Church statements keep the door closed on gays

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If you had a beautiful plant that you were very fond of, you would not put it in your garage. And you certainly would not hide it away in a coat closet.

If you were really attached to your dog or cat, it’s hard to imagine that you would keep it locked up in a cage or chained to a post in your backyard.

No, you wouldn’t do any of that, because plants and animals are living and wonderful things, and when you have affection for them, you make sure they get all the air and sun and space they need to remain healthy and to grow. You do all you can to affirm them and help them bloom.

One expects the Catholic church and its pastors to have the same attitude toward their people. Church teachings, directives and pastoral practices should help all persons flourish and become fully themselves.

Unfortunately, that is not the case for those of us who are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender persons.

The church’s official doctrine and the practice of most of its bishops (and too many religious superiors) do exactly what normal people would never do to their prized plants or beloved pets. They put us in closets and do all they can to keep us there.

And they do much worse than that, as Bishop Robert Lynch of St Petersburg, Florida, recently had the courage to point out.

“Sadly it is religion, including our own, which targets, mostly verbally, and also often breeds contempt for gays, lesbians and transgender people,” he said in response to the June 12 massacre that killed 49 people at a LGBT dance club in nearby Orlando.

Lynch was one of the few U.S. bishops who condemned this horrendous act as a hate crime or act of terror aimed specifically at the LGBT community. Others, including the president and other officers of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, seemingly could not bring themselves to even acknowledge publicly that the murders took place at a gay establishment.

Many people have already written about this and provided a variety of opinions and analyses. Our sisters and brothers at New Ways Ministry, in particular, have again led the discussion on the church and its relation to LGBT persons.

But one issue no one seems be discussing is the effect the church’s teaching on homosexuality has on homosexually-oriented priests and bishops, both those who know themselves to be gay and those who are in denial. In my experience, most of the priests in either category are in some way closeted.  Very few feel safe or comfortable enough to openly admit they are gay men, including those who are exemplary models of a celibate lifestyle.  

Closeted homosexuality among the clergy -- especially in the hierarchy -- is one of the most serious pathologies that continues to hamper our ordained ministers from being prophetic leaders.

In one sense, these brothers and fathers in the faith community, are the first and most tragic victims of a faulty and hurtful teaching of which they are expected to be the authentic teachers and spokesmen.

Laypersons who identify as belonging to the LGBT community wince or get angry at times with the church and its ministers over the issue of homosexuality, but more and more of us who have chosen to remain Catholic refuse to be kept in the closet. That’s because experience has taught us that being hidden away in a dark, airless place can only breed illness and disease. The closet is always an unhealthy place -- socially, psychologically, physically and spiritually.

It is amazing that our self-acknowledged gay priests (again, most of them seem to be closeted) are as effective as they are. Perhaps their suffering in silence has made them more compassionate to the hurts of others. Or maybe it’s because they have embraced their stereotypical "gay gene" that renders them more sensitive and at the service of others.

These gay priests are truly heroic men. Some are wounded healers. Some are paramours of the celibate priesthood as a life given unreservedly to others. They stumble along the way -- some by cultivating a committed, intimate (even sexual) relationship; others by finding, on occasion, an intimacy they know is not perfectly in keeping with their vows they have made.

These priests suffer. First, because they are forced to hide their true sexual identity. And, second, because they are ashamed that other gay people see them as representatives of a religion that discriminates against their very selves.

Some of them find the courage to leave. Others, especially if they did not "own" their homosexual identity until many years after ordination, are stuck. They are too old to move on to a gainful occupation.

But regardless of the reason, those who stay in ministry mostly do so because they continue to feel called to serve the People of God, despite the fact that the official doctrine of the Church tells them one of the constitutive parts of their personal make-up and identity is an "objective disorder" and, worse, "it is a more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil."

There is another category of "gay priests." They are men who are homosexually oriented but refuse to admit this even to themselves. In this way, they unwittingly inflict their own unacknowledged suffering and pathology on others by mercilessly preaching a rigid morality and insisting on a strict adherence to the letter of every ecclesiastical law.

These are the tightly buttoned-up types, in every sense of the word. And so many of them tend to find their identity in the traditionalist wing of the church.

We gay and lesbian Catholics (and Vatican II Catholics, as well) too often mock them. But we are wrong to do so. These men are more to be pitied than scorned. They -- perhaps more than all others -- are also victims of church-sanctioned homophobia because, in their zeal to rigidly accept and to preach every iota of Catholic doctrine, they are denied any opportunity to recognize and accept their true sexual identity.

The most up-to-date Vatican teaching on homosexuality dates from the pontificate of John Paul II. The then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and his aides at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith drafted it.  

And one of the main practical results and assertions is that LGBT Catholics should keep their homosexuality hidden from others.

"As a rule, the majority of homosexually oriented persons who seek to lead chaste lives do not publicize their sexual orientation," says a letter that Ratzinger’s office issued in 1993 regarding proposed laws against LGBT discrimination.

That document favorably notes that "the problem of discrimination in terms of employment, housing, etc., does not usually arise" when homosexuals are closeted.

But the Vatican teaching on homosexually is even more insensitive -- indeed, cynical -- when it comes to admitting gay-oriented men to Catholic seminaries. It was issued by the Congregation for Education in November 2005, just six months after Ratzinger became pope. One of its main authors is a priest-psychologist from Paris, Msgr. Tony Anatrella, who has been accused of sexually abusing seminarians who were his patients.

The "instruction" basically imposes a "don’t tell policy" on prospective seminary candidates. That’s because anyone who affirms he is gay should not be admitted to priestly formation programs, even if he expresses the desire to live chaste celibacy.

The effect of the instruction has been to drive seminarians and priests -- and bishops -- further into the closet. The declarations from many bishops after the attack at the LGBT nightclub in Orlando clearly attest that they fear even mentioning gay people. 

If bishops truly loved their gay priests and LGBT people, they would open the closet doors and let in some much-need light and fresh air. They’d surely do at least that much for their pets and their plants. 

[Robert Mickens is editor-in-chief of Global Pulse. Since 1986, he has lived in Rome, where he studied theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University before working 11 years at Vatican Radio and then another decade as correspondent for The Tablet of London.]

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