Bishop Accountability

Yes, Gay Men Should Be Ordained

By Thomas J. Gumbleton
America, Vol. 187 No. 9
September 30, 2002

One major fallout of the current crisis of leadership in the Catholic Church is the scapegoating of homosexual priests and seminarians. One bishop was quoted as saying that his “unscientific conclusion is that most sexual abuse by priests is against adolescent boys and therefore is rooted in societal acceptance of homosexuality.” He went on to draw the bizarre conclusion that there are some fields that should not be open to certain people: “I don’t think drug addicts should be pharmacists, I don’t think alcoholics should be bartenders, I don’t think kleptomaniacs should be bank tellers and I don’t think homosexuals should be priests.” Obviously he believes every homosexual person is a sex addict and, if we barred them from the priesthood, the sex scandal would be quietly ended.

Other bishops do not go so far as to consider all homosexual men to be sex addicts; nevertheless, they bar them from the seminary and the priesthood. Their policy reflects the judgment provided in a report prepared by the theologian Germain Grisez: “Can men with a homosexual orientation become good candidates for ordination? There are reasons to doubt it. Sexuality profoundly shapes the lives of human persons, and a homosexual orientation, albeit less bizarre than the commonly recognized paraphilias, is a grave disorder. Homosexual men no doubt can be perfectly continent, but the charism of celibacy involves more; peaceful chastity and the sublimation of sexual energy into priestly service for the kingdom’s sake.”

Some critics of the acceptance of homosexual men into the priesthood, like Charles Wilson, head of the St. Joseph’s Foundation, a canon law organization in Texas, would like to see the church make the ban on homosexual seminarians more explicit in canon law, although he contends that if canon law is interpreted correctly it already prohibits homosexual seminarians.

In fact, one bishop has already publicly taken this position. He insists: “There is a difference between a heterosexual and homosexual candidate for the priesthood. A heterosexual candidate is taking on a good thing, becoming a priest, and giving up a good thing, the desire to have a family. A gay seminarian, even a chaste one, by his orientation is not a suitable candidate for the priesthood, even if he did not commit an act of [gay sex]. He is giving up what the church considers an abomination.”

Last March Joaquin Navarro-Valls, the official spokesperson for the Vatican, publicly linked pedophile priests with homosexuality and even went so far as to suggest that gay men could not be validly ordained. His statement in itself would not be of great concern, since Dr. Navarro-Valls is not in any sense part of the church’s magisterium. However, his remarks seem to take on an authoritative nature, because no bishop in the Vatican or elsewhere has publicly rejected those remarks. This can certainly leave the impression that he speaks with official support.

All of this focus on gay men in the priesthood and religious life, as a response to the recent sexual scandals, leaves many gay priests and brothers feeling very vulnerable and afraid. In a recent article one religious, Bro. Jack Talbot, a friar in the Capuchin Province of St. Joseph, quoted a friend: “It’s such a difficult journey just to be out; coming out in religious life requires another level of courage and conversion. With the Vatican’s recent attack on homosexuals in religious life, I fear that some parishioner will turn my orientation into something ugly and vile, and the next thing you know I will be reading about it in the local paper.”

All this must stop: the scapegoating of gay priests for the sex abuse crisis, the demand to reject homosexual persons for the priesthood and religious life, the unchallenged suggestion that the ordination of a gay man would be invalid. All these positions contribute to the sharp increase in the negative feelings that so many in the church and our society have toward homosexual persons.

The first step toward reversing these harsh judgments and negative feelings about gay priests and homosexual persons in general is to examine our own experience. Without being aware of it, untold numbers of people in the church have been blessed by the compassionate and healing ministry of gay priests and bishops. Ordinary common sense tells us that such ministry is of God. It is authentic and it is valid.

It might also be helpful to recall what the U.S. bishops wrote in their document Always Our Children. In speaking to parents who discover that their child is homosexual we asked, “How can you best express your love—itself a reflection of God’s unconditional love—for your child?” And then we urged:

Don’t break off contact; don’t reject your child.... Your child may need you and your family more than ever. He or she is still the same person. This child who has always been God’s gift to you may now be the cause of another gift: your family becoming more honest, respectful and supportive. Yes, your love can be tested by this reality, but it can also grow stronger through your struggle to respond lovingly.

Would it not be a blessing for parents who are struggling to accept and unconditionally love their homosexual child if the church were to accept gay priests and bishops openly and gratefully? And if the gift of a homosexual child can be the cause of another gift to the family, is it not even more likely that a homosexual priest could be the cause of such a gift to the parish community? A community that could accept this gift would grow in its ability to be honest, respectful and supportive.

