When God died, the official cause was elderly enfeeblement; after reading Frédéric Martel’s exposé of infamy in the Catholic church, I suspect that the old boy committed suicide in remorse, aghast at the crimes and un-Christian sins of organised religion.
Although Martel’s book is published just in time to spoil a pious conference on clerical paedophilia convened by the pope, the abuse of minors is not all that St Peter’s pharisaical heirs have to answer for. The Vatican combines a venality that the mafia might envy with a bigotry worthy of Steve Bannon (who not coincidentally was in Rome for last week’s gathering), and to this already foul mixture it adds an unctuous hypocrisy. The moral fraudulence of the church is Martel’s subject: having spent four years sleuthing in all corners of the Catholic world, he establishes that during the past few papacies the fieriest critics of homosexuality – the cardinals who regarded Aids as a divine judgment, condemned the distribution of condoms in Africa, called gender theory an abomination, and ignored peccadilloes like those of the Cuban priest who administered a special blessing to the penises of little boys – were themselves unabashedly gay.
Some of them cruised in Roman parks, claiming diplomatic immunity whenever they were bothered by the police; others used their smartphones to summon Arab hustlers. Many attended infernally red-lit orgies in the Vatican, with party drugs and strapping seminarians on tap, and quite a few rejoiced in drag-queen nicknames. One financially canny episcopal plutocrat added Rome’s busiest gay sauna to his bulging property portfolio. Martel includes a single incongruously heterosexual anecdote, about a prince of the church who died of a heart attack in Paris while having overenergetic sex with a prostitute called Mimi. Jesuitical spin doctors claimed he’d paid her a visit in the hope of persuading her to repent, which didn’t explain why he was naked when the ambulance arrived.
Is all this a symptom of bad faith, or perhaps of closeted self-disgust? No, it simply reveals the convenient duplicity of Catholicism: as André Gide put it, after the theologian Jacques Maritain failed to dissuade him from publishing his memoir of romps with Arab boys, “I hate lying. That’s where my Protestantism takes refuge. Catholics don’t like the truth.” The scale of the Vatican’s sanctimonious mendacity reminds Martel of the Third Reich, where the euphemisms and evasions of an entire society destroyed “the reality of a common world”.
Visiting a cardinal who is “refined and well pomaded”, Martel is “submerged in a cloud of scent” when he makes a detour to the man’s bathroom and checks his medicine cabinet; inside the Vatican, his astute French nose detects expensive traces of “amber, violet, musk, champaca” when his perfumed interviewees waft towards him. But the prevailing odour in his book is sulphur, a metaphorical stink that alerts Martel to the presence of the devil.
He flinches when introduced to George Pell, the Australian cardinal recently found guilty of sexual abuse in Melbourne (he will be sentenced later this month), whose colleagues in the Vatican treasury called him “Pell Pot” in homage to the bloodthirsty Cambodian dictator Pol Pot. Martel manages not to feel frightened on this occasion, but is glad never to have encountered two Latin American priests who strike him as unequivocally “evil”. In Mexico, the “diabolical” Marcial Maciel amassed “insane levels of wealth” and indulged in systematic “sexual violence”, while of course exhibiting pious meekness on public occasions; in Colombia, López Trujillo – like Maciel, now defunct – connived at the murder of dozens of priests and bishops, who were eliminated by paramilitary brigades after he fingered them for their progressive opinions.
Among all this villainy, Martel has a sneaky fondness for Pope Benedict XVI, who railed against homosexuals while flouncing about in natty ermine-lined bonnets and lipstick-red Prada slippers. In one decadent episode, Benedict moons over his hunky chamberlain Georg Gänswein during the younger man’s consecration as an archbishop, caressing his Clooneyesque salt-and-pepper curls for all of 19 enraptured seconds. Despite such florid displays of an apparently platonic affection, Martel sees Benedict as a victim of wishful self-neutering. As Nietzsche remarked, “The saint pleasing to God is the ideal castrato”.
It’s a pity that Martel’s book is so preposterously long and lazily repetitive; lacking an index, it will be useless as a reference work. I also worry a little about its methods. Some highly placed informants are given the benefit of anonymity, and others are lured into confiding or confessing by the flirty signals Martel transmits. “He employs guile with me,” he says during a teasing duel with Pope John Paul II’s former secretary, “and I play with him.” Stray comments reveal a double standard. Thus he denounces Catholic potentates for the luxury in which they live, yet grimaces like a snooty interior decorator when he visits one residence: “The furniture is horrible, as it often is in the Vatican,” he sniffs. The tone falters because Martel seems unsure whether to be horrified by the church’s corruption or to let out a gasp of high-camp amazement at its excesses. Given the evidence that he has uncovered, I’d say that outrage is the better option.
