Thousands of priests are closeted, and the Vatican’s failure to reckon with their sexuality has created a crisis for Catholicism.
e have no reliable figures on just how many priests in the Catholic Church are gay. The Vatican has conducted many studies on its own clergy but never on this subject. In the United States, however, where there are 37,000 priests, no independent study has found fewer than 15 percent to be gay, and some have found as many as 60 percent. The consensus in my own research over the past few months converged on around 30 to 40 percent among parish priests and considerably more than that — as many as 60 percent or higher — among religious orders like the Franciscans or the Jesuits.
This fact hangs in the air as a giant, unsustainable paradox. A church that, since 2005, bans priests with “deep-seated homosexual tendencies” and officially teaches that gay men are “objectively disordered” and inherently disposed toward “intrinsic moral evil” is actually composed, in ways very few other institutions are, of gay men.
The massive cognitive dissonance this requires is becoming harder to sustain. The collapse of the closet in public and private life in the past three decades has made the disproportionate homosexuality of the Catholic priesthood much less easy to hide, ignore, or deny. This cultural and moral shift has not only changed the consciousness of most American Catholics (67 percent of whom support civil marriage for gay couples) and gay priests (many of whom are close to quitting) but also broken the silence that long shrouded the subject.
Five years ago, Pope Francis made his watershed “Who am I to judge?” remark after being asked about a flawed gay priest. “A person once asked me, in a provocative manner, if I approved of homosexuality,” Francis went on. “I replied with another question: ‘Tell me, when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love or reject and condemn this person?’ We must always consider the person. Here we enter into the mystery of the human being.” In the final draft of the 2014 Synod on the Family, Francis included explicit mention of the “gifts and qualities” of homosexuals, asking, “Are we capable of welcoming [them]?” These sentiments won 62 percent of the votes of the synod bishops — just shy of what was necessary to pass, but still evidence of a sharp shift in tone in official Catholic teaching.
They also triggered near panic on the Catholic right. Alarmed by the possibility that divorced and remarried people might be welcomed as well as gays, traditionalists launched a fierce rearguard campaign against the new papacy, with a focus on what some called a “Lavender Mafia” running the church, and broke new ground in connecting this directly to the horrifying revelations of sex abuse that came to light in 2002. In increasingly direct ways, they have argued that the root of the scandal was not abuse of power, or pedophilia, or clericalism, or the distortive psychological effects of celibacy and institutional homophobia, but gayness itself.
“There is a homosexual culture, not only among the clergy but even within the hierarchy, which needs to be purified at the root,” the American cardinal Raymond Burke declared in August. Bishop Robert Morlino of Wisconsin agreed. “It is time to admit that there is a homosexual subculture within the hierarchy of the Catholic Church that is wreaking great devastation,” he wrote. “If you’ll permit me, what the church needs now is more hatred” of homosexual sexual behavior, “a sin so grave that it cries out to heaven for vengeance.” Michael Hichborn, head of the fringe-right Lepanto Institute, called for a “complete and thorough removal of all homosexual clergymen from the church … It is going to be difficult and will likely result in a very serious priest shortage, but it’s definitely worth the effort.”
The unseemly fall this past summer of Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, one of the most powerful American cardinals of his time, provided a cause célèbre for this faction. It emerged that McCarrick had abused at least two children and then sexually harassed generations of adult seminarians with impunity. Here, it seemed, was a pedophile and an abusive gay man, at the very apex of the church, known to be sexually active with seminarians, protected by his peers, and tolerated for decades by many in the hierarchy, including the last three popes.
McCarrick gave the right an opening. New online media organizations — led by Breitbart-style websites such as LifeSite News and Church Militant — now routinely pounce on any incidents involving gay priests and have an influential audience in the Vatican. A wealthy group of conservative Catholics, the Better Church Governance, has even launched an investigation into the orthodoxy, conduct, and, it’s clear, sexual orientation of each of the 124 cardinals who will elect the next pope.
At the center of this struggle, of course, are gay priests, bishops, and cardinals themselves. They are caught in a whiplash of relative toleration embodied by Francis and hostility exemplified by his conservative predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI. The 2005 ban on gay priests and seminarians is still in force and, in fact, was affirmed by Francis in 2016. As a result, almost all gay priests are closeted, for fear of being targeted or terminated, which makes them uniquely barred from entering the discussion. They listen as they are talked about and scapegoated — often in deeply offensive ways and always as if they were not one of the church’s key ramparts. “Things have actually gotten worse since Francis became pope,” one priest told me. “They are equating all gay priests with sexual abuse. There’s a witch hunt.”
Hospital chapels, like those in airports, can be strange places. Rarely anyone’s refuge for very long, they can feel as transient and empty as they are antiseptic. But on a recent Sunday at noon, in a sprawling hospital on the edges of a midwestern city, the congregation spilled out down the hallways for Mass. They were clearly not strangers to one another as they nodded and chatted before the service began; there were old and young, black and white and brown, families and couples and a sprinkling of those who’d come alone. The Mass itself was unremarkable apart from a striking homily when the priest talked of the joys of having nothing as the Christmas gifting season loomed. It’s a lesson he said he’d learned from serving the sick, the traumatized, the hungry, and the homeless after a natural disaster overseas.
