Pope Benedict XVI, who is visiting the United States this week, is gaining attention for apparently drawing a distinction between homosexual priests and pedophile priests: "I would not speak at this moment about homosexuality, but pedophilia, which is another thing. And we would absolutely exclude pedophiles from the sacred ministry." In 2005, Michael Sean Winters argued against the "hypocrisy of trying to hang the sexual abuse crisis around the neck of gay priests, most of whom are celibate and hardworking."
Last year, I stumbled upon the Web site of a Catholic parish church, the pastor of which has been a friend of mine since we were in seminary together in the 1980s. Among the sermons on the site was one dealing with the sexual abuse scandal that roiled the church in 2002. In this sermon, the priest repeated the conservative line that the scandal was largely the result of homosexual men failing to keep their vows. This did not surprise me because I knew my friend was conservative.
But I also knew he was gay. I was undisturbed because I have long believed that the accident of being gay should not prevent someone from holding whatever ideological inclinations they find compatible with the complex yearnings of their minds and hearts. I considered my friend's analysis facile and wrong, but not offensive per se until he used the pronoun "they" to describe gay men. It was with genuine concern and in a spirit of fraternal correction that I wrote my friend a note calling his attention to the fact that in English, when referring to a group of which one is a part, "we" is the proper pronoun.
I thought of this exchange last week, as news reports filled the airwaves that the Vatican was about to ban gay priests, and my e-mail inbox and answering machine were jammed with messages of alarm, anger, and frustration. Not all messages came from gay priests; all asked me to join them in calling or writing to anyone who might be able to prevent this disaster, which I happily did. News of the purported ban seems to have been spread by right-wing gossips in the church who were trying to advance a document on seminary practices that has been in the drafting stages for years. According to the New York Times, the document would declare that gay men are unfit for orders and should not be permitted to enter seminary. Pope Benedict has not yet signed the document, but anonymous church officials quoted by the Times say the Vatican will soon finalize it. Church conservatives assert that the ban would represent no real shift because—they claim—barring gays from seminaries has long been church policy. In practice, the American church has been receptive to chaste, gay seminarians.
Benedict's allies have been pushing such a ban for years. Some claimed that the document was in the final stages when John Paul II's health went into steep decline last spring. But John Paul II never permitted anti-gay witch hunts. The Communists had used such tactics to smear clerics it did not like, and John Paul never permitted similar whispering campaigns to prosper. Since the election of Benedict, the right-wingers in the church have been clamoring for this document. In addition to restricting the priesthood to their own, they want to use it to help lay the entire blame for the sexual abuse crisis on homosexual priests.
The problem with such a ban is twofold. First, banning gay seminarians will only drive the issue underground, precisely the situation before the sexual revolution permitted people—even priests—to be more honest about their sexuality. The most notorious clerical child molesters were all ordained before the sexual revolution and before the changes wrought in the church by the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). Secrecy and silence encourage immaturity and duplicity, necessary precursors for inappropriate sexual behavior. Second, as my exchange with my friend indicates, many of those priests the right wing considers "their own" are also gay, and only a willful ignorance would fail to see it.