Tuesday, November 01, 2011

In a Right Gay Tizzy: The Catholic Hierarchy's War on Gays

Erica Keppler has an interesting commentary over at The Huffington Post entitled "The Desperate Catholic Clerical War on Gays." In it, Keppler argues that the anti-gay activism of the largely gay Roman Catholic clerical caste is aimed at "thwart[ing] any attempts to raise the social acceptability of homosexuality and give young gay men other options" than joining the priesthood.

And why would young gay men want to join the priesthood? Well, up until relatively recently, the church has been a haven for gay men. True, most of these men have lived closeted and self-loathing lives – often with tragically destructive results for themselves and/or others. But, without doubt, the church has benefited from their talents, dedication . . . and numbers. Yet, as Keppler notes, the world is changing: "There are far more options available to young, gay men today. It's becoming easier all the time to live out. Families are becoming accepting of their own gay children. They can enter relationships and find happiness. The result: fewer and fewer young men are entering the priesthood."

Keppler outlines possible options for the clerical leadership given these realities. Sadly, it's opted for the most desperate one: to "fight like hell to maximize the social stigma that drives gay men into the priesthood to keep their church alive." A right gay tizzy, indeed!

It's certainly a fascinating theory that Keppler proposes, and I definitely think it's grounded in realities unique to numerous dysfunctional (and interrelated) aspects of Roman Catholic culture – clericalism, celibacy, a sexual theology separated from reality, a passive laity, and a feudal system of governance. I look forward to my readers weighing in on Keppler's article in the comments section of this post.

Following, in its entirety, is Keppler's article.


The Desperate Catholic Clerical War
on Gays

By Erica Keppler

The Huffington Post
October 31, 2011

In another assault on LGBT rights, Minnesota's Roman Catholic bishops are urging parish priests across the state to form committees to help get a proposed marriage amendment passed by voters in 2012. Archbishop John Nienstedt wrote in a letter to his priests:

It is imperative that we marshal our resources to educate the faithful about the church's teachings on these matters, and to vigorously organize and support a grass-roots effort to get out the vote to support the passage of this amendment.

I've thought quite a lot about the severity of opposition from the Catholic Church toward same-sex marriage and equal rights for gay people in general. This is bigger than a few passages in the Bible. This is a zealous commitment of time and resources to reach out beyond their congregations to force their beliefs on non-Catholics. If they were generally of this practice across the breadth of their doctrine, then it would be just another example of a church pushing its faith on others. It's not. They don't commit all resources to ending legal divorce, enacting Sunday closing laws, or getting Ash Wednesday made a national holiday. No, gay issues are different.

I've come to only one reasonable explanation. Most Roman Catholic priests must be gay (or if not most, enough to be a major force in the church hierarchy). I'm hardly the first person to have thought or observed this (also here, here, here, and here). This speculation isn't insulting of the Church or the priesthood. There's nothing wrong with being gay or being a gay priest. There is something wrong with fighting against the equal rights of gay people.

In my estimation this is a result of two things: the extreme stigmatization of homosexuality in Catholic faith communities, and the celibacy of priests. Consider the situation of the young, gay male, growing up in a Catholic family, church, and community, especially in decades or even centuries past. He knows with absolute certainty that his family and community will never tolerate him living as a gay man, to the point of excommunication or even death. He has been told and believes that what he feels inside is a sin. His family, especially his mother, have high expectations of him to marry and have children. His mother is always trying to set him up with nice girls. And they are nice girls. He is running out of excuses to avoid these relationships. What are his options? Enter a sham marriage? Face his family's disappointment from living alone or leaving his home and community?

What about the priesthood? By becoming a priest, he will be required to be celibate, which he has resigned himself to anyway, so he doesn't have to marry a woman. He will be honoring God, gain a position of high status in his church and community, have employment for life that does not require hard labor, and bring honor to his family. How can he lose?

