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Spotlight Report

RELIGION

The spectrum of belief

The dialogue on gays in the Catholic priesthood is also casting new light on the needs of a far larger group: gays in the congregation

By Chuck Colbert, 3/31/2002

The scandal of clerical sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church has had a widespread ripple effect in recent weeks, prompting increasingly frank and free-wheeling discussions about human sexuality and gender. The topic of gay priests, gay men, and lesbians in the life of the church is suddenly front and center.

While the idea of ordaining women raises hierarchical blood pressure, the increasing presence of gay Catholics - and significant number of gay priests - triggers near apoplexy in some church officials.

Nobody knows how many priests are gay, but estimates range from 20 to 50 percent. Whatever the number, there is a growing acknowledgment that there are more gay priests than the institutional church would like to admit. Yet even as it becomes clearer that there are thousands of gays in the priesthood, that fact is now bumping up against harsh calls to purge the priesthood and seminaries of gay men and to reinforce stricter teaching on homosexuality.

Without doubt, gay priests and laity are vital to the church's apostolic mission, and that dichotomy is a source of internal tension. Increasingly, pressures from within and without are challenging church doctrine and pastoral practices on sexuality and ministering to gay Catholics.

These forces were evident in Louisville, Ky., earlier this month when New Ways Ministry, a self-described national Catholic ministry of justice, dialogue, and reconciliation, held its fifth national symposium. The conference was called ''Out of Silence God Has Called Us: Lesbian/Gay Issues and the Vatican II Church.''

The organization's name comes from a 1976 pastoral letter by Bishop Francis J. Mugavero of the Brooklyn diocese, who called for the church to find new ways of reaching out to gays. Sister Jeannine Gramick and the Rev. Robert Nugent cofounded the group in 1977 to provide pastoral ministry for gay and lesbian Catholics. Nearly 600 people from across the United States and Canada, including members of women's religious orders, parents of gays, and priests, brothers, and deacons, attended the symposium.

Organizers issued a groundbreaking 12-point strategic plan titled ''Lesbian/Gay Ministry in the Catholic Church: A Vision for the Future,'' which called for the church ''to find new ways to communicate the truth of Christ to lesbian and gay people.'' One session and workshop after another pushed the pastoral and theological envelopes, exploring subjects of interest to teachers and principals, campus and youth ministers, seminary leaders and parish workers.

Before the symposium got underway, Vatican officials directed local Archbishop Thomas Kelly to forbid the saying of Mass at the event. After consulting with canon lawyers, however, New Ways leaders determined that they did not need permission to celebrate Mass. Wearing a rainbow-colored alb as he officiated, retired Bishop Leroy Matthiesen of Texas was the image of solidarity with gay Catholics. Rainbow-colored banners - visible symbols of the gay community and pride - graced the background setting for the liturgy.

''I experienced a feeling of unity and solidarity,'' said the Rev. Richard P. Lewandowski, pastor of St. Camillus de Lellis Parish in Fitchburg.

Like Lewandowski, many attendees were priests. Some of them were gay. One workshop addressed challenges that gay priests and religious brothers face in dealing with sometimes hostile church leadership.

Gay priests in attendance were aware of earlier remarks by Joaquin Navarro-Valls, a Spanish-born psychiatrist and director of the Holy See's press office. ''People with homosexual inclinations just cannot be ordained,'' Navarro-Valls told The New York Times in a March 3 article. They ''cannot be in this field,'' he said.

Though distressed by Navarro-Valls's statement, some gay priests at the meeting were willing to discuss their experiences. The Rev. Ralph Parthie, a Franciscan, spoke of ''the turmoil inside of me for a long time'' before coming to full self-acceptance of a gay identity. Parthie told how he ''retreated in silence,'' grasping onto the positive words he received from a spiritual director: ''No matter what, God loves you,'' he was advised. ''I always held onto the image of God, who comes to us as we are,'' Parthie said.

Gay brothers and priests talked about their loneliness and need to connect with other gay clergy. They asked, ''How do people become mature [in their human sexuality] within a celibate context?'' They said they wanted to learn how to speak honestly about the ''sexual experience we do know about and [know] occurs.'' Others asked how open to be with fellow priests, parishioners, and the wider community. Still others wanted to know how to seek support from the gay laity.

