Clerical Transparency vs. “Coming Out”

Father Thomas Petri is Vice President and Academic Dean at the Dominican House of Studies (where I discerned, with much sadness, that I did not have a Dominican vocation). He also co-hosts The Church Alive on EWTN radio. His public statements can carry some weight in the American Church, and because his above comment is representative of one faction of American Catholicism, it merits discussion.

On February 17, the New York Times collected the stories of two dozen gay priests under the title, “‘It is Not a Closet. It is a Cage.’ Gay Catholic Priests Speak Out.” It opens with a story about Milwaukee’s Father Gregory Greiten:

“Gregory Greiten was 17 years old when the priests organized the game. It was 1982 and he was on a retreat with his classmates from St. Lawrence, a Roman Catholic seminary for teenage boys training to become priests. Leaders asked each boy to rank which he would rather be: burned over 90 percent of his body, paraplegic or gay.

Each chose to be scorched or paralyzed. Not one uttered the word ‘gay.’ They called the game the Game of Life.”

In the story, many of the priests explicitly articulate a desire to live out their promises of celibacy, while others share failures in doing so. They all struggle to integrate themselves in an institution they perceive as run by advocates of shadows. The title for the piece comes from Father Bob Bussen of Park City, Utah. “Life in the closet is worse than scapegoating,” he said. “It is not a closet. It is a cage.”

The article does not present a monolithic lifestyle for gay priests in response to the state of the Church. So Father Petri’s response, that he lacks any patience for priests who have felt caged by pressures to hide their attractions, and that priests coming out are making the faithful “deal with your issues,” surprised me. It failed fundamentally in the dialogical and distinguo Thomistic tradition in which Father Petri presumably places his own intellectual life. And it reveals a deep hypocrisy among many clergy who have claimed abhorrence at the lies, secrecy, and deception which have fueled the present crises in Catholicism. Indeed, it only further fuels the tense divisions enabling manipulation and abuse.

What do gay priests want?

This is a complicated question. Undoubtably, some want to have sexual relationships (some already do). Others, however, want what you’d expect any seminary entrant to desire: to love and serve the Church, to live out their priestly promises fruitfully, and to minister to the faithful. In coming out to his parish, Father Greiten shared not only his sexual orientation but also his commitment to celibacy. Carl Trueman’s recent assertion in First Things, that Father Bussen infers the “Roman Catholic Church imprisons its priests because of its teaching on sexuality,” is uncharitably presumptive and preposterous. Many priests wish to be open so that they can share how they live out this teaching. Yet Father Bochanski, executive director of Courage International, also utilizes Trueman’s uncharitable presumptions in First Things, essentially gaslighting the gay clergy who have spoken out.

Perhaps a short exercise will help clarify. Dear readers, please raise your hand if you have ever heard a priest in a homily discuss old girlfriends, their own struggles with lust, or the decision to give up marriage. Is your hand raised? I’ve raised both of mine. And actually, in response to this question, I just grew a third arm which is also raised.

Deception and Transparency

Any priest who both asserts that we need greater transparency in the Church and also condemns those opening up about their particular experiences of sexual integration, is speaking out of both sides of his mouth. Statements like this sow confusion in the Church. On the one hand, we hear calls for transparency. On the other hand, many also call for sustained secrecy when it comes to the personal experiences of clergy. This creates the present situation of hierarchical schizophrenia in responding to the Church’s crises.

How can we expect the clergy to be honest about what is happening in their parishes when we expect them to dance carefully around what is happening within themselves? I’m not arguing that every priest needs to publicly come out, just as I’m not arguing that every priest needs to give a homily about how he used to take his girlfriends on motorcycle rides before giving up women for the priesthood. (I once heard a now-bishop share this exact story in a homily about discerning priestly vocations). The context and mode of disclosure will vary according to each priest’s personality and ministry.

Some may decide not to share that part of their lives with their parishes or ministries. But for others, appropriate disclosures can be a way of connecting with those in the pews, helping to illuminate an area of Church teaching, and demonstrating vulnerable transparency from our leaders.

In all seriousness, Father Petri’s tweet illustrates the confusion among clergy in the present situation. The laity want more honesty and transparency from priests. We want clergy willing to be vulnerable for the sake of this. But over the last several decades, many in Church leadership have actively worked against this. Father Petri’s tweet shows just one more instance where clerical honesty will lead your brothers–our fathers–to dismiss, ridicule, mock, and shame you. Father Petri is participating in the very practices that have perpetuated our crises: he is a priest in authority ridiculing other priests for being honest. Rather than resolving the problem, he is perpetuating it.

The Reframing of Bureaucrats

I suspect that Father Petri means no ill will, but malice is not required to create harm. One only needs the platform and authority to encourage secrecy and silence when faced with difficult issues. And one need not do so explicitly.