Frédéric Martel on power, homosexuality and hypocrisy in the closet of the Vatican
By Frédéric Martel
Ydier and Axel are two seminarians whom I meet at the Mario Mieli cultural centre, in Rome. (Their names have been changed.)
“There are about 20 of us in my seminary. Seven are clearly gay. About six others have, we might say, tendencies. That agrees more or less with the usual percentage: between 60 and 70 per cent of seminarians are gay. Sometimes I think it’s as many as 75 per cent,” Axel tells me.
The young man would like to join the Rota, one of the three tribunals in the Holy See, and the initial reason for him attending the seminary.
Ydier wants to become a teacher. He wears a white cross on his shirt, and has dazzling blond hair. I mention this. “Fake blond! It’s fake! I have brown hair,” he tells me.
The seminarian goes on: ‘The atmosphere at my seminary is also very homosexual. But there are important nuances. There are students who really live out their homosexuality; others who don’t, or not yet.
“There are homosexuals who are really chaste; there are also heterosexuals who are practising for want of women, out of substitution, one might say. And there are others who only live it out secretly. It’s a very unique atmosphere.”
Even many older ordinands are still virgins when they reach the seminary. In contact with other boys, their tendencies are revealed or come into focus
The two seminarians share more or less the same analysis: in their view the celibacy rule and the prospect of living together prompts young men who are undecided about their inclinations to join Catholic establishments. They are far from their village for the first time, without their family, and in a strictly masculine context and strongly homosexual universe they begin to understand their uniqueness.
Often, the ordinands – even the older ones – are still virgins when they reach the seminary: in contact with other boys, their tendencies are revealed or come into focus. Then the seminaries become the context for future priests “coming out” and having their first experiences. It’s a real rite of passage.
The story of former American seminarian Robert Mickens sums up a path taken by many.
“What was the solution when you discovered that you had a different ‘sensibility’ in an American city like Toledo, Ohio, where I come from? What were the options? For me going to the seminary was a way of dealing with my homosexuality. I was in conflict with myself. I didn’t want to confront that question in the United States.
“I left for Rome in 1986, and I studied at the Pontifical North American College. During my third year at the seminary, when I was 25, I fell in love with a boy.” (By his own choice Michens was never ordained as a priest: he became a journalist at Radio Vatican, where he stayed for 11 years, and then for the Tablet, and he is now editor-in-chief of La Croix International. He lives in Rome, where I met him several times.)
Another seminarian, a Portuguese man I met in Lisbon, tells me a story quite similar to that of Mickens. He had the courage to come out to his parents. His mother replied: “At least we’ll have a priest in the family.” (He joined the seminary.)
Another example: that of Lafcadio, a Latin American priest of about 30 who now teaches in a Roman seminary (his name has been changed). I met him at the Propaganda restaurant after he became the lover of one of my translators. No longer able to conceal his homosexuality, he chose to talk to me frankly, and we’ve met up again for dinner five times during this investigation.
Like Ydier, Axel and Robert, Lafcadio linked his career path to his homosexuality. After a difficult adolescence in the depths of Latin America, but with no initial doubts about his sexuality, he chose to join the seminary “out of a sincere vocation”, he tells me, even though an emotional laziness and boundless ennui – the cause of which he didn’t know at the time – may have played a part in his decision.
Gradually, he managed to put a name to his malaise: homosexuality. And then, suddenly, a chance event: on a bus, a boy put his hand on his thigh.
I’m often horny. So many nights spent in random beds – and still this promise to return to the seminary before curfew
Lafcadio tells me: “I suddenly froze. I didn’t know what to do. As soon as the bus stopped, I fled. But that evening I was obsessed by that trivial gesture. I thought about it constantly. It seemed terribly good, and I hoped it would happen again.’
He gradually discovered and accepted his homosexuality, and left for Italy, since the Roman seminaries were “traditionally”, he tells me, the place “where the sensitive boys of Latin America are sent”.
