I am the sort of man the Catholic Church says shouldn’t be a priest. I experience what the Vatican calls “deep-seated homosexual tendencies,” which, according to the Church, make me an unsuitable candidate for the priesthood. The 2005 Vatican instruction on the question of homosexuality and the priesthood states this clearly: “The Church, while profoundly respecting the persons in question, cannot admit to the seminary or to holy orders those who practise homosexuality, present deep-seated homosexual tendencies or support the so-called ‘gay culture.’” This teaching wasn’t new. In 1961, the Vatican declared that men with homosexual inclinations couldn’t be ordained. Seminarians who “sinned gravely against the sixth commandment with a person of the same or opposite sex” were to be “dismissed immediately.”
I take no offense at this teaching. In fact, I agree with it. I’m convinced that if the Church had heeded its own counsel from 1961 and 2005, we wouldn’t be reeling from the shocking headlines of today: “St. John's Seminary Shakeup Amid Probe Into Sexual Misconduct”; “Victims recount sexual abuse horrors in Chilean seminary”; “Honduran Seminarians Allege Widespread Homosexual Misconduct”; “Vatican cops bust drug-fueled gay orgy at home of cardinal's aide”; “Man Says Cardinal McCarrick, His ‘Uncle Ted,' Sexually Abused Him.” Most of the horrific abuse detailed in the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report involved adolescent boys and young men. This isn’t pedophilia.
What unites all of these scandals is homosexuality in our seminaries and the priesthood: the result of the Church ignoring its own clear directives. If it is serious about ending the sex scandals, the Church needs to admit it has a homosexual priest problem and stop ordaining men with deep-seated homosexual tendencies. The first “Uncle Ted” scandal was “Uncle Ted” becoming a priest.
I broach the subject with trepidation. I am convinced that most homosexual priests are good and holy men. One example of many I know is a priest who serves as a hospital chaplain. He regularly accompanies families through the pain of physical trauma, illness, and the death of loved ones. He has a special charism for men dying with AIDS, which I’m certain comes from his love for others with deep-seated homosexual tendencies like him. He has helped many of them reconcile with Christ before death.
So I agree with Bishop Barron’s warning about the dangers of scapegoating people who share my attraction to men. But recognizing the overwhelming role that homosexuality has played in so many of our past and present scandals is not scapegoating. It’s the Church confronting the truth.
Archbishop Charles Chaput, commenting on the 2005 document, wrote, “While persistent homosexual tendencies never preclude personal holiness—homosexuals and heterosexuals have the same Christian call to chastity, according to their state of life—they do make the vocation of effective priestly service that much more difficult.” From my personal experience, I believe there are many reasons why this is the case, but here I will focus only on two, directly connected with unchastity.
The first reason is that men with homosexual tendencies find it particularly difficult to live out the demands of chastity. The vast majority of scandals in the Church since 2002 involve homosexual priests profoundly failing in chastity. This is no surprise to me. Chastity, I’m convinced (and the evidence bears this out), is much harder for men with a homosexual inclination than for others.
Fr. James Lloyd, C.S.P., a priest with a PhD in psychology from NYU, has worked with homosexual men (including priests) for more than 30 years as a clinical psychologist. On the subject of chastity and homosexual priests, he says, “It is clear enough from clinical evidence that the psychic energy needed to contain homosexual drives is far greater than that needed by the straying heterosexual.”
Like many same-sex attracted men, I have at times compulsively engaged in risky anonymous behavior with other men. If I had been a priest, my sin would have been compounded by committing a horrible abuse against someone for whom I should have been a spiritual father. Fr. Lloyd’s insight is invaluable here: “The compulsion dimension attendant upon the SSA [same-sex attracted] personality cannot be ignored. Too long has the Church turned away as if nothing were happening. We can no longer blink at the obvious … Whenever there is a doubt about any candidate for the priesthood, the doubt must be resolved in favor of the Church!” If the Church wants to avoid sex scandals, it must stop ordaining the sorts of men who have the hardest time remaining chaste.
The second problem is directly connected with the first. If a priest isn’t abiding by the Church’s teaching in his own life, he won’t teach his parishioners to follow a teaching he doesn’t believe applies to him. Thus, a grave problem with homosexual priests is the high number of them who don’t agree with the Church’s teaching on sexual morality and covertly (or overtly) undermine this teaching, both in the pulpit and in the confessional.
A story from my own journey in chastity is instructive. Soon after reentering the Church in 2009, I sinned by having an anonymous sexual encounter with a man. Filled with remorse, I went to confession the next day, and shockingly, the priest (a stranger to me) told me that having sex with a man wasn’t sinful. Instead, he urged me to go find a boyfriend, saying, “the Church will change.” Later, when I discussed this priest with those who knew him, I was told it was widely acknowledged that this priest was homosexual himself. In his 1991 book Gay Priests, Dr. James Wolf interviewed 101 priests. All of them said they disagreed with Church teaching on sexual morality; only 9 percent of them said they would tell a layman like me to refrain from having sex with a man. Those men should never have been ordained.
I readily acknowledge that the priests I describe above do not reflect all homosexual priests. The 2005 Vatican document does make an exception for those who may have had a “transitory” homosexuality—men who were able to overcome the grave wounds of same-sex temptations through counseling, hard work, prayer, and honest self-reflection, and thus are good candidates for the priesthood. Yet I think these men are rare.
Because the sex scandals of the Church are overwhelmingly homosexual, the Church can no longer risk ordaining men with homosexual inclinations in the hopes that those inclinations turn out to be transitory. The Church needs mature men, confident in their identity and ready to be spiritual fathers. I love the Church, but I'm not the sort of man the Church needs as a priest. The Norms for Priestly Ordination, published in 1993 by the USCCB, reveal this to me: “In order to talk about a person as mature, his sexual instinct must have overcome two immature tendencies, narcissism and homosexuality, and must have arrived at heterosexuality.”
What would the American Church look like today if our bishops had taken seriously the directives of 1961, 1993, and 2005? We can’t answer that question, but we can look to our future, and listen to the words of Pope Francis about admitting homosexual men to seminary: “If you have even the slightest doubt, it's better not to let them enter.” Let us pray that the bishops here in America and around the world heed his wise counsel.
Daniel C. Mattson is the author of Why I Don't Call Myself Gay: How I Reclaimed My Sexual Reality and Found Peace.