Bishop Matthew Clark of Rochester (New York State) has made some statements in a wide-ranging interview on the changing church which are superficially welcoming to openly gay priests, while remaining within the limits of orthodox Vatican rules for the clergy. In this, there are some striking similarities with the recent statement by two Filipino Archbishops, which encouraged gay Catholics to come out and be open in church. Like that statement, there are grounds to give it a cautious welcome – but these few words bring into sharp focus the huge contradictions and fuzzy thinking buried in the Vatican’s position on gay priests – and on queer Catholics more generally.
The bit that I welcome unreservedly is Bishop Clark’s public acknowledgement that there are many excellent gay priests about:
I know some magnificent gay priests.
Well, of course he does: when gay men represent a very substantial proportion of the priesthood (many estimates suggest 30 – 50 %, but the precise figure does not matter here), it is a statistical certainty that many of the best priests will be gay – and also some of the worst. In fact, there are good reasons to believe that gay men as a group could make particularly good priests. The evidence shows clearly that as a group, we are more drawn than other men to the service and caring professions in preference to the more self-centred, acquisitive and competitive occupations. Theoretically, we should expect a high proportion of the best priests (and bishops and cardinals) to be gay. The remarkable thing here is not that they exist, but that Clark acknowledges that they exist. He says that he knows “many” magnificent gay priests. Well, yes. How does he know that they are gay? Here’s the problem, in the words that he used immediately following the sentence quoted above:
If they are openly gay in terms of living a lifestyle that is incompatible with their basic commitments, we have to intervene.
What on earth does this mean?
If it means simply that gay priests living a life which is sexually active, then this is more or less inoffensive, as it treats gay and other priests equally (or appears to: in practice, many bishops do not intervene where priests are known to be sexually active with women, unless it becomes too publicly embarrassing). However, in the context of the wider church, it probably means more than that.
Far too often, official and self-appointed spokesmen for the Catholic Church mean by “the gay lifestyle” simply identifying as gay, or associating socially with other gay men, or visiting a gay bar – even just for a drink or a chat. In this view, it is assumed to be impossible to identify as gay and mix with other gay men, and remain celibate. For the overwhelming majority of priests who are gay, simply being known to be so is a serious risk to their careers, and so most remain firmly closeted. Those who are willing to be open about their orientation are very much a small minority. Yes, Bishop Clark will inevitably know many magnificent gay priests – probably far outnumbering those he is aware of.
Let us take another look at this peculiar term “the gay lifestyle” which is used to bully gay priests and other gay Catholics into the closet. To see how badly its popular use is prejudicial, discriminatory and far from even-handed, consider its counterpart – the “heterosexual lifestyle”.
All priests, of any orientation, are expected to remain celibate, so let us restrict consideration only to those who live, or attempt to live, within the rules. Now consider a priest who admits that he finds women attractive and enjoys the company of (heterosexual) women, but carefully does not seek close relationships with them, who likes to socialize with others whose orientation is to the opposite sex, and is not entirely at ease in company which is exclusively homosexual.
In terms analogous to that of an openly gay priest, he would be considered “openly” heterosexual – but celibate, and so fully welcomed by and in the Church.
What of the gay exact counterpart, one who admits that he finds men attractive and enjoys the company of (gay) men, but carefully does not seek close relationships with them; who likes to socialize with others whose orientation is to the same sex; and is not entirely at ease in company which is exclusively heterosexual.
Objectively speaking, this openly gay priest is in a position precisely comparable to that of the heterosexual counterpart, but the treatment ha can is expect is markedly different. In all probability, he would be condemned and ostracized (by some), and could find his career, even his livelihood, at severe risk.
Now consider the situation of others, lay Catholics who identify as gay. What does the “gay lifestyle” mean to them?
To those who condemn it as inherently debauched, it probably has associations with a constant round of gay bars and clubs, abundant promiscuous sex, and possibly with heavy use of drugs, pornography and possibly cruising for pickups in public parks or toilets.
For others, the “gay lifestyle” simply means living alone, socialising with friends (gay or otherwise), and deliberately avoiding what is known as the gay scene or circuit.