In the capital he started living a well-compartmentalised life, without ever allowing himself to spend the night away from the seminary where he stayed, and where he now had important responsibilities.
With me he is “openly gay”, and he talks about his obsessions as intense sexual desires. “I’m often horny,” he says. “So many nights spent in random beds – and still this promise to return to the seminary before curfew, even when there were so many things to do!”
In accepting his homosexuality, Lafcadio also started seeing the Church in another light.
“Since then I’ve got better at decoding things. Sometimes I find monsignori, archbishops and cardinals making passes at me in the Vatican. Before I wasn’t aware of what they wanted from me. And now I know!” (Lafcadio became one of my precious informers because, young and good looking, with close connections inside the Roman Curia, he was subjected to sustained emotional solicitations and recurrent flirtations on the part of several cardinals, bishops and even a “liturgy queen” in the pope’s entourage – several of which encounters he described to me.)
Like a number of seminarians I have interviewed, Lafcadio describes to me another phenomenon that is particularly widespread in the church, so much so that it has a name: crimen sollicitationis (solicitation in confession). In confessing their homosexuality to their priest or spiritual director, the seminarians leave themselves exposed.
“A number of priests to whom I have confessed my doubts or attractions have made advances to me,” he tells me.
Often these solicitations are fruitless: at other times they receive consent and lead to a relationship; sometimes couples form. At yet other times these confessions – even though this is a sacrament – lead to touching, harassment, blackmail or sexual aggression.
The church puts up with the denunciation of homosexuals, but it forbids priests who are made aware of sexual abuse in confession to betray that secret
When a seminarian confesses that he has attractions or tendencies, he takes risks. In some cases the young man is denounced by his superior, as the former priest Francesco Lepore experienced at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross.
“In the course of a confession I mentioned my internal conflicts to one of the chaplains of Opus Dei. I was open and a bit naive. What I didn’t know was that he would betray me and tell everyone around him.”
Other seminarians have been trapped into having their confessions used against them to exclude them from the seminary; something that is strictly illegal under canon law because the secrets of the confessional are absolute, and betraying them should mean excommunication.
“Here again the church demonstrates double standards. It puts up with the denunciation of homosexuals, whose admissions have been elicited in confession, but it forbids priests who are made aware of sexual abuse in confession to betray that secret,” one seminarian laments.
According to several witnesses, cruising in confession occurs particularly frequently during the first few months of a seminarian’s training, during the year of “discernment” or “propaedeutic”, more rarely at the level of the diaconate.
Among the regular clergy, Dominicans, Franciscans and Benedictines have confirmed to me that they underwent this “rite of passage” as novices. Advances made, whether consented to or not, are justified by a kind of biblical excuse: in the Book of Job the guilty party is the one who yields to temptation, not the tempter themselves; in a seminary then the guilty party is ultimately always the seminarian and not the predatory superior – and here we encounter the whole inversion of the values of good and evil that the church constantly maintains.
Most of the seminarians I interviewed helped me to understand something that I hadn’t grasped, and that is very nicely summed up by a young German I met by chance in the streets of Rome.
“I don’t see that as a double life. A double life would be something secret and hidden. But my homosexuality is well known within the seminary. It isn’t noisy, it isn’t militant, but it is known. What is truly forbidden, however, is to be militantly in favour, to assert oneself. But as long as one remains discreet, everything is fine.’
The “don’t ask, don’t tell” rule does outstanding work, as it does elsewhere in the church. Homosexual practice is better tolerated in the seminaries when it is not displayed. But woe to him who causes a scandal!
“The only thing that is really banned is to be heterosexual. Having a girl, bringing a girl back, would mean immediate exclusion. Chastity and celibacy apply mostly to women,” the German seminarian adds with a broad smile.
While the celibacy of priests remains in place, a gay priest will always receive a better welcome in the church than a straight priest. That’s a reality
A former seminarian who lives in Zurich explains his point of view.
“Essentially the church has always preferred gay priests to heterosexual priests. With its anti-gay circulars, it claims to be changing things a little, but you can’t change a reality with a circular!
“While the celibacy of priests remains in place, a gay priest will always receive a better welcome in the church than a straight priest. That’s a reality, and there’s nothing the church can do about it.”
