08Aug Gay priests are “caught in a trap of dishonesty”

Would it shock you to know that the leading force behind the term “gender ideology”, and the campaign against it, was a gay cardinal? Or that a gay priest wrote the official 2005 explanation as to why gay men could not be priests?
I learned of the (now dead) Latin American cardinal’s reputation for violence towards the rent boys he frequented from a social worker in his home town, and later discovered that this and other outrages were open secrets in both his homeland and Rome. Paris-based Mgr Tony Anatrella was a Vatican expert on homosexuality, one of very few authors the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith recommended on the subject, alongside Drs Joseph Nicolosi, Gerard van den Aardweg and Aquilino Polaino, gay-cure proponents all. Anatrella had long been reported to have engaged in inappropriate touching with seminarians and others who came to him for help in dealing with their so-called “same-sex attraction”. As recently as this June, and after many years of shameful ecclesiastical obfuscation in France and Italy, those reports have been found to be credible, and Anatrella has been suspended from public ministry. If it does shock you that such paragons of homophobia-dressed-as-Christianity might have been “protesting too much”, prepare yourself for a rough ride over the next few years.
I start with the as yet unnamed Latin American prelate and Anatrella, both from outside the English-speaking world, because the accounts of (now former) Cardinal Theodore McCarrick’s wrongdoings, added to those of the late Cardinal Keith O’Brien, might have fooled you into thinking that this is an anglophone thing. It isn’t. Similar tales abound across the four language groups with which I am directly familiar. And now that the dominoes are starting to fall, both the name and the deeds of the Latin American will surely come into the record soon.
The McCarrick shock was not what he was a getting up to with seminarians and other adults. This was widely known about. It was that in addition to a standardly furtive, albeit egregiously creepy, clerical gay life, this generally kind and well-liked man had also abused at least two minors. Such does not seem to have been the case with O’Brien, Anatrella or the Latin American. And in general, despite what those who try to conflate “gay” with “paedophile” would have you believe, a knowing clerical gay milieu is shocked and baffled when minors are involved.
In all these cases, in as far as the behaviour was adult-related, plenty of people in authority sort-of-knew what was going on, and had known throughout the clerics’ respective careers. However, the informal rule in the Catholic Church – the last remaining outpost of enforced homosociality in the Western world – is strictly “don’t ask, don’t tell”. Typically, blind eyes are turned to the active sex lives of those clerics who have them, only two things being beyond the pale: whistle-blowing on the sex lives of others, or public suggestions that the Church’s teaching in this area is wrong. These lead to marginalisation.
Given all this, it seems to me entirely reasonable that people should now be asking: “How deep does this go?” If such careers were the result of blind eyes being turned, legal settlements made, and these clerics themselves were in positions of influence and authority, how much more are we going to learn about those who promoted and protected them? Or about those whom they promoted?
So it is that voices such as Rod Dreher – keenly followed blogger at The American Conservative – are resuscitating talk of the “Lavender Mafia”, and the demand, which became popular in conservative circles from 2002 onwards, that the priesthood be purged of gay men. Investigative journalists are being encouraged to lay bare the informal gay networks of friendship, patronage, and potential for blackmail that structure clerical life (or are being excoriated for their politically correct cowardice in failing to do so).
The aim is to weed out the gays, especially the treasonous bishops who have perpetuated the system. Ross Douthat – the New York Times columnist – has called for a papally mandated investigation into the American Church (I guess along the lines of Archbishop Charles Scicluna’s in Chile) to restore the moral authority of the Church.
Others, such as Robert Mickens, The Tablet’s Rome correspondent for many years, are equally aware of the “elephant in the sacristy”, which is the massively disproportionate number of gay men in the clergy, but highlight the refusal of the Roman authorities to engage in any kind of publicly accountable, adult discussion about this fact. This reinforces collective dishonesty and perpetuates the psychosexual immaturity of all gay clergy, whether celibate, partnered or practitioners of so-called “serial celibacy”.
How to approach this issue in a healthy way? As a gay priest myself I am obviously more in agreement with Mickens than with Dreher or Douthat. However, I would like to record my complete sympathy with the passion of the latter two as well as with their rage at a collective clerical dishonesty that renders farcical the claim to be teachers of anything at all, let alone divine truth. Jesus becomes credible through witnesses, not corrupt party-line pontificators. Having said that, I suspect that particular interventions, whether by civil authority or papal mandate, are always going to run aground on the fact that they can only deal with, and bring to light, specific bad acts, usually ones that are criminal.
I cannot imagine a one-off legal intervention in this sphere that would be able to make appropriate distinctions where there are so many fine lines: between innocent friendship, sexually charged admiration, abusive sexual suggestion, emotional blackmail, financial blackmail, recognition of genuine talent, genuine love lived platonically, genuine love lived with sexual intimacy, sexual favours granted with genuine freedom, sexual favours granted out of fear or in exchange for promotion, covering peccadillos for a friend, covering graver matters for a rival in exchange for some benefit, not wanting to know too much about other people’s lives, or obsessively wanting to know too much about them. Let alone the usual rancours of break-ups, career disappointments, petty jealousies, bitterness, revenge and so on. All of these tend to shade into or out of each other over time, making effective outside assessment, even if it were desirable, impossible.
I don’t think there is a healthy way to address this without opening up understanding of some of the dimensions of the systemic structural trap that is the clerical closet. In a second article I will set out what I hope is a merciful picture of how this trap has arisen, and how it can be, and indeed is beginning to be, undone. This with a view to diminishing our scandal and helping all of us adjust to a new ecclesial reality. However, let me here describe some elements of the structure that will become more and more visible as time goes by. These will not offer a pretty picture. Our Lord told us that what was whispered in private would be shouted from the rooftops. So it is: what seemed randomly anecdotal is becoming sociologically evident.
