Issue of Gay Priests Is the “Elephant in the Sacristy,” Writes Theologian James Alison

Fr. James Alison

Catholics in the United States are reeling after new revelations about sexual abuse that was systematically covered up for decades, including those incidents detailed in a Pennsylvania grand jury’s report, and allegations deemed credible against once-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. In the midst of pain and anger, some Catholics have targeted gay priests and claimed homosexuality is the root cause of such abuse. Theologian Fr. James Alison wrote a two part series in The Tablet addressing the question of homosexuality and the priesthood. Today’s post outlines his first piece, which you can read here.  [Editor’s note:  If you are blocked by The  Tablet‘s pay wall, you can access the article on James Alison’s website by clicking here, though it has a different headline than The Tablet.] Tomorrow’s post will outline Alison’s second piece.

Alison, who is openly gay, addressed four dimensions of what he referred to as “the elephant in the sacristy,” namely the open secret about gay men in the priesthood. He opened:

“In all these cases [of well-known clerics credibly accused of sexual abuse, either with adults or minors], in as far as the behaviour was adult-related, plenty of people in authority sort-of-knew what was going on, and had known throughout the clerics’ respective careers. However, the informal rule in the Catholic Church – the last remaining outpost of enforced homosociality in the Western world – is strictly ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’. Typically, blind eyes are turned to the active sex lives of those clerics who have them, only two things being beyond the pale: whistle-blowing on the sex lives of others, or public suggestions that the Church’s teaching in this area is wrong. These lead to marginalisation.

“Given all this, it seems to me entirely reasonable that people should now be asking:  ‘How deep does this go?’ If such careers were the result of blind eyes being turned, legal settlements made, and these clerics themselves were in positions of influence and authority, how much more are we going to learn about those who promoted and protected them? Or about those whom they promoted?”

Conservative observers have placed blame on gay priests and alleged “gay networks” of priests which they claim are  present and powerful in the Church. These critics’ aim, Alison wrote, “is to weed out the gays, especially the treasonous bishops who have perpetuated the system.” More liberal observers, like Robert Mickens, identify a failure to “engage in any kind of publicly accountable, adult discussion” about the reality that there are a disproportionate number of gay men in the priesthood. Alison responded to both critiques:

“As a gay priest myself I am obviously more in agreement with Mickens [liberal] than with Dreher or Douthat [conservative]. However, I would like to record my complete sympathy with the passion of the latter two as well as with their rage at a collective clerical dishonesty that renders farcical the claim to be teachers of anything at all, let alone divine truth. Jesus becomes credible through witnesses, not corrupt party-line pontificators. Having said that, I suspect that particular interventions, whether by civil authority or papal mandate, are always going to run aground on the fact that they can only deal with, and bring to light, specific bad acts, usually ones that are criminal.”

Addressing the problems will not be easy, wrote Alison, as there is no “one-off legal intervention” which can “make appropriate distinctions where there are so many fine lines” in relationships. The only healthy approach would be to name dimensions of the clerical closet leading to this moment, commenting, “what seemed randomly anecdotal is becoming sociologically evident.” He continued:

“An anecdotal illustration: a few years ago, I found myself leading a retreat for Italian gay priests in Rome. Of the nearly 50 participants some were single, some partnered, for others it was the first time they could to talk honestly with other priests outside the confessional. Among them there were seven or eight mid-level Vatican officials. I asked one from the Congregation for the Clergy what he made of those attending with their partners. He smiled and said, ‘Of course, we know that the partnered ones are the healthy ones.’ Let that sink in. In the clerical closet, dishonesty is functional, honesty is dysfunctional, and the absence or presence of circumspect sexual practice between adult males is irrelevant.”

The first dimension in Alison’s analysis is size. He wrote, “A far, far greater proportion of the clergy, particularly the senior clergy, is gay than anyone has been allowed to understand, even the bishops and cardinals themselves.” Sociological studies on gay priests commissioned by Pope Benedict XVI shocked church leaders, and instilled a fear, Alison claimed, that the faithful might find out and react poorly. But with social media and rising LGBT acceptance in society, the picture of just how many gay men are ordained is due to become publicly known.

