Mercy and the Lying Game

This article, the second in a series of two (see the first article), was published in The Tablet on 11 August 2018, under the title “Homosexuality among the clergy: caught in a trap of dishonesty”.


In case it is not obvious, I write neither as a journalist, a sociologist, nor a historian: from the outside of what I describe. I am a priest who aspires to be a theologian, one who is entirely complicit with the realities involved. I realised, over twenty years ago, that the only thing stronger than the systemic trap in which I found myself, as it tried to spit me out, was forgiveness. Every accusatory approach, every desire for vengeance, every culturally or politically convenient way of point-scoring, merely helps tighten the self-defensive knots of the system. Hence the title of my first book to deal with this issue: Faith Beyond Resentment. I have tried since then to incarnate and to preach forgiveness long before its need has been recognised, aware that no apparently sacred earthly structure (“principality” or “power” in St Paul’s language) can withstand the recognition that it is based on a lie. It is forgiveness which opens up the truth of things by revealing contingency and mutability, things that can be let go, where only sacral fixity and necessity seem to reign.

I offer, then, a (maybe dangerously) abbreviated reading-from-mercy of some elements of how we got here. Think back to the late nineteenth century. You have the beginnings of the strong impulse to female equality which would soon change voting laws throughout the western world. You have the beginnings of psychology, and with it the talkability of things that had previously not been mentionable, as well as a growing recognition of the objectivity of elements of human “subjectivity”. You also had the coining of the term “homosexual”, shifting the definition of the person involved from the criminal to some sort of quasi clinical way-of-being. And you had, in different languages, a growing literary fiction exploring in ever less coded ways the lives and desires of people we would now describe as gay or lesbian. If you were born in the 1890’s, laws against homosexuality, blackmail, violence and mysterious suicides would have been in the formative ether of your growing-up. It was still a world in which most professions would have been male-only for some decades to come, and an informal “don’t ask don’t tell” about many indiscretions would have been standard.

Fast forward to someone born in Europe or North America in the 1990’s. A different universe. Female equality dramatically closer, psycho-sexual realities being discussed openly with a growing expectation of honesty, being gay no longer either criminal or clinical, same-sex marriage on the horizon, and a plethora of literature, films, role models and so on enjoyed as much by straight as by gay people. Many problems still in many places, but how far from the world where the British Government could ensure the execution of Roger Casement by leaking the diaries where he named his lovers, thus shocking a great man’s highly-placed supporters into shamed silence?

And what of clerical life over the same century? While the young men born in the 1890’s might not, despite a growing literature, have had words or names for themselves, one thing was clear: in a brutal world, a mono-sexual clerical caste where no one questioned your unmarried status was the safest place to be. Not only because you would be physically and legally safer in a genuinely “don’t ask, don’t tell” world. But also, and this is the part often forgotten, because if you wanted to be good, you may well have been horrified at the squalor, moral and otherwise, which seemed to be what your boyish love would turn into over time, with no models better than young comrades, dead in war. In a clergy in which the only teaching at the time was about acts, it was not only a safe space, but one in which, by avoiding those acts, you could aspire to goodness.

However as the century evolved, the world moved on at every level. With far fewer single-sex professions and associations, the traditional “don’t ask don’t tell” of same-sex sociability was falling apart, women quickly picking up things about men that straight men don’t perceive. Following the mass mobilisations of the first half of the century, many more young people became aware of others like themselves. Emboldened to talk publicly about their lives and feelings in the first person, they began to live relatively openly, with ever less police attention or employment discrimination. De-criminalisation advanced all over the western world. Primitive attempts to “cure homosexuals” yielded to the scientific realisation that there is a relatively stable life-long orientation underlying “being this way”, and no pathology intrinsic to it. The science was firm by the 1950s, and has only been growing clearer since. Moreover, life-long models of decent living: coupled, single, with children were becoming available. In short, for gay and lesbian people at least, the social ether was unimaginably healthier.

Meanwhile, the clerical safe space with its (comparatively) soft, informal “hypocrisy” was, by comparison, becoming an ever more unsafe space as safety grew around it. “Don’t ask, don’t tell” is not particularly cruel when it is just the way things are for the whole of society. But when “don’t ask, don’t tell” shifts into becoming an ever more explicit imposition on a small group in the midst of a growing ease with “asking” and “telling” around them, you are heading for an artificially constructed trap. Not least because those on the outside can see ever more clearly what those on the inside have to pretend isn’t there. Think of the politically inspired imposition of an already socially moribund “don’t ask don’t tell” on our militaries in the 1990’s. The result was an increase in persecution, dismissals, fearfulness, vindictiveness, loss of talent, and power to the zealots.

However the biggest threat to the old safe space in which “acts” were evil, and “being” was not defined, came as science caught up with the evidence of people’s lives: evidence that a same-sex orientation is a more or less stable, regularly occurring, non-pathological minority variant in the human condition. What must it have been like for a gay cleric of the generation of Paul VI? You have lived through the social and psychological changes of the century, and you rejoice, as Vatican II did, at all that was positive in the post-war years. And yet at the same time the previous world’s “underside” (identification with which you might have been at some level fleeing for decades, and for good moral reasons), was about to creep not only into the open, in the carnavalesque sense of Stonewall and subsequent Pride movements, but into the soul as something that you just are.

