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More issues ...
How Should Lesbian and Gay Catholics Respond to the Hierarchy's
Decision to Bar Gays from the Seminaries and the Priesthood?
a sermon by John McNeill
October 2, 2005
Sept 21st, I read in the New York Times that the Vatican, under Pope Benedict,
the former Joseph Ratzinger of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the
Faith is considering the decision to bar all gays, even celibates, from
the priesthood. My immediate reaction was great sadness for the Church I
love, then rage at the injustice of it all, and then painful awareness of
all those good and holy gay men in the priesthood who will feel betrayed
and abandoned by their Church.
I then entered into prayer and asked the Holy Spirit to help me
discern what this is all about. First, the Spirit assured me that this
decision has nothing to do with God or the teaching of Jesus Christ.
Notice the total absence of any sense of love and compassion for all
the suffering this will cause gay Catholics in general and,
especially, gay priests. The hierarchy is aware that the child abuse
crisis has seriously undermined their authority and power. This purge
is a political move by the sinful human church to try to repair the
damage done to their power and prestige by scapegoating the gay
members of the clergy. They ignored all the expert advice from
psychologists that gayness was not the cause of the child abuse
crisis. By this move they are trying to avoid their responsibility
for the crisis and any need on their part to reform the Church. The
Holy Spirit is still ultimately in charge of the Church and will call
the shots on how the Church will evolve and be transformed and our
task as gay Catholics is to prayerfully discern what the Holy Spirit
is about in this moment of crisis and support that transformation.
I shall never forget the excitement we felt at the first meeting of
New York Dignity some 35 years ago. We had put a small notice in the
Village Voice. We had hoped for a few people. But over a hundred
people crowded into the room we reserved at Good Shepherd Church in
Gramarcy Park. Obviously, we were meeting a strongly felt need in the
Catholic lesbian and gay community. I remember saying at that first
meeting: "Dignity is not something that we can give ourselves, but
with God's grace, it is something that we can give each other!"
We had a simple plan: To bring the message of God's love to gay,
lesbian, bisexual, transgendered and transsexual people. Secondly, by
giving witness to the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives, we
hoped to enter into dialogue with the institutional Church to bring
about a change in its teaching on homosexuality; a change fully
justified by our new understanding of scripture, tradition and of
human psychosexual development. Our cry here was that "what is bad
psychology has to be bad theology and vice versa." The evidence is in
that those who try to live out Church teaching on homosexuality
frequently destroy their mental health and submit themselves to
worshipping a God of fear. In Paul's words: "You were not called to a
spirit of slavery to let fear back into your lives again, you are
called to a spirit of adoption. You have the right to call your God,
We were full of the hope and enthusiasm of Vatican II, which had
redefined the Church as "The People of God"! Our na´ve hope that the
Church would change seemed confirmed a few years later in 1976, when
my book, The Church and the Homosexual, which seriously challenged
Church teaching, was given an imprimi potest by the General of the
Jesuits, Pedro Arrupe (an action for which he paid heavily later by
being deposed as General by the Pope) and I was granted permission to
Now almost thirty years later, although the Holy Spirit has
abundantly blessed our ministry to bring the message of God's love to
our sisters and brothers, I am sorry to have to report that in terms
of dialogue with the hierarchy, it has been mostly downhill ever
since. The Church has adamantly refused our offer of dialogue and
refuses to hear what the Holy Spirit wants to say to the hierarchy
through the experience of faithful Catholic gays and lesbians. A
series of homophobic documents have been issued from Rome. The final
most egregious document read: "The homosexual inclination, though not
in itself a sin, must be considered objectively disordered." We gay
and lesbian Catholics, who know that we were created homosexual by
God, see this statement as a blasphemy against God by claiming that
God created something that is intrinsically ordered to evil.
Now we are told that a document will be issued by Rome, using the
teaching on "objective disorder' that forbids any seminary from
accepting a gay candidate no matter how qualified, and forbids
bishops to ordain an openly acknowledged gay candidate.
This should come as no surprise. Twenty five years ago, friends in
the Vatican sent me a copy of a letter sent by the Congregation of
Bishops that deals with seminaries on the issue of accepting gay
candidates for priesthood. At that time, the Congregation asked all
seminary directors to carefully scrutinize gay candidates and
determine whether their homosexuality was egosyntonic or egodystonic.
This psychological jargon distinguishes those who accept and are
comfortable with their homosexuality over against those who see their
homosexual orientation as something to be hated and rejected. Only
those candidates whose homosexuality was egodystonic should be
accepted as candidates for the priesthood. In other words, only the
mentally sick should be accepted and the healthy should be turned
away. Fortunately, most seminary directors ignored this directive.
Now the Vatican intends to enforce it.
Because of the incredible success Dignity and other gay liberation
groups have had over the last 39 years, very few gay candidates for
the priesthood today have an egodystonic attitude of self-hatred. So
the Vatican felt forced to take a more radical stance. The hierarchy
has decided to scapegoat the Catholic gay community, rather than to
acknowledge any failure and sinfulness on their own part.
I admire the shrewdness of the Holy Spirit. The cultic priesthood,
limited to professed celibate males, whether heterosexual or
repressed homosexual, is rapidly disappearing. I can think of no
action the Vatican could take that would guarantee the total collapse
of that priesthood - a collapse that will necessarily lead to a new
form of shepherding in the Church.
In my own experience over the years, if I met a priest who was an
exceptionally good pastor, loving and compassionate, I could be close
to certain that I was dealing with a gay priest. Let me give two
examples of that. The first is my friend and colleague, Father Mychal
Judge, a gay Franciscan, who was Chaplin to the New York City Fire
Department, and died while anointing one of his beloved firefighters
in the 911 collapse of the World Trade Towers. Mychal and I worked
together in ministry to Dignity/New York and in a special ministry to
homeless people with AIDS in Harlem. Mychal had a deep awareness of
God's love for him and felt a strong desire to reach out and bring
the message of God's love to all those the Church and society had
abandoned. Another example of the Holy Spirit's shrewdness: as Mychal
was dying at the foot of the World Trade towers, beaurocrats in Rome
where busy preparing a document to expel gays from the priesthood.
Mychal recited this morning prayer every day:
"Lord, take me where you want me to go, Let me meet who you want me
to meet, Tell me what you want me to say and Keep me out of your way."
Mychal was a perfect model for a renewed priesthood. His priesthood
was not primarily in the sanctuary but with the homeless in the
streets or with the sick, the suffering and the dying.
A second model of gay priesthood is Matthew Kelty, the gay Cistercian
monk, until recently guest master at Gethsemane Abbey and spiritual
director for Thomas Merton. In his book, Flute Solo: Reflections of a
Trappist Hermit, Matthew wrote that he attributed the special
spiritual gifts that God had given him to his homosexual orientation:
"People of my kind seem often so placed, the reason, as I have worked
it out, that they are more closely related to the anima (the
feminine) than is usualů. Perhaps a healthy culture would enable
those so gifted by God or nature (i.e. homosexuals) to realize their
call and respond to it in fruitful ways."
Jesus gave us a marvelous example of how to deal with scapegoating in
the story of the Gerasene Demoniac in Mark 5. The Gerasene community
had picked one troubled individual and made him their scapegoat,
throwing him out of town. The demoniac had accepted their judgment on
him, interiorizing self-hatred, tearing off his clothes, breaking the
chains that bound him, howling and gashing himself with stones. As
soon as Jesus entered his presence, he became aware of God's love and
that he himself was not evil but worthy of God's love and compassion.