A second dimension is “the general rule that the heterosexuality of a cleric is inversely proportional to the stridency of his homophobia.” Alison wrote:

“The principal clerical crusaders in this area [of weeding out gay priests] turn out to be gay themselves – in some cases, so deeply in denial that they don’t know it. And in some cases knowingly so. . .It is closeted men who are the worst persecutors. Some are very sadly disturbed souls who cannot but try to clean outwardly what they cannot admit to being inwardly. These can’t be helped since Church teaching reinforces their hell. For others the lure of upward mobility leads them to strategic displays of enthusiasm for the enforcement of the house rules.”

A third dimension is “banning gay men from the seminary never works” as it means honest gay men may leave or never enter seminary in the first place, and the less honest will “swim in the lake of the double lives of those doing the weeding.” He continued:

“The only seminaries that might avoid this are those that differentiate on the basis not of sexual orientation, but of honesty, which is a primary requisite for any form of psycho-sexual maturity. There are some that do, presumably with the permission of wise bishops, but in quiet contravention of the official line. . .For honesty is effectively forbidden by a Church teaching that tells you that you are an intrinsically heterosexual person who is inexplicably suffering from a grave objective disorder called ‘same-sex attraction’.”

Finally, a fourth dimension is Alison’s rejection of “culture war lenses” in addressing the problem:

“This is not a matter of left or right, traditional or progressive, good or bad, chaste or practising; nor even a matter of 25 years of Karol Wojtyla’s notoriously poor judgement of character, though all these feed into it. It is a systemic structural trap, and if we are to get out of it, it must be described in such a way as to recognise that unknowing innocence as much as knowing guilt, well-meaning error as well as malice, has been, and is, involved in both its constitution and its maintenance. To that I will turn next week.”

As usual, Alison has provided incisive commentary which leaves the reader with much to consider. I encourage you to read his column in full, which you can find here. [Editor’s note:  If you are blocked by The  Tablet‘s pay wall, you can access the article on James Alison’s website by clicking here, though it has a different headline than The Tablet.]

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, August 18, 2018

9 replies
  1. Friends
    Friends says:

    I need to note that it is impossible to read more than the first few sentences of the Alison piece at the linked “Tablet” website, without going through a very invasive and convoluted sign-up protocol, which demands a whole lot of personal information from the would-be reader. I don’t consider such an intense invasion of the reader’s personal privacy to be acceptable. If someone knows how to access the entire article in an “open source” format, please tell us how to do it.

      • John Hilgeman
        John Hilgeman says:

        Thanks for the link. James’ second posting (which you will be addressing tomorrow) was quite excellent and to the mark. I have never seen the historical progression between past situations and the present to be so clearly elucidated. And it explains so well why so many of the leaders of the RC Church and their theology and practices are so far behind those of so many Catholic politicians and laity in the pews, and society at large.

  2. Thomas Ellison
    Thomas Ellison says:

    My fear is that gay priests, or those who may support them, will be identified and vilified as the root cause of this explosive sex scandal. People who prey on children are pedophiles. There is a grand canyon of difference between being gay and being a pedophile. I hope the church does not attack the innocent here, but considering the way they’ve managed things so far, it isn’t promising.

  3. Tom Bower
    Tom Bower says:

    Thank you and Rev. Alison for an excellent discussion of the gay priest situation in the Church. It is a pity the hierarchy throws up so many roadblocks to living honestly in an healthy and grace filled way.

  4. Bob Raab
    Bob Raab says:

    Homosexuality is not synonymous with pedophilia. To say that all homosexual men abuse little boys, is like saying that all heterosexual men lust after little girls. Accusing all gay priests of being pedophiles is an admission of ignorance. In my 34 year career I worked with many gay men and I currently have gay friends, every one of them are as sad and horrified by this moral failure of the Church leadership as anyone now speaking out for change in how the Church leadership deals with sexual abuse.
    To blame all gay priests is simple unjust. A gay priest can be as moral in and faithful and devoted to his vocation as any priest. My experience has been that gay men are more empathetic and far less judgemental than most. Isn’t that what we want from a priest.
    Remove the pedophiles from public ministry and into treatment. Be thankful the we have gay priests who are willing to put up with the unjust verbal abuse, and continue in their vocation.

  5. Tim MacGeorge
    Tim MacGeorge says:

    This whole discussion — about gay priests specifically and not the sex abuse stuff — makes me very sad.

    As a gay man who was ordained (I tend not to refer to myself as a “gay priest,”as I am not in active ministry), beginning a leave of absence was one of the most difficult decisions I ever made. I’ve always told myself that if there were a way for me to be both open and active with my sexuality AND remain in priestly ministry, I would have done so.


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