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Catholic World News News Feature

The Gay Priest Problem June 03, 2002

AIDS has quietly caused the deaths of hundreds of Roman Catholic priests in the United States although other causes may be listed on some of their death certificates, the Kansas City Star reported today. The newspaper said its examination of death certificates and interviews with experts indicates several hundred priests have died of AIDS-related illnesses since the mid-1980s. The death rate of priests from AIDS is at least four times that of the general population, the newspaper said. Kansas City Bishop Raymond Boland says the AIDS deaths show that priests are human.

Astonishing, when you think about it. The paragraph above comes from an Associated Press report on a series of newspaper articles by Judy L. Thomas that appeared in January of 2000. It is too much to say Catholics were "rocked" by the attendant media hype--the scandal threshold has been raised pretty high in recent years--but among the laity the articles occasioned, if not a gasp, at least a general sigh of exasperation. From all sides, almost, one heard the complaint "Why doesn't somebody do something?" Why not indeed.

A large part of the answer is implicit in the remarkable response to the situation tendered by Bishop Boland. To aver that a priest shows he is human by dying of AIDS is to say that it is somehow natural to our human state to engage in acts of passive consensual sodomy, from which the resultant infection takes its predictable course. Few Catholics who are not in Holy Orders would share this view of human nature. In reality, the fact that priests die of AIDS proves that they commit sin, by which they show not that they are human but that they act in a sub-human manner--sub-human not in any special sense, but in the ordinary sense in which each of us falls short of his true human dignity by sinning, whatever our sin may be.

But Bishop Boland, like many of his brethren, is unwilling to concede the major premise. "I would never ask a priest how he got [AIDS]," he told Thomas, "just like nobody asked me two years ago how I got cancer of the colon. But I would provide for him. I would not write him off and say, 'Because you've got AIDS and because there are doubts about how one can acquire it, therefore you're not a good priest.’" Well, let's take the case of a 3-year-old girl brought into the emergency room with a broken jaw and cigarette burns on her rib cage. Suppose the hospital personnel said, "Look, there's more than one way to pick up these injuries, and the girl's medical treatment will be the same whatever their cause, so there's no point in asking how she got them." Most of us would see such a response as a culpably willful refusal to face up to a grim reality. By the same token, when we are urged to pretend that there is room for doubt as to how most priests contract AIDS, we can be sure that our gaze is being intentionally diverted from the ugly and indisputable facts: a disproportionately high percentage of priests is gay; a disproportionately high percentage of gay priests routinely engages in sodomy; this sodomy is frequently ignored, often tolerated, and sometimes abetted by bishops and superiors.

A WIDESPREAD PROBLEM?

Just how widespread is homosexuality among priests and bishops? For obvious reasons, no reliable statistics are available. The percentage is vigorously disputed, of course, but one indication of the scope of the problem is that those who argue for the lowest estimate insist that the number of gays in the clergy is no higher than that of the gay population in society at large--as if this were not on its own showing evidence of a profound crisis. Gay priests themselves--who, though admittedly partisan, admittedly also have unique access to the facts--commonly assure us that they are legion within the priesthood in general and well-represented even among bishops. The Kansas City Star series mentioned above notes that, of 26 novices who entered the Missouri Province of the Jesuit order in 1967 and 1968, only seven were eventually ordained priests. Of these seven, three have (to date) died of AIDS, and a fourth is an openly gay priest now working as an artist in New York. The priest-artist deplored the fact, not that his fellow Jesuits engaged in homosexual relations, but that they did not take "safe-sex" precautions even after the facts about HIV transmission became known. In this case, four of seven priests in a discrete sample are known to have been actively homosexual. What can we extrapolate from this data about the remaining three men, or about the American priesthood in general? Ten years ago the liberal National Catholic Reporter cited this example as typical:

Father Smith (not his real name) is a Jesuit priest working in a Philadelphia parish in one of the older parts of the city. He is a closeted gay priest and does not want his name used. ... "In my worst moments," he said, "I fear I will have been a collaborator in supporting an institution that oppresses gay people...." He said he became a Jesuit after falling in love with an older, 40-year old Jesuit priest. Smith was 20 then and studying at St. Joseph's College in Philadelphia. "As a Catholic priest, I know there would be no church without gay people. ... I assume priests are gay until proven otherwise."