For shorthand I use the word “gay” here to refer to an adult male’s stable same-sex orientation, irrespective of how that is accepted or lived out. Also please notice that, for the purpose of these two articles, the issue of a gay cleric’s personal relationship status – single, partnered, widower, serially available – while important for each one personally, is functionally irrelevant for understanding the systemic nature of the clerical closet. A stably partnered and emotionally balanced priest can no more be publicly honest than a deeply tortured one with many partners. And it is very rare that a genuinely celibate gay cleric is allowed to bear witness to their gift in the first person. Not least because if they are genuine livers-out of celibacy as a gift, they are likely to have discovered that it is as a self-accepting gay man that they are so. This public self-acceptance puts them further into opposition with official teaching than any sexual indiscretion, which can of course be forgiven.
An anecdotal illustration: a few years ago, I found myself leading a retreat for Italian gay priests in Rome. Of the nearly 50 participants some were single, some partnered, for others it was the first time they could to talk honestly with other priests outside the confessional. Among them there were seven or eight mid-level Vatican officials. I asked one from the Congregation for the Clergy what he made of those attending with their partners. He smiled and said, “Of course, we know that the partnered ones are the healthy ones.” Let that sink in. In the clerical closet, dishonesty is functional, honesty is dysfunctional, and the absence or presence of circumspect sexual practice between adult males is irrelevant.
And so to some systemic dimensions of “the elephant in the sacristy”. The first is its size. A far, far greater proportion of the clergy, particularly the senior clergy, is gay than anyone has been allowed to understand, even the bishops and cardinals themselves. Harvard Professor Mark Jordan’s phrase “a honeycomb of closets”, in which each enclosed participant has very little access to the overall picture, is exactly right. But the proportion is going to become more and more self-evident thanks to social media and the generalised expectations of gay honesty and visibility in the civil sphere. This despite many years of bishops resisting accurate sociological clergy surveys.
During the last papal election in 2013 we did have hints that the Vatican and the cardinal electors were shocked at discovering from reports commissioned by Benedict how many of them were gay. Part of their shock has to have been their fear at how the faithful would be scandalised if they had any idea. They were right to be afraid, and the faithful are going to have an idea as the implosion of the closet accelerates. How scandalised – or accepting – the faithful will be is going to depend on how well we learn to talk about all this.
A second dimension is grasped when you understand the general rule that the heterosexuality of a cleric is inversely proportional to the stridency of his homophobia. This is one of the reasons why I am sceptical of all attempts to “weed out the gays”. The principal clerical crusaders in this area turn out to be gay themselves – in some cases, so deeply in denial that they don’t know it. And in some cases knowingly so. My own experience, which has since been confirmed by hundreds of echoes worldwide, is that there are proportionately few straight men in the clergy (leaving aside rural dioceses in some countries, where heterosexual concubinage is the customary norm) and they do not, as a rule, persecute gay men. It is closeted men who are the worst persecutors. Some are very sadly disturbed souls who cannot but try to clean outwardly what they cannot admit to being inwardly. These can’t be helped since Church teaching reinforces their hell. For others the lure of upward mobility leads them to strategic displays of enthusiasm for the enforcement of the house rules.
A third dimension is that banning gay men from the seminary never works. In practice, the ban means that those “tempted” by honesty will be weeded out, or will weed themselves out, uncomfortable with the inducements to a double life. Those unconcerned by honesty, and happy to swim in the wake of the double lives of those doing the weeding, will learn how to look the part.
The only seminaries that might avoid this are those that differentiate on the basis not of sexual orientation, but of honesty, which is a primary requisite for any form of psycho-sexual maturity. There are some that do, presumably with the permission of wise bishops, but in quiet contravention of the official line. These of course are instantly vulnerable to accusations of being “liberal”, of “promoting homosexuality” or whatever, when in practical terms the reverse is true. For honesty is effectively forbidden by a Church teaching that tells you that you are an intrinsically heterosexual person who is inexplicably suffering from a grave objective disorder called “same-sex attraction”. And so we get seminaries in which there are no gay seminarians, but whose rectors nevertheless push programmes like those of “Courage” on their oh-so-non-gay-but-transitorily-same-sex-attracted charges.
A fourth dimension: no attempt to view this issue through culture war lenses will be helpful. The clerical closet is not the result of some 1960s liberal conspiracy. It is a systemic structure in which, absent scandal, all its members are functional. In the previous round of the blame-the-gays game, from 2002 on, much was made of the supposed culpability of liberal Vatican II bishops such as Rembert Weakland. The idea was that the new breed of John Paul II hardliners would sort it out. Men such as John Nienstedt and John Myers. Oh wait … really? Then again, does anyone seriously think the four cardinals of the “dubia” – two of whom have since died – to be proportionately more heterosexual than the rest of the hierarchy?
This is not a matter of left or right, traditional or progressive, good or bad, chaste or practising; nor even a matter of 25 years of Karol Wojtyla’s notoriously poor judgement of character, though all these feed into it. It is a systemic structural trap, and if we are to get out of it, it must be described in such a way as to recognise that unknowing innocence as much as knowing guilt, well-meaning error as well as malice, has been, and is, involved in both its constitution and its maintenance. To that I will turn next week (in The Tablet of 11 August 2018).
James Alison is a priest, theologian, lecturer, retreat giver and itinerant preacher. When not on the road, he lives in Madrid, Spain.

