Blast from past: Gay priesthood in 1994. Two priests talk about it.

It has seemed appropriate for me to cite this about gay priests in our time of “Who am I to judge?” and the barnstorming Jesuit author of   “Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community can Enter into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity.” Fr. James Martin, S.J.

It’s from my 1994 book, Bending the Rules: What American Priests Tell American Catholics, in which I put to 34 veteran pastors ten issues of pastoral concern. One of these was “Gay & lesbian issues: how if at all do they turn up in your ministry? What do you say or do?”

Two of the pastors — both pseudonymously named by me, Fr. Ben Sanders and Fr. Walt Lewis, both ordained in the ’60s, both heading parishes in Midwestern middle-class neighborhoods — produced a memorable give-and-take on the subject, including discussion of the then almost never mentioned gay priesthood:

In an earlier parish where Ben served, “it became difficult to tell who was gay and who wasn’t.  I found it healthy,” he said.  “A lot of the leaders were known as gays and lesbians.  But it wasn’t an issue.  People were proud of that.  You could make it an issue if you tried to exclude them.  But most gays and lesbians are not public about it, so no one knows.”

“I’m a believer in the new numbers” showing only 2% or 3% of the population as homosexual, said Walt — “a lot fewer than we have been led to believe.  In the ordinary parish, only 2% or 3% are gay, so it’s not a big problem.

“In the priesthood, on the other hand, it’s way higher.  There are going to be two priesthoods, and very soon, because of the split between straights and gays.

“We pretend we don’t notice, but there are big differences between the two groups.  Both sides understand this, but no one wants to think it.  It’s going to be a gigantic issue in the church.”

What shape will it take?  Turf-protection, mutual suspicion?

“Already there’s suspicion.  Turf issues haven’t surfaced, because most of it is closeted.  You can’t have turf if you’re closeted.  There will be an expose or outing.  It will be explosive.  Downtown won’t, doesn’t know how to deal with it.  It’s going to blow up in their face.  People have asked them to deal with it, and they haven’t.”

Outing and coming out would involve pastor-parishioner problems too?


Have you any percentages?

“No.  I am amazed that people can come up with, say 40%.  But my knowledge is limited, partly because gay priests stay away from non-gay priests.  I don’t even know who they are.”

Ben conceded the numbers could be high, as reported from various sources.  “The priesthood makes it acceptable for two men to travel together.  It offers a cover, institutionalizes the male relationship.

“But it’s really a matter of the Catholic obsession with sex.  We have created the problem, and the people who will pay for it are gay.  We have brought this on ourselves.”

“I don’t know about that,” said Walt.  “A certain softness and effeminacy has happened in the church.  I don’t know how it’s connected to homosexuality.  Our diocese has the best leadership we could hope for.  But even he (the bishop) projects a softness.”

“I like him a lot, but it’s people like him who can get ahead in the system,” said Ben.

“That’s a problem, when you have this softness,” said Walt.  “It’s probably in some way connected to homosexuality as a given in the church.  Unless the whole thing is faced, you allow softness to be the real mode the church is known for.

“Once the pastor in this diocese was known as cigar-chomping and whiskey-drinking.  How did that change?  It’s connected somehow to not facing certain things, such as homosexuality.”

How would it have been faced?

“Congress faced it.  (Rep.) Barney Frank (Democrat, Massachusetts) stood up, admitted it, people approved.  In the ’40s and ’50s here, the coverup was for drinking.  It’s not that any more.  It’s this other stuff.”

“It’s a matter of valuing the person as a person,” said Ben.  “We didn’t do that in the ’40s and ’50s.  A priest could be crude and rude.  One told a group of women, ‘If you have a miscarriage, bury it in the back yard.’  How the hell could a guy say this?  I can think of a lot who might have said it.

“Contrary to that, the role of the priest is feminine.  He’s a caretaker, he loves everybody, he blesses all those people you don’t like.  Priests are men performing a feminine role.  We finally got rid of the dress, you know (the cassock).  But we call the church ‘Holy Mother.'”

It’s a  striking, provocative discussion, especially what I have boldfaced.

“Two priesthoods . . . big differences . . . gigantic issue . . . most of it is closeted. . . .  gay priests stay away from non-gay priests. I don’t even know who they are.”

Pope Francis and Fr. Martin notwithstanding, is it much different today, in 2018?


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