We must also ask ourselves: do we really want to deprive the church of the valuable and blessed ministry that is already being provided by priests and religious who are gay or lesbian? Do we really wish to increase the pain and hurt that many of them have experienced throughout their lives? Do we really want to instigate a “witch hunt” to expel from the ministry gay priests, and, I might add, gay bishops?

As a bishop for over 30 years, I have worked with and come to know well many gay priests. They are healthy psychologically, and their committed ministry has been very effective. I am inspired by their love of God and of the people they serve so well and generously. I also know the struggle they now face as they see the bishops deal with the current crisis in the church.

A few letters that I have received recently show clearly how this present attack on homosexual persons is being experienced. One priest wrote:

I am a Roman Catholic priest in good standing, and celibate. I did not choose to be so, but in God’s infinite love and mercy I was created a gay man....

I have struggled with the knowledge of my sexuality. I have sought ways that my gifts and talents could be used fully for building the Kingdom of God. However, the fear of “witch hunts” continues to keep a part of me “in the closet.” How I long to be able to be “out” (in appropriate ways) and honest with the people I serve. I feel rejection by the people I try to serve in love, which causes me much pain. Sometimes I wonder if I should remain a priest....

I love the work I do. I live celibacy one day at a time, and I believe that I am a good priest. But I am also saddened that I am prevented from sharing those parts of who I am, the source of my compassion and that which energizes me.... I find unbearable that there is so much hate that continues to be fueled by those who claim to speak for our reconciling God.

Here is another example:

I am a priest who is gay and celibate, and I have struggled all my life with the many issues associated with being born homosexual.

The Holy Spirit has obviously called many gays to the priesthood in the last few years. How do the bishops explain that? Do the bishops understand the hatred and opposition they are stirring up toward gay priests by their remarks? Do they see that, like opposition to minorities entering the priesthood years ago, their opposition to gays has no foundation in the teachings of Jesus? Bishop Gumbleton, you have encouraged gay priests to be open about their orientation. And I have been—only to be questioned now by parishioners as someone who has been ordained mistakenly. In all my years of sacraments, today was the first time a young couple in our parish asked me if the baptism of their baby would be valid—since they had heard from their parents that I was a homosexual.

It seems clear to me that these priests who have been totally faithful in following out their call to the priesthood deserve better of us. They must not be harassed and forced to live in fear and even suffer the violence that our society often directs against homosexual persons. Open support and love for gay priests and bishops would remove the sense of isolation and loneliness that many experience. This, together with the freedom to no longer “hide an important part of who I am,” would greatly lessen the number of those who otherwise might fail to be faithful to their celibate commitment.

And I insist that we must reject any suggestion that a gay priest or bishop cannot make the same celibate commitment a heterosexual man would make. It is a very inadequate understanding of celibacy to say that, as the bishop quoted above put it, a heterosexual priest is “giving up a good thing, the desire to have a family.” Celibacy is not simply a “giving up” of something. It is a positive way of loving—truly loving and being loved—but with the exclusion of sexual intimacy. Homosexual people can also love celibately and be a sign of God’s love just as genuinely as heterosexuals. In Always Our Children the U.S. bishops taught this clearly when they stated:

Everyone—the homosexual and the heterosexual person—is called to personal maturity and responsibility. With the help of God’s grace, everyone is called to practice the virtue of chastity in relationships. Chastity means integrating one’s thoughts, feelings and actions in the area of human sexuality in a way that values and respects one’s own dignity and that of others.

As a heterosexual person I have had to learn how to integrate my sexuality in a healthy way in all of my loving and mutual relationships. As a celibate person, I chose to do this without full sexual intimacy. And as Professor Grisez puts it, I arrive at a point of “peaceful chastity and the sublimation of sexual energy into priestly service for the kingdom’s sake.”

What is true of me as a celibate heterosexual person is just as true of the celibate homosexual person. The celibate homosexual priest or bishop brings the same charism to the service of the church as the heterosexual and can achieve the same “peaceful chastity and sublimation of sexual energy” for priestly service.

To say that the only thing a gay priest has to give up is “an abomination” manifests not only profound ignorance of what celibacy really is, but also is an insult to every homosexual person. Again, while celibacy represents a sacrifice, it is not simply a “giving up.” It is a unique way of loving, a charism given by God to persons who are homosexual or heterosexual. For this reason, it is absurd to suggest that the ordination of homosexual persons is invalid simply because of their sexual orientation. Obviously God has called many gay men to the priesthood and to the episcopate throughout the whole history of the church. Indeed, to declare all of these ordinations invalid would call into question the integrity of our whole sacramental system.