21 Responses

  1. Barry McGonigle

    Ok. Thank you James for this insight. As a married catholic layman this is troubling.
    It is not that many priests are gay or bishops or even cardinals. No, it is the (enforced?) dishonesty. The trouble is that hypocritical catholic dogma seems to provide a mileau which selectively encourages same sex relations within the clergy. These are the men after aĺl to whom many lay people still turn for guidance and from whom some still seek confessions. The rule that matters still seems to be ‘no bump, no bundle’. Whatever you do let it have no visible consequences!

    How is a church leadership selected from this cohort ever going to be able to articulate a viable theology of love, sexuality and marriage?

  2. Paddy Ferry

    “…..nor even a matter of 25 years of Karol Wojtyla’s notoriously poor judgement of character ……”

    The honesty of Fr. Alison’s article and his deep understanding of the issue is truly remarkable. I would just like to highlight one phrase that jumped out at me –the one I have repeated above. Now, I am no great expert on church history but even I could see what a disaster Wojtyla’s appointees to lead dioceses, all over the world, during his pontificate was. Have I heard anybody else, apart from Fr. Alison, state that obvious fact? Now, of course, Wojtyla is a saint, St.Pope John Paul II.

  3. William Herlihy

    I agree completely with Paddy @2.
    The  paralysis of leadership, that set into the Church with the implementation of that infamous template of Pope John Paul II, for the selection of Bishops, still persists to this day.
    Last October, we had a problem in our parish that required the intervention of the Bishop.
    Practically, twelve months later the problem still persists, simply because the Bishop is sitting on it.

  4. Edward Butler

    As one of a rapidly dwindling and proportionately few straight members of the clergy, I would like to sincerely thank James Alison for his personal honesty in assessing the prevalence and influence, in the Catholic Church, of cardinals, bishops, priests and seminarians (even the odd pope or two) who are gay. Recently, a brother priest whose job it is to keep on top of these things opined that, in England and Wales alone, at least 70% of Catholic priests are gay.
    As a priest who, for 45 years, has campaigned both for the abolition of mandatory celibacy and for the ordination of married men, I have been only too painfully aware of how a widespread desire, on the part of so many of my brother priests and bishops, to remain comfortably in the closet, has actually conditioned their attitude to, and patent lack of support for, any campaign which (like allowing priests to marry) might challenge and expose them.

  5. Maureen Mulvaney

    Thank you James. Now, I know why the door is firmly shut to women.

