Certain sectors of the Church are once again going through a panic over gay clergy. The situation feels anachronistic, with the closest point of comparison in the secular world being the Cold War-era purges of gay people from civil service in the US (or the “Lavender Scare,” as it was later called). Much of Catholic culture and media these days is a world that exists in a state of perpetual tension with the LGBTQ movement, and where an assortment of threatening homosexual stereotypes churn in the collective unconscious. In the lower reaches of Catholic media we can find what can only be described as a constant circus of homophobia—a cavalcade of insinuations and accusations regarding homosexuality in the clergy, complete with the deployment of hateful and sometimes almost pornographic imagery. In the past this circus was largely confined to fringe traditionalist or ultraconservative publications; now it is a pervasive and uncomfortable element in online Catholic discourse.
Some in the Church, including Pope Francis, have begun to model a pastoral approach with LGBTQ Catholics. Many are adopting a less confrontational attitude toward the LGBTQ movement as a whole, while at the same time remaining rooted in Catholic teaching. Such Catholics have faced much resistance, however, and it is not uncommon for priests and bishops who seek to welcome LGBTQ people to be accused of being gay themselves and part of a gay cabal. What is going on, and will it ever end? I don’t think it will, unless we can pause and create spaces where Catholics—including clergy—can begin to discuss sexuality and homosexuality honestly and openly. The goal would not be to change Church teaching or encourage sin, but to simply understand the very human problems, desires, and frustrations that lie beneath external impressions and idealized roles.
It is widely accepted that there is a disproportionate number of gay men in the priesthood. For a variety of reasons it is impossible to establish a reliable percentage, but I have seen estimates ranging from 20% to over 50%. Some blame the sexual revolution or post-Vatican II theology, but it is probably not a new trend and simply became more visible after the beginning of the gay liberation movement in 1969. In his well-regarded book from 2000, The Changing Face of the Priesthood, Fr. Donald B. Cozzens draws upon the research of historian John Boswell to offer what he sees as one possible explanation for the disproportionate number of gay priests and seminarians at the beginning of the twenty-first century:
It has likely been this way for most of the Church’s history. Homosexually oriented men and women of faith quite naturally find religious life and the celibate priesthood attractive. Often deeply spiritual with a desire to be of service to others and a natural inclination and aptitude for liturgical ritual, it is not surprising that Catholic gay men are attracted to the priesthood and religious life. Upon entering the seminary, there no longer is the need to explain to family and friends why they are not dating or married. The discipline of celibacy and being a spokesperson for a Church that insists upon celibate chastity for its clergy is a powerful help to holding in check sexual inclinations that are disturbing, even frightening, at least to some. (105)
Cozzens doesn’t claim to know for sure whether or not this Boswellian thesis is correct, but my own feeling is that it simply makes sense. Certainly, for most Catholic men who are either gay or confused about their sexuality but who also wish to follow Church teaching, the priesthood is more appealing than a false life as a married man or a lonely life as a single man. It may also be that gay men are especially well-suited for the work of the priesthood (though I admit this strays into the realm of “positive stereotype,” and the question should probably be addressed by LGBTQ Catholics themselves). Ideally, in any case, the priesthood provides an opportunity—like it does for heterosexual men as well—for the healthy sublimation of sexual desire into care for souls and service to the community. As long as we are dealing with true sublimation of desire and not a crude repression of desire that is unlikely to last, the situation is tenable. There is no need for the faithful to find the presence of celibate gay men in the priesthood disturbing. Such an understanding, however, can only be reached through transparency and dialogue regarding the issue, which is almost entirely lacking in the Church today. When scandals break out, they seem to force people further into the closet, and for an understandable reason: nobody wants to become the target of organized homophobes with media platforms.
The lack of transparency over the issue of homosexual clergy means the Catholic unconscious of today contains a set of warped “gay priest” stereotypes that will be familiar to anyone who dares to peruse Catholic social media. Gay priests are commonly portrayed as potential sexual predators and pedophiles, as infiltrators who are liberalizing the Church, or as “security risks” who may be selling out the Church to communist blackmailers. These negative stereotypes have become so normalized that at times even relatively mainstream Catholic news outlets will deploy them indiscriminately.