While the gay clergy sought answers, members of the laity pressed for change. The church's hierarchical structure came under fire when Eugene Kennedy, author of ''The Unhealed Wound: The Church and Human Sexuality,'' minced few words during the opening session. ''Church as hierarchy has collapsed,'' he said, comparing the nationwide clerical sexual abuse of children to the collapse of the World Trade Center.

A closing session featured Gregory Baum, a religious studies professor emeritus at McGill University. Baum, a key figure at the liberalizing Second Vatican Council, focused on homosexual love and the church's natural law tradition. ''The entire teaching of sexuality must be reviewed,'' Baum said, before the church undertakes any serious consideration of gay love or marriage for gays.Yet some symposium attendees were already rethinking both secular and sacramental marriage for gays. Theologian Susan Ross, author of ''Extravagant Affections: A Feminist Sacramental Theology,'' discussed the topic, as did others.

Both Matthiesen and Bishop Thomas Gumbleton of Detroit made a case for primacy of conscience in moral matters. Matthiesen stressed its ''inviolability'' as ''our most sacred core and sanctuary, where we are alone with God, whose voice echoes in our depths.'' Gumbleton said, ''We don't put people out of the church for following their conscience.''

While the Louisville symposium was addressing these weighty matters, in Boston the topic of gay priests began to surface in official archdiocesan publications. Here too, the discussion is widening and deepening on what it means to be gay and Catholic, both among the laity and in the priesthood.

''Does priesthood, in fact, attract a disproportionate number of men with a homosexual orientation?'' asked the executive editor of The Pilot, Monsignor Peter V. Conley, in an editorial published on March 15. ''Regarding the question of homosexual orientation and the priesthood,'' Conley wrote, ''is sexual orientation an either/or? How do we know anyone's sexual orientation unless they candidly admit it or their past history confirms it? Is there a valid screening tool that can evaluate such an interior world?''

The Pilot also published a Catholic News Service story two weeks ago that quoted from a 1961 Vatican document that described ''homosexuality'' as a ''perverse inclination'' and said that living in priestly ministry would entail for a gay priest ''grave danger'' and involve a ''continuous heroic act and painful martyrdom.'' That article prompted any number of Catholics to wonder why the call to celibacy and chastity is more difficult for any human being - ordained or not, gay or heterosexual.

In a March 22 Pilot op-ed article titled ''On the Origins of Same-Sex Love,'' psychiatrist Richard Fitzgibbons blamed ''homosexual activists'' and their ''agenda'' for persuading ''so many good Catholics that same-sex attraction is genetically determined.'' He continued, ''The majority of persons experiencing same-sex attraction have histories'' including ''childhood traumas, developmental deficits, and/or relationship problems.''

But psychotherapist Charles Martel chafed at Fitzgibbons's approach. ''It's a return to a shame-based model,'' he said, ''a pathological understanding of homosexual orientation at odds with all the major psychological and psychiatric associations.'' Martel added, ''Our professional understanding of homosexual orientation is not as a disorder. Rather, homosexuality falls along the continuum of human sexuality.''

''Positive self-regard is critical,'' he said, ''to counter internalized self-loathing and rejection, which is so deeply damaging to gay people.'' Martel also expressed concern about parents who read The Pilot. ''I wonder about their sense of themselves as parents,'' he said. ''Some husbands and wives may be misled into thinking `we're to blame for the children.'''

If there is good news in the tug of war in the debate, perhaps it lies in local church officials beginning, albeit clumsily, to address sexual orientation out loud. Still, tension persists, raising the question: Is there any good reason why our spiritual leaders cannot join with the laity in an honest and open dialogue about homosexuality, and gay priests and laity?

Perhaps Raymond Flynn, former ambassador to the Vatican and mayor of Boston, could mediate such an undertaking. Or Dr. John Haas, a Catholic theologian and executive director of the National Catholic Bioethics Center, could help build bridges between the local dioceses and the gay community. Maybe then both the local and universal church would be able to take significant steps toward a ministry that is both welcoming and affirming for gays.

If Cardinal Law's track record in healing racial discord and mending rifts between Catholics and Jews is any measure of potential for progress, we have reason for real hope this Easter.

Chuck Colbert of Cambridge, a candidate for a master of divinity degree at the Weston Jesuit School of Theology, writes often for the National Catholic Reporter.

This story ran on page E1 of the Boston Globe on 3/31/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.


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