The Desperate Catholic Clerical War On Gays

In another assault on LGBT rights, Minnesota's Roman Catholic bishops are urging parish priests across the state to form committees to help get a proposed marriage amendment passed by voters in 2012. Archbishop John Nienstedt wrote in a letter to his priests:

It is imperative that we marshal our resources to educate the faithful about the church's teachings on these matters, and to vigorously organize and support a grass-roots effort to get out the vote to support the passage of this amendment.

I've thought quite a lot about the severity of opposition from the Catholic Church toward same-sex marriage and equal rights for gay people in general. This is bigger than a few passages in the Bible. This is a zealous commitment of time and resources to reach out beyond their congregations to force their beliefs on non-Catholics. If they were generally of this practice across the breadth of their doctrine, then it would be just another example of a church pushing its faith on others. It's not. They don't commit all resources to ending legal divorce, enacting Sunday closing laws, or getting Ash Wednesday made a national holiday. No, gay issues are different.

I've come to only one reasonable explanation. Most Roman Catholic priests must be gay (or if not most, enough to be a major force in the church hierarchy). I'm hardly the first person to have thought or observed this (also here, here, here, and here). This speculation isn't insulting of the Church or the priesthood. There's nothing wrong with being gay or being a gay priest. There is something wrong with fighting against the equal rights of gay people.

In my estimation this is a result of two things: the extreme stigmatization of homosexuality in Catholic faith communities, and the celibacy of priests. Consider the situation of the young, gay male, growing up in a Catholic family, church, and community, especially in decades or even centuries past. He knows with absolute certainty that his family and community will never tolerate him living as a gay man, to the point of excommunication or even death. He has been told and believes that what he feels inside is a sin. His family, especially his mother, have high expectations of him to marry and have children. His mother is always trying to set him up with nice girls. And they are nice girls. He is running out of excuses to avoid these relationships. What are his options? Enter a sham marriage? Face his family's disappointment from living alone or leaving his home and community?

What about the priesthood? By becoming a priest, he will be required to be celibate, which he has resigned himself to anyway, so he doesn't have to marry a woman. He will be honoring God, gain a position of high status in his church and community, have employment for life that does not require hard labor, and bring honor to his family. How can he lose?

I submit that the clergy has been a refuge from marriage for young, gay, Catholic men for centuries, so much so, in fact, that most members of the Catholic clergy today are gay, and this has been true for a very long time. The celibacy of priests has been an extreme disincentive for young strait men to enter the priesthood, while being an attraction to young gay men.

It would be naïve to think that this persistent assault on the gay community is in no way affected by the fact that these are mostly gay men driving it. Other religions speak against homosexuality, but few rally their entire church to fight against the rights of gay people outside their church. One simple theory is that it's just basic gay bashing by closeted gay men trying to stay closeted. Another is basic self-loathing. Their faith gives them a deep shame of what they are, so they attack other gays as a vicarious form of self-flagellation.

I'm inclined to think that their motivations are more practical in nature. Today, the entire hierarchy of the Catholic Church is rooted in the stigmatization of homosexuality coupled with the celibacy of priests driving young, gay men to enter and operate their organization. It's probably an accident that celibacy had this consequence, but after centuries, it's a basic part of the structure of the Church and is the primary motivator they have for recruiting new priests. As one Jesuit Priest put it, "As a Catholic priest, I know there would be no church without gay people. ... I assume priests are gay until proven otherwise."

But the world is changing. There are far more options available to young, gay men today. It's becoming easier all the time to live out. Families are becoming accepting of their own gay children. They can enter relationships and find happiness. The result: fewer and fewer young men are entering the priesthood. The Catholic Church can't get enough priests to meet the needs of their congregations. The number of U.S. priests has plummeted from 59,000 in 1975 to 40,600 in 2009, while, the country's Catholic population has grown to 65 million, leaving thousands of parishes without a resident priest. They're in deep trouble.

Their options? One would be to lift the celibacy of priests. There is nothing in scripture that demands it. The problem is that most priests now are gay, and if they did this, priests would go from an expectation of celibacy to an expectation of marriage overnight. Any parish priest would be seen as the supreme catch for nearly every single woman in his congregation. These men would be fending off female advances left and right, putting them right back in the situation they entered the priesthood to escape in the first place. Few in church leadership will foist this on themselves, and most of the priests they have now would probably leave the clergy. In the short run, it would decimate the Church before they could recruit enough new priests to recover.

Their other option? Try to maintain the status quo, dig in their heals and stop the progress of history. Try to thwart any attempts to raise the social acceptability of homosexuality and give young gay men other options. Fight like hell to maximize the social stigma that drives gay men into the priesthood to keep their church alive. This appears to be the choice they have made.

The last option would be to both end celibacy for priests and officially embrace gay people. Their priests could come out, stay in the church, and they could begin to attract more strait men to enter the priesthood. Throw in the ordination of women and they just might make it. Somehow, I can't see millennia-old social inertia changing that quickly.

The Catholic Church is fading. To save it, the church leadership either has to give up the lives they've built for themselves, or they have to hold down and demonize gay people. They are not fighting to stop sin or protect marriage. They are fighting to save their church, and they are desperate.