What’s the Real Problem When Clerics Are Revealed to Be Gay?

Brian McNaught

Brian McNaught

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

0 replies
  1. Christine Thomas
    Christine Thomas says:

    Brian’s deep compassion reflects the Spirit that permeated the life of Jesus. My hope is that this article will make its way through the UCCB and on to the Vatican. Brian’s is a voice we MUST HEAR.

    Reply
  2. Charlie LoPresto
    Charlie LoPresto says:

    Brian McNaught is, and has been for many years, one of the brightest and clearest thinking gay Catholics I have ever heard. As an educator, I have played parts of his PBS special “On Being Gay” for many of my students; his honesty and ability to touch hearts is indeed an amazing gift. Twenty years later, he continues on. Thank you, Frank, for sharing.

    Reply
  3. tomfluce
    tomfluce says:

    Brian McNaught’s answer to his question has just about completely stopped me for the last 3 days from working on my main involvement with human rights in Haiti. I found myself reacting negatively to Brian’s run-up points from the outset and then with his answer, “…Much of it is due to the addiction of Benedict XVI and other popes to control, secrecy and tradition.” This answer borders too closely on a cop-out.

    I don’t disagree with Brian’s “there but for the grace of God go I”, or “there is sympathy and empathy…”. Same with “..most other gay men I know feel as I do..namely that we (gays) will be judged…by the reckless behavior of other gay men… no one feels superior to those men who got caught…the most important feelings we have are gratitude for the circumstances that enabled wise decision-making…” His reputation as a deeply spiritual and caring person certainly has to have been built on such foundational reactions to even serious crimes such as Brother Wallin’s.

    Here’s where I started objecting, though,, “…It’s not that they haven’t thought about doing everything scandalous that they read about in the paper or hear about from friends…” Wow! Is he really saying that because we are “gay” we have “thought about doing everything scandalous…”? Sorry, I can’t stay on this trajectory–being gay makes us more susceptible than heteros to perverse, and/or criminal behaviors, that we have to have more help in “wise decision-making”? And then his final answer, “…the real problem was not these men’s sexuality, but the fact that they had to hide and repress it.” IT? Same-sex/gender attraction? SGO? Hiding it and repressing it predisposes us to what has given us such a bad name over the course of history? Not to the extent explicitly described by Brian.

    Because of my current stoppage due to Brian’s and Bonding’s article I’ve ended up borrowing from Amazon a copy of Randy Engel’s “Rite of Sodomy”. Holy Moly! I’ve just waded through her first Vol. The entire world history of the criminal behaviors of homosexuals and the laws written to punish them. I staunchly believe the contrary to what Randy would have us believe, namely, just being SGO is certainly a predisposition to a criminal, sex-obsessed saga ending in prison and suicide. I’m still resisting Brian’s statement that we SGO’s think of “doing everything scandalous.”

    The reason for my almost total distraction is, of course, my personal involvement with the rights of LGBT people. Now 75 years old; ordained a priest in ‘63 in Rome; 13+ years of faithful celibacy and ministry; then married to a woman in ‘70, now completing 43 faithful years, with 3 children, 3 grand kids; publicly “self-outed” in 2000 in my home town as SGO (same gender oriented–my term to avoid the catchall “G” word) as Vermont proceeded to establish “civil unions”. I’ve been working openly for 13 years to publicly, as well as in the Church, establish SGO as a God-given nature completely capable of holiness in striving to build stable, sexual, life-nourshing same-sex unions worthy of the title, “marriage.”

    O.K. I found myself asking myself, “Am I an oddball?” “Am I under sexed?” “Am I one of those intolerable ‘holier-than-thou’ people?” How come I never had thoughts about doing everything scandalous…?” (I mean really scandalous like abusing minors, blackmailing innocent people, injuring, even killing people, as part of my sex-crazed existence?) Was I a total weirdo because I followed “abstinence” in adolescence as the loving, respectable way to grow in self-control toward a successful union of lovers? (all right I had no notion of SGO marriage then.) Was I in a minority of guys faithful to celibacy during my eight years in seminary and 3+ short years before I married in 1970? Was I just giving into my sex drive and denying my SGO when I married? (See further on about this.)

    Thanks to Bondings for introducing me to Brian. This seeming disagreement isn’t total. Yeah, I’ve learned a good bit in the last days. I was living and raising my kids and fighting desegregation in Boston (1967-1982) when Brian became Mayor Kevin White’s Liaison to the Gay and Lesbian Community, the time when Dignity was pioneering advocacy for LGBT people. I was preoccupied with family and neighborhood issues and settling into a Quaker community so I did not have LGBT rights as a major struggle. I was very pleasantly surprised to read that Brian has experienced some negative reactions within the “gay” community–differences about what “gay” entails. As soon as I “self-outed” in 2000 I was immediately questioned about my remaining in a “hetero” marriage. I was invited to group sex and pot parties. For me, an SGO, sexual pleasure does not trump the higher relationships we have with partners, family, community. Dump my wife of 30 years? Divide my children? Recently I’ve been “redefined” as a “bi” by a person who thinks SGO means paralysis of sexual plumbing and aversion to the female body. Not. Another person, a clergyman leading church reform, told me that the “gay” community won’t accept me by just “talking the talk”. I would have “to walk the walk” and take up a male partner!

