The night my spouse and I first met, another couple in the room made bets on how long it would be before we were married. For me, it was one of those love-at-first-sight moments. He walked up to me at a Metropolitan Community Church event, smiled, and said, “Hi, my name’s Rob,” and I fell head over heels. For Rob it wasn’t so quick.
It’s not that he wasn’t attracted to me or didn’t enjoy my company (we talked for three hours after church that night), but Rob was only in town for a few months while he prepared for a three-year mission trip to Peru with a Roman Catholic organization. Rob was certain he wouldn’t be meeting his future husband that summer, because a long-term relationship wasn’t possible under the circumstances.
However, that night, as we talked and walked among the sixties-era houses and old oak trees of the church’s neighborhood, Rob confided in me his plans to tell the Italian priests who ran his mission organization about his sexual orientation. Rob’s education had included eight years in Jesuit schools, and the Jesuits had instilled in him a belief in intellectual and personal integrity. He knew the Catholic Church’s doctrine that same-sex relationships are sinful, but the Catechism also states that same-sex attractions are not sinful if not acted upon. The mission organization required him to sign a pledge to refrain from all romantic and sexual attachments during the three-year term in Peru, so he didn’t see how there could be a problem with his sexual orientation.
I, on the other hand, was raised in a strict, evangelical denomination. I remembered friends in college and a Christian therapist who told me I was committing a grave sin by simply acknowledging my same-sex attractions. In college, I had been committed to remaining celibate for the rest of my life, because I believed as the Catholic Church did that same-sex relationships were sinful. However, I also agreed with the Catholic doctrine that a homosexual orientation is not itself sinful. As a result, I saw no need to hide or lie about my attractions, and that was a sticking point with many of my evangelical classmates. It wasn’t enough to remain celibate, I had to also renounce and repress my attractions.
After one counseling session, my therapist looked at me with a stern grimace on his face. “I think you want me to tell you this is okay,” he said. “I’m not going to say that, because it’s not okay.” I had come to this counselor after a year and a half in ex-gay therapy, because I’d arrived at the conclusion that I wasn’t going to become straight, and I wanted help figuring out how I should live as a celibate gay man. I needed support traversing the difficult path between believing same-sex relationships were wrong, and believing I was a valuable part of God’s creation even with my same-sex attractions.
As I challenged the therapist’s insistence that I continue to work for change and instead asked questions about how I was supposed to remain celibate, he recognized the danger to his worldview of a gay man who refused to believe he was sick, and who wasn’t ashamed of his gayness. Though I didn’t recognize it myself, this counselor could see me moving toward the place of complete self-acceptance that would one day make it possible for me to fall in love with Rob. His face betrayed his fear and anger as he said, “I’m not going to schedule you for another session. If you want to see me again, talk to my secretary.” I never went back to his office after that day, and it was a few weeks later I left my childhood denomination for good.
By giving me the message there was no place for me in the church unless I could be straight or at least ashamed of my sexual orientation, my therapist freed me to question even the basic requirement of lifelong celibacy. Unwittingly, he nudged me on the path to a belief that the church had gotten it all wrong in its relationship to gay and lesbian people. If church leaders like this therapist could be so wrong in their devaluing of me because of my sexual orientation, I wondered, what else were they wrong about?
As Rob and I walked and he told me about the old Italian priests who ran his mission organization, I had a suspicion they would respond to his honesty as that therapist and my college acquaintances had. They wouldn’t have a place in their theology for a gay man who saw no reason to hide his attractions, even if he was willing to sign a pledge of celibacy. From the perspective of our walk that night, this meant Rob wasn’t leaving the country and I was free to pursue a relationship with him. So, while Rob continued to plan his trip abroad during the next couple months, I made sure he also spent as much time as possible with me.
To the mission’s credit, they spent two months in serious prayer and deliberation before telling Rob he wouldn’t be allowed to serve in Peru, but the priests’ decision still deprived the Catholic Church and the Peruvian people of a passionate, intelligent, and well-educated missionary. Of course, the decision also permitted me to marry a passionate, intelligent, and well-educated man the following year, so I didn’t mind.
To Rob’s credit, he didn’t let the decision sour him to the church of his youth, and still considers himself Roman Catholic. However, during the next three years, when he might have been in Peru serving as a missionary, he offered his talents to secular organizations and made a great impact on the communities where we lived. He currently works for a non-profit in Silver City, New Mexico. He and I still plan to open a spiritual retreat center someday, but he gave up any thoughts of working for the Catholic Church in South America or elsewhere.
Now, the Vatican is announcing its intention to bar homosexuals from the priesthood if they publicly acknowledge their homosexuality or show “an affinity for gay culture.” Like my college therapist, the Pope is responding to a growing belief among gay clergy that they’re okay just as they are — that they too are part of the creation God called “very good” in Genesis. He recognizes the danger to Church doctrine of gay men who openly admit their same-sex attractions, even if they take vows of celibacy.
The Pope’s decision is understandable from the perspective of shoring up the levies of church doctrine, which threaten to breach under the deluge of contemporary understanding. As my college counselor and Rob’s mission director certainly recognized, it’s a short step from saying, “God made me this way, and I’m not ashamed of it” to questioning the Church’s insistence that all gay men and lesbians are all called to lifelong celibacy. However, while the ruling is understandable, it is still disheartening.
By taking a hard line, the Pope is making it more likely that homosexuals will leave the church entirely and abandon even the difficult doctrine of celibacy with dignity championed by the last revision of the Catechism commissioned by Pope John Paul II. The new rule is also a blow to the integrity of a priesthood already battered by the sex-abuse scandals. Under this new policy, a positive self-image, a belief in the goodness of our Creator, and a penchant for honesty are all detriments to gay men seeking the cloth. On the other hand, shame and dishonesty are assets for gay priests. And, while I’m happy for the organizations that will benefit from the talents of men who would otherwise have channeled their passion for service into the priesthood, and for the gay men and lesbians who will find freedom in other denomination, I wonder who will fill the gap they leave in the Catholic Church and what will become of those who never find a faith home.
My feelings these days are similar to the ones I had when my therapist angrily told me I was “not okay.” They’re also reminiscent of the day the Roman Catholic Church told Rob he couldn’t serve on the mission field. I wonder how long church leaders will continue to throw away passionate, intelligent, and well-educated people, because we happen to have same-sex attractions. But I also shake the dust off my feet, more sure then ever that God will use our talents elsewhere until the church is ready to embrace us again.
Fifth-generation clergy who grew up in Zambia as the child of Wesleyan missionaries, Rev. John Tyler Connoley is co-author with Rev. Jeff Miner of The Children Are Free: Reexamining the Biblical Evidence on Same-Sex Relationships. He earned a master’s degree in religion and master of divinity from Earlham School of Religion and currently serves as conference minister in the Central Pacific Conference of the United Church of Christ.