How Should Lesbian and Gay Catholics Respond to the Hierarchy’s Decision to Bar Gays from the Seminaries and the Priesthood?
On Sept 21st, I read in the New York Times that the Vatican, under Pope Benedict, the former Joseph Ratzinger of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is considering the decision to bar all gays, even celibates, from the priesthood. My immediate reaction was great sadness for the Church I love, then rage at the injustice of it all, and then painful awareness of all those good and holy gay men in the priesthood who will feel betrayed and abandoned by their Church. I then entered into prayer and asked the Holy Spirit to help me discern what this is all about.
First, the Spirit assured me that this decision has nothing to do with God or the teaching of Jesus Christ. Notice the total absence of any sense of love and compassion for all the suffering this will cause gay Catholics in general and, especially, gay priests. The hierarchy is aware that the child abuse crisis has seriously undermined their authority and power. This purge is a political move by the sinful human church to try to repair the damage done to their power and prestige by scapegoating the gay members of the clergy. They ignored all the expert advice from psychologists that gayness was not the cause of the child abuse crisis. By this move they are trying to avoid their responsibility for the crisis and any need on their part to reform the Church.
The Holy Spirit is still ultimately in charge of the Church and will call the shots on how the Church will evolve and be transformed and our task as gay Catholics is to prayerfully discern what the Holy Spirit is about in this moment of crisis and support that transformation.
I shall never forget the excitement we felt at the first meeting of New York Dignity some 35 years ago. We had put a small notice in the Village Voice. We had hoped for a few people. But over a hundred people crowded into the room we reserved at GoodShepherd Church in Gramercy Park. Obviously, we were meeting a strongly felt need in the Catholic lesbian and gay community. I remember saying at that first meeting: “Dignity is not something that we can give ourselves, but with God’s grace, it is something that we can give each other!”
We had a simple plan: To bring the message of God’s love to gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered and transsexual people. Secondly, by giving witness to the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives, we hoped to enter into dialogue with the institutional Church to bring about a change in its teaching on homosexuality; a change fully justified by our new understanding of scripture, tradition and of human psychosexual development. Our cry here was that “what is bad psychology has to be bad theology and vice versa.” The evidence is in that those who try to live out Church teaching on homosexuality frequently destroy their mental health and submit themselves to worshipping a God of fear. In Paul’s words: “You were not called to a spirit of slavery to let fear back into your lives again, you are called to a spirit of adoption. You have the right to call your God, Abba (Daddy).”
We were full of the hope and enthusiasm of Vatican II, which had redefined the Church as “The People of God”! Our naïve hope that the Church would change seemed confirmed a few years later in 1976, when my book, The Church and the Homosexual, which seriously challenged Church teaching, was given an imprimi potest by the General of the Jesuits, Pedro Arrupe (an action for which he paid heavily later by being deposed as General by the Pope) and I was granted permission to publish.
Now almost thirty years later, although the Holy Spirit has abundantly blessed our ministry to bring the message of God’s love to our sisters and brothers, I am sorry to have to report that in terms of dialogue with the hierarchy, it has been mostly downhill ever since.
The Church has adamantly refused our offer of dialogue and refuses to hear what the Holy Spirit wants to say to the hierarchy through the experience of faithful Catholic gays and lesbians. A series of homophobic documents have been issued from Rome. The final most egregious document read: “The homosexual inclination, though not in itself a sin, must be considered objectively disordered.” We gay and lesbian Catholics, who know that we were created homosexual by God, see this statement as a blasphemy against God by claiming that God created something that is intrinsically ordered to evil.
Now we are told that a document will be issued by Rome, using the teaching on “objective disorder’ that forbids any seminary from accepting a gay candidate no matter how qualified, and forbids bishops to ordain an openly acknowledged gay candidate.
This should come as no surprise. Twenty five years ago, friends in the Vatican sent me a copy of a letter sent by the Congregation of Bishops that deals with seminaries on the issue of accepting gay candidates for priesthood. At that time, the Congregation asked all seminary directors to carefully scrutinize gay candidates and determine whether their homosexuality was egosyntonic or egodystonic. This psychological jargon distinguishes those who accept and are comfortable with their homosexuality over against those who see their homosexual orientation as something to be hated and rejected. Only those candidates whose homosexuality was egodystonic should be accepted as candidates for the priesthood. In other words, only the mentally sick should be accepted and the healthy should be turned away. Fortunately, most seminary directors ignored this directive. Now the Vatican intends to enforce it.
Because of the incredible success Dignity and other gay liberation groups have had over the last 39 years, very few gay candidates for the priesthood today have an egodystonic attitude of self-hatred. So the Vatican felt forced to take a more radical stance. The hierarchy has decided to scapegoat the Catholic gay community, rather than to acknowledge any failure and sinfulness on their own part.
I admire the shrewdness of the Holy Spirit. The cultic priesthood, limited to professed celibate males, whether heterosexual or repressed homosexual, is rapidly disappearing. I can think of no action the Vatican could take that would guarantee the total collapse of that priesthood – a collapse that will necessarily lead to a new form of shepherding in the Church.