I submit that the clergy has been a refuge from marriage for young, gay, Catholic men for centuries, so much so, in fact, that most members of the Catholic clergy today are gay, and this has been true for a very long time. The celibacy of priests has been an extreme disincentive for young strait [sic] men to enter the priesthood, while being an attraction to young gay men.

It would be naïve to think that this persistent assault on the gay community is in no way affected by the fact that these are mostly gay men driving it. Other religions speak against homosexuality, but few rally their entire church to fight against the rights of gay people outside their church. One simple theory is that it's just basic gay bashing by closeted gay men trying to stay closeted. Another is basic self-loathing. Their faith gives them a deep shame of what they are, so they attack other gays as a vicarious form of self-flagellation.

I'm inclined to think that their motivations are more practical in nature. Today, the entire hierarchy of the Catholic Church is rooted in the stigmatization of homosexuality coupled with the celibacy of priests driving young, gay men to enter and operate their organization. It's probably an accident that celibacy had this consequence, but after centuries, it's a basic part of the structure of the Church and is the primary motivator they have for recruiting new priests. As one Jesuit priest put it, "As a Catholic priest, I know there would be no church without gay people. . . . I assume priests are gay until proven otherwise."

But the world is changing. There are far more options available to young, gay men today. It's becoming easier all the time to live out. Families are becoming accepting of their own gay children. They can enter relationships and find happiness. The result: fewer and fewer young men are entering the priesthood. The Catholic Church can't get enough priests to meet the needs of their congregations. The number of U.S. priests has plummeted from 59,000 in 1975 to 40,600 in 2009, while, the country's Catholic population has grown to 65 million, leaving thousands of parishes without a resident priest. They're in deep trouble.

Their options? One would be to lift the celibacy of priests. There is nothing in scripture that demands it. The problem is that most priests now are gay, and if they did this, priests would go from an expectation of celibacy to an expectation of marriage overnight. Any parish priest would be seen as the supreme catch for nearly every single woman in his congregation. These men would be fending off female advances left and right, putting them right back in the situation they entered the priesthood to escape in the first place. Few in church leadership will foist this on themselves, and most of the priests they have now would probably leave the clergy. In the short run, it would decimate the Church before they could recruit enough new priests to recover.

Their other option? Try to maintain the status quo, dig in their heals and stop the progress of history. Try to thwart any attempts to raise the social acceptability of homosexuality and give young gay men other options. Fight like hell to maximize the social stigma that drives gay men into the priesthood to keep their church alive. This appears to be the choice they have made.

The last option would be to both end celibacy for priests and officially embrace gay people. Their priests could come out, stay in the church, and they could begin to attract more strait men to enter the priesthood. Throw in the ordination of women and they just might make it. Somehow, I can't see millennia-old social inertia changing that quickly.

The Catholic Church is fading. To save it, the church leadership either has to give up the lives they've built for themselves, or they have to hold down and demonize gay people. They are not fighting to stop sin or protect marriage. They are fighting to save their church, and they are desperate.

– Erica Keppler

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Officially Homophobic, Intensely Homoerotic
Let's Face It: The Catholic Church is a Gay Institution
A Fact That Should Be Neither Surprising Nor Derogatory
Gay People and the Spiritual Life
Homosexuality and the Priesthood
Daniel Maguire: Heterosexism , Not Homosexuality, is the Problem
Keeping All the Queens Under One Roof
The Inherent Sensuality of Roman Catholicism
What Is It That Ails You?
"Spiritual Paternity"
More on "Spiritual Paternity"
Progressive Perspectives on Archbishop Nienstedt's Anti-Gay Activism
"The Note" – Part 7 of The Journal of James Curtis

Image: Revellers in Catholic bishop costumes at the 2009 Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras in Sydney, Australia. (Getty Images)


Anonymous said...

