the updates required to move the Church forward into the new century—the issue of gay clergy seems to be particularly acceptable here—most view the current clergy sex scandal as an opportunity to force the Church to live up to the vision of the Second Vatican Council, which is seen as inviting significant structural and doctrinal change (Berry 2002).
Furthermore, many researchers argue that It is the patriarchal, secretive, clerical culture that encourages both the sexual misconduct itself and the cover-ups by authorities. The reform of the church appears as the reasonable answer to such problem (Cozzens, 2000; Dinter, 2003).
Many individuals have been playing against each other in countless television, radio, magazine, and newspaper outlets around the world. Both sides offer sometimes plausible explanations for one or another facet of the problem. Both sides always have their own experts. But when pushed into a corner, there is only one thing common to both sides: both opponents and advocates of the gay priests agree that there is a larger problem within the church that causes clergymen to become involved in immoral and illegal acts. In other words, gay priests alone do not pose a threat to either society or congregation – it is the absence of proper mechanism regulating their sexual behavior that presents a real problem.
Some assume that the priest-offenders must be exactly like all the other offenders we do know something about. Then we won't have to worry about any significant differences that might actually account for peculiar variations in their behavior. We can assume that we actually do understand a great deal about psychosexual dysfunctions, unusual sexual desires, etc. But we would be greatly exaggerating the fact. The truth is that we do not know much at all about the intricacies of psychosexual development and its variants. And we know even less about how certain priest develop the desire to sleep with young boys.
Reasonable explanations for why priests engage in inappropriate sexual behaviors that are not explicitly psychosexual have included “gross immaturity, the code of secrecy inherent in priestly culture, the cognitive dissonance” that arises when predominantly gay clergy are forced to preach against their own orientation because of Church teaching on the matter, or the systemic abuse of power throughout Church structures (Berry 2002, p. 24).
It is important to note that regardless of the confusion regarding reasons of priests engaging in unlawful behaviors, crimes ought to be dealt with as crimes in all circumstances. But if the goal is to enhance understanding, to promote greater protection to the vulnerable, to try to comprehend in order to be able to prevent abuses, then it is necessary to admit that there is nothing wrong with gays becoming priests: the problem lays in the church structure and rules.
Part II: Debate against gay priests
The opponents of the gay priests issue have skillfully used the national sentiment arising after September 11 attacks to defend their position. In other words, the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church, which broke a few months after 9/11, seemed at first to enhance the religious right's argument that homosexuality was a sin and so necessarily a threat to family and state. In March 2002, Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls, stated that reforms proposed to combat priests’ sexual abuse of children and teens - reforms such as “better psychological screening and revamped training in church seminaries” — would do little to curb the abuse (Qtd in Weigel 2003, p. 78). What was needed instead, he argued, was the prevention of gay men from entering the priesthood. “People with these inclinations just cannot be ordained. That docs not imply a final judgment on people with homosexuality, but you cannot be in this field” (Qtd in Dinter 2003, p. 22).
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Joaquin Navarro-Valls's comments did meet with opposition. Critics quickly pointed out that sexual abuse and homosexuality were not equivalent. Yet, conservative Catholics continued to call for the purging of gay priests. G. Thomas Fitzpatrick, writing for the New Oxford Review, maintained that
priestly pedophilia is very much a homosexual issue. He said,
Of the 87 priests whose names were turned over to prosecutors for having one or more incidents of pedophilia on their records, at most one or two are accused of molesting girls, but along w/boys as well....Yes, the molestations and sexual seductions are routinely of a homosexual nature (Qtd in Dinter 2003, p. 25).
In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks, at a time when the media has depicted terrorism as an amorphous, invisible, and ubiquitous threat, the Church scandal has functioned as a visible and localizable horror. Particularly within the Church, gay male priests have become the stand-ins for terrorists. This equation is fairly direct in Fitzpatrick's June 2002 piece: “Not all Muslims are terrorists. But all the September 11 terrorists were Muslim. Not all homosexuals are pedophiles. But all the pedophiles I have heard about in Boston are homosexual” (Qtd in Callahan 2003, p. 22).
With its almost exclusive focus on man-boy sexual relations (as opposed to, say, man-girl or man-woman relations or woman-girl, woman-boy, or woman-man relations), this persecution of the clergy has produced a range of discursive effects - nationalist, religious, and psychological, to name a few - for a public overwhelmed by the events of 9/11. The depiction of gay priests as terrorists has not only reaffirmed the U.S.'s status as a primarily Christian country, it has offered the public a mythic and anit-historical narrative of ruptured innocence - a narrative that has allowed the public to experience the feelings of fear, loss, and retribution that the attacks have engendered on a deeply personal level (Berry 2002).
