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Winters: Are Gay Priests the Problem?

By Diogenes (articles ) | Oct 16, 2005

Today's Dallas Morning News has an article on gay priests and the Doomsday Doc by Michael Sean Winters, a less discreet and more autobiographical version of which I've seen elsewhere (Beliefnet? Busted Halo?). He makes a thoughtful, fairly low-decibel case for giving the green light to gays. I think Winters's reasoning is faulty, but he's far from being wrong across the board, and some of his points are specious enough to deserve a rebuttal. He assumes, for the sake of argument, that a Vatican ban on gay priests is in the works.

The problem with such a ban is twofold. First, banning gay seminarians will only drive the issue underground, precisely the situation before the sexual revolution permitted people -- even priests -- to be more honest about their sexuality.

But "the issue" here has always been underground, as Winters himself inadvertently concedes, and needs no new document to drive it there. Both advocates and opponents of gay priests are forced to tag our evidential specimens with cryptonyms -- e.g., "Father X" -- because even though everyone might know Father X's sexual propensities, it is deemed bad form to attach the "gay" label to him before he attaches it to himself. In terms of polemic, this etiquette is a two-edged sword. Pro-gays (like the cryptonymous Gerard Thomas) complain that the debate is stilted because the clergy publicly known to be gay are only those who have fallen afoul of the police. This is a fair point. But we Contras can retort with equal justice that the Non-Revelation Pact knocks the best counter-evidence out of our hands as well. We had to keep mum for twenty-five years about Rembert Weakland's internationally infamous appetites and play along with the fatuous pretense that his acts of ecclesial sabotage proceeded from disinterested motives. Only when a jealous rent boy told his story on Good Morning America was it fair game to connect the doctrinal-libidinal dots -- and by that time Weakland was safely out of action. By the same token, we Contras are obliged to pretend (in public) that the astonishing ecclesiastical interest in relaxing the prohibition on condom use is predicated on a genuine concern for marital happiness in sub-Saharan Africa -- a notion so grotesque that not even Reggie Cawcutt can hold it with a straight face. In sum: the Doomsday Doc won't inhibit honesty on the subject because there's bloody little honesty to be inhibited.

Back to Winters:

Second, many of those priests the right wing considers "their own" are also gay, and only a willful ignorance would fail to see it.

Such a willful ignorance must exist. When I was in the seminary in the mid-1980s, a local bishop came to visit. The bishop dressed for mass in the rectory next door. We seminarians were a bit late in arriving and were met by the bishop's secretary who said, "Come on, boys, get into your dresses. Grandma is coming." Grandma was the bishop. The secretary had a feminine nickname, which, I am told, his intimates still use. This kind of campiness was common both in the seminary and in my experiences with those already ordained. As for the secretary, he is now a bishop much in favor with conservatives.

On this point, I'm in total agreement with Winters -- except that, far from considering crypto-gay conservatives a boon, I think they do more damage to the Church than the Weaklands and the Bernardins, precisely because conservatism provides better cover for gays to operate under. And Winters is right that many conservatives have indulged in willful ignorance here and given a pass to -- or at least averted their eyes from -- questionable behavior by traditional and orthodox clergy that they wouldn't countenance in liberals. The saga of the traditionalist Society of Saint John of Shohola, PA, is a telling example of a much larger problem. Capitalizing on decades of liberal illiberalism in the Church, a lot of deeply twisted priests and seminarians realized they had a ready-made Fire Support Base in conservative Catholics, simply by announcing that the reason they were dismissed from such-and-such a seminary was their orthodoxy (or devotion to Mary, or fondness for the soutane, &c.). There are, of course, very many genuine victims of liberal despotism at large, but there is also a number of frauds -- including some seriously demented crypto-gays who know how to play the victim game and are skilled at manipulating an orthodoxy-starved laity overly-credulous of tales of martyrdom. The solution, contra Winters, is not to proclaim a truce, but to get rid of all treacherous clergymen -- Left, Right, and Center -- who use the Church to conceal or exploit their deviancy.

Winters again:

The hypocrisy of trying to hang the sexual abuse crisis around the neck of gay priests, most of whom are celibate and hardworking, is too much. I know some gay priests who have truly wrestled with their sexuality. As with straight priests, some have fallen from their vows on occasion or on holiday, but most have been largely faithful. Some gay priests are liberal and others are conservative. Some are still conflicted by their sexuality and others are not.

What they all share is an almost heroic sense of integrity. To try and blame them for the shiftless careerism that caused bishops to look the other way while children were being abused is beyond the pale.

"Most of whom are celibate and hardworking ..." Well, what is gratuitously asserted may be gratuitously denied. More to the point, Winters and I can't examine the objective evidence for this claim because, for the reasons stated above, it's not publicly accessible (though I'd point out that he has some troublesome explaining to do to account for the 400-plus AIDS deaths among U.S. priests).