He told of a moment when he was returning from a field hospital along an unlit path in the early hours of the morning, surrounded by intense suffering on top of brutal poverty, yet he was buoyed by the faith and tenacity of the poorest of the poor, the sickest of the sick. He stopped and looked up into the starlit sky, he said, and felt not despair but hope.
“Always a good message from that one,” said the man next to me as Mass ended. I nodded: “Big crowd for a hospital.” “Oh yeah,” the man replied. “Always. They come from all over. He’s a rock star, this priest.” I said nothing. Father Mike, as I’ll call him, had texted me earlier to review the ground rules: “Per hospital and my request you are not to interview anyone or identify yourself as doing a story, journalist, etc.” The full story of this man’s life and service has to stay anonymous — as with almost every other priest I spoke with. Not even his most devoted congregants know he’s gay.
But as a former registered nurse and skilled manager, he’s a natural priest. In the few minutes I took to meet him in my hotel lobby, he’d already learned from the receptionist that she was no longer celebrating Christmas after a recent near-death experience in a car crash. At one point as we spoke the next day in the hospital, he was greeted by a woman who asked for an on-the-spot confession and he shooed me aside; later I met an anguished gay man from an ultra-Catholic family he was counseling; and for a few hours on Sunday morning, he was with the wife and teenage sons of a dying man. Father Mike was the bandage on all of those open wounds. He has witnessed a couple hundred deaths in his career. One night, he told me, he sat with three patients at the hour of their deaths in quick succession.
Becoming a priest wasn’t an easy decision. Mike came from a troubled family, and his abusive parents converted to Catholicism when he was entering his teens. He agreed to go to Sunday Mass because they promised him brunch at his favorite spot afterward, until, at the age of 15, he formally became a Catholic himself. At 17, he was sent to visit a priest for a one-on-one counseling retreat. “The very first night I was there, he very aggressively tried to get me in bed with him,” Mike told me. “I was absolutely terrified.” A year later, when his parents threw him out of the house, he went to live with a youth minister. “For two months I was there, and it was just constant fighting off advances and innuendo.” He reported the youth minister, even testified against him in court. But his own priest backed the minister, and, despite testimony from three other boys, the abuser was acquitted. “At that time, people actually believed priests,” Mike sighed.
Despite all this, in the mid-1990s he entered seminary after graduating from college. He found himself constantly subjected to psychological evaluations and denied the usual summer assignments. Fearing his teenage testimony against an abuser was blocking his ordination, he quit to become a critical-care nurse. But he still felt called to the church and eventually tried seminary again. He was ordained three years later.
I told him most people would find this story bizarre, masochistic even.
Why join a church that doesn’t want you — indeed, one that abused you? He stumbled for a while before finally blurting out, “Well, at the heart of it, it’s about … it’s about Jesus, and it’s about … I mean, I believe in God.” His voice was raised, suddenly intense. “I’d found some people in campus ministry, when I was in college, who were really authentic. They loved each other, and they loved God; they loved ‘the least of these.’ They weren’t perfect, but the overarching message was that Jesus is here, Jesus is in the Eucharist, and Jesus is in the faces of the poorest of the poor and those who are most marginalized.” They told him he was obviously called to be a priest, and his time as a nurse deepened this conviction within him. “As I was serving my patients, most of whom died, I prayed with them when they wanted me to, I brought Communion to them when I could, and it was through them that I felt called to serve.”
It is in that context of nurse to patient, pastor to flock, that today he manages his conflicts as a gay priest. “Every time I walk into that hospital, no matter how I’m feeling or what I’m going through or the new Pennsylvania grand-jury report on sex abuse, it all changes,” he said. “When you sit at the edge of the bed with someone whose transplant has failed, it becomes a heart-to-heart. Sometimes I think we forget that, in the church, it’s about that particular person and their humanity, their hopes and their fears, and their desire to love and be loved.”
Most of the gay priests I spoke with have never experienced abuse in the church. Many had already come to terms with their sexual orientation before they entered the priesthood, but some wrestled with it in the seminary, and others later in life. “There is no typical experience,” Father Joe, as I’ll call him, told me. “At first I wondered if I were a fraud, because I thought, Well, am I just trying to escape into a life in which I don’t have to deal with my sexuality? But I had people in charge of me who challenged me to ask myself if this were authentic, and I felt that this was the life and work that God was calling me to. It’s an ongoing discernment.” Then there was a moment of grace. “I was working in a hospital at the height of the AIDS crisis. A nun said to me, ‘What do you want to tell these people? They’re active homosexuals, drug users.’ I said, ‘I would talk about God’s mercy and be with them as they are.’ It helped me understand how God could use me even though the church didn’t accept me.”
Another, call him Father Andrew, described his choice of vocation as “convenient and existential”: “I was 18 and sexually aware but extremely depressed, and my father cornered me one day in the kitchen and made me come out. I went to a psychologist, who told me, ‘You’re not going to change. You need to accept yourself.’ ” Andrew’s father was not happy about this recommendation and ended the therapy. In college, Andrew sought out more treatment, and then, suddenly, his father died. It threw him. “I kept thinking about life and death. I had started praying again and attending Mass. I was driving in the desert from Phoenix to Tucson and saw these dust devils, and I suddenly heard in my head, ‘Oh, be a priest. You won’t need to deal with sex; you can be respected.’ And then my brother died — a car crash.” By his junior year, Andrew was in the seminary.
