It's Not Okay to Say It's Not Okay
Unless the Catholic Church revises its views on homosexuality and celibacy, it will continue to lose some of its best people.
By John Tyler Connoley
The night my spouse and I first met, another couple in the room made bets on how long it would be before we were married. For me, it was one of those love-at-first-sight moments. He walked up to me at a Metropolitan Community Church event, smiled, and said, "Hi, my name's Rob," and I fell head over heels.
For Rob it wasn't so quick. It's not that he wasn't attracted to me or didn't enjoy my company (we talked for three hours after church that night). But he was preparing for a three-year mission trip to Peru with a Roman Catholic organization. The mission organization required Rob to sign a pledge to refrain from all romantic and sexual attachments during his three-year term in Peru, and he intended to abide by their wishes.
On the other hand, as we talked and walked among the '60s-era houses and old oak trees of the church's neighborhood, Rob confided in me his plans to tell the Italian priests who ran his mission organization about his sexual orientation. The Jesuits who taught him in high school and college had instilled in him a belief in intellectual and personal integrity.
I, however, was raised in a strict, evangelical denomination. In college, I had been committed to remaining celibate for the rest of my life, because I believed as the Catholic Church did that same-sex relationships were sinful. However, I also agreed with the Catholic doctrine that a homosexual orientation is not in and of itself sinful. As a result, I saw no need to hide or lie about my gayness, and that was a sticking point with many of my evangelical classmates. It wasn't enough to remain celibate, I had to also renounce and repress my basic sexual makeup.
This major conflict led me to seek psychological help. I went to a Christian therapist, who told me I was committing a grave sin by simply acknowledging my same-sex attractions. I had come to this counselor because I knew that I wasn't going to become straight, and I needed guidance on how to live as a celibate gay man. I desperately sought compassionate understanding as I tried to walk the difficult path between believing same-sex relationships were wrong, and believing that I was still a valuable part of God's creation.
After one counseling session, my therapist looked at me and grimaced. "I think you want me to tell you this is okay," he said. "But I'm not going to say that, because it's not okay."
As I challenged his insistence that I try to change my sexual orientation, and instead asked questions about how I was supposed to remain celibate, he became more and more defensive. As a gay man who refused to believe he was sick, and who wasn't ashamed of his gayness, I was a big threat to his narrow worldview. His face betrayed his fear and anger as he said, "I'm not going to schedule you for another session. If you want to see me again, talk to my secretary."
By giving me the message there was no place for me in the church unless I could be straight or at least ashamed of my sexual orientation, this therapist actually accomplished the opposite of what he intended. He freed me to question even the basic requirement of lifelong celibacy. If church leaders and counselors could be so misguided in their devaluing of a human being because of his or her sexual orientation, I wondered, what else could they be wrong about? Through censure and punishment, this therapist was determined to bring me, the stray lamb, back to the flock. Instead, he led me totally astray. I had the good sense not to return to him, and a few weeks later I left my childhood denomination for good.
As Rob described the old Italian priests who ran his mission organization, I had a suspicion they would be about as appreciative of his honesty as that therapist. Since openly declaring his gayness would pretty much nix his chances of serving any kind of mission, I figured I might have a chance. He wasn’t leaving the country for a while; there was still time to pursue a relationship with him. So, while Rob continued to plan his trip abroad during the next couple months, I made sure he also spent as much time as possible with me.
To the mission's credit, they spent two months in serious prayer and deliberation before telling Rob he wouldn't be allowed to serve in Peru. But the priests' decision still deprived the Catholic Church and the Peruvian people of a passionate, intelligent, and well-educated missionary. Of course, the decision also permitted me to marry a passionate, intelligent, and well-educated man the following year, so I didn't mind.
Amazingly, Rob didn't let the decision sour him on the church of his youth, and he still considers himself a Roman Catholic. During the next three years he offered his talents to secular organizations and made a great impact on the communities where we lived. He currently works for a non-profit in Silver City, New Mexico. He and I still plan to open a spiritual retreat center someday, but he has given up any thoughts of working for the Catholic Church.
Now the Vatican is announcing its intention to bar homosexuals from the priesthood if they publicly acknowledge their homosexuality or show "an affinity for gay culture." The Pope's decision is understandable from the perspective of shoring up the levies of church doctrine, which threaten to breach under the deluge of 21st century enlightenment. As my college counselor and Rob's mission director certainly recognized, it's a short step from saying, "God made me this way, and I'm not ashamed of it" to questioning the Church's insistence that all gay men and lesbians are all called to lifelong celibacy.
By taking a hard line, the Pope is making it more likely that homosexuals will leave the church entirely and abandon the difficult doctrine of celibacy with the dignity championed by the last revision of the Catechism commissioned by Pope John Paul II. The new rule is also a blow to the integrity of a priesthood already battered by sex-abuse scandals. Under this new policy, a positive self-image, a belief in the goodness of our Creator, and a penchant for honesty are all detriments to gay men seeking the cloth. On the other hand, shame and dishonesty are assets for gay priests. And, while I'm happy for the organizations that will benefit from the talents of men who would otherwise have channeled their passion for service into the priesthood, and for the gay men and lesbians who will find freedom in other denominations, I ask myself who will fill the gap they leave in the Catholic Church and what will become of those who never find a home for their faith.
I wonder how long church leaders will continue to throw away passionate, intelligent and well-educated people just because we happen to be gay. Then again, God is infinitely bigger than they are, and will be more than happy to use our talents elsewhere. It’s their loss, and the world’s gain.
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John Tyler Connoley is the coauthor of "The Children Are Free: Reexamining the Biblical Evidence on Same-Sex Relationships." He lives and writes in Silver City, New Mexico. You can find more of his essays, including stories from his childhood in Zambia, at tylersturn.com.
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