Back in the early 1970s, Brian McNaught was one of the early gay Catholic advocates. Having been fired from his reporter job at the Detroit archdiocesan newspaper when it was revealed that he was gay, McNaught held a hunger strike outside the chancery office in protest of the injustice. He went on to write several books about being a gay Catholic, and he has had a successful career as a coprorate diversity educator.
McNaught returned to the Catholic press recently with a thoughtful essay in The National Catholic Reporter, reflecting on two recent stories where clerics have had a secret gay life revealed: Cardinal Keith O’Brien in Scotland, who has been accused of inappropriate sexual conduct by four men, and Msgr. Kevin Wallin, a Connecticut priest who was arrested for dealing crystal meth as a way to pay for his drug and sex addicted behaviors.
McNaught takes a “there but for the grace of God approach” to these stories, particularly Wallin’s, noting that the real problem was not these men’s sexuality, but the fact that they had to hide and repress it:
“Had I pursued the path to the seminary, I suspect I would have been a very popular priest. I care deeply about the well-being of others. I’m funny, love people, am young at heart, am spiritual, independent, a good speaker and a minister at the core of my being. I’d also have been a closeted gay man whose guilt and fear about sex would have made me a prime candidate for acting out inappropriately — not with children, but with other men. Because I have a compulsive personality, I’d become addicted to drugs if someone introduced me to them in the context of sex. I would have had sex and taken drugs in the attempt to leave no stone unturned in my search for self-understanding and affirmation. Without the intervention of wise, strong, loving friends, I would have ended up looking in the mirror wondering in horror and shame what had happened to the sweet young man who entered the seminary because he wanted to live a life of loving service.”
With frank and healing honesty, McNaught acknowledges temptations that have seduced him, and humbly acknowledges the courage it takes to resist them:
“I chose to come out of the closet in my 20s because I couldn’t breathe. I chose to quit drinking and smoking pot in my 40s to stop making a fool of myself and to enhance the quality of my relationship with Ray. Despite my feelings of lust for attractive, well-built men and my need for affirmation of my aging body, I choose not to pursue gratification in an air-brushed reality and instead be grateful for the intimacy I share with Ray in our everyday lives. I chose a life of awareness.
“Most other gay men I know feel as I do. They’re aware of their anxiety that their families, neighbors and co-workers will judge them by the reckless behavior of other gay men. It’s not that they haven’t thought about doing everything scandalous that they read about in the paper or hear about from friends, but they know they will have to sacrifice everything good in their lives if they head down that path of sexual obsession. There is sympathy and empathy in my house and in the homes of my gay friends for the gay men whose names appear in ‘shocking’ news reports. No one feels superior to those men who got caught or who got AIDS. The most important feelings we have are those of gratitude for the circumstances that enabled wise decision-making and compassion because we know poor choices made by others often represent our shared weaknesses.”
McNaught laments that recent sex scandals means that “the sweet, innocent church of our youth can no longer recognize itself in the mirror.” But gay priests, even addicted ones, are not to blame for this problem. McNaught identifies what he sees as the real cause of this tragedy:
“Much of it is due to the addiction of Benedict XVI and other popes to control, secrecy and tradition. Like the lives of gay men who also made wrong choices, the Vatican is a mess. I’m grateful my spirituality is no longer impacted by the scandalous addictions of the church, and I’m compassionate knowing I have the same weaknesses that made the pope and the cardinal archbishop of Scotland behave the way they did.”
As many of us pray that our new Pope Francis will be more open to LGBT Catholics, let’s keep in mind these other victims of the Vatican’s hard-line approach to sexuality. Church leaders are hurting not only other people, but themselves, too, when they view sexuality narrowly as sexual acts, and ignore the deep human need for relationship and love that underpins it. One of the pope’s title is “servant to the servants of God.” Let us hope that Francis takes this title seriously and serves his ministers who are suffering because of their stunted and repressed sexuality.
Many thanks to Brian McNaught for highlighting this issue with such honesty and compassion!
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry