The Tyranny of the Clerical Closet

Over the last 40 years, we who are openly gay and lesbian, inside and outside the church, have been discovering the joy of coming out.  It is widely agreed that at a public level, this has led to increasing public understanding and acceptance of our issues. At a personal level, this is almost invariably a liberating, invigorating experience, freeing us from guilt and fear. As Helminiak has noted, and I discussed here, this is valuable as a growth experience for both spiritual and mental health.
The converse of course, is also true: remaining in the closet  carries clear and demonstrable costs.  Denying oneself honest sexual expression leads either to the repression of a natural human instinct, or to a life of subterfuge, of deceit, of fear of being discovered, and of feelings of anguished guilt.  This surely cannot be healthy, either mentally or spiritually.
We rightly celebrate at this time of Pride, the observable fact that so many of us have fund it possible over the years to embark on this process of coming out, to our friends, to our families, to colleagues, and even in our parishes.  The more of us there are who do so, the easier it becomes for those who follow.  But the gay closet is not the only one that matters, and is not the one I want to address today.I wrote earlier of the Myth of Priestly Celibacy, noting that the assumption of priests always following their vows of celibacy is simply unfounded. Now let me be clear: I have no quarrel with those priests who in full maturity willingly and voluntarily embrace celibacy and all it implies.  Nor do I make any assumptions about the numbers of  those who do not, beyond noting that these numbers are at least significant.  What I do insist on, is that compulsory celibacy necessarily leads to an absence in the priesthood of men who desire natural and healthy sexual expression, and to the inclusion of a disproportionate number of those who, unable or unwilling to live a life of full celibacy, instead live in a clerical closet, with all the mental and spiritual stifling that this implies.Bishop Geoffrey Robinson, in Confronting Power and Abuse in the Church, has shown that this insistence on enforced celibacy, and suppression of healthy sexual expression, is one of the three primary causes of the scandal of widespread clerical abuse.   A second cause is closely related – by driving away the sexually mature and integrated personalities, simple arithmetic leads to the numerical prominence of the immature and unbalanced.  (The exodus of priests leaving to get married, and the drop-off in new vocations over the last 40 years, is well known and has been widely attributed soemhow to Vatican II, which is chronologically correct.  I fail to see any causal connection thoug.  I prefer to note that this same period has coincided with much greater honesty and openness about sexuality in teh world at large.)

So, there is now increasing recognition in some circles (sadly not in the Vatican itself, where it should matter most), that the problem of clerical sexual abuse is directly tied to the insistence on enforced celibacy.

Most attention, of course, has been focused on the problem of physical and sexual abuse of children.  The problem, though, goes much wider.  As I noted before in the Myth of Priestly Celibacy, in the concluding chapter of his book, “Global Catholicism: Diversity and Change since Vatican II“, Ian Linden writes of the state of the church in the 21st century. One of his sections is titled “The Universal Crisis of the Celibate Priesthood.” Among other damaging effects, he notes:

“The number of Catholic priests worldwide in clandestine, and often exploitative, multiple sexual relationships of different duration and kind has undermined the examplary witness of those freed by celibacy for a lifetime of service.  Promiscuous – and paedophile- clergy have been a disaster for the post-conciliar Church, not to speak of their victims’ suffering. Clerical sexual conduct has given rise in many parishes to a myriad of intractable problems. So the moral issue for many lay Catholics in some countries became not whether the priest was failing to keep his vow of celibacy – failure was increasingly taken for granted – but whether he was sleeping with a married woman, failing to care for the children brought into the world, or indeed had more than one sexual partner, in short the degree to which the relationship was socially damaging and individually abusive.”

It gets worse.  Referring to the consequences of the emergence of HIV/AIDS, he writes:

“But it soon emerged that one consequence of the pandemic was that promiscuous priests, for fear of infection, were shifting their attentions to the local nuns on the assumption that they would be free of the virus”, prompting their Superiors to challenge the bishops, without success,to protect their congregations from predatory clergy.

(The disregard of these complaints is quite as scandalous as the better known cover-ups of clerical child abuse).

Even where non-celibate priests have found sexual expression with willing partners (of either gender), these partners too should be seen as victims of the celibacy rule.  For just as the priests have to hide their sexual activities, their partners too have to immerse themselves in the clerical closet, forging a life of emotional honesty and openness – and to cope with sensational and salacious public exposure  if ever the relationships become uncovered, as was the case with Fr Curie.

‘Clerical sexual abuse’, then is not limited to children.  Direct victims include also unwilling adult victims in religious houses, and willing partners among the laity who are forced into an unwanted and unhealthy closet.

I believe that indirectly, the problem goes very much further: indeed, I will argue that at some level, we as Catholics are all victims of this tyranny of the clerical closet.  But that is a another topic, for another day.

Previous posts in this series:

Sexual Abuse – My Experience

The Myth of Priestly Celibacy

Coming Out as Wrestling With the Divine (Reflection on Ricahrd Cleaver, know My Name)

Coming Out as Spiritual Experience (Reflection on Dniel Helminiak, Sex and the Sacred)

Still to come:

How we are all Victims

How We Are All Complicit

Some Thoughts on Truth and Reconciliation

How We All Contribute to Healing.




3 thoughts on “The Tyranny of the Clerical Closet”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *