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Is the Pope unchristian?
Thoughts on the ban on gay priests

The Roman Catholic Church, which for the last 20 years or so has taken so many wrong-headed positions on social issues, has just made another disastrous mistake: as expected, it has reinforced and extended its ban on gay men — even if they are celibate — becoming priests.

On a simple but nevertheless very real level, the idea is absurd. The Catholic Church, for almost 1600 years, has either discouraged or forbidden its priests from marrying. It has always denied women ordination. As a result, it bars women from its most powerful administrative roles. It is no surprise, then, that the Church is without a doubt the world’s largest gay bureaucracy. As Damian Thompson, a devout Catholic, wrote recently in England’s arch-traditional Spectator (no doubt with his tongue firmly planted in his cheek): "In addition to being Europe’s smallest state, the Vatican also boasts the highest proportion of homosexuals per square foot."

It is impossible to escape the conclusion that the ban is a rebuke — if not an outright condemnation — of the years of service and devotion that gay priests living and dead have faithfully rendered to their church. Even the memories of such conservative icons as the late cardinals O’Connell, Spellman, and Wright (who may or may not have been faithful to their vows of celibacy but who would certainly today be recognized or outed as being gay) are devalued.

The official doctrine of all monotheism — that is, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam — has been historically hostile to same-sex orientations. Gay bashing, gay fear, gay hatred is as old as Leviticus, St. Paul, and Mohammed. It is a distinctively modern development that the liberal wings of Judaism and Christianity have been willing to at first accommodate and now openly welcome gay and lesbian believers.

The anticipated gay ban is an obvious reaction to the pedophilia scandals that rocked, compromised, and demoralized the Church — primarily in the United States. By blindly, callously, and recklessly ignoring what was going on in the Church, the Vatican aided and abetted child abuse. Now the new pope, Benedict XVI, is trying to right past wrongs by doing too much of the wrong thing too late. The notion that gay priests are more likely to violate their vows of celibacy is an affront not only to gay Catholics, but also to the common sense of all men and women. In a more narrow sense it is deeply subversive of Church teaching, which holds that while homosexuality is a sin (a position that we, like many practicing Catholics, reject), homosexuals are not by definition sinners. Priests, gay and straight alike, traditionally have prayed for strength and guidance from the Holy Spirit to help them fulfill their admittedly difficult vows to abstain from sex. What Benedict’s ban on gay priests is now making clear is that all human beings are not equal in God’s eyes.

Affront or not, barring gay men from serving as priests is an odd prophylactic — especially at a time when the Church is suffering a severe shortage of priests. It’s even more curious when one considers that the next great scandal that threatens to rock the Church of Rome may well come from the AIDS-ravaged precincts of Africa and Asia, where unscrupulous heterosexual clerics violate their vows of celibacy to prey on young women for sex in the hope that those girls may be virgins and thus free from the HIV virus that spreads like a modern plague among devout Catholics who observe the Church-ordered ban on contraceptives. It’s odd indeed to passively promote death in the name of sanctifying life. But popes have been known to do some odd things.

Perhaps the oddest and most revolutionary — and from today’s vantage point, the most reactionary and overreaching — was the theologically dubious claim made in 1865 that in matters of doctrine popes were infallible. By Church standards, the 19th century was only yesterday. When Pope John XXIII convened his Vatican Council almost 50 years ago, he began a process of liberation that many hoped would ultimately result in the reversal of this ridiculous claim. But the bad guys, the backward-looking guys, appear to have won. Pope John’s successors have been marching the Church in the wrong direction. And it appears that Benedict won’t be content until the Church falls back into some weird medieval time warp when the earth was flat and the sun revolved around it.

Like many practicing Catholics, we look forward to the day when women as well as men can serve their faith as priests. When priests can marry. And when people of all sexual orientations — gay or straight, lesbian or transgendered — can be married under the umbrella of the Catholic Church. That day is a long way off. But while we wait we can only add our voice to those who would condemn the ban on gay priests as not only homophobic, but also unchristian.

Issue Date: December 2 - 8, 2005
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