The seminarians I have interviewed agree on another point: a heterosexual cannot feel completely at ease in a Catholic seminary, because – and I’m quoting the expressions they used – of “the looks”, the “special friendships”, the “bromances” the “boy-chasing”, and the “sensitivity”, “fluidity”, “tenderness” and “generalised homoerotic atmosphere” that emanates from it. Anyone who wasn’t a confirmed bachelor would be flummoxed.
And another seminarian adds, repeating a mantra that I have heard several times: “Jesus never once mentions homosexuality. If it’s such a terrible thing, why does Jesus not talk about it?”
After a pause, he observes: “Being in a seminary is a bit like being in Blade Runner: no one knows who is a human and who is a replicant. It’s an ambiguity that straights usually take a dim view of.”
According to lots of statements I have collected in the Roman pontifical universities, the double life of seminarians has evolved considerably over the last few years because of the internet and smart phones. A large proportion of those who went out at the dead of night looking for chance encounters or, in Rome, in clubs like Diabolo 23, K-Men’s Gay, the Bunker or the Vicious Club can now cruise from the comfort of their own home.
Due to apps like Grindr, Tinder or Hornet, and hook-up sites like GayRomeo (now PlanetRomeo), Scruff (for more mature men and “bears”), Daddyhunt (for those who like “daddies”), or Recon (for fetishists and “extreme” sexualities), they no longer need to move or to take too many risks.
Along with my researchers in Rome, I also discover the homosexuality of several seminarians, priests or curia bishops thanks to the magic of the internet.
Often they gave us their email addresses or mobile numbers out of politeness or complicity when we met in the Vatican. After we went on to record the information, quite innocently, in our Gmail address books or on our smart phones, different accounts and names associated with them appeared automatically on WhatsApp, Google+, LinkedIn or Facebook. Often pseudonyms!
My team and I have managed to prove that Grindr does its job every evening inside the Vatican State
Starting with these borrowed names, the double life of these seminarians, priests or curia bishops – certainly very discreet, but not geeky enough – emerged from these networking sites as if through the intervention of the Holy Spirit! (Here I am thinking of a dozen precise cases, and especially several monsignori whom we have already encountered in the course of this book.)
Today lots of them spend their evenings on GayRomeo, Tinder, Scruff or Venerabilis – but mostly on Grindr.
Often priests spot each other without meaning to, having discovered that another gay cleric is a few metres away. And my team and I have also managed to prove that Grindr does its job every evening inside the Vatican State.
On Facebook, another site used a lot for cruising, because of the diversity of its members, it is easy to spot gay priests or seminarians. This is true, for example, of several prelates that we followed in Rome: most of them were unfamiliar with the confidentiality protocols of the social network, and left their list of friends visible.
You only had to look at the account of a Roman gay well connected in the homosexual community of the city to determine from “friends in common” whether a priest was gay or not. A timeline need not contain a single gay message: the way Facebook works almost always gives gays away.
To escape this you need to have compartmentalised your life – using separate networks and never having shared the slightest personal information – to such an extent that it is almost impossible.
Smart phones and the internet are changing the lives of seminarians and priests for better or for worse.
Called to the Vatican this week by Pope Francis to grapple with the crisis of child sexual abuse by clergy, nearly 200 leaders of the Roman Catholic Church sat for lectures on responsibility, accountability and transparency.
But privately, they kept raising one issue not on the agenda: homosexuality.
“We spoke of this,” Bishop Ricardo Ernesto Centellas Guzmán, the president of the Bolivian Bishops Conference, acknowledged on Thursday, the start of the extraordinary four-day meeting of bishops and other church leaders.
Yet homosexuality is exactly the topic the conference organizers had hoped to avoid, pointing to ample research finding no connection between homosexuality and pedophilia.
“The main issue is power,” said the Rev. Hans Zollner, a member of the Vatican’s child-protection commission and president of the Center for Child Protection of the Pontifical Gregorian University.
Abuse “can be heterosexual or homosexual,” he added in an interview.
Still, some Catholic bishops and conservative church media outlets have continued to blame the clerical child sexual abuse crisis on homosexuality.
At the meeting, even as organizers and attendees pushed time and again to focus the discussions on pedophilia, the conflicting views about homosexuality within the church emerged as a distraction.
Jean-Claude Hollerich, the archbishop of Luxembourg and Bishops’ Conferences of the European Union, moderated one of the meeting’s French-speaking discussion groups, which included leaders from some Francophone African nations.
He said on Saturday that some bishops kept returning to homosexuality as a cause for abuse because “some people have some models in their head and they will always keep to it.”
