Tuesday, June 02, 2009

The Challenge to Become Ourselves

The following is excerpted from an open letter written in 1992 by a gay priest (on leave of absence from ministry) to Pope John Paul II. It was originally published in the December 18, 1992 issue of the National Catholic Reporter, under the title, “If You Don’t Know What Hurts Me, How Can You Truly Love Me?”

The NCR noted that “the author no longer lacks the courage to speak in his own name, yet wishes his name be withheld for the sake of others who would be identified by association.”

I share it today because – almost twenty years on – it has lost none of its power, truth, or relevancy.


After years of dark, agonizing pain, I am now coming into my own as a sexual person. The gift of that struggle has been to recognize that I am a gay man. I do not feel shame in saying that.

I have suffered for too long. And I have lived my life with such generosity that I am not willing to have you, Holy Father, or anyone else tell me that I am immoral. You say that homosexual love is a disorder. I reject that prejudice.

I look at the Christian gays and lesbians who have entered my life over the years and I simply do not believe that their lives and loves are contrary to the “creative wisdom of God.” The witness of their lives compels me to believe that their loves are part of God’s creative wisdom.

You have insulted me, Holy Father, with your [June 25, 1992] letter [to the American bishops, in which you urged them to advocate legal discrimination against gays and lesbians under certain circumstances]. You have deeply hurt me. From you, I expect the most basic of what I have extended to others: elementary kindness. But your letter was not kind. Your letter was vile, filled with scorn and arrogance.

Shame on you, Holy Father, for writing such a letter at a time when hate crimes, particularly hate crimes against gays, are on the rise in this country; when the rate of gay teen suicides is proportionally higher than any other group’s. Shame on you for releasing a letter advocating discrimination at the time when medical leaders were meeting at the World AIDS Conference, a conference that could not be held in the United States because of government discrimination against HIV-infected people.

There are so many other letters you could have written. The world needs hope and encouragement; you offer words of contempt.

My parents violated my trust when they suppressed the sexual development of my being. You now violate both my faith journey toward health and the legacy of my ministry by telling me I am disordered and entitled to live with “dignity” only if I hide my sexual identity and live as a eunuch.

I will not let you say that men like me cannot love.

I will not give over to you that power.

I will not live a life of denial, for that would be to live an unnatural and unhealthy life.

Sadly, though, denial is a way of life in our church. And the denial and secrecy is strangling us. All of us.

Holy Father, let me tell you a “secret.” Many, many priests in the American clergy are gay. I am not a sociologist or an anthropologist or even a pollster. I am simply a priest who has lived in a variety of communities and apostolates. At no time did I ever live in a community where gays did not make up at least half of the community. We are everywhere in the church.

. . . They are good men. Some are celibate; others live compromised lives. Without exception, they are men who love being priests in today’s crazy world, and they are men who live in fear and secrecy. They are men who strive mightily to be ministers of healing and hope in a world gone amok but who, in the privacy of their rooms, are wracked with confusion and guilt and aching hearts.

They are men who have struggled to be reflections of God’s compassion in our world but who do not know how to love their own selves. Too few of them are full-grown men, for so many are caught in the traps and the lies perpetuated by a church that takes the verb to love and conjugates it to procreate.

There is so much needless pain because of the secrecy and denial. When we deny the reality that we priests are sexual beings, we become something less than what we are meant to be. Denial leads to destruction.

. . . The American theologian William Stringfellow described “listening” as a primitive act of love in which one gives one’s self to another’s word, becoming vulnerable to that word. Who will listen to our stories? You, Holy Father, have shown yourself to be a man unwilling to listen.

But our stories cry out to God. You write that “the church has the responsibility to promote the public morality of the entire civil society.” Yes. But the church’s first responsibility is to listen with an honest and open heart to the story of its people, however uncomfortable their stories may make the “church” feel.

