Msgr. Charles Pope is currently a dean and pastor in the Archdiocese of Washington, DC, where he has served on the Priest Council, the College of Consultors, and the Priest Personnel Board. Along with publishing a daily blog at the Archdiocese of Washington website, he has written in pastoral journals, conducted numerous retreats for priests and lay faithful, and has also conducted weekly Bible studies in the U.S. Congress and the White House. He was named a Monsignor in 2005.
The recently published book The Strength of Vocation: The Consecrated Life Today is the result of a multi-hour interview of Pope Francis by Fr. Fernando Prado. The interview covered a wide variety of topics, one of which was the challenge of homosexuality in the clergy and consecrated life. Here are a few excerpts:
“[Homosexuality is] not just an expression of an affection. In consecrated and priestly life, there’s no room for that kind of affection. Therefore, the Church recommends that people with that kind of ingrained tendency should not be accepted into the ministry or consecrated life. The ministry or the consecrated life is not his place.”
“[We] have to urge homosexual priests, and men and women religious to live celibacy with integrity, and above all, that they be impeccably responsible, trying to never scandalize either their communities or the faithful holy people of God by living a double life. It’s better for them to leave the ministry or the consecrated life rather than to live a double life.”
“The issue of homosexuality is a very serious issue that must be adequately discerned from the beginning with the candidates, if that is the case. We have to be exacting. In our societies it even seems that homosexuality is fashionable and that mentality, in some way, also influences the life of the Church”
These comments by the Pope are a glimmer of hope in the midst of the current sexual abuse scandal. Understandably, there have been a variety of reactions to those remarks. Fr. James Martin wrote that the Pope’s comments (particularly about homosexuality being fashionable) are “not only wrong but hurtful.” Fr. Martin tried (unsuccessfully, to my mind) to interpret the Pope’s statements as merely calling gay priests, like all priests, to be celibate. Others opined that the Pope’s remarks seemed to be a deflection, not backed up by his actions or supported by those with whom he has chosen to surround himself.
In the Pope’s statement that those with deep-seated homosexual tendencies should not be accepted into the clergy or the consecrated life, I see a ray of light — not full noonday sun or even dawn, but a single ray of light. We should affirm what is true even if we know that a great deal of work will be needed for the Pope’s well-stated view to become a policy that is understood and followed.
We live in an age of identity politics. So many people stake their entire identity and dignity on a single aspect of their life. This is especially true today among homosexual (and now transgender) activists. Anyone who questions or criticizes their behavior is accused of being “hateful” because this is seen as an attack on their very identity.
Advocates for those with same-sex attraction have often responded to the current sexual abuse scandal in the Church by pointing out that the majority of homosexual priests have not abused anyone and claiming that attempting to link the crisis to homosexuality among the clergy is just a form of “homophobia” and scapegoating. Not only does this involve faulty logic, it misses the point of our concerns.
Consider the following example regarding lung cancer:
- Most smokers never contract lung cancer. In fact, even among heavy smokers, fewer than 25% get lung cancer.
- However, more than 80% of lung cancer deaths are linked to smoking.
- Smoking is by far the number one risk factor for lung cancer.
- If doctors and researchers were to refuse to identify smoking as the number one cause of cancer because it might be upsetting to smokers, we would call that deceptive or even a case of malpractice. We would likely denounce them for hiding the facts from us and might accuse them of being in league with the tobacco industry.
- If we want to reduce the incidence of lung cancer, we ought to begin by addressing the number one risk factor: smoking.
- This does not mean that there are no other causes or that other risk factors should be ignored, but it makes sense to focus on the primary cause.
- It is not reasonable to label someone who presents these facts as “bigoted” or “anti-smoker.”
- Facts do not cease to be true because they hurt someone’s feelings, and speaking the truth is neither bigoted nor hateful.
Similar logic applies in analyzing the current sexual abuse crisis in the Church. The fact that about 80% of the victims of clergy sexual abuse were male indicates a homosexual connection that must be studied and addressed. Even if most priests with same-sex attraction have not abused anyone, the fact remains that 80% of the abuse cases involved homosexual acts perpetrated on the victim. Refusing to discuss this or diverting the conversation to lesser, statistically-unverified connections to things such as “clericalism” is the equivalent of ignoring the link between smoking and lung cancer. To bar any discussion of the link between clergy sexual abuse and homosexuality amounts to a kind of malpractice. It endangers potential future victims as well as the souls of potential abusers. It also seriously damages the credibility that will be necessary for any proposed solutions and policies.
Although some people object to the Pope’s statements about homosexuality, taking his words as a personal affront, the care of souls does not always involve doing or saying what pleases people or makes them feel accepted and approved. In fact, it often involves saying no with an eye to the moral condition and ultimate salvation of those souls.
Most of us would agree that bartending would not be a particularly wise choice of occupation for an alcoholic — even a reformed one. It would threaten his sobriety with unnecessary temptation.
In a slightly different way, it would not be a good idea for someone with a weakened immune system to work in a hospital. Not only would it endanger him, but it would put others at risk as well because he might more easily transmit infectious diseases.
There is a strong and rather obvious danger to the souls of people with same-sex attraction when they live in close quarters with one another in a single-sex environment. It would be much like a heterosexual man living in a women’s dormitory, sharing shower facilities and the like. Even if he had the intention of remaining chaste, it would prove difficult. It would be even more difficult for him if some of the women started winking at him and indicating that they were interested and willing to engage in illicit intimacy.
When considered in that vein, the words of the Holy Father reiterating the general policy of the Church make sense: “Therefore, the Church recommends that people with that kind of ingrained tendency should not be accepted into the ministry or consecrated life. The ministry or the consecrated life is not his place.” The policy is designed to protect the moral and spiritual well-being of all and should be followed.
As the summit of the presidents of the Catholic bishops’ conferences of the world approaches (Feb. 21-24, 2019), there will surely be attempts to influence the outcome. The protests by supporters of the homosexual/transgender cause will be loud and strident. They will insist that the connection between homosexuality and the clergy sexual abuse scandal be suppressed, absent from consideration by the assembly, and certainly absent from any conclusions or policies that result from the gathering.
We must conscientiously and charitably demand that homosexuality among the clergy as a central cause of the crisis be considered frankly and forthrightly. No real solution will be found if this is not done. The outcome of the February meeting must be a set of policies that address homosexuality in the priesthood and which will be firmly enforced.
The Holy Father’s recent remarks deserve our support, even if some wonder how firmly he believes them or whether he will apply them. The fact is that he made the statements and approved their publication. He may say other things in the weeks ahead that confirm his recent remarks or create a distance from them. Either way, we must continue to be part of the international conversation, supporting what is good and true and speaking out against what is incomplete or misleading. We loyal and faithful Catholics must insist upon being heard. Others are speaking up — are you?