When you are raised to believe that being gay is a sin, a vocation into the priesthood — in which celibacy is mandatory — may seem like the best way to make sure you’ll never give in to those temptations. But even among celibate priests, the threat of being outed is real — and can result in being defrocked and excommunicated.
The New York Times recently profiled several priests — some of whom asked to remain anonymous — on what it’s like to be a gay priest even when you don’t ever plan on having sex. The responses were as troubling as you might expect.
Fewer than about 10 priests in the United States have dared to come out publicly. But gay men probably make up at least 30 to 40 percent of the American Catholic clergy, according to dozens of estimates from gay priests themselves and researchers. Some priests say the number is closer to 75 percent. One priest in Wisconsin said he assumed every priest was gay unless he knows for a fact he is not. A priest in Florida put it this way: “A third are gay, a third are straight and a third don’t know what the hell they are.”
The environment for gay priests has grown only more dangerous. The fall of Theodore E. McCarrick, the once-powerful cardinal who was defrocked last week for sexual abuse of boys and young men, has inflamed accusations that homosexuality is to blame for the church’s resurgent abuse crisis.
It’s beyond frustrating that “homosexuality” and “pedophilia” keep being used interchangeably in the Catholic Church. Two same-sex adults engaging in a consensual relationship are not committing any crime. But given the Church’s long history of covering up abuse scandals, “consent” is not a concept that the higher-ups seem to understand very well.
Even before a priest may know he is gay, he knows the closet. The code is taught early, often in seminary. Numquam duo, semper tres, the warning goes. Never two, always three. Move in trios, never as a couple. No going on walks alone together, no going to the movies in a pair. The higher-ups warned for years: Any male friendship is too dangerous, could slide into something sexual or could turn into what they called a “particular friendship.”
“You couldn’t have a particular friendship with a man, because you might end up being homosexual,” explained a priest, who once nicknamed his friends “the P.F.s.” “And you couldn’t have a friendship with a woman, because you might end up falling in love, and they were both against celibacy. With whom do you have a relationship that would be a healthy human relationship?”
Virtually no one, with those restrictions. And just to be clear, no man has ever “turned gay” simply by being around other men. That’s not how it works.
Some gay priests admitted to finding ways around the Church’s celibacy rules. They’ve engaged in secret same-sex encounters or watched gay porn. Others have decided to come out, both to themselves and their congregations, regardless of the consequences. The shame of living in the closet was worse than the public censure, they said.
Pope Francis has announced a meeting of bishops in Rome to discuss the issue of child abuse within the priesthood. Gay priests are worried that the event won’t consist of any real education or awareness but will instead blame homosexuality as the root cause. They have every right to be concerned.
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