As we mentioned in Tuesday’s Bondings 2.0 post, Chicago’s Fr. Michael Shanahan came out as a gay man in an article published in The Washington Post. The article detailed both many challenging experiences that gay priests face, and it also spoke about their deep spirituality and love of ministry. Yet, in the past two days, other news outlets have picked up on the Post’s story, but the only thing that they have focused on is the fact that Fr. Shanahan came out in the article.
I’m happy that the idea that there are gay men in the Catholic priesthood is getting some publicity, and I applaud Fr. Shanahan’s decision 100%. I am a little surprised that the media have jumped on this story in this particular way.
For example the CBS station in Chicago featured Fr. Shanahan’s announcement both on television and online. But even though Fr. Shanahan’s quotations in his story spoke about his interior struggles and his dedication to ministry, the CBS segment focused on celibacy. More than half the article is devoted to the topic. If a priest in a news article said that he was heterosexual, would the topic of celibacy be raised by others? I think not. I think a bias still exists in society that gay=sexually active, so that acknowledgment of a gay orientation implies that a person may be more inclined to be involved with sexual activity.
The news media, however, are not the only ones to blame for this focus on celibacy. The church hierarchy promotes this kind of thinking. The CBS story reported that the Archdiocese of Chicago issued a very succinct statement:
“In response to inquiries from CBS 2, a spokesperson for the Chicago Archdiocese on Monday said Shanahan would not comment and released a one-sentence statement from Archbishop Blase Cupich:
‘We support all our priests as they live out the promises they made on the day of their ordination.’ “
In one sense, it is good to hear that the Archdiocese of Chicago supports both their gay and heterosexual priests. In another sense, though, it is sad that in responding to a question about a gay priest that they felt the need to bring up the promise of celibacy.
The article prolonged the celibacy theme by quoting two other experts in the area of priesthood:
“Can openly gay men be priests? Amid allegations last year the Archdiocese of Newark had effectively disciplined an openly gay clergy member, a spokesperson for church leaders there said being gay does not preclude a man from being a priest, provided he upholds his vow of celibacy.
“Thomas O’Brien, director of DePaul University’s Center for Religion, Culture and Community, agrees that is the general policy church leaders are following.
“ ‘All priests are required to be celibate, regardless of sexual orientation,’ he said in an email to CBS 2. ‘That policy does not vary from diocese to diocese, although different dioceses do approach violations of celibacy in distinct ways depending on the leadership style of the bishop and his administration.’ “
Again, in regard to this quotation, I am glad that the Archdiocese of Newark says it does not discriminate against gay candidates for the priesthood. But, again, I am amazed that their primary concern about gay men in the priesthood is whether or not they will keep their vow of celibacy. Aren’t they also concerned with how he might be treated or accepted by others in the Church? Don’t they want to know how his spiritual life is developing and what spiritual gifts his experience of sexual orientation provided him? Aren’t they interested in knowing what kind of minister he might be?
The CBS article did carry a lay person’s perspective on the issue. Mildred Soriano, a parishioner at Shanahan’s parish, said she wasn’t concerned about the priest’s sexual orientation:
“It doesn’t really matter, as long as he believes in God. It doesn’t matter to me at all. We’re all God’s children.”
Now, that’s a wise perspective!
I think this obsession with celibacy shows that our Church still hasn’t fully appreciated the gifts that gay men bring to the priesthood. Men like Fr. Shanahan have a unique perspective on the world and on spirituality, and so they bring a richness to the Church and its ministry. Gay men have been serving admirably and courageously in the priesthood for centuries, and, by all estimates, still make up a significant segment of the contemporary priesthood. They are as varied and diverse as the heterosexual priests are, as varied and diverse as all in the Church.
I think that the fascination with a priest’s orientation is due in part that we have imagined that all celibate people give up their sexuality. They may forego the opportunity to express that sexuality physically with an intimate loved one, but that doesn’t mean that they still aren’t sexual beings. The cloud of secrecy and silence that hangs around priesthood and celibacy also becomes a lure for some to want to inquire deeper into these men’s sexual lives than they would about other people. Secrecy and silence only cause harm–to both individuals and the Church as an institution.
I am so happy for the witness of Fr. Shanahan. His many contributions to the church, including this last one of coming out, help to build God’s reign of justice and equality.
New Ways Ministry is sponsoring a weekend workshop abourt gay priests, deacons, and religious brothers. Entitled, “Fan into Flame the Gift of God: Embracing the Gifts of Gay Priests, Deacons, and Brothers,” it seeks to help the church embrace more the gifts of its vibrant gay ministers.
The retreat, scheduled for April 28-May 1, 2016, near Philadelphia, is open to gay priests, deacons, and brothers, but also to all diocesan clergy personnel, as well as leaders and formation personnel of men’s religious communities. The program is designed to foster communication and understanding between gay clergy and religious, and the leaders responsible for their development. To view a brochure, click here.
If you are a member of the target audience and are interested in attending the retreat or know someone who might be interested, please contact New Ways Ministry at info@NewWaysMinistry.org or call (301) 277-5674.
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry
Chicago.Go.Pride.com: “Chicago priest: ‘I’m gay and I’m a priest, period’ “