Countering the Myth of the "Gay Priesthood"

Interview With Rector of North American College in Rome

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ROME, JUNE 25, 2001 ( Scandals in recent years involving Catholic clergy, especially in the United States, have given rise to press speculation that there is something deeply flawed about the men who are drawn to the priesthood.

To get a perspective on the problem — real or imagined — ZENIT turned to Monsignor Timothy Dolan, rector of the North American College in Rome. He gave this interview before his recent appointment as auxiliary bishop of St. Louis, Missouri.

ZENIT: Media reports in the United States talk of the priesthood becoming a «gay profession.» How much truth is in this report?

Monsignor Dolan: Reports in the American media that the priesthood is becoming a «gay profession» are inaccurate and unfair.

Are there some homosexual priests? Of course. Priests are human beings, not angels, and reflect — for better or worse — the tendencies found in the rest of society. If, as polls tell us, a certain small percent of the male population are homosexuals, I suppose the same statistics would then apply to men who are priests.

Are there some actively homosexual priests? Of course, as there are some actively heterosexual ones. Sexual promiscuity among priests is sinful, scandalous and a violation, not only of purity, but also of integrity, as our people justly expect their priests to live out sincerely the principles they publicly preach.

To imply that a large number of priests are actively homosexual is sensationalistic. However, I must confess that I worry about the perception now unfortunately common that the priesthood is a «gay profession.» The headlines given to priests who are guilty of pedophilia, or who are promiscuous with other men, and the effeminate, «campy» behavior of some priests, is destructive.

The overwhelming majority of priests are sincere, virtuous, integrated men. The priesthood is a very «manly» vocation — we are called «Father» — and the core of our identity is configurement to Christ in total love of his bride, the Church.

The vast majority of priests takes this with the utmost seriousness, and live pure lives, even those who might be homosexuals. Thus, the media reports to which you refer are harmful to the priesthood, damaging not only the identity, but also the morale of priests.

ZENIT: How are seminary formators responding to this scenario?

Monsignor Dolan: Thank God that he is a lord who can bring good from evil! In the light of scandals, in the wake of the admitted fact that there are indeed some scandalously active homosexual priests, and given that the erroneous perception of priests as «gay» is tragically becoming a stereotype, today´s candidates for ordination display a laudable and strong desire to commit themselves to the noble virtues of priesthood, lest they, by their weakness, would ever drag the vocation they love into the gutter.

Remember that today´s seminarians are precisely those who have had to bear the ridicule and taunts that have come from a society that believes celibacy impossible. These are the men who have seen firsthand the damage done to their vocations by the «oil spill» of clerical sexual scandal.

Thus do you see a realistic yet firm purpose on their part to know what they´re getting into, a humble sense of their own weakness, the utter necessity of a strong spiritual life to protect their virtue, a prudent construction of proper boundaries in their interaction with men and women, and an ardent hope that they will inspire, never shock, their people by upright, pure lives.

Seminary formators owe it to the Church to be vigilant. For one, they must never allow a man to be ordained who gives any evidence of tendencies to sexual immorality. Two, they must be very blunt in holding up to their men the clear expectations of Jesus and his Church.

Positively, this means they present the beauty of celibacy, that it is a gift, a call from the Lord to love him and his Church totally, exclusively, radically.

Negatively, this means they are candid in warning about dangers to celibate commitment, and a homosexual inclination falls under this category. We must make sure that our men are not naive about the demands of celibate life, that they know themselves well, that they accept both what they are embracing — a life of generous love in selfless service to the Church — and what they are «leaving behind» — all genital expression, alone or with others, male or female, in thought, word, and deed.

The critical point is chastity. This is, of course, that cardinal virtue given us in seed form by God, which we then develop, cultivate and strengthen, allowing us to live responsibly with our sexual drives under the dominion of God. A positive result of the negative climate about priesthood today is that seminaries are assiduous in stressing healthy, integrated, realistic chastity.

You will find a welcome openness to the insights from psychology to assist in the human formation of candidates regarding chastity, and to natural helps such as good friendships and a balanced life.

