Friday, June 4, 2010

The Elimination of Celibate Male priesthood in the Roman Catholic Church

Discussing the great exodus of heterosexuals from the priesthood following Vatican II in his autobiography, A Pilgrim in a Pilgrim Church, Archbishop Weakland made the following observation about what happened in the priesthood in the Milwaukee diocese:

When the great exodus came, fewer priests with a homosexual orientation left the priesthood. Thus, the proportion of gays in the priesthood became larger than that found in the general male population, creating in some places signs of a visible gay clerical culture. As experience has shown, large numbers of gays exhibit deeply spiritual sensitivities that have made them effective priests. Moreover, I give here a personal opinion, many gay clergy were key players in keeping the Catholic Church in the United States alive and vital in that difficult period of transition. They carried the burden of overwork while they confronted the challenges stemming from the dramatic changes that the Church was undergoing. For all this I am sure they will receive no praise, only the admonition to remain closeted (p.339).

If Archbishop Weakland's observation is true, and it certainly is true, then gay celibate members of the clergy should receive a well deserved thank you from the Vatican. But, paradoxically, they have received just the opposite. Having scapegoated gay priests as responsible for the child abuse crisis contrary to all scientific evidence, the Vatican, giving full vent to its homophobia, decided to deny all gay men, even well qualified celibate gay men called by God, access to the priesthood. To come up with a theological justification for this exclusion, they invented a metaphor about priestly vows representing the marriage of the male priest with a female church and, of course, only heterosexuals can make such a committment. (What happened to all the homoeroticism recorded in the Old Testament between Yayweh and Israel ( cf. Jacob's Wound by Theodore Jennings)? Would that have led to the conclusion that only gay men are fit for the priesthood?)

In a front page article on May 31st in the New York Times, Paul Vitello reported on the techniques seminary will use to detect and eliminate gay candidates. The most likely results of the Vatican strategy to eliminate gay candidates is that only unhealthy and least competent will remain candidates and the problems with psychologically sick and immature priests will multiply.

But there is another reading that can be given to the over-the-top homophobia represented in the Vatican's ruling on elimating gay priests, a reading I shared in an interview with Paul Vitello but he decided not to include in his article. I see in this move by the Vatican the shrewdness of the Holy Spirit! The celibate male priesthood is dying out. The number of candidates entering the seminary are rapidly declining. The average priest is over 60 and a vanishing breed with no adequate replacements in sight. The Vatican has resisted all calls for married priests and the ordination of women. Now by denying ordination to gay men the Vatican has almost certainly achieved the death of the cultic celibate male priesthood! But this is in all probability the outcome that the Holy Spirit intended.

Vatican II opened the door to a structural transformation of the Catholic Church. Basically the Council began a process by which the Church will be transformed from a patriarchal monarchy into a spirit guided democracy. Their primary move was when Vatican II identified the church as the " People of God." We the laity are the Church and our leadership must listen to our voice. The Church envisioned by Vatican II will no longer be a church where power and authority will be from the top down. It will be a church where power and authority will be from the bottom up.

The second major move toward the democratic church of the Holy Spirit was the Vatican council reaffirmation of the fundamental Catholic teaching on freedom of conscience:

”Every man has in his heart a law written by God. To obey it is the very dignity of man; according to it he will be judged. Conscience is the most secret core and sanctuary of man. There he is alone with God, whose voice echoes in his depths. In a wonderful manner conscience reveals that law which is fulfilled by love of God and neighbor. In fidelity to conscience, Christians are joined with the rest of men in the search for truth, and for the genuine solution to the numerous problems which arise in the life of individuals and from social relationships [Vatican Council II, 1966, n. 16, pp. 213-214].”

This decree makes clear that the voice of God which we must obey is the voice that speaks directly to us in our experience of life and not through any exterior intermediary. Discernment of spirits must become the modus operandi in the church. For the leadership to know what God wants them to do they must prayerfully carry out a discernment of spirits in dialogue with the people of god.

The very concept clergy is a medieval concept. Clergy were that tiny proportion of a largely illiterate populous who could read and write. Only those people could be elevated to the superior status of clergy in the hierarchy. And since only men could learn to read or write, only men could be made priests. Thus an exclusively male clerical class replaced the priesthood of the faithful of the earlier church. In the earlier church the congregation would prayerfully discern who the Spirit was calling to be their leader; that person could be male or female, married or single, gay or straight. The congregation would then present their choice to their leader for his or her blessing. I believe the Holy Spirit is leading the church back to this spirit based style of leadership.

Ministry in the Church of the Holy Spirit will come from a direct call of the Holy Spirit to any baptized person from within their spiritual self-awareness. The task of authority will be to listen prayerfully to what the Holy Spirit is saying through the people of God. All authority will proceed from the bottom up and not from the top down. Every community should prayerfully discern spirits to select among their members the one whom God is calling to leadership. That individual could be a man or woman, married or single, gay or straight! The Church of the Holy Spirit must become a totally democratic church with no caste system, no higher or lower, totally equal, women with men, gays with straights; everyone posessing the Holy Spirit within them, eveyone an authority.


  1. If the church in this country continues on its present course excluding gay men and inviting more and more foreign priests to fill the ranks of a thinning native male celibate clergy, the foundation is being laid for an even greater collapse of the priesthood as we have know it. The lesson does not seem to have been learned by bishops and most seminary leaders that the repression caused by crass attempts to weed out gay candidates for the priesthood will only cause a number of these men to build larger and more ornate closets. The result of repressed sexuality in the priesthood should be obvious. When foreign seminarians and priests are added to the mix, the problems waiting to happen are multiplied. The problem of the closet is still there. In addition to the closet, cultural attitudes to sexuality of seminarians and priests from foreign countries is probably an even greater unknown to seminary officials trying to weed out candidates for the priesthood.

    Finally, as to the Spirit working from the ground up, a priest and former pastor friend of mine said that a few years ago when the bishop came for confirmation, the leaders of the Hispanic community met the bishop and presented five men they wanted ordained deacons to help serve that community. This Catholic parish in a small rural town had grown about five times larger in the space of about twenty years from the Hispanic immigration. My pastor friend said: “They never heard back from the bishop.”

  2. Thank you for addressing not only the ridiculous contortion involved in the hierarchy adopting the strained metaphor of heterosexual male priest as groom to his bride the church, but also the entirely post hoc nature of this veneer for their homophobia. One of the aspects of the NYT article that just about made me jump out of my skin was the unquestioned (by the author) statement made about what the church thinks about healthy psychology. The church is entitled to its own theology, but not its own science. Why does Vitello let this go past without comment? It is the kind of subtle or not so subtle distortion that the hierarchy's PR efforts foist on their audience constantly, and the media never addresses, out of lack of sophistication, lack of time, or lack of commitment to objectivity (I am tempted to say lack of balls, but that would be playing right into their sexist world view, now, wouldn't it?). May I plug here my latest post at ?

  3. Wow, excellent post. I'd like to draft like this too - taking time and real hard work to make a great article. This post has encouraged me to write some posts that I am going to write soon. Spiritual Fitness