from Chris Morley

I'm not at all convinced. We don't need a version of conspiracy theory to explain the hierarchy's political anti-gay campaigning, when cock-ups mean other causes are more plausible.
The options for gay catholic men are not as limited as Erica paints them. Firstly only a minority of catholic gay men end up in seminaries and the priesthood. I've met a good number of lay gay catholics.
In the 1960s I chose the priesthood path. However I left the junior seminary because I realised the church's anti-gay teaching was toxic and wrong. I've met others with similar histories. Some chose to be lay catholics exercising their right to follow their conscience, but many felt so rejected we left the church.
It wasn't then and isn't now a stark choice between priesthood or excommunication, a sham marriage, a life alone, and leaving your home and community. It's not easy growing up catholic and gay but most of us manage to become fulfilled and contented adults, catholic or otherwise.

We mustn't ignore the long tradition and evidence for heterosexual clerical relationships and fatherhood. Many priests have left in recent decades because of this but this attracts far less media attention because heterosexual relationships are seen as normal. Maintaining clerical celibacy and meeting the strict chastity expectations are problematic for most clergy, whether heterosexual or gay.

More likely explanations of the hierarchy's political campaigning against gay marriage are
* internalised homophobia among some clergy (heterosexual and gay),
* as a media diversion from clergy paedophilia, abuse and cover-ups,
* flaunting of the church's strict teachings on homosexuality, and
* having a hierarchy shaped and intimidated by an authoritarian and conservative Rome.

Positing a gay clerical 'mafia' which is attempting to use anti-gay rhetoric and political campaigning to keep feeding the ranks of the priesthood with fresh gay recruits is a conspiracy that seems far-fetched and unnecessary.
Rome is simply stuck in a deeply traditionalist groove. It's in reactive lockdown mode because the conservative tendency in the church panicked after Vatican Council II stirred up liberalisation and change in the 1960s. Most people raised catholic have been voting with their feet for decades and many of those who have stayed exercise their freedom of conscience in sexual matters. Most catholics are simply not bothered by the prospect of gay marriage and equality and many would positively welcome these.
While the church persists in punishing debate and dissent even about celibacy, it is hard to see a route to any official change in its response to gay sexuality, clerical or otherwise.

William D. Lindsey said...

Michael, I'm just now seeing your posting, after I had mentioned Keppler's article in a posting of my own earlier today (and tomorrow, I'll post something pointing readers to your piece here).

My own thinking about the fear underlying the stepped-up attack on gays, insofar as it relates to the priesthood: I'm not convinced it's designed to drive gay Catholics into the priesthood. I know very few self-accepting gay Catholics who'd even give any thought to a clerical vocation anymore.

I suspect the real fear of the hierarchy is that if homosexuality becomes socially acceptable, more and more priests would come out of the closet, and would press for the right to have open, partnered relationships. And then the world would know how prevalent homosexuality is in the priesthood--and legal and financial complications might also then ensue for priests in partnered relationships, which would obligate the church. I honestly think it's the legal-financial things the hierarchy fears above all!

Mareczku said...

It is interesting that the priesthood is a refuge for gay men and they were surely welcomed. But what about the current dictate from Rome that gay men are NOT welcome in the priesthood? The welcome mat has been pulled away. How stupid is that? They are really slitting their throats on that one.

Erica Keppler said...

Chris, I am the author of the original blog in this discussion. I made the potential mistake of Googling myself and stumbling on this site. I'm frankly surprised at how far this simple blog post has traveled. I'm also surprised that I haven't seen more responses like yours. I assumed my comments would be ripe for criticism, especially since I am not Catholic and all of my observations and conclusions are derived from afar. I would like to respond to a couple of things about your post.

My point is that the celibacy of priests creates as social filter that makes the priesthood much more attractive to gay men than to straight men. This is not to imply that it drives all gay men, or even a majority of gay men, into the priesthood. Nor does it mean that no straight men will enter the priesthood either. It simply creates a far different demographic mix than you find in the general population. You only need this filter to in the end bring in more gay men than straight, or even a very large minority, for the impact in the church to be substantial.