It was there that Andrew had his first adult sexual experience. “I was 28 years old. I came out as bisexual. I lost weight, I built muscle, I got noticed more by other seminarians, and I wanted to see what it was like being an adult,” he said. “It was difficult. I wasn’t attracted to kissing. I had one experience and couldn’t ejaculate.” He then threw himself into his work until, at 40, he faced a burnout. He took a leave of absence, spent six months in prayer and therapy, and when he returned, he sent an explanatory email to his fellow priests: “As one who has long suffered doubts about himself, I dedicate myself to bringing the love of God … to everyone who, like me, sometimes questions their worth and value because of voices contrary to God’s voice.”
The breakthrough came suddenly. “I said to my therapist, ‘I think I’m a good priest,’ and he said, ‘I bet you are.’ And I burst out crying.” Andrew’s voice cracked. “Being lumped in with pedophiles — it has a way of taking a toll on you.” The scapegoating has wounded many of the priests I spoke with. It has become a double stigma: targeted by the hierarchy for being gay and by the general public for being pedophiles. Many of the people I spoke to, Catholics and non-Catholics, about the subject of gay priests rolled their eyes and asked about the abuse of children. The news environment is saturated with stories about sex abuse — and rightly so — yet there are hardly any public examples of the overwhelming number of gay priests who would never dream of preying upon the powerless.
Many good gay priests, of course, fail from time to time, breaking celibacy in consensual adult affairs or trysts. They are not saints. But this is true of straight priests as well. These men are still sexual beings, flesh and blood. In these crises, they tend to do one of two things: either fall so deeply in love that they cannot sustain a life without physical intimacy and so leave the church or, more often, recalibrate, confess, and recommit to the celibate life. “The best priests are those who have missed the mark on occasion, the ones who know what it’s like to be a real human,” Father Andrew said. “It’s a holy struggle. I’ve never seen celibacy as a gift; it has always been a discipline.”
Father Joe spoke poignantly of falling in love. “I had a brief, sexually intimate relationship 16 years ago. It was my last relationship. He didn’t want to be with someone who couldn’t be fully out as a partner, and he wanted to get married. I asked if we could have a friendship that was also sexual, and he said no.” The pain still flickers. “Today I have a close friendship with him, and we’re not sexually intimate. But when he does have a boyfriend, I feel like, ‘Well, who’s there for me?’ ” At this point, Joe relies on close friends for emotional support. “I sometimes ask myself, ‘When was the last time someone touched me?’ And I know that’s not normal. I’ll get a professional massage from time to time. My lapses these days are watching porn in my bedroom.”
“There is an extreme reluctance to acknowledge that priests live celibacy well but not perfectly,” a priest I’ll call Father Leo explained. “But how do you come to a positive understanding of your sexuality when the church won’t say you even have a sexual orientation, just ‘same-sex attraction’ or ‘deep-seated homosexual tendencies’? How do you live a healthy sexuality in a context where your sexuality is stigmatized?” After the 2005 ban on gay priests, Father Mike became attracted to conversion therapy and underwent a year and a half of trying to be cured of being gay. It was only later that he came to see how “none of it was true; it was all a lie.”
The preponderance of gay men in the priesthood is, in fact, nothing new in the history of the church. For well over a millennium, it was commonplace, and though there were occasional denunciations of it, these were usually followed by papal inaction or indifference. For example, as the late historian John Boswell demonstrated in his groundbreaking, controversial book Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality, a fourth-century Christian writer, John Chrysostom, attacked the leaders of the church for being too accepting of same-sex love and even sex: “Those very people who have been nourished by godly doctrine, who instruct others in what they ought and ought not to do … these do not consort with prostitutes as fearlessly as they do with young men … None is ashamed, no one blushes … the chaste seem to be the odd ones, and the disapproving the ones in error.” There was considerable Christian concern about sex in general — following the teaching of saints Paul and Augustine — but no consensus that homosexuality, if kept to intense mutual love and celibate friendship, was specifically problematic.
Even Saint Augustine had one particularly intense love affair with another young man. “For I felt that my soul and his were one soul in two bodies,” he wrote, “and therefore life was a horror to me, since I did not want to live as a half; and yet I was also afraid to die lest he, whom I had loved so much, would completely die.” This was not merely a spiritual friendship, Augustine confessed. “I contaminated the spring of friendship with the dirt of lust and darkened its brightness with the blackness of desire.” Some have speculated that Augustine’s starkly Manichaean divide between the spirit and the body is rooted in his disgust at his own homosexual tendencies. The historical record, however, reveals that for all Augustine’s influence, the practice of intense homoerotic friendship among the clergy was common over the following centuries, especially in monasteries. (As was the case in convents as well. The gifts that lesbians have brought to the church are just as extraordinary, but because the priesthood is exclusively male and women are kept from positions of real power, lesbian nuns are, for better or worse, not caught up in this specific crisis.)
