I feel like I’ve been in a relationship with a controlling spouse. He’s criticized every little thing I do and say, especially around others I might find attractive, and I just discovered that he’s been cheating on me. His family and friends all knew this was happening, even while they encouraged his control over my life. I feel like I’ve been in an emotionally and spiritually abusive relationship with a cheating husband. That’s what the clergy abuse crisis means to me as a gay Catholic.
But I don’t just see duplicity among the clergy who have abused and protected abusers. I also see it in many lay responses.
When considering clergy who have been caught in the recent scandals, some Catholics have expressed concerns that these clergy be cared for, by being provided treatment, or perhaps a stipend so that they can have some sort of livelihood after removal from ministry. These Catholics also worry about due process for the accused, wanting to ensure that they get a fair hearing and an opportunity to explain themselves. Meanwhile, over the last several years gay Catholics have been summarily dismissed from their jobs, often without a meeting with their priest-employer or an opportunity to explain their lives in the context of their ministry. Could they have been offered a different job that was less authoritative or formative, instead of being taken off the payroll overnight? Some argue that gay liturgists should be thrown into the streets, while abusive priests should keep their pensions. Perhaps nowhere else in the country has this been more prominent than in my own Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.
And then I think about my own personal history as a gay Catholic.
I’ve written a few times about how I was offered a job position for a Catholic organization, only to have my offer rescinded after I shared with them the fact that I was gay (and had written and spoken as a gay Catholic in defense of Church teaching). The odd thing that I’ve come to realize years later: not one single person spoke out in my defense in that situation. Every single Catholic I spoke with afterwards said that it was a “tough situation” and that it was “too bad.” No one called it what it was: a discriminatory injustice in violation of the Catechism. Not one single person fought for me, offered to make a phone call, or encouraged me to stand up for myself and push for an opportunity that the employer felt I deserved as long as I was a straight man. Not one person.
When I got the message with the rescinded offer, I felt embarrassed, ashamed, and sad. What was it about my formation as a Catholic that made me feel ashamed when I was a victim of injustice? I felt ashamed. And yet I made up excuses to explain the lost opportunity to others so that I wouldn’t make the Church “look bad.” I even offered to help find a replacement. The Church has been accused of much discrimination against gay persons, and I wanted to “protect” the Church from further scrutiny. Why did I feel the need to protect the Church from scrutiny about its unjust discrimination towards me?
Now looking back on that situation, I feel furious. I feel incredibly angry, hurt, and betrayed by a Church I had stood up for in public and defended. And I feel used.
At a recent panel on the abuse crisis, one prominent Catholic woman articulated that feeling. She spoke about how she and many other Catholic women have stood up for the “tough teachings” on sexuality, how they have defended statements by our bishops and gone against their academic and social peers in this work. Now she and many others feel that they have been used as “props” in an agenda for those who didn’t really prioritize love and care for the laity. Even if they see much of their previous work as good, these women feel used.
And hearing her say that, I realized that I also feel used. We have been human shields to promote a positive image for teachings that get bad press. But even as we have made sacrifices for these messages, similar sacrifices have not been made for our livelihoods. We are used as human shields to promote “hard truths” for institutions that hide their own “hard truths” from us. Except for the present crises and the honesty of that woman, I don’t know that I would have revisited the incidents from my past to realize the anger I bear because of them.
Hurt by your Church is unlike any other pain. Like betrayal or rejection by a parent, hurt by your Church strikes at the core of your being. It hits the very center of yourself, because it strikes at your deepest identity. It strikes at your vocation and makes you question whether you could even have one. It makes love and trust extremely difficult, because churches and parents are the places where trust should begin and be most inviolable. If we find betrayal in these places, how can we really expect to find trust anywhere else?
I don’t think that straight Catholics can really understand the difficulty of being gay in the Church. When I wrote my public apology in 2016 for my failure to live up to Church teaching and the image I had created as a “good Catholic,” I knew I was giving up something. I knew that publishing this post meant I would probably never be able to get a job at one of the vibrant Catholic high schools I had for many years envisioned myself teaching at. Consider yourself at that juncture: at the age of twenty-five, would you voluntarily share your most shameful secrets if it meant you’d lose the possibility of ever getting your dream job? And why should honesty for the sake of the Church mean that the Church would be less likely to hire me?