Father Petri’s response is a prime example of the bureaucratic mind in action. In avoiding critiques, a strong bureaucrat only needs to reframe problems so as to avoid incrimination. He “spins” the story. Many bureaucrats are so effective that they don’t even realize when they’re doing it. Consider this: not one single priest in the New York Times article asserted that any changes needed to be made with respect to the laity. When Father Greiten came out, his parish applauded him. Rather, they challenged a culture perpetuated by clergy in positions of authority. Father Petri sees this and then responds: “The faithful don’t need to deal with your issues, pal. They don’t deserve to deal with any of our issues. We serve them. “

The fact that Father Petri misses that the article is directed towards those like him and, instead, claims the article makes demands on the laity demonstrates the manipulative blindness of a bureaucrat. It’s like when my own Archdiocese’s whistleblower complained about the culture of secrecy in the chancellory, and then those in authority publicly reframed her complaint as an attack on the faithful in the pews. The laity may have fallen for such a reframing in the past, but we won’t fall for it now. Father Petri may be fooling his brother priests. He may be even fooling himself. (The Hallmark of those most deeply embedded in these issues is that they don’t recognize their own complicity.) But we the laity will not be fooled. Not again.

I pray that the priests for whom Father Petri has “no patience” will find the strength and courage to look beyond such explicit contempt. I pray that they will look beyond manipulations of Church teaching which advocate the status quo. If you are a gay/homosexual/same-sex attracted priest, please keep in mind: your ministry is not for Father Petri, or for any other priest pundit with a radio show and a Twitter following. Your ministry is for the people in your pews. Your ministry is for Christ, and for the Church. If you discern that your flock would benefit from greater vulnerability, transparency, and honesty, please follow that discernment. If you must suffer at the hands of your brothers for the sake of the Church, then suffer and be free.

More by Chris on the clergy abuse crisis here.


Chris Damian is a writer, speaker, attorney, and business professional living in the Twin Cities. He received his B.A. in Philosophy from the University of Notre Dame and his J.D. and M.A. in Catholic Studies from the University of St. Thomas. He is the author of “I Desired You: Intellectual Journals on Faith and (Homo)sexuality” (volumes I and II). He is also the co-founder of YArespond, a group of Catholic young adults seeking informed and holistic responses to the clergy abuse crisis. In his free time, he enjoys hosting dinner parties and creative writing workshops. 


2 thoughts on “Clerical Transparency vs. “Coming Out”

  1. It’s probably not Fr. Petri that concerns gay/homosexual/same-sex attracted priests. It’s far more likely to be their respective bishops. Are you implying that any such disclosure should come without prior discussion with one such priest’s bishop or even in defiance of that bishop’s wishes?

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  2. It seems to me that “And” played a big part in Fr Petri’s tweet. Priests who not only “come out” but also (AND) “insist the priesthood is some sort of cage”. Of course, the article is featured by the New York Times, which no doubt has zero interest in the celibacy of priesthood or indeed in making such a thing sound legitimate, so perhaps Fr Petri’s tweet was aimed unwittingly at a strawman of the Times’ making. As I haven’t been able to read the article in question, I have no idea if just one priest described himself as “caged” or whether it was implied or explicit that all did.

    Should a priest “come out” to his congregation, even if they would applaud him? No, not if such information would come as a surprise to his bishop or the rector of his seminary, or if it was because he was struggling with his own sexuality, but there might be a place for it in preventing rumour, or if he discerns that his “flock would benefit from greater vulnerability, transparency, and honesty.”

    However, I don’t believe it is the “coming out” or transparency that Fr Petri has the problem with, and indeed, in mentioning that a priest might use his struggles to serve his congregation, you are in fact making a nuanced point of agreement with him.

    And you make his point too when you admit under the subject of what homosexual priests want, that not all are fully committed to celibacy. This is most definitely not an issue for the parish congregation, but, as irksome12 says, something that should be discussed with the bishop. And there is clearly a problem with some seminaries (as if we didn’t already know this) if priests are being ordained who have not come to terms with “issues” surrounding celibacy and their sexuality, be it homosexual or not, and are feeling “caged”.

    “Caged” is a problem for the priest and his superiors, not the congregation. The time for “the truth will set you free” is during discernment or in conversation with his spiritual director/bishop, not in a sudden revelation from the pulpit. The fact that some priests feel caged, suggests a few things to me, none of which are surprising or new, but I’m going to repeat them here anyway.

    1. The man has not properly discerned his vocation to the priesthood and has either
    A) been sufficiently disingenuous to be ordained or
    B) been ordained because of poor direction at his seminary.

    2. The priest has not come to terms with celibacy because
    A) he has not put the work in, or
    B) his seminary has failed to give him the space to do so (eg because of a prevailing culture of homosexuality there).

    3. Having done both these things properly, he is nevertheless beset by difficulties and is receiving no help from his bishop.

    The laity has an interest in all of these things being done properly, of course, and a priest might find a pressure release in confiding in particular, trusted lay members of his congregation. But the hierarchy needs to sort itself out concerning the inadequacies in supporting its seminarians and priests. I don’t think Fr Petri’s tweet denied this, even as it didn’t move the conversation along.

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