Jesus, by his love, drove out the legion of demons of self-hatred and
self-destruction. They entered into a herd of pigs and their
destructive evil was immediately manifested by the fact that the pigs
rushed down the hillside and threw themselves off a cliff into the
sea. The people of the village came out and found the former
demoniac "sitting peacefully, fully clothed and in his right mind."
The people of the village became frightened because they had lost
their scapegoat and begged Jesus to leave. The former demoniac asked
Jesus to take him with him, but Jesus refused and instead told
him: "Go home to your people and tell them all the good things the
Lord has done to you. Give witness to God's love for you!" So the man
went off and proceeded to spread throughout the Decapolis all that
Jesus had done for them. And the people were amazed.
There is striking parallel here with us lesbian and gay Catholics. We
too are being scapegoated by our Church. Many of us in the past
interiorized the Church's homophobia, resulting in self-hatred and
self-destructiveness. But Jesus' Spirit at one point touched our
hearts and freed us from all self-rejection by giving us a clear,
undeniable experience that God loves us in our gayness. Our ministry,
then, like the former demoniac, is to witness to our people all the
great things that God in her mercy has done for us. Our first task,
then, is to call in the Holy Spirit to grant us such an overwhelming
experience of God's love that we are healed of all self-hatred and
self-rejection and rendered immune to the persecution of the
We gay and lesbian Catholics must not let our enemies outside
ourselves define who we are. We must let the Spirit of God, the
Spirit of love dwelling in our hearts, define who we are. And then
give witness to all the great things the Lord has done for us.
What, then, should be our attitude toward the institutional church?
James Allison, a gay Catholic theologian, suggests that we should
have the same attitude toward the institutional church as Jesus had
toward the temple, total detachment and indifference. In his
ministry, the Temple was always there in the background but appears
to have little relevance to Jesus' mission. As Mark noted, after the
Palm Sunday procession, Jesus came into Jerusalem, entered the Temple
and looked around but immediately left for Bethany with the twelve.
Bethany was where the action was. Bethany was where the household of
Martha and Mary, who I can imagine to be a lesbian couple and their
gay brother Lazarus who was Jesus' best friend. Here was Jesus'
church - a true community of love.
At the Last Supper, Jesus told his disciples that "it is necessary
that I go away in order for the Spirit to come. I tell you this:
unless I go away the Spirit cannot come to you. But when I go away, I
will send the Spirit to you and He will dwell in your hearts and lead
you into all truth." Jesus was referring to a maturing process in our
spiritual life, a process for which we gay and lesbian Catholics have
a special need. We must detach ourselves from all external authority
and learn to discern what the Spirit has to say to us directly and
immediately in our own experience.
Paul sees the coming of the Holy Spirit as the fulfillment of this
prophesy of Jeremiah:
"Look, the days are coming, Yahweh declares, when I will make a new
covenant with the House of Israel . . . I shall plant my law, writing it
in their hearts. Then I shall be their God and they will be my
people. There will be no further need for neighbor to teach neighbor,
saying "Learn to know Yahweh" No, they will all know me, the least to
We must fight to free ourselves from any attachment to the
institutional church, whether that be to have their approval or the
equally destructive attachment that comes from the anger at the
Church's injustice. We should see ourselves as equals and siblings to
Church authorities and pray for them as they try to discern the
Spirit of God in their lives. Leave the Hierarchical church in God's
hands. Be grateful to them for the gifts they helped bring to us like
the scriptures and the sacraments. But do not waste one ounce of
energy in a negative attachment of anger with the Church. Commit
every ounce of our energy to the positive ministry of love to which
God has called us.
James Allison shares with us his experience of being called by God to
ministry to the gay and lesbian community. He was on retreat in a
Jesuit retreat house in Santiago in Chile. He had been dismissed from
the Dominican order for acknowledging his gayness. The first grace he
received from God was a profound awareness that all the homophobic
violence and injustice in the Church has nothing to do with God. This
was the human Church caught into its own blindness and sinfulness.