The masterpiece on the subject of “spiritual friendship” was, in fact, written by a gay man, Saint Aelred, the abbot of the Cistercian monastery of Rievaulx in England in the mid-1160s. He had had sexual relationships with men in his younger years, but, vowing chastity as a monk, he sublimated these desires into an idea of intense celibate love for another man. He took as a model the relationship between Jesus and the “disciple whom Jesus loved,” John, describing it at one point even as a “marriage.” Aelred saw Jesus’ intimacy with John — at the Last Supper, as they reclined, John famously rested his head on Jesus’ chest — as a model for attaching to another person of the same sex, “to whom you can be united in the intimate embrace of the most sacred love … with whom you can rest, just the two of you, in the sleep of peace away from the noise of the world, in the embrace of love, in the kiss of unity.”
By the 12th century, priests and monks were writing love poems to one another in what Boswell describes as an “outburst of Christian gay literature still without parallel in the Western world.” But perhaps in response to this broad acceptance of gay spirituality, some began to campaign for a crackdown. Around 1051, Saint Peter Damian published a treatise, The Book of Gomorrah, whose rhetoric is strikingly similar to the online denunciations of our time: “absolutely no other vice can be reasonably compared with this one … [it] is in fact the death of the body, the destruction of the soul … it removes truth utterly from the mind.” He accused the church of being run by a gay cabal who covered for each other and gave one another absolution for their sins. The pope at the time, Leo IX, nonetheless refused to ban gay clergy and argued that the problem was those who had sex “as a long-standing practice or with many men.” An occasional lapse could be forgiven, if confessed. Francis and Leo IX would agree across the centuries.
Damian was a leading reformer of the church in his day, far beyond the gay-priest issue, and a synod in 1059 responded to all of his many proposals — except the one against gay clergy. Pope Alexander II even asked Damian for his only manuscript of The Book of Gomorrah in order to copy it. Instead, Alexander locked it up! When confronted with this, according to Damian, the pope “laughs and tries to placate me with the unctuous humor of urbanity.” In 1102, in a similar moment, the Council of London decided to promulgate a decree against the newly defined sin of “sodomy” — only to have the publication stopped by the archbishop of Canterbury, who remarked that “this sin has hitherto been so public that hardly anyone is embarrassed by it.”
The tide turned decisively in the 13th century with the theological genius Thomas Aquinas denouncing homosexual acts as “against nature.” All sex — heterosexual and homosexual — was to be reserved only for married couples open to procreation, and any other sexual activity was a grave sin. Homosexuals, in the new theology, were part of nature — many had noticed homosexual behavior in the animal kingdom, particularly among hares and hyenas — but they were also somehow contrary to nature. Aquinas never resolved this paradox. Neither has the church.
As the taboo deepened in the succeeding centuries, there is little reason to believe that gay priests disappeared, but most went more fully underground. Still, same-sex love remained a profound part of Catholic Christianity. The friendship that grew between Saint Ignatius of Loyola and Saint Francis Xavier, for example, created the Society of Jesus, or the Jesuits, in the 16th century. Ignatius sent Francis to evangelize Asia, and their long separation was a source of suffering for both. Francis once replied to a letter from Ignatius, “Among many other holy words and consolations of your letter, I read the concluding ones, ‘Entirely yours, without power or possibility of ever forgetting you, Ignatio.’ I read them with tears, and with tears now write them … You tell me how greatly you desire to see me before this life closes. God knows the profound impression that those words of great love made on my soul.” They never saw each other again.
The greatest Catholic theologian of the 19th century, Cardinal John Henry Newman, devoted his personal life to another man, Ambrose St. John. This does not mean the two had a sexual relationship (although they might have), but it does suggest that deep same-sex love was still alive in the highest echelons of the Catholic priesthood, even at the apex of Victorian repression and even in someone about to be celebrated as a saint. When St. John died, Newman wrote, “I have ever thought no bereavement was equal to that of a husband’s or a wife’s, but I feel it difficult to believe that any can be greater, or anyone’s sorrow greater, than mine.”
Newman famously converted from Anglicanism to Catholicism and was part of the reformist and aesthetic Oxford Movement, which was strongly influenced by homosexual men. He insisted — “as my last, my imperative will” — that he be buried in the same spot as St. John. On the gravestone, the words the two agreed on: “Out of shadows and phantasms into Truth.”
The greatest Catholic poet of the 19th century, the Jesuit priest Gerard Manley Hopkins, was gay; one of the deepest theologian-priests of the last century, Henri Nouwen, was as well. Both suffered bouts of deep depression. Again, there’s no evidence that either broke his vow of celibacy, but both fell in love, both struggled with loneliness, and both produced work of enormous beauty and spirituality. Nouwen’s greatest was a reflection on the parable of the Prodigal Son. One of Hopkins’s most famous poems, “Pied Beauty,” is a paean to “All things counter, original, spare, strange; / Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?) / … He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change. / Praise him.”
