Brianna Heldt is a writer, speaker, and radio show host. She blogs at www.briannaheldt.com, has been a featured guest on BBC Radio, and her work can regularly be found in other online publications as well. A convert to the Catholic Church, Brianna explores topics ranging from faith and social issues to adoption and large family life. She and her husband make their home in Denver, along with their eight children.
I was sitting around a table with some girlfriends one evening last week, when someone brought it up.
“Did you see the New York Times article where a gay priest compared his situation to being trapped in a cage?” one woman asked, clearly incredulous that a priest would be so critical of the Church he gave his life to serve.
Another joked that it was ironic a priest was talking that way, when we married folk have to practice and contend with fertility and NFP — talk about the potential for feeling trapped by something difficult, she mused.
Most around the table had read the piece, yet I’d not even heard of it — probably because I’ve quit social media (again) and no longer spend countless hours scrolling through Facebook. The benefit is, of course, that I find myself with a bit more free time for reading Jane Austen, but it comes at a small price. I occasionally miss stories that would otherwise interest me, or spark a writing project of my own. This was, clearly, one of those stories. (I also rarely know when a friend’s birthday is, so I apologize in advance for forgetting yours.)
Thanks be to Google, I was able to hunt down the article the following day. In it, religion and politics journalist Elizabeth Dias chronicles the experiences of a number of priests who self-identify as gay. Some are out of the closet, and some are not. Some say they are celibate, and some say they are not. What they all have in common, though, is the deep-seated belief that they are victims of an outdated, homophobic church system that has sought to oppress and shame them.
“Life in the closet is worse than scapegoating,” remarked one gay priest in the piece, referring to those in the Catholic Church who have pointed to a connection between clergy sexual abuse and homosexuality in the priesthood. “It is not a closet. It is a cage.”
The point my friends kept coming back to during our discussion was that no one is forcing these men to remain priests in a religion which has, like it or not, historically taught that homosexual behavior is intrinsically “disordered.”
Though some would strike that word from the catechism, presumably with the intention of replacing it with a less loaded term, the facts remain the same. Catholic teaching reflects the idea that sex was created by God, to be enjoyed between husband and wife, and is naturally ordered toward procreation. Anything else, so the Church says, falls short of God’s good design. For those of us on the outside looking in, we therefore wonder why, if someone does indeed feel “caged in” by their Church’s erroneous beliefs about sexuality, don’t they simply walk away?
The answer is, of course, that the men featured in Dias’ article aren’t wanting to leave the priesthood. They are, however, wanting the Church to change the party line on homosexuality.
Most of the priests included in Dias’ piece claim to have embraced celibacy. And that is good, because of course priests are called to be chaste regardless of who they are attracted to. But the ultimate problem with the Times piece, as far as I can tell, is that it conflates priests struggling to make sense of their sexuality while also desiring to live in obedience and submission to God (“I believe the Church’s teaching on marriage, sexuality — just trying to understand what it means for me,” one priest said anonymously), with priests who are all too eager to bless a couple’s gay “marriage.” (Gay marriage being, of course, an ontological impossibility, and a priestly blessing of it a scandal.) Dias references the current climate at Mundelein Seminary in Chicago, where a gay seminarian laments that ever since the revelations about McCarrick came to light, seminarians have been “drilled in rules about celibacy and the evils of masturbation and pornography.” (But aren’t all Catholics taught that things like masturbation and use of pornography are serious offenses against God?)
Reading Dias’ article, one is left to assume that no one outside of this beleaguered subset of priests — whether in the pews or at the altar — is struggling against tendencies, vices, or troubling inclinations of their own. The impression given is that the Church is engaging in nothing less than a witch hunt for priests who may be same-sex attracted, that they are the only people being held to a destructively archaic standard of chastity, and that all of the anguish they describe would magically evaporate were the Church to finally change its stance on homosexuality.
Of course, that is all patently absurd.
Not one of us is excused or exempted from making a valiant (albeit clumsy) attempt at holiness. Each and every man and woman, regardless of his or her vocation, is called to live a chaste life. Furthermore, there are just two types of people — not gay versus straight, mind you, but man versus woman. Though the manifestation will be different (and the Times would have you believe otherwise), a man in the priesthood is not held to a different sexual standard than a married man. Both are called to live out their respective vocations in love and purity. Both are called to be chaste. Period.
And, what is more, God’s plan for men and women is good. If we don’t believe this foundational truth about our Lord, that He wants what is best for us and that He has made it known to us through Tradition, how can we honestly trust God about anything? There is nothing antiquated or unenlightened about God’s design for men and women to live out love through marriage, and an openness to the bearing of children. This is not to say that same-sex attraction doesn’t exist or that it isn’t a difficult burden to carry. It is not to exclude or to shame those who may fall outside of the norm in the area of sexuality. It cannot be an excuse to further isolate our struggling priests.
But we must not fall prey to the modern sensibility which says that not only are some born gay and some born straight, but that both are equally valid paths to sexual fulfillment. We must resist the very urge the article purports to oppose but really, in actuality, embraces — the urge to put men and women in boxes labeled either “gay” or “straight,” as if this distinction is in anyway helpful or accurate. Men are men, and women are women. Those individuals called by God to marriage are called to union with the opposite sex, and called to be open to the procreation of children. The family is the basic building block of society, and it begins, always, with married love.
I do sympathize, to some degree, with the many priests represented by Dias’ article. If one thing is clear, it is that to live as a priest with same-sex attraction, whether celibate or not, is to live a conflicted life marked by shame and fear. Surely most (if not all) of these men, like most (if not all) other priests, have a passion for their vocation, and a love for people. They (like many of us, though perhaps in different ways) perceive a nagging dissonance between what their church teaches and what they, themselves, experience. Such is life in a fallen world, no? Like anyone else, “gay” priests must continue pursuing lives of chastity and love, lived in obedience to Christ. They, like Jesus, must be shepherds that continually lay down their lives for the sake of their flocks.
But vague attempts at justification of sins, and efforts to assign blame to magisterial Church teaching and faithful bishops, though certainly supported and celebrated by our present culture, are incapable of addressing, much less fixing, the problem. Nor is the obfuscation or redefining of a properly-ordered sexuality, which results in nothing but confusion and pain, capable of doing any good. People need truth, and the courage to speak and live that truth, when it comes to human sexuality in the modern age.
For the problem is not, as Dias and her interview subjects might have us believe, in what Christ asks of us. The problem is not to be found in the traditional words of the catechism, or in the Deposit of Faith first given to us by the apostles all those centuries ago. The problem is ultimately with us, and with the broken human condition that leaves even good men and women to stumble and sin, and make all manner of excuses for it.
And it is only the mercy and love of God, marked by truth and purification, and made available to us through the sacraments, that can heal it.