Burning Issues:

Gay Catholics Try to Face Down the Church's Demons

"But what are we going to do?" pleaded a woman inside St. Patrick's Cathedral recently. It was Holy Week; she was visiting town and discussing what American Catholics are calling The Crisis. "We shouldn't be discussing this in here," another woman answered, which only annoyed her friend: "If not here, where, for Christ's sake?" The first woman then raised her voice, repeated her question, and turned to me, as if waiting for an answer.

Usually, the last place in New York I'll pray is in St. Patrick's: It symbolizes the arrogance and callousness I feel from leaders of my religion, feelings that Catholics of all kinds now uncomfortably share. When I enter St. Pat's I remember the first time I heard a sermon denouncing "the evils of homosexuality," squirming once I realized that I was the devil being deplored. But that Holy Week morning, these women and I were, like millions of American Catholics, staggering from weeks of revelations about priests, sexual abuse, and the unperturbed efficiency with which bishops and cardinals concealed these crimes. "What can we do, anyway?" one of the women asked.

"We don't run the church." Her comment brought forth a shared glance as our shame and sorrow evaporated. Our initial, panicked Catholic reaction morphed into a new, angry determination to seize control of our church from its abusive leaders.

illustration: Marc Burckhardt

We might have been the only Catholics sharing that flash of newborn activism in the cathedral that day, but that scene has since repeated itself many times in churches and homes across the country. It's impossible to place your faith in the hands of churchmen who have abused the bodies and souls of Catholic sons and daughters, precipitating the biggest denominational crisis since the Reformation. Suddenly, American Catholics are no longer content to be obedient altar boys and girls. Catholic laity are rediscovering their religion through what used to be the ultimate sin—disobedience—and they are meeting, praying, speaking out, and organizing. The very act of gathering to question the church's actions is considered near apostasy by leaders and hard-line laity.

In many parishes, according to recent news accounts, collection plates are no longer heavy with Sunday donations. Major donors, avidly courted by diocesan fundraisers, are refusing to participate in money drives; some are even asking for already donated monies back. At least one parish (in Lowell, Massachusetts) has flatly refused to raise money for the Boston archdiocese and its leader, Cardinal Bernard Law. An ex-seminarian, noting last month's infamous Vatican press conference at which only two of 12 American cardinals summoned to Rome bothered to show up, remarked, "They should take the whole magisterium [the Catholic leadership] and throw them over the side."

Unwittingly front and center in this crisis stand Catholic gay men and women. Why are so many of these sexual abuse cases gay? cardinals and bishops publicly query, following disingenuousness with menacing vows to "end the domination of the clergy by homosexuals." The question gays in the church have been asking one another is not "What should we do?" but "Who's going to tell them the truth?"

Here it is: The vast majority of Catholic clergy are, and have always been, gay. Priestly same-sex abuse has reached such appalling numbers because it was never properly halted and because many Catholic leaders (as their press statements have made disgracefully evident) have never learned to distinguish between "homosexuality" (partnering consensually with someone of your own sex) and "sexual abuse" (touching or forcing yourself sexually upon an unwilling partner of any age). What's more, the Magisterium has always understood that gay people keep the religious orders alive, because (just by the law of averages) many bishops and cardinals must themselves be gay.

The gay priest in pursuit and maintenance of power finds himself in an almost Orwellian dilemma: He covers up or denies evidence of the homosexuality he knows in his own body and soul for the sake of protecting the power of the Catholic Church. But the church, by orchestrating a cover-up, has helped provoke the prejudice that he attempts to avoid. Same-sex abuse cases might, if made public, unmask the staggering hypocrisy of the church's stand on homosexuality—or indeed, almost any kind of sexuality. The sheer dizzying insanity of this venerable maneuver is only now becoming apparent.

Cautious estimates by the church place gay clergy at 30 to 50 percent of the total. "What?! How about 70 percent? 80 percent?" a gay defrocked priest once shouted in response to hearing that statistic. Some of us have to choke back a "now you know how it feels" to straight Catholics devastated by the cover-up's demonstration of the depth of our church's ignorance and arrogance: We've endured both for nearly a thousand years. But for the past quarter-century, gay Catholics have actively struggled against a religious organization that bases its knowledge of and action toward us on scriptural misreadings and superstitious bigotries literally medieval in origin. It was in the 12th century that the Catholic Church, struggling to consolidate its power, turned on its gay brethren, instituting beliefs that are still promulgated today. Curiously, homophobia became part of church canon law around the same period (1139) as did celibacy. (The possibility that celibacy was insisted on not as a demonstration of devotion but as a means of dominating, even punishing, an already gay clergy needs to be investigated.)

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