He said he and other bishops had sought to change their minds.
“I tell them the prime minister of my country is homosexual,” he said. “And he would never abuse children.”
Bishop Rochus Josef Tatamai, of Kavieng, president of the Bishops’ Conference of Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, said on Saturday that in his English-language group, homosexuality was “alluded to” during discussions about the training of new priests.
He suggested that “a desperate need for priests” in Europe and the United States had led seminaries to be lax in screening for candidates, some of whom turned out to be gay and abusers.
Pope Francis has clearly shifted the discussion, if not church doctrine, to a more inclusive position on homosexuality.
In 2013, he responded to questions about a supposed “gay lobby” in the Vatican by saying, “Who am I to judge?” — a remark that liberals celebrated and conservatives lamented
But while Catholic Church teachings state that people with homosexual tendencies “must be accepted with respect,” it also calls deep-seated homosexual inclinations and acts “intrinsically disordered.”
Some conservative American prelates have sought to bring down Francis, seeing him as a protector of a gay subculture that is corrupting the clergy. Some have said his positions are eroding the church’s traditional values and planting the seeds of sexual abuse.
Bishops from Africa, Asia and Latin America say that in failing to connect homosexuality to sexual abuse, the Vatican is ignoring that a vast majority of abuse is perpetrated by priests on male victims.
This view has been echoed by Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Müller, the church’s chief doctrinal watchdog until Pope Francis forced him out in 2017.
The cardinal told the German magazine Der Spiegel this month that “far more than 80 percent of the victims of sexual abuse under 18 years of age were young men in puberty or post-puberty.’’
And he argued that homosexuality should have been a central topic at the Vatican meeting this week.
Cardinal Blase J. Cupich, the archbishop of Chicago, a favorite of Pope Francis and an organizer of the conference, said on Monday that it was not the case that “homosexual people are more prone to abuse children than straight people.”
Asked about Cardinal Müller’s remarks, Cardinal Cupich told reporters “it’s important to admit the fact” that the predominance of underage victims are male. But he pointed to landmark studies in the United States and Australia showing that homosexuality in itself is not a cause of child sex abuse, and that access to children is a major factor.
Each day at the meeting, reporters from conservative Catholic news outlets peppered the meeting’s organizers with questions about why they are dodging the topic of homosexuality.
Their short answer: because it is irrelevant.
Homosexuality has “nothing to do with the sexual abuse of minors,” Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta, the Vatican’s leading sex crimes investigator, said on Friday.
Still, leading conservatives and traditionalists persisted in their arguments.
Cardinal Raymond Burke of the United States and Cardinal Walter Brandmüller of Germany published an open letter to the presidents of bishops’ conferences representing various countries at the meeting, urging them to end their “conspiracy of silence” about the “plague of the homosexual agenda.”
And Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, a former papal ambassador to the United States who accused the pope in August of protecting abusive gay clerics and called for his resignation, argued on Thursday that it was fitting that the meeting’s opening that day coincided with the feast of St. Peter Damian, an 11th-century monk who fought against “sins of sodomy” in the church.
(Some church historians cautioned the archbishop that the saint was perhaps not the best model, as he had also denounced as immoral a Byzantine princess for introducing the practice of eating with a fork.)
The conference coincided with what appeared to be the strategically timed release of “In the Closet of the Vatican,” a gossipy book by the French author Frédéric Martel, who characterized the Vatican as “one of the biggest gay communities in the world.”
Those who attack Pope Francis “are very homophobic and for the large part live a double homosexual life,” Mr. Martel said Wednesday at a news conference in Rome, adding that as a gay man, he was able to determine who in the Vatican was gay.
The book’s release was criticized by advocates for abuse victims.
“Let’s be clear,” said Peter Saunders, a Briton who was forced off the Vatican’s child protection panel for criticizing it as toothless. “There is no link between people who are gay and people who abuse children. And I think that that is a lie that has to be hammered into the ground
Estimates of how many priests are gay vary widely, but at a minimum, it is considered to be a significant percentage. One priest in Florida recently told The New York Times that a third of Catholic clergy members were gay, a third were straight, and a third remained a mystery — even to themselves.
Some advocates for gay equality in the church said their message seemed to have gotten through to church leaders.
Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry in Maryland, a Catholic organization that supports gay men and lesbians, said in Rome that he was pleasantly surprised at the conference to find homosexuality “debunked as a cause” of abuse. He was hoping the Vatican “would give a more definitive, official statement from the pope to that effect.”
But among the bishops in the room with Francis, the issue was not exactly settled.
Entering the conference, Bishop Gonzalo de Villa y Vásquez of Guatemala said, “I think it can be a legitimate question whether or not there is a link between homosexuality and abuses.”
The New York Times published an extraordinary article this week based on interviews with two dozen gay Catholic priests and seminarians in 13 states. “Out” men and women today are often widely admired, but most of the interviews had to be conducted anonymously because the Vatican still treats homosexuality as “objectively disordered” — a policy that persists even though the representation of gay men in the priesthood is higher, probably far higher, than in the general population.
The relevant catechism about sexuality does not condemn people with “deep-seated homosexual tendencies,” just those who act on those tendencies. In other words, you can be gay so long as you don’t do anything about it. The Times article rightly presents this distinction as a trial for the priests involved — one of the last major throwbacks to the era of “the love that dare not speak its name” (as Oscar Wilde’s partner, Lord Alfred Douglas, put it). But I wondered how the church’s policy on homosexuality affects men and women, as well as boys and girls, who are not priests.
The gay priest is required, generally, to uphold the official teaching of his church and of his superiors, making him a collaborator in the suppression of his gay brothers and sisters outside the clergy. In this way, without intending to, the victimized become victimizers. How does that play out, to take an example, in the confessional? If a penitent confesses homosexual activity to a gay priest, does the priest channel God’s forgiveness of a sin that he does not himself consider a sin? This is just one of the many ways in which we Catholics, if we refrain from criticizing this particular stance of our church, contribute to the persecution of the LGBTQ community.
The deepest irony is that a priest who is required to go against his nature is told that he must do this because of “natural law.” The church’s quaint theory of natural law is that the first biological use of an activity is the only permissible use of that activity. If the biological use of sex is for procreation, any other use is “against nature.”
The absurdity of this view is made clear by considering the first biological use for eating: the sustenance of life. If every other use of nutrition is against nature, then any diet beyond what is consumed for life-maintenance is a sin — in other words, no wedding cakes, no champagne toasts. Yet the church continues to adhere to so-called natural law because it underpins doctrine on all sexual matters, including the condemnations of abortion, contraception, in vitro fertilization and stem-cell research.
Given the stakes in these and other matters, the ban on gay sex involves a larger “church teaching” than the single matter of homosexuality.
Priests and bishops who cover up male homosexuality are prone to a mutual blackmail with those who commit and conceal heterosexual acts by the clergy — sometimes involving women, including nuns, who have been victimized by priests. The Times’s portrait of gay priests was followed by a powerful Feb. 18 article revealing that the church has internal policies for dealing with priests who father children. The Vatican confirmed, apparently for the first time, that a priest with progeny is encouraged to ask for release from his ministry “to assume his responsibilities as a parent by devoting himself exclusively to the child” — there being no requirement in canon law that a priest perform this basic act of love for his offspring and the child’s mother.
Secrecy in one clerical area intersects with secrecy in others. There is an implicit pledge that “your secret is safe with my secret.” If there are gay nuns — and why would there not be? — that adds another strand to the interweavings of concealment.
The trouble with any culture that maintains layer upon layer of deflected inspections is that, when so many people are guarding their own secrets, the deep examination of an institution becomes nearly impossible. The secrecies are too interdependent. Truly opening one realm of secrecy and addressing it may lead to an implosion of the entire system. That is the real problem faced this week by Pope Francis and the church leaders he has summoned from around the world for a conference at the Vatican to consider the labyrinthine and long-standing scandals of clerical sex abuse.
An organization of gay Catholic priests has written a letter to Pope Francis asking him not to endorse efforts to ban gay men from becoming priests.
The letter, a copy of which was released Wednesday, comes a week before bishops from around the world are expected to convene a meeting in Vatican City to address the clergy sexual abuse scandal.
Unfortunately, conservative interests are expected to hijack the meeting to push their own agenda: banning all gay men from the priesthood, based on an outdated stereotype that a person cannot experience same-sex attraction and be celibate.
The letter, signed by the chair of the Netherlands-based Working Group of Catholic Gay Pastors on behalf of the group’s members, objects to Francis’ past statements and a recent papal document advocating a continuation of policy (in place under Francis’ predecessors, John Paul II and Benedict XVI) that prevents openly gay men from being ordained as priests.
