Thursday, July 17, 2008

The story of my departure -- a gay priest's confession

This interview with a Hungarian ex-priest is interesting for its thoughtfulness.

Anita Simonfalvi
July 17, 2008

He served as a provincial Catholic priest for almost a decade. When he realised he was gay, he abandoned his vocation and became a social worker in a homelessness hostel. He continues to serve, acknowledging his sexuality, but no longer within the Church. He spoke to on condition of anonymity. When did you realise you were gay, and how did you react to this?

Priest: My calvary began when I was an adolescent. I never had any luck with girls. There were always girls I liked but I never developed a real relationship with them. I was in my 20s when I was first with a man, and it was a searing experience for me. It felt like a tragedy, and I even considered suicide. I eventually ended up going to a psychiatrist. I worked as a skilled labourer for 10 years, graduated from high school, and then I joined a parish and got admitted to a seminary. I studied for five years, and I had believed that these deeply distressing feelings would disappear from my life if I was made a priest. I was wrong. There were many sides to my calling, one of which was the oath of celibacy which allowed me to ignore my sexuality altogether. I hoped that this could be taught. I thought there would be techniques, like those used by singers when they learn to sing a high C. I hoped I could learn in the same way. When it became clear that this problem wasn't going away, I had been a priest for almost 10 years already. I had to accept that I couldn't do anything about this problem. The question was whether I could carry on as a priest, but making a compromise, leading a secret life, accepting that I was unable to adhere to my oath of celibacy. Or I could decide to abandon my vocation.

After hesitating for a long while, I chose to leave. After soul-searching, I realised that sexuality was such a central part of a person, that you can't just sublimate it. There are theories saying that if people live for others, giving themselves entirely, then these desires vanish. But in my life, self-sacrifice was not enough to get rid of those feelings. After five years of suffering, I took the painful decision, and after that I had no doubts. Could you talk to anybody about this inner struggle? A friend or a fellow priest?

P.: In the first years of my priesthood I went to a psychologist. I had the traditional Christian belief that homosexuality is a sin. The psychologist's help was not enough, so I began to read about the issue, and I began to see the situation more clearly. Bela Buda wrote a very good book about sexual behaviour, which devotes almost 100 pages to questions of homosexuality. I realised that homosexuality is just a variant of sexuality. It's like being left- or right-handed.

There is no moral difference between right- and left-handedness. You can stroke with either hand - and you can hit with either. It's not about your orientation. Ethically, the only question is whether a relationship is voluntary, based on free commitment and love, or whether it's about blackmail, violence or some kind of threat. I don't believe a relationship between two people of the same sex which is based on mutual understanding is a sin. Of course, I'm going against church teachings by saying this. But you can't stand there at the pulpit and say that. I decided I'd be most honest if I voluntarily give up my Church career. I wanted to be faithful to my self-recognition and I didn't want to live a deceitful double life. But I remained a believer, and I continue to go to Church every day. How did you convince yourself to change?

P.: Nowadays, there is a real stigma attached to priests who leave their vocation. I think it was always like this. This is only part of the problem, because I enjoyed my vocation and I should have liked to stay faithful to it. I think I was a talented preacher, and my flock liked and acknowledged me. All this suddenly vanished. The things that had fulfilled me disappeared from my life.

That's probably why it took me so long to make my mind up. I hadn't been strong enough to leave the vocation while I had no alternative. When I realised if I left priestly orders I could work with the poorest people, I realised I could carry on my vocation in a different way.

I wrote to the head of my order, telling him I couldn't stick to my oath of celibacy. His answer was surprising: he said we should sweep the problem under the carpet. I could deal with the problem without leaving. In other words, the church had no answer. It can't take too hard a line, because these are facts of life, whereas legalising the practice would be impossible. The head of the order wrote an ambiguous letter, leaving it to me to decide. I had already taken a final decision, so I decided I would declare my desires to the world, and carry on doing what I had done before. Benedict XVI has said homosexuals should be banned from being priests.

P.: That would lead to drastic consequences. There are no precise numbers, but I suspect that around 30 per cent of priests are gay.

Homosexuality is more widespread in the priesthood than in the world at large. But being a priest doesn't make you gay, even if it does mean not being with women and being surrounded by men. But many gay people choose the priesthood because they are more sensitive than others, which is useful for a priestly life. Similarly, many actors and artists are gay. It's also worth asking why somebody's sexuality matters if they've already taken an oath of celibacy - they're not allowed a sex life in any case. So it's clear that we're dealing with a load of taboos that haven't been properly discussed. The church will have trouble with homosexuality until the Final Judgement. They don't have an answer. How did you leave the order?

P.: I escaped. I went for a training session and I didn't return home.Well, a few weeks later I went to collect my stuff. My fellow monks talked to me civilly, to make things go smoothly, but the human link had been broken. I cut myself off from them, and I bore the consequences. The first few months were hellish. I had left a community that I'd been an organic part of. I lost the people who had become my friends, almost my family, over 10 years of service. Some believers were able to understand by decision, but some still refuse to return my greeting, even though I had visited their families frequently. I only survived because I had resolved to carry forward my vocation, even if I had to leave the priesthood. It wasn't that easy, of course. If somebody stays inside the church, he can work much more effectively than somebody who has to do his fighting on his own. Do you support civil partnership for gays?

P.: For many gays, there is a real desire to make their relationship official. I don't have a strong view on civil partnerships, but it surprised me when Hungary's bishops went to see the Pope that he praised them for protesting against registered civil partnerships. Christianity isn't about homosexuality or your view on it.

P.: The ability to bless their relationships would give a kind of legal legitimacy to the lives of gay Christian couples. It wouldn't be a marriage, just a blessing. You can bless so many things nowadays: cars, flats, books - so why not gay couples? There needs to be a way to allow them to confess and receive absolution. Everyone just looks at this from a legal perspective. Of course, inheritance rights would be a big gain, but a Christian needs more than that spiritually. I don't see much chance of this happening now. Even though gay Christians need a community just as much as any other believer. What about gay couples adopting children?

P.: Some gays want to copy straight couples' lives down to the last detail. These are the models they learned at home, and they want to identify with that model. If they have a relationship, they want children. I'm not sure this is a good thing. However much they try to play the classic father-mother roles within the relationship, it will always seems false and awkward - and it could distort the child's personality.

It's still humiliating being gay today. I've survived situations that completely threw me to the floor and I have been ashamed of myself and ashamed to be seen by other people. A straight person can live his sexuality without any difficulties, whereas gay often feel the need to hide. I've had to search for happiness in train stations and public toilets before for want of other opportunities. I've been forced into impersonal, occasional relationships, because there I didn't have a chance of getting to know people in a normal way. If there was real acceptance, then perhaps we too could live our lives according to our own orientation. It would be good if there was tolerance not just on paper but in people's minds and hearts.

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