  6. Paddy Ferry

    Edward@ 4, the percentage your brother priest suggested is very much in line with the results of the research on the priesthood in Europe and America carried out by Fr. Donald Cozzens, the American priest and writer and author of “The Changing Face of the Priesthood”, surely the modern classic on the priesthood. I had assumed he was “the” expert on this subject until I read Fr. Alison’s excellent articles. Part II is in this weekends’s TABLET.

    PS. Are you from Leitir, Eddie? I am from Keadue.

  7. Mary Burke

    If sounds safe to assume that the percentage of bishops who are gay is proportionately the same as the number of priests who are. Of the 26 Irish bishops, this would suggest that 18 are gay. A sobering thought.

  8. Frances Burke

    Thank you James for your honesty. I look forward to reading part 2.

    I always suspected that the Church was a refuge for gay men but I never suspected that three out of four are gay. On the plus side, who better to administer at same sex marriages? Oops. I forgot. The Church doesn’t allow that 🙄🙄

  9. Pól Ó Duibhir

    Is there any mechanism in Heaven or on Earth for the recall of saints?

  10. Eddie Finnegan

    Mary Burke@7 and Frances Burke@8, I’m just surprised neither of you mention your somewhat flamboyant uncle Raymond. I’ve always had my ‘dubia’ about him but I suppose it takes all sorts to add to the gaiety of a hierarchy.

  11. Kevin Walters

    Many years ago, as a fly on the wall, I was aware of a conversation that went like this “he has always had these leanings/inclinations/desires, now he wants to become a priest, it is for his own good, he can be with others like himself”.

    Some years after wards I heard that he had become one. It is not unrealistic to say that this situation has been duplicated many times within “Catholic” families over a long period of time. As now we are seeing flourishing manifestations of spiritual corruption and the fruit of that corruption is satanic influences/practices/agendas now at play within the church, especially known by those who encounter them.

    Sadly many have been devoured, principally because there appears to be no one to turn to within the Priesthood, who can be trusted, as all are compromised by the self-serving structures within Clericalism, permitting evil to reign. Many sheep have been devoured while many unseen others suffer, often grievously while trusting in God, sadly they remain Shepherd less.

    So, how do you separate the wheat from the chaff?

    You cannot as the wheat and the weeds must grow together until harvest time.

  12. Edward Butler

    Paddy 6

    Paddy I retired (ten years ago) from full time ministry in the Birmingham UK Diocese and I live in Derrydruel Upper, Lettermacaward. I now regularly supply Sunday Mass up and down Raphoe. I tend to introduce myself to the people as “the West Donegal Super Sub”. I’ve read Donald Cozzens’s stuff but from my own personal observations I have never doubted the statistics.

  13. Rod Large

    a very interesting piece and discussion. However, I believe it misses the big picture completely. Trying to rescue the Church from becoming a cultural fifth wheel, much like astrology is today, by introducing female and married clergy, by de-stigmatising homosexuality etc, is an illusion. It is merely kicking the can down the road.( analogous to Gorbachev trying to rescue Socialism). The cold reality is that that bronze age beliefs such as the church’s core teaching, are no longer are credible in the information / science age. There is / are no God (s), they don’t have sons, their mothers are not goddesses and so forth. Any 10 year old can go on the internet now and discover these truths. I am reminded of both an ancient paradox; Zeno of Elea asked ‘ Can the God make a stone that is so heavy even He cannot lift it?’ and a modern observation by comedian Dave Allen ….’ If the Universe is 13.8 million years old, the Earth 4.5 billion years….what was God doing all that time BEFORE he decided to intervene in Earthly matters?’…… a good point.

    The Church needs to rid itself of the supernatural and trust in the goodness and beauty of humanity in its own right and all its manifestations. Become a refuge for the poor a haven for justice, a light for climate justice and so forth. Then it won’t matter if your priest is gay, straight or a tree lover.

  14. Phil Greene

    “Let that sink in. In the clerical closet, dishonesty is functional, honesty is dysfunctional, and the absence or presence of circumspect sexual practice between adult males is irrelevant”.

    This article plus Edward Butler’s comment is such a Eureka moment.. it all makes such sense now!! Can’t wait to hear James’ possible solutions but sad that the status quo will remain anyway..
    “Dishonesty is functional” .. wow .. and not only in the gay closet when it comes to relationships.. it’s covers all types of relationships , in both lay and clerical cultures.. but at least there is some form of recompense and resolution in the secular world .. in the clerical world it is the silence,lack of any recourse and, well, the acceptance of inflicting hurt on others, that really show us that it is all about protecting the institution.. appearances only seem to matter.. all symbolic only..
    Dear God , when can we see some tangible progress, rather than just shifts in clerical thinking for which we are supposed to feel grateful for.. time for us all to grow up!!

