Panel Speakers: 'Open up the Conversation' on Gay Priests

By Paula Doyle
The Tidings [California]
March 17, 2005

Breaking through the pervasive silence about the existence of gay priests in the church will lead to a healthier community of faith, said a panel of Catholic leaders at the recent 2005 Religious Education Congress.

Speaking at a workshop on "Homosexuality, Celibacy and the Priesthood: Opening Up the Conversation," Dr. Tom Beaudoin, an assistant professor of religious studies at Santa Clara University, told a packed workshop audience that he believes almost everyone who has raised objections against gay priests has "very likely" learned something about God's love from a priest who has a homosexual orientation.

"For generations, gay men have served in the Catholic priesthood," said Beaudoin. "They have lived and are living holy lives, human lives, celibate lives; it's time to try to open up the conversation about that." Denying that the panelists were pushing any political agenda, Beaudoin said the workshop presented a "spiritual task" for participants to try to "be present to what is and receive it prayerfully."

He said talking in a "more adult way" about the blessings and challenges of gay priests similar to the way blessings and challenges of straight priests are discussed will allow Catholics to become "more human" and "more holy with each other…so that at long last our church in this regard can finally begin to deal with reality."

Silent presence

"Today there are hundreds, if not thousands, of celibate gay priests ministering to Catholics in parishes, schools, hospitals, high schools, colleges, retreat houses, soup kitchens, nursing homes and chanceries," said Jesuit Father James Martin, associate editor and TV columnist for America magazine. In spite of this fact, according to Father Martin, the U.S. church has great difficulty discussing the issue of gay priests at all. He cited eight reasons for this situation:

---Fear and hatred of gays and lesbians.

---Assumption that being a gay priest means that one is, by definition, sexually active and incapable of chastity.

---Assumption that being a gay priest means one is a pedophile or ephebophile.

---Fear that discussing the existence of gay priests will drive away straight seminarians, leading to a gay dominance among clergy.

---Fear that if a gay priest is held up as a positive role model, it might undermine the teachings of the Catholic Church.

---Fear that any discussion of gay priests would scandalize the faithful.

---Fear that discussion of gay priests would invite negative media attention.

---Fear that knowledge of the number of gay men in the priesthood would make the Vatican use this as an opportunity to discipline the American church or take punitive action against any who broach the topic.

"Some of these reasons could be set aside if only there were more public models of gay priests," said Father Martin. "In the absence of any healthy gay priests for Catholics to reflect on publicly, and with the only examples being notorious pedophiles, the stereotype of the gay priest as child abuser only deepens."

As for why gay priests are reluctant to speak openly about their lives, Father Martin offers the following reasons: Gay priests are often forbidden from speaking about their experiences by their religious superiors or bishops; they may experience pressure from superiors, colleagues or parishioners to be silent about their sexual orientation; and/or the gay priest may be fearful about reprisals or identifying himself with a group that is now frequently blamed for the clergy sexual abuse crisis.

"As I see it, there are very many gay men who are good priests in the church today," declared Father Martin, who estimated the population of gay priests among the clergy as 25 percent. "The vast majority are healthy, hard-working, faithful, loving celibate members of the clergy. That is simply the truth. In order to grow as a people, we need simply to admit that truth."

Sexuality formation

Workshop panelist Dr. Greer Gordon, a professor at the University of Massachusetts and religious education consultant, said sexuality formation is essential to help priests, whether gay or heterosexual, remain faithful in the midst of the church community. "We have made both men and women religious asexual. Asexuality is not how God created us. We are sexual beings, and it's part of what we bring into any way we deal with other people, no matter what our orientation may be," said Gordon.

According to Gordon, catechists need to rise above fear to understand homosexuality. "We have to be willing to assist (some of) our clergy, who are themselves homosexual, in learning what it means to live a life that is free, a life that is open, but a life that is celibate," she noted,

She said catechists can also help people understand issues related to sexual abuse. "We have to assist individuals in coming into clarity about the pedophilia issue," stated Gordon. "Psychologically we know it's a fact that the majority of pedophiles are not homosexual; they are in fact, heterosexual…. The majority of pedophiles are not Roman Catholic priests."

Gordon urged catechists to use their instincts and be vigilant in protecting children from pedophiles, using as much resource information as possible. "We need to separate the issue (of pedophilia) from homosexuality," she said.

"Generally speaking, as catechists (and) pastoral leaders, it's important for us to try and deal with our own feelings of bigotry and bias around homosexuality…. There are homosexual people in our midst and some of these homosexual people do now, and have in the past, served this God in this church," said Gordon.

Workshop participant Patricia Mathews, 55, said the church is "opening up channels of compassion" by talking about homosexuality. As a relative of a homosexual family member, Mathews said she saw how the gay teenager experienced misunderstanding in school and at home. "Having sessions like this provides a venue for people to talk about their injuries," Mathews reflected.


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