"Be honest with one another," Father Jim told his collegiate congregation gathered in the chapel just off campus for the early evening Mass. "Be open with one another. Live your baptismal truths."
For 37 years, Father Jim has taught truth--the truth of God, the truth of the Gospels, the truth proclaimed for two millenniums by the Roman Catholic Church. But he could not tell the whole truth about himself. The truth be known, Father Jim, 63 and graying, is gay.
As the scandal over the sexual abuse of minors surges through the Catholic church, Father Jim and thousands of other homosexual priests say it is harder than ever to tell the truth. Catholic bishops and prominent members of the laity, mulling reforms to stop molestation, are bluntly suggesting the church has too many gay priests. That issue is certain to linger in the background next month when the nation's bishops convene in Dallas in an effort to come to grips with the scandal.
In a church where homosexuality in the priesthood has largely been a don't-ask, don't-tell affair, many gay priests are wary, saddened and angry--convinced they are being made the scapegoats for the failure of bishops to properly address the sexual abuse problem in the first place. Some are bracing themselves for what they fear could be a kind of sexual inquisition, in which sexual orientation plays a bigger role in whether a candidate is accepted by a seminary. Others say they may leave the church in protest.
Two statistics--not necessarily related--fuel the mounting debate on gay priests: the fact that the majority of the church abuse victims were adolescent boys, and the estimate by seminary deans and other experts that at least one in five priests is homosexual.
In the last several weeks, one American cardinal, Anthony Bevilacqua of Philadelphia, said that homosexuals are not suited for the priesthood, even if they have never committed a homosexual act. Pope John Paul II's press secretary, Joaquin Navarro-Valls, was quoted as saying that not only should homosexuals not be ordained, but that the church should consider removing homosexuals who have already been ordained. The Most Rev. Wilton D. Gregory, bishop of Belleville, Ill., president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, spoke of "an ongoing struggle to make sure that the Catholic priesthood is not dominated by homosexual men." And Archbishop Julian Herranz, head of the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts, described pedophilia as a "concrete form of homosexuality."
The statements followed an extraordinary meeting at the Vatican of U.S. cardinals and John Paul and ranking Vatican cardinals on how to address the sexual abuse crisis. They set off a debate that had long simmered below the surface.
Conservatives hope that the sexual abuse crisis will mark the beginning of the restoration of the priesthood to a holiness defined by strict adherence to the church's moral teaching against homosexual acts. Liberals see it as a time to openly acknowledge the contributions of homosexual priests. Or, they fear, it could lead to more secrecy and denial--and a decision by dedicated gay priests to leave the church.
No one knows how many of the nation's 46,000 Catholic priests are homosexuals. At minimum, 20% of priests are believed to be homosexually oriented, according to Father Donald Cozzens, author of "The Changing Face of the Priesthood." Others say the number could be as high as 50%. Former priest and researcher H.W. Richard Sipe predicts that by 2010, homosexuals could well constitute a majority of Catholic priests.
Among the reasons for the upswing, experts say, is the fact that an estimated 25,000 men have left the priesthood since 1965, most in order to marry. Moreover, it has long been assumed that some gay men enter the priesthood in part to hide their sexual orientation: They don't have to explain why they aren't married.
Shortage of Priests
The fact that homosexuals represent a significant percentage of priests at a time when the church is already trying to cope with a shortage suggests that bishops will talk rather than act overtly on the issue of sexual orientation when they meet next month.
Many gay priests are convinced that their struggles with homosexuality could be inspiring stories of redemption--if only they had the confidence to tell them.
"They're submarining ... and they've got their periscopes up," said Father Curtis Bryant, a Jesuit priest and psychotherapist in Los Angeles. "They have so re-closeted themselves that you will not find a Roman collar in West Hollywood. Everybody is running for cover."
Gay priests like Father Jim, a university chaplain at a West Coast university who asked that his last name and campus not be identified, said his anger mounted at "the implied insult that because a priest is gay he is acting immorally, unfaithfully and illegally."