“Although the document states that the Church deeply respects the persons in question, it also makes the arbitrary and unfounded statement that: ‘Such persons, in fact, find themselves in a situation that gravely hinders them from relating appropriately to both men and women,’” the letter reads.
The group then enumerates and explains the reasons why it believes there should not be a ban on gay priests, noting that there are already countless numbers of priests who are gay, and that their sexual orientation alone does not disqualify them from living a celibate life or being able to provide religious guidance to their congregations.
“Heterosexual and homosexual seminarians and priests who are aware of the nature of their sexuality, who accept it as given by God, who are not ashamed about it, who can (learn to) speak about it in an appropriate and meaningful way, and who (learn to) deal with it properly in their role as a priest (or seminarian, are not the problem in our opinion,” the letter reads. “On the contrary, they can and do function well and have a valuable role to play within our Faith and Church.”
In contrast, the group argues, it is priests who “deny, disown, or suppress” their sexuality who are more likely to have problems, which can manifest themselves in the form of abuse or sexually inappropriate conduct.
“We have the distinct impression that the Vatican and the Congregation for the Clergy and perhaps even you yourself, tend to suggest that those priests who are openly gay are the ones responsible for the sexual abuse of children and minors. We disagree with this,” the letter continues.
“We believe that the current major crisis with respect to this context is primarily the result of the disapproval, suppression, denial and the poor integration of sexuality, and especially homosexuality, on the part of many individual priests and within our Church as a whole. One is simply unable or unwilling to discuss it, or banned from mentioning it, except within the sacrament of confession. In our view this is detrimental to the Church as a whole and to the priests themselves in particular.”
The priests also thank Pope Francis for showing consideration and compassion to gay and lesbian Catholics, but the current policy banning gay priests is in conflict with that consideration. As such, they ask Pope Francis to “review and correct the stipulation in Il dono della vocazione presbiterale that by definition disqualifies homosexual candidates to the celibate priesthood.”
Francis DeBernardo, executive director, New Ways Ministry, a national Catholic ministry of justice and reconciliation for LGBTQ people and the Church, says that, after a summer of headlines exposing several major abuse scandals, it has become apparent that the church hierarchy — and particularly conservative elements within it — are positioned to blame the presence of gay priests as one of the roots of the sexual abuse crisis.
“Cardinal McCarrick’s case, which received the most attention, was not a case of pedophilia. It was a case of adult non-consensual sex,” DeBernardo says. “So it quickly got labeled that this was not pedophilia, but a problem with gay priests. And a lot of the anti-gay forces in the Church quickly glommed onto that, and saw it as an opportunity. And it has since snowballed to becoming one of the issues that will be discussed [at next week’s meeting].”
DeBernardo says that, even though Catholic Church teaching is not to condemn homosexuality, but only homosexual acts, there has been a deliberate conflation of being gay with being sexually active.
“There are anti-gay advocates in the Church who have, since a long time ago, believed the myth that if you are gay, you are sexually active, which is a totally ignorant and irresponsible definition,” says DeBernardo. “While there are some gay priests who have not been able to live up to vows of celibacy, there are many heterosexual priests who have not as well. And there are many more gay priests who have lived up to that promise.
“The other reason I think they’re trying to rid the Church of gay priests is that they do not want to admit that gay people have lived holy lives and lives of service to the Church,” he adds.
DeBernardo worries that the Church risks failing to address the underlying causes of the sexual abuse crisis if they are obsessed with scapegoating only gay priests. Instead, he says, bishops and clergy should be looking at the secretive culture of the church, its treatment of priests as better or holier than they lay people in their parishes, a lack of support systems for priests — including discussions of what healthy celibacy looks like — and the lack of a screening process that might raise warning flags about would-be abusers.
DeBernardo also adds there may be more sinister motivations behind the scapegoating, including a desire to push the Church in a more authoritarian or conservative direction.
“The ones calling for scapegoating of gay priests are same ones who want to bring down the papacy of Pope Francis, because they see him as too liberal,” he notes. “Making the charge that he’s protecting gay priests is a way of weakening his authority. And it’s effective, because how do you prove there aren’t gay priests? It’s like the bogeyman in the closet. If you bring it up, it’s assumed that it’s real.”