But why is the priesthood so gay? It is worth noting that the connection between homosexuality and spirituality is by no means restricted to Catholicism. Some evolutionary psychologists have found an ancient link between gay men and tribal shamanism. Carl Jung identified the archetypal gifts of the homosexual: “a great capacity for friendship, which often creates ties of astonishing tenderness between men”; a talent for teaching, aesthetics, and tradition (“to be conservative in the best sense and cherish the values of the past”); “a wealth of religious feelings, which help to bring the ecclesia spiritualis into reality; and a spiritual receptivity which makes him responsive to revelation.”
Among gay priests themselves, I heard a variety of explanations. Some described to me how their sense of displacement as boys and teens made them more sensitive to the needs of other marginalized people: “You were an outsider, and you can help other outsiders and welcome them in.” Another simply said, “We understand suffering.” Another spoke of the appeal of belonging to a religious community.
Others explained that they were drawn to the ritual of the church. “Catholicism was different, and I was different … I had a strong sense of mystical experience,” one told me. Catholicism is a faith centered on the Mass, where the body and the soul and the senses are as important as the mind. The Mass is, in some ways, a performance. And I’m not sure how to say this without indulging in stereotypes, but there is something about the liturgy, ritual, music, and drama that attracts a certain kind of gay man. These types — also found in the arts and scholarship — are sticklers for detail, ruthless about rules, and attuned to tradition and beauty. In many ways, the old, elaborate High Mass, with its incense and processions, color-coded vestments, liturgical complexity, musical precision, choirs, organs, and sheer drama, is obviously, in part, a creation of the gay priesthood. Their sexuality was sublimated in a way that became integral and essential to Catholic worship.
Then there is the common experience of a gay boy or teen, brought up in the church, who turns to God in struggling with the question of his difference and displacement from the normal. He is forced to ponder deeper questions than most of his peers, acquires powerful skills of observation, and develops a precocious spirituality that never fully leaves him. This resonates for myself as a Catholic boy and teen. The first person I ever came out to was God, in a silent prayer on my way to Communion. I was an altar boy, knew well how to swing a brass thurible full of incense, could debate the nuances of transubstantiation by the age of 11, and considered the priesthood as a vocation (I concluded I wasn’t good enough a person). Like many solitary gay Catholic boys, I saw in Jesus a model — single, sensitive, outside a family, marginalized and persecuted but ultimately vindicated and forever alive.
But there are other reasons for gay men to seek the priesthood that are far from healthy. The first is celibacy. If you were a young gay Catholic in centuries past, one way to avoid social ostracism, or constant questions about why you lacked an interest in girls or women, was to become a priest. (One priest also told me the most powerful force behind vocations to the priesthood had long been mothers, who, intuiting that a son was “not the marrying kind,” would encourage him to enter the church to save their family’s social standing.) This pattern, though much less severe than in the past, endures. A profound lack of self-esteem, fueled in part by the church’s homophobia, also led to some seeking the priesthood as a means to repress or somehow cure themselves.
“Before we’re even teenagers, we realize that this whole thing is an abomination,” said a priest I’ll call Father John. “And so we reach out to the teaching of the church and effectively say, ‘Fill me with what you are saying and I will become you. I will become a magisterial personality.’ ” By magisterial, he meant embodying the Magisterium, the formal teaching of the church. “In other words, ‘I’ve given up being me.’ And I have a feeling that’s why you meet so many of these guys who are really frighteningly gray and impersonal. At some stage, they’ve agreed in their lives not to be themselves.” I have seen this in many priests; unable to be themselves, they become personae, symbols, and ultimately caricatures or even embodied masks.
Often, this unconscious struggle breaks down. It is simply too difficult not to be oneself. Some cope through absurd flamboyance and high camp; others sink into depression. Alcoholism and addiction take over. “Oh my God,” Father Andrew told me, “when I came back to the church in 2010, I couldn’t get over how grossly obese these priests had become. They had been such athletes when they were young.” Another priest told me, “I buried it so deeply. And then I had a meltdown. It was one of those moments of wanting something to happen with a friend. One evening, when I left his place, I realized I really wanted to have a relationship with this guy. Then it came flowing out of me. I didn’t want to be that person. I didn’t want to be me.”
Other gay priests, more self-aware and cynical, find there is a career to be made in all of this falseness. From the 13th century onward, it’s easy to see how secretly gay men found in the church, and the church alone, a source of status and power. Marginalized outside, within they could become advisers to monarchs, forgive others’ sins, earn a stable living, enjoy huge privileges, and be treated instantly with respect. Everything was suppressed, no questions were asked in seminaries, and psychological counseling was absent (and even now is rare). Scarred, scared men became priests, and certain distinct patterns emerged.
One, as we have come to learn, was sexual acting out and abuse. To conflate sexual abuse with the gay priesthood, as many now reflexively do, is a grotesque libel on the vast majority who have never contemplated such crimes and are indeed appalled by them. It is classic scapegoating. At the same time, to decouple the sexual-abuse crisis entirely from the question of gay priests is a willful avoidance of an ugly truth. Pedophilia is a separate category outside the question of sexual orientation. But some abuse of male teens and young adults, as well as abuse of other priests, is clearly related to homosexuality gone horribly astray — and around a quarter of the reported cases involve 15- to 17-year-old victims.