In the same vein, such priests routinely gloat about the fact that gay bars in big cities have special "clergy nights," that gay resorts have set-asides for priests, and that in certain places the diocesan apparatus is controlled entirely by gays. What is significant is that these are not claims made by their opponents, not accusations fired off by right-wing Catholics in a fit of paranoia; rather they are gays' words about gays themselves. Their boasts include having blackmailed the Connecticut Catholic Conference into reversing its opposition to a gay-rights law by threatening to "out" gay bishops--a reversal that is difficult to understand without resort to the blackmail explanation. These considerations serve to underscore the point that the problem of gay priests entails not simply the scandal of sexual misdemeanor but also the fact that gay Catholics, by virtue of the fact that they reject her authority, serve to undermine the teaching Church. Hence their influence must be gauged not only by their numbers, but by the focus and force of their hostility. To this end, it is instructive to ponder the following message to his fellow gay clergy by South Africa's Bishop Reginald Cawcutt, penned in response to a rumor that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was about to issue a letter prohibiting the acceptance of gay seminarians.

Kill [Ratzinger]? Pray for him? Why not just f--- him??? Any volunteers -- ugh!!! ... I do not see how he can possibly do this -- but... If he does, lemme repeat my statement earlier -- that I will cause lotsa s--- for him and the Vatican. And that is a promise. MY intention would be simply to ask the question what he intends doing with those priests, bishops (possibly "like me") and cardinals ... who are gay. That should cause s--- enough. Be assured dear reverend gentlemen, I shall let you know the day any such outrageous letter reaches the desks of the ordinaries of the world.

Bishop Cawcutt's actual communication, be it noted, contained no prudish dashes. While the virulence of his language may be exceptional, the targets of his antagonism are not, and it is noteworthy that none of Bishop Cawcutt's several defenders distanced himself from the content of the prelate's harangue.

IDEOLOGY ALLOWS THE PROBLEM TO PERSIST

Bishop Cawcutt's astonishing survivability puts one in mind of President Clinton's, and to some extent the persistence of the gay priest problem and President Clinton's immunity to scandal have a common cause: Clinton in his own sphere and gay clergy in theirs have been indispensable agents in the advancement of the liberal agenda. Like their secular counterparts, Catholic liberals, even where they do not positively applaud the sexual recreations of gay priests, are willing to overlook the resultant embarrassment in order that a more important end may be served--in order, that is, that gays may remain as active members in the Church to assist them in their project of replacing ecclesial authority with personal experience as the norm determinative of authentic faith.

The leadership of the liberal movement in the Catholic Church is still today dominated by former priests, brothers, and seminarians who abandoned their vocations in the 1960s and 1970s. Most of these left to marry, and for them contraception remains the touchstone issue. Of their companions in dissent who stayed behind in the priesthood, a disproportionately high number are gay, and even liberal writers have commented on the "lavenderization of the left" that characterizes the clerical wing of their movement. A review of a recent book on the priesthood by the National Catholic Reporter’s Tom Roberts typifies the position--uneasily held, nervously expressed--of the non-gay progressive:

"Considering Orientation" is the chapter of The Changing Face of the Priesthood that deals with the increasingly disproportionate number of homosexuals in the Roman Catholic priesthood and the one that leads the author, Fr. Donald B. Cozzens, to ask if the priesthood is on its way to becoming a "gay profession." It is a devilishly difficult question to ask, first because almost no one in the hierarchical ranks wants anything to do with it, and because one can only approach it through a minefield planted wide with homophobes, right-wing zealots who see homosexual clergy as a particularly noxious manifestation of a liberal agenda, and the church's teaching that the homosexual orientation is "objectively disordered."

