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.)

For generations thereafter, the gay Catholic could either abandon home and religion or survive via degrading compromises: hiding in marriage (still a popular option); living, unmarried, with parents; or joining a religious order. Millions of us took the vow, seeking redemption from our allegedly lost selves, or at least sanctuary from a secular world in which homophobia was also gaining in virulence, leading our faith while sealing our own dismal fate within it.

Soon after gay liberation's eruption in 1969, gay Catholics rose up in their own way: Large numbers violated this ancient Faustian pact between gays and their religion and eschewed the priesthood. No one running the church has the guts to blame the recent drop in new priests on this obvious fact.

Clergy and laity formed support groups, such as Dignity USA. Then two unprecedented books—John Boswell's Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality and John J. McNeill's The Church and the Homosexual—introduced us to our future by telling the truth about our past. Boswell, a historian, demonstrated that homophobia was far from innate to Christianity but grew out of crises in the Middle Ages. McNeill, a Jesuit priest, offered ideas on how gays could start dismantling the oppression encircling our souls every time we knelt to pray. Boswell and McNeill saved countless gay Catholics from giving up on their faith. (I was one of them.) But ensuing efforts to organize and enlighten only spurred Pope John Paul II to adopt an even more determined intolerance. Meanwhile, gay Catholics' devotion remains so strong we call joining another denomination "defecting."

Gay non-Catholics, exasperated at what they see as our masochistic submission to oppression, ask, "Why do you put up with this religious shit?" My answer usually is that we now know homophobia was never part of Jesus' agenda or part of the foundation of our belief, revelations powerful enough to allow us to continue following the faith of our childhood.

It is becoming easier to hope for a better future for our faith, as the regime that stigmatized and exploited us falls under siege. Gay Catholics are uniquely suited to lead a revivified, democratic Catholicism because so many of us have been priests.

But first, gays (like all other Catholics) must examine how we contributed to the current crisis. I once attended a recovery group for male victims of sexual abuse and was the only Catholic in the room who had not been abused by a priest. As far as I can ascertain, not one gay group has ever organized "speak-outs" on this issue, as feminists did to challenge stereotypes of heterosexual rape. Why were we silent? Possibly because we sensed that, as Dignity/New York's Jeff Stone explains, "raising this issue also revealed there were a large number of gay priests—and until recently if you brought that up you were accused of being anti-Catholic."

Penance matters to everyone, but gay Catholics must make our examinings of conscience constructive, not oppressive. We must refuse to enable the vast homophobic conspiracy our religion made us part of. We should loudly support gay priests still doing their best to share the real Word with their parishioners. In pursuit of fairness and justice Catholics should demand that every cardinal and bishop answer questions on their own sexual orientation—and investigate their responses.

New York, interestingly, lags far behind activist efforts in other Catholic dioceses. The Massachusetts group Voice of the Faithful has adopted the witty slogan "Keep the Faith, Change the Church" and has received nearly 5000 inquiries from concerned Catholics. But facing down the formidable Archdiocese of New York is intimidating. Thankfully, there are usually Davids willing to engage even the nastiest Goliaths, and on April 28 150 New Yorkers stood in the freezing rain during Sunday Mass outside St. Patrick's to protest scapegoating of gays within the Catholic Church and our leaders' inexcusable actions. (The week before, Monsignor Eugene Clark scorched St. Pat's with an attack on gays—not mentioning that he once served as secretary to the most notorious homosexual in the history of American Catholicism, former New York archbishop—and later cardinal—Francis Spellman.)

"It was a turning point for the gay Catholic community," avows Brendan Fay, a longtime Irish Catholic gay activist who brought to the action a photograph of his friend Father Mychal Judge, chaplain of the Fire Department, September 11 martyr, and minister to his fellow gays and many others. "It was more subdued than other gay demonstrations, but it was also deeply passionate and serious." Renewing our faith by standing up to those who've abused that faith (as well as a trust that has always been and must remain sacred) is the truest answer to this crisis. Finding the grace and strength to face down our church's demons is the most important task for Catholics—all Catholics—right now.


Related Story:
"Cardinal Knowledge": American Catholic leaders bumble their way through the scandal as cries for reform grow louder. Tim Townsend reports.

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