  15. Paddy Ferry

    Since you mention Uncle Raymond, Eddie @10, Richard Sipe, the man who itemised for us how Raymond’s outfits, layer after layer, could cost up to $30,000 –he must be the king of the dressing up brigade—, passed away last week. God rest his soul. I share a link to an appreciation from the NCR.

    https://www.ncronline.org/news/accountability/richard-sipe-pioneering-expert-clergy-sexual-abuse-dies-85?utm_source=+AUG_10_NEWS_SIPE+OBIT&utm_campaign=cc_122017&utm_medium=email

  16. Frances Burke

    Rod @ 13

    Will we all be humanists then?

  17. Frances Burke

    Eddie @ 10

    If any uncle of mine came out with this tripe he would have got a good rollicking. I can see why you have your ‘dubia’ about him. He made no effort to conceal his contempt for women.

    https://www.irishtimes.com/news/social-affairs/religion-and-beliefs/catholic-church-has-become-too-feminised-says-cardinal-raymond-burke-1.2066236

  18. Brian Eyre

    35 years ago I publickly announced to my parishoners that I loved a woman and wanted to carry on my life with her. I was honest about my relationship and I did the right thing, I asked for a dispensation from celibacy, which I later received and we got married, we now have two children a married daughter with a baby boy and a single son.As a result of being open and honest I had to give up being a member of the clergy, of being a parish priest, I had to give up celebrating Mass in public and administering the sacraments for I was told that I no longer could do these things as I was now married.
    Every organisation has its rules and I accepted these restrictions that were laid on me but I did not give up my love of serving the people. So ever since getting married I have continued to do pastoral work while at the same time holding down a secular job in teaching.Today I do what I did as a celibate priest except that now I do this pastoral work with my wife Marta, “my companion”(Genesis chapter 2 v. 18).Everyone knows I am a priest and everyone knows that she is my wife and people are not scandalised.
    Canon Law, the official voice of the church, though won’t allow me to act as a priest in a public manner because I have a wife.
    James Allison, in his article on gay priests speaks about “the massively disproportionate number of gay men in the clergy and also talks about “helping us to adjust to this new ecclesial reality”.
    If this is the case and if these statistics that he talks about are true then the Bishops must be aware of this that is if they truly know their priests and must understand as the article says “that what seemed randomly anecdotal is becoming sociologically evident”.
    In my church work I work with pastoral agents, celibate priests and lay men some of whoom maybe gay but they are doing wonderful pastoral work.
    Today there is a great shortage of celibate priests, this reality is becoming worldwide. Countries which once had a surplus of priests like Ireland are now having to cluster parishes and the time may come when the Eucharist will become a museum piece.
    If Bishops accept priests who are gay why can’t they accept me and other married priests? I may be old in years now and may not have the same energy that I had as a young man but my heart and soul are still aflame with the missionary spirit.

    Brian Eyre – Catholic married priest – Recife, Brazil

  19. Mary Vallely

    Yes, Brian @18, your missionary spirit is very much in evidence and no, I do not understand either why priests of integrity like yourself who were true to their Christian values are treated so badly. It is one of the great injustices, to my mind, alongside the treatment of women and the LGBTI community.
    Hypocrisy and clericalism are so deeply engrained in institutional mindsets that they cannot see what is so clear to the rest of us. The writings of the late Richard Sipe, God rest him, Fr Tom Doyle and a few other prophetic courageous voices need to be heeded.
    To all priests of integrity who read this website ( though sadly who don’t comment) please continue to find the courage to speak out against injustices you see in the Church and remind yourselves that so many of us hold you in prayer daily.
    ‘Courage’, as Richard Sipe would say.

  20. Frances Burke

    Brian @ 18. Thank you for sharing your story. The Irish people are in agreement with your call for priests to be allowed marry. At present 67% of Irish people think it should be permitted.

    https://www.thetablet.co.uk/news/9571/majority-in-ireland-support-married-clergy-and-women-priests

    It is such a loss to the Church that people like you (with such honesty and willingness to serve) have been excluded from full ministry, all because you found the very thing that God was always preaching about. Love.

    I always find that very ironic.

  21. Soline Humbert

    To use James Alison’s opening words ‘Would it shock you to know that’……that cardinal with a reputation of violence with the rent boys he frequented was appointed president of the Council for the Family by Pope John Paul II and organised the first World Meetings of Families?

    (The second part of James Alison’s article,Mercy and the Lying Game, is available on his website Jamesalison.co.uk)

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