Why Do Conversations About Gay Priests Always Focus on Celibacy?

As we mentioned in Tuesday’s Bondings 2.0 post, Chicago’s Fr. Michael Shanahan came out as a gay man in an article published in The Washington Post.  The article detailed both many challenging experiences that gay priests face, and it also spoke about their deep spirituality and love of ministry.  Yet, in the past two days, other news outlets have picked up on the Post’s story, but the only thing that they have focused on is the fact that Fr. Shanahan came out  in the article.

s-first-united-lutheran-church-largeI’m happy that the idea that there are gay men in the Catholic priesthood is getting some publicity, and I applaud Fr. Shanahan’s decision 100%.  I am a little surprised that the media have jumped on this story in this particular way.

For example the CBS station in Chicago featured Fr. Shanahan’s announcement both on television and online.  But even though Fr. Shanahan’s quotations in his story spoke about his interior struggles and his dedication to ministry, the CBS segment focused on celibacy.  More than half the article is devoted to the topic.  If a priest in a news article said that he was heterosexual, would the topic of celibacy be raised by others?  I think not.  I think a bias still exists in society that gay=sexually active, so that acknowledgment of a gay orientation implies that a person may be more inclined to be involved with sexual activity.

The news media, however, are not the only ones to blame for this focus on celibacy.  The church hierarchy promotes this kind of thinking.  The CBS story reported that the Archdiocese of Chicago issued a very succinct statement:

“In response to inquiries from CBS 2, a spokesperson for the Chicago Archdiocese on Monday said Shanahan would not comment and released a one-sentence statement from Archbishop Blase Cupich:

‘We support all our priests as they live out the promises they made on the day of their ordination.’ “

In one sense, it is good to hear that the Archdiocese of Chicago supports both their gay and heterosexual priests.  In another sense, though, it is sad that in responding to a question about a gay priest that they felt the need to bring up the promise of celibacy.

The article prolonged the celibacy theme by quoting two other experts in the area of priesthood:

“Can openly gay men be priests? Amid allegations last year the Archdiocese of Newark had effectively disciplined an openly gay clergy member, a spokesperson for church leaders there said being gay does not preclude a man from being a priest, provided he upholds his vow of celibacy.

“Thomas O’Brien, director of DePaul University’s Center for Religion, Culture and Community, agrees that is the general policy church leaders are following.

“ ‘All priests are required to be celibate, regardless of sexual orientation,’ he said in an email to CBS 2. ‘That policy does not vary from diocese to diocese, although different dioceses do approach violations of celibacy in distinct ways depending on the leadership style of the bishop and his administration.’ “

Again, in regard to this quotation, I am glad that the Archdiocese of Newark says it does not discriminate against gay candidates for the priesthood.  But, again, I am amazed that their primary concern about gay men in the priesthood is whether or not they will keep their vow of celibacy.  Aren’t they also concerned with how he might be treated or accepted by others in the Church?  Don’t they want to know how his spiritual life is developing and what spiritual gifts his experience of sexual orientation provided him?  Aren’t they interested in knowing what kind of minister he might be?

The CBS article did carry a lay person’s perspective on the issue.  Mildred Soriano, a parishioner at Shanahan’s parish, said she wasn’t concerned about the priest’s sexual orientation:

“It doesn’t really matter, as long as he believes in God. It doesn’t matter to me at all. We’re all God’s children.”

Now, that’s a wise perspective!

I think this obsession with celibacy shows that our Church still hasn’t fully appreciated the gifts that gay men bring to the priesthood.  Men like Fr. Shanahan have a unique perspective on the world and on spirituality, and so they bring a richness to the Church and its ministry.  Gay men have been serving admirably and courageously in the priesthood for centuries, and, by all estimates, still make up a significant segment of the contemporary priesthood.  They are as varied and diverse as the heterosexual priests are, as varied and diverse as all in the Church.

I think that the fascination with a priest’s orientation is due in part that we have imagined that all celibate people give up their sexuality.  They may forego the opportunity to express that sexuality physically with an intimate loved one, but that doesn’t mean that they still aren’t sexual beings.  The cloud of secrecy and silence that hangs around priesthood and celibacy also becomes a lure for some to want to inquire deeper into these men’s sexual lives than they would about other people.  Secrecy and silence only cause harm–to both individuals and the Church as an institution.

I am so happy for the witness of Fr. Shanahan.  His many contributions to the church, including this last one of coming out, help to build God’s reign of justice and equality.

New Ways Ministry is sponsoring a weekend workshop abourt gay priests, deacons, and religious brothers. Entitled,Fan into Flame the Gift of God: Embracing the Gifts of Gay Priests, Deacons, and Brothers,” it seeks to help the church embrace more the gifts of its vibrant gay ministers.

The retreat, scheduled for April 28-May 1, 2016, near Philadelphia, is open to gay priests, deacons, and brothers, but also to all diocesan clergy personnel, as well as leaders and formation personnel of men’s religious communities.  The program is designed to foster communication and understanding between gay clergy and religious, and the leaders responsible for their development. To view a brochure, click here.