Winters loses me with his statement that liberal and conservative gay priests share "an almost heroic sense of integrity." This is bizarre to the point of lunacy. At an absolute minimum, integrity forbids tailoring the truth to the circumstances and the audience, whence gay priests are constitutionally incapable of integrity, precisely because gayness entails a conflict -- in the order of doctrine or conduct or both -- with the Church the priesthood is meant to serve. I think Winters is using "integrity" as a code-word for inflexibility: unyielding attachment, sometimes in conditions of hardship, to an assumed sexual identity.

Winters is absolutely correct that "the shiftless careerism that caused bishops to look the other way" points to a greater wickedness and a deeper institutional disease than the sexual abuse it abetted. No argument there. But I think on this point Winters and his chums are guilty of a little willful ignorance and wishful thinking of their own. Claims of right wing witch hunting and scapegoating to the contrary, very few Catholics really think the problem will be solved simply by tossing out the gay clergy. Whether they use the language or not, most hard-liners recognize it's a necessary but not a sufficient condition of reform. Like the sexual abuse crisis itself, the gaying of the priesthood is not chiefly a cause of the Church's woes but rather a symptom of a much deeper corruption.

I believe that The Crisis is rooted in defiance not of the Sixth but of the Eighth Commandment, and that authentic reform will begin when churchmen re-learn the business of telling the truth -- especially when doing so is contrary to their own interests. If the real reasons for the staggering episcopal tolerance of crimes (sexual and other) were discovered and acknowledged, perhaps not one bishop in three would be left standing in the aftermath; perhaps four out of five "conservative" prelates would go up in sulphur-scented smoke. A high price to pay? Sure. But if it bought us a straight-talking hierarchy, I'd be delighted to have the chance to pay it.

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Show 8 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: - Oct. 17, 2005 4:38 PM ET USA

    I had thought we were all agreed that the distinction between "homosexual" priests and "gay" priests was that gay priests frequented pick-up bars and gay internet chat rooms, etc., and that homosexual priests didn't. If the "celibate" homosexual priest is not, in fact, a fiction, we need some sort of distinction.

  • Posted by: Catholicity - Oct. 17, 2005 4:22 PM ET USA

    The state of the Church IS a chastisement.

  • Posted by: - Oct. 17, 2005 12:01 PM ET USA

    Diogenes has said it best--mendacity in matters of faith, morals, and discipline is the disease that's killing the Body of Christ. The corruption of this mendacity is seen more clearly every day, yet the Bishops do nothing about it. The death penalty is at the top of their Nov. meeting agenda, not the reform of the "mendacious Church", but then again, those who have committed such theological and spiritual malpractice are unlikely and unable to address it. To the scandal of everyone.

  • Posted by: - Oct. 17, 2005 9:17 AM ET USA

    My response to the assertion that banning gays will only drive the problem "underground" is this. Should we also admit pedophiles, for fear that an active policy of weeding out pedophiles will only drive the problem "underground"? See http://fumare.blogspot.com/2005/09/seminaries-should-accept-pedophiles.html

  • Posted by: Eagle - Oct. 17, 2005 7:57 AM ET USA

    Whether it be St. Paul, or the explicit 1961 Vatican prohibition on the ordination of homosexuals, present doctrine and law forbids homosexual entry into the clergy at any level. A new Vatican prohibition is only a reiteration. If the banning, or purging, of homosexuals into, or from, the clergy is to be effective, then there must be a mechanism for reporting gay clergy, including bishops, without fear of retaliation, and with hope of success. I don't think that the Vatican intends to do that

  • Posted by: Fr. William - Oct. 16, 2005 11:01 PM ET USA

    Great commentary, Diogenes. Let us pray that Winters & all bishops read it. I, too, would be delighted to pay for the chance to have a straight-talking hierarchy. To date, I can think of no more than 20 bishops in the US whom I can believe when they speak. As for the liars, well, we have photos & letters declaring their lies (eg Cdl. McCarrick's lie about then-Cdl.Ratzinger's letter regarding Holy Communion; Cdl. Mahony's lie about no liturgical abuse, amidst photos of glassware on his altar.)

  • Posted by: Catholicity - Oct. 16, 2005 7:36 PM ET USA

    Bam! Another notch! It reminded me of a quote I heard somewhere: If the priest is a saint, his parish will be holy. If the priest is holy, his parish will be good. If the priest is good, his parish will be lukewarm. If the priest is lukewarm, his parish will burn in hell. Apply that to a bishop and his diocese and you have a pretty clear picture of America and Europe.

  • Posted by: - Oct. 16, 2005 6:43 PM ET USA

    I wonder, what will be our chastisement for the state of our Church?

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