In my own experience over the years, if I met a priest who was an exceptionally good pastor, loving and compassionate, I could be close to certain that I was dealing with a gay priest. Let me give two examples of that. The first is my friend and colleague, Father Mychal Judge, a gay Franciscan, who was Chaplin to the New York City Fire Department, and died while anointing one of his beloved fire-fighters in the 911 collapse of the WorldTrade Towers. Mychal and I worked together in ministry to Dignity/New York and in a special ministry to homeless people with AIDS in Harlem. Mychal had a deep awareness of God’s love for him and felt a strong desire to reach out and bring the message of God’s love to all those the Church and society had abandoned. Another example of the Holy Spirit’s shrewdness: as Mychal was dying at the foot of the World Trade towers, bureaucrats in Rome where busy preparing a document to expel gays from the priesthood. Mychal recited this morning prayer every day:
Lord, take me where you want me to go,
Let me meet who you want me to meet,
Tell me what you want me to say and
Keep me out of your way.
Mychal was a perfect model for a renewed priesthood. His priesthood was not primarily in the sanctuary but with the homeless in the streets or with the sick, the suffering and the dying.
A second model of gay priesthood is Matthew Kelty, the gay Cistercian monk, until recently guest master at Gethsemane Abbey and spiritual director for Thomas Merton. In his book, Flute Solo: Reflections of a Trappist Hermit, Matthew wrote that he attributed the special spiritual gifts that God had given him to his homosexual orientation:
People of my kind seem often so placed, the reason, as I have worked it out, that they are more closely related to the anima (the feminine) than is usual…. Perhaps a healthy culture would enable those so gifted by God or nature (i.e. homosexuals) to realize their call and respond to it in fruitful ways.
Jesus gave us a marvelous example of how to deal with scapegoating in the story of the Gerasene Demoniac in Mark 5. The Gerasene community had picked one troubled individual and made him their scapegoat, throwing him out of town. The demoniac had accepted their judgment on him, interiorizing self-hatred, tearing off his clothes, breaking the chains that bound him, howling and gashing himself with stones. As soon as Jesus entered his presence, he became aware of God’s love and that he himself was not evil but worthy of God’s love and compassion. Jesus, by his love, drove out the legion of demons of self-hatred and self-destruction. They entered into a herd of pigs and their destructive evil was immediately manifested by the fact that the pigs rushed down the hillside and threw themselves off a cliff into the sea. The people of the village came out and found the former demoniac “sitting peacefully, fully clothed and in his right mind.”
The people of the village became frightened because they had lost their scapegoat and begged Jesus to leave. The former demoniac asked Jesus to take him with him, but Jesus refused and instead told him: “Go home to your people and tell them all the good things the Lord has done to you. Give witness to God’s love for you!” So the man went off and proceeded to spread throughout the Decapolis all that Jesus had done for them. And the people were amazed.
There is striking parallel here with us lesbian and gay Catholics. We too are being scapegoated by our Church. Many of us in the past interiorized the Church’s homophobia, resulting in self-hatred and self-destructiveness. But Jesus’ Spirit at one point touched our hearts and freed us from all self-rejection by giving us a clear, undeniable experience that God loves us in our gayness. Our ministry, then, like the former demoniac, is to witness to our people all the great things that God in her mercy has done for us. Our first task, then, is to call in the Holy Spirit to grant us such an overwhelming experience of God’s love that we are healed of all self-hatred and self-rejection and rendered immune to the persecution of the institutional church.
We gay and lesbian Catholics must not let our enemies outside ourselves define who we are. We must let the Spirit of God, the Spirit of love dwelling in our hearts, define who we are. And then give witness to all the great things the Lord has done for us.
What, then, should be our attitude toward the institutional church? James Allison, a gay Catholic theologian, suggests that we should have the same attitude toward the institutional church as Jesus had toward the temple, total detachment and indifference. In his ministry, the Temple was always there in the background but appears to have little relevance to Jesus’ mission. As Mark noted, after the Palm Sunday procession, Jesus came into Jerusalem, entered the Temple and looked around but immediately left forBethany with the twelve. Bethany was where the action was. Bethany was where the household of Martha and Mary, who I can imagine to be a lesbian couple and their gay brother Lazarus who was Jesus’ best friend. Here was Jesus’ church – a true community of love.
At the Last Supper, Jesus told his disciples that “it is necessary that I go away in order for the Spirit to come. I tell you this: unless I go away the Spirit cannot come to you. But when I go away, I will send the Spirit to you and He will dwell in your hearts and lead you into all truth.” Jesus was referring to a maturing process in our spiritual life, a process for which we gay and lesbian Catholics have a special need. We must detach ourselves from all external authority and learn to discern what the Spirit has to say to us directly and immediately in our own experience.