Yet, most importantly, within the context of the gay marriage debate, the Church sex abuse scandal has effected not simply a persecution of the gay priest but also a backlash against the Church itself that has widened the gap between civil and religious discourse regarding homosexuality. So, for example, discussions of the distinction between normative (or good) homosexuals and the non-normative (or bad) homosexuals present in the mid 1990s civil marriage debates have been expanded to encompass the priesthood itself. One of the social repercussions of the Church's decades-long cover-up of pedophilia has been an increasingly vocal critique of the feasibility of the Church's understanding of matters of gender, sex, and sexuality (Greeley 2003).
The question ‘what is wrong with homosexuality’ has transformed into the question ‘what is wrong with the Church?’ The vow of celibacy, in particular, has met with the charge that it is an unnatural state. Ironically, the Catholic sexual abuse scandal has produced a paradigm of the sexual terrorist who is not simply a pedophile but, potentially, any priest.
Part III: Reaffirming the stance on gays being allowed to become priests
The comments of long-time gay marriage rights supporter Michelangelo Signoril? clearly show why gay people should be allowed to become priest. In response to Navarro-Valls' call that gay men should not be allowed to enter the priesthood, Signorile observes,
B|anning gays from the priesthood...would go far toward dismantling the homosexual closet in America and I suspect other countries, as the priesthood has been a refuge for a lot of confused and struggling gay men who turn to it, with its vow of celibacy, rather than come to terms with their sexual orientation (Qtd in Callahan 2003, p. 22).
Here Signorile understands the vow as a kind of closeting mechanism, a “don't ask, don't tell” posture. His argument figures celibacy as a shadowlike sexuality whose expressive (including abusive) possibilities are always already there.There seems to be a growing consensus that at the very least more open dialogue about sexual issues must be not only allowed but also encouraged in seminary training. The old saying that “what you don't know can't hurt you” seems to have been thoroughly unmasked in the current climate.
Others push the issue further. Psychiatrist and long-time contributor to the Catholic dialogue on sexuality in the English-speaking world, Dr. Jack Dominion, gets more pointed in his call for openness and dialogue. He wants not only more openness in seminary training, he wants a wholesale re-examination of sexual teaching. In his letter to the editor of the Tablet, he says that “the crisis over clerical sexual abuse gives us the opportunity to re-examine the theology of sexuality” (Dominion 2003, p. 19). He continues, “I see a lack of integrity about sex prevalent in the Church. The teaching on contraception, masturbation, and homosexuality is defective, and the whole meaning of sexual intercourse is insufficiently developed” (p. 19).
He is not alone. Theologian Sidney Callahan recently offered much the same viewpoint in the National Catholic Reporter (2003). The piece is entitled, “Stunted Teaching on Sex Has Role in Church's Crisis.” In it she acknowledges the traditionalist approach to turning back the clock as attractive to some, but then dismisses it as a reckless attempt to reassert an older fear and disdain for sexuality as a whole. “I see the present teachings on sex and gender as contributing to the current disarray. The last thing we need is a reaffirmation of rigid teachings, which are seriously flawed morally and theologically” (Callahan 2003, p. 22). And further: “Future priests could hardly be well prepared for the challenges of mature chastity, interpersonal integrity or ministry to the married” (p. 22).
The silence about sexuality in the Church must be broken. It is so clearly no longer enough to repeat simple moral rules; it is so clearly no longer enough to depend on old theories about sexuality; it is so clearly no longer enough to hide behind theologies almost completely separated from the body. The irony is that there is much positive and healthy that the Church can share about human sexuality. There is a long and honored tradition from which to speak about wholeness and health. “Our religious tradition is both holy and wounded—and some of its wounds are self-inflicted” (Whitehead & Whitehead, 2001, p. 2).
The self-inflicted nature of some of the recent wounds stems from the inability of the Church to break the silence about sexuality—in all its myriad forms. As the Whiteheads make their case for such an open and fresh exploration of sex in the churches, their starting point is theological. As the body of Christ “the Christian community carries a shared wisdom about sex and love, a wisdom born of our efforts to have God's word shape our sexuality” (Whitehead & Whitehead 2001, p. 3).
Finally, there has never been a better opportunity for dialogue, and both the Church and culture could benefit. Both the Church and society at large need to learn much more about the nature of the gay priests. They do not pose an inherent problem or threat to the congregation. Gay priests are not terrorists or perverts. They have the right to speak and be heard. Church is supposed to spread love and compassion, but not hatred and bias. Gay priests should, thus, be allowed within the church.