With the boy-abused-by-priest story now a staple of the morning paper, the sexual secrets of the Roman Catholic church keep tumbling out. For the first time in its history,
The Church is being forced to acknowledge the lavender circle in its midst. Just weeks ago, the Vatican's official spokesperson, Joaquin Navarro-Valls, pronounced gays to have pedophilic impulses and issued this electrifying -- and in the end self-defeating -- instruction: "People with homosexual orientations just cannot be ordained."
How will this latest blast of papal bigotry play on the ground locally? At St. Augustine's Seminary in Scarborough, they're asking the gay question carefully, as they have been doing since the Mount Cashel scandal. While his chances aren't ruled out entirely, an openly gay candidate sets off more bells than a Sunday-morning mass. Father Tom Lynch, the dean of men, admits he grills gay applicants harder than non-gays. "If you're homosexually oriented and try to live with another 100 young men, sooner or later you're going to be attracted to some of them,'says Lynch. "The odds are pretty high. You put me in a home with 100 young women and I'm going to be attracted to some, and that sets up special problems."
Elsewhere among priests and the lay people who still go to church, there's not much uptake on the Vatican's newest anti-gay line, especially among gay priests in positions of authority. Some of the men who end up in Lynch's classes are referred by a gay priest who runs the screening program for a religious order. He's someone I've known for a few years, and I've been thinking of him since the suggestion arose after that cardinals' meeting in Rome that he, like other gay men in religious orders, is part and parcel of the sex abuse problem. On a rainy afternoon, in the front sitting room of his religious order's house, the gay priest tells me, "God knows those he's calling," with a mixture of piety and sadness. "He knows everything about them. God created me in my mother's womb, and he called me."
Whether the would-be novitiates who show up at his door are gay or straight, he says, he wants to know the same thing -- how much living have they done? "I want to know they have the capacity to engage in intimate relationships. If they've fallen in love that's a good thing. If they haven't they don't know what it's like to give their heart to someone. If they're homosexual I don't think they should be engaged in sexual activity, but they should find out everything that's happening out there. I don't want them to find out five years down the road."
If clerics in authority are astute about what the gay job ghetto of the priesthood is all about, so are rank-and-file Catholics. From groups like Challenge the Church (which is taking its protest on gay issues to the pope's visit) to churchgoers, no one is buying the line from Rome. Even in the northeast U.S., the eye of the storm over child sex abuse, the outrage has been directed at the hierarchy's secretive dealing with the issue, not at gay priests. "In the parishes, people want their priests to be good priests who will come and anoint their grandmothers when they're ill," says Father Richard Lewandowski, the priest in a parish near Boston.
"I don't know if average people in the pew are as concerned about a priest's orientation as they are about the priest as someone who is loving to them," says Lewandowski, who recently attended a conference in Kentucky on gay issues in the Church.
Few dispute that there are a disproportionate number of gay men in the priesthood. The mid-60s encyclical declaring married love equal to celibate vocation drove heterosexual priests out in large numbers.
There are other reasons why the priesthood has become a gay enclave. According to Father Rob Repicky, a staffer at the Toronto Catholic school board, religious life can sometimes exert a special pull for someone who's gay. "There's a thing where people struggle with their sexuality, feeling a little bit different, not quite fitting in. I wonder how much that causes someone to become spiritualized and consider a vocation in the Church."
If the official Church ever does find a way to love its gay priests, it will probably happen at the same time as it ditches celibacy as a requirement for ordination. That, many observers say, must come soon if the Church is to survive. There are priests in some parts of the world who haven't bothered to wait for the official word.
"Celibacy is just a Church discipline -- it can be changed by a pope overnight," says Ted Schmidt, editor of Catholic New Times.
Says Repicky, "One of the big challenges (for a priest) is to live your life as a sexually alive adult within the commitment (of celibacy) that you've made for yourself. If you don't, you just shrivel up inside. My sexuality is how I engage with folks, understanding who people really are and wanting to connect with them."
The celibacy requirement may be the biggest obstacle to attracting people to the priesthood, says Doug Letson, a professor at St. Jerome's, a Catholic college at the University of Waterloo. "There is a place for celibacy, and there are priests who do work they couldn't do if they were married. But forced celibacy is something else."
The Church will have even fewer priests if the gay ones start leaving, too, as they are starting to do, says Father Paul Morrissey, a priest in New Rochelle, New York. "Some young gay priests can't stand to be part of a system that scapegoats them," Morrissey says. "They're saying, "I'm outta here.' If I were 40, I might feel the same way."
Sadly, the aging pope who'll come to Toronto in a few weeks is a powerful symbol of the Church so many people are giving up on. Like the Church he leads, John Paul II is hobbled and hard to understand. Says Schmidt, "He's the last gasp of an imperial papacy."