Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 8 / 22 February 2018

Gay Catholics angry over seminary searches


Dignity/SF Co-chair Gino Ramos. Photo: Jane Philomen Cleland
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Local gay Catholic parishioners and theologians are angered, yet determined, in the face of the Vatican's pending instruction to bar gay seminarians while it begins inspecting 229 U.S. Catholic seminaries, looking for "evidence of homosexuality" and "signs of particular friendships."

What some are calling a pogrom began with a five-member team of inquisitors visiting St. Louis, Missouri's Aquinas Institute September 25, and will be completed by next spring. A visit to the Bay Area's St. Patrick's Seminary in Menlo Park is scheduled for next month.

According to an 11-page document, 117 bishops and priests, overseen by Military Services Archbishop Edwin O'Brien, will interview all faculty, students, and graduates from the past three years over a four-day period at each seminary. The move is in response to the fallout of the priest sexual abuse scandal.

The instruction, as it is called, reflects concern among some church leaders that Catholic seminaries have become too gay and that lax moral discipline led to the sexual abuse scandal, and implies that celibacy is especially challenging to gay men.

Some conservatives say that seminaries are so gay, (estimates range up to half the students) placing an unfair burden of temptation on gays and straights alike, that straight men are intimidated from joining, and the priesthood is coming to be seen as a gay career.

Others disagree.

"I have never heard that, in my many years of teaching in seminaries, from any seminarian or professor," said a gay East Bay Catholic seminary professor, who e-mailed his comments anonymously through a third party to protect his workplace. "One does wonder whether justifications are being rather desperately searched for, since homophobia and scapegoating don't sound so nice."

"No one feels safe talking," said Bernard Schlager Ph.D., national outreach director at the Pacific School of Religion's Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies in Religion and Ministry, noting "an atmosphere of danger developing," of "real fear and terror."

To contradict the instruction in the press could potentially cause problems, he said.

The Vatican's Congregation for Catholic Education prepared the order, which underwent three drafts. It was approved by Pope Benedict XVI.

The Congregation for Catholic Education prepared the instruction after gathering advice from bishops, psychologists, and moral theologians worldwide, then circulated a draft among the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith. The inquisitors will report directly to the Vatican, which could respond by issuing the instruction barring gays from seminaries and ordination, while expected resignations would worsen the already deep Catholic clergy shortage.

Pope Benedict, formerly Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, headed the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, which investigated the priest sexual abuse scandal. He spoke last spring of a need to "purify" the church when the scope of abuse allegations became known.

The pope named San Francisco Archbishop William Levada as the new prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith earlier this year.

"If they do this purge and run out every gay person, they will not have enough people to minister," said Mario Porrigino, a born and raised Catholic San Franciscan and president of the local chapter of Defenders, a leather-identified Catholic group that meets monthly.

The instruction does not represent a theological change. The catechism calls homosexuality "objectively disordered" and gay sex an act of "grave depravity." But in the 1970s and 1980s, that policy was ignored in U.S. seminaries to varying degrees.

Some informed sources say the instruction will be made public when a Rome bishops' synod ends October 23.

U.S. cardinals requested the "Apostolic Visitation" in 2002, while discussing the sexual abuse crisis with Pope John Paul II.

The anonymous theologian said his students "tend to be emphatically against homophobia (and misogyny), so these times are particularly embarrassing for Catholics who want to be in ecumenical dialogue, as Vatican II encourages, and personally reject homophobia (and misogyny). Personal orientation is not an academic issue here. For instance, many of those who are most distressed by the upcoming visitation are quite evidently straight."

Gay groups respond

National LGBT leaders were quick to label the Vatican's move a smokescreen to divert attention from the church's lack of response to the priest sexual abuse crisis.

"Church leaders have not accepted responsibility and have not been appropriately reprimanded by the church for their failures to deal appropriately with the still ongoing sexual abuse crisis in the church," said Debbie Weill, executive director of Dignity USA, a gay Catholic group.

"This is part of the church hierarchy's calculated – and frankly, evil – campaign to scapegoat gay people for the decades of appalling sex abuse of children and young people that it alone created, nurtured, and covered up," said Matt Foreman, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. He called the instruction a smokescreen to hide the "abject, willful negligence of the hierarchy."