The American priesthood is in crisis. Much has been written about that crisis. Much has been written denying that crisis. The truth, though, is that much of this crisis rests in our refusal to acknowledge and embrace that we are embodied people. Our basic yearnings to love and be loved are choked by confusion and torment.

Centuries ago, the gentle Jesuit Father Pierre Favre wrote that we magnify God’s strictness with a zeal that God’s self will not own. This is what you have done, Holy Father. You condemn with a shrill voice that of which you know so little.

Your letter surely does not speak in God’s name. I simply cannot believe in a God who would have created men and women with a capacity to love that was disordered.

. . . Let me end with [a story]. Elie Wiesel, a man who listened to the cries of the persecuted and has heard God’s voice of compassion in their stories, believes that when we die and go to heaven, God is not going to say to us, “Why didn’t you become a messiah? Why didn’t you discover the cure for such and such?” The only thing going to be asked at that precious moment is, “Why didn’t you become you?”

Holy Father, in its own perverse way, your letter to the American bishops lays this challenge before all of us who are gay – the challenge to become ourselves.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
What Is It That Ails You?
The Pope’s “Scandalous” Stance on Homosexuality
Listen Up, Papa!
The Power of Our Stories
The Many Manifestations of God’s Loving Embrace
What the Vatican Can Learn from the X-Men
The Gifts of Homosexuality
Homosexuality and the Priesthood
Vatican Stance on Gay Priests Signals Urgent Need for Renewal & Reform
Abuse Survivor Says Scapegoating Homosexuality for Sex Abuse Scandal is “Ill-Informed, Ignorant, Corrupt, and Dishonest”
Weakland and Cutié: Making the Connections

Recommended Off-site Links:
Spiritual Paternity: Why Homosexual Men Cannot Be Ordained Catholic Priests - Paula Ruddy (Progressive Catholic Voice, January 13, 2009).
Homosexual Priests and Spiritual Paternity - Ed Kohler (Progressive Catholic Voice, January 26, 2009).


Phillip Clark said...

This is precisely what the leadership within the Church is NOT doing. Pope Benedict upon his election promised that he would "listen" above all else and not carry out the following and pursuance of his own initiatives but would rather listen to the People of God and to the voice of the Lord. I'm sure His Holiness thinks he is doing that as best and sincerely as he can, but he fails to see that to listen in a truly genuine and unbiased fashion means hearing ALL sides of various issues that have been brought to the table.

He didn't take this into consideration when very soon after his election he effectively put a ban on any openly homosexual candidates for the priesthood, whether they be celibate or not.

I don't understand what he and other members of the hierarchy are so afraid of? If some sort of meeting was arranged where faithful gay and lesbian Catholics shared their experiences of what it meant to them to be LGBT Catholics and how the language of the Church has hurt them, how their orientations is most cases were not something that they themselves CHOSE or could simply shrug off, how could they not failed to be impressed and moved to intently study comprehensively modern science's interpretation and our Faith's on homosexuality?

Sadly, I think all of this inaction and rigidity has manifested itself out of a fear of being wrong, and forever undermined in the views of the members of the Church's hierarchy. Can't they understand that just as has already happened so many times before in light of the sexual abuses scandals of the past decade, the People of God are prone and open to forgiveness and understanding...?

Of course the infallibility issue is another component of this complex issue, but homosexuality being a "disordered" condition has never been something that has been declared as an "infallible" declaration by the Holy Father... Of course conservative theologians try to push the notion that the infallibility of this teaching is "implied" rather than being directly spoken, but currently, this view on homosexuality is still very much the personal opinion of Joseph Ratzinger as well as many other leaders of the Church. So why could it potentially not be re-evaluated?

kevin57 said...

A letter from the heart. It is pleading; it is angry. Throughout, it is human.

I was fascinated reading excerpts from Archbishop Weakland's upcoming book. It details the tone and substance of "dialogue" between the Curia, including JP II, and American bishops. If you haven't read the excerpts, brace yourself. The worst of what has been suspected in this blog about a lack of genuine sharing is borne out by this unfortunate man. If the Vatican does not care to hear from an archbishop...well, you and I don't even count as a whisper in a whirlwind.