Another important reason to reject this attack against homosexual priests and bishops is that by identifying homosexuals as the cause, or an important part of the cause, of the current crisis we will fail to deal with the most basic cause of the scandalous situation. The radical cause was identified in 1971 in the psychological study of Catholic priests and bishops in the United States, authored by Dr. Eugene Kennedy. This study, of course, included homosexual and heterosexual priests. It indicated that a very large percentage of priests were seriously underdeveloped in terms of psychological maturity. This can result in a situation in which a person may be chronologically an adult but psychologically, affectively and emotionally still a teenager. Obviously such persons will tend toward inappropriate relationships. (A person who is psychologically an adolescent would feel more comfortable in relationships with younger people—with “teenagers” like himself.) And whether such a relationship is homosexual or heterosexual, it is wrong and can even be criminal.

But the problem confronting us is not a problem of homosexual priests among us. It is a problem of seriously underdeveloped priests. Yet this is a problem that can be overcome. Underdeveloped persons can be guided toward a fuller stage of maturity that will enable them to function in a psychologically healthy way. This is just as true of the underdeveloped homosexual person as it is of the underdeveloped heterosexual person. The important thing to work toward in the seminary and in religious formation is approving for ordination only those persons who have achieved an adequate degree of healthy psychological development. This must include healthy psychological development for both homosexual and heterosexual persons. Various psychological studies indicate homosexual persons are as healthy as anyone else. This can also be the case among priests and bishops.

There are a number of additional reasons why we must reject attacks upon homosexual priests and value their ministry in the church. For example, in his book, Spiritual Direction and the Gay Person, James Empereur, S.J., states: “Homosexuality is one of God’s most significant gifts to humanity. Through their testimony of suffering, God has chosen gays and lesbians to reveal something about God that heterosexuals do not.” Drawing on this insight, Bro. Jack Talbot points out that homosexuals “minister through the language of our pain, of our passion story. As we begin a new century, a recontextualized gospel of reconciliation is required, and healing medicine can be offered from the marginalized. Our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters can help our institution during this moment of suffering and humiliation.”

I agree. What a loss if we drive these “gifted” people from our midst!

A further gift gay priests bring to our church is an exceptional ability and courage to proclaim the truth—something demanded by the prophetic nature of the priesthood. This can happen because of the often arduous “coming out” process homosexuals must undertake. Gay and lesbian people have had to identify, accept and affirm a truth about themselves that others have defamed. Coming to this awareness can be enormously difficult. In fact, it often had to be done without any encouragement or guideposts from others. They have often experienced opposition to knowing the truth about themselves, accepting their truth, and being willing even to share it with others. By living out this painful process, gay priests develop a deeply prophetic courage.

Gay priests also can offer a depth of compassion not always shared in a comparable way by heterosexual priests. Gay people have often been treated as outcasts by society, church and even family. Because of this experience, they can develop an awareness and sensitivity to those who are being excluded and included in various situations. Such a gift of compassion surely enriches one who is called to minister to others.

For all of these reasons, I urge our church leadership to rejoice in the blessings that can come to us by recognizing and supporting gay priests rather than shunning or rejecting them. Bro. Jack Talbot describes very well what needs to happen if we hope to achieve a good resolution of the current crisis in the church:

The church hierarchy needs to accept the help of her gay and lesbian members as ministers of healing, rather than making us scapegoats for a problem that we did nothing to create. Let us be advocates for the church during this crisis. Hear our stories.... For many, our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters may be unlikely teachers. Nevertheless, they can be God’s healing balm, God’s grace and peace at a time when the fragility of our society is painfully demonstrated in the crisis spots that are in the forefront of the news and in the frailty of the human heart.

See also James Martin, S.J., "The Church and the Homosexual Priest," America, Nov. 4, 2000.

The Most Rev. Thomas J. Gumbleton is an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Detroit, Mich.

The materials on are offered solely for educational purposes. Should any reader wish to quote or reproduce for sale any documents to which other persons or institutions hold the rights, the original publisher should be contacted and permission requested. If any original publisher objects to our maintaining a cache of their documents for safekeeping, we will gladly take down our cache of those documents and offer links to the original publisher's posted versions instead.


Original material copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.