Gay pastoral ministers in the Netherlands have published an open letter to Pope Francis protesting the Vatican’s ban on gay priests and claiming the Gospel’s credibility is imperiled by the Church’s attitude on homosexuality.
The Working Group of Catholic Gay Pastors (WKHP), which represents more than forty gay priests, deacons, and lay ministers in the Netherlands, made the letter, dated October 9, 2018 and signed by chairperson Frans Bossink, public on its website this week. This release comes just ahead of the Vatican’s summit on clergy sexual abuse which begins next week.
At issue in the letter is the Vatican’s present ban on accepting gay men into the priesthood, which Pope Francis reaffirmed in 2016, a policy about which the working group’s members are “deeply unhappy.”
The pastoral workers list six objections to the ban on gay priests. First, the Vatican’s ban “completely ignores” the reality that there are countless gay priests already in ministry, which “has always been the case.” The letter continued:
“In this document homosexual priests implicitly receive the message that (a) they are by definition unfit for their role because of their sexual orientation and (b) they should never have become a priest in the first place. This message can easily be understood by them as a disqualification, and can therefore be burdensome and demotivating with respect to their office as priests. That is certainly how we ourselves experienced the document.”
The real issue, according to WKHP members, is not about sexual orientation but about how priests and men in formation deal with their sexuality:
“Heterosexual and homosexual seminarians and priests who are aware of the nature of their sexuality, who accept it as given by God, who are not ashamed about it, who can (learn to) speak about it in an appropriate and meaningful way, and who (learn to) deal with it properly in their role as a priest (or seminarian), are not the problem in our opinion. On the contrary, they can and do function well and have a valuable role to play within our Faith and Church.
“Seminarians and priests who deny, disown or suppress their sexuality to themselves and to others are more likely to manifest themselves as being a problem in the context of our Faith and Church. An array of imbalances, abuse and inappropriate conduct towards others and oneself can be the result.”
The working group’s letter charged the Vatican and potentially Pope Francis himself with holding the belief that openly gay priests were responsible for clergy sexual abuse. The letter challenged this myth:
“We believe that the current major crisis with respect to this context [of homosexuality] is primarily the result of the disapproval, suppression, denial and the poor integration of sexuality, and especially homosexuality, on the part of many individual priests and within our Church as a whole. One is simply unable or unwilling to discuss it, or banned from mentioning it, except within the sacrament of confession. In our view this is detrimental to the Church as a whole and to the (gay) priests themselves in particular.”
WKHP’s members broadened their scope in suggesting that the Church’s approach to homosexuality indicates wider problems:
“It is our assessment that the manner in which our Roman Catholic Church has dealt with homosexual people, has spoken and written about them to this very day is not something that has been received positively in the Netherlands. This is equally true for Non- Catholics as well as Catholics. The preaching of the gospel and its credibility is and will continue to be negatively affected with this attitude towards homosexuality.”
The letter concluded with an appeal to Pope Francis to intervene and overturn the Vatican’s ban on gay men in the priesthood, along with members expressing their willingness to meet with the pope or his representative for further discussion.
The issue of gay priests may be raised during the upcoming February summit given the ongoing debate about whether homosexuality is related to sexual abuse. Pope Francis’ own leadership has been murky. In 2013, asked about the issue, he offered the famous, oft-quoted line, “Who am I to judge?” In May 2018, it was reported that the pope told Italian bishops to “keep your eyes open” about such applicants and “if in doubt, better not let them enter.” Then in December of that year, in a book-length interview, the pope said the existence of gay priests is “something that worries me.” The Dutch pastoral workers are right to call for Francis to be clearer about just what he thinks on the issue of gay priests.
Meanwhile, bishops’ views on homosexuality and the clergy are mixed. The situation in Germany exemplifies this divide: some officials have said they will accept gay men into seminary, while a top bishop promoted homophobic narratives. Many Catholics reject such theories that link gay priests to abuse, but, as the National Catholic Reporter’s Jamie Manson pointed out recently, the Vatican still relies on debunked junk science in its policies.
Francs DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, suggested to Metro Weekly that part of the negative attacks on gay priests could be tied to right wing attacks on the pope:
“‘There are anti-gay advocates in the Church who have, since a long time ago, believed the myth that if you are gay, you are sexually active, which is a totally ignorant and irresponsible definition. . .The ones calling for scapegoating of gay priests are same ones who want to bring down the papacy of Pope Francis, because they see him as too liberal. . .Making the charge that he’s protecting gay priests is a way of weakening his authority. And it’s effective, because how do you prove there aren’t gay priests? It’s like the bogeyman in the closet. If you bring it up, it’s assumed that it’s real.'”
How these debates play out next week, indeed whether they will be raised at all is unclear. Bondings 2.0’s Francis DeBernardo will be reporting from Rome with any developments. But for now, it is a hopeful and welcome sign for the Church that these out Dutch ministers have spoken out publicly in defense of the gay priests who offer so much to the People of God.
New Ways Ministry has re-launched our campaign, “The Gift of Gay Priests’ Vocations” to show our support for gay men and religious who faithfully, dutifully, and effectively served the People of God and to call on church leaders to end the falsehoods about and lift the ban on gay priests.
To add your name to this show of gratitude and solidarity, click here.
—Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, February 15, 2019