Whether the priesthood is becoming a gay profession is not, of course, a difficult question to ask, or to answer. It will be a tough problem to solve, in part because Catholics like Roberts cherish a contempt for conservatives ("homophobes," "right-wing zealots") that overmasters their intuition that something has gone wrong with the liberal project when its closest allies in the clergy are linked in the public imagination with male ballet dancers and fashion designers.

The "minefield" that terrifies Roberts involves not the explosive potential of error but the explosive potential of truth. What is unthinkable, what seems to be psychologically impossible to concede, is that there is an aspect of post-conciliar controversy in which the conservatives might have been right after all. In the same vein, whereas the National Catholic Reporter via Jason Berry's articles was among the first publications to broach the subject of clerical sexual abuse, the same paper remains bewilderingly doctrinaire in its refusal to question the dogma that the preponderance of male victims is entirely unrelated to priestly homosexuality. Though progressives lampoon the orthodox as cowards who shut their eyes and cover their ears while shouting the party line, in this arena there is little doubt as to who is asking the disconcerting questions and who wants to change the subject. The Kansas City Star series cites an example that is as telling as it is typical; the subject is pre-seminary HIV testing.

One religious order that doesn't require the test is the Society of the Precious Blood. The Rev. Mark Miller, provincial director of the Kansas City province, said the testing raises issues that he does not wish to address. "When you ask a question, you need to know why you are asking it," Miller said. "The answers that would come up put it in a category where we don't want to go."

Still, liberals characteristically refuse to acknowledge their own role in creating the gay priest problem, and often attempt to transfer the blame to others. Thus Roberts complains that "almost no one in the hierarchical ranks" wants to tackle the crisis--a complaint that is at least partly disingenuous. Much of the hierarchy's reluctance to address the issue stems precisely from the beating it knows it would take at the hands of liberals should it treat gayness as a negative factor. Since liberals dominate the opinion-forming institutions in the Church--the media, the bureaucracy, education at all levels--and since they are able to call on powerful allies in the secular world to help discredit their adversaries, only the boldest of bishops would risk a truly candid discussion of the problem in public.

HOMOSEXUALITY IS NOT TREATED AS A PROBLEM

For all that, the number of priests dead of AIDS has forced everyone, even gay clergy themselves, to admit that something is not right. Here too, however, the nature of the crisis as well as its solution has been brought to the public attention by the secular media and presented solely in its secular aspects. What is disappointing, if not surprising, is the extent to which bishops and religious superiors have adopted the secular mindset and washed their hands of their moral responsibilities, in effect allowing the poachers to appoint themselves gamekeepers. A parade example is the case of Father Michael Peterson, founder of the Saint Luke Institute, which specializes in therapy for priests with sexual disorders. Peterson himself died of AIDS in 1987--a circumstance which not only failed to destroy the credibility of his motives or to delegitimize his therapeutic techniques, but which earned him almost unanimous port-mortem accolades even from bishops. Examples can be multiplied from the Kansas City Star articles:

In 1986, [Father Dennis] Rausch moved to South Florida and eventually became Catholic chaplain at Florida International University in North Miami. It was there that he began counseling and ministering to people with HIV and AIDS. In February 1989, Rausch decided he should get an HIV test himself. He waited nearly three weeks for the devastating results. "The first year was really difficult," said Rausch, 47. "I went through anger at myself for being so stupid. You wonder, 'Am I going to get sick and die? How long am I going to be around? What if the bishop finds out? Is he going to ship me off?'"

Father Rausch's worries were unfounded. In January of 2000 he was doing neither penance not jail time but running an AIDS ministry program for the Archdiocese of Miami. No one familiar with the conduct of Catholic gay/lesbian ministry in the United States will contest the claim that many, perhaps most, of the ministers are sexually active gays. It is a slight exaggeration, if it is an exaggeration at all, to contend that the only disqualifying factor for gay/lesbian or AIDS ministry is moral disapproval of the gay lifestyle. The situation is not much different in the field of vocation direction and of priestly formation.