If you are a member of the target audience and are interested in attending the retreat or know someone who might be interested, please contact New Ways Ministry at [email protected] or call (301) 277-5674.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

Related article:

Chicago.Go.Pride.com: “Chicago priest: ‘I’m gay and I’m a priest, period’ “




0 replies
  1. Albertus
    Albertus says:

    Even in this article, there are confusing statements. For example, the spokesman for the Archdiocese of Chicago stated that the Archdiocese supports all their priests as they keep to the promises made at their ordination. That statement does not mean only the promise of celibacy. Priests make several promises (not ”vows”!), amongst which, to obey the Ordinary (usually the Bishop), to pray the Divine Office (breviary), and not to marry (celibacy). Further, this statement struck meL “That a spokesperson for church leaders there said being gay does not preclude a man from being a priest, provided he upholds his vow of celibacy.” This statement contains two fallacies: firstly, the promise of Celibacy made by a Priest just before his ordination to the diaconate is NOT A VOW. A vow is something much more solemn: vows of poverty, chastity and obedience are made by monks and nuns, such as Benedictines and Dominicans, but NOT by secular priests. The distinction is very clear, there is no excuse to keep confusing the two. Secondly, being gay DOES preclude a man from being a priest, according to a Vatican ruling made in December 2005, under pressure by the US Bishops. This ruling is most strictly applied in the United States of America. Candidates to seminary are screened for ”homosexual tendencies”. They are even asked: “‘Are you homosexual”? If the ansere is yes, then they are out. Unless a gay man can lie well and is a very convincing actor, he will not be accepted as a candidate for the diaconate or the priesthood. Some Bishops Conferences responded at that time that they would continue to ordain worthy gay men to the diaconate and priesthood, such as the Bishops of the Netherlands and the Bishops of Belgium. But most remained silent and obeyed the Vatican ruling. Some , such as the US BIshops Conference, publicly applauded the ruling (which they had sought) and began immediately to apply it in a witch-hunt sort of way. To be consequential and honest, in December 2005 the Vatican and the Bishops should have also expelled from the priesthood, with monetary compensation, all priests already ordained, who have ”homosexual tendencies”. If gay men may not be ordained because they are by nature unfit to serve God in the sanctuary and minister to His faithful in pastoral work, then, logically, neither should those already ordained be allowed to continue to serve in the diaconate, priesthood and episcopacy. It seems obvious to me, that the Dec 2005 Vatican ruling forbidding the ordination of men with ”homosexual tendencies” was a political one, meant to frighten those already ordained to stay in the closet, and to convince the laity and the world that there are not gay men amongst the Catholic clergy. ,

  2. paularuddy
    paularuddy says:

    Thanks for continuing this conversation, Francis. I don’t think you can blame the media or people in general for zeroing in on celibacy when a priest talks about his sexual orientation. And I don’t think we should be indignant or that it is demeaning to gay priests or differentiating them in a negative way from heterosexual priests. If a heterosexual priest talked about his orientation, the first question would be about his celibacy. Do you think it is just prurient interest to ask a man who is talking about his sexual orientation “Why would you choose a profession that prohibits sexual expression?” “Are you able to live that way?”

    The bishops’ responses are not surprising either: The RC church has set their sacramental ministers apart from the rest of us by requiring them to publicly say that they are not sexually active. So when the subject of sexual orientation comes up, the question of sexual activity comes up too.

    I think you are right to want the media and the rest of us to ask “How does your sexual orientation help you be a good sacramental minister?” And the bishops could say “All our priests are sexually oriented one way or another, and their orientation enriches the gifts they bring to their ministry.” But can you be merciful that we cannot go there first, given the elephant in the room–no sexual expression?

    I think it is very important not to distract from exposing the elephant in the room. The culprit is the rule of mandatory celibacy. These men have put themselves before the public explicitly as not sexually active, no matter their orientation. Some deny that it is about sexual activity. They say the public promise is not to get married. That distinction has not been made clear to the general community. So it then becomes a question about honesty, not leading a double life. It is like politicians and other public men and women who have publicly said they are married to a spouse, but are sexually active with others. The secrecy and the lived lie are what cripples the individual liar and sours the community he/she claims to be honest with. Don’t you think there is a strong ethic in the U.S. about being what you say you are? It is about trust. It weakens the RC church in the U.S. to have sacramental ministers set apart by the promise of celibacy and not living it, no matter their sexual orientation. Italy and other countries may be different.

