The Vatican has released a document banning priests “who are actively homosexual, have deep-seated homosexual tendencies, or support the so-called ‘gay culture.'” Rome has been floating trial balloons for some time about this document to see what level of anti-gay rhetoric it can get away with. After months of document leaks, the Vatican had already made its point: local bishops and religious superiors will be expected to scrutinize seminaries lest they become hideaways of gay culture. At this point the actual text of the document is irrelevant: dictatorships always rely more on self-censorship through fear and intimidation than actual punishment to accomplish their goals.
The galling fact is, this document, while purporting to ‘clarify’ church teaching or ‘purify’ the priesthood, is really nothing more than an effort to link the criminal activity of pedophile priests with homosexuality, and to distract from the reprehensible behavior of bishops who covered up their misconduct. This is an absurd gambit on the part of the Vatican; homosexuality has no relationship to child sex abuse. This scandal has made transparent an untenable ‘kyriarchal’ system – a model of church that locates power, both sacramental and temporal, in the hands of a few men who literally ‘lord’ over the laity, speaking and acting in the name of all believers when in fact they are but a tiny percentage of the community.
It is time for a Stonewall moment.
The Stonewall was a gay bar in New York where, in 1969, patrons resisted arrest during one of the police’s regular gay-bashing raids. Rather than acquiesce to the harassment that kept up a neurotic minuet between police and bar patrons, courageous lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people stood up, spoke out and resisted. They probably surprised even themselves at the power of their own righteous indignation.
Catholics should respond to the latest Vatican bullying the same way. After decades of the Vatican implementing a system that takes authority away from local communities and presumes to impose its will on Catholics who can think for themselves, it is time for Catholics to stand up, speak out and resist.
Evidence suggests that American Catholics do not support many of the narrow-minded tenets of their church. In opposition to the male hierarchy’s belief that ordaining women priests is theological treason, more than 60 percent of American Catholics say they would support women in the priesthood, according to the most recent Zogby/LeMoyne poll. Another poll conducted by the Boston Globe in the Boston archdiocese – where the incidences of sexual abuse by priests were among the highest – finds that nearly 60 percent of Catholics oppose a ban on gay priests. Combine this with American Catholics’ clear disregard for the church’s medieval views on marriage, divorce and birth control, and increasing numbers of Catholics who support abortion under certain circumstances, and it becomes obvious that Americans find themselves in a church that does not speak to their everyday concerns in any meaningful way.
The Vatican, in its patriarchal echo chamber, continues to portray Western values of tolerance and equality as the fallen morality of a secular society. In so doing, the institutional church treats millions of faithful Catholics in America not as spiritual adults, but as perpetual adolescents in need of discipline. The time has come for American Catholics to claim their full baptismal citizenship and publicly call for changes in church policies on sexuality, ordination and relationships. Considering the enormous economic and political influence of the American church, if Catholics here really stood up to their bishops, loudly and in numbers, the Vatican would have little choice but to listen.
There is evidence that despite the dissembling of the hierarchy, American Catholics are refusing to let the institution scapegoat gay priests, feminism and modernity for the Vatican’s sins.
The Conference of Major Superiors of Men, the leaders of the U.S. men’s religious orders, recently said it would send a delegation to Rome to oppose the anti-gay seminary policy. In a welcome response to an inflexible Vatican regime, the superior of the New York Province of the Jesuits, Fr. Gerald J. Chojnacki, wrote: “We know that gay men…have served the church well as priests – and so why would we be asked to discriminate based on orientation alone against those whom God has called and invited?” This is a question that could be asked about women and married men as well.
Thomas Gumbleton, Detroit’s auxiliary bishop, issued this call to action in a recent sermon: “When authorities in our church say one thing and then act in a different way, it seems to me that we’re called to challenge that, to speak out if necessary to try to counteract what our religious authorities do.”
He went on to confront the Vatican with the teaching of U.S. bishops, which says that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people are “always our children.” “They say one thing, ‘In you God’s love is revealed,’ but then say, ‘You’re not worthy to be in the seminary.’ It is a terrible cruelty and injustice.”
The Women-Church Convergence, a coalition of Catholic feminist groups, clarified that “All ministers, indeed all members, are called to be responsible agents of their own sexuality” and pledged themselves “to create communities in which all persons can love and be loved openly as is their birthright. Anything less is simply not Catholic.”
And ultimately, as Catholics face their Stonewall moment, where the choice to submit means a choice to violate one’s conscience, this is what it comes down to: the meaning of the word ‘catholic.’ ‘Catholic’ means all-encompassing, universal, comprehensive. ‘Catholic’ does not mean exclusion from the community on the basis of misinformed or capricious reasoning. This message of universal inclusion was the lesson of the first Stonewall. It is still being learned by society as a whole. The Gospel message of love and justice is reason to hope Catholics will be quicker on the uptake.
Mary E. Hunt is a member of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force National Religious Leadership Roundtable and co-director of the Women’s Alliance for Theology Ethics and Ritual (WATER).