Title: New Zealand's gay priests: celibate as required? Credit: Chris Banks Features Wednesday 14th December 2005 - 12:00pm1134514800 Article: 1040 Rights
Michael Bancroft doesn't describe himself as a "former Catholic priest", rather "a priest who is no longer active in the ministry". What's the difference? Well, in the theology of the Catholic Church, he says, you are a priest forever, unless you apply to the Vatican to be dispensed of all requirements of priestly life. This he has not done, effectively meaning that he could return to the priesthood tomorrow, should he wish to. But would he be allowed? As an openly gay man he would appear, under the latest guidelines from Rome, to be persona non grata in the priesthood. This, Bancroft says, is nothing new, but he suspects that people in the past "looked the other way." Now, in a directive issued late last month, Pope Benedict XVI has instructed the Church to be on the lookout for those with "deep seated homosexual tendencies" and to bar them from entering the priesthood. Bancroft sees this provocative use of language as something of a regression. "They used to use the word 'orientation', now the word 'tendency' is being used. They seem to imply that if you even have a homosexual thought that we don't want to hear from you," he says. "People like myself who now have come out to the extent where people are aware of my sexual orientation... well, there's no way I could ever go back." Not only is that a loss to the Church, but to the gay community at large. As an active priest in the 1980s and 1990s, Bancroft was a tower of strength to men living with HIV and dying of AIDS. From 1991-94, such was the demand for his services that he was conducting a funeral a fortnight. His involvement in the Interfaith AIDS Ministry Network was at the direct request of the then-Bishop of Auckland, Denis Brown, and saw him being heavily involved with the gay community. Bancroft is concerned that Pope Benedict's new directive is so far-reaching that the Church will abandon such ministry in the future. Those who support a "gay culture" are also to be barred from seminaries, the directive says. However, Lindsay Freer, spokesperson for the Catholic Church in New Zealand, doesn't see the connection between ministering to those living with HIV, and moving in the gay circles where the virus is largely prevalent. That's not supporting gay culture, she says, "that's supporting individual people. That's supporting people who need help, who call for help, and who want help." Some people may see fit to start up witch hunts to stop such ministry, but generally she doesn't see it happening. So what does it mean to support "gay culture"? "Somebody who supports the gay culture would be a person who regards their homosexual lifestyle as a valid alternative," she says. "And because that's not the teaching of the Church, if somebody subscribes to that and says it's perfectly OK and while I'm going to be celibate myself I strongly support the gay culture, I'm going to give every support I can to promoting the gay culture, that would be seen as being contrary to the teaching of the Church." One might think from that statement that the Church still believes that homosexuality is a choice, and is condemning those who "choose" an "alternative lifestyle". Although sitting in judgment over other people's choices is questionable, at least the Church wouldn't be alone – this is something we all do. But if the Church considered certain people to be deficient for aspects of their lives over which they had no control, how fair would that be? I was surprised to discover that the Church understands precisely how innate sexual orientation is. But if you happen to be gay or lesbian: "The church would say there that the ideal, in terms of the ideal that we're all called to, would be to lead a celibate life," says Freer. "But most people can't live up to that ideal, so you take people where they are, and you accept them where they are." If most people can't live up to an ideal, is this not an indication that the Church's interpretation of what God wants is somehow flawed? "We're getting into theological discussion here, and I'm not the person to talk to, because I'm not a theologian. I can only tell you as much as I'm able to, and talk about objective and subjective morality. I can't go into the theological aspects of that," she says. Herein lies our major problem in dialogue with the Catholic Church on this subject. For the most part, it's impossible because dialogue requires an exchange of ideas and opinions. In a hierarchy where one man, in this case the Pope, is ultimately responsible for all decisions regarding the Church, anyone underneath him is incapable of clarifying his edicts without simply restating them in different words. When the questions get too difficult, the old chestnut of "church teaching" is easy to fall back on as an answer. The follow-up question, "but does church teaching make any sense?", is not for the masses to contemplate, no matter how well-meaning they may be. "Look, I'm a sinner," says Freer by way of an answer. "Everyone's a sinner, and we're all on a road, hopefully, to some lesser degree of sinfulness than we are already in, to reach greater integrity in the whole of our lives, in every aspect of our lives." Guilt as a Catholic birthright is somewhat legendary. Is this the Church's way of being inclusive of gays and lesbians, by condemning us, but softening the blow by telling us not to worry because human beings are all as bad as each other? This is unclear, like most of the statements that pour forth from the Vatican. More confusing still is another statement within the same gay priest instruction, which says the Church should not allow "unjust discrimination" toward gays and lesbians. How does this work? The Church is very obviously discriminatory towards gays and lesbians. As recently as last year, it opposed the Civil Union Act. Their justification for this is that their opposition was not as vociferous as other religious groups. "We didn't, as some Christian groups did, make our submission on the grounds of homophobia," says Freer. "Ours was that civil unions, if they became law, could give our kids the