Within this charged Catholic atmosphere, always filled with vague dread regarding the threat of homosexuality, there are plentiful opportunities for those seeking to cause a moral panic for ideological reasons. One such panic happened with the infamous testimony of Archbishop Viganò in 2018, which arrived at the end of a summer during which the Church had been attempting to process revelations regarding the grave sexual misconduct of then-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. In many ways, McCarrick was the perfect figure for Viganò to latch onto, since he seemed to embody many of the negative gay stereotypes mentioned earlier. He was credibly accused of preying sexually on both adult men and minors, he was positioned as a ‘liberal’ villain within conservative Catholic lore for his alleged manipulation of the USCCB over the question of denying communion to pro-choice Catholic politicians, and he also played an active role in the Vatican’s relations with China, thus potentially influencing the Vatican-China agreement announced in 2018. Predator, liberal infiltrator, and “security risk”: he had it all. What gave the Viganò testimony its great power, though, was not simply that he was condemning McCarrick and all who may have turned a blind eye to his behaviour, but that Viganò placed McCarrick near the top of a great conspiracy of homosexuals in the clergy, activating the fears and prejudices of Catholics in a very calculated way. In his testimonial letter, after asking all those who covered up for McCarrick or benefited from him to resign (including Pope Francis), Viganò turns his attention to what he sees as the larger problem:
But this will not be enough to heal the situation of extremely grave immoral behavior by the clergy: bishops and priests. A time of conversion and penance must be proclaimed. The virtue of chastity must be recovered in the clergy and in seminaries. . . . The seriousness of homosexual behavior must be denounced. The homosexual networks present in the Church must be eradicated, as Janet Smith, Professor of Moral Theology at the Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, recently wrote. . . . These homosexual networks, which are now widespread in many dioceses, seminaries, religious orders, etc., act under the concealment of secrecy and lies with the power of octopus tentacles, and strangle innocent victims and priestly vocations, and are strangling the entire Church.
Some well-intentioned people (especially those who didn’t read his full letter) were willing to give Viganò the benefit of the doubt and demand that his claims be investigated, but undoubtedly many also thought Viganò’s intervention provided a perfect chance to reveal the “octopus tentacles” of the Lavender Mafia once and for all. Thus, when the Vatican announced it would commission a report on the McCarrick case, social media lit up with cries of “Release the report!”
We all know what happened next. Viganò fell further and further into the realm of conspiracy theory and anti-Vatican II traditionalism, aligned himself with the MAGA movement and the COVID truthers, and eventually discredited himself in the eyes of all sane Catholics. The McCarrick Report, when it finally arrived, turned out to be a meticulously researched but ultimately underwhelming document, in the sense that it provided no evidence of octopus tentacles but merely the depressingly familiar saga of a clerical superstar who took advantage of his status to sexually exploit and abuse others. Until the report was released, however, the myth of the Lavender Mafia was alive, with the regular Viganò drops providing endless content for the lay grifters and clerical grandstanders who profit from fear and lead people away from the pope and the Church. In the meantime, the real systemic issues in the Church that have fuelled the abuse crisis—particularly clericalism and especially the formation of unhealthy movements around charismatic clerical figures—were largely ignored.
Unless something changes, there will always be more Lavender Scares in the Church. There will always be those ready to activate the gay stereotypes of the predator, pedophile, infiltrator, and “security risk.” Part of the blame lies with those who are unscrupulous enough to play on people’s fears, but another part lies with the institutional Church itself, for attempting to maintain an idealized view of the clergy and discouraging honest discussion about the presence of homosexuality in the Church and the intimate but deeply-conflicted relationship between homosexuality and Catholic culture and tradition.
In 2000, Cozzens remarked that continued silence over the question of homosexuality in clergy was a grave threat to the Church:
The priesthood’s crisis of soul, and by extension, the Church’s crisis of soul, is in part a crisis of [sexual] orientation. Sooner or later the issue will be faced more forthrightly that it has in the closing decades of the twentieth century. The longer the delay, the greater the harm to the priesthood and to the Church. (109)
We are now seeing the harm caused by such silence.
Cozzens, Donald B. The Changing Face of the Priesthood: A Reflection on the Priest’s Crisis of Soul. Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 2000.