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Gay priests struggle with serving the church

The Vatican will release a new document on gays in the church that could set new restrictions on candidates for the priesthood.
The Rev. Fred Daley, a gay Roman Catholic clergyman at St. Francis de Sales Church in Utica, N.Y., Tuesday.Kevin Rivoli / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The Rev. Fred Daley, a gay, Roman Catholic priest, had grown increasingly disturbed by Vatican pronouncements over the years that homosexuals were unfit for the clergy.

Then the situation escalated — some church leaders suggested that gays were responsible for the clergy sex abuse crisis. Daley was so angry, he did something last year that almost no other gay Catholic cleric in the country has done: He came out to his bishop, parishioners and his entire community to show that homosexuals were faithfully working in the church.

“I’m as much a member of the church as anybody else,” said Daley, of St. Francis de Sales Church in Utica, N.Y., who was ordained in 1974 and said he has never considered leaving the priesthood. “I love being a priest.”

Researchers have estimated that thousands of homosexual clergy across the United States have dedicated their lives to a church that considers them “intrinsically disordered” and prone to “evil tendencies.” Soon, the Vatican will back up that teaching with a document that could set new restrictions on candidates for the priesthood — a pronouncement U.S. bishops may discuss in private during their national meeting starting Monday in Washington.

‘I was pretty naive’
Yet, through decades of consistent signals from the Vatican that they are unwelcome, homosexuals have continued to join the priesthood, raising questions about how they can devote themselves to an institution that so questions their ability to serve.

“As I have, through the years, become more comfortable with who I am, it seemed the institutional church and its decrees and its pastoral letters from the Vatican seemed more harsh and almost mean-spirited,” said Daley, who didn’t realize he was gay until after he was ordained and has remained celibate. “But what I find on the grass-roots level is vibrant, alive communities of faith in my everyday ministry.”

Several other gay clergy, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they feared retribution from their superiors, said in recent interviews that they were only vaguely aware of Vatican pronouncements on homosexual priests when they applied.

“I was pretty naive,” said a West Coast priest, who began studying for ordination in the 1980s. “I knew the church had ill feelings about it, but I didn’t know a whole lot else.”

A key 1961 Vatican document on selecting candidates for the priesthood made clear homosexuals should be barred. But the instruction, and others that followed, have clearly not been enforced in many American seminaries and religious communities. Estimates of the number of gays in U.S. seminaries and the priesthood range from 25 percent to 50 percent, according to a review of research by the Rev. Donald Cozzens, a former seminary rector and author of “The Changing Face of the Priesthood.”

A gay priest who had been worried that he would be expelled if seminary administrators discovered his sexual orientation said his disclosure was welcomed instead. He said his spiritual director told him, “I’m grateful for your honesty.”

Support may wane
Historically, many gays and lesbians chose religious life partly because it was a socially acceptable alternative to marriage and protected them from questions about why they were single, Cozzens said. But the gay priests interviewed for this story insisted they were not hiding out. They said they found religious communities where they could be relatively open with fellow clergy.

“My superiors encouraged me to keep talking about it as a way to help me understand how to better live a celibate life in a real healthy way,” said a gay priest, who attended seminary in the 1980s and refused further identification.

Such support may be harder to find after the new Vatican guidelines are released.

The Italian newspaper Il Giornale reported Friday that the document from the Congregation for Catholic Education will bar from seminary men who “support” gay culture or have “deeply rooted” gay tendencies. The newspaper said the instruction will be made public Nov. 29.

The document would not apply to homosexuals who have already been ordained, but gay priests said it would challenge anew their decision to work within a church whose pronouncements they consider discriminatory.

Contemplating next moves
Anticipating the Vatican pronouncement, some gay priests are discussing collectively staying away from pulpits on a Sunday to show how much the church relies on them. Other priests said they were considering revealing their sexual orientation to parishioners. Some are contemplating “outing” gay bishops who would be called upon to enforce the new guidelines.

Any new restrictions would be “discouraging,” said the West Coast priest, but “I prefer to work for justice in this area within the church structure.”

Another gay priest said the new restrictions would amount to the church telling him, “to sit on the back of the bus.”

“But this is my family,” he said. “You don’t leave your family if there’s a problem. I feel God has called me here and that takes precedence over everything else.”