    Unlike Brian I haven’t written much down about my own journey. (See for a bit of a blog.) I certainly would like to think that with this disagreement with Brian, I’m trying to be a “Godfather in gay sensitivity training” after the NYT gave him this title. No, I want to acknowledge the benefits of what I would call a happy Catholic taboo on sex. Because of this “taboo” communicated by my loving family and friends, I escaped being bludgeoned, terrified, by the negative version of the sex taboo many of my generation suffered from, namely, that sex is dirty and paves the road to hell. I emerged from childhood with a positive admiration for sexuality as something beautifully expressed in the structure of bodies, accompanied by a pleasure to be “saved” for marriage.

    I followed the church teachings about self-control by building my mind and body for fulfillment as an adult in the “procreation” of life within a lifelong commitment to nurturing life. As I became smitten with a vocation to the priesthood sometime around the 4th grade, I was able to develop the spiritual skills needed to prepare for a lifetime of selfless dedication completely without sexual pleasure to serving justice in the image of Jesus. Duh, this may sound pretty hokey for a young kid–but it’s my 75 year old understanding of me as a kid–and I believe countless others, whether clergy or lay ministers who serve the poor. Likewise when I realized that priests–in general, not every last one– needed the life experience of marriage in order to serve the people competently, I began to allow the many pleasures and the lofty spiritual dimensions of physical, co-creative love develop in my soul and body. My marriage was genuine, but not sex-driven with our first child arriving almost 9 mos after the wedding. I’ve worked hard to learn all its lessons. My SGO status did not drive me crazy.

    What I’m trying to say is that Brian, understandably, and Bondings too, want to point out the very Christian reaction to transgressions like Brother O’Brien’s and Brother Wallins. And I understand their critique that church teachings regarding sexuality–all the divisions of it–have grievously hurt the development of all of us. My own drive for reform comes from the open wound in my soul because of those who commit suicide over the church’s totally erroneous teaching about “disordered”, “sinful.” But I still want to say that “my happy Catholic taboo” saved me, a country-bumpkin, from being attacked by the horrors we read about concerning the real crimes of “homosexuals”, “perverts”, “pederasts”, “pedophiles”. I admit to being turned off by these stories and even by the behaviors of people in “gay” pride parades. It took me until age 60 to figure out that SGO is something fixed in my nature, not one of several spots on a continuum of sexual relations. The “taboo” has to be revised, obviously, and that is what I’m working as hard as I can to do. (Well, I would call it “theology of sexuality” not a taboo.)

    Because of my current stoppage due to Brian’s and Bonding’s article I’ve ended up borrowing from Amazon a copy of Randy Engel’s “Rite of Sodomy”. Holy Moly! I’ve just waded through her first Vol. The entire world history of the criminal behaviors of homosexuals and the laws written to punish them. I staunchly believe the contrary to what Randy would have us believe, just being SGO is certainly a predisposition to a criminal, sex-obsessed saga ending in prison and suicide. I’m still resisting Brian’s statement that we SGO’s think of “doing everything scandalous.”

    What I want to end this on is the question I’ve been throwing around Catholic circles without a whole lot of answers. All of us theologians, grown ups, have written and do read the best of theology and psychology concerning sexuality and we’ve made up our own minds on most questions. All the pro-LGBT groups like New Ways have paved the way for the marvelous arrival of same sex marriage. But apart from the stories of those numerous loving sexual relationships that merit praise and imitation from out of the movement toward same-sex marriage, I’m wondering what we have been preparing for life span sex education materials, starting in the home and on through all levels of school into adulthood? Have you heard of the program, “O.W.L.”? “Our Whole Lives” The Unitarian Universalists and the United Church of Christ have been working on this challenge since at least 2000. A curriculum from K through adult integrating the best in sexology. With this in our hands–all LGBT’s, families and allies–can certainly put us all on a healthy, positive track to face life’s temptations.

    httpCOLONwwwDOTorgSLASHreSLASHowl for the UU’s. httpCOLONSlashSlashwwwDOTuccDOTorgSlashjusticeSlashsexuality-education

    Reply
  4. tomfluce
    tomfluce says:

    America Magazine has an editorial comment that speaks directly to what I was trying to get at the above long post. It’s in the March 25 issue on p. 4. “Mainstream Celibacy” I’ll try pasting the URL here although I know you don’t allow it. http://americamagazineDOTorgSLASHissueSLASHcurrent-comment-5

    I’ll just paste a statistic from the editorial. They, like me, are struck by the notion in the media (and the Church for that matter) that gay and/or celibate priests are at least suspicious/vulnerablel to sex addictions and therefore sex crimes. Here is what America says:
    “But it rarely seems to dawn on some essayists that they already know many celibate people—unmarried men and women, widows and widowers, for example—who are not child molesters. Second, it seems impossible to them that someone could forego sexual intimacy and not be either sick or crazy and certainly lonely. Yet a survey by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate in 2009 showed that a staggering 97 percent of priests (that would be celibate priests) are “very happy” or “pretty happy”—two thirds of them being “very happy.” Celibacy and loneliness rank relatively low as “problems” for them. High among “sources of satisfaction” was the “opportunity to work with many people and be part of their lives.”

    So I am still wondering if I was a minority as a fulfilled celibate and actually gay priest for 13+ years. And now 43 years married to a woman? Does the sex drive trump everything?

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