"Conspiracy" is perhaps in a stretch technically accurate, but a bit too strong of a term. They are not plotting to create a system that drives young gay men into the priesthood. That system was created many centuries ago when the church committed to clerical celibacy. The Church hierarchy today just has to live with it. They are not plotting to create a new system, but rather fighting to preserve an old one. In any time of change, there will be those who don’t want change to happen and will fight to keep it from happening. The entire Civil War was an attempt by the southern states to preserve the lives they built on the incredibly lucrative cultivation of cotton that demanded massive amounts of cheap labor. They built their world on slavery, and attitudes across the western world were turning against the practice. Basically, the same sort of thing is happening today for the Catholic Church. Celibacy has inadvertently caused them to build their church on homosexuality, and changing cultural attitudes are eroding away at the system that has always made it all work. It’s not a conspiracy to drive gay men into the priesthood. It is a desperate attempt, just like the Civil War, to stop change from happening. This is just what people do when they feel their world is threatened.

The other possible motivations for the clergy’s extreme aggression on gay issues may indeed play into it. However, I still hold to my assertion in my blog that it would be naïve to think that their actions are not affected by the fact that it is mostly gay men doing it. My best theory, as an outside observer, is that the intensity of their actions are a sign of desperation. That desperation I believe is driven by their responsibility to preserve the Catholic Church, a desire to preserve the lives and careers they have built for themselves, and a profound frustration over not being able to stop the tide of cultural change. They behave like desperate men, I submit, because that’s exactly what they are.

Anonymous said...

from Chris Morley to Erica

I would have responded more directly at Huffington Post but I disagree with their log-in requirements.

William D Lindsey, who's also responded here, is a respected expert and has also commented on his own blog http://bilgrimage.blogspot.com/ . He agrees with me that the stepped up attacks on gay people aren't intended to drive gay men into the priesthood, which was the thrust of your article.

There are a range of inter-acting factors, including celibacy, that have had the unintended consequence of increasing the proportion of gay men in the priesthood.

My point, dramatised somewhat by the phrase 'a version of conspiracy theory', was that there are other more plausible explanations for the Church's anti-gay campaigning, than to maintain the flow of gay priests, which is how I understood your argument.
You said in your blog:
"Today, the entire hierarchy of the Catholic Church is rooted in the stigmatization of homosexuality coupled with the celibacy of priests driving young, gay men to enter and operate their organization."
And, regarding options
"Try to maintain the status quo, dig in their heals and stop the progress of history. Try to thwart any attempts to raise the social acceptability of homosexuality and give young gay men other options. Fight like hell to maximize the social stigma that drives gay men into the priesthood to keep their church alive. This appears to be the choice they have made."

I now understand you see the effect of requiring celibacy as a pivotal factor and I agree an unintended consequence of the celibacy requirement is to boost the percentage of gay priests.

I don't believe there is evidence, even in the USA, that the majority of priests are gay, nor for your claim that the homophobic resistance by the Church is mainly led by gay men.

Writing as someone from the UK, you will understand that people outside the USA are sensitive to suggestions that the USA experience is somehow representative of global Catholicism.

Thanks for making the interesting American Civil War analogy, but my understanding was that the Civil War was based on Lincoln / Unionist resistance to any attempt to allow slavery to spread beyond the Confederacy into the developing Western frontier, because this would make free men's labour costs uncompetitive on the frontier and expand slavery across the entire West.
I do understand the Confederacy fought to retain slavery because this made cotton production so lucrative, but it was Lincoln who declared war.

There was an excellent documentary last week on BBC TV - quick you may be able to watch it on the catchup BBC i-Player here http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00y5kdx
I'm from the city of Manchester, the global centre of cotton cloth production during the industrial revolution, and as a city our cotton mill workers were solid anti-slavery and pro-Unionist allies in the Civil War, at the cost of their own severe unemployment, and we are proud to have a statue of Lincoln close to our city's Town Hall.