It is no surprise that the first ever public use by the Roman Congregations of the word “homosexual” is in some short paragraphs (Persona Humana 1975) whose main thrust is to insist that no understanding of “being” should ever be allowed to justify “acts”. Although the link was not fully explained in 1975, the underlying reason is clear: the maintenance of the evil of the “acts” depends upon the status of “being that way” as somehow negative or anomalous. For if the “being” were a non-pathological minority variant, then of course, the “acts” might in some circumstances be an appropriately human expression. By 1986 the rationale needed to be made more explicit, and so the “homosexual tendency” had to be described as “objectively disordered” in order to maintain the “intrinsically evil” nature of the acts (Homosexualitatis Problema 1986). And with that description, an aprioristic deduction was made to trump any human scientific learning, and the once safe space became a definitional trap for any who had entered into it, and for all those entering into it henceforth.

Let me explain: Think of those coming into the seminary world between, say, 1960 and 1990. They will have been undergoing a shift in understanding from a world in which “acts” were bad, and “being” meant “not like them”, to a world in which “being” meant “actually quite like them, and so what?” and “acts” being fairly banal. Given that some realise they are gay when pre-pubertal, and others not until middle-age, you can imagine that a significant number of young men, unsure of themselves, and formed, at least in part, by traditional attitudes placing them at risk of hell, join the seminary half-believing in their disordered being. Eventually, they find others like themselves, and it may only be years after ordination that, through love or learning, they discover that there is nothing wrong with their “being”.

If the discovery (that what their employer teaches them about themselves is wrong) be made early enough and they are bothered by it, they may leave. If the discovery occurs during their own personal and professional growing up as priests, they may realise that their commitments (i.e. to the discipline of celibacy or vows) are not valid. For such commitments were assumed while those making them were under the influence of a false teaching concerning themselves, a teaching imposed on them as if from God by their employer. So, loving the priesthood, they continue their work (some are too old to be able to leave without penury) and may entertain discreet relationships in good conscience.

Thus you have the bizarre situation in which a teaching which, in context, originally helped genuinely pious gay men of yesteryear who wanted to live chastely (and I imagine that at least a couple of recent Holy Fathers were of this sort) has become converted by “facts on the ground” (and the theological attempt to resist them) into a trap. Those gay clerics who become relatively healthy through their experience with others like themselves in their ecclesial belonging (and that’s not a few in every generation moving forward) learn discretely to ignore both a teaching based on a falsehood about who they are, and the formal commitments made while under the illusion of that false teaching, and it becomes functional for everyone to turn a blind eye. The same teaching is functional for those who are extremely unhealthy (it reinforces their refusal to accept who they are) and for opportunistic careerists, enabling these latter types to become the most vociferous allies of the genuinely pious, but frightened, senior celibates in the maintenance of the appearance of the old world. Doesn’t that look like much of the senior clergy from, say, 1965 to 2013?

Tangentially, I hope it also hints at why such a mutually deceptive gay-heavy world has been so useless at dealing with child abuse. “Don’t ask don’t tell” can function as a way of genuine mercy among gay men who don’t want to cast stones in a glass house where the assumption is of relationships which may be illicit according to house rules, but are neither illegal nor pathological. But it can also be used (and certainly has been) as a cover for blackmail by those who have genuinely illegal and pathological behaviour to hide. The combination of these two has led to an inability to distinguish, in practice, between “naughty” gay men and “criminal” pedophiles. The instinct not to want to know, especially if senior people are involved, is very strong, as the Chilean debacle has demonstrated.

What is to be done, and what is quietly happening? In my view the first thing is for the laity to be encouraged in their fast-growing majority acceptance of being gay as a normal part of life. This, despite fierce resistence from elements of the clerical closet. Pope Francis’ reported conversation with Juan Carlos Cruz (a gay man abused in his youth by the Chilean priest, Fr Karadima) is a gem in this area: “Look Juan Carlos, the pope loves you this way. God made you like this and he loves you”. This remark led to much spluttering and explaining away from those who realise that the moment you say “God made you like this” then the game is up as regards the “intrinsic evil” of the acts.

Nevertheless, it is only when straightforward, and obviously true, Christian messaging like Francis’ becomes normal among the laity themselves that honesty can become the norm among the clergy. Otherwise we will continue with the absurd and pharisaical current situation in which there is one rule for the clergy (“doesn’t matter what you do so long as you don’t say so in public or challenge the teaching”) and another for the laity, passed off as “the teaching of the Church”, and brutally enforced, for instance, among employees of Catholic schools, parish organists, softball coaches and the like.

Only when it is clear (as it is increasingly) that the laity are quite confident in the (obviously true) view that “if you are this way, then learning to love appropriately is going to flow from, not despite, this” will it be possible to change, without scandal, the formal rules regarding the clergy. I bring this out since much was made of Francis’ reported answer to the Italian Bishops when asked if they should admit gay men to the seminary: “if you are in any doubt, no”. This was read as Francis being against gay men.

I read the remark differently: that of a wise and merciful man addressing a group of men, a significant proportion of whom are gay, and telling them, in effect, that only those among them who are capable of honesty in dealing with their future charges should induct people like themselves into the clergy. “Are you yourself going to vacillate in standing up publicly for the honesty of the young man? If so, don’t make his future dependent on your cowardice”.

It looks to me as though the Lord’s mercy, already reaching lay people as relief and as joy, is beginning to pierce the clerical closet in the shape of a firm, but gently upheld, demand for penitential first-person truthfulness as we are painfully let go from the systemic trap. The alternative, as Francis surely knows, is to continue with liars inducting liars into a game, the closet forming and enforcing the closet. And all of us finding that the Lord’s vineyard is very properly being taken away from us, its terrified tenants, and put into the hands of others, determined neither by sexual orientation, marital status or gender, who will produce its fruit.