The Rev. Thomas Crangle, a Franciscan priest in the Capuchin order in Passaic, NJ, knows what a positive AIDS test can do to a seminarian. When he was vocation director for his province, Crangle said, a man applied for his order, which didn't require testing, and another order that had mandatory testing. "He came out positive," Crangle said. "He came to me and he said, 'That just blows all my dreams.' I said, 'It doesn't blow your dreams. You had a vocation before this, and this does not make you who you are.’"

In assessing the likelihood of remedying the crisis, the importance of the poacher-turned-gamekeeper phenomenon cannot be stressed enough. Not only does it ensure that the current wisdom regarding seminary recruitment will be maintained for the foreseeable future, but that the problem deemed to be in need of fixing will be the problem of traditional Catholic morality and asceticism. The official and expert responses to priests who die of AIDS are remarkable for what they omit and for what they include. Mention is seldom, if ever, made of the moral failing on the part of the priest. Sodomy is a mortal sin, and this sin is compounded on the part of the priest because it involves a further violation of his promises of chastity, in addition to the hypocrisy implicit in his acting against his role of moral teacher and helper of souls. Silence on this subject on the part of bishops and religious superiors is baffling to lay Catholics, who naturally wonder whether there is double standard in operation that censures laypeople but excuses clergy, that censures heterosexual but excuses homosexual vice.

Even rarer than discussion of the moral delinquency of the priest with AIDS is candid acknowledgment of the part played by sexual perversion in contracting the disease, the psychological disorder of the man locked into a compulsive homosexual libido which is marked by an adolescent selfishness and hunger for gratification and an adolescent irresponsibility and lack of control. Men entrusted with institutional authority who are enfeebled by deviant compulsive sexuality cannot help but damage the institution, not only by sexual mischief, but in ways unrelated to sex in which their immaturity, hostility, and irresponsibility lead them to sacrifice the common good to their own agenda. Yet the gamekeepers and their partisans keep alive the pretense that a priest can make the "mistakes" that lead to his death by AIDS while still serving the Church with moral and doctrinal and pastoral integrity, as if the inclination to sodomy were an isolable affliction like measles or a weakness for chocolate.

A case in point concerns Father Thom Savage, S.J., who last year became the first president of an American university, religious or secular, to die of AIDS. Most of the faithful who learned of it winced at the shame that it should be a Catholic, and still more a priest, that earned this distinction. One might have expected official responses similar to those offered when a priest is found dead in a brothel: a low-key statement of regret for the scandal caused, a brief reaffirmation of the priestly duty of chastity, a reminder to pray that God deal mercifully with the departed. Father Edward Kinerk, SJ, is a former superior of the Missouri Province of the Society of Jesus and Savage's successor as president of Rockhurst College. This is how he chose to speak to the issue:

As a Jesuit, I cannot feel anything but pride and gratitude for a meteor that burned itself out in the service of others. On May 10, 1999, God took the gift back. Thom is with God. As Jesuits, we rejoice. He has done what God sent him to do.

Many Catholics simply shook their heads in disbelief after reading this encomium. Embezzlers are not commended for their generous service to the banking industry, yet gay priests who break their vows are routinely praised for their ministry. Why then does the laity so seldom protest? By a curious irony, it is often the more than ordinarily God-fearing people who find themselves reduced to silence on this issue. This is because the spontaneous disgust that sodomy arouses in normal persons simultaneously evokes, in the Christian, compassion for those wretched enough to be afflicted with such disordered appetites. We shudder to learn of the existence of men with a morbid attraction to vomit or to corpses, yet our natural horror is almost always a horror mixed with pity. In the same way, even though most Catholics in their heart of hearts reject the stigmatization of their healthy reactions as "homophobia", an uneasy sense of "there but for the grace of God go I" tempers their revulsion and sometimes inhibits them from giving voice to the moral concern they rightly intuit. Gays have not been slow to exploit this reticence to their own political advantage, and indeed have done so with outstanding success.

MUST CELIBACY BE TAUGHT?