    I’d be glad to have anyone help me clarify my thinking on this. I think that priests and bishops talking about their sexuality would be the best thing to happen to the U.S. RC church. They could talk about their orientation, whatever it is, and about their success or failure with celibacy and how their orientation has affected their ministry. In this year of mercy, we could forgive everyone and repeal the rule of mandatory celibacy. Next, we could……

  3. Larry
    Larry says:

    Sex has always been the third rail for the Church across the board but particularly around gay issues. Since I view the hierarchy as still mostly homophobic, I can see why they default to reminding gay priests of their vow of celibacy. They just don’t want any sex scandals which they see as coming mostly from the gay clergy [don’t forget that gay men are considered super sex obsessed!?!]. Also, to acknowledge that a gay priest may have other spiritual gifts that come from his orientation, might be too much for them to acknowledge as it elevates rather than demeans being gay.

  4. Anton
    Anton says:

    Well, if a priest is NOT gay, doesn’t it logically follow that he is hetero? And if so, is it presumed that no hetero man acts on his sexual nature? Or is it only that those storied don’t hit the press. Takes me back to John’s gospel: “Let the one without fault, throw the first stone.”

  5. paularuddy
    paularuddy says:

    Many hetero failures at celibacy are well known by parishioners but not outed. I remember hearing that fear of exposure of their double lives was one reason some clergy could not stand up publicly for social justice issues their parishioners wanted them to speak up about. Do you think gay priests and bishops could lead the way by coming out about orientation only? Maybe that is too much to ask and I certainly have no right to ask it. It would take terrific courage, I know. But maybe then the mandatory celibacy rule would be changed in a hurry to prevent people’s asking about the heterosexuals and telling all they know. I’m thinking that dropping the mandatory celibacy rule and having gay and straight priests, married and celibate, would be good. Also women priests, but that is not the subject here. Then the sex lives of priests would be their own business, like everyone else. Am I wrong?

  6. Barbara Cooper
    Barbara Cooper says:

    Seems to me too much focus on sexual acts and not enough focus on relationships…hetero or homo. Look at what the hierarchy say about marriage! They seem to totally miss the relationship of love between two people and try to convince us that marriage is all about having lots of children. It’s the mentality of immature boys.

  7. paularuddy
    paularuddy says:

    I agree with you, Barbara. It really isn’t about the sexual activity as much as it is about having a dedicated intimate relationship for the eternal good of both partners. Even with celibacy, is the value of it that the priest has a broader vision of his dedication than the dedication of himself in intimate relationship with one other person? I think it would be great if they talked about what they mean by being celibate, if they are.

    • Anton
      Anton says:

      L’amore è il nostro vero destino. Non troviamo il significato della vita da soli. Lo troviamo insieme
      a qualcun altro. Thomas Merton, Trappist monk

      Love is our true destiny. We do not find the meaning
      of life by ourselves. We find it along with somebody else.

  8. Tim MacGeorge
    Tim MacGeorge says:

    The statement from Fr Thomas O’Brien that “all priests are required to be celibate” is not correct. There are many married, former Anglican priests who have been ordained as Catholic priests who have not been required to make a promise of celibacy. This is just another example the highlights the Church’s long-standing teaching — despite the Church’s practice — that celibacy is not essential for ordained ministry.

    • Friends
      Friends says:

      Indeed, Tim. I also note that the Episcopal/Anglican and Lutheran Churches have extended “mutual recognition of Holy Orders” to their respective ordained ministers, and thus allow their clergy to move freely between the two denominations. It would be wonderful to see the RCC join with them in this mutual recognition. All it would take would be for Diocesan bishops to officially recognize and ratify the ordinations of individual Episcopal/Anglican and Lutheran clergy. The fierce isolationism of many of these RC Bishops, exacerbated by their absurd prohibition of non-abortive medical contraception (which nearly all married Catholics blithely ignore), seem to be close to the root of this problem of social and ecclesiastical dysfunction. These socially isolated Catholic bishops have NO CLUE about real human life in the real human world that all of us occupy. Until THAT problem is fixed, I don’t see much chance of authentic social progression in the contemporary Catholic Church.

      • Anton
        Anton says:

        Vatican lifts ban on married priests for Eastern Catholics in diaspora
        Laura Ieraci Catholic News Service | Nov. 17, 2014

        The Vatican has lifted its ban on the ordination of married men to the priesthood in Eastern Catholic churches outside their traditional territories, including in the United States, Canada and Australia.

        Pope Francis approved lifting the ban, also doing away with the provision that, in exceptional cases, Eastern Catholic bishops in the diaspora could receive Vatican approval to ordain married men. In recent years, however, some Eastern Catholic bishops went ahead with such ordinations discreetly without Vatican approval.

  9. Paul Morrissey
    Paul Morrissey says:

    The Black Wall of Silence, a novel about the struggle between loyalty and honesty in the Church,shows the inner and outer struggle of a gay priest who feels muffled by his Roman collar from being and speaking his truth. All priests–and laypeople for that matter–are held hostage by the Church’s teachings on sexuality and the lack of public discussion of such. We are all behind the ‘black wall of silence.’


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  1. […] sanctioned because of LGBT issues. Too often conversations are problematically focused around the question of celibacy, rather than the gifts and opportunities gay and bisexual priests offer the church. Ignored is the […]

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