Even more importantly is the renewed accent on the absolute necessity of a strong relationship with Christ, nurtured daily by prayer and the Eucharist. As the Jesuit theologian and psychologist Dominic Maruca — who has spent his life with priests and seminarians — observes, «A priest who wants to live celibately without a strong relationship to Christ is committing psychic suicide.»

ZENIT: How can the Church express its disapproval of homosexual behavior without being accused of bigotry or hate crimes?

Monsignor Dolan: This is a tactical question. Instead of focusing on disapproval of sexual immorality, it is much more effective to concentrate on approval of authentic sexual love.

Here we take our lead from Pope John Paul II. We cannot allow the «culture of death» to stereotype the Church as a dour, finger-wagging, puritanical old spinster. No!

The Church is in the forefront of defending the beauty, dignity, joy and, yes, the «divinity» of sexual love! This can only be done when we defend the divine design of sexuality. For the Church, sexual love is so good, so sacred, so special, so beautiful, and so powerful, that the Creator intends that it only be used by a man and a woman united in faithful, life-giving, lifelong marriage. Anything outside of this is not a proper use of sex but an abuse, and leads to destruction of self, of partner, of culture, of society, and of life.

It is time for the Church to stand up and preach to the forces of sexual license, «We are not anti-sex, you are! We defend the beauty, the dignity and the nobility of sexual love. We dare to claim, as does our Pope, that the conjugal love of a husband and wife is an icon, a mirror, of God´s love.»

That is the tactic we must employ. And sane voices in society, even from those who do not share our faith, are beginning to admit that maybe we´re on to something, for the horrors of unrestrained sexual license are too dramatic to ignore.

Q: Given the growing secularization in the West — not to mention Internet pornography, the push for homosexual «marriages,» the low birthrates, the advent of «morning-after» pills, etc. — what will the Church look like in 40 years, vis-à-vis the priesthood?

Monsignor Dolan: My forte is the past — I´m a historian by training — not the future, so I am on thin ice here.

But I would wager we will see a renewed, reinvigorated priesthood in 40 years, at least in the United States. The admitted negatives — the sexual problems we spoke of earlier, the undeniable decline in numbers, the endless re-examination of the identity and mission of the priesthood which has gone on since the [Second Vatican] Council — have, with God´s grace, led to a purification.

Thus we see men today in the seminary excited about the call, reclaiming the spiritual, evangelical, sacramental dimension of the priesthood, w
ho have taken the Holy Father´s exhortation «Be not afraid» to heart. I know it´s become a cliché, but these are the men eager for the new evangelization.

Thus, to answer your question — you will see a Church in 40 years led by priests committed to presenting the truth with love, more interested in being missionaries than managers, more apostolic than ministerial, more rooted in being than in doing. That gives me great hope.

Q: What two or three things would you advise in order to get an increase in vocations?

Monsignor Dolan: On this question I had better know what I´m talking about, since my archbishop has just given me the duty of mobilizing the Archdiocese of St. Louis to promote vocations!

Number one, we must renew in our priests a spirit of joyful, humble confidence. Our priests are the major agents in the promotion of vocations. If they are discouraged, wavering, doubting, crabby men, who would want to join? Our priests are overwhelmingly men of dedication and love, and it is time we reaffirmed their vocation and renewed in them the confidence they need to give them a joy and enthusiasm which will attract others.

Number two, we must «take off the gloves» and get more direct. From my nine years in seminary work, I can tell you that the great number of candidates point to the personal encouragement of a priest, religious, friend or family member who urged them to «cast out to the deep,» and pursue a vocation to the priesthood.

Number three, we must renew family life. One bishop I know mandates that at every Mass, at the time of the intercessions, the following petition be added: «For an increase in vocations to the priesthood, religious life, and faithful marriage and family life.» The most alarming statistic is the one that reports that 50% of our parents would discourage a son from pursuing the priesthood! That must be addressed.

Finally, an insistence on the primacy of the spiritual. All the programs, gimmicks and committees in the world will not help if we are not on our knees — preferably before the Eucharist — not only begging the Eternal High Priest for vocations, but listening to him call. «Unless the Lord build the house … «

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