Rocking the Bishops

The Spirit Moves at the Catholic Conference

A group called Roman Catholic Faithful has a Web site devoted to rooting out gay priests and bishops, hunting them in Internet chat rooms and revealing the results to reporters and church authorities. They claim to have knocked off several. The conservative Weekly Standard's Mary Eberstadt calls the issue of gay priests "the elephant in the sacristy." The Catholic Family Newseven dug up a Latin document from 1961 under good old Pope John XIII that read, "Let those who are afflicted by the perverse inclination towards homosexual vice or pederasty . . . be prohibited from religious vows or ordination."

In Dallas, Cardinal Bevilacqua reiterated his stance that "homosexuals cannot be trusted in the priesthood," even if sexually abstinent. Far-right bishop Fabian Bruskewitz of Lincoln, Nebraska, tried to get support for a study of "the homosexual culture" in the priesthood. But his call was rebuffed by a voice vote. When Bishop Joseph Galante, an expert in canon law, was asked why the church would ordain men with a sexuality it officially deems "disordered," he replied that, though "God's plan is for a man and woman to be attracted," as a priest "I don't get involved in genital activity because I am a man for others. That doesn't differentiate between heterosexual and homosexual."

Dignity, the gay and lesbian Catholic group that is banned from Catholic meeting spaces, agitated in Dallas to keep the bishops from linking homosexuality with child abuse—and they succeeded. It remains to be seen whether the planned apostolic visitations to U.S. seminaries will lead Rome to enact the gay purge most American bishops have resisted. They laughed heartily when someone proposed that an amendment about abuser priests wearing clerical dress "be changed to clerical garb."

Purging gays won't be easy, since they populate everything from the Vatican curia to local parishes. This may be one reason why the bishops didn't bring up the subject of homosexuality up. But they did broach the topic of chastity and celibacy. The two words don't necessarily mean the same thing to priests: Celibacy is a promise not to marry; chastity is a vow to be sexually abstinent. At the conference, the bishops made it clear that both commitments will be taken more seriously. "There will be clear and well-publicized diocesan standards of ministerial behavior," reads the bishop's document.

Most of the gay priests interviewed for this story asked that their names not be used. They don't want to jeopardize their positions or put their religious communities on the spot by speaking out publicly. One older gay priest has been sexually active, "but never with anyone who knew me first as a priest." He doesn't expect a purge of gay men, partly because bishops, if nothing else, are "protective of their priests," an impulse that did not serve them in the abuse crisis. In order to be a bishop, he said, you need a highly developed capacity for denial.

A younger gay priest predicted, "People like me will get fed up and leave. Enough is enough. It is not healthy on many levels to be a part of this family. Given the current leadership, there is no hope." This priest has a partner and is leaving, but he knows gay priests who struggle to fulfill their promise to be celibate and chaste. A Mexican priest he counseled told him that "the greatest gift in his life was being able to talk about being gay—that it meant even more to him than sexual intimacy." But the 23-year papacy of John Paul has been one in which Catholic clergy have not been able to talk about much of anything without running the risk of being silenced.

Unless more priests come out and show solidarity, bishops like Bevilacqua can pick them off one by one. But some gay activists within the church regard this as an opportunity. "This scandal is the best thing that could have happened," said John McNeill, a moral theologian expelled from the Jesuits in 1988 for opposing church teaching against homosexuality. "It's clearly going to do away with the authoritarian church, and for the first time the church is going to be forced to listen to what the Holy Spirit is saying through the people of God. It's a blessing in disguise. Too bad it had to come this way."

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