But even before that post, as one friend and prominent local Catholic put it, I probably wouldn’t have made it through the application process. Many parents at such schools would take issue with the young gay man teaching their children. And even if I did manage to get one of those jobs, I know that I would need to keep a backup plan in place in case a donor or parent or new principal decided they didn’t want gay teachers at the school. What does it say about our Church, that “orthodox” Catholic institutions are less likely to hire me because of my openness about the ways in which I seek to live out Church teaching?
As one gay friend recently put it, “I always know I’m just one phone call away from losing my job.” Many gay friends teaching and working in Catholic institutions feel that their livelihoods are dependent upon never giving the direct answer to the question: why aren’t you married yet? My past experience as a job applicant led to a cross I still bear: I don’t trust the Church I love as an employer. Gay persons presume unjust discrimination from our Churches as the norm. If you do manage to get a job, the terms of employment come with an unspoken requirement of personal fragmentation.
You may be thinking: “Come on, Chris, your story is just one job decision.” And you’re right. But it was a decision many people working with that organization knew about and complied with, and a decision that was met with tacit acceptance by my friends with whom I spoke about it. It was one experience, but it was an experience constructed and maintained by a network of persons who went along with it. Catholics should know by now that evil is not always direct. It can also be bureaucratic. And my experience, when shared publicly, often elicits similar stories from other gay Catholics.
Looking back, I don’t know why I was waiting for permission to be angry. I’ve been sad and depressed and despairing, and I’ve shared these emotions. But deep within me was also an anger, a deep powerful anger at much of what I have seen and lived in my Church. The present crises have punctured the casing I put up around around my anger to “protect” my Church from it. I don’t want to be angry. But I now believe that the road to interior peace passes through your anger, not around it.
I look around, and I have many wonderful straight Catholic friends who have supported me over the years, who have stood by my side through my many changes in life. I am so grateful for them. And yet something in me recoils at the fact that many of them have done nothing to push our Catholic institutions to change the above state of affairs, all the while holding strict expectations for how to live my life. I’ve spent so much time fighting for a Church that, in many areas, will not have me.
Most often, serious Catholics don’t fight for change because they remain paralyzed by a fear of taking a misstep. “How do I push for inclusion without condoning certain lifestyles?” they ask, as if Christianity lacks creativity and the power to cut deeply into our confusion and bring forth light, as if Christ had any response in the Gospels to His moral teachings other than, “What are you talking about?” or “This doesn’t make sense.” These Catholics stand still and silent. If not apathy, what am I to call this?
I am not the first gay man to tell this story, and I will not be the last. We are in your dioceses, your schools, your churches, and your seminaries. For the most part, we are silent because we are afraid. I am not silent partly because I have the freedom of someone whose livelihood doesn’t depend on the Church. If I did, I don’t think I would write or speak so honestly. Consider that: what does it say about our Church, that I feel greater freedom and integrity employed outside of Her institutions than within them?
For gay Catholics condemned to silence by the silence of those who should be fighting for you: know that I will keep fighting, keep speaking, and keep writing. For you.
I am still Catholic. I want to love and serve the Church. Whatever Her members may have done or failed to do, I still see Her as beautiful. I will continue to fight for the Church. But my question to my straight Catholic friends is: will you fight for me? Will you fight for us? And before you say “yes” to these questions, you should first ask yourself: how? Silence and “good intentions” don’t count for much when they are excuses for failing to stand up for the vulnerable. The present crises show us that.
I hope that these remarks don’t just riddle you with shame for the ways you may have failed in the past. I, too, have failed in many, many ways. Ultimately, we dig into the past for the sake of the present and the future. We can do differently. We must.
Perhaps you are afraid to step out boldly. But sin is the child of fear, and the wages of sin is death. If you want a culture of life, then when the time comes, speak. If you want to live, be not afraid.