The scale of it in the late 20th century was extraordinary — but, in retrospect, predictable. If you do not deal honestly with your sexuality, it will deal with you. If you construct an institution staffed by repressed and self-hating men and build it on secrecy and complete obedience to superiors, you have practically created a machine for dysfunction and predation. And the hideous truth is we will never know the extent of the abuse in centuries past or what is still going on, especially throughout places in the world (like Africa and Latin America) where robust scrutiny of the church is still sometimes taboo.
Another pattern was externalized homophobia: What you hate in yourself but cannot face, you police and punish in others. It remains a fact that many of the most homophobic bishops and cardinals have been — and are — gay. Take the most powerful American cardinal of the 20th century, Cardinal Francis Spellman of New York, who died in 1967. He had an active gay sex life for years while being one of the most rigid upholders of orthodoxy. Monsignor Tony Anatrella, an advocate for conversion therapy consulted by the Vatican, was recently suspended for sexual abuse of other men. One of Europe’s senior cardinals, Keith O’Brien of Scotland, described homosexuality as a “moral degradation” and marriage equality as “madness.” Sure enough, he was eventually forced to resign and leave the country after being accused of abusive sexual relationships with four other priests.
Anti-gay archconservative Cardinal George Pell was recently found guilty of sexual abuse of boys in Australia. The founder of the once hugely influential hard-right, anti-gay cult the Legion of Christ, Marcial Maciel, was found to have sexually abused countless men, women, and children. The leader of Church Militant, which is obsessed with gay priests, is a self-described “ex-gay.” This is a good rule: Those in the hierarchy obsessed with the homosexual question often turn out to be gay; those who are calmer tend to be straight.
Benedict XVI has described himself as a bookish boy, averse to sports.
His soft speech is strikingly effeminate; he was seen constantly in the company of his rather dashing private secretary, Georg Gänswein; and he bedecked himself in vestments of such extravagance they included ermine and custom red slippers. He was also the theologian who demonstrated a manic desire to police the slightest deviation from orthodoxy, who described gay people as “objectively disordered” and inclined toward an “intrinsic moral evil,” and who, after he banned gay priests, called them “one of the miseries of the church.” Even to suggest some kind of connection between all these aspects of someone who is also holy, celibate, and sensitive is to be accused of a disgusting insinuation. But this is because so many in the hierarchy still cannot see homosexuality as being about love and identity rather than acts and lust. As we uncover layer upon layer of dysfunction at the very top of the church, it may be time to point out how naked these bejeweled emperors can appear.
And this, of course, has added another layer of complexity to the story of gay priests: Generations matter. Those in their 70s and 80s grew up in a different universe, where the closet was automatic and the notion of even discussing gay priests was scandalous. One priest described that generation to me as “so closeted they might as well be in Narnia.” They may not even be aware they’re gay. But their reaction to the modern reexamination of homosexual love, and the consideration of sex as distinct from procreation, was panicked retrenchment. Those in their 50s or 60s or younger, by contrast, are generally much more self-aware, and their Catholic peers and families much more accepting. This generational difference is the source of much of the conflict within the church’s highest gay ranks.
At the beginning of the church’s third millennium, the sex-abuse crisis exploded into public consciousness. Suddenly the entire system of secrecy, clerical self-protection, cover-ups, and scandal was brutally exposed. For most gay priests, this was a huge relief. They were as appalled as anyone. But they knew, too, that the system now being dismantled had concealed not only the crimes and abuses of bad priests but also the sins and consensual adult sex of good ones. They had secrets too.
Remember: Celibacy is not an easy task. It is impossible for most human beings to avoid falling in love or physically expressing their sexual being at some point in their lives. In practice, these failures have often been confronted and confessed; as long as the priests are honest and recommit to celibacy, they are allowed to go forward. Some of the gay priests I spoke with acknowledged lapses but insisted that, in consultation with their spiritual directors and superiors, they chose celibacy when the choice became impossible to ignore or avoid. The goal, they explained, was to be free of any particular attachment so they could devote their entire selves to the church as a whole.
But most had some kind of past incident or failing that could be used against them if made public, even if it were only their identity as a gay man. And so a poisonous kind of omertà took hold, the priesthood acting as a forum of mutually assured destruction. Since many fellow priests know about each other’s sexuality and/or lapses, they all have the ability to blackmail one another. Mundane failings — like a brief affair — can become easily blurred with profound evils like child abuse. If you expose a child molester to his superior, for example, he might expose your own homosexuality and destroy your career.
This dynamic has made the clerical closet — not the fact of gay priests but the way that fact has been hidden — a core mechanism for tolerating and enabling abuse. On top of all this, the vow of obedience to superiors gives gay bishops and cardinals huge sway over their priestly flock. Some, of course, realized this power could be leveraged for sex and abused it.
New procedures for the protection of minors were put in place after 2002. But so much damage from the past has yet to be confronted. The McCarrick case in particular revealed that the pattern of concealment and toleration of abuse went to the very top of the church. John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis all protected abusers or chose not to confront them. That some of the sex criminals were also responsible for directing vast sums of money to the Vatican — Maciel and McCarrick were legendary for their fund-raising — makes the toleration seem particularly cynical.
