The dogs on the street of Maynooth and everywhere else know that gay priests exist in large numbers. The gay priest is so common, he is a cliche. This week, Catholicism's most open secret was given another public airing when Archbishop Diarmuid Martin stirred things up by confirming that the archdiocese of Dublin will move three trainee priests to Rome, so that they will avoid St Patrick's Maynooth seminary, where gay priests have allegedly been using the sex and dating app Grindr.
One would imagine many clergy members are furious at Archbishop Martin for drawing attention to Maynooth, and the sexuality and sex lives of gay priests. The church operates behind closed doors, resents answering to anyone but its own hierarchy, and has massive self-interest in maintaining a pious position in society. Why did Archbishop Martin draw attention to Maynooth now? Maybe he wanted Maynooth to get their act together. Maybe he wanted to get ahead of the second aspect of this news story, which is the much more serious aspect of sexual harassment.
So there seems to be two elements to the Maynooth story. One is around gay priests; that gay priests exist within the seminary, that they are having sex, that they are using the dating and sex app Grindr to communicate with other gay men or other gay priests in order to hook up.
The other is around accusations of sexual harassment, with one former trainee priest saying he was harassed by a member of staff. Men having consensual sex is obviously not illegal, but sexual harassment or assault very much is. Although the church's warped attitude towards sexuality tends to categorise all sexual contact that takes place outside of heterosexual married partnerships as wrong, it's important to separate these two elements. The church might view homosexuality as wrong, but it isn't. Historically, the Catholic Church has failed miserably in adopting a proactive stance on harassment and abuse, as Ireland and other countries witnessed when the devastating incidents of child rape, torture, abuse and assault were exposed over decades, along with the church's subsequent protection of paedophiles within its organisation.
In discussing Maynooth, wider society has in some parts succumbed to a sniggering discourse that surrounds the story. The immature, archaic and coded language clergy members and others have used to describe the Maynooth story – “gay subculture” “strange goings on” “quarrelsome” “not the healthiest place” – belongs in the past, and compounds homosexuality as something to joke about or be scandalised by. Across social media, the temptation for crass jokes and wink-wink-nudge-nudge comments was too much for many. Unfortunately, all this does is re-enforce an attitude towards homosexuality that is crude and childish. Where the church sees a scandal, the public sees a punchline. So how can we properly negotiate this balancing act – calling out the church’s hypocrisy on homosexuality while maintaining sympathy for gay priests – without falling into either of those traps? With some people using the story as an opportunity to slag off the church, homosexuality then becomes collateral damage.
If everyone knows that plenty of priests are gay, and if society has moved on to accept people of all sexualities, then does the gayness of priests even matter? While it’s tempting to say that it doesn’t, what does matter is that the church maintains an utterly hypocritical stance on this issue. There are plenty of gay clergy in Ireland and elsewhere, yet the church continues to teach that homosexuality is sinful, and has campaigned strongly against LGBT rights and equality issues, from the decriminalisation of sexual acts between men in Ireland, to last year’s marriage referendum campaign. While the church’s moral authority is long depleted, its hold over schools and other institutions remains in Irish society. Perhaps the church can only truly be ignored when their presence in everyone’s lives is no longer so embedded.
Another question the church and society needs to ask itself, is why a gay man would enter the priesthood, when the organisation preaches against homosexuality. It certainly is something of a paradox, and the reasons are mostly anecdotal. Perhaps some priests are gay with a vocation, intent on remaining celibate. Perhaps some gay priests choose a religious career to hide their sexuality, or to shut down family dinner table questions about when they’re going to find a nice lady to settle down with. Perhaps some gay priests are encouraged to enter the priesthood by family members to do the same. Perhaps some struggle with their sexuality to the extent that they want to shut it down themselves, and at least try to subsume to a life of celibacy. Perhaps some gay priests are aware that the priesthood is a context within which they can maintain a sex life and relationships without coming out. Perhaps plenty of priests are just gay in the same way that plenty of doctors, lawyers, builders, footballers, politicians, accountants and shopkeepers are. What we do know, is that unlike homosexuality, celibacy is an unnatural state. Banning humans – who are naturally social, and who naturally seek out love, sex, and relationships – from sex can create a pressure cooker state around one’s sexuality. What is also rather warped, is that the church positions celibacy as a pure or idealistic state, while simultaneously lauding heterosexual family life.
Unfortunately, the sniggering public reaction to the Maynooth story compounds homophobia, and also gives an opportunity for people to voice homophobic opinions through “jokey” remarks or pithy social media comments. Not only does this type of discourse present a platform for homophobia to be aired outside of the church, it also must be distressing for gay priests who will probably now have to endeavour to conceal their sexuality even further.
Meanwhile, Archbishop Martin's decision to move trainee priests to Rome instead of Maynooth, as if that would somehow circumnavigate gayness is laughable. The Vatican is the gay clergy capital of the world, with a conveyor belt of gay soap opera storylines emerging from the Holy See – and those are just the ones we hear about. Maynooth is the Front Lounge to Rome's Fire Island.
The church still views homosexuality as a “problem”, inside and out of its organisation. But the real scandal at Maynooth isn’t about gay priests. Of course there are gay priests. Tonnes of them. The real scandal is the church’s addiction to secrecy, arrogance, and its hierarchy of hypocrisy. Maybe instead of jokes, we should just offer pity.