A 2020 BBC profile of several gay Brazilian priests offer insights into the church’s approach to homosexuality in their own ranks and lessons on how the church could evolve. Today’s post will look at the personal toll repression takes on the number of gay priests within the church. Tomorrow’s post will examine how repression against gay priests harms the whole church.
The number of gay priests in the Catholic Church is not insignificant. Though there is no way to know for sure, estimates presented by BBC range from 10% of the priesthood to individual seminarians identifying 90% of their classmates as gay. Yet, all the gay priests who spoke anonymously to the BBC describe overwhelming loneliness, fear, and guilt resulting from institutional church messages that they are sick and evil. That anguish results from a culture of repression that creates a cycle of silence around sexuality.
Despite the apparent prevalence of gay men in the priesthood, the Catholic Church maintains an official 2005 directive that seminaries not admit men “who practice homosexuality,” show “deeply ingrained homosexual tendencies,” or “support the so-called ‘gay culture.’” (A directive reaffirmed by Pope Francis in 2016.) Moreover, many in church leadership falsely equate homosexuality and pedophilia, blaming gay priests for the abhorrent moral scandals the church has faced in recent years. As scapegoats for their fellow-priests’ abusive sins, gay priests are scorned as dangerous to the others and to the church.
The 2005 directive has helped create a culture of silence around homosexuality in seminaries, barring any meaningful discussion about sexuality between future priests and their superiors. This phenomenon is especially true in Brazil, where BBC reports a dichotomy between Pope Francis’ more inclusive tone and the aggressiveness of the “ultra-traditional” Brazilian church.
Some Brazilian priests described the pains that seminary officials took to police “homosexual tendencies” during the formation of young priests. The seminarians were never allowed to be in pairs, recalls Fr. Rafael. Seminarians were only allowed to socialize, dine, and even room together in odd numbers in an effort to dissuade those seminarians with “homosexual tendencies” from becoming couples.
The policing created what another seminarian called “a tense, unnatural, and unpeaceful atmosphere,” adding, “There are always eyes on you.”
In that oppressive atmosphere, all the young men—seminarians were as young as teenagers—were deprived the emotional depth of friendship, and the gay seminarians were deprived of the safety and comfort of being honest about their sexuality. Fr. James Alison, an openly gay priest and theologian, told the BBC this forced silence stunts the emotional growth of seminarians:
“It is a silence fostered by the environment of fear and avoids an adult, honest, and transparent emotional life.”
The constant threat of expulsion from the priesthood for acknowledging a gay orientation—even if celibate—lasts well beyond the seminary. Brazilian seminary and diocesan officials alike discourage discussion of sexuality among gay priests. Priests themselves know of others who have been expelled either from formation or from ministry as a priest for being “effeminate.” The fear grips gay priests, who then have nowhere to turn to deal with the intense isolation.
Without the safety of friendship with other gay priests or the support of their superiors, several of the priests interviewed by BBC describe immense spiritual and mental anguish with no possible outlet.
Believing themselves to be “disordered,” sick, possessed by the devil, or evil, as their superiors taught, the gay men turned to extreme practices to rid themselves of their sexuality.
Fr. Rafael recalls being 20 years old and trying to exorcise the “demon of homosexuality” out of himself. At the height of his own repression, Fr. Rafael prayed for death rather than continuing to live in anguish. Another young seminarian imagined himself hanging by the neck from the rafters while a teacher spoke about the sins of homosexuality.
These priests are not necessarily looking to change the priesthood, but rather long for something very human: honesty. Fr. Rafael said he longed to rest from hiding who he was. Another seminarian said, “It’s heartbreaking to live pretending.”
Rather than keep up the exhausting performance of acting straight, these devoted pastors deserve to live their lives openly and honestly without fear of retribution. The silence, psychological isolation, and condemnation around gay priests is directly antithetical to the mission of the Gospel.
While these reflections depict the very specific consequences of repression for gay priests, they illuminate a wider concern: the church’s traditional teaching on LGBTQ people has the potential to cause serious psychological and physical harm to all LGBTQ Catholics, as well.
—Kevin Molloy, New Ways Ministry, May 31, 2021