In its recent Sunday edition, America’s newspaper of record ran a front-page article on the challenges facing gay Catholic priests titled “A Silent Crisis for Gay Priests.” It is the most recent specimen of the journalistic genre of suffering-gay-Catholic-priests-in-an-unwelcoming-Church. The narrative is well-known by now: a Church which fails to welcome gay priests, whose leaders may well reject them, and where they must stay in the closet has made their “closet” into a cage. This narrative has been developed on the pages of the New York Times, America Magazine, and Fr. James Martin’s book.
This latest article is flawed; the narrative is false. The flaw is that this and other such articles do not really address Catholicism. In fact, this popular narrative badly misunderstands both the Catholic Church and the priest himself.
Who is the priest? He may identify as “gay,” but this is not what God made him to be. Because of genetic or psychological factors, or perhaps some other influences, his neuronal networks or hormonal balance may cause him to find other men sexually desirable. Like every other human being he is embodied, and bodily appetites are frequently disordered or misdirected. More important, however, is that he has a rational soul, and in virtue of that soul he can know truths and desire the good. It is in virtue of the soul that he is what he is and becomes who he is to be. The priest is a man.
The priest is also baptized, joined permanently to Christ as a member of his Body. From his mother’s womb he has been called to God the Father. The point of his life is union with God—that is, holiness. Therefore, he (and, indeed, every Christian) is called to chastity, without which mature, self-giving love is impossible. That he may be sexually attracted to men is irrelevant. He should be chaste, and for most of us chastity is hard.
He is also a priest, an alter Christus. Ministering at the altar, he represents Christ to his people, and in the Eucharist he actually makes Christ present to the people. As such, he is to exemplify holiness. We cannot speak meaningfully or intelligently about his priestly life without reference to his sacramental role. The sinner who barely faces up to his own guilt, hiding it from those closest to him (or her), comes to the priest in confession to be forgiven and have his burden lifted. The priest must bear a part of this burden. To sit in the confessional listening to the sins of others can wear upon him. The priest is called to generosity in his mercy.
Like every other person, the priest is called to chastity, which means striving for and living in purity. In response to Christ’s invitation, the priest has made the (humanly unrealistic) vow of celibacy. Therefore, he has constantly to strive to become and remain sexually pure—which is hard. But what if he is gay? His gayness, whatever that may be, is irrelevant. By his very vow of celibacy he has put his concerns about sexuality aside. He may be tempted, just as a brother priest may be tempted to fornication, but purity demands that he resist that temptation and flee from it. The temptation may be persistent, seemingly irresistible at times, but it must be rejected. Purity demands of him—just as it demands of all of us—that he shut out the desire to sin sexually. Like every one of us, the man tempted to homosexual sin must resist the temptation that oppresses him.
To safeguard purity, the Church used to recommend a number of aids and remedies: self-discipline (i.e., guarding the mind and eyes), frequent confession (at least monthly), avoiding temptation, daily prayer, Scripture reading, and devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. It is very helpful—probably necessary—to pray the rosary daily. These he must do.
They should be taught, fostered, and emphasized in the seminary. Which brings us to “lavender mafias,” a phenomenon that the NYT article and others of that genre dismiss as a right-wing polemic. It is not. Many Catholic seminaries have such subcultures. One such seminary was implicated in Mr. McCarrick’s predations. In many (but not all) places, the young man who wants to be a priest must make it through a seminary where flirting with homosexuality is urged upon him. The sad fact is that some Catholic seminaries have been training grounds for homosexuality. Of course, this should never have been or be tolerated.
Let us put aside the question of who should be ordained going forward and speak to the gay man who is already ordained, and who is the focus of concern for the Times. Such a priest needs to understand the truth about sin as the Church understands it. Since the 1960s, moral theologians have fostered the notion that sexual sins are not very serious and generally excusable. With war and poverty and racism to deal with, God doesn’t bother about the comforts his people seek in each other’s arms in their free time. This transformation within moral theology was pretty much a direct response to Humanae Vitae. The underlying premise of this rejection of Pope St. Paul VI’s encyclical has been that the Church is unreasonable to expect people to forgo the joys of sexual intimacy, at least on occasion. And if we apply this principle to priests, who have vowed not to marry, then obviously they must find the necessary intimacy among themselves. The implicit dismissal of sexual sin by mainstream moral theologians has badly misled even our priests. Graced with the possible intimacy with Christ himself in the Eucharist, we all can and sometimes must forgo human intimacy. Priestly celibacy is a sign that this is possible and good.
In today’s world—the world in which we find “all the news that’s fit to print”—the Church’s sexual requirements are seen as unreasonable and unrealistic. If the culture is right, then the Church’s demand for purity is merciless. But the goal of the Christian is something supernatural. The priest represents this and leads others to it.
In the end it comes down to love. For the love of God, the priest embraces his Lord Jesus’s invitation to celibacy as a means to and sign of his complete devotion to the mission of the Church. By forgoing the satisfaction of sexual love with another human being, the priest does not forgo love. He has consecrated himself entirely to the love of his Creator and Savior. The life of the priest is hard. If he is gay—however he may understand what “gay” means—he may face distinct challenges that most others do not face, but they face challenges that he does not. In his ministry, he must console widows and parents whose children have made tragic choices. As he resists temptation, he may be counseling a young woman being pressured to abort her baby or a boy whose drug habit is ruining his life. Like Christ, the priest is a man for others. Despite his own hardships, he is to bring Christ to a world hungry for love. He hardly has time to worry about the structure of his subjective sexual appetites.