If it is not already obvious from what has preceded, it should be stated flatly that the word "homophobia" will not be found in the mouth of an honest man. It represents an intellectual fraud perpetrated for devious political motives that will not withstand open examination. A parallel bit of semantic sleight-of-hand is the notion that "sexuality" or "celibate sexuality" needs to be taught to adult men. One of Judy Thomas's Kansas City Star headlines neatly encapsulates the party line of the gamekeepers: "Seminary taught spirituality, liturgy, and Latin--sexuality was taboo." Thomas reports that most priests polled by the Star "said the church failed to offer an early and effective sexual education that might have prevented [HIV] infection in the first place." Though uncritical in its presentation, her series accurately picks-up this drumbeat and relays it in quote after quote.

"Sexuality still needs to be talked about and dealt with," said the Rev. Dennis Rausch.

"The Jesuits have made a much more concerted effort to educate our men on sexuality and celibacy and what that means," Father Edward Kinerk said.

"When young men go into seminary, they don't even know what celibacy is," said Father Harry Morrison, a California priest who has AIDS. "A lot of this technical language, these Latin phrases, all you know is there's something to be afraid of. You don't even know exactly what it means."

"How to be celibate and to be gay at the same time, and how to be celibate and heterosexual at the same time, that's what we were never really taught how to do." (Bishop Thomas Gumbleton)

Without exception, the reaction of every sane heterosexual priest of my acquaintance to this proposal is, "Say what?" It is difficult to imagine a psychologically healthy 15-year-old boy, much less a seminarian, who would not have a wholly adequate and complete idea of "what celibacy is." If a groom expressed hesitations to his bride as to "sexuality and fidelity and what that means," she would have excellent reason to doubt his sanity or good will or both--clearly a happy marriage is not in the cards. By the same token, every decent man knows when he walks through the seminary door that it's wrong to tumble the receptionist and shower with the altar boys and stash porn in his dresser, and those who pretend to be teachers in this arena are themselves deeply confused or profoundly duplicitous. I do not dispute that there exist 25-year-olds who do not know what celibacy means, but such men are radically unfit to become deacons, priests, and bishops, and all the lectures in the world will not make them otherwise.

There is a sense of course in which a normal, well-intentioned seminarian can and should learn from the ascetical tradition of the Church and from non-politicized psychology how to avoid dangers to chastity and how to strengthen his self-mastery so as to stay chaste. Exhortations to modesty in speech and dress and to custody of the eyes are examples of the former; instruction on the dangers of projection and transference in counseling situations are examples of the latter. But everyone familiar with the current reality knows that the "workshops on sexuality" offered to priests and seminarians do not concern themselves with techniques helpful to self-mastery. Rather they take the form of group sharing sessions in which the participants are invited to make peace with their own "sexuality" and urged, much more forcefully, to tolerate those with non-standard appetites. A case in point: the US Jesuits recently approved guidelines for admitting novices that include this characteristic of the ideal candidate: "He has the ability to identify and accept his own sexual orientation and to live comfortably with people of different sexual orientations." Note that in the discussion of sexual orientation the qualifiers "normal" and "deviant" play no part in the equation. In this context they never do.

The gay priest problem will continue to worsen as long as this code-talk remains the dominant idiom. As long as seminarians are "educated in sexuality" by the Michael Petersons and are warned by their superiors that they must "live comfortably with people of different sexual orientations," we can be sure that the number of gays will steadily increase in the clergy and the language of moral integrity will be pushed out of the discussion. Quite simply, those entrusted to fix what is broken are broken themselves and are camouflaging their real motives in the fuzzy vocabulary of therapy and pastoral sensitivity. As with every institutional crisis, this one ultimately boils down to the question of accountability. Who recruits the newcomers? Who forms their habits and attitudes? More importantly, who appoints the recruiters and educators? Who will name the problems for what they are and take responsibility for putting them right? The issue of accountability forces us to confront a yet more intimidating crisis, one which is easily misunderstood and which I take up with reluctance, but which must be faced squarely as an unpleasant truth.

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