The recent "Social Issues" feature in The Washington Post with the headline, "‘I’m gay and I’m a priest, period'," was pretty much what one would have expected it to be in the age of Kellerism (definition here and here). Still, this essay deserves careful reading.
You see, it does contain one very important and accurate statement of fact that needs to be discussed, if our goal is to read this feature as hard-news journalism about a crucial issue in the Roman Catholic Church, rather than as an advocacy piece or editorial published in support of a cause.
This crucial statement is as follows:
Priests’ views of the church’s handling of homosexuality are not uniform.
That is certainly true and fleshing out that statement with interviews with priests from all over that spectrum of beliefs would have been a good map for producing a solid news story. But that is not what the Post team decided to do.
During my own work as a journalist, I have encountered several different stances among Catholic clergy on issues linked to sexual orientation and the moral status of sexual acts outside of the Sacrament of Marriage. Like what? I'll try to keep this short. I have encountered priests in the following camps.
There are Catholic priests who believe that the church's ancient teachings on sexuality:
* Are correct and that they should be defended. It is crucial to note, when considering this Post article, that there are gay priests (and other LGBT thinkers in the faith) who hold this stance.
* Are correct, but that the church is doing a terrible job of handling same-sex issues at the level of pastoral life and apologetics. Some would say that Catholics need to do a better job of addressing the lives and concerns of single people -- period.
* Are wrong and should be modernized to fit our evolving culture. They believe that this work should be done openly. Some would even be open about how they have embraced some rather loose definitions of "celibacy."
* Are wrong, but that they will have to work behind the scenes to gently push the church toward the modern world, since to do this work openly would be suicide in a homophobic church.
I could go on, but that's a start.
Now, as you read this Post feature -- here is that link again -- look for evidence that the journalists who worked on this piece have included material that demonstrates the truth contained in that crucial sentence: "Priests’ views of the church’s handling of homosexuality are not uniform." Or, is the article dominated by one of these perspectives, or maybe two, with other points of view deliberately left out?
Where, for example, are the voices in this piece belonging to gay and straight priests who support the church's teachings on sexuality, the doctrines expressed today in the Catholic Catechism? Can you find passages in which their views are taken seriously?
Meanwhile, here is how the article begins:
God, what are you calling me to do here, prayed the priest. Come out, or stay in the closet?
After 23 years in Chicago parishes, the question had pushed its way to the surface.
He weighed his options. He thought about his parishioners. Many, he knew, were accepting of gay people, even of same-sex marriage, but others — less so. He had grown up in a large Catholic family; he understood what people’s faith meant to them. He didn’t want to harm his flock, or the Catholic Church.
He wondered if he could be penalized in his job. And, in truth, he considered his status. He knew many Catholics had what he might call a romanticized view of the priesthood: Priests are supposed to be pure, almost above the world of sexuality, selflessly willing to give up creating a family of their own to serve God. This would mean falling from that pedestal.
Then, he weighed these factors against the impact his coming out could have on the lives of young gay people in treatment for addiction or who are suicidal, on the parents and grandparents who feel they must choose between their gay child and their church. For some, knowing their priest is gay — and at peace with it — could be healing, he felt.
He thought of his complex feelings. He had no ax to grind, and he wasn’t an advocate.
He set the rules at the outset: He did not want to be identified in this article. But at the end of the first conversation, he said: I’m leaning towards using my real name.
The tone of the article fits this overture.
Now, this is a long, long, article and, as you would expect, it is framed by the standard mainstream press interpretation of the famous "Who am I to judge?" remarks by Pope Francis. Click here for links to a transcript and discussions of what he actually said.
It would appear that the Post team is becoming frustrated that Pope Francis appears to be in the second camp that I described above, the one in which Catholic clergy believe the church's teachings are correct, but that changes are needed at the level of pastoral care and apologetics. What does it mean, for example, that this pope believes it is crucial for believers -- gays included -- to keep seeking the mercy of God through the confession of their sins?
How does that stance fit into this crucial passage in the Post feature?
Gay priests are invisible in this debate; the church does not research the topic. However, interviews with a dozen priests and former seminarians who are gay, and experts on gay priests, reveal a group of men mostly comfortable with their sexuality. Many express no urgency for the church to accept it. Some, however, say the priesthood remains sexually repressive; one said there is an “invisible wall” around the topic among priests.
They speak forcefully about the tough work they had to do to accept their sexuality and how important a part it is of who they are. But their acceptance of the closet often harks back to an earlier time.
This is in part, they say, because as priests they vowed to put service to God over all else.
The crucial issue, you see, is whether priests -- gay and straight -- actually believe the teachings of the Catholic faith, as in the teachings that they took vows to defend.
The content of the vows taken by priests are never really addressed in this article. Isn't that a rather important religion ghost in this story?
Now, there is one other issue that should be addressed -- which is the way this piece handles a key, and very controversial, piece of language in the Catechism. First, there is this:
But some also fear the consequences of coming out in the Catholic Church, whose hierarchy frames a gay life as a diversion from God’s ideal. Parts of church teaching call being gay “objectively disordered.”
Note that the current "hierarchy" is the source of this teaching, not an unbroken chain of church doctrines that date back into the earliest documents of church history (think 50-120 A.D. or so). We are just talking about the prejudices of a small group of men, you see.
Meanwhile, the URL in that passage is to the Catechism. However, later in the Post piece there is this important and complex passage:
Even as the doctrine banning same-sex relationships has not changed, the church has varied its emphasis and message on the topic.
The most recent authoritative statement came in 2005, from Pope Benedict XVI, who, seeking to clarify doctrine after the sweeping changes under the Second Vatican Council, wrote that being gay is “objectively disordered.” The church, “while profoundly respecting the persons in question, cannot admit to the seminary or to holy orders those who practice homosexuality, present deep-seated homosexual tendencies or support the so-called ‘gay culture,’ ” Benedict said.
The message seemed clear, say many priests and several people who train seminarians. Many who had considered coming out of the closet decided to stay in.
Yet the intent behind Benedict’s words has been debated. Some say he never meant to bar gay men who are celibate. Others say he meant to keep out men who feel strongly defined by their sexuality, and perhaps would be challenged by celibacy.
Regardless, there is no question that in the past few years church leaders are emphasizing far more that Catholicism accepts people who are gay -- it’s the sexual relationships or marriage that is the problem.
Once again, there are many issues contained in that chunk of text and -- trust me -- there are a wide variety of viewpoints found among Catholic clergy and scholars on these issues. So where are the diverse voices in this story? Where are the clashing points of view, when it comes to actual interviews with real priests who take these different stances?
Also, what about that “objectively disordered" language? It appears that Post editors want to have it both ways, saying that it came from the conservative, and thus bad, Pope Benedict XVI and that it was from the Catechism. Perhaps Benedict did not write this doctrinal material, but merely quoted it?
As it turns out (thanks to a Catholic journalist for some of this material), the "objectively disordered" -- or "intrinsically disordered" -- language dates to the mid-1970s and a document from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith entitled Persona Humana. No, that language was written before Cardinal Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI) moved to Rome. Meanwhile, the Catechism was approved in 1992, under the authority of Saint Pope John Paul II.
So which is it? Why try to blame this doctrinal language on Pope Benedict XVI when it clearly was in authoritative teachings before he arrived at the Vatican?
I think we know the answer to that question.