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Survivor: Vatican

Survivor: Vatican


Under Pope Benedict XVI, the Roman Catholic Church is jumping at the chance to drive gay priests from its ranks. The move continues to divide the church

Gay men and lesbians who were wondering just how far Pope Benedict XVI would take his decades-old homophobic agenda had to wait only a few months: The Vatican is finalizing a document intended to renew its efforts to purge gay priests.

Reportedly, the tenor of the directive is that homosexuality and the priesthood are essentially incompatible. To that end, the Roman Catholic Church will likely demand that gay candidates demonstrate years of celibacy before they can enter seminary. Further, the church may prohibit its priests and institutions from making any appearance of public support for gay people. The church in the United States has already begun Vatican-ordered inspections of its 229 seminaries, looking for, among other things, "evidence of homosexuality."

Despite expectations that the pope would approve a still harsher "instruction" that even celibate gay men be barred from the priesthood, this latest move from the Vatican comes as an unprovoked attack.

"This whole issue has been raised by the official church within the context of the sex abuse scandal," says Michael Rocks, former president of the Philadelphia chapter of Dignity USA, an LGBT Catholic group. "What does this say about priests who are gay who already have come out and supported gay issues publicly? What does this say about the thousands and thousands of gay men who have already taken stands? They're protecting the hierarchy at all costs. People used to say the police were a group who always protected themselves. [The church] puts the police to shame."

R. Scott Appleby, professor of 20th-century U.S. religious history at the University of Notre Dame, says that if the Vatican enforces this decision, "it could end up restricting entry into the priesthood to heterosexuals, which is a de facto extension of the existing teachings. Even worse, it would place homosexuals into the position of hiding their orientation, lying and suppressing their identity, or not entering the church."

Joe Murray, U.S. convener of the Rainbow Sash Movement, a group of Catholics who wear rainbow sashes to mass to denote that they wish to receive the sacrament as openly gay men and women, regularly attends services at the Immaculate Conception Parish in Chicago. Murray compares the latest witch hunt to the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy. "I'd like to know how they're going to enforce this. The U.S. military can't do it. What does the Vatican have that the Pentagon doesn't?" he asks. "If they are able to enforce this, it would backfire. More churches would be closed and less people serving."

When the church's plans were first made public, friends of Father Mychal Judge--an openly gay Roman Catholic priest and chaplain of the New York Fire Department who was killed during the events of September 11, 2001--were equally angry. Thomas Von Essen, New York City's former fire commissioner, called keeping such men out of the priesthood a shame.

There are approximately 46,000 Catholic priests in the United States, according to a recent report in The New York Times. Some sources, including The Changing Face of the Priesthood, a controversial book by the Reverend Donald B. Cozzens, estimate that gay men account for 40% or more of all ordained U.S. Roman Catholic clergy and seminarians.

And they are facing increased scrutiny--especially as church leaders and fringe groups come out against their ordination. Archbishop of Atlanta Wilton Gregory, former president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, has criticized homosexuality within seminaries. Cardinal Adam Maida, who is archbishop of Detroit, and the Family Research Council, an ultraconservative Christian lobbying group, have each called pedophilia a homosexual problem.

In a written statement, the Reverend John Trigilio Jr., president of the Confraternity of Catholic Clergy, asked the U.S. Conference of Bishops to "thoroughly, completely, and specifically investigate and eliminate all vestiges of homosexuality and liturgical abuse from all seminaries."

Yet there are groups offering support to gay priests. The Augustinians of the Immaculate Heart of Mary is an independent Catholic religious order in Philadelphia, a city with one of the largest concentrations of Roman Catholics in the United States. The order's founders envisioned a congregation unrestricted by age, gender, marital status, or sexual orientation--and one in which celibacy would not be required of priests--and their order thrives despite absence of recognition by the Roman Catholic Church. It was not until 2004 that the group finally found a home with the National Catholic Church of America, an inclusive "Vatican-free" Catholic council, and Augustinian officials have plenty to say about discrimination.

"By its action, the church is stating that even men of exemplary holiness are to be refused the opportunity to minister simply because they are gay," says the Reverend C. Christopher Tobin. "We agree with retired Episcopal bishop John Shelby Spong, who notes that current and potential seminarians are to be punished not for anything they have done, but simply because of who they are."

Tobin says the Augustinians diverged from the Roman Catholic Church because "we could no longer excuse the blatant discriminatory practices of the hierarchy against women and sexual minorities. We do not accept that anyone should be excluded from Communion or from ordained ministry because of marital status, sexual orientation, or political affiliation."

In February, Jesuit father James Martin took part in the 2005 Religious Education Congress panel "Homosexuality, Celibacy, and the Priesthood: Opening up the Conversation," defending the freedom of gay men to be priests.

"Today, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of celibate gay priests ministering to Catholics in parishes, schools, hospitals, high schools, colleges, retreat houses, soup kitchens, nursing homes, and chanceries," Martin told the panel, noting that because gay priests are expected to hide their identities, critics tend to associate homosexual clergy with high-profile cases of priests accused of child molestation. He said general fear and ignorance perpetuate the view that even celibate gay priests must be barred from the church.

"The vast majority [of gay priests] are healthy, hardworking, faithful, loving, celibate members of the clergy. That is simply the truth. In order to grow as a people, we need simply to admit that truth," Martin added.

Still, plenty of gay priests have opted to remain in the shadows. The National Catholic Reporter recently spoke with a gay (and celibate) priest from the East Coast who has been anonymously offering his opinions in radio interviews and newspaper articles around the country. He has criticized the tendency of gay priests to retreat from the larger population of seminarians even as he's also acknowledged that with rejection from the larger church comes a certain amount of internal persecution. That said, he's also noted that a "few"

of his parishioners know he's gay and that he has preached against persecution and homophobia from the pulpit, though never from a first-person perspective.

The Catholic Action Network for Social Justice in St. Louis decided to send a more overt statement with a new billboard on a busy interstate promoting the message "Love Makes Families, Support Gay Couples." Archbishop of St. Louis Raymond Burke has barred the group from meeting on church property since the billboard went up.

A top Jesuit official also recently criticized the Vatican's planned dismissal of gays. The Reverend Gerard Chojnacki, provincial of the New York Province of the Society of Jesus, drafted a letter lambasting the church, citing "the grief this will cause many good priests and the Catholic faithful." He went on to defend gay priests who have served and died honorably as clergymen: "I find it insulting to demean their memory and their years of service by even hinting that they were unfit for priesthood because of their sexual orientation."

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