"When the church makes gay men a scapegoat for pedophiles, it ignores one problem and creates another," said Human Rights Campaign President Joe Solmonese. "It does nothing to keep children safe or punish criminals."

"It is rather appalling that someone like [former Boston] Cardinal [Bernard] Law is off in Rome being honored, and outstanding gay seminarians are, apparently, about to be pressured to leave," said the seminary professor.

"They're sort of looking for an easy solution, not drawing on the knowledge base of what motivates this behavior," said longtime Dignity member Paul Riofski.

"It's based on a bigoted stereotype, trying to switch the attention away from their corrupt system to gay people, which is ludicrous," said Porrigino, calling pedophilia a fundamental institutional phenomenon of the church hierarchy to indoctrinate young men.

"It all has to be rethought from the very beginning. This whole system of taking young boys and perverting their psychosexual development has been going on for hundreds of years. So what you get is, by teaching them silly things like, the church is your mate, you're not allowed to have normal relationships with other people. It stunts them at the age they enter," he said.

Gay Catholics say the problem is with, conversely, denial of sexuality. Priesthood candidates should be evaluated in terms of sexual maturity, said Dignity's Weill.

The seminary professor defined sexual maturity as "serene acceptance of the sexual dimension of oneself and others, as a mysterious God-given gift, without forced repression, on the one hand, and without promiscuous, inappropriate (acting out)รข on the other hand.

"If one has made the free, celibate option, it would mean the capacity of channeling much of one's erotic energy into love of God and love of all people, especially the poor, the oppressed, etc. Lying to self or others – that doesn't seem helpful to psychological maturity or to Christian life and ministry," the professor said.

"My definition of sexual maturity is to love fully as God has called us to do," said Gino Ramos, 45, a former alter boy who is in his third term as the Dignity/SF chapter's co-chair and who recently came out to fellow parishioners at his church in Antioch. "That includes sex and spirit. If a priest wants to be with a partner, they can benefit from those gifts."

"That does sound reasonable," said the seminary professor. "Regarding the obligation of celibacy for all priests, many are of course wondering whether that remains a good idea, given the critical shortage of priests. We know that St. Peter was married, and we know there was the optional celibacy approach for priests also in the Catholic Church for the first many centuries, not to mention the example of the Orthodox, etc. Does it make sense to continue to exclude the possibility that one might be called both to the priesthood and to marriage?"

Catholics interviewed also stated their determination to change the church from the grassroots.

Dignity, Riofski explained, was founded in 1969 and came out of the Vatican II era of the late 1950s, when Pope John XXIII called for ecumenical councils to examine the core elements of "priesthood of the people," humanism, and social justice.

The San Francisco chapter, founded in 1973, had the full support of the San Francisco Archdiocese for its first 15 years, meeting at St. Boniface, St. John's and St. Peter's.

But when Dignity added to its mission statement that their relationships are blessed by God, pressure from Rome against ministering to LGBT people led parishes, one by one, to evict Dignity chapters nationwide between 1986 and 1989.

"The position on homosexual acts is pretty well founded," said Maurice Healy, communications director for the city's archdiocese. "It won't change until Dignity drops their rationale, which is contrary to Catholic teaching."

"We should not let this deter us from speaking the truth as we see it," said Riofski.

"I'm torn," said Joe Curtin, a Dignity member since 1987. "Part of me says it's time to find some other faith, or way to be spiritual. The other half says, don't be a fair weather Catholic. And we have some hurricanes coming down."

The Vatican's visitation document also asks the investigators to consider whether there is "a clear process for removing" dissident faculty, if seminarians know how to moderate Internet use, and several dozen other points.

"I believe in the process, that minds that are closed can be opened," said Riofski. "In the scope of history, the conversation continues to unfold, God's revelation is ongoing."

According to Healy, because the CCE was working on the instruction process and considering the issue of admitting "people with homosexual orientation" as priesthood candidates before the 2001 sex abuse scandal, therefore, scapegoating has a history of its own separate from the abuse.

"The sex abuse scandal is really not related," Healy said, adding, "The moral view of homosexuality stresses treating the homosexual with dignity and respect. We don't damn people."

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