Made in God's Image
A Homosexual Priest Speaks out
April 11, 2003
I understand the struggle homosexual people have believing that they are made in God's image, that they are good, that official church teaching can serve as the foundation for a healthy, grace-filled spirituality. I am saddened that it is the authorities of the church I love who have placed the biggest obstacle to acceptance of such goodness, asking that we see ourselves as "disoriented" toward a corrupt end.
I knew that I was called to priesthood before I knew that I was gay. The lure of sacramental mystery that resonated with my young soul, the ready acceptance I found in my home parish community, and the care and attention shown me by priests of all ages and temperaments convinced me at an early age that my life would be spent in service as a priest. The excitement, complexity, and beauty of my sexuality were a later discovery, coming at a time when body, mind, and soul were ready to explore and understand one of God's most profound gifts. Yes, I knew that I was called to priesthood before I knew that I was gay. That is why the recent pronouncements from Rome and elsewhere that homosexuals are not fit for priesthood give me pause and cause me to wonder, "How could that be?"
Though disheartened and angered by the growing number of voices judging me unfit, I am not surprised. It has been my experience that even the most loving people fall prey to intolerance when it comes to the topic of homosexuality. Once when I tried to talk with my mother about my ministry to gay and lesbian students at a local college, her only response was, "I hate those people." And during a time of personal challenge when I "came out" to a pastor I loved like a father, he told me, "Funny, you don't look like one of them."
No, I am not surprised. I think I have been expecting this to happen for some time. Still, hearing the words that pronounce me unsuitable hurt and confuse me. If Rome decides that homosexuals will not be admitted to the priesthood, then I will be an unwelcome member of a brotherhood whose defining character is the attraction to women. How did I get here? How is it that I now find myself feeling like the guest who entered the wedding feast not properly clothed? Why wasn't I stopped at the door before ordination twenty-five years ago?
Throughout my seven years of seminary formation, I struggled with the issue of my same-sex attraction and wondered whether it was possible for me to respond to the call to priesthood, given the church's teaching and understanding of the issue. The call to ministry was clear to me and apparently to many others, including family, friends, priests I had known, and seminary personnel. Still, the question remained: Could I live a happy, meaningful celibate life in service to others, knowing that the church I wanted to serve considered an integral part of my person to be "basically disordered"?
As questions emerged each step of the way there was always a spiritual director to guide me, and, for a two-year period, a priest counselor who challenged me to understand the role my sexuality played in my self-appreciation and how I related to others. In the prayer life of the seminary, in the direction I received from spiritual guides and confessors, and in the supportive community of my brother seminarians, I found the strength and acceptance I needed to continue toward ordination.
It puzzles me that those who now oppose the ordination of homosexuals argue that living in a seminary environment might make it more difficult to live chastely (see Andrew R. Baker, "Ordination and Same-Sex Attraction," America, September 30, 2002). Every article and book I have read encourages those who want to live in accord with the church's teaching on homosexuality to develop a strong life of prayer, to seek a supportive spiritual director, and to be part of a community that shares the church's teaching. Far from being a source of temptation, the seminary ought to be the optimal place where one can find direction and support in living a chaste life. The assumption that an all-male seminary would be an occasion of temptation for gay men is absurd. Does that mean that hearing confessions in a convent would be an occasion of temptation for a heterosexual priest and thus should be avoided? Of course not. Why is it that sexuality is always reduced to sexual urges rather than being understood in the larger context of how one relates as a whole person-body, mind, and spirit?
I also find it disturbing that issues sometimes associated with homosexuals (Baker suggests substance abuse, sexual addiction, and depression) are thought of as intrinsically related to homosexuality, rather than resulting from a poorly formed sexual identity. It would stand to reason: if a homosexual man starts with the assumption that his sexuality is disordered because, as Baker says, it "tends toward a corrupt end" and can "never image God and never contribute to the good of the person or society," he might have to struggle with feelings of maladjustment or depression. Those unhealthy attitudes and potentially self-destructive behaviors stem not from the orientation itself but from the destructive self-image imposed on homosexuals by society and the church. If I were to believe that the God-given gift of my sexuality is disordered, how would I ever establish a trusting, loving relationship with the God who so ordered me? Living a celibate life does not erase one's sexuality. It challenges the celibate to direct all relational energy (heterosexual or homosexual) in loving service to those to whom we minister. That relational energy is more than genital expression; it is the whole self in relation to others. It is a puzzle to me that writers like Baker who voice such strong opinions on this subject reduce sexuality to physical attraction.
The twenty-five years I have spent in priestly ministry have been years of challenge, grace, and a sharing in the mystery of the incarnate God made visible in Jesus, who continues to live in and through his church. The person of the priest is called to mirror the selfless, chaste love of Christ to those he serves. He does so not because he is heterosexual; he does so because he is willing to reaffirm the goodness of people made in God's image and likeness, calling them to live the gospel message in the face of misunderstanding, challenge, and sacrifice. I have come to realize that I am effective in ministry, not despite the fact that I am homosexual, but often because I am homosexual.
I know it is difficult for some to understand that assertion. That may be because writers like George Weigel (The Courage to Be Catholic) divide homosexual people into two types: gays ("a man who makes his homoerotic desires the center of his personality and identity") and those who recognize their homosexual desires to be disordered. Such an analysis reduces the choices a homosexual person makes to either promiscuity or self-abnegation. Neither choice leads to a healthy spirituality based on an appreciation of being made in God's image and likeness. Another option is needed, one that defines the multifaceted dimensions of sexuality and reflects the limitless love God has for his beloved. There is no such thing as generic divine love: God's love is always directed in unique, jealous fashion to each person as beloved. So too is the unique response of the individual to God's grace, which builds on one's nature, be it heterosexual or homosexual. [The Weigel quote is from p. 162 of _Courage to Be Catholic_, a troubling and interesting discussion. -Terry]
Because official church teaching denies such a possibility for homosexuals, I understand the struggle homosexual people have believing that they are made in God's image, that they are good, that official church teaching can serve as the foundation for a healthy, grace-filled spirituality. I am saddened that it is the authorities of the church I love who have placed the biggest obstacle to acceptance of such goodness, asking that we see ourselves as "disoriented" toward a corrupt end. It is one of the heavy burdens, hard to carry, that the church places on many of her sons and daughters. Woe to those who impose such a burden!
It will be a sad day for me if those in authority decide to impose a ban on the ordination of homosexual men, and it will be a sad day for the whole church. Many of us will be lost, for I suspect there will be those who, out of self-respect and a decision not to accept the church's faulty designation, will choose to walk quietly out of the ministry to which God has called them, the ministry that they love. I suspect those in high places will hardly notice or will breathe a sigh of relief. Those who have trusted and treasured their ministry, however, will notice and be saddened that their own spiritual welfare is being compromised once again by those who have the authority from Christ to make decisions, but lack his mind and heart to make them wisely.
Commonweal rarely publishes anonymous articles. In this case, however, given the potential consequences for the author should his identity become known, we have decided that anonymity is justified.
Any original material on these pages is copyright © BishopAccountability.org 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.