While priests and bishops have been battling over power, politics, and truth (in games that should disgust us almost as much as the crises that gave rise to them), many of the laity have been left doing triage. Recently I met with a young gay Catholic man who presented to me what he viewed as his three options for his future, based on how both his liberal friends and his conservative (Catholic) friends have framed the intersection of his faith and his sexuality. The third option: suicide.
I didn’t even flinch. I wasn’t surprised. It made perfect sense. The way we talk about Catholicism and (homo)sexuality is, in my view, toxic from both sides. Meanwhile, SSA/LGBT/homosexual Catholics in the pews (many of whom really want to be faithful to Church teaching) hear the clergy and their peers blaming them for the abuses running through the Church. They might reasonably themselves, “Am I doomed to abuse? Should I just kill myself first?”
These questions arise, in part, because of a language issue. This crisis continues to be framed as a “homosexuality” problem, rather than a problem of violations of chastity or a culture of sexual exploitation or even “homosexual sexual exploitation.” Why is it that we blame “homosexuality,” whereas when we look at the rape and assault of Polish nuns we never call it a “heterosexuality” problem?
Some initial thoughts in response, from a friend:
“To the extent that there is (assuming there is, even if only for the sake of argument) a non-trivial culture of active homosexuality among the modern clergy… it still does not follow that this crisis (n.b. distinct from the abuse crisis) is fundamentally a homosexual problem. On the contrary, and extremely obviously: It’s a chastity problem. If all of these gay priests were actually being chaste, we wouldn’t have this problem.
“At it’s deepest root, it’s a chastity problem, and it can ONLY be re-framed as a ‘homosexual’ problem to the extent that someone is defining ‘homosexuality’ as something (e.g. a lifestyle) inherently incompatible with chastity, and/or ultimately believes that homosexuals are incapable of chastity. And that’s completely leaving aside all parallel concerns about scapegoating homosexuality for the abuse crisis. (Someone might grant that the abuse crisis is distinct, but then claim that THIS crisis is ultimately about homosexuality in the clergy. But that’s still not framing the problem correctly.)”
He goes on to say:
“It depends on what you mean by ‘homosexual’. It seems to me that there is a lot of confusion here that arises because of subtle differences that many people are equivocating on the definition of the word ‘homosexual’. If we want to refer to all male-male sexual contact (regardless of any other factors) as by definition ‘homosexual’, then sure. But that definition has no logical reference to the age of the victims, and therefore blurs (or ignores) the distinct patterns that are observable between abuse of minors and sexual activity between adults. This causes further problems if we’re also using the word ‘homosexual’ to refer to (or imply) something like the sexual orientation or attraction of the abuser towards their victim. We have to grapple with the data that denies any statistical link between sexual orientation and abuse: e.g. showing that the majority of abusers (both among the clergy and the population in general) offend only once, and do not exhibit any sort of stable attraction towards a ‘type’ of victim, but rather tend to abuse due to a combination of factors such as emotional immaturity, isolation from healthy adult relationships, and subsequent unhealthy emotional bonding with the minors who they happen to have most access to.
“The John Jay report goes into tons of detail (which I’ve been reading more and more of, as time permits), but the bottom line seems to be that most abusers are not sexually attracted to their victims in a stable manner. This renders the term ‘homosexual’ (now generally taken to imply some sort of identifiable *preference* for same-sex contact) problematic. You can argue that the vast majority of priest abuse victims involved male-male contact, and say ‘this is homosexual, by definition’, but that means you’re circling back to a problematic (over-simplistic) definition of the term that has no reference to ‘orientation’, does not correspond to how the John Jay study uses the term, and thus tends to imply sweeping conclusions that are not supported by the data, causing more confusion.”
So that’s one view. I’m inclined to agree. And I’d go farther.
Do you know why so many SSA/LGBT/homosexual Catholics don’t believe they can actually be chaste? Or think that one of their three options is suicide (the other two being abandoning their faith to live out their sexuality and hating themselves while living their faith unhappily)? Because framing this as a “homosexuality” problem implicates everyone who is homosexual and states that homosexual isn’t just about an orientation, but about the impossibility of chastity and a strong likelihood of abuse. Likewise, talking about a “gay subculture” implicates everyone who is gay. What you’re saying is that for me to truly be “gay” or “homosexual” is to be engaging in the disgusting and abusive acts running through the news.
So suicide becomes a reasonable option for the Catholic kid thinking he might be gay. If I accepted the linguistic world put forward by many in these questions, I think that suicide would be a very live question for me as well. This conversation lacks the necessary nuance to find the joy of the Gospel, and many people just don’t seem to care about this.
I do. And I hope you don’t have to wait for a suicide in your school or your parish for you to start caring, too.
More of my thoughts on the clergy abuse crisis here.
Note: If your parish priest does the above, I encourage you to have a conversation with him. Don’t yell at or berate him. Compassionately share what you understand about these issues and appeal to what’s best in him and his work as you ask for a more nuanced and empathetic approach to these questions. Share resources with him and offer to help make resources available to the parish. There’s a big learning curve when it comes to discussing these questions in a sufficiently human and life-giving way. Be patient with him, and ask that he be patient with you as well.
If you are a Catholic, priest or otherwise, who has done the above: consider it, address it, and change where you need to change. Forgive yourself for your failures. Part of being in a family is that we will hurt one another, usually because of misunderstandings, and the Church is a family. Even if you have hurt me, we are still family. I still want you in my home.
Thank you for this insight! I was looking forward to hearing from you on this issue.
I don’t think it’s a homosexuality problem or a problem with priests in general having to be single. Sexual abuse has rocked numerous Protestant denominations with married clergy. I think people need to dig more deeply to get to the root of this problem.