What I learned from Father Dan

Many gay priests have served and continue to serve our church well. Let’s not make them scapegoats for the sins of others.

Margaret Brennan

IN OUR CHURCH AND IN THE MEDIA THERE HAS BEEN MUCH TALK about the recently released Vatican instruction on vocation discernment and gay seminarians. As a middle-aged, married woman and the mother of two teenage children who has worked for most of her professional life in ministry, why should I care to add to that debate? Shouldn’t I just leave the commenting to a gay priest or seminarian?

As a mother, I find it lamentable that the church, whom we call our mother—indeed our holy mother—would judge some of her sons unfit and therefore unworthy to be ordained because of who they are. There is more than sufficient evidence that homosexuality is not a choice but an innate condition, probably genetic. There is also sufficient evidence that gay priests have long served the church and her people faithfully and well.

I have been a hospital chaplain, worked for a liturgical publishing company, and now am in university ministry. I can say without hesitation that gay priests are among our best and most gifted presiders and leaders of prayer, musicians, liturgists, pastoral caregivers, and teachers.

When I was just beginning to explore ministry as a vocation or life work, I was mentored by a priest—I’ll call him Father Dan—who helped me develop my pastoral identity and skills. I had worked with him for a number of months before learning he was a gay man. As I observed him minister to a wide range of folks—students, patients, doctors, and nurses—I began to realize that his willingness to be truthful to who he knew himself to be was foundational to his effectiveness as a priest, pastoral caregiver, and supervisor.

In Father Dan’s example I saw that being a gay man is not incompatible with the priesthood. Rather, knowing and accepting oneself as created in the image of God and loved by that same God is a prerequisite to developing the “affective maturity” (this term is used in the new document) necessary if one is to devote one’s entire life, one’s whole person, to service of the church and God’s people. I believe this is true for all who minister, whether clergy, religious, or lay; whether gay or straight.

I am saddened, if not surprised, by the document. If it is intended to be a corrective to the recent clergy abuse scandals, that rationale is both misguided and misleading. To even suggest a connection between homosexuality and pedophilia is specious and dangerous. It risks making a group of people scapegoats for the sins of others—those who committed the abuse and those who ignored and covered up the crimes.

To me this document is yet another sign that the church, like the rest of our world, is broken and in need of healing. It is hard to imagine what good will be served by it. I can’t help but believe that in time we will look back on it and on the church’s view of homosexuality in much the same way as we now look back on its refusal to acknowledge that the earth rotates around the sun or its belief that slavery was acceptable. I am convinced that it will be seen as a refusal by our church’s leaders to come to grips with new information about creation and a better understanding of the nature of the human being.

Until we can approach the mystery of creation with humility and recognize that God created the human, male and female; gay and straight; black, brown, red, yellow, and white—and found them all good, we will be unable to engage in an open, truthful discussion of sexuality.

In the meantime I hope and pray that discerning vocation directors and seminary rectors will continue to seek men who possess the emotional, intellectual, and spiritual qualities that will enable them to become religious leaders and pastors. In the Catholic Church (at present and for the foreseeable future) this means, among other things, men who are able to live a celibate life—whether heterosexual or homosexual. The real task is how to help seminarians and priests integrate their sexuality in a healthy, generative, celibate way of living.

Our church, indeed our world, needs priests like Father Dan, priests who understand their vocation as servants of the gospel and shepherds of the faithful, who seek to know, love, and serve God. That ought to be the criterion for admission to the seminary, not sexual orientation.

By Margaret M. Brennan, a university minister at Dominican University in River Forest, Illinois. This article appeared in the February 2006 (Volume 71, Number 2; page 50) issue of U.S. Catholic.

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