He was trying to discern in prayer with was God's will for him. One
day he went on a walk in a gay cruising area. He found himself
looking at some young gay men cruising in the park and felt a strong
liking for these young men and wishing them well. When he returned to
the retreat house, he went into the chapel feeling somewhat guilty
for his mixed motives for going to the cruising area. He was suddenly
given the grace to realize that the warm affection he felt toward the
young gay man was not just his feelings but the feelings of the Holy
Spirit dwelling in his heart. Then he heard a profound voice telling
him "Feed my sheep!"
He realized that that voice was God directly calling him to a
ministry to lesbians and gays. That call from that moment on was an
essential part of his identity, a call to priestly ministry that he
could not deny or run away from with out denying an essential
dimension of himself. This call in no way depended on validation from
the institutional church but was his direct and immediate commission
Ezekiel, in Chapter 23, saw God in a vision detaching himself from
the Temple in the shape of a chariot, becoming flexible and mobile.
Ezekiel then had a vision of God upbraiding the shepherds of Israel
(the Temple priests) for having failed to feed his sheep and
abandoning them to meet their own self-interests. God revealed a new
understanding of shepherding, in which God Himself will undertake the
shepherding. "Behold I myself will search for my sheep and will seek
them out. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep"
Judaism and Christianity are both religions of the collapsing Temple.
There is always a connection between the collapse of the Temple and
God bringing into existence a new form of shepherding. In Judaism, it
was the collapse of the Temple in the year 587 BC which led to the
creation of text based Judaism. And, again, the collapse of the
Temple in 70 AD which led to the creation of Rabbinic Judaism. In
every case, the collapse is part of God's plan to get through to us
and help us to get beyond something that is no longer worthy of us.
It took a long time but only after Ezekiel achieved a certain form of
indifference to the fate of the Temple was he able to receive the
vision from God of God himself shepherding his people without any
In the gospel of John, Jesus identifies the new Temple with his body
and the body of all who have received the indwelling Spirit. Allison
feels sure that anyone who has experienced God's love and has been
freed from self-rejection, and then takes the final step of freeing
themselves from external Church authority will also hear the same
call to ministry in their heart.
A recent example of this, a young man came to me in Fort Lauderdale.
He was leading a gay life and had a lover, but he could not let go of
feelings of guilt, shame and self-rejection. He was praying
constantly to God to make his will known to him. As he was driving
home to Boston still praying, suddenly he had a profound experience
of God hugging him. This experience lasted a long time and when it
was over he was sure of God's love for him as a gay man and felt a
strong need to share that experience with as many as possible.
There is no doubt in my mind that we are in a new stage of the
collapsing Temple and the emergence of a new form of shepherding.
Joachim of Flores prophesied in the 13th century there would come a
day when the hierarchical church, becoming superfluous, would in time
dissolve and in its place would emerge the Church of the Holy Spirit.
Ministry in the Church of the Holy Spirit will come from the direct
call of the Holy Spirit. The task of authority will be to listen
prayerfully to what the Holy Spirit is saying through the people of
God. This Church must become a totally democratic Church with no
caste system, no higher or lower, totally equal: women with men, gays
with straights; everyone possessing the Holy Spirit within them,
everyone an authority.
For example, who knows what God wants from lesbians and gays? -
Obviously, only lesbians and gays. No one can tell us from outside
what God wants of us. We are alone in knowing with an experiential
knowledge that our love for each other contains the divine spirit and
brings with it that kind of peace and joy that indicates the presence
of the Holy Spirit.
on thirty years of faithful service to the Catholic lesbian and gay community!
You have prayerfully discerned and carried out the commission the Spirit
has given you. You are a foretaste of the future Church of the Holy Spirit.
Continue to prayerfully discern what God is asking of you and follow that
voice. Keep in mind the famous insight of Maurice Blondel: "Our God dwells
within us and the only way to become one with that God is to become one
with our authentic self!"
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