Ideas

Shepherds or Scapegoats: Gay priests in limbo

Gay priests are often rolled into the blame game in the Catholic Church's sex abuse crisis. There's a Vatican prohibition on gay men entering seminaries, even as the stories swirl about how many high-level clerics are sexually active. Producer Sean Foley explores the psychological, historical, and pastoral paradoxes of clerical sexual identity at a pivotal time for the Church and the world.
Priests stand during a weekly general audience of Pope Francis at St Peter's square in Vatican. (Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images)
Listen to the full episode53:59

Gay priests are often rolled into the blame game in the Catholic Church's sex abuse crisis. There's a Vatican prohibition on gay men entering seminaries, even as the stories swirl about how many high-level clerics are sexually active. Meanwhile, the flock needs tending, and some of its most steadfast shepherds are gay, in a Church that can't countenance them. Producer Sean Foley explores the psychological, historical, and pastoral paradoxes of clerical sexual identity at a pivotal time for the Church and the world.

The Limbo of the Fathers

If you want some interesting reading on Catholicism, just google the word 'limbo'. Generally speaking, Limbo is an intermediate state, perhaps just a little northeast of hell and not quite purgatory.

Limbo is the ultimate in-between. It doesn't seem like a very comfortable place to be. So imagine being there for an indeterminate length of time. That's the kind of place that gay priests, or would-be priests, seem to be consigned to, at least when you look at the Catholic Church's statements on the matter.

There are plenty of faithful priests who are gay, and celibate, already living and working in the Church. Many have had to conceal their sexual identity; for some, at great cost to their peace of mind. But — it may be a miracle that any of them became priests at all.

Detail from 'Jesus in Limbo' by Domenico Beccafumi ( c. 1535). In the history of art, there's a trickle of paintings that depict Jesus Christ in Limbo, reaching out to Adam and Eve, or to Abraham, or to Moses: The Limbo of the Fathers. The sight of the Saviour reaching out to them — to us — in this strange place is stirring.  

The Prohibition

If you're gay, and you think you're called to the Catholic priesthood, the Vatican would like you to know that you may be wrong. In 2005, an instruction was issued to make it clear that men with 'deep-seated homosexual tendencies' can't  possibly be priests, since their attractions are "intrinsically disordered".

The Catechism of the Catholic Church advises compassion, respect and sensitivity for LGBTQ congregants. But for gay men who know and accept who they are, and want to give their lives to serve the People of God, there's this:

Such persons, in fact, find themselves in a situation that gravely hinders them from relating correctly to men and women. One must in no way overlook the negative consequences that can derive from the ordination of persons with deep-seated homosexual tendencies. (Congregation for Catholic Education, 2005)

Alas, the statements in that Vatican document — many of which have little to no basis in current psychological research — were again included in the 2016 guide to priestly formation, issued under Pope Francis.

Fr. Stephan Kappler, a priest, psychologist, and President of Southdown, a clinic that treats clergy and religious for mental health and addiction issues, stresses the importance of decisions and declarations based on evidence: "As a church we really need to revisit that document [the 2005 Vatican instruction] and the language that we're using, because it is not a language that is helpful; neither is it based really on any psychological research that we have."

The Conflation 

Most harmful, perhaps, is the conflation of homosexual orientation and abusive behaviour in the ranks of the clergy. Those who believe that there is a relationship between the two — again, contrary to the evidence — argue vociferously for a new era of purity in the Church.

This is a refrain that has sounded many times over the centuries. In the 11th century, St. Peter Damian wrote a scathing indictment of 'sodomy' that came to be known as The Book of Gomorrah. It would go on to influence the Church's attitude toward clerical and lay sexuality from the middle ages to the present day.

But there have been alternative ways of understanding sexuality and relationship, and how it has been lived in Catholic communities of faith.

"There was another church, where people lived with greater acceptance, just as so many married clergy were accepted in their communities as late as the 16th century," says medieval historian Jacqueline Murray.

Lived realities

Debate and discussion about sexuality and morality is healthy, and it can be all-consuming.

Sometimes, a rhetorical question can help; one often associated with the papacy of Francis: What is the function of the Catholic Church in society? Is it a field hospital for the injured, or an enclave for the pious?

Sociologist Michele Dillon argues that an emphasis on how Catholic teaching and lived realities intersect is a critical part of the Church's mission going forward:

"It's a burden, but it means we have to take seriously the realities of our day and this is of course something that Pope Francis too mentions a lot: that ideas and realities should be in constant conversation. We don't have ideas, whether it's about natural law or sexuality, just to reify them and put them in a box and leave them there."


Guests in this episode:

  • Fr. Stephan Kappler is a priest, psychologist, and President of Southdown, a clinic for the treatment of clergy and religious for mental health and addiction issues. Fr. Kappler also leads teams who assess candidates for the Catholic priesthood. 
  • Michele Dillon is a professor of sociology at the University of New Hampshire, and author of Postsecular Catholicism: Relevance and Renewal, the first study to apply postsecular theory to contemporary Catholicism. 
  • Jacqueline Murray is a professor of history at the University of Guelph. She specializes in masculinity and male embodiment in medieval Europe. 

Further reading:

Related websites:



**This episode was produced by Sean Foley.

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