We still do not know why, exactly, the traditionalist Benedict XVI decided to be the first pope to resign the office, but some were quick to note that he had compiled an extensive dossier on sexual abuse in the church … and yet somehow felt unable to act. Was he simply overwhelmed by the task, taken aback by the scale of it, and fearful that the entire church could collapse? Francis, in one of his first press conferences as pope, struck out on a different course. He reiterated the distinction between sins and crimes and, while denouncing abuse, did not insist on sexual perfection in the priesthood, as long as failures were confessed, sins absolved, and the priest was committed to a future of celibacy. Then he went further in allowing for good gay priests in the church: “The problem is not having this tendency, no; we must be brothers and sisters to one another.” The problem, he said, was if gays were to form some kind of faction or lobby within the church — but this, he explained, applied to any lobby: “a lobby of misers, a lobby of politicians, a lobby of Masons.”
Francis’s shift in tone outraged conservatives in the Vatican. (It also, perhaps, worried some powerful sex abusers, who recognized the role of the clerical closet in keeping everything quiet.) And when Francis sought the advice of McCarrick, a moderate liberal, those who knew about McCarrick’s abuse of seminarians erupted with anger. In one of the most dramatic acts of dissent in the history of the modern church, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, the former Vatican nuncio to the United States, released a letter in August claiming that McCarrick’s abuse had been known to both Benedict XVI and the Vatican since 2000; furthermore, Francis knew of McCarrick’s abuse since 2013 and was now part of a cover-up. Conservative commentators, like ex-Catholic Rod Dreher and the New York Times’ Ross Douthat, spoke of a potential new “schism,” with Dreher using slurs like “Lavender Mafia” to describe the threat he saw to established doctrine.
Viganò went further. He called on the pope to resign: “We must tear down the conspiracy of silence with which bishops and priests have protected themselves at the expense of their faithful, a conspiracy of silence that in the eyes of the world risks making the church look like a sect, a conspiracy of silence not so dissimilar from the one that prevails in the Mafia.” Viganò also named some of the more liberal cardinals who were protégés of McCarrick. “No one at the Vatican was fooled for one moment,” James Alison, a gay priest and theologian well sourced in church politics, told me. “This was about as close to a public outing as anybody except a journalist from outside the Catholic circle would attempt.” Alison believes this may have hurt Viganò’s case. “It frightened even some of Viganò’s more conservative allies into realizing that they could be outed as well if this came to a major intra-closet war.” So they pulled back. (The lull may be temporary. A book due out in February, In the Closet of the Vatican, by the French journalist Frédéric Martel, is said to contain extraordinary evidence of gay hypocrisy in the Vatican for several decades.)
But Viganò’s testimony on the key question — that an actively abusive homosexual cardinal was knowingly tolerated by John Paul II and Benedict XVI and consulted by Francis — had the ring of truth. Tellingly, when confronted with the accusation, Francis made no attempt to deny the charges, refused to release any documents that could disprove Viganò’s claims, and instead called for “silence” and prayer.
In September, Francis appeared to lose his equanimity. He equated Viganò’s letter with the work of the Devil: “In these times, it seems like the Great Accuser has been unchained and is attacking bishops. He tries to uncover the sins, so they are visible in order to scandalize the people.” He convened a global summit of cardinals to take place in Rome in February to discuss the entire question of sexual abuse in the church. It may well become a moment of reckoning for his papacy — and those of his two predecessors. It may force some kind of decision about the role of gay priests, clerical celibacy, and homosexuality across the church. It is clear to everyone that the current apparatus of secrecy, hypocrisy, abuse, and homophobia needs to end if the church’s moral authority has any chance of being restored. But how?
One possible option is the preference of the Catholic right: for all those implicated in the McCarrick cover-up to resign, including, one presumes, Francis (and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI?); for a massive investigation to be launched into how gay priests, bishops, and cardinals came to be so common and powerful; and for strict enforcement of the 2005 ban on priests. But purging the priesthood of “homosexual tendencies” would require removing up to a third of the clergy in the U.S. and dismissing scores of bishops and cardinals, including many who have maintained celibacy, preached orthodoxy, and lived exemplary lives. Countless lay Catholics would watch their priests be outed and fired by the church. How would they react?
The mass firings would brand the church as baldly homophobic and easily lead to mass resignations and a further decline in vocations. So be it, the traditionalists say. They want a much smaller, purer church. But few potential popes would want to be the one who precipitated the implosion. More to the point: It could make the problem worse. The church would lose all those priests who are adjusted enough to be honest about their orientation and keep all of those who are the most deeply damaged, closeted, and self-loathing. The potential for sexual abuse could increase.
A second option would be a fudge, a rerun of 2005, when the church said all gay priests should be fired and no gay men be admitted to the seminary … and then did nothing much about it. This would be, in some ways, the worst choice. It was precisely the simultaneous retention and anathematization of closeted gay priests that, over the decades, helped fuel the abuse and its cover-up.
