Inside The Church's Closet

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As an ordained priest, Pinkerton found himself doing what he calls "the tap dance" to reconcile committing his life to an institution that was not unconditionally committed to him. By 1984 he was completely out to his brother friars, whom he describes as open and supportive. But in October of 1986 he stopped celebrating Mass after the release of a Vatican directive (later dubbed the Halloween letter) that called homosexuality an "objective disorder" and warned that society should not be surprised if violence were committed against gays and lesbians seeking civil rights. After several months of reflection, Pinkerton managed to talk himself back up to the pulpit. "I told myself, 'The bishops aren't the church; the work means a lot to me; you can change [the church] from the inside.'"

But for Pinkerton, the dancing wasn't over. He was never celibate, he says. He had two long relationships with other priests. Logistically, having a partner was not hard; priests are expected to go on vacation together, and most of Pinkerton's work, ministering to gay people and AIDS patients, took place in a tolerant zone. "I told myself the same thing I would say to parishioners in the confessional: These [lovers] were put in my life by God, and they enrich my life — and my ministry."

But more often than not, says psychologist Michael Mendola, a former priest whose practice focuses on gay clergy, "it's extremely difficult for a gay priest to have a relationship and be happy. They begin to question their authenticity."

One day in the early 1990s, a friend told Pinkerton he was "lying by omission." His parishioners assumed he was celibate when they listened to him preach. And increasingly, he could not beat back "the voice" of dissonance. "If you can't be yourself in your life, that creates a huge amount of stress," he says. In 1994 Pinkerton left formal ministry.

Like Pinkerton, some men were drawn to the priesthood as a shelter. Others hoped that by taking the vow of celibacy, they could cancel out the orientation that had caused them so much shame. As one gay priest in New York City puts it, "Think of yourself as a gay person wanting with all your heart not to be a gay person. What do you do?" And for still others, there was the allure of the culture. "Catholicism has been one of the most homoerotic of widely available modern cultures," writes Mark Jordan, a professor of religion at Emory University, in his book The Silence of Sodom. He is referring to the shared residency of unmarried men and the Eucharistic ritual "in which an all-male clergy sacrifices male flesh before images of God as an almost naked man."

But other men came to the priesthood because they felt called to it. "God gave me this vocation as a very little boy, before I knew I was gay," says McNichols. "It didn't seem to matter to God." But growing up gay only made him a better priest, he says. "The outcast status of gay people can provide them with a natural bent toward listening. They can be reconcilers; they can understand the sufferings of both sexes. They're natural priests." McNichols now worries that his ability to minister will be taken away. "We're all sort of like Anne Frank's family, up in the attic, waiting for the Nazis to come. And that's wrong," he says. "The Church of Christ should not be a fearful place."

The key to being a healthy, celibate priest is being at peace with one's sexuality, says the Rev. Robert Silva, president of the National Federation of Priests' Councils. "I say to both gay and straight seminarians, You have to be comfortable with who you are. You have to understand that sexual feelings are part of the human experience. The priesthood is a difficult life. If you find the stresses and the isolation so great, you're going to seek to fill the void."

But the church continues to make it hard for gay priests to accept and integrate their sexual desires into their identities. One of the few concrete decisions the U.S. Cardinals made following their meeting in Rome with the Pope last month was to dispatch a team, called an apostolic visitation, to inspect all the nation's 220 seminaries and other preparatory institutions. The purpose is to determine whether the schools have been upholding orthodox moral doctrine in their applications process and in their classrooms. Some priests read that as code for a witch hunt. Details about the visitation won't be worked out until the June 13-15 meeting of U.S. bishops in Dallas, according to a spokesman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

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