message that – civil unions, defacto unions, marriage: take your pick, one's just as good as another. We say that marriage between a man and a woman, and family, is distinct, unique and important and should not be put on a par with any other partnership in law, as though one had the same equivalence as another." The Church also says only God can judge, yet here it is prescribing how the law should judge human relationships. This is part of what the Church calls "objective morality". What does this mean? "You could say, for example – murder is wrong, abortion is wrong, homosexuality is wrong," Freer explains. "But when we're talking about individual cases, this murderer – is he necessarily a grave sinner? We can't make a judgement about an individual person, only God can." To summarise: individual homosexual – God's domain for judging. Group of homosexuals – delegated to the Pope, who describes homosexuality as "objectively disordered", a buzz phrase that has been in use for somoe years and has been resurrected as part of the new gay priest instruction. What does this mean? "The church's view is that, objectively, homosexuality is disordered," Freer says. "Disordered in the sense that it isn't oriented towards the complementarity of what the Church would call the normative, the male-female relationship. I think we have to take right from the outset that that is Catholic Church teaching, and there's no way round it." But isn't that a judgement, as well as discriminatory? "You could say that there's a person who's got some other thing that might be considered disordered – they might have an illness, a disability, or a behavioural problem," Freer responds. "But it doesn't mean that that person shouldn't be totally respected, accepted, and part of the community." I point out that the Church doesn't appear to be making statements about the objective disorder of these groups, but she tells me I'm starting to split hairs. She also says she wasn't comparing homosexuality to murder in her earlier explanation of "objective morality." So what does any of this mean for gay priests? Michael Bancroft left the priesthood, not because of his homosexuality, but because he could no longer live up to the requirement that priests be celibate. This is not a problem confined to gay men alone. According to Bancroft, many straight priests have left behind the dog collar and married women very soon after, which begs the question – were they really able to resist their deep-rooted heterosexual tendencies while still in the priesthood? Bancroft doesn't think so. "There are priests in New Zealand who are gay, who to the best of my knowledge, probably live their celibacy, and there are certainly others that I know who don't follow the celibacy rule." And straight priests? "Same thing," he says. The Church has been facing a priest shortage crisis for some years now. How is the Church's latest edict likely to affect those numbers? And are there many gay priests in active service already? "Yes," says Bancroft. "Don't ask me to put a figure on it, but there are. Lots of gay priests." Perhaps surprisingly, Freer acknowledges this too, although she's more optimistic about their celibate status. "I can see in our congregation gay men and women, some of them in partnerships, some of them celibate. I can see gay priests. I don't know about their private sexuality, but there would be some gay priests as there would be some heterosexual priests that I would almost put the rent on the fact that they're wonderful men and priests, and are probably to the very best of their ability living a celibate lifestyle." And if you're a celibate priest, straight or gay, you should have nothing to worry about. But how will gay clergy and potential gay clergy feel about being singled out for a celibacy reminder? "Afraid is not a bad word," says Bancroft. "Always looking over their shoulder in case they're being observed, watched, looked...checked out for the slightest sign that they may be deviating." Freer says it won't have any effect on those priests already serving. "But if a priest now, gay or straight, was having problems with his sexuality the honest thing would be to actually go to his bishop, spiritual director, or counsellor, and say – I want to remain a priest, I want to remain celibate, but I'm having problems. Can you help me?" Fewer gay men may present themselves for priesthood candidacy now, she acknowledges. "But I also hope that it would mean that fewer heterosexual men would present themselves for priesthood if they honestly felt that they couldn't deal with the conditions of celibacy." With red-blooded heterosexuals not welcome either (Freer describes these as "macho types") who would be left to enter the priesthood, in a male population which the Church itself acknowledges is largely incapable of living up to the celibate ideal? Liars and paedophiles, cynics might say. Even the less cynically inclined are concerned that the new policy will only exacerbate the Church's sexual abuse problem, not help to solve it. Incidentally, Freer says that although the gay priest edict has been issued as part of a response to the Church's child sexual abuse scandals, it is not scapegoating gay men for the problem, nor is it saying that gay men are paedophiles. "I think the church is enlightened enough absolutely to recognise that paedophilia is another condition again, which is to do with all kinds of other complex psychosexual factors of sexual immaturity," she says. Meanwhile, many good men from all points on the sexuality scale will abandon their calling for priesthood because of the celibacy requirements. Bancroft believes he is one of these good men, and this is why he has never formally requested his priesthood status be revoked, although he is still barred from performing any official Catholic rites in his current state. "I want to continue to be recognised, in some sense, as a priest," he says. Not fully resigning is "a small way of making a stance. I don't believe the only reason I should not be a priest is over the celibacy. I see it as no longer relevant to the life and work of a priest." Chris Banks - 14th December 2005    
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