Paul sees the coming of the Holy Spirit as the fulfilment of this prophesy of Jeremiah:
Look, the days are coming, Yahweh declares, when I will make a new covenant with the House of Israel…..I shall plant my law, writing it in their hearts. Then I shall be their God and they will be my people. There will be no further need for neighbor to teach neighbor, saying “Learn to know Yahweh” No, they will all know me, the least to the greatest.
We must fight to free ourselves from any attachment to the institutional church, whether that be to have their approval or the equally destructive attachment that comes from the anger at the Church’s injustice. We should see ourselves as equals and siblings to Church authorities and pray for them as they try to discern the Spirit of God in their lives. Leave the Hierarchical church in God’s hands. Be grateful to them for the gifts they helped bring to us like the scriptures and the sacraments. But do not waste one ounce of energy in a negative attachment of anger with the Church. Commit every ounce of our energy to the positive ministry of love to which God has called us.
James Allison shares with us his experience of being called by God to ministry to the gay and lesbian community. He was on retreat in a Jesuit retreat house in Santiago in Chile. He had been dismissed from the Dominican order for acknowledging his gayness. The first grace he received from God was a profound awareness that all the homophobic violence and injustice in the Church has nothing to do with God. This was the human Church caught into its own blindness and sinfulness.
He was trying to discern in prayer with was God’s will for him. One day he went on a walk in a gay cruising area. He found himself looking at some young gay men cruising in the park and felt a strong liking for these young men and wishing them well. When he returned to the retreat house, he went into the chapel feeling somewhat guilty for his mixed motives for going to the cruising area. He was suddenly given the grace to realize that the warm affection he felt toward the young gay man was not just his feelings but the feelings of the Holy Spirit dwelling in his heart. Then he heard a profound voice telling him “Feed my sheep!”
He realized that that voice was God directly calling him to a ministry to lesbians and gays. That call from that moment on was an essential part of his identity, a call to priestly ministry that he could not deny or run away from with out denying an essential dimension of himself. This call in no way depended on validation from the institutional church but was his direct and immediate commission from God.
Ezekiel, in Chapter 23, saw God in a vision detaching himself from the Temple in the shape of a chariot, becoming flexible and mobile. Ezekiel then had a vision of God upbraiding the shepherds of Israel (the Temple priests) for having failed to feed his sheep and abandoning them to meet their own self-interests. God revealed a new understanding of shepherding, in which God Himself will undertake the shepherding. “Behold I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep”
Judaism and Christianity are both religions of the collapsing Temple. There is always a connection between the collapse of the Temple and God bringing into existence a new form of shepherding. In Judaism, it was the collapse of the Temple in the year 587 BC which led to the creation of text based Judaism. And again, the collapse of the Temple in 70 AD, which led to the creation of Rabbinic Judaism. In every case, the collapse is part of God’s plan to get through to us and help us to get beyond something that is no longer worthy of us. It took a long time but only after Ezekiel achieved a certain form of indifference to the fate of the Temple was he able to receive the vision from God of God himself shepherding his people without any intermediary.
In the gospel of John, Jesus identifies the new Temple with his body and the body of all who have received the indwelling Spirit. Allison feels sure that anyone who has experienced God’s love and has been freed from self-rejection, and then takes the final step of freeing themselves from external Church authority will also hear the same call to ministry in their heart.
A recent example of this, a young man came to me in Fort Lauderdale. He was leading a gay life and had a lover, but he could not let go of feelings of guilt, shame and self-rejection. He was praying constantly to God to make his will known to him. As he was driving home to Boston still praying, suddenly he had a profound experience of God hugging him. This experience lasted a long time and when it was over he was sure of God’s love for him as a gay man and felt a strong need to share that experience with as many as possible.
There is no doubt in my mind that we are in a new stage of the collapsing Temple and the emergence of a new form of shepherding. Joachim of Flores prophesied in the 13thcentury there would come a day when the hierarchical church, becoming superfluous, would in time dissolve and in its place would emerge the Church of the Holy Spirit. Ministry in the Church of the Holy Spirit will come from the direct call of the Holy Spirit. The task of authority will be to listen prayerfully to what the Holy Spirit is saying through the people of God. This Church must become a totally democratic Church with no caste system, no higher or lower, totally equal: women with men, gays with straights; everyone possessing the Holy Spirit within them, everyone an authority.
For example, who knows what God wants from lesbians and gays? – Obviously, only lesbians and gays. No one can tell us from outside what God wants of us. We are alone in knowing with an experiential knowledge that our love for each other contains the divine spirit and brings with it that kind of peace and joy that indicates the presence of the Holy Spirit.
Congratulations Dignity/Chicago on thirty years of faithful service to the Catholic lesbian and gay community! You have prayerfully discerned and carried out the commission the Spirit has given you. You are a foretaste of the future Church of the Holy Spirit. Continue to prayerfully discern what God is asking of you and follow that voice. Keep in mind the famous insight of Maurice Blondel: “Our God dwells within us and the only way to become one with that God is to become one with our authentic self!”
2 October 2005
One thought on “John McNeill: Dignity Address”