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Sunday, Dec. 04, 2005
The Vatican's New Stereotype
Why its new rules barring gay priests turn Jesus' teaching on its head
By ANDREW SULLIVAN
The one consolation thatÂ gay Catholics have longÂ had is that the church hates only sin, not sinners. Yes, many of us are far from perfect, and like most married, heterosexual Catholics, we have been known to have sex without making a baby. But we were, as the Vatican assured us in official documents in 1975 and '86, "made in the image and likeness of God." The condition of homosexuality was, for many, "innate" and not in itself a sin. Gay people were "often generous and giving of themselves," said the Vatican, and the notion that gays could not lead celibate lives was an "unfounded and demeaning assumption." The bar on any gay sexual intimacy was still firm--but it was the same bar that prohibited heterosexual couples from using contraception, or single people from masturbating, or any other nonprocreative sexual act. It was a coherent, if difficult, doctrine--and not bigotry.
In this confined and often suffocating place, it was still possible, though never easy, to breathe the love of God as a gay Catholic. Our love of the church helped us overlook its institutional rejection of the relationships we built and the families who embraced us as equals. For many of us, the presence of gay priests also gave immense comfort. Of my three confessors in adult life, all turned out to be gay, although I had no idea in advance. I have known many gay priests, and I'm in awe of their service--to the poor and needy, to the lonely and uneducated, to prisoners and parishioners who have all found grace through their ministry and sacrifice. Often, their outsider experience helped them relate better to the marginalized or the lonely or those taken for granted.
Recall the image of Mychal Judge, the chaplain for New York City's firefighters, carried away from the World Trade Center in the arms of the brave men he ministered to. Judge, a proudly gay man, gave his life for those he served. Under new rules from Pope Benedict XVI issued last week, Father Judge would never have been ordained. Nor would thousands of other gay priests and bishops and monks and nuns who have served God's people throughout the ages.
In the past, all that mattered for a priest, as far as sexual orientation was concerned, was celibacy. If a priest kept his vows, it didn't really matter if he were refusing to have sex with a man or with a woman. All that mattered was that he kept his vows and had sex with no one.
But that has just changed. Even if a gay priest remains completely celibate, his sexual orientation is now regarded, according to a Vatican expert, as a threat to "priestly life." A gay celibate priest, according to the new rules, is incapable of "sexual maturity coherent with his masculine sexual identity." He has "a problem in the psychic organization" of his sexuality, barring him from priestly responsibility. Gay seminarians can be spotted and rooted out because they allegedly have "trouble relating to their fathers; are uncomfortable with their own identity; tend to isolate themselves; have difficulty in discussing sexual questions; view pornography on the Internet; demonstrate a deep sense of guilt; or often see themselves as victims." No serious psychological data are provided to verify those assertions (and many would surely apply to countless heterosexuals as well). What the new Pope has done is conflate a sin with an identity. He has created a class of human beings who, regardless of what they do, are too psychologically and thereby morally "disordered" to become priests.
There is a simple principle here. The message of Jesus was always to ignore the stereotype, the label, the identity--in order to observe the soul beneath, how a person actually behaves. One of his most famous parables was that of the Good Samaritan, a man who belonged to a group despised by mainstream society. But it was the despised man who did good, while all the superficially respected people walked on by. Jesus consorted with all of society's undesirables--with tax collectors, collaborators with an occupying power, former prostitutes, lepers. His message was that God's grace knows no boundaries of stigma, that with God's help, we can all live by the same standards and receive the grace that comes from his love.
The new Pope has now turned that teaching on its head. He has identified a group of people and said, regardless of how they behave or what they do, they are beneath serving God. It isn't what they do that he is concerned with. It's who they are. They are the new Samaritans. And all of them are bad.
Andrew Sullivan's blog, the Daily Dish, can be found at andrewsullivan.com