For still others, the “gay lifestyle” simply means making a home and raising a family with a same sex soulmate. For these families, life can be remarkably similar to that of other, more conventional families: jobs to hold down and bills to pay, childcare and schooling to provide for, household chores and gardening, and activities outside the home. These might be participation in school PTA or neighbourhood groups (including church groups), organized recreational or hobby groups, or just informal socialising – for parents and for kids. Some of these families are models of respectability, some are not, or crack and break up under the pressures (just like other families do).
There is nothing at all that makes any one of these models more specifically a “gay” lifestyle than any other.
Now consider the “heterosexual lifestyle”.
For many single men (and an increasing number of single women), the “heterosexual lifestyle” also includes heavy use of singles bars and clubs, drugs, pornography, and cruising for sex wherever it might be found.
Others are happy to live alone, either permanently in chosen commitment to career and a solitary life, or as a temporary period while they wait patiently to meet a life partner, or recovering from a previous failed relationship / marriage.
Others live as married couples, in families. Some fit the popular romantic stereotype, others are dysfunctional.
Again, there is nothing at all that makes any one model more specifically a heterosexual lifestyle than any other.
The only distinction between the gay and heterosexual lifestyles is their numeric proportions of these different models. Why should such a difference exist at all?
I suggest that the key lies in the similarity between the popular image of the gay lifestyle and that of some straight single men, especially as young adults: a hedonistic pursuit of pleasure and sex. Most heterosexual men grow out of this, and eventually settle down (or attempt to) to a life of marriage or settled partnership, and family. One factor in this is social pressure – its the model they have been socialised into, and sooner or later they conform.
For gay men, its different. The social pressures, the legal structures, and religious authorities in many cases operate in the opposite direction: away from marriage and family. Is it any wonder that so many of us get stuck in what is more accurately described as a “singles lifestyle” than a gay one? If the churches and political conservatives truly wanted to reduce the frequency and visibility of this lifestyle, they should support, not oppose, marriage and family equality, granting legal and church recognition to same sex marriages or other unions, and encouraging adoption by all suitable adoptive parents, without discrimination on grounds of gender identity or orientation.
We have to start somewhere. In the secular world, the momentum to LGBT equality in many countries is now unstoppable. In the major Protestant denominations, the move to full inclusion and acceptance of openly gay or lesbian pastors is well-advanced, and also will continue. In the Catholic church, these tiny words of encouragement, from Filipino Archbishops saying we should come out (but remain “chaste”), or the acknowledgement that Bishop Clark knows and welcomes gay priests (who remain celibate) are tiny steps forward – but welcome nevertheless. If they do indeed result in many more Catholics and priests having the confidence to come out in church, the consequences in the resultant understanding and acceptance will be profound, leading to more substantial changes later.
But there remains an awfully long road to travel. As my colleague Bart reminded me in a private email, we will not really know we have completed it until
..that day when a Catholic bishop, at a public event, can introduce her wife and kids to those present.
This is the portion of Bishop Clark’s interview where he speaks specifically about gay priests. (For the full interview on the changing church, go to Rochester City Newspaper)
There was a period of time following the scandal when there was some question about whether gay men should be allowed to become priests. What’s your view?
I know some magnificent gay priests. If they are openly gay in terms of living a lifestyle that is incompatible with their basic commitments, we have to intervene. But I have always tried to be open to such candidates. There was, as you know, a lot of attention given to that by the Holy See [the Vatican] over the years, and one of their statements left the impression that under no circumstances could a person of gay orientation be ordained a priest. And that’s not so. If a person’s sense of himself as a gay individual inevitably leads him to campaign against the church’s formal teachings or live a lifestyle that is upsetting to the community or scandalous, such a person would not be an apt candidate for the priesthood. But if a person understands that and lives a lifestyle that is compatible with what we ask of all of our priests, then I’m happy to receive them.
- Openly Gay Religion Professor Fired by Pennsylvania Catholic College (bilgrimage.blogspot.com)
- Lies, Secrets, and Silence as Heart of the Abuse Crisis, Continued: The Gay Question (bilgrimage.blogspot.com)