Anonymous said...

Re/Phillip Clark's use of the word "listen" - why does "listen" seem to mean "agree?" Or is there no dissent from Clark's new orthodoxy?

Anonymous said...

I would say that one can listen but not agree. It seems that those who promote the full acceptance of homosexuality in the Church will only believe the Church is "listening" if She changes her teaching on this issue. What if the Pope or various Bishops did meet and listen for hours, months, or years and in the end came back with the same basic teaching? They'd just be accused of not "really" listening.

I'm all for faithful gay and lesbian Catholics meeting with members of the hierarchy, that's fine. The key word is faithful. That would imply those who are actively seeking to live as the Church teaches regarding homosexuality. Otherwise, how are they being faithful? Just curious.

Michael J. Bayly said...

Hi Anonymous, thanks for sharing your thoughts and questions.

I guess my first response to your comments is to say that, ultimately, I believe we're called to be faithful to the living God present throughout creation - including within our lives and relationships as gay people. The institutional church isn't God. Put another way, God is so much bigger that the Vatican.

Second, I must admit it's difficult for me to comprehend how anyone of good will could listen to the story of a gay person who has struggled to live his/her life with honesty and in a healthy and integrated way (a way that for most people includes sexual expression) and not be moved to agreeing that he/she is a better person, a more "whole" person for it.

Everything we've learned and are learning about sexual orientation - from psychology to human experience - points to this reality. Why shouldn't Christian theology? After all, isn't it, in large measure, all about guiding us in the ways of that "abundant life" that Jesus spoke about? (Note I'm not expecting or demanding every gay person to be sexual. As with straight people, some gay people are no doubt called to a life of celibacy. I'm fine with that.)

As to Anonymous' point about the pope and bishops listening to the experiences of gay people (and their straight family members and friends, I would add) but remaining unchanged in their understanding of homosexuality. . . Well, first, let's initiate the listening before we assume to know their response. Second, even if they did remain unmoved, they could still acknowledge and respect the decisions of gay people, based on conscience, to live lives of integration; lives that include intimate, physical relationships.

Let's look at the issue of birth control. Ninety-seven percent of straight Catholic married couples use birth control - many as a result of a decision of conscience. That's a lot of Catholics engaging in, according to the Vatican, a moral evil. It's also a much, much higher number of people than the number engaging in "homosexual activity." And yet which of the two issues does the institutional church focus one? It seems rather obvious that it is obsessed (in a very negative and ill-informed way) with gay sex. My own view is that there is some serious projection occurring on the part of the men in control - men who have failed to accept and integrate their sexuality, and who project their self-hate, homo-negativity, ignorance, and fear out to those of us who have. It's all part of the church's "unhealed wound," as Eugene Kennedy says.

Anyway, I've gone on for long enough. Hopefully, Phillip and Kevin will share their thoughts on the important and valid questions raised by Anonymous.



kevin57 said...

Thank you, Michael, for inviting me to share further in response to Anonymous's post.

I guess I would mostly echo what you've said. Yes, it is possible to sincerely listen and still disagree. However, true listening will always at the very least change the tone of the conversation. Anonymous, nearly all gay Catholics sense that beyond "condemnations," and "disordered," and "serious moral evil," there is a complete lack of interest in who we are as gay Catholics. As Michael said, let's start with listening. No matter what may happen subsequently, both sides will feel valued and honored. And yes, I do think very much that the gay community does need to hear a word from the Church. There are gospel challenges for us...but until there is openness on the Church's side, that voice will not be welcomed.

This is nothing surprising. What should occur in any significant relationship (e.g., marriage, friendship, hell even management-labor!)? Listen, dialogue, share. When that doesn't happen, nothing but tragedy ensues.