A third option would simply encourage an end to the clerical closet, which is to say, ask all priests to obey one of the Ten Commandments: not to lie about themselves. It would require gay priests to identify as such to their superiors and parishioners and, in clearing the air, make a renewed public vow of celibacy. (Whether celibacy is healthy for the church is its own question, one oddly distinct from the current crisis; a relaxation of the rules wouldn’t in itself resolve the church’s position on homosexuality, and an embrace of homosexuality is compatible with a celibate priesthood.) Encouraging an end to the closet would underline the distinction the church formally makes between homosexual identity and homosexual acts. It would deter disturbed closet cases from entering the priesthood and provide priestly role models for gay Catholics who find themselves called to celibacy. Those gay priests who refused to be fully transparent could leave. Cardinals and bishops and directors of seminaries could insist on frank discourse on the matter. Double lives would become far less common. If a priest is committed to celibacy and doing a good job, why is his public gayness a problem?
The only obstacle standing in the way of this path is the homophobia formally embedded into church doctrine in 1986 by the future Benedict XVI. The church now explicitly teaches that gay people are “objectively disordered” because their very being leads them to an intrinsic moral evil. This “evil” is the orientation to have sex that cannot lead to procreation — the same reason the church opposes birth control for straight couples. The difference, of course, is that birth control is a choice, while gayness isn’t.
A better analogy would perhaps be the infertile, who also, simply because of the way they are, cannot have procreative sex. But the church does not call them “objectively disordered.” It eagerly marries them, as well as elderly straight couples. In fact, the church embraces every other minority, person with a disability, and individual persecuted or marginalized by society because of some involuntary characteristic. No other group of human beings is described by the church as “objectively disordered.”
At some point you realize that this is, in the end, the bottom line. There is a deep and un-Christian cruelty at the heart of the church’s teaching, a bigotry profoundly at odds with the church’s own commitment to seeing every person as worthy of respect, deserving of protection, and made in the image of God. It’s based on a lie — a lie that the hierarchy knows is untrue, and a lie proven untrue by science and history and the church’s own experience. “The hierarchy is tying itself in knots in public over something it has already conceded in private,” Father Leo explained to me. The task, it seems to me, is not to rid the church of homosexuality, which is an integral part of the human mystery, but of hypocrisy, dishonesty, and dysfunction. Impossible? I admit to, at times, a crushing fatalism. But I also believe, as a Catholic, that nothing is impossible with God.
On a Sunday morning in late 2017, at the conservative parish of St. Bernadette in Milwaukee, Father Gregory Greiten was extremely nervous. The next day, the National Catholic Reporter would be publishing an article he wrote in which he would come out as gay. No one in his congregation knew in advance, and now he was about to say Mass. He wanted to tell his own parish first.
Father Greg — yes, this is his real name — had gone to a high-school seminary, where some same-sex teen experimentation had gone on, and he’d been exposed as one of the culprits and outed to his family. “I totally had a meltdown the day my parents were called in,” he told me. “I was crying my eyes out … The scars that were left — they gave me PTSD for years.” He suppressed his sexuality and pursued what he saw as his calling to be a priest but suffered a breakdown over his gayness when he was 24. In time, he recovered and focused on his ministry, but after 25 years of celibate priesthood, he finally decided he couldn’t lie about himself anymore and retain his integrity. He found his way in 2017 to a retreat for gay priests run by New Ways Ministry, a gay-friendly Catholic group. “To come to a place where you could be so open and so honest — it was so liberating to be around people who just want to talk and be honest and follow their own path of authenticity.” It boosted his confidence.
He was worried about his pension and health insurance, but “I thought, Well, if you want to take the priesthood from me, take it … I’m not masquerading as a straight man to help the church ignore the matter anymore. I drank that poison most of the years of my life. If you need me to lie about who I am, then the priesthood is a sham.”
As we spoke, there was no anger in his voice, just a midwestern folksiness. He told me that the toll of the closet was immense on many around him, including suicides that had been hushed up. He was aware that it was relatively easy for him to come out; he knew his own record of celibacy was unblemished since he was 24. Others were more compromised and could be more easily targeted. If he wasn’t going to take the lead, who else would?
That Sunday morning, when he stood up to deliver his homily, he felt his mouth dry up. The church was packed, and as he started to tell his story, the silence was close to unbearable. He soldiered on. No response. Eventually, a woman stood up in the pews and he braced himself. “God bless you, Father! God bless you!” she yelled. And then, all at once, the congregation rose and applauded. At the end of the homily, another standing ovation.
He hasn’t looked back since. The archbishop of Milwaukee offered a public statement, regretting that Father Greg had come out but pledging to treat him with “understanding and compassion.” Greg told me he has had no personal interaction with the archbishop since he told him he’d be coming out. He did get a kind voice-mail on his birthday, though.
“This year has been one of the best years of my life,” Greg said. “I feel much closer to Jesus. Someone asked me if I had regrets and I said to him, ‘Do you know what freedom is? Because if you do, you wouldn’t have asked the question.’ All that energy that went into creating a false self … the banter … all that pretending is done. I wish other priests could have some of that freedom.” Then he offered something unexpected: “I want to say something about my mom. My mom has done for me what the church has never done — which is to love and respect me for who I am and who God has created me to be.” Maybe at some point, Mother Church will do the same.