Defying the current scapegoating and stereotypes, a priest shares his journey and struggle.
My Roman collar caused Mrs. H to hesitate. She knew I was gay, but she also recalled a sermon in which her pastor had said that unless gays repented, they had no place in the church, let alone heaven. She had looked for a priest who would understand that her gay son was dying of AIDS. There was no one in her community to confide in, least of all the parish priest.
I realized then that my continued silence–and that of my gay brothers in the priesthood–was adding to the agony of people struggling with homosexuality. This was back in 1986, shortly after the Vatican issued the letter that labeled homosexuals "objectively disordered" and homosexuality an "intrinsic evil," on a par with abortion and murder.
I had come out to myself and to people I trust, so such documents no longer bothered me personally. But I knew how devastating they were to people such as Mrs. H, who loved her son and accepted his sexuality but was offended by the church's ignorance. Worse, young people coming to terms with their sexual identity and the cruel taunts of classmates did not need the church perpetuating gays' self-loathing or giving bashers a religious rationale for violence. Worst of all, such pronouncements were driving young people not just out of the church, but away from God.
I remember as a teenager feeling different. Fortunately, I had already thought about becoming a priest before I realized I was gay. In those years, the church had yet to articulate its virulently antigay stance. I saw it as a welcoming community, and I wanted all the world to know how wonderful was the God of love proclaimed by the Catholic Church.
After ordination, I was disappointed that the grace of orders didn't take away this thorn in my flesh. Fearful that my "secret" would be discovered, I frantically overachieved. I built a church. I taught in a university. I courted martyrdom. These surely would counter the fact I was gay, should the truth ever come out.
During those years I led a life of "white-knuckle" celibacy, hanging on by my fingertips for dear life. Unconsciously I sacrificed my humanity along with my sexuality. I kept people at arm's length, regarding women with disdain and men with suspicion. My prayer life deteriorated. I felt increasingly empty and frustrated. What more did God want of me?
One day word came that a friend from seminary had committed suicide. In the note he left behind he said he was "tired of struggling with the supposed contradiction of being a priest and gay." Six months of therapy helped me overcome feelings of guilt that my silence had contributed to my friend's despair. I also had to confront the fear that such might be my inevitable fate as well. Gays, after all, do not deserve to love and those who do deserve to die. Wasn't that the logical conclusion of church teaching?
Therapy raised a remarkable proposition in my mind: that my homosexuality was not a mistake, much less a curse. I joined a support group for gay priests, and together we came to a deeper appreciation of God's work and will. I accepted myself as God made me, and suddenly a great peace and power filled me as my sexuality and my spirituality became integrated, each drawing strength from the other.
When I volunteered on a help line for gays and lesbians, I was surprised how many callers asked to talk with a priest. I made up my mind to speak my truth in more public forums. And I decided I would no longer ignore fellow priests' comments about "fruitcakes" or "fags" or the diocese's efforts to block passage of antidiscrimination laws that would guarantee housing and job protection for gays and lesbians. As I continued coming out and encouraging other gays to do the same, my eyes and heart were opened to how truly beautiful an inclusive, catholic, universal church can be.
But that gay Catholics are becoming more visible and vocal apparently threatens some church leaders. Unwilling to address the deeper issue of abuse of power by bishops that fostered and perpetuated the sex scandals, they see in gays a convenient scapegoat. Ordinations of gays are invalid, suggests the Vatican spokesman; even if celibate, gays are not fit for holy orders, says an American cardinal. Now the Vatican seeks to prohibit homosexual men from entering the seminary. What a slap in the face to the thousands of gay men who selflessly served the church over the centuries, from Saints Serge and Bacchus to Father Mychal Judge. Jesus wept over Jerusalem, I weep over Rome.
I apologize for using a pseudonym. Coming out is a very personal and sacred decision, an expression of profound trust. I openly discuss my sexuality and my spirituality with people in person, but these are dangerous times of struggle for the very soul and survival of the U.S. Catholic Church. I will not empower those who seek to harm us. They may well succeed in ridding the church of gay priests, at least the honest and open ones. More's the pity. But Christ's kingdom will not be denied.
This article appeared in the February 2003 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 68, No. 2, page 50).