Could Openly Gay Priests Rekindle the Catholic Spirit?

And why the church has been so bad at dealing with child abuse

THIS week’s sentencing of Australian Cardinal George Pell, former third man and treasurer to the Vatican, for demanding oral sex in a sacristy with two drunken choir boys, has obviously done nothing to endear the church to the general public.

But Catholics are an intrepid lot, and many are already debating how the institution will evolve in the post sexual abuse era.

A hard-line minority still hold the anachronistic view that homosexuality itself is the root of all child sexual abuse problems, and must be weeded out of the fragrant Catholic garden.

But a far more nuanced and compassionate view is also emerging.

In an extraordinary series of articles in the British based International Catholic magazine Tablet, openly gay Jesuit priest and leading theologian James Alison recently outed the Church’s lavender mafia culture and called for major reform of the profoundly dishonest sexuality that he says has pervaded the church for centuries

In a case not dissimilar to that of Cardinal Pell (whose denial of guilt throughout his trial was frighteningly absolute), Fr. Alison cites a late South American Cardinal who was known for regularly beating up the rent boys he frequented as a classic result of a church culture in deep denial.

Harvard academic Mark Jordan describes Catholic clergy as inhabiting a tormented “honeycomb of closets” that often results in a dysfunctional ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ attitude towards any sexual inclinations among the supposedly celibate.

The tragic consequence, writes Alison, has been an inability by the vast majority of responsible clergy to distinguish between healthy same-sex attraction and criminal pedophilia.

Where Alison’s story gets even more intriguing is his claim, backed by the Church’s own secretive surveys, that a “massively disproportionate” number of Catholic clergy are gay.

Some estimates put the number around 40 per cent, while one priest recently told the New York Times that “a third are gay, a third are straight and a third don’t know what the hell they are.”

Yet as the tragic cases of Cardinal Pell and the unnamed South American Cardinal show, it has usually been the most deeply closeted gay priests who have raised the loudest voices against homosexuality.

This has occurred for a host of reasons, says Fr Alison, including ambition, jealousy, unreasonable zealousness and even blackmail. On the other hand, he says, straight priests have rarely persecuted gays.

Historically the church, and the notion of celibacy, has provided an important and valid refuge for young men and women who were unsure of, or did not want to confront their sexuality.

But having no institutional support for those who come to recognize themselves as gay, and an unyielding adherence to the doctrine of celibacy, often compounds dysfunctional sexuality, writes Alison — despite numerous studies showing no correlation between homosexuality and pedophilia in the outside world.

SO what if, by some quirk of fate in the near future, the Catholic church changed its mind and allowed clergy to openly declare their sexuality?

Well, despite the vexing issue of celibacy, a historic underpinning of Catholic religious tradition, it is interesting to speculate.

LGBT culture by tradition fulfills many intrinsic christian values — tolerance, kindness, peace, commitment to institutional values, love of culture and tradition and of course, from a particularly Catholic perspective, drag. It is a culture that makes society a more colorful, diverse and healthy place.

I have no doubt an open and broader sexuality among clergy will become the norm in due course — those pesky millennials have a much more fluid and tolerant view than older generations, who still tend to categorize society as primarily straight with a gay minority.

And in a world flooded with overt, consumerist sexuality, celibacy may also emerge as a welcome, perhaps even celebrated choice, not only for nuns and priests, but in mainstream society as well.

For despite the current euphoria about the legalization of gay marriage, the fact remains that a growing majority of people in western society are choosing not to enter any form of matrimony.

AS a straight, happily married and recently confirmed Catholic whose children were educated at Catholic schools, I know that old attitudes die hard.

A decade ago the school experience for our children was mainly a positive one. The ethos of the Catholic school system was safe, ethical and compassionate, but could revert to starchiness on matters of alternative sexuality.

A talented and artistic friend of our daughter was threatened with expulsion if she took up a much sought after design internship with the Sydney Gay Mardi Gras. Partly in rebellion at this, our quietly politically-minded daughter took herself off to another school.

How things have changed. Last year a gay lad at Saint Ignatius College, a leading Sydney Jesuit Catholic boys school, came out at a school assembly with the full backing of the principal.

Even so, attitudes among the religious and laity are still sharply divided. Many progressives had pinned their hopes on Pope Francis to promote acceptance. Regarded as an active reformer, he had, until recently, been ambiguous about the status of gay priests.

Given the conservatism of the Vatican generally, this ambiguity was easily interpreted by priests such as Fr Alison as a ringing endorsement of homosexuality.

But it was not to be. Earlier this year the Pope said gays should not become priests, and that those who are in the ministry should basically put up with the status quo.

This position might not be acceptable to Australians for much longer

With seventy five percent of voters calling for the legalization of same sex marriage in some of Australia’s most conservative electorates, those senior Australian church leaders strictly adhering to the Pope’s views could further alienate themselves from parishioners.

And for clergy the situation could, if anything become more dangerous. As already discussed, conventional views tend to perpetuate the closet and wrongly equate homosexuality with pedophilia.

Yet the future of the Catholicism is not in doubt. It has provided spiritual nourishment, wise counsel and a moral framework of enormous emotional and intellectual strength for millennia.

But it is not without its problems, and the catharsis the church is now experiencing will come to be seen as part of a painful, slow and often tragic process of adapting to the modern world.

Author, journalist and mentor. I call myself a deep green conservative.

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